Romanticising Market Exchange: Unpacking Cultural Meanings of Value in Home-sharing Markets
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The so-called sharing economy has disrupted the way people exchange, create, produce or transfer value. Digitally-enabled, this economy makes it easier for consumers to rent, share, barter and lend private resources to strangers, a consumption practice called collaborative consumption. Past literature suggests that prototypical sharing facilitates a sense of inclusion, but consumers fail to develop feelings of belonging. The misuse of the term ‘sharing’ may be the culprit for mixed findings in the literature. This study explores how consumer sharing can be romanticised in market exchange. Drawing on Romanticism as an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that is central to the rise of consumer culture (Campbell, 1987), this thesis contextualises consumer sharing in a consumer sharing marketplace that is wrought with paradoxes, conflicts tensions and ideological struggles. Adopting a multi-sited ethnography, netnography and grounded theory analysis to theorise consumers’ romanticised sharing processes, this research empirically studies a home-sharing network (Airbnb) to understand how sharing and collaboration take place between producers and consumers (e.g., hosts and guests) and if Romanticism is in fact embedded in their sharing experiences. This thesis discovers that home-sharing consumers and producers are on a journey towards a moral destiny that fuses opposing ideologies of Romanticism and Rationalism together. They mythologise a new paradise where they can re-emerge with the natural world, return to a collaborative society of human nature and imagine a new order where the common public interest and freedom for all is actualised. However, in a market system such as home sharing where hosts supply a home and are compensated for it, rational thinking and self-interests do not escape the network. Thus, with the interplay of the two ideologies, the network is laden with paradoxes, conflicts and tensions. The apparent contradictions occur at micro, meso and macro-levels of interaction that eventually lead hosts and guests to perform Romantic practices and engage in resistance narratives to disguise the internal ideological struggles; that is, home sharing is an open secret that is known but cannot easily be articulated. Through the processes of open secrecy, the home-sharing network is empowered and hosts and guests enthusiastically engage in their sharing experiences even though they can be illusive and filled with paradoxes and conflicts. The joint disbelief and ambiguity of the home-sharing experience and the perceived belief that sharing intentions may be pure allow hosts and guests to co-create a journey towards an imagined utopic paradise that embodies their moral-oriented self-identities. This is realised in Airbnb home-sharing heterotopic spaces that reflect real sites of exchange and home spaces (Foucault, 1986). However, they are actually ‘counter sites’ that fuse Rationality and Romanticism, thus creating heterotopic sites of deviance, illusion and compensation, which are fundamentally controlled through the spatiotemporal and social boundaries of the spaces that hosts and guests ‘play’ in. These spaces reflect the commercialisation of intimacies and the social society we live in. The findings explain the relationship between the Romantic concept of sharing consumption and the heterotopic ‘space of difference’ that can juxtapose many incompatible sites in a single real space in which the notion of ‘open secrecy’ and ‘masking’ are understood as the socially-situated deployment of cultural fantasies. Thus, taking the problem of paradoxical consumption of true sharing and self-interested exchange as a starting point, this research introduces the concept of the fusion of Romanticism and Rationalism in the sharing economy to understand the transformation of access to possessions and the embedded cultural experience that hosts and guests experience, which is saturated with rituals, symbols practices and emotions. This study addresses the complex workings of the private spaces of homes that are challenged in various ways by commercial practices, thus creating an anti-market and anti-private place. In doing so, the study’s findings join a growing body of consumer culture research on identity work, sharing, resistance, possessions and use of space. It also offers methodological implications to future researchers on the use of a multi-sited ethnography and netnography as well as practical implications for marketers, policymakers and consumers.