Work and Labor in the Digital Age: Volume 33

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(10 chapters)


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The emergence of the platform economy is reorganizing work, employment, and value creation. The authors argue that the digital platforms are fracturing work itself as the places and types of work are being reorganized into a myriad of platform organized work arrangements with workplaces being potentially anywhere with Internet connectivity. The authors differ from most traditional narratives that focus solely upon either work displacement, a single type of platform-organized value-creating activity, or David Weil’s concentration solely upon the workplace. The authors recognize that even as some work is replaced, other work is being transformed; new work and old work in new arrangements is being created and recreated. The taxonomy begins with the workers employed directly by the platform and its contractors. The authors then introduce the category, platform-mediated work, which we divide into three groups: marketplaces such as Amazon; in-person service provision such as Uber and Airbnb; and remote service provision such as Upwork. The next category, “platform-mediated content creation,” is complex. The authors identify three groups of activities: consignment content creators that include services such as the app stores, YouTube, and Amazon Self-Publishing; non-platform organization content producers, which refers to the enormous number of workers occupied with creating and maintaining websites; and user-generated content which is the non-compensated value creation that ranges from content uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, etc. to reviews on sites such as Yelp. It is only when work and value creation is considered in all of these platform-based manifestations that we can understand the ultimate dimensions of the platform economy and comprehensively understand its implications for work.


In this chapter, the authors offer a critical appraisal of predictions of a jobless future due do rapid technological change, as well as provide evidence on whether the rate of occupational change has been increasing. The authors critique the “task replacement” methodology that underlies the most powerful and specific predictions about the impact of technology on employment in particular occupations. There are a number of reasons why assuming a correspondence between task replacement and employment declines is not warranted. The authors also raise questions about how rapidly the development, acceptance, and diffiusion of labor-displacing technologies is likely to occur. In the empirical portion of the chapter, the authors compare the current rate of employment disruption with those observed in earlier periods. This analysis is based on an analysis of occupation data in the US covering the period 1870–2015. Using an index of dissimilarity as the metric, the authors find that the rate of occupational change from 1870 to 2015 does not provide evidence of a sharp uptick in the rate of occupational shifts in the information age. Instead, the rate of occupation shifts has been declining slowly throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Thus, the issues and results discussed here suggest that imminent massive employment displacement is not a foregone conclusion.


This chapter lays out a research agenda in the sociology of work for a type of data and organizational intermediary: work platforms. As an example, the authors employ a case study of the adoption of automated hiring platforms (AHPs) in which the authors distinguish between promises and existing practices. The authors draw on two main methods to do so: critical discourse analysis and affordance critique. The authors collected and examined a mix of trade, popular press, and corporate archives; 135 texts in total. The analysis reveals that work platforms offer five core affordances to management: (1) structured data fields optimized for capture and portability within organizations; (2) increased legibility of activity qua data captured inside and outside the workplace; (3) information asymmetry between labor and management; (4) an “ecosystem” design that supports the development of limited-use applications for specific domains; and (5) the standardization of managerial techniques between workplaces. These combine to create a managerial frame for workers as fungible human capital, available on demand and easily ported between job tasks and organizations. While outlining the origin of platform studies within media and communication studies, the authors demonstrate the specific tools the sociology of work brings to the study of platforms within the workplace. The authors conclude by suggesting avenues for future sociological research not only on hiring platforms, but also on other work platforms such as those supporting automated scheduling and customer relationship management.


The Internet and social media have fundamentally transformed the ways in which individuals find jobs. Relatively little is known about how demand-side market actors use online information and the implications for social stratification and mobility. This study provides an in-depth exploration of the online recruitment strategies pursued by human resource (HR) professionals. Qualitative interviews with 61 HR recruiters in two southern US metro areas reveal two distinct patterns in how they use Internet resources to fill jobs. For low and general skill work, they post advertisements to online job boards (e.g., Monster and CareerBuilder) with massive audiences of job seekers. By contrast, for high-skill or supervisory positions, they use LinkedIn to target passive candidates – employed individuals who are not looking for work but might be willing to change jobs. Although there are some intermediate practices, the overall picture is one of an increasingly bifurcated “winner-take-all” labor market in which recruiters focus their efforts on poaching specialized superstar talent (“purple squirrels”) from the ranks of the currently employed, while active job seekers are relegated to the hyper-competitive and impersonal “black hole” of the online job boards.


The term “crowdwork” describes a new form of digital work that is organized and regulated by internet-based platforms. This chapter examines how crowdwork platforms ensure their virtual workforce’s commitment and control its performance despite its high mobility, anonymity, and dispersion. The findings are based on a case study analysis of 15 microtask and macrotask platforms, encompassing 32 interviews with representatives of crowdwork platforms, and crowdworkers, as well as an analysis of the platforms’ homepages and community spaces. The chapter shows that performance control on crowd platforms relies on a combination of direct control, reputation systems, and community building, which have until now been studied in isolation or entirely ignored. Moreover, the findings suggest that while all three elements can be found on both microtask and macrotask platforms, their functionality and purpose differ. Overall, the findings highlight that platforms are no neutral intermediaries but organizations that adopt an active role in structuring the digital labor process and in shaping working conditions. Their managerial structures are coded and objectified into seemingly neutral technological infrastructures, whereby the underlying power relations between capital and labor become obscured.


Drawing on the case of the recent Belgian law on the “sharing economy,” this chapter develops a critique of the dominant discourse of platform-mediated work as fostering the inclusion of individuals belonging to historically underrepresented groups (e.g., women with caring roles, people living in remote areas, individuals with disabilities, etc.) into the labor market. Exempting platform-mediated employment from social contributions and substantially lowering taxation, the law facilitates platform-based crowdsourcing firms’ predatory business model of capital valorization. The author argues that this business model rests precisely on the externalization of the costs of the social reproduction of this “diverse” labor through its precarization. These costs are not only externalized to individual workers, as often held. They are also externalized to the Belgian welfare state, and thus ultimately both to taxpayers and firms operating through classical business models, which fund the welfare state through taxation and social security contributions. For this reason, the debate surrounding platform-based employment might paradoxically provide a historical opportunity for recovering the Belgian tradition of social dialog between employers’ associations and trade unions. The author concludes by identifying key foci for action to ensure a better protection of workers of crowdsourcing firms including classifying them as employees, revising the conditions of access to social security protection, inclusive union strategies, the leveraging of technology to enforce firm compliance, and fostering counter-narratives of firms’ accountability toward society.


Uber, the virtual service that connects drivers to passenger, presents a novel form of work-organization in which managerial functions are transposed into a virtual platform. This ethnographic study documents how Uber drivers in the city of Monterrey, Mexico navigate and come to make sense of the Uber model of work. Employing the conceptual device of the work-game, this study argues that engagement in the game of “earning coins” coupled the interest of drivers in generating the most-possible income with the interest of management in maintaining a readily available labor pool. Reinforcing this coupling was Uber’s deployment of an entrepreneurial ideology of “being your own boss,” which was especially important given the company’s lack of a physical management structure. However, as Uber takes advantage of the deindustrialization that has gripped Monterey, it attracts drivers exhibiting varied employment trajectories. This in turn creates different modes of playing the work-game and thus generates sharply divergent subjective understandings of the work, whose nature this chapter explores.


Pages 189-198
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Cover of Work and Labor in the Digital Age
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Research in the Sociology of Work
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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