SERA Online 2020 speakers: Dr Ben Williamson

Title of talk/provocation: Decoding policy bodies

Dr Ben Williamson, University of Edinburgh


Dr Ben WilliamsonBen Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh.

His research focuses on education policy and digital technology, particularly the role of big data, algorithms, analytics and AI in processes and techniques of digital education governance. Recent publications include articles on higher education data infrastructures, AI in education, psycho-economic education policy networks, bioinformatics and sociogenomics, neurotechnologies, and the market-making of the education technology industry. Ben has completed recent research for teacher unions, including a report for UCU Scotland on automation and datafication in HE, and reports for Education International on the commercialization of schooling and HE sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic. His book Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice was published by Sage in 2017. Ben is also an editor of the journal Learning, Media and Technology, maintains the research blog Code Acts in Education, and on Twitter he is @BenPatrickWill.

Overview of talk

Educational researchers in Scotland have produced a powerful body of knowledge about the uses of data in policy and governance over the past 20 years. ‘Policy sociology’ has analysed the social contexts of data production and the mobilisation of quantitative science to govern through numbers and knowledge. Recently, however, two trends have converged raising new challenges for analysis: (1) the development of powerful digital infrastructures for advanced data analysis using informatics techniques of machine learning; and (2) data-intensive science has turned its gaze to the human body, generating new computational understandings of life itself. At their intersection, ‘sociogenomics’ has emerged as a combination of data-intensive genomics, psychology and economics, and is raising potentially policy-relevant scientific understandings of the biological substrates of educational outcomes. Utilizing samples from over a million human subjects and powerful bioinformatics infrastructures to identify associations between DNA and education, sociogenomics raises distinctive new challenges for research in education. Focusing on sociogenomics and bioinformatics, this provocation explores how new ‘policy bodies’ are constructed by advanced data processing—that is, how human bodies become datafied objects of potential policy calculation—and suggests ‘digital policy sociology’ as an approach to understand the present interconnections of data infrastructure and education governance.

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