stratification in the sharing economy: how oreo truffles snuff out egalitarianism
Several writing group colleagues and I were discussing one participant’s extended conference abstract about “prefigurative” groups that have an impact upon society. The author contended that for a variety of reasons – in particular, pressures exerted by the state, most groups are unable to exact larger change. Another colleague suggested looking at studies of the sharing economy, which some might see as a contemporary version of the 1960s-1970s collectivist-democratic organizations.
“Paradoxes of openness and distinction in the sharing economy”
This paper studies four sites from the sharing economy to analyze how class and other forms of inequality operate within this type of economic arrangement. On the basis of interviews and participant observation at a time bank, a food swap, a makerspace and an open-access education site we find considerable evidence of distinguishing practices and the deployment of cultural capital, as understood by Bourdieusian theory. We augment Bourdieu with concepts from relational economic sociology, particularly Zelizer’s “circuits of commerce” and “good matches,” to show how inequality is reproduced within micro-level interactions. We find that the prevalence of distinguishing practices can undermine the relations of exchange and create difficulty completing trades. This results in an inconsistency, which we call the “paradox of openness and distinction,” between actual practice and the sharing economy’s widely articulated goals of openness and equity.
The authors show how class-based stratification can inhibit heterogeneous membership and exchanges, especially when members refuse to make exchanges with persons of lower class. In the time bank, some participants donated their time without drawing back time. They also preferred to volunteer skills that they didn’t use in the workplace, declining to offer desired legal and programming expertise.
The food swapping collective, which arose out of the founders’ desire to decrease food waste among single professionals, is particularly fascinating for its participants’ designation of acceptable vs. unacceptable homemade offerings:
Such research suggests that such sharing economies may be doomed to one-time, never-to-be-repeated exchanges when participants fixated on the parity (or potential status-enhancement) of possible exchanges. While other participants attempted to form community by making exchanges as a matter of practice or as a means of socializing newcomers, it seems these exchanges are not enough to sustain these collectives.