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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.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon one study of the sharing economy published in Poetics.   This comparative study examines 4 different cases of groups with egalitarian missions.

“Paradoxes of openness and distinction in the sharing economy”

Abstract

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:

The policing of the circuit’s boundaries was particularly clear at one December swap, a charity cookie exchange that drew more than 90 participants—nearly all of them first timers. One regular pointed out that someone had made Betty Crocker cookies and admitted it on their information sheet. ‘‘I know it’s for charity,’’ one swapper remarked, ‘‘but they clearly don’t understand what a swap means for us.’’ One week, a regular participant, noticing Oreo truffles on offer asked, ‘‘Now, are the truffles actually made of Oreo cookies?’’ ‘‘Yeah,’’ the new would-be swapper enthusiastically answered, pleased with his re-articulation of a store-bought product into an innovative form. ‘‘Oh, well then I won’t be able to trade with you, because I can only trade for, like, really homemade things. Like made from scratch, with no preservatives or chemicals or anything, because my friend doesn’t eat any processed foods. She only eats homemade things, that she makes completely herself.’’ These examples show the ways specific evaluative criteria are mobilized to circumscribe the extent to which new participants can enter the circuits of exchange within the swap.

Oreotruffles

One sharing economy’s bane: Oreo truffles.  Photo credit: Kraft.

One regular participant said that she would trade with first timers who did not understand what counted as homemade. However, she would always give them tips after trading with them. If they came back and still did not get it, she would not trade with them again and was not afraid to reject face-to-face offers. Often, new participants who lacked the cultural capital to navigate the food swap environment would leave having made only one trade or a few trades, going home with the vast majority of the food they brought. Such negotiations maintained the values of the swap by drawing on seemingly contradictory notions of ‘‘homemade’’ and ‘‘using up leftovers’’ to delimit participation within the swapping circuit…..

In the food swap, failed matches were rampant. Participants policed choice of ingredients, packaging, volume of offerings, what swappers made, and how they dressed. To make a good match, participants had to intuit multiple criteria which were
highly opaque, often arbitrary, and shifting. We found a fine line between leftovers that were transformed into something exotic, versus food that was just ‘‘left over.’’ Another matching failure occurred when people re-used ordinary jars rather than
the currently faddish, branded canning jars that served as instruments of symbolic class decontamination. The most successful matches happened among purveyors of authentic homemade foods that exhibited no class contamination. In this site, charity
trades also occurred: people would give their foods to others and take nothing in return, or take foods that they then did not use. On one occasion, a swapper was observed giving items she had accumulated to a homeless person as she left the swap.

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.

Written by katherinechen

February 18, 2016 at 10:06 pm

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