Paradoxes of Openness and Distinction in the Sharing Economy

BY: Juliet B. Schor, Connor Fitzmaurice, Lindsey B. Carfagna, and William Attwood-Charles

The relational approach in economic sociology has been applied to what Viviana Zelizer has termed “circuits of commerce,” which are economic structures that are distinct from firms, markets, and networks. (Zelizer 2010: 304). While there is a growing literature on circuits, the ways in which inequality affects circuits has not been explored. We look at 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. This exercise of class power in turn undermines the ability to forge relations of exchange and reduces the volume of 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.

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