Relational data paradigms: What do we learn by taking the materiality of databases seriously?

Andrea K. Thomer, Karen M. Wickett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although databases have been well-defined and thoroughly discussed in the computer science literature, the actual users of databases often have varying definitions and expectations of this essential computational infrastructure. Systems administrators and computer science textbooks may expect databases to be instantiated in a small number of technologies (e.g., relational or graph-based database management systems), but there are numerous examples of databases in non-conventional or unexpected technologies, such as spreadsheets or other assemblages of files linked through code. Consequently, we ask: How do the materialities of non-conventional databases differ from or align with the materialities of conventional relational systems? What properties of the database do the creators of these artifacts invoke in their rhetoric describing these systems—or in the data models underlying these digital objects? To answer these questions, we conducted a close analysis of four non-conventional scientific databases. By examining the materialities of information representation in each case, we show how scholarly communication regimes shape database materialities—and how information organization paradigms shape scholarly communication. These cases show abandonment of certain constraints of relational database construction alongside maintenance of some key relational data organization strategies. We discuss the implications that these relational data paradigms have for data use, preservation, and sharing, and discuss the need to support a plurality of data practices and paradigms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalBig Data and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2020


  • Data curation
  • data science
  • databases
  • materiality
  • relational paradigms
  • software studies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Communication
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Information Systems and Management
  • Library and Information Sciences


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