Data Surrogates as Hosts: Politics of Environmental Governance

Published in Catalyst: feminism, theory, technoscience
April  ‘23


Data-driven environmental governance within the standard regulatory regime routinely relies on unmeasurable, missing, or abjected data. Technocrats typically use data surrogates to alleviate this pervasive problem. By combining feminist technoscience and critical environmental justice approaches, this article argues that data surrogates are far more than fungible substitutes and rely on more than scientific rationality and transcendent objectivity. Through a case of intersecting environmental governance and justice work in the Portside Community in San Diego, this article exposits a broader conceptualization of data surrogates by developing a partial typology of operations they perform: calibrating, weighting, and validating. The politics and labors of these operations are crucial to analyze how data acquire material and discursive power in environmental governance. I propose an analytical shift from examining the work of data surrogates in terms of substituting to one of hosting. This shift reveals and better explains how data surrogates negotiate relationships between body, place, and property across state, market, and civil society actors. Moreover, it demonstrates how data surrogates interrupt the dominant regulatory regime by resisting fungibility through acts of social reproduction. Far from being subordinate to technocratic tools, the work of social reproduction makes governing with scientific and technical instruments both possible and contestable.