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Scholarly Traditions and the Gig Economy: Reply to Gerard

Richard A. Guzzo

Gerard (2016) presents a case for the value of the critical scholarly tradition to work psychology.  The term “the scholarly tradition” is essential.  It denotes that the approach is more about a philosophical orientation than, say, a highly prescribed set of methods of scientific inquiry and it denotes that several theoretical variations are subsumed under that label.  Critical theory applied to understanding works of art, for example, rests on different foundations than critical theory applied to organizations, but both bring in social, political, and cultural backgrounds to interpretations.  But how applicable is critical theory to the psychology of work?

Stimulated by the article I searched for a way of assessing the “value added” by the critical tradition to that given by the positivist and interpretative approaches, the two alternatives better known to me.  Needing a work-related context not yet overfished, I settled on a comparative analysis of the three perspectives applied to the gig economy.  But, first, what is the gig economy?


The Gig Economy Defined


“There is no officially accepted definition of the ‘gig economy’ – or, for that matter, a gig” (Torpey and Hogan, 2016).   For present purposes, Torpey and Hogan’s definition suffices: “A gig describes a single project or task for which a worker is hired, often through a digital marketplace, to work on demand.”  Gigs can be extremely brief—think of engaging in an online gaming session for pay—or can have substantial durations, such as a contracted consulting assignment.  It is difficult to say with precision how big the gig economy is in terms of revenue or numbers of workers.  For some people gig work is their single source of earnings.  Of the over 150 million people in the US workforce, 6.2%, or over 9 million, are self-employed (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016).  But not all who are self-employed are gig workers; many may do a gig in addition to holding traditional employment.  Torpey and Hogan (2016) suggest that a better assessment of the gig economy comes from data on nonemployers.  A nonemployer is defined as an unincorporated business with no paid employees that has receipts of least $1,000 and is subject to federal income taxes.  Based on data that originate from US tax returns, the Census Bureau estimates that over 23 million US taxpayers work as nonemployers (Census Bureau, 2016).  Of these, about 40% report gross annual receipts of under $10,000 suggesting that, for many, nonemployer work – perhaps gig work – supplements other sources of income.  Although it is challenging to be precise about parameters like the size of the gig economy in dollars or the centrality of gigs to individuals’ working lives, it is clear that gig work is “big enough” to warrant the attention of psychological research. 


Gig Work and the Three Scholarly Traditions

The Positivist Tradition.  Of the three, the positivist tradition has the largest body of theory and the greatest number of ready-to-go issues to address in a gig world.  Peruse the table of contents of I-O psychology textbooks and many of the chapter titles immediately suggest the relevance of this approach.  For example, the long history of selection research provides a relevant base, although the self-selection into gig work is more relevant than research on business enterprises’ processes for optimally choosing which applicants to take on as employees.  Motivation research and theory offers a wealth of ideas applicable to gig work, such as theories of self-regulation during task performance and theories of the motivational consequences of autonomy while working.  However, several theoretical domains rooted in this tradition lose relevance in a nonemployer context, such as theories of leadership and of careers defined with regard to the rungs of organizational hierarchies.  Tools familiar to this approach easily apply to the study of gig work, such as structured surveys, experiments, and quasi-experiments.  Perhaps one of the challenges of the approach is securing sufficient sample sizes for quantitative analyses:  Getting large numbers of gig workers to participate in a research study may not be as easy as when relying on a captive employee population.  Perhaps, though, access to large numbers of gig workers may be feasible by collaborating with one or more of the many operators of digital marketplaces for gig work (e.g., elance.com, flexjobs.com, ratracerebellion.com, backdoorjobs.com and others).  Overall, the empirical-analytic approach (“positivist”) has plenty to offer to the study of the gig economy, although the gig economy narrows its roster of relevant topics.

The Interpretive Tradition.  The interpretive tradition’s essential concern is meaning-making—that is, how an actor understands the world in which he or she is embedded and how that understanding influences affect and action.  The process of making meaning can be personalistic or social, the latter resulting in shared interpretations within a group or other social entity.  The interpretive tradition appears to be an apt fit as a method of research into gig work, and there is surely great variety in the meanings that gig workers attach to what they do.  Some may construe gig work as unwanted but necessary interim activities that fill the time between the previous and the next period of traditional employment.  Others may find gig work an affirmation of their independence and personal sovereignty.  Yet others may see gig work as an experiment on a journey self-discovery or a pleasant distraction from a mundane 9 to 5 job.  Interpretive research methods such as in-depth interviews, diary keeping, and periodic sampling of affect and activities would seem to be very suitable approaches to learning about the various ways that gig workers make sense of what they do and how those interpretations influence gig work behavior, such as work quality, enjoyment, and longevity as a gig worker. 

The Critical Tradition.   This intellectual tradition emphasizes the broader social and cultural context in which individuals and their behaviors are embedded.  In particular, as Gerard (2016) describes, the critical approach often focuses on asymmetric power relationships and their consequences.  Consider this scenario with regard to the work of housecleaning.  If there is variability in the demand for such services—that is, the risk exists of no or low revenue for a time—a traditional employer of housekeepers bears the risk and pays wages to its employees during periods of low demand.  Under a gig, or contract work arrangement, the service provider shifts the risk to the workers by providing them gigs only when there is demand.  Individual housecleaners are, of course, free to accept or reject this risk (accept the risk in return for higher rates, say, or reject it by finding other gigs in lieu of housecleaning).  The simplicity of this scenario, however, often understates reality.  Handy, a provider of housecleaning gigs, incurred a class action suit filed by some of its former contract workers because, they claimed, Handy did more than just provide gigs:  They acted as an employer by providing “guidance” for at-work behavior that were construed as rules and by subjecting the workers to practices that were, in essence, those of an employer (Kessler, 2015).  In 2015, 17 of the 50 lawsuits filed in federal courts against Uber were by employees, often on the grounds that Uber went beyond just providing gig opportunities and instead acted like an employer but without the obligations required of employers (Brown, 2016).  These appeals to third parties—the court—to redress perceived mistreatment made possible by power asymmetries are unambiguous signs that the critical tradition with its emphasis on asymmetrical power has is relevant to the gig economy. The critical tradition appears to be an easy complement to the interpretive tradition as awareness of broader social forces operating in the gig economy can influence how individuals make sense of their own place in it.  However, the applicability of the critical scholarly tradition has limits.  It is most germane when gig work is intermediated, for example, as in the Uber and Handy illustrations, but it is less relevant to other regions of the gig universe where the exchange between worker and consumer are directly governed by the free choices of each party. 


Concluding Thoughts

As a yet-to-be-thoroughly-researched domain, gig work offers an arena in which to assess the relative applicability of different scholarly traditions, notably the critical tradition.  Although each of the three traditions described by Gerard (2016) has limitations, each is applicable to that context and, therefore, yes the critical scholarly tradition adds unique value, supporting Gerard’s (2016) case. 

This exploration of the gig economy, however, leads me to another conclusion at odds with Gerard.  Gerard represents the critical tradition as an outsider banging on the front door of the house of I-O psychology demanding to be let in.  This is evident by the repeated use of the word “new” to present the case for it and the description of critical management studies as “yet to penetrate” the discipline.  It is also evident in how Gerard presents the positivist approach:  with a heavy emphasis on historical origins but with little attention to how it has evolved to something closer to an “empirical analysis” approach as some of the older philosophy-of-science principles have been shed.  My view is that the critical scholarly tradition already is in the house.  Matters of asymmetrical power and how it plays out in organizations have long been a concern of researchers in the profession of I-O psychology.  Further, the discipline’s involvement in ensuring fairness in hiring, pay, and other organizational practices can be construed as righting unwanted wrongs made possible because organizations operate within a larger social order characterized by significant imbalances of power.  Perhaps I-O psychology needs to open the closet door, not the front door, to take more explicit advantage of what the critical scholarly tradition can offer.




Brown, K. V. (2016). Uber is facing a staggering number of lawsuits. Fusion. Retrieved from


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016).  Occupational Employment Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/oes/

Census Bureau. (2016).  2014 nonemployer statistics. Retrieved from http://censtats.census.gov/cgi-bin/nonemployer/nonsect.pl

Gerard, N. (2016).  Toward a critical I-O psychology. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist,

      54(1). Available at http://0-www-siop-org.library.alliant.edu/tip/oct16/gerard.aspx.

Kessler, S. (2015). The gig economy won’t last because it’s being sued to death. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3042248/the-gig-economy-wont-last-because-its-being-sued-to-death

Torpey, E., & Hogan, A. (2016). Working in a gig economy. Retrieved from


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