By Nicki Lisa Cole, Pomona College
“I have one chance at a career, and I want one with an impact for people that I really care about.”
Emilie Dubois is destined to be a change-maker. Driven by her working class roots and experience growing up in the post-industrial community of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, she is revolutionizing how sociologists approach and understand the phenomenon of “connected consumption.”
Emilie, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Boston College who works closely with Juliet Schor, was driven to our field by class inequities. She took her first sociology class at Columbia University while working in admissions at Columbia Business School. Appalled by the directive to give preference to wealthy candidates, Emilie sought conceptual tools to help her understand the situation she found herself in. She enrolled in “Power and Politics in Organizations,” experienced in her words a “massive consciousness shift,” quit her job, and applied to graduate programs in sociology.
Now, Emilie is in the midst of her dissertation research and works on Schor’s research team for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network. The team is studying the phenomenon of “connected consumption,” which Emilie explains is a new system of exchange premised on “economic connections that are not mediated by an organization in a demonstrative way.”
With Schor’s MacArthur team Emilie has studied the phenomenon of “time-banking.” She explains that the time banking model of exchanging services, which Schor considers a part of a growing “new economy,” “extracts the middle-man and creates a peer-to-peer exchange market.” What is unique, and in the context of capitalism, quite radical, about this phenomenon is that all labor is valued equally within these localized systems of exchange. Mediated by online forums, members can join, post the skills and services they offer, and then are able to access the range of services offered by others. By giving their labor to another, a member accrues hours they can then “spend” on the services of another for anything from legal advice, to hair cutting and styling, or simple companionship. By conducting interviews and ethnographic fieldwork as a time bank member Emilie contributed to the team goal of “determining how the syntax of exchange works in these peer-to-peer marketplaces.”
Emilie’s dissertation research focuses on the digital dispersion of information that has facilitated the growth of connected consumption, which decreases the distance between producers, distributors, service providers, and consumers. She hopes to be able “to make a claim regarding the changed way that we share consumer information, which is having impacts all along the class scale, not just within the subsection of Whole Foods shoppers.”
Breaking from Schor’s approach to studying the spread of the “eco-habitus” consumer culture and lifestyle (stay tuned to the Journal of Consumer Culture for a paper on this from Schor and her team), which has seemingly cohered as the norm in studying ethical and sustainable consumer practices within our field, Emilie is interested in new consumer practices that are marginalized by an epistemological focus that often privileges the practices of the middle and upper classes, as well as urban dwellers. Her dissertation will include analysis of “just between friend sales”–peer sourced digitally networked yard sales popular with stay-at-home moms throughout the rural south–and the practice of “extreme couponing.”
Emilie makes a compelling case for why such practices should be considered along with other now more common ones, like renting property via Airbnb or calling on Lyft or Uber rather than a taxi, as a part of the new economy of connected consumption.
“I see the digital element of connected consumption as pivotal to its existence, therefore, I would claim that something like extreme couponing would be a connected consumption practice. It’s ecologically very at odds with an eco-habitus, it’s traditionally done not in urban centers, but in disparate rural areas, however it is motivated and facilitated by the digital sharing initiative. The networks set up information blogs, and the primary way in which most extreme couponers are able to gather their information and share tactics is through these disparate networks that have a digital basis. The information distribution made possible by peer-to-peer online forums can have really unique forms that allow consumption to be connected and tactics for consumption to be shared amongst people who do not fit into the liberal hipster archetype that is sometimes associated with the movement. I see the sharing of information and tactics for consuming that create ways to work around the prices set by large corporations and decrease the monetary impact of consuming as the key elements of connected consumption. When you think of it in that manner it opens up other activities like Ikea hacking to consideration on a theoretical level, as consumptive practices that are connected, that are peer-to-peer, that do serve the same purpose of taking power away from larger corporations yet do not reduce overall rates of consumption.”
Emilie is interested in understanding what happens when the exchange logic breaks down in the new economy, given that traditional routes of recourse are absent in these “pre-regulatory” marketplaces. She asks, “When will the legal world catch up with this specific type of new exchange?” Emilie observes that so far, “Most of the pushback against these types of movements, like Airbnb and Lyft, have come from those owners of the means of production, in traditional Marxist sense, who are concerned about losing some revenue due to the emergence of peer providers.”
Emilie plans to produce her dissertation as a series of case-focused academic articles, and following that, as an accessibly written book to be distributed via a trade press. “For me it’s really about applied results. It’s about tangible results. It’s about providing some insight into the social world; especially as we experience it through the consumer marketplace, through the marketplace for goods and services, for our labor, for our lives. That’s the most compelling part of sociology to me.”
Look for the results of Emilie’s research in the forthcoming volume Practicing Plenitude, set to be released as a college level teaching text to be paired with Schor’s book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.