Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The Techno-Epistemology of Databases, Part I

Posted on | November 6, 2022 | No Comments

How is meaning created in an environment of computer databases and digital spreadsheets? How is that meaning fixed? How is it organized? What are the processes and consequences of categorization and classification?[1]

This post posits that databases are an epistemological technology that is part of a system of knowledge production and management. It explores the unique meaning-producing capabilities that emerged with databases, particularly table-based relational databases, and how it affects modern organizations and society. They have transformed modern forms of bureaucratic and corporate organization and are major forms of “time-space power,” the ability to endure over time and operate over distances.

Databases, like digital spreadsheets, are constitutive technologies that can shape perceptions and knowledge through their ability to capture data, store it, process it, and render it accessible for retrieval, presentation, and analysis. Consequently, they organize resources and empower control over the lived experiences of people and the dynamics of social organizations.

Epistemology is generally known as the philosophical attempt to understand knowledge and produce theories of we comprehend the world. Philosophers such as Plato, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Bertrand Russell, among many others, have attempted to understand how we know, what knowledge means to the knower and the society they live in, and how knowledge can be verified and justified.

Techno-epistemology refers to knowledge produced, categorized, and certified within a particular technological context. In particular, it asks how the characteristics of the technology shape the ways of perceiving, recording, and organizing knowledge. Database technology and management are at the nexus of systematizing knowledge in the organization.

Stuart Hall’s insights into culture and the creation of meaning are a helpful starting point. In his classic work on Representation he discussed the role of concepts and the processes of classification, as well as how meaning is created and shared. Hall also raised issues regarding the role of culture in creating and organizing meaning.

Categorizing or classifying information, for Hall, is a basic human social process that produces meaning and separates information into that which “belongs” and that which does not, based on distinguishing characteristics such as resemblances or differences. It involves grouping or distributing according to some common relations or attributes. A list, for example, is a category of items that delineates what is within the group, and what is on the outside.

Classification is a cultural phenomenon that involves negotiating society’s conceptual maps. Stuart Hall argued that while the ability to conceptualize and classify is an inherent human biological trait, the systems of classification that are produced are socially produced and learned. This is because humans are meaning-making entities and also operate in environments that require the systemization of knowledge. “Socialization” is the process of learning society’s cultural categories and the value structures associated with them.

To investigate the topic of techno-epistemology more thoroughly, it is useful to analyze a particular database. Using a PC desktop database is sufficient for this initial formal analysis. Formal analysis is a strategy for describing artifacts and visual information. This approach can be applied to any work of art or cultural artifact. I also draw in the notion of remediation, which is how new media incorporate older media to be functional.

I previously analyzed digital spreadsheets to examine their components and how they use older media to work together to provide the spreadsheet’s organizational power and its influence on modern capitalism. That formal analysis discussed 5 components that came together to invest spreadsheet with their power: alphanumerical representations, lists, tables, cells, and formulas.

The purpose of analyzing databases is to continue the examination of how technology shapes the organization of knowledge by examining the components of a database. They have transformed modern forms of bureaucratic and corporate organization by shaping knowledge production and management. A central questions What is remediated in the database? In the next installment I will analyze the Microsoft Access database relational database program that includes tables, fields and records as well as queries, forms, reports, macros, and modules.


[1] In “The Influence of Classification on World View and Epistemology” Gholamreza Fadaie, Faculty of Psychology & Education, University of Tehran, Iran. Proceedings of the Informing Science & IT Education Conference (In SITE) 2008.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2022, Oct 11). The Techno-Epistemology of Database Classification, Part I.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University where he taught comparative political economy, digital economics and traditional macroeconomics. He also taught in Digital Media MBA atSt. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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