Laura Kurgan, Columbia GSAPP
Thursday October 26th, 6pm
BHR OX Bauhaus Reuse, Ernst-Reuter-Platz
Homophily: The Urban History of an Algorithm
The word “homophily” was coined in a highly-cited 1954 essay by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton on friendship in a mixed-race housing project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The researchers were suspicious of the “familiar and egregiously misleading question: do birds of a feather flock together?” They concluded that friendships form and persist not simply on the basis of shared identities but also thanks to shared values and beliefs. They focused on “racial attitudes.” The values that Merton and Lazarsfeld studied in Pittsburgh were not randomly chosen. It is not surprising that the issue of integration would be divisive and a deciding factor for friendships in a mixed-race housing project in 1947, yet it is an irony of history that this highly contextually and historically specific empirical observation has subsequently been taken as a law of human behavior. The afterlife of the concept has been remarkable, having effectively been used to reconstruct social worlds in its image. Today, the assumption that homophily is a rule also underlies social and economic interactions online, as platforms reinforce the axiom that “similarity breeds connection.” What began as descriptions or questions about social life have become a rule for algorithms shaping social interactions online.
Laura Kurgan is a Professor of Architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, where she directs the Center for Spatial Research and the Visual Studies curriculum. She is the author of Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics (Zone Books, 2013) and Co-Editor of Ways of Knowing Cities (Columbia Books on Architecture, forthcoming 2019). Her work has been exhibited internationally, most recently Chicago Architecture Biennial (2019), at the Biennale Architettura di Venezia 2018, in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute 2017.
The public lecture is part of the International Conference Visual Communication in Urban Design and Planning.
It is a cooperation between the SFB 1265 Re-Figuration of Spaces and IRS – Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space.