How workers matter: the co-construction of platforms and workers
University of Geneva Department of Sociology
In this paper, I wish to discuss and confront two study fields that recently sought to comprehend the phenomenon of platform markets: the multi-sided platforms (MSP) in economics and the science and technology studies (STS) approach in economic sociology. I will first briefly present both theoretical approaches and then examine how they can be enriched through to an extensive field study I led in the market of online food deliveries.
It’s been decades now that MSP tackled the phenomenon of platforms in a broad sense. More recently, their theoretical framework has been naturally applied to digital platforms. This has led to a growing interest in the business institutions allowing mediations between consumers and sellers. In doing so, the MSP approach has brought new actors on the scene: market devices. Websites or apps are now considered of crucial in the development of a digital multi-sided market. In their synthesis of this new field of study, Parker et al. (2016) keep emphasizing the importance of interface design in the shaping of markets. In order to succeed in the search for network effects, a platform should pay careful attention in its duty to facilitate transactions and match consumers and sellers adequately. This emphasis on intermediaries is a major departure from standard economics, which always put agents at the center of the analysis, and it provides numerous links with recent trends in economic sociology.
In the field of economic sociology, STS have rendered the study of markets more and more aware of the materiality of economic transactions (see e.g. Pinch & Swedberg, 2008). A growing number of economic sociologists are paying attention to digital objects such as algorithms (Muniesa, 2007), online evaluations (Scott & Orlikowski, 2012) or website interface (van Doorn & Velthuis, 2018). This approach has provided groundbreaking improvements in the understanding of markets, their organisation and genesis. Most notably, this approach engages in reflexive reasoning, underlining the role of economics itself in providing cognitive tools for implementing markets (Callon & Muniesa, 2005) and recognizing the importance of studying market professionnals (developers, marketers, merchandisers, etc.) and their depiction of potential users (Oudshorn & Pinch, 2003).
My contribution will be to provide an empirically based depiction of a multi-sided market. Drawing on an extensive ethnography, I can show that the typology provided by the MSP approach is an essential tool, but it faces severe limitations once we introduce workers in the picture.
Recruiting consumers is relatively straightforward and resembles that of traditional value chain
(pipeline) companies. However, enrolling independent workers to provide a service in sufficient.