Broadly, my research is concerned with the new challenges and opportunities of digital connectivity among marginalized populations. My most recent research considers populations that are excluded from Internet connectivity in rural areas of California and Oregon. I have also taken a recent interest in social classification via algorithms and the possibility for divergent consequences to majority and minority groups. Prior to that my regional focus was sub-Saharan Africa and my methodological approach was (and is) ethnographic. I am interested in how various kinds of social units – families, villages, peer groups, clubs, firms, and religious groups – receive, translate, and, in a sense, reinvent digital technologies collectively.
As an ethnographer I am interested especially in emic accounts of technology, that is, how technology is interpreted and understood by receiving populations. How do they define functionality and assess efficacy according to their values, beliefs, and priorities? How is technology perceived to disrupt or alter an existing moral order and how are such disruptions addressed and reconciled? As a sociologist I am also concerned with inequalities in access and the uneven distribution of benefits and risks associated with technology among different social groups within society. Through this work I answer new and critical questions raised by global trends that make ever more marginalized and remote populations part of global, electronic networks. My work offers foundational understanding and theoretical grounding to improve design interventions that target such marginal populations aiming to achieve positive social change, poverty alleviation, or empowerment. I am an active member of several research communities including Science and Technology Studies (STS), African Studies, and the newly emerging field of ICTD (information and communication technologies and development). My work is also read and cited by scholars in information studies, anthropology, communication and media studies, and computer science.
Though I am a sociologist by training, I have done fieldwork in a part of the world and use a methodological approach that frequently leads colleagues to confuse me for an anthropologist. The possibility of this combination – sociologist, ethnographer, and Africanist – reflects some degree of disciplinary convergence between interpretivist approaches in sociology and sociocultural anthropology. The early discipline-defining work in sociology (from Marx onward) that fixated on the study of modernity as a geographically bounded and historically emergent phenomenon has given way to a broader (if perhaps more scattered) range of theories and concepts. One outcome is the encroachment of sociologists into sites associated with various other disciplines. A scientific laboratory, the trading floor of the New York stock exchange, a Ugandan village, all offer legitimate ‘grist for the mill’ of sociological analysis.
As Bruno Latour declares “we have never been modern” sweeping aside many established and foundational dichotomies – nature vs. culture, traditional vs. modern, savage vs. civilized – that, in the past, allotted sites and subject matter across the disciplines. Likewise, I have found that the rejection of such oppositions is particularly fruitful for study in and of ‘Africa’ which has been especially rigidly positioned by such dichotomies in classical social theory. Traces of this way of handling a notional ‘Africa’ are still apparent in recent work to define the global transitions of the Information/Network Society. My approach is to offer arguments and analysis that are carefully grounded in long-term fieldwork to challenge and counter claims about the continent’s relevance (or irrelevance) in the digital age.
Keywords: Sociology of Technology, Algorithmic Justice, Political Economy of High Tech, Materiality, User Studies, Ethnography, Qualitative Research Methods
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(1) Resisting Algorithmic Domination (2016-present)
Burrell, J, M. Fourcade (2021) The Society of Algorithms. The Annual Review of Sociology
Burrell, J. (2020) Automated Decision-Making as Domination: what’s missing from the discussion of AI & justice. Paper for the UCLA School of Law Workshop on AI & Justice in 2035
Burrell, J. Z. Kahn, A. Jonas, and D. Griffin (2019) When Users Control the Algorithms: values expressed in practices on Twitter. CSCW.
- Video for Mozilla Speaker Series: When Users Control the Algorithms
Burrell, J. (2016) How the Machine ‘Thinks:’ understanding opacity in machine learning algorithms Big Data & Society (open access!)
Burrell, J., D. Mulligan, D. Kluttz, J. Kroll, A. Smart, and A. Elazari (2018) Report from the first AFOG summer workshop
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(2) Infrastructural (In)visibility and Connectivity in Rural Areas (2015-present)
Kahn, Z. and J. Burrell (forthcoming) A Sociocultural Explanation of Internet-Enabled Work. ACM Transactions of Computer-Human Interaction
Burrell, J. (2020) On Half-Built Assemblages: Waiting for a Data Center in Prineville, Oregon. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, Vol 6.
Burrell, J. (2018) Thinking Relationally About Digital Inequality in Rural America . First Monday, Vol 23(6). (open access!)
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(3) A Microsociology of Minecraft Play: Connected Learning and the Equity Agenda (2014-2017) (with Morgan Ames)
‘Connected Learning’ and the Equity Agenda: A Microsociology of Minecraft Play (Best Paper Award – top 1% of submissions)
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Lessons learned during summer of Minecraft camp (blog post for DML Central)
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(4) How Marginalized Populations Self-Organize With Digital Tools (2009-2016), with support from NSF Grant # 1027310. With Janet Kwami (co-PI, Furman University) and students: Elisa Oreglia (UC-Berkeley), Bob Bell Jr. (UC-Berkeley), Ishita Ghosh (UC-Berkeley). Additional support from an IMTFI Grant for “A Work Practice Approach to Understanding Actors in Agricultural Markets: Revisiting the Fishermen of Kerala, India” with Janaki Srinivasan and Richa Kumar.
Burrell, J. and Oreglia, E. (2015) “The Myth of Market Price Information: Mobile Phones and the Application of Economic Knowledge in ICTD.” Economy and Society
Burrell, J. (2016) Material Ecosystems: Theorizing (Digital) Technologies in Socio-Economic Development Information Technologies & International Development (open access!)
Video of my talk on ‘the myth of market price information’ for CSTMS
Burrell, J. (2014) Modernity in Material Form? Mobile Phones in the Careers of Ghanaian Market Women. Review of African Political Economy.
Srinivasan, J. and Burrell, J. (2013) Revisiting the Fishers of Kerala, India. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. Cape Town, South Africa.
Burrell, J. (2010) Evaluating Shared Access: social equality and the circulation of mobile phones in rural UgandaJournal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 15(2): 230-250. (Available here – open access journal)
Beyond Market Prices – a web resource which aims to expand thinking about the role of mobile phones in the livelihood activities of agriculturalists and market actors of the Global South.
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(5) An Ethnography of Youth Culture and Internet Cafes in Accra, Ghana (2004-2012)
Burrell, J. (2012) Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana.. The MIT Press.
Review of Invisible Users (en Espanol), by Emilia Perujo Lavín, in Iztapalapa: Revista De Ciencias Sociales Y Humanidades.
Ethnographic Perspectives on the Information Society: A Review Essay, Heather Horst, Information Technologies and International Development.
Review of Invisible Users, Jo Ellen Fair, African Studies Review.
‘Beyond the Digital Divide‘ by Dillon Mahoney, The Journal of African History
‘How People Make Machines that Script People,’ by Daniel Miller, in Anthropology of this Century
‘Surfing the Internet in Ghana,’ by Kevin Donovan, LA Review of Books.
[Book Review] Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana, by David Banks, Cyborgology Group Blog (The Society Pages)
LSE Review of Books, review of Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana, by Gareth Jones.
How They Use the Internet in Ghana, by Rob Hardy (The Commercial Dispatch, Columbus & Starkville, Mississippi).
Review, by Lynn Spellman White (Practical Matters Journal)
Burrell, J. (2012) Technology Hype Versus Enduring Uses: A Longitudinal Study of Internet Use Among Early Adopters in an African City. First Monday, Vol 17(6). (Open Access!)
Burrell, J. (2013) The Materiality of Rumors. in Materiality and Organizing. Leonardi, P., B. Nardi, and J. Kallinikos. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (pdf)
Burrell, J. (2008) Problematic Empowerment: West African Internet Scams as Strategic Misrepresentation. Information Technology and International Development, 4(4):15-30. (Available ITID site – open access journal). An earlier version of this paper was the winner of the 2008 Nicholas C. Mullins Award given by the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) for “an outstanding piece of scholarship by a graduate student in the field of Science and Technology Studies.”
Burrell, J. (2009). The Fieldsite as a Network: a strategy for locating ethnographic research. Field Methods, 21(2):181-199. (pdf) and (in Vietnamese)** translation facilitated by the Journal Donation Project at The New School for Social Research.
Burrell, J. and K. Anderson (2008). “I have great desires to look beyond my world:” trajectories of information and communication technology use among Ghanaians living abroad. New Media and Society, 10(2):203-224. (pdf)