skip to content

Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power


Wednesday 26 August 2020, 15:00–17:00 BST

Co-facilitator: Prof. Ariane Hanemaayer (Brandon University)

There are a number of styles of genealogical research, but the method is generally committed to denaturalizing those technologies, institutions, and/or events in ourworlds as resulting from contingent lines of descent. Genealogy is both a historical method and a political project: this method locates and explains the connections among science, knowledge, regulation, and other forms of institutionalized power and its effects on the organization of human activity. As a counter-human science, genealogy allows us to imagine the world otherwise and to locate the mechanisms that perpetuate entrenched inequalities, violence, environmental degradation, and others such that they could be changed.

This session will draw on recent research in the histories of AI, machine learning, and computer algorithms across a variety of sites of practice to spell out the conceptual, operational, and normative dimensions of genealogical research. The session offers both methodological as well as practical training in genealogical research methods. While broadly grounded by the work of Michel Foucault, the session will be of interest to scholars in the humanities and social sciences seeking theoretical and practical engagement with the tradition of critical and effective histories, specifically project design and research questions, operationalizing objects of analysis, locating materials and visiting archives, coding, analysis, and others. The session will also explain the political aspects of genealogy as a counter-human science.

hanemaayerBio: Dr Ariane Hanemaayer is an Assistant Professor at Brandon University, Canada, in Sociology and Gender & Women's Studies. Currently, she is a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. Her research focuses primarily on the fields of medicine and public health. Recently, her research in AI has historicized the discursive role of clinical epidemiology in institutionalizing algorithms, ANN and AI in the clinic. Her 2019 book The Impossible Clinic: A critical sociology of evidence-based medicine is a genealogy of medical regulation and EBM. She has also published methodological pieces about genealogy as a counter-human method for the social sciences in The Canadian Review of Sociology and The Craft of Qualitative Research.

Summary of event

Dr. Hanemaayer took a Foucauldian approach to the question of genealogy. She led the session through three organising principles: 1. Styles of genealogy; 2. Methods of doing genealogy; and 3. Genealogy as counter-human science.

  1. Styles of Genealogy – Dr Hanemaayer identified three types of genealogies, drawing on the works of Nietzsche, Foucault, and William Walters.
    • GI: Genealogy as descent
      This style of genealogy takes an object of analysis and questions how it became what it is today. By doing so, it treats historically what might otherwise be perceived as natural.
    • GII: Re-serialisation and counter-memory
      This style of genealogy involves repeating and arranging histories in a different manner. It takes the settled account of an object of analysis, and seeks to provide other or alternative perspectives of this object's history.
    • GIII: Genealogy as retrieval of forgotten/subjugated knowledge
      This style of genealogy explores how certain ways of knowing fall out of storytelling regarding the descent of the object of analysis, and searches for these ways of knowing.
  2. Method – Dr Hanemaayer identified a process of four steps in constructing one's method of doing genealogy. These are:
    1. Developing a research question – what is and how it came to be;
    2. Articulating the object of your analysis – what do you want to explain?
    3. Constructing your archive – what are you going to look at and where will you find it?
    4. Coding strategies – organising statements in relation to your object of analysis.
  3. Counter-human science – Dr Hanemaayer emphasised the importance of relations in counter-human science, focusing on organisations or entities apart from the human, such as the unconscious in the case of Freud or relations of production in the case of Marx. She made the case that counter-human science resists liberal domination through its focus on mechanisms, allowing researchers to foreground a focus on power, assemblages of things, and contingencies. A core thought/aim of the session was how to do social science while decentring the individual as an object of analysis.

Works cited (in the chat)

  • Agre, Philip E. 'Toward a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI'. In Social Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work: Beyond the Great Divide, edited by Geoffrey C. Bowker, William Turner, Les Gasser, and Susan Leigh Star. Computers, Cognition, and Work. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
  • Cooper, Brittney. 'The Racial Politics of Time'. Presented at the TEDWomen, October 2016.
  • 'Distill', n.d.
  • 'Forensic Architecture', n.d.
  • Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–78. Lectures at the Collège de France. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  • Foucault, Michel, and François Ewald. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76. Nachdr. Lectures at the Collège de France. London: Penguin, 2008.
  • Greenberg, Aaron. 'Making Way for Tomorrow: Benjamin and Foucault on History and Freedom'. Journal of Political Thought 2, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 22–38.
  • Mignolo, W. D. 'The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference'South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 1 (1 January 2002): 57–96.
  • Monea, Alexander, and Jeremy Packer. 'Media Genealogy: Technological and Historical Engagements of Power — Introduction'International Journal of Communication Vol 10 (2016), 24 June 2016.
  • Plasek, Aaron. 'On the Cruelty of Really Writing a History of Machine Learning'IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 38, no. 4 (October 2016): 6–8.
  • Srinivasan, Amia. 'VII — Genealogy, Epistemology and Worldmaking'Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 119, no. 2 (1 July 2019): 127–56.
  • Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Nachdr. London: Fontana Press, 2000.

Join our Mailing List!

To receive further information on all our activities (and learn their online coordinates), please subscribe to the HoAI mailing list.

Email us at:

Join our Slack Channel!

To participate in conversations with scholars on topics related to your interests, please join our HoAI Slack Channel.