Studying Up: Reorienting the field of algorithmic fairness around issues of power

Chelsea Barabas
The Startup


On January 28, 2020, I presented a paper at the ACM FAccT* conference. Below is the write-up of that presentation. You can find the paper here:

Einstein once said that if he had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on the solution, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.

As academics, so much of our power lies in how we frame the problems we aim to solve, in formulating the right question.

Yet, the academic community dedicated to the pursuit of “fair” algorithmic systems has not taken enough time to develop the right set of questions in pursuit of this goal. In spite of our best efforts, data scientists still lack the methodological and conceptual tools necessary to grapple with key epistemological and normative aspects of their work. As a result, data scientists tend to uncritically inherit dominant modes of seeing and understanding the world when conceiving of their projects. In doing so, they reproduce ideas which normalize social hierarchies and legitimize violence against marginalized groups.

In our paper we challenge data scientists to move beyond these default modes of operating in favor of “studying up.”

In this talk, I’ll:

  • Introduce the concept of “studying up” by providing a brief history of the idea as it was first introduced in the field of anthropology in the late 1960’s.
  • Then I’ll draw parallels between this conversation in anthropology and contemporary debates we are having in the FAccT* community today.
  • Finally, I’ll illustrate what we might gain from “studying up” as data scientists by walking through a case study from my own work building algorithmic interventions in the criminal legal system. Through this case study, I hope to identify some of the key challenges data scientists face when studying up, in the hopes that we can expand the set of issues we grapple with in the pursuit of fair algorithmic systems.

The call to “study up” in anthropology

The idea of “studying up” was first introduced by an anthropologist named Laura Nader in the late…