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Big Data Ambivalence: Visions and Risks in Practice

Big Data? Qualitative Approaches to Digital Research

ISBN: 978-1-78441-051-3, eISBN: 978-1-78441-050-6

ISSN: 1042-3192

Publication date: 3 November 2014



Social media platforms, along with networked devices and applications, enable their user base to produce, access and circulate large volumes of data. On the one hand, this development contains an empowering potential for users, who can make otherwise obscured aspects of social life visible, and coordinate social action in accordance. Yet the preceding activities in turn render these users visible to governments as well as the multinational companies that operate these services. Between these two visions lie more nuanced accounts of individuals coordinating via social data for reactionary purposes, as well as policing and intelligence agencies struggling with the affordances of big data.


This chapter considers how individual users as well as police agencies respectively actualise the supposedly revolutionary and repressive potentials associated with big data. It briefly considers the broader social context in which ‘big data’ is situated, which includes the hardware, software, individuals and cultural values that render big data meaningful and useful. Then, in contrast to polarising visions of the social impact of big data, it considers two sets of practices that speak to a more ambivalent potentiality. First, recent examples suggest a kind of crowd-sourced vigilantism, where individuals rely on ubiquitous data and devices in order to reproduce law and order politics. Second, police agencies in various branches of European governments report a sense of obligation to turn to social data as a source of intelligence and evidence, yet attempts to do so are complicated by both practical and procedural challenges. A combination of case studies and in-depth interviews offers a grounded understanding of big data in practice, in contrast to commonly held visions of these technologies.


First, big data is only ever meaningful in use. While they may be contained in databases in remote locations, big data do not exist in a social vacuum. Their impact cannot be fully understood in the context of newly assembled configurations or ‘game-changing’ discourses. Instead, they are only knowable in the context of existing practices. These practices can initially be the sole remit of public discourse shaped by journalists, tech-evangelists and even academics. Yet embodied individual and institutional practices also emerge, and this may contradict or at least complicate discursive assertions. Secondly, the range of devices and practices that make up big data are engaged in a bilateral relation with these practices. They may be a platform to further reproduce relations of information exchange and power relations. Yet they may also reconfigure these relations.

Research limitations/implications

This research is limited to a sample of respondents based in the European Union, and based at a particular stage of big data and social media monitoring uptake. Subsequent research should look at how this uptake is occurring elsewhere, along with the medium to long-term implications of big data monitoring. Finally, subsequent research should consider how citizens and other social actors are coping with these emerging practices.


This chapter considers practices associated with big data monitoring and draws from cross-national empirical data. It stands in contrast to overly optimistic as well as well as totalising accounts of the social costs and consequences of big data. For these reasons, this chapter will be of value to scholars in internet studies, as well as privacy advocates and policymakers who are responsive to big data developments.



Trottier, D. (2014), "Big Data Ambivalence: Visions and Risks in Practice", Big Data? Qualitative Approaches to Digital Research (Studies in Qualitative Methodology, Vol. 13), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 51-72.



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