Anthropology of data — a reading list

Source: Alex Taylor

The time between Christmas and New Year’s is often slow — and even more so this year in London where Tier-4 restrictions keep us inside. So for me, it is the right moment to write next term’s lectures. Within a series on the anthropolgy of contemporary capitalism, I will lecture on both data and ‘new finance’. While the latter is my actual area of research and (growing) expertise (see my venture capital primer here), data is a more marginal topic both for me and anthropology more generally.

I reached out to the Twitter-verse to see what people are reading and writing on the topic and the response was overwhelming. The below is the result of my own digging around and all the suggestions I received. I hope to be able to update the list on an ongoing basis and I very much value further suggestions (find me on Twitter).

Where possible, I am providing a link to the publisher behind the title or an online version. Enjoy and share widely!

1 Introductions to (the social sciences of) data, algorithms and platforms

Boellstorff, Tom, and Bill Maurer. Data — Now Bigger and Better! Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Fourcade, Marion, and Kieran Healy. “Seeing like a Market.Socio-Economic Review 15, no. 1 (2017): 9–29.

Guyer, Jane. Legacies, Logics, Logistics: Essays in the Anthropology of the Platform Economy. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Kitchin, Rob. Data Lives — How Data Are Made and Shape Our World. Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.

Seaver, Nick. “Algorithms as Culture: Some Tactics for the Ethnography of Algorithmic Systems.” Big Data and Society, 4, no. 2 (2017): 1–12.

Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity, 2016.

2 Data as money

Nelms, Taylor C., Bill Maurer, Lana Swartz, and Scott Mainwaring. “Social Payments: Innovation, Trust, Bitcoin, and the Sharing Economy.Theory, Culture and Society 35, no. 3 (2018): 13–33.

O’Dwyer, Rachel. “Cache Society: Transactional Records, Electronic Money, and Cultural Resistance.” Journal of Cultural Economy 12, no. 2 (2019): 133–53.

Roderick, Leanne. “Discipline and Power in the Digital Age: The Case of the US Consumer Data Broker Industry.Critical Sociology 40, no. 5 (2014): 729–46.

Swartz, Lana. New Money — How Payment Became Social Media. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.

Zaloom, Caitlin. “How to Read the Future: The Yield Curve, Affect, and Financial Prediction.Public Culture 21, no. 2 (2009): 245–68.

3 Data as knowledge, control and surveillance capitalism

Beltrán, Héctor. “Code Work: Thinking with the System in México.” American Anthropologist 122, no. 3 (2020): 487–500.

Bucher, Taina. “Want to Be on the Top? Algorithmic Power and the Threat of Invisibility on Facebook.” New Media and Society 14, no. 7 (2012): 1164–80.

Cevolini, Alberto, and Elena Esposito. “From Pool to Profile: Social Consequences of Algorithmic Prediction in Insurance.” Big Data and Society 7, no. 2 (2020).

Cheney-Lippold, John. “A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control.” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 6 (2011): 164–81.

Couldry, Nick, and Ulises A. Mejias. “Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject.” Television and New Media 20, no. 4 (2019): 336–49.

Desrosières, Alain. The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010 (a historical study of how government (power) and statistics / data are linked)

Kellogg, Katherine C., Melissa A. Valentine, and Angèle Christin. “Algorithms at Work: The New Contested Terrain of Control.” Academy of Management Annals 14, no. 1 (2020): 366–410.

Ruckenstein, Minna, and Natasha Dow Schüll. “The Datafication of Health.” Annual Review of Anthropology 46 (2017): 261–78.

Sadowski, Jathan. “When Data Is Capital: Datafication, Accumulation, and Extraction.Big Data and Society 6, no. 1 (2019): 1–12.

Seaver, Nick. “Captivating Algorithms: Recommender Systems as Traps.Journal of Material Culture 24, no. 4 (2019): 421–36.

Shestakofsky, Benjamin, and Shreeharsh Kelkar. “Making Platforms Work: Relationship Labor and the Management of Publics.Theory and Society 49, no. 2020 (2020): 863–96.

Zigon, Jarrett. “Can Machines Be Ethical? On the Necessity of Relational Ethics and Empathic Attunement for Data-Centric Technologies.” Social Research 86, no. 4 (2019): 1001–22.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Profile Books, 2018. (introduction, to get the context for the argument around ‘surveillance capitalism’)

4 Data as materiality (mostly informed by STS and material culture)

Bernards, Nick, and Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn. “Understanding Technological Change in Global Finance through InfrastructuresReview of International Political Economy 26, no. 5 (2019): 773–89.

MacKenzie, Donald. “‘Making’, ‘Taking’ and the Material Political Economy of Algorithmic Trading.” Economy and Society 47, no. 4 (2018): 501–23. (focus on the materiality of high frequency trading in banking)

Miller, Daniel. “How People Make Machines That Script People.” Anthropology of This Century, no. 6 (2013): 1–7.

Taylor, Alex. “Failover Architectures: The Infrastructural Excess of the Data Centre Industry.Failed Architecture, 2020. (an (ethnographic) view on the architecture of data centres)

5 Ethnographies (and journalism) of data, platforms and AI

Gershon, Ilana. Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. (Ethnography of white collar workers looking for work in contemporary America; from a linguistic anthropology perspective)

Greene, Lucie. Silicon States — The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2018. (journalistic analysis of the involvement of big tech in politics through the ‘revolving door’)

Issac, Mike. Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. New York: Norton and Company, 2019. (journalistic case study of the gig-work company Uber)

McNamee, Roger. Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe. New York: Harper Collins, 2019. (journalistic case study of Facebook written from the perspective of one of its former investors / board members)

Mertia, Sandeep. Lives of Data: Essays on Computational Cultures from India. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2020. (collection of essays exploring (partly ethnographically) different parts of the data economy in India; including an essay from Lilly Irani on hackathons)

Ravenelle, Alexandrea J. Hustle and Gig — Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. (see a review on the LSE book review forum here)

Rosenblat, Alex. Uberland — How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.

Taplin, Jonathan. Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and What It Means For All Of Us. London: Macmillan, 2017. (one of the early big tech critique accounts (‘techlash’; read Lanchester in the LRB on it here)

6 Towards anthropological approaches to data and AI

Beer, David. “The Social Power of Algorithms.” Information Communication and Society 20, no. 1 (2017): 1–13.

Boellstorf, Tom. “Making big data, in theory.” First Monday, 7 October, 2013.

Christin, Angèle. “The Ethnographer and the Algorithm: Beyond the Black Box.Theory and Society 49, no. 5–6 (2020): 897–918.

Kockelman, Paul. “The Epistemic and Performative Dynamics of Machine Learning Praxis.” Signs and Society 8, no. 2 (2020): 319–55.

Mennicken, Andrea, and Wendy Nelson Espeland. “What’s New with Numbers? Sociological Approaches to the Study of Quantification.” Annual Review of Sociology 45, no. 1 (2019): 223–45.

Miller, Daniel. “Digital Anthropology.” In: Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Anthropology, 2018,

Seaver, Nick. “What Should an Anthropology of Algorithms Do?” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 3 (2018): 375–85.

Srnicek, Nick. “Paths Forward for the Study of the Digital Economy.” In Platforming Equality: Policy Challenges for the Digital Economy, edited by J. Muldoon and W. Stronge, 85–90. Autonomy, 2020

Wilf, Eitan. “Toward an Anthropology of Computer-Mediated, Algorithmic Forms of Sociality.Current Anthropology54, no. 6 (2013): 716–39.

Zhang, Shaozeng, Bo Zhao, and Jennifer Ventrella. “Towards an Archaeological-Ethnographic Approach to Big Data: Rethinking Data Veracity.Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2018, no. 1 (2018): 62–85.

7 Bias and ‘ethics’

Buolamwini, Joy (2017) Algorithms aren’t racist. Your skin is just too dark. Medium.

Coeckelbergh, Mark (2020) AI Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kellogg, Katherine; Valentine, Melissa and Christin, Angèle (2020) Algorithms at work: The new contested terrain of control. Academy of Management Annals, 14(1), 366–410.

Noble, Safiya (2018) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

O’Neil, Cathy (2016) Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. London: Penguin Random House.

Pasquale, Frank (2015) The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that control Money and Information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Seaver, Nick (2019) Captivating algorithms: Recommender systems as traps. Journal of Material Culture, 24(4), 421–436.

Writing on the ethics of venture capital @Cambridge_Uni; visiting Stanford and NYU; former: PhD on homelessness at Cambridge, MSc at LSE, BA at ZU