Working With Algorithms : a discursive analysis on agency in the context of algorithms and work

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Title: Working With Algorithms : a discursive analysis on agency in the context of algorithms and work
Author: Ekholm, Malin
Other contributor: Helsingin yliopisto, Valtiotieteellinen tiedekunta
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences
Helsingfors universitet, Statsvetenskapliga fakulteten
Publisher: Helsingin yliopisto
Date: 2020
Language: eng
Thesis level: master's thesis
Degree program: Sosiaalitieteiden maisteriohjelma
Master's Programme in Social Research
Magisterprogrammet i sociala vetenskaper
Specialisation: Sosiaalipsykologia
Social Psychology
Abstract: Algorithms are effective data processing programs, which are being applied in an increasing amount of contexts and areas of our lives. One such context is that of our working lives, where algorithms are being adapted to take over tasks previously performed by human workers. This has sparked the discussion about capabilities and agency of algorithmic technology, and also whether or not technology will be replacing the human workforce. Public discussion has actively taken part in constructing both opportunities and fears related to algorithmic technology, but very little research exists about the impact of algorithmic technology at work. A lot of discussion has also centered around the agency of algorithms, as due to the advances in technology, agency is no longer something only only assigned to, or possessed by human actors. While some research has been done on the construction of algorithm agency, very little research has been conducted to explore the phenomena in the context of work. Research about adapting algorithms in companies is very scarce, and the gap in this research is especially crucial due to its lack of research from a social scientific perspective. The purpose of this thesis is to investigate how algorithmic agency (or lack thereof) is constructed in the discourse of five employees of an IT company that has applied an algorithm in their operations. I further want to investigate what consequences these constructs have on the work of the employees and the flow of agency in the company. The theoretical and methodological framework is rooted in social constructionism and discursive psychology and the analysis focuses on the construction of accounts of agency in the context. In order to answer the research questions I have conducted a semi-structured focused interview with each of the recruited employees. The results show that algorithmic agency is constructed in multifaceted ways and several constructs of agency coexist in the discourse of the employees. The agency is constructed as an independent actor with agency, but that this agency is also restricted by its human developers and operational staff intervening in its decisions. While accounts for algorithmicx agency exist, agency is also constructed as something possessed by the developers and company, who develop the algorithm in order to reach certain goals. The results also show that the algorithm is constructed as an enabler and restrictor to human agency, but that the adaptation of the algorithm has also created new flows of agency, where agency flows from human to algorithm and vice versa. This thesis contributes to previous research on agency, algorithms and work by taking a contemporary, employee-centric perspective on agency, not yet taken by previous research. In order to take into account the dynamic processes of agency when adapting algorithmic technology in companies, an extensive social scientific perspective is needed to inform organizational change. In order to achieve this, more qualitative research is needed to further understand the impact of automation on agency and other interpersonal dynamics.
Subject: technology
algorithmic agency
organizational change
digital work
social constructionism
discourse analysis

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