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The limits of computation: A philosophical critique of contemporary Big Data research

Journal article
Authors Petter Törnberg
Anton Törnberg
Published in Big data and Society
Volume 5
Issue 2
ISSN 2053-9517
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Sociology and Work Science
Language en
Keywords Big Data, data analytics, end of theory, computational social science, data-driven science, epistemology
Subject categories Sociology, Media and Communications, Social Sciences Interdisciplinary


This paper reviews the contemporary discussion on the epistemological and ontological effects of Big Data within social science, observing an increased focus on relationality and complexity, and a tendency to naturalize social phenomena. The epistemic limits of this emerging computational paradigm are outlined through a comparison with the discussions in the early days of digitalization, when digital technology was primarily seen through the lens of dematerialization, and as part of the larger processes of “postmodernity”. Since then, the online landscape has become increasingly centralized, and the “liquidity” of dematerialized technology has come to empower online platforms in shaping the conditions for human behavior. This contrast between the contemporary epistemological currents and the previous philosophical discussions brings to the fore contradictions within the study of digital social life: While qualitative change has become increasingly dominant, the focus has gone towards quantitative methods; while the platforms have become empowered to shape social behavior, the focus has gone from social context to naturalizing social patterns; while meaning is increasingly contested and fragmented, the role of hermeneutics has diminished; while platforms have become power hubs pursuing their interests through sophisticated data manipulation, the data they provide is increasingly trusted to hold the keys to understanding social life. These contradictions, we argue, are partially the result of a lack of philosophical discussion on the nature of social reality in the digital era; only from a firm metatheoretical perspective can we avoid forgetting the reality of the system under study as we are affected by the powerful social life of Big Data.

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