The Emergence of the On-Demand Economy and Its Significance for Workers
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AbstractThis dissertation examines the emergence of the on-demand economy and its significance for workers, taking Uber Technologies as the primary empirical case. I ask three questions involving the social processes underlying the (1) emergence of Uber, (2) how Uber drivers evaluate their work experiences, and (3) how committed drivers re-organize their lives around on-demand work. I integrate concepts from literatures on emergence, organizations, and culture within a “pragmatist” framework, and collect and analyze data from mainly news accounts of Uber’s interactions (2009-2017) as well as interviews (2015-2017) I conducted with 62 drivers in the Greater Boston area (Massachusetts).
I make the following findings. First, Uber’s emergence centered on two inter-related processes: (1) Uber’s ecology was poised to the emergence of the on-demand organizational model given labor-market developments, political vulnerabilities, and technological advancements; and (2) Uber’s mode of action (e.g. legal claim-making, mobilizing support) allowed it to rapidly gain market share and legitimacy. These findings provide new ways of explaining and predicting the kinds of innovations that emerge in different social-ecologies.
Second, behavioral differences between drivers’ work-evaluations depended on cultural configurations, (e.g. personal-norms), problem-situations (e.g. income shocks), and knowledge-activation mechanisms. For example, drivers with U.S.-based college degrees tended to feel “out of place” with Uber, partly due to personal career-norms acquired through formal-education. Yet, college-educated immigrant drivers’ personal-career norms were attenuated by various factors (e.g. degree-inequivalency, networks), resulting in greater commitment to Uber. Other findings involved the effects of negative prior labor market experiences and acutely-experienced problem-situations. Key implications include new ways of understanding worker behavior (e.g. job-switching).
Third, the structural properties of on-demand work generate distinct modes of creative action among drivers, described as “projective” and “responsive” creativity. Regarding projective creativity, many drivers experienced, for the first time, a strong sense of financial self-efficacy and “freedom” that impelled them to concrete steps toward personal projects (e.g. entrepreneurship, familial problem-solving). Regarding responsive creativity, Uber’s work-structure (e.g. pricing) triggered various behavioral changes (e.g. reduced weekend partying) in workers. These findings improve our understanding of human “agency” and social-selection, and help us rethink the relationship between changing work-relations, social inequality, and human freedom.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:39987909
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