Beyond the State-Market Dualism, the Sharing Economy: Epistemological and Practical Issues

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
107 South Hall (South Hall)
David Vallat, UNIVERSITE LYON 1, Lyon, France
The Sharing Economy is much more than collaborative consumption (Botsman and Rogers, 2011) even if this appears as the most visible achievement of this sector. Production, consumption, finance, exchanges are disrupted by the sharing economy revolution. But what are the common points between Airbnb, Uber, Wikipedia, Ulule, Blablacar, Kickstarter, the FabLabs/hackespaces, the Local exchange trading systems (LETS), Linux, etc.?

Most of these achievements rely upon digital platforms (Kenney and Zysman, 2015) enabling peer-to-peer exchanges. These digital platforms act as « weapon of mass collaboration » (Tapscott & Williams - 2007), flattening relationships between Internet users and inside organizations (Castells, 1996 ; 2002).

Specifying what the sharing economy is isn’t an easy task.  For-profit, non-profit, reciprocity, competition can be observed at a stage or another in the sharing economy galaxy.  A bright constellation in this galaxy is the think tank Ouishare created in France in 2012. It’s s a « global community that connects people, organizations and ideas around fairness, openness and trust » ( For them collaborative economy deals with five phenomena: collaborative consumption, crowdfunding, open knowledge (open data, open education, open governance), the maker movement (open design and manufacturing, do it yourself), open and horizontal governance (participatory budgeting, open government initiatives, co-operatives, open value networks, do-ocracries, holacracies).

Internet seems to enable peer-to-peer exchanges between consumers (Bauwens, 2005) who are also sometimes producers (Tapscot and William - 2007 speak about “prosumers” to stress how the lines have been blurring). Of course Uber and Airbnb’s algorithms are working like digital auctioneers: tiny invisible hands enabling peer-to-peer exchanges. Could this be the return of Smith or Hayek? Why am I asking this question? Because Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, pointed out “Hayek’s work on price theory is central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project” (Mangu-Ward, 2007).

In order to figure out how to understand the complexity of the sharing economy we propose to explore three paths to characterize it. In the first one we’ll distinguish, with Karl Polanyi, two kinds of economy. Then we will try to figure out where to position the sharing economy (1). In the second one we’ll see if all the sharing economy organizations really share everything and how (2). The last way to characterize the sharing economy is around its global political project (3).

1) The economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi is known for his opposition to traditional economic thought. He distinguishes two ways to understand economy: formal and substantive (Polanyi, 1944). The formal meaning refers to an economy interested only in minimizing means and maximizing results (in neoclassical words: utility maximization under conditions of scarcity). The substantive meaning refers to how humans make a living interacting within their social and natural environments. In this case the economy is embedded in society. Karl Polanyi identifies four principles (or forms of integration) of economic behavior, three in a substantive meaning (reciprocity, redistribution, domestic administration) and the last in the formal sense (market exchange). These principles will be used to classify sharing economies.

2) The sharing economy seems to offer a third way between state and market, the collaborative commons (Rifkin, 2014), which are aimed to produce, innovate, manage, all in common (Ostrom, 1990; Hess & Ostrom, 2007). Some projects or organizations of the sharing economy are managed as common pool resources (Wikipedia, Linux). These projects/organizations have been deeply influenced by the free culture movement (Lessig, 2004 ; Suber, 2012 ; Stallman, 1985) very present in Internet culture (Castells, 1996 ; Benkler 2002) and are close to a an economy in its substantive meaning. The principles of common pool resource management (Ostrom, 1990) are, according to us, useful tools to characterize sharing economy projects.

3) Proponents of the sharing economy advocate action. This is to participate in the creation of a new world by being an agent of change. Acting is a way to test ideas and overcome the internal contradictions of the movement. 3D printers, laser cutters, digital milling machine found in all FabLabs provide access to a new form of bricolage, an interconnected DIY (Anderson, 2012 ; Lallement, 2015). More than a political project, a way of being: to not be a passive consumer and join the ranks of the makers (Anderson, 2012). The concept of bricolage (Levi-Strauss, 1962 ; Duymedian et Rüling, 2010 ; Gundry et al., 2003 ; Garud et Karnøe, 2003) could help us in identifying the real spirit of the sharing economy.

On the one hand the culture of open access (Suber, 2012) where peers gather behind a socially useful project and produce in common; on the other huge corporations that take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the internet to establish a " netarchical capitalism” (Bauwens and Kostakis, 2014). The sharing economy concentrates contradictions. We hope to give, in this paper, some guidelines to identify sharing economies.