Date of Degree

5-2018

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Sociology

Advisor(s)

Barbara Katz Rothman

Committee Members

Philip Kasinitz

Paul Attewell

Vilna Bashi Treitler

Subject Categories

Inequality and Stratification | Labor Economics | Quantitative, Qualitative, Comparative, and Historical Methodologies | Science and Technology Policy | Science and Technology Studies | Sociology of Culture | Work, Economy and Organizations

Keywords

gig economy, sharing economy, on-demand work, entrepreneurship, future of work, New York ethnography

Abstract

The sharing or 'gig' economy claims to bring the romance of entrepreneurship to the masses as workers monetize their homes, cars, and other assets to derive additional revenue. In some ways it's working -- experts predict the sharing economy will soon surpass the chain restaurant industry -- but there's been almost no focus on workers' individual experiences.

My mixed methods dissertation is based on interviews with nearly 80 sharing economy workers in New York City. In researching the socioeconomic implications of this new wave of entrepreneurship, I investigate three key, interrelated research questions:

1. To what extent are individuals joining the sharing economy as part of a larger entrepreneurial goal, and to what extent is it a second job?

2. What skills and assets do workers need to benefit from this new economic movement?

3. What are the potential risks to sharing economy participants and their clients?

In my research I address the lived experience of the workers and the dangers that result from the gig economy's shifting of risk and liability as part of a larger casualization of labor (Kalleberg 2009). I describe how the gig economy resembles the Industrial Age where workers worked long hours in a piecemeal system, workplace safety was non-existent, and there were few options for redress. I outline how the gig economy's lack of responsibility for workers results in an effective destruction of OSHA protections and worker's compensation as workers clean ponds and construction dust with their bare hands, get bitten by dogs, and experience on-the-job injuries for which they have no financial recourse.

I also identify how the alleged egalitarianism of peer-to-peer employment results in the loss of political language as workers 'explain away' sexual harassment. Although the workplace protections dealing with safety and the right to unionize date back to the early Industrial Age and beginning of the 1900s, American protections against sexual harassment are a direct outcropping of Second Wave feminism. Still, even these newer workplace policies are no match for the sharing economy's bulldozing of workplace protections.

While work is often identified as a panacea for criminal behavior, I also explore the shady underbelly of the gig economy through stories of workers who find themselves engaging in illegal or at least legally-questionable activities as part of their sharing economy work. I argue that the anonymity of the sharing economy can make it easier to source otherwise law-abiding workers for drug deliveries and can lead to unsuspecting workers involved in various scams.

Although most of my workers fall into the ideal types (Weber [1904] 1949) of Struggler or Striver, I also identify Success Stories, gig economy workers whose higher levels of capital and professional skills give them many more choices in the sharing economy. I note that successful Airbnb hosts and Kitchensurfing chefs were much more likely to view themselves as entrepreneurs and to take advantage of the outsourcing opportunities of the gig economy to hire others. I conclude by linking my research to the larger theoretical discussions on the informal economy and inequality and stratification.

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