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Hackathons as Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the “New” Economy

Precarious Work

ISBN: 978-1-78743-288-8, eISBN: 978-1-78743-287-1

Publication date: 19 December 2017


Hackathons, time-bounded events where participants write computer code and build apps, have become a popular means of socializing tech students and workers to produce “innovation” despite little promise of material reward. Although they offer participants opportunities for learning new skills and face-to-face networking and set up interaction rituals that create an emotional “high,” potential advantage is even greater for the events’ corporate sponsors, who use them to outsource work, crowdsource innovation, and enhance their reputation. Ethnographic observations and informal interviews at seven hackathons held in New York during the course of a single school year show how the format of the event and sponsors’ discursive tropes, within a dominant cultural frame reflecting the appeal of Silicon Valley, reshape unpaid and precarious work as an extraordinary opportunity, a ritual of ecstatic labor, and a collective imaginary for fictional expectations of innovation that benefits all, a powerful strategy for manufacturing workers’ consent in the “new” economy.




The authors wish to thank all the hackathon participants and sponsors who generously responded to our pesky questions; Brooklyn College student Walter Lai, who collected and analyzed the data and prepared the graphs on hackathons in New York; and Angèle Christin and Steven Vallas, who offered helpful comments on our first draft.


Zukin, S. and Papadantonakis, M. (2017), "Hackathons as Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the “New” Economy", Kalleberg, A.L. and Vallas, S.P. (Ed.) Precarious Work (Research in the Sociology of Work, Vol. 31), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 157-181.



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