Accepted Paper:

Pyramid Schemes at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Network Marketing in Rural China  
Charlotte Bruckermann (University of Bergen, Norway)

Paper short abstract:

Network marketing allows commodities to circulate through social networks in the Chinese countryside. Personal prosperity and capital accumulation must be mediated through social relationships in network marketing, leading to accusations of 'killing relationships' in these 'pyramid schemes.'

Paper long abstract:

Banned in China between 1998 and 2005, the re-emergence of network marketing allows transnational products to circulate through local social networks across an increasingly integrated rural-urban landscape. In central Shanxi Province a rising economic trend for young women consists in buying into corporate schemes for the right to sell products directly to friends, family and acquaintances. Commodities ranging from foreign cosmetics to costly lingerie are circulating through these instrumentalized personal networks. Salespeople take part in training courses and motivational meetings to instil an optimistic mindset, chart relative success, and embody qualified business standards. In addition to selling the products, salespersons are frequently subjected to illegal practices, especially being forced to recruit others to the scheme to profit from their sales.

In rural China the evaluation of this work ranged from denunciation of network marketing as parasitic to scepticism over their profitability, but also included praise for their productive reach of commodity chains into the far corners of the countryside. These assessments were overlaid by government suspicions towards the schemes, and the state's attempt to regularize this form of labour in more familiar employer-employee relations with a fixed workplace. However, network marketing is not just an organizational form of service provision, but a very specific form of labour whereby affectionate ties must be instrumentalized for commodity sales. In line with the theme of this panel, this paper asks: How do morality, legality and history play into the various ways of attributing and denying value to network marketing as work?

Panel P051
Works that matter (not): valuing productivity through and against the market