Originally published on Data & Society: Points on 30th November 2021.
By: Kim Fernandes and Ranjit Singh.
The annotated bibliography below represents ongoing conversations on emerging debates around digital identification, the state, and citizenship between Kim Fernandes,PhD candidate in Anthropology and Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Data & Society Postdoctoral Scholar Ranjit Singh.
How do digital IDs mediate the relationship between a datafied state and its citizens?
This question has simultaneous social and moral implications: social, because interacting with citizens through digital IDs requires work, organization, and the discipline of infrastructuring data into their everyday lives; moral, because using digital IDs as a means to resolve questions of access and inclusion in state services inevitably raises practical and normative questions of fairness, accountability, and justice.
This annotated bibliography is meant as an orienting resource that can broadly situate a reader in the emerging research on Digital IDs. Although it is in no way intended to be exhaustive, we hope that the list can be a starting point from which individual explorations and collective conversations will follow. If you have resources that you would like to add to this bibliography, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TL;DR: We provide brief annotations on included readings and categorize them. In a hurry, you can follow the links to the references or look at the list of references at the end. You can also just pick and choose summaries of readings that pique your interest.
Our Starting Nodes of Inquiry: Framing Statecraft and Digital IDs
For Kim: In Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor, Virginia Eubanks examines questions of human agency in automation and processes of data-driven decision making. She argues that surveillance is built in as a key component of predictive technologies, and vulnerable communities are often at the receiving end of the most harmful consequences of automation. Drawing on three different case studies, she highlights how the entanglements of digital technologies with systemic discrimination make the impacts of automated decision-making systems far more consequential than non-digital systems in social welfare provision.
For Ranjit: In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star look at classification systems that are foundational to organizing large-scale data infrastructures and the violence embedded in bureaucratization of individual life-stories. They focus on how these two elements mutually shape the organization of work practices in contexts ranging from formalization of nursing interventions to Apartheid. At its core, their argument is that since no classification system could ever meet the simple requirements of consistency, presence of mutually exclusive categories, and completeness, it is useful to analyze classification systems from the outside-in. It is the boundaries of the classification system that are most visible and the most problematic.
Grounding Digital State-Citizen Relations
A good place to explore anthropological engagements with the state as a conceptual object is The Anthropology of the State: A Reader, edited by Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta, which brings together a theoretical genealogy with ethnographic mapping of the state. In treating the state as a conceptual object, Sharma and Gupta move away from treating the state as a fixed and unitary entity and explore how the state is culturally constituted. Building on their work, the practices of digitalizing the state become accessible to anthropological analysis in two ways that are both increasingly becoming data-driven:  mundane bureaucratic routines and procedures that ground citizens’ lived experience of the state, and  everyday cultural representations of the state and the performance of statehood.
As the state gets datafied, so does citizenship. In the broadest sense, citizenship is the practical accomplishment of organizing the state. At the heart of this organization is the history and infrastructure of identification as highlighted by Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History, edited by Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter. The book is a collection of essays on citizen registration practices from across the globe to bring home the insight that registration is a precondition for the exercise of the rights and entitlements of citizenship. While registration can certainly be used to instrumentalize modes of surveillance and oppression, it can also be harnessed to promote liberation and equity.
While registration can certainly be used to instrumentalize modes of surveillance and oppression, it can also be harnessed to promote liberation and equity.
In Digital State Spaces: State Rescaling and Advanced Digitalization, Jannick Schou and Morten Hjelholt interrogate the policy around and the uses of digital technologies for delivering state services. Taking the case of governmental digitalization in Denmark, they examine how digitizing state services engenders specific forms of (now-digital) statehood and governance, engaging both with policy efforts at the national level and with the consequences of these policy efforts at the local level. They note that digital state spaces are layered and multiple in nature, and a spatial perspective can be a generative resource theorizing this multiplicity of the digital state.
Technologies of Mediation Between the State and the Citizen
Mapping how identity documents mediate experiences of citizenship in developing countries, in Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries, Kamal Sadiq succinctly argues: “your document is your identity” (Page 107). Beginning with the common understanding that citizenship is a legal status of sorts, he asks: what is the content of citizenship? He makes visible the documentary infrastructure deployed by the state to identify individuals as citizens and coins “documentary citizenship” to describe the fusion of documents with citizenship as a central feature of organizing statecraft in developing countries.
Delving deeper into analyzing documents as primary instruments of organizing bureaucracy, Matthew Hull, in Documents and Bureaucracy, argues for their integrative function, emphasizing “the way documents link to people, places, things, times, norms, and forms of sociality” (Page 255). He notes that documents are often thought of as offering access to things and processes they document. However, they have broader capacities, particularly as they relate to administrative control and the active construction of subjects and socialities. Within this framing, databases gain significance not only as forms of documentation, but also as key components of documentary infrastructures.
Exploring the roots of modern technologies of identification, Projit Mukharji’s Profiling the Profiloscope: Facialization of Race Technologies and the Rise of Biometric Nationalism in Inter-war British India demonstrates through a history of the profiloscope that each technological apparatus is often intertwined with particular political imaginaries. He argues that biometric nationalism during the interwar period in India was central to the development of an anti-essentialist and non-individualistic understanding of the nation and to a form of biometric nationalism. The profiloscope in this instance is most usefully understood not as a single object, but rather as an assemblage, albeit one whose materiality was shaped significantly by statistical tools.
One of the ways in which digital IDs have more recently been imagined and discussed is as integral to the development imaginaries of states. In Identification Revolution: Can Digital ID Be Harnessed for Development?, Alan Gelb and Anna Diofasi Metz examine the implications of the proliferation of digital ID systems around the world. They note that although these systems are premised in ways that claim to include, they can also be central in exclusion and put certain groups of citizens at greater risk. Noting that the right to recognition has been central to discussions of human rights for several decades, this comprehensive volume compares centralized vs. decentralized identification, the role of identification as an enabler of sustainable development, and the sociopolitical limits of identification.
Another side to this debate around the implications of identification is seen in John Torpey’s The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, where he examines the history of the passport as a surveillance mechanism through which the movements of those considered foreign could be tracked. As a document, the passport was also central to the institutionalization of the nation-state as an idea, a unit, and a project. Additionally, through the passport, states have been able to develop a monopoly over questions of deciding who is a citizen-subject and who is not, taking away power that other institutions such as the church that previously were able to do so through their own mechanisms of record-keeping.
Finally, John Cheney-Lippold discusses the role of algorithms in assembling data and creating datafied selves in We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves. Cheney-Lippold further argues that algorithmically determined and produced categories provide a new vocabulary for identification that goes beyond traditional identity categories, further mediating our relationships to/with our data. Our algorithmic identities shape the ways in which we, as citizens, interact with the forces of capital and state power. In turn, they represent us as our data.
Emerging Forms of Citizenship
The technological mediation of state-citizen relations engenders particular kinds of risk associated with digital governance and biopolitics that significantly differ from Foucault’s notion of governmentality. In State Power and Technological Citizenship in India: From the Postcolonial to the Digital Age, Itty Abraham and Ashish Rajadhyaksha lay out a genealogy of Indian biopolitics from the colonial period to the present. They draw out the tension between geopolitics and biopolitics in relation to the state’s need to identify who is a citizen/resident for the provision of social services, emphasizing that citizenship here is understood as an emergent political outcome. They conceptualize “technological citizenship” as a way to understand how technologies mediate state-citizen relations.
Reflecting on the ways in which citizenship as a form of political subjectivity is shaped by digital politics, Engin Isin and Evelyn Ruppert, in the second edition of Being Digital Citizens, argue that digital citizenship is a form of making claims to rights through the internet. Attempting to move beyond accounts of life with/in the internet that rely on the dystopian-utopian binary, they note that being in cyberspace is best understood as a continuous space of action, rather than as a question of whether a citizen is online or offline. They also outline the collectivity embedded in this notion of citizenship as a form of political subjectivity by noting that the work of enacting rights is collective, global, and transversal, emerging across borders.
Large-scale data systems are integral to the work of bureaucratic management of citizens. As Ranjit Singh and Steven J. Jackson note in Seeing Like An Infrastructure: Low-resolution Citizens and the Aadhaar Identification Project, the implementation of these data systems is uneven in far-reaching, exclusionary, and distributed ways. While attending to the ways in which these data systems operate as infrastructures, Singh and Jackson also highlight that ongoing work of street-level bureaucrats in representing citizens and of citizens in claiming representation through data mutually shape state-citizen relations in India. Taking India’s biometrics-based identification project, Aadhaar, as an example, they argue that the challenges involved in the implementation of three key processes in Aadhaar have resulted in experiences of citizenship that can be mapped on a spectrum of entity resolution. At one end of this spectrum lie high-resolution citizens, whose rights and entitlements have been expanded through Aadhaar’s processes, and at the other are low-resolution citizens, whose rights and entitlements are curtailed.
Emerging Forms of Statehood
Before looking at the emerging role of algorithms in statecraft, we took a detour into the following question: What is an algorithm, and how should it be studied and understood? In Algorithms As Culture: Some Tactics for the Ethnography of Algorithmic Systems, Nick Seaver makes the case for researching algorithms as “multiples” that are enacted in the ways in which a broad array of stakeholders engage with them, including the researcher. These enactments are situated in and produce knowledge from the inevitably partial perspective of the stakeholder who does the work of enacting, often at the expense of excluding other positionalities. Offering some methodological tools to study (and participate in) the enactment of algorithms, Seaver notes that it is generative to approach algorithms “as” culture, and as sites for empirical engagement, rather than “in” culture/as discrete, static objects.
Outlining the contours of statecraft in the digital age in Learning Like A State, Marion Fourcade and Jeffrey Gordon point to ways in which the deep entanglements of the state and the market engender a new form of governmentality, i.e., the dataist state. The concept, in turn, is borrowed from the work of Yuval Harari, who defines it as an “ascendant belief system” that “declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing” (Page 428). The dataist state conceives of its citizens, its infrastructure, and itself as streams of data, and this orientation toward numerous streams of data in turn shapes state-citizen interactions such that social problems are seen primarily through individual and behaviorist lenses. As they note, too, this mode of statecraft further blurs boundaries between the state and the market. They argue, however, that there is a strong need for the state to “see like a citizen,” i.e., to engage in statecraft through the perspective of those who are affected by the many problems that dataism gives rise to, rather than through a focus on surveillance, evaluation, and prediction.
In Processing Alterity, Enacting Europe: Migrant Registration and Identification as Co-Construction of Individuals and Polities, Annalisa Pelizza shows how the process of contending with populations that were previously unknown to European actors and providing them “European-legible” identities reflects and illustrates the challenges of infrastructuring Europe. The work of population management makes room for an enactment of the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ boundaries in ways that are inextricably intertwined, at once enacting the individual Other as well as the legal-bureaucratic forms of order that constitute Europe as a geographic space.
Finally, in a recent review, The Society of Algorithms, Jenna Burrell and Marion Fourcade lay out the social implications of algorithmic transformation across a number of domains. They note, in particular, that the widespread adoption of techniques of mathematical optimization has caused decision-making at the state and organizational levels to be governed by actuarial logics, which in turn has reshaped existing pathways of social reproduction and mobility. Discussing the ways in which AI shapes and is shaped by society is much more a question of who will come to benefit and in what ways, rather than a question of whether there will be any benefit at all. They end their expansive review by acknowledging the simultaneous everydayness of AI as a human form of control innovation, while also acknowledging the ways in which it creates a new coding elite.
- Eubanks, Virginia. 2017. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Bowker, Geoffrey C, and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Edited by Wiebe Bijker, W Bernard Carlson, and Trevor Pinch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Helmreich, Stefan. 2003. “Torquing Things Out: Race and Classification in Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s ‘Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences.’” Science, Technology, & Human Values 28 (3): 435–40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1557972.
- Sharma, Aradhana., and Akhil Gupta, eds. 2006. The Anthropology of the State: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
- Breckenridge, Keith, and Simon Szreter, eds. 2012. Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History (Proceedings of the British Academy). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Szreter, Simon. 2007. “The Right of Registration: Development, Identity Registration, and Social Security — A Historical Perspective.” World Development 35 (1): 67–86. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X06001811.
- Breckenridge, Keith. 2014. Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Schou, Jannick, and Morten Hjelholt. 2019. “Digital State Spaces: State Rescaling and Advanced Digitalization.” Territory, Politics, Governance 7 (4): 438–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2018.1532809.
- Sadiq, Kamal. 2009. Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hull, Matthew S. 2012. “Documents and Bureaucracy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (1): 251–67. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.104953.
- Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Mukharji, Projit Bihari. 2015. “Profiling the Profiloscope: Facialization of Race Technologies and the Rise of Biometric Nationalism in Inter-War British India.” History and Technology 31 (4): 376–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2015.1127459.
- Gelb, Alan, and Anna Diofasi Metz. 2018. Identification Revolution: Can Digital ID Be Harnessed for Development? Washington, DC: Center for Global Development. https://www.cgdev.org/publication/identification-revolution-can-digital-id-be-harnessed-development.
- Torpey, John. 2000. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Caplan, Jane, and John Torpey, eds. 2001. Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Cheney-Lippold, John. 2017. We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves. New York: New York University Press.
- Abraham, Itty, and Ashish Rajadhyaksha. 2015. “State Power and Technological Citizenship in India: From the Postcolonial to the Digital Age.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 9 (1): 65–85. https://doi.org/10.1215/18752160-2863200.
- Isin, Engin, and Evelyn Ruppert. 2020. Being Digital Citizens. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Singh, Ranjit, and Steven J. Jackson. 2021. “Seeing Like an Infrastructure: Low-Resolution Citizens in the Aadhaar Identification Project.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 5 (CSCW2): 315:1–315:28. https://doi.org/10.1145/3476056.
- Singh, Ranjit. 2019. “Give Me a Database, and I Will Raise the Nation State.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 42 (3): 501–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/00856401.2019.1602810.
- Seaver, Nick. 2017. “Algorithms as Culture: Some Tactics for the Ethnography of Algorithmic Systems.” Big Data & Society 4 (2): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717738104.
- Fourcade, Marion, and Jeffrey Gordon. 2020. “Learning Like a State: Statecraft in the Digital Age.” Journal of Law and Political Economy 1 (1): 78–108. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3k16c24g.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. 2017. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. New York: Harper Collins.
- Pelizza, Annalisa. 2020. “Processing Alterity, Enacting Europe: Migrant Registration and Identification as Co-Construction of Individuals and Polities.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 45 (2): 262–88. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243919827927.
- Burrell, Jenna, and Marion Fourcade. 2021. “The Society of Algorithms.” Annual Review of Sociology 47 (1): 213–37. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-090820-020800.