Contributed Articles

Reading the Tea Leaves: Ethnographic Prediction as Evidence

CLAIRE MAIERS WillowTree, Inc. Those who work in research know that we live in a world that is strongly influenced by what Tricia Wang has called the quantification bias. More so than other forms of information, numbers have incredible formative power. In our culture, numbers are seen as trustworthy representations of reality that are strongly associated with objectivity and untainted by human bias and shortcomings. Recently, data science, big data, algorithms, and machine learning have fueled a new wave of the quantification bias. One of the central fascinations of this wave has been the promise that humans now have the power of prediction at their fingertips. In this paper, I reflect on what it means to make predictions and explore the differences in how predictions are accomplished via quantitative modeling and ethnographic observation. While this is not the first time that ethnographic work has been put in conversation and in contrast with quantified practices, most theorists have framed the role of ethnography as providing context...