Connected Consumption

Photo by Matt KalinowskiPhoto by Matt Kalinowski
By Ivelisse Estrada

Radcliffe fellow Juliet B. Schor believes that a growing peer-to-peer economy is changing business as usual. But is it here to stay?

Have you ever booked a room through Airbnb? Joined in a campaign to fund an acquaintance’s artistic or business endeavor? Bought a farm share?

If so, you’ve dipped your toe in the sharing economy, a new and growing consumer culture that may be poised to sweep the mainstream.

Juliet B. Schor RI ’15, a professor of sociology at Boston College and a member of the MacArthur Foundation–supported Connected Learning Research Network, has been conducting research about the new institutions and consumer practices that make up the sharing economy. She and her team have been interviewing and observing participants in various sectors of the sharing economy—including a food swap, a maker space where people gather to share time and resources as they work on building projects, a time bank through which members trade services by the hour, and larger platforms, such as Airbnb and Lyft—and building case studies, eight in all.

So far, the researchers have completed nearly 200 interviews, but they hope to do many more, along with up to 500 hours of participant observation. Schor would like to then supplement the interviews and observations with quantitative data. The end result will be a thorough academic investigation into what she sees as “the emergence of a new kind of consumer and a new set of consumer patterns.” Her fellowship year (during which she is the 2014–2015 Matina S. Horner Visiting Professor) is allowing her to focus on writing this book.

Defining the Sharing Economy

The services that Schor has highlighted so far are only the tip of the iceberg. Broadly speaking, the sharing economy is a model whereby participants can share time and resources.

"The sharing economy itself is a rather incoherent concept,” Schor says. “There’s so much diversity there.” She names the alternative food movement, including community-supported agriculture; exchanges outside the traditional currency-based market, such as time banks and clothing swaps; do-it-yourself activities, including maker spaces and homesteading; crowdfunding programs, such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo; online peer production, such as open-access education sites; and collaborative consumption, or the more literal sharing of physical resources that occurs when people share rides or couch surf.

Image credit Libby Levi for opensource.comImage credit Libby Levi for opensource.com

Consumers Connect

All of these services, practices, and platforms offer a more direct exchange. “Many of these platforms and innovations hold out the possibility of social connection—even something as impersonal as being driven by someone from the ride share Lyft,” says Schor. Because a social and digital connection is so prominent in these transactions, she has coined the term “connected consumption” to describe them.

Many among the 18- to 34-year-olds she is studying express a desire to connect with others, even when exchanging cash for goods or services. “Person-to-person platforms feel more personal,” she says. “They don’t feel like arm’s-length market transactions.” For this reason, consumers may choose to book a room in someone’s home through Airbnb rather than through a worldwide hotel chain.

Of course, a craving for social connection is not the only factor driving the sharing economy. For varied reasons—including idealistic downshifting, pessimism about the labor market, crippling debt, or entrepreneurial dreams—many of the young consumers in Schor’s study are looking for creative ways to earn a little something extra. “These are ways to make money as well as ways to get things cheaply,” she says. Using Airbnb, for example, consumers can not only find accommodations cheaper than a hotel, but also rent out unused rooms in their homes for supplementary income.

But this type of exchange seems risky to some. “At a Marriott, you don’t have to worry about the concierge being an ax murderer,” Schor jokes. “But in someone’s house on Airbnb—well, are they dangerous?” Technology helps alleviate this worry through online reviews. “The crowdsourcing of reputational and ratings information through the platforms enables these peer-to-peer exchanges in which people are taking risks with either bodily safety or large sums of money,” says Schor.

Driven by Technophilia

Technology has also been crucial in scaling up the sharing economy. Many of the exchanges Schor studies are made possible by lowered costs. “In what we call secondary markets, transactions and information are more costly than buying new,” she says. For example, a consumer may choose to buy goods from a department store because frequenting yard sales takes too long or is an unreliable way of securing specific goods.

“Now the consumer can go online and have many more options,” says Schor. And with the development of phone apps for sites such as eBay and Craigslist, consumers can even search for goods remotely. In fact, many of these sharing-economy services—including Airbnb and Lyft—are powered by phone apps. “The software capabilities of these platforms are quite amazing: you can summon a car with the touch of a button and pay using your phone.”

Sustainability Concerns

In addition to fulfilling a yearning for social connection, cost savings, and technologically driven convenience, the sharing economy has the potential to lighten ecological footprints. Increasingly, consumers are considering the moral implications of their choices—seeking out local or fairly traded goods—and this includes a concern for the environment. Says Schor, “The emergence of small-scale and local economies—which are still quite small but very exciting—is being catalyzed by people’s desire to lead a different kind of lifestyle.” Car-sharing services such as RelayRides make a car-free lifestyle easier for casual drivers.

The Downside

Unfortunately, that same convenience has the potential to do harm by undermining public transportation. The loftier goals of the sharing economy could also be sabotaged by the exploitation of labor and the rise of sector monopolies that benefit only owner-investors.

Despite the potential downsides, Schor believes that the story of connected consumption can be an optimistic one. “There is extraordinary potential in these technologies to create peer-to-peer economies that deliver great value to consumers, create good livelihood for providers, empower people, and potentially reduce eco-footprints,” she says. “Realizing that potential is going to depend on whether or not people who use the platforms are able to really have a voice and, in many cases, to formally organize as users.”

Is Sharing Here to Stay?

Consumer culture, Schor says with certainty, is always changing. But in the sharing economy, this economist-turned-sociologist sees a structure of consumption very different from what has existed at any other time since World War II. “I believe we are seeing a regime change in consumption—what we might think of as more-structural transformations in the way consumer culture is operating,” says Schor. This belief is a major theme in her book, which she hopes will contribute significantly to existing understandings of how consumption works, particularly in the field of sociology.

Schor admits that although platforms that promote renting personal property are scaling up rapidly, it may take a larger-scale shift in how Americans measure success, which is currently rooted in ownership, to permanently change current economic patterns.

“The idea of sharing is a big departure from the way people have understood the capitalist economy,” she says, “but I think we’re in a period when we desperately need more real sharing.” 

Captivated by Consumption

Initially trained as an economist, Juliet B. Schor now focuses on issues of time use, consumption, and environmental sustainability. She began to develop an interest in consumer culture after writing The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1992). For that book, she developed the model of work and spend, which correlates money earned during working hours with the amount the workers spend, in an ever-increasing pattern that results in a sort of feedback loop.

An audience question at a local reading—How do you get out of the cycle of work and spend?—led Schor to start studying what she calls the social dynamics of spending. This research yielded her book The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (Basic Books, 1998), in which she looks at how people’s perceived peer groups affect how much they spend and save.

As she learned more and more about consumer culture, she discovered that the real action in what’s called consumer studies was outside economics. She also began—as a result of work done on the relationship between working hours and carbon emissions—to develop an increasing interest in climate change and the ecological crisis.

“I’m captivated by consumption,” says Schor. “It’s a lens through which I can study inequality differently as well as an area of social practice that allows people to create new ways of living.” In Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (Penguin Press, 2010), Schor makes the argument for sustainable consumption, which is about the transformation of lifestyles to lower carbon footprints. She still spends a lot of time thinking about consumption and climate change, and also the ways in which social inequality plays out in the consumption sphere—and the book she is writing at Radcliffe will further advance these explorations.

Sharing Work, Now Sharing Commutes

Prasannan Parthasarathi. Photo by Tony RinaldoPrasannan Parthasarathi. Photo by Tony RinaldoWhen Juliet B. Schor made the move from the Boston College campus to Radcliffe Yard, she didn’t come alone. Her husband, Prasannan Parthasarathi, was also admitted to the Fellowship Program, where he is the 2014–2015 Beatrice Shepherd Blane Fellow.

Schor and Parthasarathi—a professor of history at Boston College who is interested in environmental change, agriculture, and labor in 19th-century South India—occasionally teach together. In 2008 they cowrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe titled “The Era of Cheap Goods Is Over.” They feel lucky to have been admitted to the same fellowship class, especially because they get to share their commute.

Next winter, they’ll also share a trip to India. Parthasarathi’s research is already based there, and Schor will be looking at an emerging social economy in Bangalore, the country’s technology center.

 

Search Year: 
2015