1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Cesagen · Research

Multiplication of Databases and Sets

Adrian Mackenzie

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Databases organise, configure and perform thing-and-people multiples in sets. Belonging, inclusion, participation, and membership: many of the relations that make up the material-social life of people and things can be formally apprehended in terms of set-like multiples stored in databases. There are the existence of vast databases (such as Google or Amazon or GenBank) and huge numbers of databases (including many personal databases that would not be visible or obvious as such to the people who rely on them to manage their gadget-equipped lives), as well as banal practices of organising banal things into sets, or practices of set-making. Therefore, there lies a crucial question as to how to appraise the overflows and excesses of the astonishing proliferation of databases and forms of set-making today?


The research aims at answering the following questions:

  • What social orders do sets unroll or inculcate?
  • What kinds of subjectifications do sets engender?
  • How are sets and set-making enrolled in practices of the self?
  • Are they processes through which things happen, or through which settings are made?
  • How are sets lived and experienced?
  • Could the dynamics of sets give rise to altered ways of inhabiting the multiple, and different theorisations of the multiple?


Database- and set-making is already a strong, albeit somewhat latent, impulse in many social science and humanities methods attempts to produce knowledge through narrative, and through explanation. Wherever datasets, practices of coding, grouping or clustering occur, set-making with all its relationality (open, closed, elements, parts, excess) is not far behind. The work of set-making, whose dynamics I have explored in the context of database architectures and in personal productivity systems (a domain not so far removed from the practical exigencies of any academic today), necessarily figures in any of the processes of collecting, sorting, citing and ordering that underpin all research.

Nevertheless, faced with much competition, from market research and business analytics providing general or specific causal explanations for particular phenomena, to an engagement with the widescale deployment of inscription devices such as websites and loyalty cards, I argue for an alternative thinking of database- and set-making.

‘Splitting’, I would suggest, always affects the entangled practices of knowing, not just feminist epistemologies of scientific knowledge. Sets and set-making ontologies are one way of figuring this splitting for researchers who are always in the contradictory position of affirming radical historical contingency and imagining historical change for the better.


Mackenzie, A. (2011a) 'More parts than elements: how databases multiply', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

Mackenzie, A. (2011b). 'Sets' in C. Lury & N. Wakeford (Eds.), Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. London: Routledge.

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