Embeddedness in digital platform labour

Starting from Granovetter’s seminal 1985 article, the concept of embeddedness has given new life to economic sociology. With it, it has finally been possible to operationalize the idea that factors other than individual, under-socialized choices drive the economy. In addition to people’s own interests and motivations, the social environments of which they are part contribute to shaping their action. With this idea, economic sociology could claim legitimacy as a valid approach to study the market and the firm – beyond the exclusive pretensions of much economics.

The idea of embeddedness and its operationalization were not without their critics, though. After all, one may say that economic sociology has performed better in its analysis of the firm, than of the market. The very meaning of the embeddedness concept has been stretched a lot over time – also getting back, on occasion, to the quite different nuances that Polanyi attached to it back in the 1940s.

In a just-published article, I go back to this concept and challenge it against digital platforms – recently emerged economic coordination devices that, in the view of many, defy the traditional firm/market boundaries. This helps uncover a new idea: extends the economic-sociological concept of embeddedness to encompass not only social networks of, for example, friendship or kinship ties, but also economic networks of ownership and control relationships.

Applying these ideas to the case of digital platform labour pinpoints two possible scenarios. When platforms take the role of market intermediaries, economic ties are thin and workers are left to their own devices, in a form of ‘disembeddedness’. In this sense, I confirm the results obtained by a group of Oxford scholars in a similar setting. But when platforms partake in intricate inter-firm outsourcing structures, economic ties envelop workers in a ‘deep embeddedness’ which involves both stronger constraints and higher rewards.

I show that with this added dimension, the notion of embeddedness becomes a compelling tool to describe the social structures that frame economic action, including the power imbalances that characterize digital labour in the global economy. Granovetter’s original idea can still provide a lot of insight to help us understand the transformations of today’s economy.

The article is available here.

A preliminary version of this article was presented in a seminar in September 2020.

Internship offer (3 months, master’s level, spring 2021)

The research project TRIA (from its French title “Le TRavail de l’IA: éthique et gouvernance de l’automation”) is a study of the production systems of artificial intelligence. We investigate “micro-work” platforms, which allocate small standardized tasks to crowds of providers, and use the outputs of their work to prepare and annotate data for machine learning algorithms. We study the ramifications of this phenomenon in Spanish-speaking countries, which have remained under-researched so far despite their strong participation. With data from an empirical survey already started in 2020, and to be analyzed through mixed methods (including advanced NLP techniques), we will address important issues related to digital platform governance, online work ethics, and consequences (e.g. in terms of bias) of the use of these humans in the production of artificial intelligence.
Funded by the French National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), the TRIA project resembles research teams in the Paris and Rennes regions in France, as well as partners in Spain (Barcelona and Valencia) and Canada (Toronto).

We are currently looking for a student intern to help us set up a survey targeting micro-workers in Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.
He/she will help us to :

  • update an inventory of micro-work platforms operating in Spanish-speaking countries, a first version of which was created in 2020;
  • launch a replication of the online questionnaire, already fielded on Microworkers.com, on another micro-work platform;
  • to liaise and ensure communication between the project teams.

The applicant should :

  • be enrolled in the first or second year of a master’s degree in social science (like sociology, political science, management or economics) ;
  • have skills in the design and/or execution of questionnaire surveys;
  • have some prior knowledge of, or at least interest in, the transformations of work and/or the societal effects of digital technology;
  • be able to work independently, with advanced relational skills;
  • have a fairly good command of French or English, and at least a basic knowledge of Spanish.

More information is available in the enclosed job description.

Covid-19 and transfer of risk on digital platform workers

At an internal meeting of the IDHES lab in Gif-sur-Yvette, and then at an event at the University of Bologna, I have had the pleasure of presenting recent research on how the current health crisis reveals a new dimension of digital platforms – their tendency, wherever possible, to shift risk from clients to workers, within its ecosystem. The paper, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli, is now under submission for a journal.

Here is an abstract:

As the recessionary effects of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic become
manifest, the paper discusses their effects on digital platforms and the
workers in their eco-systems. Against the possibility that platform
labor may be a buffer against crisis-induced layoffs, our analysis of
the risks associated to it suggests that it may eventually increase
precarity, without necessarily mitigating health risks for workers. Our
argument is based on a comparison of the three main categories of
platform labor – “on-demand labor” (gigs such as delivery and
transportation), “online labor” (tasks performed by freelancers and
micro-workers) and “social media labor” (like content generation
and moderation) – in terms of the health and economic risks involved in
coronavirus times. We show that platform managers have deployed varying
strategies to transfer risk from themselves and their clients onto
workers, exploiting and deepening the existing power imbalance between
them. Success in achieving this has enabled them to secure their bottom
line even at the expense of working conditions. The Covid-19 pandemic
has brought to light how digital platforms apply a management style that
revolves around transferring the burden of risk to their own workforce.

Digital inequalities in time of pandemic

Just published a new, collective paper on new kinds of risk that are emerging with the COVID-19 virus, arguing that these risks are unequally distributed. Digital inequalities and social inequalities are rendering certain subgroups significantly more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. Populations bearing disproportionate risks include the social isolated, older adults, penal system subjects, digitally disadvantaged students, gig workers, and last-mile workers. We map out the intersection between COVID-19 risk factors and digital inequalities on each of these populations in order to examine how the digitally resourced have additional tools to mitigate some of the risks associated with the pandemic. We shed light on how the ongoing pandemic is deepening key axes of social differentiation, which were previously occluded from view.

These newly manifested forms of social differentiation can be conceived along several related dimensions. At their most general and abstract, these risks have to do with the capacity individuals have to control the risk of pathogen exposure. In order to fully manage exposure risk, individuals must control their physical environment to the greatest extent possible in order to prevent contact with potentially compromised physical spaces. In addition, they must control their social interactional environment to the greatest extent possible in order to minimize their contacts with potentially infected individuals. All else equal, those individuals who exercise more control over their exposure risk — on the basis of their control over their physical and social interactional environments — stand a better chance of staying healthy than those individuals who cannot manage exposure risk. Individuals therefore vary in terms of what we call their COVID-19 exposure risk profile (CERPs).

CERPs hinge on pre-existing forms of social differentiation such as socioeconomic status, as individuals with more economic resources at their disposal can better insulate themselves from exposure risk. Alongside socioeconomic status, one of the key forms of social differentiation connected with CERPs is digital (dis)advantage. Ceteris paribus, individuals who can more effectively digitize key parts of their lives enjoy better CERPs than individuals who cannot digitize these life realms. Therefore we believe that digital inequalities are directly and increasingly related to both life-or-death exposure to COVID-19, as well as excess deaths attributable to the larger conditions generated by the pandemic.

The article has been published in First Monday and is available here.

In the same special issue of First Monday, I co-published two reference articles:

Digital inequalities 2.0: Legacy inequalities in the information age

Digital inequalities 3.0: Emergent inequalities in the information age

Internship offer, TRIA project

I am currently seeking to hire a student intern for new research project TRIA (Les TRavailleurs de l’Intelligence Artificielle / Los TRabajadores de la Inteligencia Artificial). Start as soon as possible, conditional on evolving regulations at the end of the current lockdown. Max 6 months.

A full description of the project is enclosed (in French).

HDR Paola Tubaro

(English version below)

J’ai le plaisir d’annoncer la soutenance de mon habilitation à diriger des recherches en sociologie intitulée :

Décrypter la société des plateformes: Organisations, marchés et réseaux dans l’économie numérique.

Cette soutenance aura lieu le mercredi 11 décembre 2019 à Sciences Po Paris, 9 rue de la chaise, salle 931, à 10h00.

Si vous souhaitez venir, merci de confirmer votre présence grâce à ce lien car les personnes externes à Sciences Po ne pourront pas accéder à la salle si elles ne sont pas annoncées.


Le jury sera composé de :

  • M. Gilles Bastin, Professeur des universités, IEP de Grenoble (rapporteur)
  • M. Rodolphe Durand, Professeur, HEC Paris
  • M. Emmanuel Lazega, Professeur des universités, IEP de Paris (garant et rapporteur)
  • Mme Béatrice Milard, Professeure des universités, Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès (rapporteure)
  • M. José Luís Molina González, Professeur, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
  • M. Tom A.B. Snijders, Professeur, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

La soutenance sera suivie d’un pot. 

Résumé

Le manuscrit original conceptualise la récente montée en puissance des platesformes numériques selon trois dimensions principales : leur nature de dispositifs de coordination alimentés par les données, les transformations du travail qui en découlent, et les promesses d’innovation sociétale qui les accompagnent. L’ambition globale est de décortiquer le rôle de coordination de la plateforme et sa position à l’horizon de la dualité classique entreprise – marché. Il s’agit aussi de comprendre précisément comment elle utilise les données pour ce faire, où elle amène le travail, et comment elle gère des projets d’innovation sociale. Je prolonge cette analyse pour faire apparaître la continuité entre la société actuelle dominée par les plateformes et la « société organisationnelle », montrant que les plateformes sont des structures organisées qui distribuent les ressources, produisent des asymétries de richesse et de pouvoir, et repoussent l’innovation sociale vers la périphérie du système. Je discute des implications de ces tendances pour les politiques publiques, et propose des pistes pour la recherche future. 


I am pleased to announce the defense of my habilitation to direct research in sociology entitled:


Decoding the platform society: Organizations, markets and networks in the digital economy


This defense will take place on Wednesday, 11 December 2019 at Sciences Po Paris, 9 rue de la chaise, room 931, at 10am.


If you wish to attend, please confirm your presence through this link because people who are external to Sciences Po will be denied access to the room if they are not announced.

Members of the jury are:

  • Prof. Gilles Bastin, IEP de Grenoble (referee)
  • Prof. Rodolphe Durand, HEC Paris
  • Prof. Emmanuel Lazega, IEP de Paris (advisor and referee)
  • Prof. Béatrice Milard, Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès (referee)
  • Prof. José Luís Molina González, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
  • Prof. Tom A.B. Snijders, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

There will be drinks after the defense.


Abstract

The original manuscript conceptualizes the recent rise of digital platforms along three main dimensions: their nature of coordination devices fueled by data, the ensuing transformations of labor, and the accompanying promises of societal innovation. The overall ambition is to unpack the coordination role of the platform and where it stands in the horizon of the classical firm – market duality. It is also to precisely understand how it uses data to do so, where it drives labor, and how it accommodates socially innovative projects. I extend this analysis to show continuity between today’s society dominated by platforms and the “organizational society”, claiming that platforms are organized structures that distribute resources, produce asymmetries of wealth and power, and push social innovation to the periphery of the system. I discuss the policy implications of these tendencies and propose avenues for follow-up research.

New ANR Project HUSH: Human supply chain behind smart technologies

Together with sociologist Antonio A. Casilli and economist Ulrich Laitenberger, I have recently received ANR (French National Research Agency) funding for a new study of human inputs – mostly platform-mediated work in the production of artificial intelligence solutions. In our project called HUSH (Human supply chain behind smart technologies) we aim to shed light on the whole ecosystem linking platforms, workers and their clients demanding data-related and algorithmic services.

For this project, we are now looking for a

PhD researcher in digital economics

The position provides the opportunity to focus strongly on research, in a very active environment. The team has collaborations with different online platforms and has collected data sets from the web, which can be used by the applicant for their thesis. The focus of the current position is to work on the economic aspects of platform-mediated work, using quantitative analyses. Two other PhD students (in sociology) have already been recruited for this project and work on related topics.

The starting date is January 2020 (a later starting date is also possible). As per national regulations, the annual stipend will be about 1,600 euros per month, with possibility to obtain a complement for extra activities such as teaching. Social security and professional training are provided. Additional funding is available to present your research at international conferences and workshops. The position will be based at the new campus of Telecom Paris in Palaiseau, in the direct neighborhood of École Polytechnique and ENSAE.

Your profile

Applicants should have successfully completed a Master’s degree in economics, socio/economic data science or related disciplines, or expect completion at the beginning of the year 2020. They should have a strong interest in digital platforms, from the perspective of industrial organization or labor economics, and have an empirical focus (econometrics, data science). They should aim at developing programming skills and have an interest in the evaluation of internet data. Fluency in English is required; knowledge of French is advantageous, but not essential.

Telecom Paris and IP Paris

Telecom Paris is part of the newly founded Institute Polytechnique (IP) Paris, together with Ecole Polytechnique, ENSTA, ENSAE and Telecom Sud. The department of social sciences and economics (SES) at Telecom Paris studies the impact of the digitization on economic activity and society. For more information, please see https://www.telecom-paris.fr/fr/lecole/departements-enseignement-recherche/sciences-economiques-sociales/structure/economie-gestion

How to apply

Please submit a cover letter, a curriculum vitae, a transcript of records (listing all subjects taken and their grades), and contact details of one to two referees by November 15, 2019 to Ulrich Laitenberger ( laitenberger@enst.fr ).

Update: applications open until December 15, 2019.

Work, Employment & Society

BSA_WES2018Just came back from the Work, Employment and Society (WES) conference 2018, that British Sociological Association (BSA) organizes every other year. Perhaps more intimate and newbie-friendly than the main BSA event, this year’s WES in Belfast was also a positive surprise in terms of its academic content. There were several sessions on the so-called ‘gig economy’ (or as one speaker put it, ‘gig economies‘), the effects of digital business models that often go under the name of ‘uberization’, and atypical forms of work.

Some lessons I am taking home:

  • A growing number of researchers are studying platform work – not just the most visible forms of it such as Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers, but also those who are hidden at home: freelancers and to a lesser extent, micro-workers;
  • The question of how platform workers self-organize, and what can be done to improve their organization capacity, is attracting a lot of attention;
  • Efforts at establishing standards, fairness criteria and forms of social protection for atypical platform workers are gaining momentum;
  • There is a lot we can learn from research in neighboring areas: for example the distinction between employee-friendly and employer-friendly flexible work, initially developed for people in employment, is also helpful here.

What is still missing from the picture is information on the ‘long tail’ of smaller, often national rather than international, platforms, and on the workers (especially micro-workers) who use them. Besides, clients and requesters are little known – on all platforms. Estimating the size of the platform worker population remains an unresolved issue – whether at local, national or international level. A common grievance by researchers is difficulty to access crucial data from commercial platforms that use them as their private property.

A cooperative approach to platforms

I was yesterday at a nice and interesting conference in Brussels on “How to coop the collaborative economy“, organized by major actors of the Belgian cooperative movement and building on the experience of a growing network of persons and organizations to enhance a cooperative view of the internet. Several themes in connection with my studies of the collaborative economy emerged, and I’d like to summarize here what were, in my view, the main lessons learned of the day.

Continue reading “A cooperative approach to platforms”

Big data, big money: how companies thrive on informational resources

Information oils the economy – as we know since the path-breaking research of George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz in the 1970s – and information can be extracted from data. Today, increased availability of “big” data creates the opportunity to access ever more information – for the good of the economy, then.

But in practice, how do companies extract value from this increasingly available information? In a nutshell, there are three ways in which they can do so: matching, targeted advertising, and market segmentation.

Matching is the key business idea of many recently-created companies and start-ups, and consists in helping potential parties to a transaction to find each other: driver and passenger (Uber), host and guest (Airbnb), buyer and seller (eBay), and so on. It is by processing users’ data with suitable algorithms that matching can be done, and the more detailed are the data, the more satisfactory the matching. Firms’ business model is usually based on taking a fee for each successful transaction (each realized match).

Targeted advertising is the practice of selecting, for each user, only the ads that correspond at best to their tastes or practices. Publicizing diapers to the general population will be largely ineffective as many people do not have young children; but targeting only those with young children is likely to produce better results. Here, the function of data is to help decide what to advertise to whom; useful data are people’s socio-demographic situation (age, marriage, children…), their current or past practices (if you bought diapers last week, you might do that again next week), and any declared tastes (for example as a post on Facebook or Twitter). How this produces a gain is obvious: if targeted adverts are more effective, sales will go up.

Continue reading “Big data, big money: how companies thrive on informational resources”