Blog Post

Calculative Cultures

Investigating Media of Calculation and Their Consequences

Fernando N. van der Vlist

(DFG Collab. Res. Centre 1187 “Media of Cooperation”,) University of Siegen, Germany
(Digital Methods Initiative,) University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Posted: 6 March 2017

The following is a brief summary describing the main topics and goals of my doctoral research project, “Calculative Cultures: Investigating Media of Calculation and Their Consequences”. The project (since 07/2016) is based in the field of media studies and is supervised by Prof. Dr. Carolin Gerlitz, professor of Digital Media and Methods at the University of Siegen, Germany.


This research project investigates media of calculation and their profound social, cultural, and political impacts.2 It brings together different approaches to provide a lively and challenging analysis of calculation “in action”, demonstrating how social context and technical content are both essential to a proper appreciation of its significance. By taking method seriously as a site of politics, it develops a nuanced understanding of how and what media of calculation actually mediate. As computing is steadily rendering different domains of society subject to calculation – from social networking, online gaming, and television to management, advertising, and marketing to information retrieval, architectural engineering, education, and the sciences – a growing need emerges to develop critical frameworks for making sense of the distinct calculative agencies of software, computers, and digital media technologies. Therefore it is important to enquire how calculative cultures should be studied in terms of their social and cultural significance. How to account for – analytically, descriptively, visually, numerically – media of calculation and their involvement in governing, shaping, and transforming contemporary social and cultural life?

The main goals of this research project are: (i) to develop a situated understanding of calculative agencies within their broader social, political, and historical contexts; (ii) to characterise media of calculation according to the kinds of cultural work they do and/or take part in; (iii) to develop a set of novel conceptual and methodological resources for thinking critically about the powerful agencies of software, computation, and calculation; (iv) to investigate how computer software undergirds, infrastructures, and enacts aspects of contemporary social and cultural life; and (v) to extend existing and/or develop novel digital methods for the exploration, analysis, and visualisation of media of calculation, calculative agencies, and calculative cultures.

In order to achieve these goals, the following objectives are formulated: (i) developing a layered understanding of what is in calculation (concepts, histories, empirical resources); (ii) developing accounts of the intellectual history or genealogy of media of calculation in particular social settings or domains of application; (iii) extending existing or developing novel digital methods to account for the empirical study of calculation within mobile apps and distributed across mobile app ecosystems as well as (iv) within ad platforms and distributed across platform ecosystems; and (v) developing empirical analytical techniques for rendering calculation perceptible and intelligible for further investigation (e.g., charting, listing, mapping, plotting, ranking) and to account for decisions and inevitable biases in the research itself.

Host Institution

The University of Siegen is one of Europe's leading research universities for in situ media research. Although it is a relatively young research university (since 1986) it assembles over 30 years of expertise on a broad range of cutting-edge historical, ethnographic, mobile, and digital media related concepts and research methods.3

Additionally, the research project is internationally embedded in two innovative, interdisciplinary European research groups in the fields of digital media and internet studies: (i) DFG Collaborative Research Centre 1187 “Media of Cooperation” [German: SFB 1187 „Medien der Kooperation“] based at the University of Siegen, Germany (funding period 01/2016–12/2019);4 and (ii) the Digital Methods Initiative research group based at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.5

(i) The DFG-funded collaborative research centre 1187 “Media of Cooperation” (Universities of Siegen, Amsterdam, and Cologne) is one of Germany's leading research centres in the field of media studies. It investigates digital media infrastructures, the digitisation of information technologies, and social practices enacted or reconfigured by these changing infrastructures and technologies. Each year, the centre organises annual international conferences as well as numerous workshops.

(ii) The Digital Methods Initiative (University of Amsterdam, Dept. of Media Studies) is one of Europe's leading research groups in the field of internet studies. Comprised of new media researchers and PhD candidates, it designs and develops digital methods and tools for repurposing online techniques (such as hyperlinks, trackers, cookies, and ranking methods), devices (such as Google Search), and platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook) for research into social and political issues. Each year, the DMI organises annual summer and winter schools, accompanied by data sprints and a mini-conference.


1. If you are interested in receiving regular updates about this research project, you can follow this project on ResearchGate: “Calculative Cultures by Fernando N Van der Vlist – Research Project on ResearchGate.” ResearchGate. Web. <>.

2. The concept of calculation is broadly understood as mechanical reasoning – i.e., the deployment of (computational) techniques for calculating, ordering, classifying, filtering, sorting, commensurating, scaling, profiling, personalising, rating, constraining, modelling, predicting; what such operations require, entail, or effect; and how they acquire utility, credibility, transparency, or gain persuasive power in specific domains of application – and the different forms of work, judgement, thinking, and doing associated with it.

3. “Forschungshistorie » SFB 1187 – Medien der Kooperation – Universität Siegen.” Web. <>

4. “SFB 1187 – Medien der Kooperation – Universität Siegen.” Web. <>.

5. “DmiAbout < Dmi <” Web. <>.

Title: Calculative Cultures
Subtitle: Investigating Media of Calculation and Their Consequences
Type: Blog post; Research project Dr. C. (Carolin) Gerlitz
Supervisor.affiliation: Dept. of Media Studies, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Siegen
Keywords: calculation, techniques, politics of method, digital methods, social media, mobile apps, ad platforms
Length.words: 709
Length.reading: 4 mins
Date.posted: 6 Mar. 2017
Language: English (United Kingdom) Modern Language Association (7th ed.)