Power and privilege

When thinking about positionality [def], it is important to understand how we might hold power and privilege relative to the people we work with, those whose data we are studying, and the problems we are attempting to solve. Our experiences of power and privilege, or oppression, are tightly interwoven with our experiences of class, race, gender and more [Col90, Cre89]. These experiences are important to consider because themes of power and privilege are present in all of our contexts. Having privilege can make us unaware of related issues that do not directly affect us.

To illustrate, here are some examples of how power and privilege present as structural issues in data science:

  • Racial injustice and patriarchal systems have meant that data science has historically been dominated by white men. This means that there has not been a diverse group of people to direct the aims of data science work, and so many groups are likely to be overlooked when considering the negative impacts and potential benefits of data science.

  • The English language is the default in many programming languages and academic settings, which creates barries to knowledge sharing and inclusion. Rather than English speakers learning other languages, it is generally expected that non-English speakers learn English in order to participate and collaborate, which frames English as the default.

  • Data science work can require huge amounts of energy and computational power, which disproportionality affects the lives of people living in the places most affected by climate change. These countries tend to already be economically disadvantaged relative to others, and have less access to the resources needed to manage the impacts of climate change.

Broader structural aspects of power and privilege can seem too big to counter on our own, but they also play out in individual interactions where we have much more control. By understanding systems and structures of power and oppression, and where we sit within them, we can better identify where change needs to happen, and what we can do to contribute to that change.


Intersectionality [def] is an important concept to know and understand when thinking about power, privilege and identity.

The term intersectionality refers to how multiple identities can intersect, and so people can be oppressed on the basis of combinations of their identities instead of, or as well as, their separate identities. The term was coined by Kimberlié Crenshaw in 1989 [Cre89] to describe the way that laws that protected Black people and women separately. However, Black women were not by default protected against discrimination that exclusively affected Black women. Now, the term ‘intersectionality’ has become more widely used and broadly refers to how people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression.

Intersectionality has sometimes incorrectly been assumed to be a way of making a ‘heirarchy of oppression’, which is not its purpose. We must recognise that power and privilege is a case of both/and rather than either/or. This means that someone may be privileged in one way, and disadvantaged in another.