Algorithms in Society (UC Berkeley undergraduate research seminar)

Sociologists frequently study how people and things are sorted into different categories according to race, gender, income, education, political allegiance, or criminal records. In in the contemporary world, such classification often relies on powerful computer algorithms that process large amounts of behavioral, economic, or demographic data. Algorithms are routinely used to determine credit scores, calculate the recidivism risk of criminal defendants, allocate police officers to urban neighborhoods, write and curate news, personalize recommendations, set prices and driving directions, or determine matches on dating websites. Each of us is examined by countless algorithms every day, often without realizing it.

Despite their prevalence and significance, algorithms are commonly relegated to the domain of computer science and regarded as inscrutable pieces of software. Yet they also have social histories and tangible consequences in the world. They are products of society and engines of social change. They can be studied with the tools of sociology; and studying them sociologically can illuminate the intricate links between technology and society.

This course (1) introduces students to social theories of technology, (2) applies these theories to individual case studies of algorithms, (3) links the study of technology to familiar sociological topics like power, race, gender, and capitalism, and (4) empowers students to think critically about the organization of the social world. The course does not assume any specific knowledge of computation.