PhD Courses in Denmark

Scaling devices: methods and concepts for approaching scale in qualitative research

PhD School at IT University of Copenhagen


Scaling devices: methods and concepts for approaching scale in qualitative research


Marisa Cohn (Associate Professor), Christopher Gad (Associate Professor), Caroline Anna Salling (PhD Fellow), Simy Kaur Gahoonia (PhD Fellow), Cæcilie Sloth Laursen (PhD Fellow)


Casper Bruun Jensen, Kim Fortun, Christopher Gad, Marisa Cohn

Date(s) of the course:

November 11, November 15 (not mandatory), December 6

The PhD course takes place on campus (not online) at the IT University of Copenhagen, Rued Langgaards Vej 7, 2300 Copenhagen S

Course description:

Qualitative research studies of science and technology must often contend with devices that scale. These can be technological systems that are deemed to be large-scale, as well as concepts regarding how politics scale from local to regional to global conditions. Whether we locate these scaling devices within our field sites among our interlocutors, or within current analytical concepts, or from funders and other institutions in the research landscape, these encounters with scale can sometimes be daunting to navigate. Through questions of what and who can scale, scaling devices map out possibilities, relevance, and impacts of knowledge as well as the limits of intervention.

The aim of this PhD course is to facilitate, through concepts and methods, an attention to how scales and scaling manifest within the sites and research landscape in which PhDs conduct their fieldwork today. Many PhD projects are accountable to or have the ambition to address large concepts, problems, ideas or trends, such as “culture,” “digitalisation,” “post-factual society,” “healthcare,” “welfare,” or “development. But these concepts can also lose touch with or remain quite distant from empirical material gathered in specific sites and places where our research takes place. By attending to the scaling devices of our interlocutors as well as our own, this course explores how relations between what is perceived or constructed to be large and small are done in practice and how these relations of scale might be reimagined.

Throughout the course we will address questions such as:

  • How is scaling done, achieved, or performed? where? by whom? and by what means?
  • Is scaling done similarly or differently at ethnographic sites and by what actors? E.g. researchers/interlocutors/centres of power?
  • How does scale or scaling matter in framing perceptions of what is central or peripherical important or unimportant matters, issues or problems?
  • What devices and technologies are at stake in doing scale, and how can we account for the role of “scaling devices, both in our research and in the field?
  • How we can use methods of sketching ethnography in approaching enactments of scale.
  • How do we do research through/with/despite/beyond major trends such as digitalization and datafication, and why should we do that.

Inspired by conversations on scale across a range of disciplines, but particularly within Science and Technology Studies, this course will offer presentations, exercises and discussions that help PhD students engage with their own project.

The course is hosted within the Welfare after Digitalization research project, and it welcomes PhD students within STS that would benefit from participating in the outlined conversations.

Key readings:

  • Cohen, Ed. (2011). The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All. Social Text 106 29(1), 15-35.
  • Fortun, K. (2009). Scaling and Visualizing Multi-sited Ethnography. In Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research (pp. 73–85).
  • Fortun, K. (2017). Figuring Out Theory. In Theory Can Be More Than It Used To Be: Learning Anthropology in a Time of Transition (pp. 147–167).
  • Irani, L. (2015). The cultural work of microwork. New Media & Society, 17(5), 720–739.
  • Jensen, C. B. (2021). Say Why You Say It: On Ethnographic Companionship, Scale, and Effect. Science & Technology Studies.
  • Jensen, C. B., & Gad, C. (2008). Philosophy of Technology as Empirical Philosophy: Comparing Technological Scales in Practice. In New Waves in Philosophy of Technology (pp. 292–314).
  • Liboiron, M. (2014). Solutions to waste and the problem of scalar mismatches. Discard Studies. [Blog post]
  • Ribes, D. (2014). Ethnography of scaling, or, how to a fit a national research infrastructure in the room. Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing, 158–170.
  • Seaver. Nick. (2021). Care and Scale: Decorrelative Ethics in Algorithmic Recommendation. Cultural Anthropology 36(3), 509-537.
  • Stengers, I. (2020). We Are Divided. E-Flux Journal, 114.
  • Strathern, M. (1995). The Relation: Issues in Complexity and Scale. Prickly Pear Press.
  • Tsing, A. L. (2012). On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-­Nested Scales. Common Knowledge, 18(3), 505–524.
  • Parmiggiani, E. (2017). This Is Not a Fish: On the Scale and Politics of Infrastructure Design Studies. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 26(1–2), 205–243.

Additional readings:

  • Barrett, M., & Orlikowski, W. (2021). Scale Matters: Doing Practice-based Studies of Contemporary Digital Phenomena.
  • Gillespie, T. (2020). Content moderation, AI, and the question of scale. Big Data & Society, 7(2), 205395172094323.
  • Jensen, C. B. (2017). Mekong Scales: Domains, Test Sites, and the Uncommons. Anthropologica, 59(2), 204–215.
  • Seaver, Nick. (2019). May 23, 2019. [blog post]
  • Tsing, A. L. (2000). The Global Situation. Cultural Anthropology, 15(3), 327–360.

November 11: Lectures and discussions

Room: 3A08

12.00-12.30: welcome and introduction

12.30-13.00: Presentation by Casper Bruun Jensen

13.00-13.15: break

13.15-14.00: Discussion

14.00-14.15: break

14.15-15.00: Literature discussion

15.00-15.15: Plenum wrap up

15.00-17.00: Break (coffee/cake, walk and talk, presence not mandatory)

17.15-17.30: Journal exercise

17.30-17.00: Presentation by Kim Fortun

18.00-18.30: Q&A, discussion

November 15: Collective sketching (not mandatory)

Room: 4A05

10.00-14.00: “shut up and sketch” + discussion/feedback of sketches

December 6: Paper and peer feedback

Room: 2A08

10.30-10.45: welcome and introduction

10.45-12.30: Parallel sessions with student-driven peer feedback facilitated by seniors

12.30-12.45: Break

12.45-13.15: Senior summary of sessions

13.15-14.30: Final questions + wrap up


Between session 2 and 3, participants write assigned ethnographic sketches + 2 pages reflection paper on sketching with scales. Deadline: November 23. All participants will be expected to read sketches for peer-to-peer feedback session.



Amount of hours the student is expected to use on the course:

  • Syllabus reading: 25.5 hours
  • Exam writing: 20 hours
  • Peer-to-peer review preparation: 5 hours
  • Participation in the course 11.5 hours.


15-20. The course is open to applicants outside ITU.

How to sign up:

Application of 250 words in which the motivation to learn about scale and sketching in PhD research is described. Send the application to Cæcilie Sloth Laursen, latest on September 28, 2021.