Defining the Gig Economy

Since 2011, when Sidecar became the first peer-to-peer transportation network company to operate using smartphone applications, there has been widespread disagreement about how to define and name the boundaries of this new area of labor exchange. Several early terms emphasized the sense that app-based companies were connecting strangers or facilitating novel approaches to consumption; these included terms like collaborative consumption, the peer-to-peer economy, and the mesh. Perhaps the most well-known of these terms is the sharing economy, although many commentators object to this term on the grounds that it implied the relevant labor exchanges are non-commercial. As a result, and partly to underscore the discrete, temporary, and relatively unregulated nature of this type of work, many commentators now speak of the gig economy and gig work(ers).

Defining the contours of the gig economy has proven to be more challenging than arriving at a consensus on terminology. Many, but not all, scholars distinguish between two broad types of gig work models: a labor-centric model and a capital-centric model. The labor model is most associated with companies like TaskRabbit and Fiverr, whose business models primarily depend on the direct exchange of services for money between providers and consumers. The capital model is most associated with short-term rental companies like Airbnb, whose business models primarily depend on the availability of a significant capital asset that can be rented to consumers for money. Transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft arguably straddle the labor- and capital-centric models because they depend on the availability of a capital asset (a car) yet sell direct personal services (a ride). Scholars writing on gig work increasingly speak across business models regarding issues that are common to workers regardless of the type of gig work they perform or, conversely, they address issues that are germane to a much narrower sub-set of companies (for example, labor-central companies specializing in food preparation).

About Me

I am a legal anthropologist and my research combines ethnographic fieldwork with doctrinal and policy analysis. I received both my JD and my PhD in Anthropology from The University of Chicago. At Culverhouse Law, I teach courses on Employment Law, Employee Benefits (ERISA), and the gig economy. In addition to my research on the gig economy, I study law, democracy, and religion in India, where I have also done extensive fieldwork. For my bio and CV, please see my faculty website.

This website would not have been possible without the valuable contributions of Gabriell Jeffreys.