Book Review: Hustle and Gig by Ravenelle

Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle was published by University of California Press (Oakland, California) in 2019.

Alexandrea J. Ravenelle is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. She tweets @ajravenelleNYC

Review by Peter (PJ) Holtum

Hustle and Gig builds on the foundations laid by Sarah Kessler (Gigged) and Alex Rosenblat (Uberland) to describe the grizzly realities of (digital) gigwork in the United States. Nevertheless, Ravenelle’s comprehensive methodology – ethnography with 80 gigworkers from four distinct digital platforms: Kitchensurfing, TaskRabbit, Uber, and Airbnb – offers valuable depth and insight into the experiences of gigworkers. Ravenelle’s sociological training shines throughout Hustle and Gig and serves to contextualise individual worker experiences in the gig economy against the broader [deterioration of] social structures of (US) labour relations, employment/industrial relations, and social policy. This social and historical contextualisation allows Ravenelle to explore the nature of gigwork without falling into traps common to other authors in the field. For instance, digital platforms are not presented as novel technological “disrupter” to create new forms of work. Instead, Ravenelle explains that there is nothing new about gigwork; it as “a movement forward to the past” (p. 5) in which workers “find themselves without any of the workplace protections enjoyed by their great grandparents” (p. 94).

The relevance of this approach to gigwork should not be underestimated. By contextualising gigwork against this historical narrative, Ravenelle connects the resurgence of gigwork and insecurity against the continuous historical process in which the standard employment relationship is being eroded by business, politics, and ideology. Ravenelle argues that this continuous deterioration of secure, permanent forms of work, created a population of vulnerable and desperate workers who could easily be mobilised (and exploited) by app-based work platforms in our contemporary era. Nevertheless, Ravenelle’s coverage of the topic is measured. She readily acknowledges that amongst the ‘strugglers’ and the ‘strivers’ in the gig economy are a number of ‘success stories’. However, Ravenelle is quick to point out that these success stories often draw considerably from prior forms of capital to survive and thrive in this otherwise insecure economy. Those who have prior skills from the industry, access to capital (whether social, cultural, or economic), and the support enough to make a measured choice about where and how to enter the gig economy will be considerably more likely to succeed.

Strangely, this underlying narrative of class is underutilised in Hustle and Gig. Class (as a topic, proper) is relegated to three pages in the concluding chapter where Ravenelle discusses the ambiguity of the topic against some contradictory findings in academic research. Nevertheless, given her considerable data about the systemic manner in which these platforms capitalise on personal assets, it is strange that class is not a more considered feature in this book. I found myself waiting for a “call to arms” reminiscent of Guy Standings’ The Precariat that never came. Indeed, this blend of sociological theory and descriptive narrative seems disjointed in other areas, too. Ferdinand Tonnies’ conceptualisation of Community and Society, for instance, are presented earlier in the narrative to stimulate discussion of the lack of social interaction that is characterised by this rise in gigwork. However, this discussion is also limited to a few pages in the beginning of the book, never to return. Similarly, some conceptual awkwardness arises from Ravenelle’s continuous use of the misnomer ‘the sharing economy’, despite acknowledging the irony and fallaciousness of the term in chapter 2.  

Criticisms aside, the magnum opus of Ravenelle’s contribution to the literature is the detailed illustration of emotional labour, and emotional work that are paramount to the success of these gigworkers. While much existing literature and research agrees that gigworkers perform significant amounts of unpaid work, research often focuses on the material aspects of unpaid labour (i.e. washing cars, doing taxes, self-promotion). Instead Ravenelle addresses the much more obscure, but almost more important, facets of how workers manage their behaviour and appearance in order to survive in the industry. Detailed accounts of gender work are coupled with constant illustrations of sexual harassment and impropriety in which workers have to put up with lecherous clients in order to get paid, and ideally, get a five-star rating. Similar accounts of job-description-creep detail the myriad of ways in which gigworkers are rendered complicit in criminal activity, and have to balance their desire to get paid against – potentially – a criminal record. Tales of Taskers accidently ferrying or mailing illegal drugs across borders creates engrossing accounts of the ways that risk and responsibility is systematically individualised in gigwork, and details a performative element of the book which conveys the anxiety, stress, and emotional labour that these workers need to endure to make ends meet.

Like a mother sneaking vegetables into her children’s meals, Ravenelle entertains her reader with captivating individual stories, while smuggling in snippets of social theory and labour history. This socio-historic approach to the re-emergence of gigwork in the 21st century allows Ravenelle to address the problem of gigwork from a national perspective, rather than a personal, or organisational approach. This approach to the systematic erosion of worker protections, income rates, and the outsourcing of work leads Ravenelle to summarise gigwork as “just the newest (technological) innovation in treating workers shabbily” (p. 180). This shabby treatment, Ravenelle warns, threatens the steady erosion of worker capital, both in terms of financial assets, but also worker skills, and time.

Overall, Hustle and Gig is a stimulating read for academics and non-academics alike. It is approachable and insightful without being overburdened by academic rhetoric. Most importantly, it does what many approaches to the gig economy do not; it maintains a focus on the socio-political context in which gigwork has re-emerged, rather than presenting it as some naïve by-product of technological wizardry. While Hustle and Gig falls short of suggesting comprehensive social support policies like a Universal Basic Income, it concludes with some pragmatic policy suggestions like healthcare, and worker benefit packages that would help alleviate and support all workers in this uncertain age of ours.

Dr Peter (PJ) Holtum is a researcher in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland, Australia. PJ’s research focuses on the rise of insecure, and precarious work in Australia, and how this precarity shapes assemblages of power, hierarchy, and authority. He has written on topics such as organisational misbehaviour, self-organisation, unionisation, legal regulation, and resistance and has worked with groups of workers across several sectors including warehouse/factory workers, retail workers, tradespeople, and digital gigworkers. He tweets @dr_peejay

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