Second year · Sociology

Theory & Methods: Research proposal

  • Statement of the research topic and research question

Specialized websites in the trading of second-hand goods, which have existed since the 2000s, have recently increased to meet the growing demand of the population. This phenomenon which is very visible on the Internet reflects a general enthusiasm, manifested not only by the practice of sale, but also through many other forms of exchange, such as donations, or bartering. Leasing has begun to appear on websites but will not be considered in this research. What does the emerging forms of alternative online trading of second-hand objects tell us about the nature of commodities in the 21st century? The objective of this research is to study simultaneously donation practices, resale and barter that are occurring through websites in France.

 

  • Literature review

Changes of address, which can be from a divorce, separation, or a birth appear to be the first reasons for sales informed by advertisers. Mc Alexander (1991) explains that any change in the life cycle comes with changes in material possessions. Divorce, a new job, a birth or other major changes of this type generate a modification of all the material possessions that we can have, as well as social relations. Thus, the renewal of property and goods, corresponds to a need for cyclic or punctual change.

 

One aspect of this research is to understand how alternative forms of trade show a modification in people’s relationship to objects. Gregson and Crewe (2003) analyse the trend of ‘vintage’ based on an increasingly individualistic and distinctive consumption, in opposition to the logic of survival strategy. For example, on the website Recupe.net, there are many types of vintage ads about cassettes, or other technologically outdated commodities. Giving is here presented as a means not to throw these objects and to thus give them a second life, even if they are no longer fashionable. These outdated/old-fashioned objects can be used both by those in need who cannot afford the new devices, but also by nostalgic people following the neo rural trend of flea market or ‘vintage’.

To go further in the comprehension of the changing nature of commodities, Phillips and Sego (2011) analyse the question of consumers’ detachment to objects, and detail the distinction between ‘Packrats’ and ‘Purgers’. The Packarts are those who have difficulty separating from their commodities because of a psychological disposition to a symbolic attachment to history, and Purgers are individuals who tend to be constantly sorting in their objects of everyday life. However, an interesting analysis shows that, paradoxically, Packrats are more likely to sale their objects, because of the financial compensation for the loss of an object they are sentimental about, whereas the Purgers are more likely to use non-market forms, such as the gift to charity, without worrying about the monetary return.

 

However, when looking at the websites dedicated to gifts, we can notice a new motivation which is an ecological reason. Indeed, these websites show the gift as an alternative to waste production and encourage people to donate and recycle their objects. Strasser (1999) argues that it illustrates the recent change in our relationship to waste, that was created in the 20th century. Indeed, the author shows that before the 20th century, everyday objects were reused and recycled. The arrival of the culture of mass consumption in Western societies changed our relationship to everyday objects and generated a massive production of non-recycled waste. Therefore the reappearance of recirculation can reveal a return to old practices where the recovery of objects and the gift were enrolled in habits.

 

One hypothesis of this research is that, by comparing the size of ads, we would see that donation ads are much shorter than the sales or barters ads, and that donors thus seem to give less information about their objects than sellers. Thus, the asymmetry of information Akerlof explains in his analysis of used cars market seems particularly stronger in the case of gifts than in the case of sales and barter. Therefore, in the context of Internet donations, donees have little information on the object posted if they have special requirements. The concept of ‘adverse selection’ (Akerlof, 1970), that is to say the presence of low-quality cars, removes from the market the good-quality cars. For example, a user is selling an item that is not obsolete and seems in very good working condition, but the fact that much of the donated items are in poor condition may affect the practice of giving as a whole. Thus, it is likely that the public interested in donations has more requirements about the quality of items to collect than we might think.

 

In the context of informal exchanges on websites, no law nor contract controls the exchange relationship. Thus the exchange is carried out by the different rules punctually and individually defined. This is also what differentiates Leboncoin website from a large website like eBay which has a number of processes promoting trust. Hillis et al. (2012) explain that eBay is equipped with technical devices improving trust, including the registration of sellers and buyers allowing a rating system, but also a forum for users to ask and answer questions. However, in some situations, durable trade relations can be created, especially when we see the practice of pseudonyms on the website Leboncoin, where buyers can, if they are satisfied with their first exchange, keep in touch with a profile updates. But this system is underdeveloped compared to Ebay’s system where buyers can maintain a durable relationship with some sellers by registering their favourite accounts.

 

To conclude this literature review, several edited books are relevant to this research. In Alternative Exchanges (2008) edited by Fontaine, several chapters are relevant to this research. The book explores the changing meaning and values of second-hand goods through history, and the boundaries between market, gift and charity. In The Object Reader (2009) edited by Candlin and Guins, writings from Marcel Mauss, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard are gathered, which provide a good general understanding of the major debates, and highlight the fact that the study of objects is interdisciplinary and thus very complex.

 

  • Theoretical framework

The basic definition of commodities is ‘objects of economic value’ (Appadurai, 1988, p.3), thus some sociology of economy is needed to appraise the changing nature of commodities. German philosopher Georg Simmel, in The Philosophy of Money (1900), studied social development and characterised it by social differentiation and the emergence of a money economy. Simmel uses the concept of ‘rationalisation’, as Max Weber employed it to characterise modern capitalist societies where moral values are governed by bureaucratic regulation and state surveillance. The rationalisation of daily life is represented by the evolution from barter to paper money, to credit. Simmel provides an alternative to Marx’ labour theory of value which argues that commodities’ value and price should be determined by the labour force and time instead of factors like supply and demand.

These new practices are maybe coming from the economic crisis, with the reappearance of a market of poverty since the 1990’s. However, this crisis more generally affects the whole population and generates innovative behaviours when dealing with economic constraints. These changes are maybe the beginning of sustainable behaviours that will settle in Europe over the coming decades. We can also explain it by a more general change in consumption patterns, with the rise of environmental concerns, as well as a sense of political rejection towards uncontrolled consumption which is now in our habits and has been for decades. As Baudrillard (1998) explains, mass consumption structures social relations in Western contemporary societies. He argues that our postmodern period is characterised by a specific sign, or simulacra, that hides the lack of reality.

 

  • Methodology

For a more detailed analysis, the field will be limited to the Ile-de-France region. The diversity of this region on both sociological and geographical aspect will show the diversity of practices. On the other hand, we will only study the recirculation of objects in the domestic space and exclude real estate, car or services between particular ads. The principal limitations are the information available on websites, and the fact that Leboncoin website gives access to objects on sale, not to ​​closed sales. Leboncoin website is selected for the volume of published ads and the characteristics of the relationship between individuals. The donation site Recup.net is chosen for its representative character and the presence of a forum. The assumption is that the practice of selling is far more widespread than the gift and barter practices in Île-de-France. Indeed, quantitative research ‘uses a deductive approach to test theories’ (Bryman, 2004, cited in Walliman, 2006, p.36), thus a quantitative approach seems to be a good start. However, the aim of this research is to analyse comparatively the three types of exchange, therefore the samples will been collected so that they are comparable to a statistical study.

The analysis of the structure of ads will examine the characteristics of objects placed online, and the analysis of social geography of ads will focus more specifically on geographic and economic data, based on average earnings. However, this approach has some limitations, including the fact that the phenomena observed at the level of a group may not reflect individual differences. After extracting a database with ads and information related to them (commune of origin, object category, price), a content analysis will be implemented with the objective of a typology of ads on the Internet. This typology is established through a classification where textual data are linked to other ads characteristics, including the price of items, their categories and geographic location. The content analysis will highlight the distinctive elements of the ads. The quantitative analysis coupled to the forums analysis will allow us to understand second-hand trade and the rules that govern it.

Many forums are dealing with the subject of such alternative trading practices, a collection of information on various forums will be set up for a qualitative approach. Forums provide information on how these exchanges take place and complete the quantitative analysis. Forums also report personal experiences of individuals, and the informal rules of 21st century alternative trade. The limitation of the forums analysis is that researchers have no access to the sociodemographic characteristics of the individuals posting and discussing. Moreover, ‘textual analysis is very detailed, time-consuming, and tedious work’ (Carley, 1993, pp.115-116), thus we might consider using a computer-based tool. However, this study provides background information on the issues and challenges around these practices.

 

  • Ethical issues

Regarding ethical challenges, the researcher must be aware of the professional code of research practice, considering that we will use human participants and human data. However, our case is particular as we are not is direct contact with people but rather virtually, through the Internet.

The first problematic element is the informed consent. Participants should have the choice to take part or not, and if they choose to do so they have to understand the research details. Also, the only way for the researcher to contact the participant is online, thus one shall never be sure who is using the account. Secondly, confidentiality and anonymity are another problematic element. Even though participants are not using their real names, websites are constructed in such a way that each username on the website is unique. The ethical principle of not doing harm concerns both the participants and the researchers, but it does not seem to be of relevance in our case. Finally, when conducting research researchers must be aware of power dynamics and exploitation. For instance, when looking at the reasons why users want to sell commodities, some might say that the research uses their poverty and economic difficulties for money or fame.

To conclude, there have been many cases where researchers had to face ethical dilemmas, especially in social and health research. However, this research main concerns are the participants’ consent and privacy.

References

 

  • Akerlof G. (1970) ‘The Market for “Lemons”: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism’ in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol. 84, No. 3. pp. 488-500.
  • Appadurai A. (1988) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
  • Baudrillard J. (1998) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Sage Pub.
  • Candlin F. and Guins R. (2009) The Object Reader (In Sight: Visual Culture). Routledge.
  • Carley, K. (1993) ‘Coding Choices for Textual Analysis: a Comparison of Content Analysis and Map Analysis’. Sociological Methodology, Vol. 23, pp. 75-126.
  • Fontaine L. (2008) Alternative Exchanges: Second-hand Circulations from the Sixteenth Century to the Present. Berghahn Books.
  • Gregson N., Crewe L. (2003) Second Hand Cultures (Materializing Culture). Berg: Oxford.
  • Hillis K., Petit M. and Scott Epley N. (2012) Every Day eBay: Culture, Collecting and Desire.
  • McAlexander J. (1991) ‘Divorce, the disposition of the relationship, and everything’ in Advances in Consumer Research. 18, pp. 43-48.
  • Phillips B., Sego T. (2011) ‘The role of identity in disposal: Lessons from mothers’ disposal of children’s possessions’ in Marketing Theory. Vol 11 n°4. pp. 435–454.
  • Simmel G. (1900) The Philosophy of Money. London Routledge.
  • Strasser S. (1999) Waste and Want, a social history of Trash. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Walliman N. (2006) Social Research Methods. Sage Pub.

 

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