J: Digital Economy

Digital technologies are contributing to radical, growing and unpredictable transformations of economic life, raising a broad range of new issues for scholars of the economy. This research network is dedicated to the study of these issues. We are particularly interested in the impact of these developments on market processes and actors, on goods themselves, on non-market forms of economy, and on wider social outcomes.

In the area of market processes we encourage discussion, for example, of intermediaries and business models such as the platform economy, coordination instruments such as participatory evaluation systems, digital reputations, the massive collection of consumer data, virtual and alternative currencies, bots, algorithms, new kinds of digital objects and forms of qualification and calculation.

Digital technology can also provide a platform for non-market forms of economy, and we welcome contributions on digital forms of gift and participative economy as well as the use of digital platforms for governmental initiatives and services.

Recent debates around industrial policy, supply chains, and the materiality of the digital economy are also relevant, as well as debates on digital economies’ possible geopolitical implications, including under rubrics such as digital sovereignty and technological rivalry.

Ultimately we are interested in the impact of such developments on wider social outcomes, including inequality, inclusion and exclusion on the basis of gender, class, race, ethnicity and geopolitical region, governance capacities, systemic risk, environmental change, and political engagement with economic issues.


*   *   *

The following interview with Network J organizer Kevin Mellet was conducted by Valerie Arnhold, a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Centre de sociologie des organisations (CSO).

When was the network founded? Briefly, what was the genesis of the network?

Kevin Mellet: The network is very recent. It was launched in 2019 and brought researchers together for the first time at the New York conference. This will be the second year. But the network’s success is undeniable: in 2019, we received 90 proposals and we organized 19 sessions; this year, we received 95 abstracts and 17 sessions are planned. 

The network was an opportunity to bring together several research areas that have existed within SASE for the past five years in the form of mini-conferences focusing on different aspects of the digital economy. Before that, most of the organizers had participated in SASE for a long time and shared a certain frustration at seeing their research questions, subjects, methodological orientations scattered across numerous networks.

The proliferation of mini-conferences devoted to the digitization of markets, organizations, labor, or everyday life in recent years was a signal that it was probably the right time to structure this in a more sustainable way. The large number of Network J organizers—there are eight of us—reflects this dynamic of convergence of collectives.

What are the key research questions of interest within the network?

KM: The research questions that concern us clearly reflect our diversity. They relate to the genesis and organization of digital markets; they tackle the boundaries of the digital economy, where market exchanges meet participative and horizontal forms of coordination, where the domestic sphere and everyday life are digitized and marketized into gig work and the sharing economy; they aim to understand the consequences of the use of algorithms for the autonomy of individuals and the new forms of coordination produced by these sophisticated calculation technologies. There are also more prospective concerns about the evolution of digitized organizations and markets, and the ways to regulate them. 

Beyond the various objects, methods, and issues, we share a common interest in understanding the great transformation of the economy and society brought about by the arrival and development of the Internet and related technologies. But we should recognize that there is a paradox here: digitization is a unifying principle and a link between these different questions, and justifies the existence of this network, but as digital technologies spread and become omnipresent, it is difficult to distinguish them from the major questions and structuring objects of socio-economics. How should we think of the link between a network devoted to the digital economy and networks in which the digital question is taking up more and more space? This is an issue that will certainly have to be explored in the coming years.

What academic disciplines are most well-represented in your network? 

KM: The initial tropism of the network is clearly economic sociology, which is the discipline of most network organizers. This initial representation is reflected in the dominant place of sociology within the network. But the other disciplines involved in SASE are present in the network: economics and political economy, management and organization studies, industrial relations, and science and technology studies (STS). 

The network intends to be very inclusive and welcoming. Moreover, the disciplinary divisions do not structure the network. It is really the empirical subjects that determine the organization of most of the sessions. Indeed, the Internet and digital technologies are inclining us toward a multi-level analysis that integrates various methodologies: ethnography and qualitative surveys, statistical analysis, network analysis, innovative analysis using digital traces. These different methods are represented, and mixed, in the network.

Which questions do you think will be central to the network in the next few years?

KM: Foresight is difficult, even more when it comes to digital innovation, and more than ever in the dramatic period that we are going through. When we look at the main themes of the sessions organized in 2019 and 2020, we observe a great continuity: a first important set of projects on the gig economy and platform capitalism; a second substantial body of work on the impact of algorithms and big data, both in organizations and in markets; a fairly large set of mostly empirical subjects that unfold over a session or two (crowdfunding, online communities, gender and the digital economy, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, the geography of the digital economy, etc.).

It is difficult to discern trends with so little perspective. What we can observe is the rise of research that questions the governance of economic systems by algorithms and the role of state regulation in the digital economy—such as through data protection, privacy, or antitrust policies.

What types of scholarship—by discipline, method, theoretical approach, or question—would you like to see more of in the future?

KM: A strong trend that we observe as scholars involved in Internet and digital studies is the overall increase in the quality of research work: there is a strong cumulative effect, and we see more and more empirically based surveys with solid conceptual apparatus. Our objective is obviously to accompany and support this development. We also want to foster dialogue between a plurality of approaches, both methodological and conceptual, in different fields of research that make up the digital socio-economy. Here we look forward to more theory-driven work, despite the obvious desire to understand novel empirical phenomena. 

Personally, I am quite surprised by the lack of research on the connections between digital technologies and the ecological transition. This area of research, very lively in the field of STS, will certainly gain momentum in the coming years.

What else would you want people to know about your network?

KM: Digital technologies are more important than ever and allow us to maintain ties in this period of imposed social distancing. But we can’t wait to see each other again in real life!