Smith-Doerr Receives Fulbright Scholar Grant to Germany

Laurel Smith-Doerr
Laurel Smith-Doerr

Laurel Smith-Doerr, professor of sociology, has been awarded a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Grant to Germany. In the spring 2020 semester, Smith-Doerr will be hosted at the Centre for Globalisation and Governance of the University of Hamburg where she will conducting research on her project, “Automating Privilege: Reproducing Inequalities in Artificial Intelligence Knowledge Production Processes in the U.S. and Germany.” The project will contribute to social science theory on organizational governance and equity, and her study of variation in American and German tech companies’ recruitment processes may also illuminate where change is possible for more equitable practices.

“There has been a lot of recent attention to how automation and artificial intelligence will affect the future of work. What is often missing is attention to racial equity--the history of work in the US tells us that not all people will be affected in the same ways by automation technology,” Smith-Doerr says. “There have already been examples of how AI-powered technologies have had racial biases built into them--in addition to the problematic online face recognition software that did not recognize people with darker skin tones, for example, a recent study at Georgia Tech found autonomous vehicles had sensors that were more accurate at identifying white pedestrians than people of color.”

She says that the idea for her project “developed significantly” from a 2018 NSF-funded interdisciplinary workshop she led at UMass Amherst on the topic of emerging technologies, racial equity and the future of work.

“My work has long been focused on the organizational contexts that promote equity and innovation in science,” she says, “so I'm particularly interested in who is developing AI, and how organizations recruit and evaluate the people who do that work. How do tech firms decide who are the appropriate people and teams to do the work? How do the AI developers imagine users of their products? What role does racial (in)equity play? While the U.S. and Germany both have booming tech sectors--including particularly AI powered technologies--the German context is very different than the U.S. context in terms of race relations and immigration context. In Hamburg, where I will be doing my research, over 400 new tech firms have been founded since 2015, so that seems a perfect location for the study.”

Smith-Doerr, the outgoing director of the Institute of Social Science Research (ISSR), will collaborate with colleagues at the Centre for Globalisation and Governance, including its founder Anita Engels, to collect data on German tech firm recruitment. Her comparative work on tech firm recruitment in the U.S. will be conducted in New York and Boston, thanks to an appointment at the Five College Women's Studies Research Center

“I am honored to have been selected for a Fulbright in Germany, and delighted by the chance to work with colleagues and students in Hamburg,” she says. “I'm excited to have the opportunity to have conversations with feminist scholars across a variety of disciplines in developing my research and analysis next year.”