To read the full version of this content please select one of the options below:

The politics of data friction

Jo Bates (Information School, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 8 November 2017

Issue publication date: 7 February 2018




The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to further develop Paul Edwards’ concept of “data friction” by examining the socio-material forces that are shaping data movements in the cases of research data and online communications data, second, to articulate a politics of data friction, identifying the interrelated infrastructural, socio-cultural and regulatory dynamics of data friction, and how these are contributing to the constitution of social relations.


The paper develops a hermeneutic review of the literature on socio-material factors influencing the movement of digital data between social actors in the cases of research data sharing and online communications data. Parallels between the two cases are identified and used to further develop understanding of the politics of “data friction” beyond the concept’s current usage within the Science Studies literature.


A number of overarching parallels are identified relating to the ways in which new data flows and the frictions that shape them bring social actors into new forms of relation with one another, the platformisation of infrastructures for data circulation, and state action to influence the dynamics of data movement. Moments and sites of “data friction” are identified as deeply political – resulting from the collective decisions of human actors who experience significantly different levels of empowerment with regard to shaping the overall outcome.

Research limitations/implications

The paper further develops Paul Edwards’ concept of “data friction” beyond its current application in Science Studies. Analysis of the broader dynamics of data friction across different cases identifies a number of parallels that require further empirical examination and theorisation.

Practical implications

The observation that sites of data friction are deeply political has significant implications for all engaged in the practice and management of digital data production, circulation and use.

Social implications

It is argued that the concept of “data friction” can help social actors identify, examine and act upon some of the complex socio-material dynamics shaping emergent data movements across a variety of domains, and inform deliberation at all levels – from everyday practice to international regulation – about how such frictions can be collectively shaped towards the creation of more equitable and just societies.


The paper makes an original contribution to the literature on friction in the dynamics of digital data movement, arguing that in many cases data friction may be something to enable and foster, rather than overcome. It also brings together literature from diverse disciplinary fields to examine these frictional dynamics within two cases that have not previously been examined in relation to one another.



Bates, J. (2018), "The politics of data friction", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 74 No. 2, pp. 412-429.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

Related articles