Virtual, Visible, and Actionable: Data Assemblages and the Axiology of Justice

Short bio: 

Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. A pioneer in her field, she has authored more than 100 articles and chapters and is author or editor of a dozen books, including Controlling Chemicals, The Fifth Branch, Science at the Bar, and Designs on Nature. Her work explores the role of science and technology in the law, politics, and policy of modern democracies, with particular attention to the nature of public reason. She was founding chair of the STS Department at Cornell University and has held numerous distinguished visiting appointments in the US, Europe, and Japan. Jasanoff served on the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and as President of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Her grants and awards include a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship and an Ehrenkreuz from the Government of Austria. She holds AB, JD, and PhD degrees from Harvard, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Twente.


Numbers and justice have long kept company, as the paired words counting and accounting attest. If you can count something, you can also account for it. Enumerating is an instrument of holding accountable, whether for financial transactions in a company, police brutality in a community, health disparities in a country, or the world’s changing climate. Inevitably, then, today’s explosion of data, an offshoot of the digital revolution, has created new conjunctions between numbers and norms, enabling phenomena to be counted and acted on, especially at the global level, that once would have escaped notice because they were too dispersed, too jurisdictionally discrete, too intangible, and hence not anyone’s business to call to anyone else’s attention.

Early commentary on the social justice implications of the data age has oscillated between celebratory, focused on bringing formerly invisible clusters of injustice to light, and cautionary, focused on the loss of control that results from an individual being turned into data points, whether through unwitting transfers of personal information to big corporations or through invasions of privacy and errors of classification by institutions of governmentality. In this paper, I follow instead the way the visual representation of data affects the balance between the collectively seen and the collectively not seen, and constitutes divergent positions of privileged seeing, as captured in the organizing question: “What is made discernible in these practices and what becomes imperceptible?” In effect, this is a paper about the politics and expert practices of using data as a basis for collective witnessing at the global level.

The paper begins with a theoretical exposition of three well-established modes of collective seeing, each represented in the political cultures of sovereign states and each associated with its own legitimation practices, including discourses of valid seeing and forms of authorized expertise. These three positions are the view from nowhere (based on discourses of objectivity and enumeration), the view from everywhere (based on discourses of empiricism and experimentalism), and the view from somewhere (based on discourses of authenticity and witnessing). What counts as good data in each of these regimes depends on prior normative choices about such things as what is worth counting, who has authority to collect and compile data, and what forms of analysis and demonstration are found persuasive.

Building on this base, I trace the ways in which the “global environment” emerged as an actionable object for law and policy in the last quarter of the 20th century, giving rise to new modes of accounting and accountability. I look at climate change as a specific example of a global environmental phenomenon constituted through data, and the proliferation of data institutions and instruments underwriting this issue of global common concern. Using contrasting examples from US, European, and Indian environmentalism, I explore what is at stake when different modes of “seeing” the data on climate change come into contact and conflict. Whose seeing counts, under which rules of the game, and what gets relegated to the margins of invisibility and inaction?