Accepted paper:

The sharing economy hoax


Thomas Widlok (University of Cologne)

Paper short abstract:

The “sharing economy” discourse presents itself as a moral solution to the current and future problems of human economic relations and for sustainable human-environment relationships. On the basis of the anthropology of sharing and of ethics this paper argues that the “sharing economy” trend is a hoax.

Paper long abstract:

Enlightenment ideas about utility have been made cornerstones of theories of social behaviour (such as Optimal Forager Theory) but particularly in anthropology they continue to be criticized (for instance in exchange theory) as being inadequate for the analysis of meaningful agency. I suggest to take these ideas as what they are, first and foremost, namely ideas about imagined worlds rather than descriptions of the true world around us. Even if we reach consensus that human relations are not solely governed by notions of utility, it is now hard to analyze them without reference to what they would look like if they were. Conversely, actions or things that are useful as means (and little more than that) are hard to sell, literally, unless they are presented with reference to goals and ends with an intrinsic value. In this paper I discuss whether these two processes are likely to be inevitable flip sides of one another or whether they are subject to a historical developmental tendency. The domain I am looking at is sharing, in particular the recent rise of a discourse that proclaims the rise of a "sharing economy" that promises a moral and sustainable solution to problems of consumption and distribution. In the light of the broader anthropology of sharing the current "sharing economy" and "co-consumption" discourse can be best described as a hoax that disguises exchange as sharing and that falsely portraits the increasing commercialization of life as equally beneficial to all partners involved in the exchange.

panel P51
When means and ends coincide: beyond 'utility'