Data Feminism

Oct 31, 2018chevron-down
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Data Feminism

This chapter is a draft. The final version of Data Feminism will be published by the MIT Press in 2019. Please email Catherine and/or Lauren for permission to cite this manuscript draft.


It was 1967 when Christine Mann Darden first passed through the gates of NASA’s Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia. In the city of Hampton, and across the United States, tensions were running high. In Los Angeles that June, a massive protest against the Vietnam War ended in violence when over a thousand armed police officers attacked the peaceful protestors, sparking national outrage. One month later, in July of that year, even more violence engulfed the city of Detroit after a police raid gone awry. The 1967 Detroit Riot, or the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, as it is increasingly known, resulted in over 40 deaths and 1000 injuries--most of which were sustained by the city’s predominantly Black residents. The rebellion ended only after the governor, with the support of the President of the United States, called in the Army’s Airborne Division and the Michigan National Guard.

The gates of Langley might have shielded Darden from those physical confrontations, but her work there was no less politically engaged. By 1967, the Space Race was well underway, and the United States was losing. The Soviet Union had already sent a man into space and a rocket to the moon. The only thing standing in the way of a Soviet victory was to put those two pieces together. Meanwhile, the U.S. had suffered a series of defeats--and, in January of that year, an honest-to-goodness tragedy, when a fire during a launch test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft killed all three astronauts on board.

While the nation was in mourning, everyone at NASA threw themselves back into their work-- including Darden, who held a master’s degree in applied math and was employed as a data analyst at the time. Two years later, it would be Darden’s point-perfect analysis of the physics of rocket reentry that would help to ensure the successful return of the Apollo 11 mission from the moon, effectively winning the Space Race for the United States. But it would be Darden herself, as a Black women with technical expertise, working at a federal agency in which sexism and racism openly prevailed, who demonstrated that the ideological mission of the United States was far from accomplished.

The 1960s, after all, were years of social protest and transformation as well as exploration into outer space. Darden herself had participated in several lunch-counter sit-ins at Hampton Institute, the historically Black college that she attended for her undergraduate studies. The Hampton sit-ins were the first in the state of Virginia, and contributed significantly to the dismantling of the Jim Crow era policies of segregation that were still in place at the time. By the time that Darden joined NASA, its Virginia facility had been fully desegregated for several years. But it had yet to reckon with another issue of equality of opportunity: its human computers.

Darden’s arrival at Langley coincided with the early days of digital computing. While Langley could claim one of the most advanced computing systems of the time--an IBM 704, the first computer to support floating-point math--its resources were still limited. For most data analysis tasks, Langley’s Advanced Computing Division relied upon human “computers” like Darden instead. These computers were all women, trained in math but treated like secretaries. They were brought into research groups on a project-by-project basis, often without even being told anything about the source of the data they were asked to analyze. Most of the male engineers never even bothered to learn the female computers’ names.

But Darden had a sense of justice in addition to her advanced degree. So after several years of working as a computer, she decided to ask her boss why men with her credentials were placed in engineering positions, where they could be promoted through the ranks of the civil service, while women like herself were sent to the computing pools, where they languished until they retired or quit. As Darden, now 75, told Margot Lee Shetterly, who interviewed Darden for her book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, her boss’s response was sobering: “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he told her. “The women seem to be happy doing that, so that’s just what they do.”

The story about Darden that we tell here derives primarily from Shetterly’s account in Hidden Figures. Although we have supplemented Shetterly’s research with additional sources, and reframed the events of Darden’s life in order to emphasize the role that data played in her career, we remain indebted to Shetterly for calling our attention to Darden, as well as her extensive research on Darden’s life. For more information on Darden, see Hidden Figures. (Darden does not appear in the film of the same name).

Today, a response like that would get a boss fired (or, at the least, served with a Title IX complaint). But at the time, stereotypical remarks about “what women do” were par for the course. In fact, assumptions about what women could or couldn’t do--especially in the workplace--was the central subject of Betty Friedan’s best-selling book, The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique is often credited with starting feminism’s so-called “second wave.”

Scholars have long described the evolution of feminism in terms of three waves. The first wave is said to have spanned much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, culminating in the United States in 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Women’s suffrage, and related legal issues were the focus of this wave. The second wave, which we reference here, is said to have encompassed the early 1960s to the early 1980s. This wave was concerned with a wider range of legal and social issues, including the workplace conditions that Friedan describes in her book, as well as reproductive rights, domestic violence, family roles, and issues of sexuality, among others. It is said to have lost cohesion in the 1980s as a result of internal debates within the movement about sexuality and pornography, among others. Feminism’s third wave is said to have began in the 1990s, and is characterized by an increased attention to the idea of intersectionality, and the emphasis on both individual difference and structural power that the concept entails. Some scholars have proposed that we’ve entered a fourth wave of feminism, coinciding with the rise of social media in the early 2010s. With all that said, other scholars have rejected the notion of waves altogether, for how it elides the longer and more sustained work of organizing and activism that took place before, during, and after these waves--especially by women of color, whose efforts did not often receive as much popular attention as those of their white counterparts. Because we endorse this critique, we attempt to de-emphasize the narrative of waves in this book, employing the terminology of waves only when it helps to establish the context of a particular example, individual, or group.
Fed up with the enforced return to domesticity following the end of World War II, and inspired by the national conversation about equality of opportunity prompted by the Civil Rights Movement, women across the United States began to organize around a wide range of issues, including reproductive rights and domestic violence, as well as the workplace inequality and restrictive gender roles that Darden faced at Langley.

That being said, Darden’s experience as a Black woman with a fulltime job was quite different than that of the white suburban housewife--the presumed audience of The Feminine Mystique. And when critics called out Friedan, rightly, for failing to acknowledge how no single person could claim to speak on behalf of all women, everywhere, it was women like Darden, among all sorts of different folks, whom they had in mind. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, a pioneering Black feminist text, bell hooks puts it plainly: “[Friedan] did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.”

In other words, Friedan had failed to consider how additional factors like race and class, not to mention sexuality, ability, age, religion, and geography, among many others, intersect with each other in order to determine any particular woman’s personal experience in the world. Although this concept did not have a name when hooks described it--the term intersectionality would be coined by legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s--its necessity was already clearly born out by, well, everything. In the face of the racism embedded into U.S. culture, coupled with the many other forms of oppression experienced by minoritized groups, it would be impossible to claim a common experience--or a common movement--for all women, everywhere. Instead, what was needed was what the Combahee River Collective, the famed Black lesbian activist group out of Boston, advocated for back in 1977: “the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”   

We’ll have more to say about the importance of intersectionality in a few pages, but first let’s find out what happened with Christine Darden and her goal of becoming an aerospace engineer. As Shetterly tells it, Darden heard nothing from her boss but radio silence. But two weeks later, she was indeed promoted and transferred to an aerospace engineering group. Darden would go on to conduct ground-breaking research on sonic boom minimization techniques, author more than sixty scientific papers in the field of computational fluid dynamics, and earn her PhD in mechanical engineering-- all while “juggling the duties of Girl Scout mom, Sunday school teacher, trips to music lessons, and homemaker,” she recalls.

For over a decade, this research required that Darden work overtime in the office as well as at home. But she could tell that her scientific accomplishments were still not being recognized at the same level as her male colleagues. Once again, data analysis open doors for Darden. But this time, Darden wasn’t responsible for the math. Instead, her technical expertise provided a key datapoint for a larger advocacy project.

Over in Langley’s Equal Opportunity office, a white woman by the name of Gloria Champine had been compiling a set of internal statistics about gender and rank. The data showed that men and women with identical academic credentials, publication records, and performance reviews, were still promoted at vastly different rates. Champine then visualized the data—in the form of a bar chart—and presented her findings to the head of her Directorate. He was “shocked at the disparity,” Shetterly reports, and Darden received the promotion she had long deserved.

Darden would advance to the top rank in the federal civil service, the first Black woman at Langley to do so. By the time that she retired from NASA, in 2007, Darden was the head of a Directorate herself.

<p>Christine Darden in the control room of the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1975. </p><p>Credit: NASA. </p><p>Source: Wikipedia,</p>

Christine Darden in the control room of the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1975.

Credit: NASA.

Source: Wikipedia,

Christine Darden’s rise into the leadership ranks at NASA was largely the result of her own knowledge, experience, and grit. But Darden’s story is one we can only tell as a result of the past several decades of feminist activism and critical thought. For it was a national feminist movement that brought issues of women in the workplace to the forefront of U.S. cultural politics, and it was a local feminist advocate in the form of Gloria Champine who enabled Darden to continue her own professional rise. It was also, presumably, the work of many unnamed colleagues and friends, who may or may not have considered themselves feminists, who provided Darden with community and support--and likely a significant number of casseroles--as she ascended the ranks of NASA. And it was the work of feminist scholars and activists that allows us to recognize that labor, emotional as much as physical, as such today.

Now it’s probably time to clarify the relationship between the dictionary definition of a feminist and what is described, more generally, as feminist thought. The Merriam-Webster dictionary (and also, for the record, Beyoncé) defines as “a person who believes in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes.” Feminist thought has its basis in this theory of the equality of the sexes, but it is much more expansive. It includes the work of activists like Champine, or bell hooks, or--however problematically-- Betty Friedan, who have taken direct action to achieve the equality of the sexes. It also includes the work of scholars and cultural critics--again like hooks, or like Kimberlé Crenshaw, or like Margot Lee Shetterly--who have explored the social, political, historical, and conceptual reasons behind the inequality of the sexes that we face today.

In the process, these scholars and activists have given voice to many of the additional ways in which the status quo is unjust. These include the power differentials between men and women, as well as those between--for instance--white women and Black women, academic researchers and indigenous communities, and people in the Global North and the Global South. These feminist thinkers arrived at their emphasis on power, rather than gender alone, because of their insistence on intersectionality, the concept we started to get at just a few pages ago. So let’s get a little more specific in our explanation of intersectionality. The concept doesn’t simply describe the intersecting aspects of any particular person’s identity that shape their experience in the world. Rather, it describes the intersecting systems of power--the systems of privilege, on the one hand; and systems of oppression, on the other--that determine that particular person’s experiences. When you stop to think about it, many people experience at least a little of both.

In fact, it was an example of how oppression and privilege themselves intersect that prompted Crenshaw to name the concept that she’d seen play out over the course of her legal career. In law school, Crenshaw came across the anti-discrimination case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. Emma DeGraffenreid was a Black working mom who had sought a job at a General Motors factory in her town. She was not hired. The factory did have a history of hiring Black people: many Black men worked in industrial and maintenance jobs there. They also also had a history of hiring women: many white women worked there as secretaries. These two pieces of evidence provided the rationale for the judge to throw out the case. The company did hire Black people and did hire women, so it could not be discriminating on the basis of race or gender. But what about discrimination on the basis of race and gender together, Crenshaw wanted to know? This was something different, it was real, and it needed to be named.

Intersectionality helps us name and recognize the interaction between categories of social difference, such as race and gender. It helps us see when people who embody two or more of those characteristics fall through the cracks, because they are doubly or triply marginalized. It also helps us unmask the privilege that comes with embodying the dominant dimensions of identity, and helps us understand how oppression and privilege can co-exist in the same body. For example, a white, gay, disabled, cisgendered man might reap the benefits of privilege for his race and gender, but experience oppression for his sexual orientation and disability. A straight, college-educated, cisgendered Muslim woman might experience certain privilege on account of her sexual orientation and level of education, but experience oppression on account of her gender and religion. The intersection of categories of social difference, and of the forces of privilege and oppression that are bound up in them, are what Crenshaw’s term names.

In the case of Christine Darden and her promotion, Gloria Champine was primarily concerned with the issue of gender. But she was also, like Crenshaw, intent on exposing a larger system of power and privilege. She knew that unless she confronted the systematic nature of the discrimination faced by women at NASA, she would continue to hear from individuals like Darden for the rest of her career. Her goal was to implement changes that would improve the lives of all women at NASA, and to achieve that goal, she required a complete picture--in the form of her bar chart-- of the problem at hand.  

Of course, when Champine created her bar chart, she also recognized in the 1980s what many of us are only now beginning to understand: that data visualizations, and the data science that underlies them, hold tremendous rhetorical force. Now, as then, a single data visualization can dazzle, inform, and persuade. Champine aligned her goal of challenging the systemic nature of the gender discrimination that plagued NASA at the time with the rhetorical power of a bar chart. She asked herself: “What is the source of the problem that my colleague is facing? What information do I need in order to bring this problem to light? And what is the format through which I can best advocate on her behalf, and effect structural change?” In doing so, Champine joined with Darden to model a key aspect of what we call in this book data feminism: a way of thinking about data and its communication that is informed by direct experience, by a commitment to action, and by the ideas associated with intersectional feminist thought.  

Data feminism can show us how images like Champine’s bar chart might seem neutral and objective, but are in fact the result of very human and necessarily imperfect design processes. Data feminism can also show us how the categories of data collection matter deeply, especially when dividing people into groups. Because Champine was able to collect data on both gender and rank, she was able to show the extent of the gender discrimination that was taking place at NASA at the time. But because she did not include any additional demographic information in her report--whether by circumstance, or by design--she was unable to show the effects of any additional forms discrimination that might also have been then taking place. The alliance between Champine and Darden, and the chart they together produced, also helps underscore the importance of listening to and learning from the data’s stewards: the people who serve as the source of knowledge about the issues the data purports to represent. Champine knew to crunch the numbers only because Darden shared her personal experience of gender discrimination with her. Without Darden’s first-hand knowledge of the problem, Champine might never have known that action was necessary.



It took five state-of-the-art IBM System/360 Model 75 machines to guide the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. Each was the size of a car and cost $3.5 million dollars. Fast forward to the present and we now have computers in the form of our phones that fit in our pockets, and-- in the case of the iPhone 6-- can operate 120 million times faster than a standard IBM System/360. We’ve also witnessed an equally remarkable growth in our capacity to collect information in digital form--and in the capacity to have data collected about us.

As it turns out, the IBM System/360 line was viewed as a major milestone in the history of data processing as well as rocket science. It was the first family of machines that could be scaled up to be used for aerospace-level operations-- and also scaled down to be used by a single data analyst in, for instance, an insurance company or a bank. But those banks and insurance companies today? They now collect data on our purchase histories and online behaviors, the times of day we’re most active on Facebook and the number of items we add to our Amazon cart. Our most trivial everyday actions – taking a single step, searching for a way around traffic, or liking a friend’s cat video – are now hot commodities. Not because our friends’ cats are exceptionally cute (they are cute, of course, but not exceptional), or because our step counts are exceptionally exciting (they are emphatically not), but because those tiny actions can be combined with other tiny actions in order to determine, for instance, whether we’re in liking kind of mood, whether we tend to click on links when we’re also liking videos, whether we might also happen to be frustrated with our daily commute, and whether today might be the day for a well-placed ad for new sneakers, or a coupon for 20% off. An alternative to the daily grind and a way to increase our step counts in one fell (Nike) swoop.   

This is the data economy. And corporations and governments, often aided by scholars and researchers, are scrambling to see what consumer behaviors remain untapped and unrefined. Nothing is safe from datafication, the process of turning phenomena in the world into digital information. Not your cat, or your aspirational exercise goals, or-- more realistically-- the butt you are currently using to sit in your seat. Shigeomi Koshimizu, a Tokyo-based professor of engineering, has been designing matrices of sensors that collect data at 360 different positions around your rear end while its smushed in a chair. Those data are then analyzed by custom software that detects micropatterns in weight and pressure. The result is a data profile of your butt that is, according to Koshimizo’s research, as unique as your fingerprints. In the future, he suggests, our cars could be outfitted with butt-scanners instead of keys or car alarms. If Catherine sits down in her car of the future--self-driving, of course--this technology would scan her butt, crunch the data, and welcome her with a warm hello. But if Lauren sat in Catherine’s car, it would refuse to move--or it might even be programmed to call the police.

While this redefinition of butt-dialing may still be a few years away, the datafication of our everyday lives is already a reality--and not only when we’re actively clicking. Decisions of social and civic importance, ranging from which products to stock in the grocery store before a hurricane, to which city buildings to inspect for the risk of fire, to which citizens to tag as pre-trial flight risks, are increasingly being made by automated systems sifting through large amounts of data. For example, Walmart's predictive analytics team has long combined consumer purchasing patterns with weather data in order to address the first of these scenarios. If a hurricane is coming, what goods should Walmart get on the shelves quickly? It turns out that obvious items like flashlights and generators are in high demand. But Walmart also always sends truckloads of strawberry Pop-Tarts to areas where there are hurricane warnings, because their data analysis detected spikes in Pop-Tart sales during episodes of severe weather. As VP of Information Systems Dan Phillips told Fortune magazine, "They are preserved until you open them, the whole family can eat them, and they taste good."

There are similar examples of data-driven decision making in place in the government sector. In a widely-cited example, a stats team employed by the City of New York helped to integrate data analysis into the building inspection process. In New York, there are upwards of 25,000 complaints per year about buildings that have been illegally converted into apartments. But there are only around two hundred inspectors on city payroll who can handle the complaints. These illegal apartments often pose fire hazards, and in fact, many firefighters have lost their lives trying to save the residents who live there. So the stats team brought together several datasets relating to property tax delinquency (an indicator of neglect), rat complaints (ditto), arrest locations (a proxy for poverty), and more, in order to rank the 25,000 complaints by fire risk. The inspectors began with the buildings that were determined to hold the highest risk, and postponed their inspections of lower-risk sites. To their surprise, the inspectors issued five times more "vacate orders" than they had without the data-assisted ranking system. They might have been responsible for causing short-term inconvenience on the part of the people who were required to move, but they were able to reduce the longer-term risk of fire and potential loss of life. Here, the power of data was wielded for civic good: to allocate scarce resources to address issues of public health and safety. 

But data-driven decision-making can be just as easily used to amplify the inequities already entrenched in public life. In Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Cathy O’Neill has drawn attention to how predictive policing models use data about property tax delinquency and arrest locations, the very same datasets used for good by City of New York’s stats team, in order to determine which neighborhoods to patrol more heavily, and which neighborhoods to leave alone. Like city building inspectors, it turns out that police are also in short supply. But in the case of policing, data analysis does not always save lives. Because more police are sent into neighborhoods that have had more crimes already reported, the police are more likely to be there when a new crime is committed (or, as in most cases, simply suspected of taking place). And because the police are already there, the people involved--usually poor, and usually people of color-- are more likely to get ticketed, arrested, or even killed. This creates what O’Neill calls a “pernicious feedback loop,” amplifying the effects of the already pernicious criminalization of poverty that takes place in the United States. Meanwhile, in more affluent neighborhoods, the very same petty crimes--like jaywalking or littering, for instance-- are far less likely to be prosecuted because the police simply aren’t there to see those crimes take place. This disparity in law enforcement is what led to the creation of White Collar Crime Risk Zones, a satirical map of all of the white collar crime that goes uninvestigated because neighborhoods of color are so overpoliced.

<p>White Collar Crime Risk Zones uses machine learning to predict where financial crimes by white people may occur.</p><p>Credit: Brian Clifton, Sam Lavigne, and Francis Tseng for <em>The New Inquiry Magazine</em>, Vol. 59: ABOLISH.</p><p>Source:</p>

White Collar Crime Risk Zones uses machine learning to predict where financial crimes by white people may occur.

Credit: Brian Clifton, Sam Lavigne, and Francis Tseng for The New Inquiry Magazine, Vol. 59: ABOLISH.


The double-edged sword of data shows just how important it is to understand how structures of power and privilege operate in the world. The questions we might ask about these structures can relate to issues of gender in the workplace, as in the case of Christine Darden and her wrongly delayed promotion. Or they can relate to issues of broader social inequality, as in the case of predictive policing described just above. So one thing you will notice throughout this book is that not all of our examples are about women--and deliberately so. This is because data feminism is about more than women. It’s is about more than gender. Put simply: Data Feminism is a book about power in data science. Because feminism, ultimately, is about power too. It is about who has power and who doesn’t, about the consequences of those power differentials, and how those power differentials can be challenged and changed.

This paragraph deserves re-stating, because we want you to remember these points as you read this book:

  • Data feminism isn't only about women.
    It takes more than one gender to have gender inequality; and more than one gender to work towards justice.

  • Data feminism isn't only for women.
    Men, non-binary, and genderqueer people are proud to call themselves feminists and use feminist thought in their work.

  • Data feminism isn't only about gender.
    Intersectional feminists have keyed us into how race, class, sexuality, ability, age, religion, geography, and more, are factors that together influence each person’s experience and opportunities in the world. In this book, we choose to foreground many examples where racism and patriarchy intersect. This reflects our location in the United States, where the most entrenched issues of injustice have racism at their source.

  •  Feminism is about power - who has it and who doesn't.
    And in our contemporary world, data is power. Which is why we wrote this book.

While the feminisms of the 19th and 20th centuries accomplished a great deal, feminism remains an unfinished project, and an urgent one. Consider that, while Darden's story ended well, her accomplishments are just beginning to be recognized--largely due to the work of a single person, Margot Lee Shetterly, and her efforts to shine a light on the "hidden figures" of the history of computing. Or, consider that, in 1996, the field of computing held a celebration for the fiftieth anniversary of the first electronic computer, the ENIAC. But the organizers of the event did not think to invite most of the computer’s original programmers to the party! These programmers were all women, of course. So is it a surprise that the number of female graduates of information sciences programs continue to decline? In 2013, the numbers were bleak: the field was only 26% women, the same percentage as in 1974.

On a larger cultural scale, Kimberlé Crenshaw and her colleagues have started a campaign called #SayHerName to call attention to police brutality against Black women, whose stories of racialized and gendered violence are so often left out of public conversations. And yet, the US federal government still has no comprehensive database on people killed by police officers. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated the pervasiveness of sexual assault as well as the bravery of women from all backgrounds to come forward. And yet, the U.S. has placed accused sexual predators in the White House and nominated them to the Supreme Court, all while their elite white male colleagues rally angrily behind their innocence. Feminism is unfinished and urgent work, in data and technology as well as in our most powerful political institutions.  

In the chapters that follow, we draw from a wide range of examples of feminist data science in order to show how we can take steps towards a more just and equal world. In the examples we discuss, we are guided by our values around intersectionality, equity, and proximity, which we outline in Appendix 1. We do so in order to challenge a set of widely held assumptions, like the idea that "the numbers speak for themselves," and to explore projects that expand our ideas about what constitutes “data” in the first place. We call attention to the people and their bodies who are typically included in the data collection process, as well as to the people and their bodies who are typically left out. We question whose work gets recognized, and whose research questions should matter most. Along the way, we introduce you to some of the analysts, designers, journalists, scholars, and teachers who are already doing the transformative work we hope to see more of in the world. There are a lot of data feminists out there! You just might not know about them until you read this book.

Assistant Professor, Emerson College
Associate Professor, Georgia Tech


New Discussion on Jan 14
Aristea Fotopoulou: This is great, and the above is very strong.
New Discussion on Jan 14
Aristea Fotopoulou: The title should perhaps hint to visualisation as the chapter mainly draws from data visualisation. As it stands now it gives the impression that this is a chapter about the philosophy of science a...
New Discussion on Jan 14
Aristea Fotopoulou: I would use either ‘dominant stereotype’ or ‘master narrative’.
New Discussion on Jan 14
Aristea Fotopoulou: Does this example not show just that everyone is crazy, but for different reasons? They are both depicted irrational.
New Discussion on Jan 14
Aristea Fotopoulou: Not sure that this reference is relevant here and what it is doing exactly - is it a comment about masculinity and reason?
New Discussion on Jan 3
Jacque Wernimont: This is a great and clear statement of the questions driving the work of this chapter.