Digital platforms connect stakeholders in novel ways, allowing for novel forms of user interaction, including collaboration and competition, to emerge. Digital labour platforms in particular have in recent years emerged as a novel way for platform users to earn an income. The European Commission estimates that in Europe alone, 28 million people work through digital labour platforms (European Commission, 2021).
Ranging from platforms that facilitate on-demand or crowdsourced gig work (e.g. Yango, Wolt, Just Eat) to platforms that facilitate cloud work or digital piecework (e.g. Fiverr, Skillshare, Amazon MTurk), digital labour platforms connect task requesters (e.g. customers looking to order something from their favourite restaurant) and task fulfillers (e.g. a courier who delivers the meal). Noteworthy is the role of digital technologies, e.g. different types of artificially intelligent algorithms, in facilitating and coordinating the interaction between platform users.
Sociomateriality, a theory that has over the last few decades started to gain traction across information systems, human resources management, organisational psychology as well as innovation studies, may help in better understanding the interrelationship of social and material actors as part of the new terrain of work.
Sociomateriality of platform economy
Sociomateriality sees contemporary organisational life as ‘entanglement in practice’, whereby social and material actors are considered as inseparably bound parts of reality that are fused together in practice (Orlikowski, 2010). Previous research on this practical entanglement of social and material actors in organisations has generally assumed one of three approaches to sociomateriality: separation (a clear split between the social and the material in the spirit of Descartes’ dualism), shaping (the social dominates and thus shapes the material, as per social constructivism), and symmetry, which opposes the unidirectionality of shaping and the disparateness of separation by contending that social and material are equilibrium-seeking, irreversibly intertwined entities (Parmiggiani and Mikalsen, 2013).
While other seminal theories seeking to explain the interrelationships between social and material, e.g. the actor-network theory or complexity theory, tend to seek a macro-level, holistic view of sociomaterial systems and their connected actors, sociomateriality takes a more micro- or meso-level perspective and focuses on the actual interaction between few specific actors. A particular area of interest in sociomateriality is the locus of control, that is, the degree to which a social or a material actor has agency and can assert control over the other. In social sciences agency is typically seen to intertwine with the notion of free will, and in practice the ability to act independently and to make free choices (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998).
Digital labour platforms enable new forms of social and material entanglement. Despite the complexity of platform user interactions across a plethora of omnichannel digital technologies, identifying the general direction where the locus of control lies is rather easy: the platform companies tend to own the processes and systems through which entanglement in practice is governed and monitored on each platform. Individual platform users (e.g. couriers) hold little to no negotiating power as to how the platform should be run and in what direction it should be developed. Collective action in the platform economy is also still a topic that is developing and where formal guidelines and rules are yet to be set, despite recent calls for so-called platform democracy.
Digital technologies permit some actions and limit others, which indicates they are not only tools but rather active participants in the on-demand delivery practices. Furthermore, digital technologies and algorithms are seen as part of complex configurations of relationships, negotiations, situations, interfaces, and protocols that define couriers’ work processes.
In the AlgoAmmatti-project, we recognise that algorithms act in ways that cannot be reduced to the purpose defined by their human creators. In other words, rather than simply reflecting human intentions, algorithms are considered active, generative and performative in shaping the digital spaces.
Sociomateriality offers companies and researchers a deep understanding of the contextual and relational factors that shape human behaviour in relation to digital technologies, including digital labour platforms. It is one of the primary theoretical lenses applied in Haaga-Helia’s AlgoAmmatti-project, which aims to shed light on algorithmic management and professional growth in platform economy.
Emirbayer, M., Mische, A. (1998) What is agency? American Journal of Sociology 103(4), pp. 962-1023.
European Commission. 2021. Commission proposals to improve the working conditions of people working through digital labour platforms. (Accessed 20th March 2022).
Orlikowski, W. 2010. The sociomateriality of organisational life: considering technology in management research. Cambridge Journal of Economics 34(1), pp. 125-141.
Parmiggiani, E., Mikalsen, M. 2013. The facets of sociomateriality: a systematic mapping of emerging concepts and definitions. In: Aanestad, M. & Bratteteig, T. (eds.), Nordic Contributions in IS Research, pp. 87-103. Springer.
Haaga-Helia’s AlgoAmmatti – Algorithmic Management and Professional Growth in Platform Economy -project seeks to understand algorithmic management practices and the impact of these on workers’ day-to-day experience in the context of digital labour platforms. The project is funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund, and it is conducted between 03/2022-12/2023.
The project is conducted by Haaga-Helia’s Service Experience Laboratory LAB8.