Feb. 9, 2023

CMF Welcomes Dr. Ali Karimi

Dr. Karimi joins CMF as an Assistant Professor of Race, Social Justice, and Digital Media

The Department of Communication, Media and Film is delighted to welcome Dr. Ali Karimi to UCalgary. Dr. Karimi received his PhD from McGill University and before joining the University of Calgary, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Advanced Research in Global Communication, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. He is a scholar of critical information studies with a focus on surveillance, privacy, race, and data justice.

Karimi’s current research examines the power politics of how the state produces, organizes, and uses population information. He studies this problem mostly in the context of the weak states of the Global South where data is often contested and information injustice is a major issue—a problem that particularly hurts marginalized groups. We caught up with Dr. Karimi earlier this month and asked him some questions about his work and what he looks forward to in joining CMF.

What topics are the focus of your current research?

I’m currently working on my first book project, which is tentatively titled State of Opacity: A History of Counting People, Places, and Prices in Afghanistan. The book is part critical information studies and part history and tells the story of three mundane everyday objects: the identification document, the house number, and the price tag. The book discusses the many ways these simple instruments of tracking impact the state, society, and the market at large. All three objects are, in a way, numerical tools. A key theme of my research is numerical information. Numbers are fixed forms of knowledge and we normally place a fair amount of trust in them. That makes them the subject of constant misuse and manipulation.   

I’m also in the early stages of launching a new research project on the question of data justice. It will look at the power politics of the census and how big population data is produced, used, and—of course—misused. The goal of this project is to explore how certain forms of social exclusion operate in the realm of data, particularly in the countries of the Global South where institutions of rule of law are weak.

What inspires/motivates you to conduct your research/work?

I’d like my research to address tangible changes in the real world. A big part of my work deals with questions of social justice and the rights of marginalized groups. The promise of social impact—however small—motivates me in my research. Let’s look at the census, for example. Afghanistan, the country that I come from, has never conducted a census. It’s a multiethnic and multireligious country with people who are not especially famous for getting along with each other. In a place like that, power is distributed based on the size of each ethnic group. When there is no accurate data on the population, whoever is in power decides the numbers and makes decisions on how to distribute political and economic resources. It’s not only Afghanistan; there are many countries in the same situation. I look at this as a problem of data justice and I hope my work will shed some light on the urgency of this issue. 

The other source of my motivation is the thrilling sense of discovery that you get when you come across an important document in the archives. A good portion of my work is based on archival research. My day was made at the British Library once when I discovered the first shop in Kabul that used a price tag in the 1920s!

What are some interesting facts about yourself?

After college among the serval jobs that I tried one was working as a fixer for foreign journalists in Afghanistan. The highlight of that job was the work I did for a TV documentary called Marco Polo Reloaded (2012), a four-part documentary series by ARTE. The series retraces the footsteps of the 13th-century Venetian traveler all the way from Venice to China through several Middle Eastern countries. For the stretch in Afghanistan, I was the fixer/translator and traveled with the crew to several cities that Marco Polo visited and described in his travelogue. It was interesting to see how much things had changed—or not changed—since the 13th century. The series is probably available on the internet somewhere. 

I did my undergrad in film studies and for a while, I was thinking of becoming a filmmaker and making horror movies—not gore or slasher horrors, but more freaky ones like The Sixth Sense and Paranormal Activity. Thank God I came to my senses because it’s hard to make movies in Afghanistan. Cinema is an expensive art and there are more urgent priorities to spend money on in a poor country.  

What excites you about joining CMF?

It’s a privilege to be at CMF. A very impressive group of scholars is in this department who are doing amazing work both on communication and media studies and also on film and popular culture. As a person who has a background both in film studies and communication, I totally feel at home here.  It also helps that we are in the beautiful city of Calgary, Canada’s best city. It can’t get better than this.