Algorithms in Practice: Comparing Web Journalism and Criminal Justice
Big Data evangelists often argue that algorithms make decision-making more informed and objective — a promise hotly contested by critics of these technologies. Yet, to date, most of the debate has focused on the instruments themselves, rather than on how they are used. This project addresses this lack by examining the actual practices surrounding algorithmic technologies. Specifically, drawing on multi-sited ethnographic data, I compare how algorithms are used and interpreted in two institutional contexts with markedly different characteristics: web journalism and criminal justice. I find that there are surprising similarities in how web journalists and legal professionals use algorithms in their work. In both cases, I document a gap between the intended and actual effects of algorithms — a process I analyze as “decoupling.” Second, I identify a gamut of buffering strategies used by both web journalists and legal professionals to minimize the impact of algorithms in their daily work. Those include foot-dragging, gaming, and open critique. Of course, these similarities do not exhaust the differences between the two cases, which are explored in the discussion section. I conclude with a call for further ethnographic work on algorithms in practice as an important empirical check against the dominant rhetoric of algorithmic power.
Angèle Christin is an assistant professor in the department of communication, and, by courtesy, in the sociology department at Stanford University. Her research examines how algorithms and analytics transform work practices and professional expertise. Her dissertation explored the growing importance of audience metrics in web journalism in the United States and France. Her current research project studies the uses of predictive algorithms in the criminal justice system. She is the author of two books. The first is an ethnographic analysis of criminal trials in the outskirts of Paris (Comparations immédiates: Enquête sur une pratique judiciaire, La Découverte, 2008). The second is an examination of recent theoretical trends in sociological research in the United States (La sociologie aux Etats-Unis aujourd’hui, with E. Ollion, La Découverte, 2012). Angèle received her Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. She is an alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris) and an affiliate at the Data & Society Research Institute.