Consumer Ownership and Sharing: Introduction to the Issue Linda L. Price and Russell W. Belk

Our issue brings together a set of conceptual and empirical articles around the broad topic of sharing and ownership. Keeping and sharing are not only fundamental to consumer behavior, but these basic interactions “establish the various social ties linking both individuals and groups” (Godelier 2011, 469). Hence, sharing is an active practice that is constitutive of social relations (John 2013). As our ancient Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal ancestors gathered around a fire in the self-interested desire to stay warm, they also formed relations and learned to “cooperate durably in ways not found in the most closely related primate societies” (Godelier 2011, 464). Sharing talk, food, and relations around a fire became something done for its own sake—its own intrinsic value, not involving expectations of reciprocal exchange (Vaughan 1997; Widlok 2013). Sharing is ubiquitous, but often taken for granted and embedded in everyday rituals and routines (Belk 2010). It is sometimes difficult to precisely define and distinguish from market and gift-giving exchanges (Belk 20102014a; Widlok 2013; Bardhi and Eckhardt 2015; Scaraboto 2015). Moreover, sharing and ownership are socially constructed, embedded in values, cultural norms, relations, and human emotions; there are often social constraints on sharing and owning, and there may be social sanctions for not sharing or not owning (John 2013; Siebert 2013).

Ownership, access, and sharing are emerging as key concepts across a number of fields and contexts. We are now barraged with information about “the sharing economy” and collaborative consumption that provokes new questions about interplay between keeping and sharing and the consequences for consumers and companies (Chen 2009; Botsman and Rogers 2010; Bardhi and Eckhardt 2012; Lamberton and Rose 2012; Matzler, Veider, Kathan 2015; Scaraboto 2015). Much recent research explores hybrid variants that strive to combine the logics of sharing and market exchange. In some of the theory and research surrounding “the sharing economy,” sharing is so blurred with traditional marketplace exchanges as to be indistinguishable. Or more accurately, the concepts often remain distinct, but a “sharewashing” effort is made to blur them to the extent that marketplace exchange is touted as sharing. For example, Matzler et al. (2015) include providing repair and maintenance services as an example of participating in the sharing economy by “renting” expertise to consumers. Without question new business models are emerging around an explosion of interest and opportunities for collaborative consumption that “could be as important as the Industrial Revolution in terms of how we think about ownership” (Belk 2014b, 1599; see also Botsman and Rogers 2010). Even as new modes of exchange are reshaping our economy, we have only a nascent understanding of keeping and sharing as complex, multifaceted phenomena (Widlok 2013; Belk 2014b). There are still those who see sharing as a form of gift exchange (Arnould and Rose 2016) despite clear theoretical distinctions between these concepts (Belk 20102016). Our JACR issue addresses the need for more theory and research surrounding issues of ownership, access, and sharing. Many different perspectives on sharing, ownership, access, and collaborative consumption are represented in this volume, but each article helps us to better understand the complexity, dynamics, and social embedding of these constructs. We believe that collectively the articles in this issue will encourage future theory and research around distinctions and the interplay among sharing, access, and ownership, as well as gift-giving and commodity exchange. The articles help to: culturally situate these phenomena, relate them to the diverse nonownership and hybrid models that make up the new “sharing economy,” uncover their nuanced character in our own everyday practices, and investigate extreme circumstances that foreground their disappearance and reemergence. We hope that as you finish reading this issue, you, like Floyd Rudmin (2016, in this issue), will allow this collage of engagements with sharing and ownership to “excite” your own ideas and future research.

The issue leads with an invited thought piece by Rudmin, a world-renowned scholar on ownership theory and the psychology of ownership. His article was written as he reflected on the other articles accepted for publication in this issue, and as he allowed them to “excite the ideas” he presents. Readers too will likely be excited by the breadth and depth of his innovative approach that is both evocatively introspective and graced with a sweeping grasp of diverse literatures. Readers will be reminded of the taken-for-granted everyday experience and pleasure of sharing, the myriad ways in which keeping and sharing are intertwined, and the complexity of material relations embedded in social relations. Rudmin admonishes future researchers to consider their own naïve observations of the world around them in order to identify similarities and differences: phenomena that are labeled sharing—for example, to what degree do consumers conceive compensated sharing like Uber to be sharing at all, and are phenomena that are labeled new really so new? For example, he argues that consumers experience cars and cottages primarily as shared consumption, and hence a sharing economy in cars and cottages is hardly revolutionary. Professor Rudmin also calls for more interdisciplinary and far-ranging future scholarship to understand and explain sharing, distinguishing distributed inventory behaviors from sharing and investigating tensions and competition between users.

Next, Giana Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi consider how sharing is a particular form of access, how sharing and access interact with ownership, and how they are crucially dependent on the social system in which they are embedded (Bardhi and Eckhardt 20122015). They forcefully argue that “an analysis of contemporary access practices without taking into account the socioeconomic institutions and the environment is myopic. Without these lenses, market exchange practices such as temporary renting are mistaken or masked as social exchange (sharing]” (Eckhardt and Bardhi 2016, in this issue). The central idea that the meaning of sharing depends on how a society or community engages in resource distribution has important implications for managers and for future research. In opposition to claims that the sharing economy facilitates a sense of community, they argue that it accelerates “the commodification of time and space,” with the opposite effect of creating alienation within communities. The proliferation of gated communities that share common facilities but exclude nonresidents is a case in point (Blandy and Lister 2006; Lentz 2006; Blakey 2007). As these new hybrid forms of shared access evolve, it will be critical to empirically trace whether and how they are constitutive of social relations and also how they affect our material relations, labor economy, and environment (Belk, forthcoming).

The third article in the issue uses a multi-sited ethnography to empirically investigate the complexity of fair resource distribution within a German food-sharing system. Johanna Gollnhoffer, Katharina Hellwig, and Felicitas Morhart provide a contextualized view on such sharing, mapping out how competing institutional logics of merit, prosociality, and proenvironmentalism are managed within an emerging sharing system. Their research focuses on a German food-sharing platform that connects retailers who have surplus food to give away with individuals volunteering to collect and distribute the food for further use. The authors unfold how disagreements and conflict arise around micro-level issues surrounding the deservingness of the individuals receiving the food, losing sight of the original objective to avoid food waste. The authors show how divergent constructions of fairness are developed within this emerging sharing system, and they link these discourses to the macro factors prevailing in the German cultural context. What is especially interesting is that in this case, the food-sharing organizers found common ground through a shared proenvironmental goal. The findings suggest that “whenever the circulation of resources is aimed at contributing to a higher common goal that goes beyond individual needs and goals, and especially beyond reciprocal claims, ‘sharing’ as a form of redistribution can take place” (Gollnhoffer, Hellwig, and Morhart 2016, in this issue). In contrast, France has taken a different approach to such redistribution with mandated donations to redistributive charities and legal gleaning. Comparisons of these contrasting European systems should prove interesting.

The fourth article in the issue authored by Mike Molesworth, Rebecca Watkins, and Janice Denegri-Knott foregrounds new co-creation and ownership models by examining personally meaningful digital consumption objects (DCOs) that exist within computer-mediated electronic environments. Prior research, including that of the authors, documents the transformation of digital commodities into meaningful possessions, the emergence of digital heirlooms, and practices of archiving cherished DCOs (Kirk and Sellen 2010; Banks, Kirk, and Sellen 2012; Watkins and Molesworth 2012). What happens when precious and valued possessions such as avatars, playlists, online profiles, and photos that we have singularized with our time, emotions, and effort are commercial assets at the same time—owned, controlled, and exploited by corporations? In the case of DCOs, “the possession work needed to form and maintain attachments to these consumption objects is hosted and facilitated by the market” (Molesworth, Watkins, and Denegri-Knott 2016, in this issue). Because DCOs are entangled in software and internet infrastructures with an enduring presence in the market, consumers are ensnared by EULAs (end user license agreements) they have signed. Consumers pay a premium in order to access “their” treasured personal possession for a limited time and in a restricted fashion. Although this can be seen as another form of access-based consumption and liquid possession (Eckhardt and Bardhi 2016, in this issue), in this case consumers feel personal psychological ownership, singularized co-creation of meanings, and object attachments, but access is restricted and market mediated. The authors’ introduction of the consumer ensnarement construct offers many rich opportunities for future research and is at the heart of current debates surrounding ownership of digital objects (e.g., Hodder 2012). Their article also provides a different and more cynical perspective on consumer co-creation that could spur alternate approaches to thinking about how value is shared and transferred between consumers and corporations.

The fifth article in the issue, authored by Jiong Sun, Hendrarto Supangkat, and Siva Balasubramanian, is situated at the intersection of psychological ownership, access, and peer-to-peer sharing and examines the practical problem of sellers’ strategic responses to sharing and the resultant impact on seller’s profit and consumers’ access and ownership. Specifically, the authors model instances when peer-to-peer sharing is more likely to be accommodated and endorsed by sellers, and the consequences for sellers’ profits and consumers’ ownership and access. The article is an important contribution, as it seeks to examine the competitive landscape of sellers’ responses to peer-to-peer sharing and also to suggest what kinds of products and market conditions logically favor a peer-to-peer sharing option. In particular, they show that if consumer heterogeneity in the valuation and affordability of the product is low to intermediate (versus high), both sellers and consumers can be harmed by the introduction of peer-to-peer sharing. In this respect it attempts, like Benkler (2004) did for sharing online, to establish where sharing is likely to flourish and falter. Future research should further investigate the factors that affect the substitutability between sharing and ownership.

The sixth article in the issue, authored by Mohammad Reza Habibi, Andrea Kim, and Michel Laroche, begins by observing that collaborative nonownership consumption practices dramatically differ in the extent to which they resemble sharing or exchange. Some such as Zipcar have more exchange characteristics while others such as Couchsurfing have more sharing characteristics. This article provides a theoretical and empirical tool for thinking about the mix of sharing and exchange characteristics across collaborative nonownership consumption practices and helps to reconcile some prior contradictory findings. While the authors concur with other researchers that economic and utility motivations drive participation in nonownership consumption practices (e.g., Bardhi and Eckhardt 2015), they find that social utility and sharing are important motives, in at least some collaborative nonownership contexts (see Belk 2014). Moreover, even within a single industry such as car sharing, different offerings may vary in the extent to which they resemble sharing or exchange. In addition, although Lamberton and Rose (2012) show that feared scarcity is important in restricting the use of these collaborative consumption practices, the present authors find no evidence of this in either exploratory interviews or subsequent surveys. In contrast to other research in this volume (Gollnhoffer et al. 2016), they also find no evidence of proenvironmental values driving these practices, suggesting the need for future research that compares and contrasts collaborative nonownership practices across a wider array of options.

The seventh article in the issue is authored by Ronald Paul Hill, Daniel Cunningham, and The Gramercy Gentlemen and departs from contemporary contexts that involve freely giving consumers collaborative access to a wider variety of experiences and consumption objects. They instead investigate an extreme context where both ownership and sharing are highly circumscribed and patrolled—a maximum-security prison. The researchers use a participatory action research model (see Ozanne and Saaticioglu 2008) to guide the project. Their research helps uncover how taken-for-granted ownership and sharing are in our own daily lives, and their cascading effects on identity and emotional stability when people are stripped of much of their ownership privileges, and what little that remains is subject to seizure and excessive regulation in what Goffman (1961) termed a total institution. This context also offers an extreme variant of how stagnating wages and inflated prices such that a “stick of deodorant [that] costs three days of wages” leads to a loss of self-efficacy (Hill, Cunningham, and Gramercy Gentlemen 2016, in this issue), suggesting the need to better understand absences of access and ownership in consumers’ lives (Bauman 2012). The authors uncover how the self-interested desire for access and ownership of goods and services, which in turn conveys self efficacy, creates coordinated peer-to-peer exchanges. But they stop short of interrogating how these may be constitutive of new sharing relations within this constricted environment. Future research could explore in greater depth nonownership practices and especially the possible emergence of sharing and relations in environments that seem to staunchly oppose such cooperation. The article itself offers an action challenge motivated by the hope for changes in prison management for future generations of inmates.

The final article in the issue, authored by Stacey Menzel Baker and Courtney Nations Baker, goes to Kansas to examine another extreme context where a community is tasked with rebuilding after 95 percent of the material landscape was wiped away by a tornado. Whereas the loss of private access and ownership could be foregrounded in this story (as in the story of entry into a maximum-security prison), instead what emerges from the ethnographic data is a “bounce” narrative that illustrates how people in the community come to see “shared material resources [as] … the solution required to move the community away from vulnerability and toward resiliency” (Baker and Baker 2016, in this issue). The leveling and rebuilding of the entire community draws attention to the power of shared material resources for shifting collective identity along a trajectory of recovery and change. In this respect, it offers a more optimistic view than some prior studies of community disasters (e.g., Erikson 1976). Future research could explore more fully the role of individual and shared material resources in shaping individual and collective resilience. For example, this research highlights how individual narratives of recovery emerge in the recovery of shared community resources and rituals. While this is a small community, culturally embedded in the midwestern United States, the study highlights emergent and powerful narratives of the open-ended becoming that are made possible through sharing (Deleuze and Guattari 1987).

 

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