Applying Bourdieu to eBay's Success and Socio-Technical Design

Applying Bourdieu to eBay's Success and Socio-Technical Design

Rebecca M. Ellis (University of Essex, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch031
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This chapter introduces the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his concepts of “the field” and “capital” in relation to eBay. In any given field, there is competition for various sorts of “capital”—power and resources. This chapter considers eBay to be a “field” in its own right—a socio-technical system with its own set of social norms and rules. eBay is used as a case study of the importance of applying a Bourdieuean approach to create successful socio-technical systems. Using a study of eBay users as empirical illustration, this chapter argues that much of eBay’s success is in the affordances for social translucence of eBay’s Web site in supporting the Bourdieuean competition over capital and status. This exploration has implications for socio-technical systems design— in particular, the importance of creating and maintaining socially translucent systems, informed by Bourdieu’s theoretical insights, which support competition for “capital” and status.
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…understanding how to design digital systems so that they mesh with human behaviour at the individual and collective levels is of immense importance. By allowing users to… make inferences about the activities of others, to imitate one another, we believe that digital systems can become environments in which new social forms can be invented, adopted, adapted and propagated…

—Erickson and Kellogg (2000, p. 80)



eBay, the ‘world’s largest personal online trading community’, was initially set up in 1995 with collectors in mind. It enabled easier access to collectibles (Bunnel & Luecke, 2000)—where the traditional inefficiencies of person-to-person trading such as geographical fragmentation and imperfect knowledge (ibid.) could be offset through computer mediated communication. eBay initially aimed to improve the market liquidity for collectables, which are more problematic to exchange than mass-produced consumer items (Chircu & Kauffman, 2001). But the Internet auction site developed into the way for users to generally establish prices for goods with uncertain values (cf. Smith, 1989), including second-hand mainstream items, and later even diversified into selling new and old goods at fixed prices (Zukin, 2004). eBay’s success, however, did not alone hinge on making the market more efficient, or creating a platform where items, formerly hidden in limited geographic markets, were made public to the world. Using a two-year qualitative study of eBay users, this chapter argues that a large part of eBay’s success is the affordances eBay’s Web site offers in terms of supporting various social and cultural actions and practices. It is both a system affording social translucence (Erickson et al., 1999) and ‘social navigation’ (Dieberger et al., 2000) in relation to ‘capital’ and status, which contributes to its success. eBay is used here as a case study of the importance of applying a Bourdieuean approach to create successful socio-technical systems. This Bourdieuean approach has implications for wider socio-technical systems and e-commerce design which this chapter will discuss.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Communities of Practice: ‘Communities of practice’ as defined by Wenger, involve: “…groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, N.D.: 1). Hildreth, Kimble and Wright (1998) note that definitions of ‘communities of practice’ are wide ranging. Wenger (1998) sees the concept as a new term for a familiar experience, and relates it to a social theory of learning. The origin of the term is in Lave and Wenger’s (1991) book Situated Learning (Stamps, 1998). They propose a theory of situated learning where learning: “is an integral part of a generative social practice in the lived-in world” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 35) and: “the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 29). In essence, this concerns the process by which newcomers or ‘apprentices’ engage with and become a part of a community of practice which consists of other apprentices, ‘young masters’ and masters. In looking at gender and language as community-based practice, Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1992) take Lave and Wenger’s notion of community of practice to mean: “an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in an endeavor. Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations—in short, practices—emerge in the course of this mutual endeavor. As a social construct, a community of practice is different from the traditional community, primarily because it is defined simultaneously by its membership and by the practice in which that membership engages” (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 1992, p. 464).

Cultural Capital: Cultural capital is seen to be based on cultural knowledge, dispositions and competences, and acquiring cultural capital builds authority and power. One may need certain skills, powers or knowledges to enter particular fields and be seen as legitimate. In the field of cultural production, there are producers, and those who legitimate and consecrate cultural products as consumers (e.g. critics, galleries, the public) (Bourdieu, 1993). Cultural capital is inculcated and acquired through education, the family and social institutions—which allows social agents to decipher cultural artefacts and understand their internalised codes. Cultural capital is unequally distributed, often differentially amongst different class fractions (Bourdieu, 1993). Malaby applies Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital to online and synthetic worlds. He defines cultural capital as: “the resource that participants develop and acquire in the form of competencies and credentials and that they also invest in valued cultural objects, or artifacts” (Malaby, 2006, p. 146). Malaby sees the cultural competencies of synthetic worlds as in greater flux than in the ‘offline’, and are part of a process of ‘becoming’, rather than reproducing existing socioeconomic differences. Malaby suggests certain competencies may relate to technologically mediated environments, but are not essentially different to those developed in other technical domains—such as flying a plane. However, he argues that there is a need to research such ‘synthetic world’ competencies in more detail.

Capital: ‘Capital’, for Bourdieu, concerns: “the set of actually usable resources and powers” (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 114), and there are various sorts of capital: economic, social, cultural and symbolic. Economic capital refers to money and assets; whereas social, cultural and symbolic capital involve interests and resources which are not material (cf. Bourdieu, 1993).

Social Translucence: The term ‘social translucence’ was developed in by Erickson, Smith, Kellogg, Laff, Richards and Bradner (1999). ‘Socially translucent systems’ are described as those digitally-based systems which provide social cues which afford accountability, awareness and visibility (op. cit.). These social cues in turn allow people to draw upon their expertise and social experience in structuring their interactions with others (Erickson and Kellogg, 2000). Erickson, Smith, Kellogg, Laff, Richards and Bradner (1999) describe certain actions which are possible in socially translucent systems—such as noticing, creating and conforming to social conventions; engaging in peer pressure and imitating others’ actions through observation (op. cit.). Social translucence as a design approach is also articulated in Erickson, Halverson, Kellogg, Laff and Wolf (2002). The ‘social’ in social translucence refers to providing socially salient cues. Translucence is a term used in preference to ‘transparence’—it is not an intention to make all socially salient cues visible, just some of them. Erickson and Kellogg (2000) note a tension between visibility and privacy in such systems, which also impacts on systems employing a social navigation approach—where there is a trade-off between allowing users to see the paths of others versus seeing the footprints of anonymised and merged use (Wexelblat and Maes, 1999). Cues are differentially available through space and are made use of in interactions (Erickson, Halverson, Kellogg, Laff and Wolf, 2002). One system of social translucence involves the notion of a social proxy, a minimalist form of visualisation of people or their activities (Erickson and Kellogg, 2002). These are part of bringing social cues into digital systems through an abstract approach of simple text and graphics (Erickson and Kellogg, 2002).

A (social and technical) ‘field’: Bourdieu developed the concept of the ‘field’ to denote the fact that agents act in social situations which are governed by objective social relations (Bourdieu, 1993) between people. McNay notes that modern society in increasingly differentiated into distinct fields (McNay, 1999). According to Sterne (2003), we might consider a field as being where technological production and consumption come together—as with a mutually constitutive technical and social system. Social formations are structured by a series of fields (such as the cultural, educational and political), with each being a structured space with its own rules or laws which require mastery (Bourdieu, 1993). In any given field, there is social struggle and competition, where agents vie for control of ‘capital’ (op. cit.).

Affordances: The term ‘affordances’ has its origins in Psychology, “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (Norman, 2002, p. 9). The term was coined by a perceptual Psychologist, J. J. Gibson (Norman, 1999). However, Norman pushed the notion of affordance beyond properties into experiences, noting affordances have a historical basis—users know what to do with things because they have used them before—they know to turn a knob or push on a door plate (Norman, 2002). Norman’s contribution was in setting out perceived affordances. In product design, Norman notes that there are both real and perceived affordances, but these need not be the same (Norman, 1999). There is a perception of what is possible which is different from what is actually possible. In screen based interfaces, he notes interface designers primarily control only perceived affordances (op. cit.). The physical affordances of the computer, screen, keyboard and mouse are already built in. There are differences between real affordances and perceived affordances on the screen. Real affordances may not have a visual presence, and perceived affordances sometimes do not support real affordances. Norman (1999) also suggests that designers often confuse the notion of affordances with conventions or constraints. He contends that virtual worlds are often more about constraints and conventions, and the physical world more about affordance. He suggests there are three kinds of constraints on behaviour: physical, logical and cultural. Physical constraints are related to real affordances—you cannot move a cursor outside a screen. Logical constraints involve reasoning to determine alternatives. It is how users know to scroll down to see the rest of the page. Cultural constraints are conventions shared by a group. They are cultural and learned conventions, such as dragging the scroll bar down with a cursor which changes shape on the scroll bar, to see the bottom of the page. But the system does not have to be designed in this way. Conventions are constraints that prohibit some activities and encourage others, affordances concern the range of possible actions and relate to properties of the world. Physical constraints cannot be overcome, but logical and cultural constraints can be ignored. Conventions evolve and require a ‘community of practice’ to be adopted (op. cit.) and are artificial and learned, with learning them helping us to master everyday life.

Stickiness: The notion of ‘stickiness’ is shorthand for attracting visitors and keeping them there (Cohen, 2002). Festa (1999) notes NetRatings analyst Peggy O’Neill’s definition of stickiness as: “a measure of how engaging you are.” Sanchez (N.D.) similarly sees ‘stickiness’ as involving Web sites: “you want to go back to again and again”. Sanchez argues there is a cycle of stickiness—the more people visit your site, the more they rely on it and trust you, and the more you generate revenue. For Sanchez, then: “Stickiness = relationships = loyalty = revenues”. Haywood (2006) unpicks this notion of stickiness and relates it to Miller’s use of Gell’s notion of the ‘aesthetic trap’ (Miller, 2000). Miller examined the commercial and personal Web sites of Trinidadians, and noted the importance of the social in the design of the Web sites. Miller characterised the Web sites as creating ‘aesthetic traps’, where the notion of aesthetics refers broadly to the visual characteristics of Web sites: “as attempts to create aesthetic traps that express the social efficacy of their creators and attempt to draw others into social or commercial exchange with those who have objectified themselves through the internet” (Miller, 2000, p. 6). Miller also suggests that Web site visuals are also used to align the Web site’s audience with its creators, as a signal for an ‘appropriate’ audience (Haywood, 2006; Ellis and Haywood, 2006).

Social Navigation: The term ‘social navigation’ was first used by Dourish and Chalmers in a short paper presented at the HCI conference in 1994 (Chalmers, Dieberger, Höök and Rudström, 2004). In terms of the online world, social navigation involves your decisions being informed and guided by information about what other people have been doing online (Dieberger, Dourish, Höök, Resnick and Wexelblat, 2000). Wexelblat and Maes (1999) examine navigation in complex information spaces, and highlight the importance of interaction history or traces to guide our actions. In online spaces, problem-solving work carried out by users is said to leave traces which should be accessible to users in the future to make solving problems easier (op. cit.). Wexelblat and Maes use analogies to the physical world to describe the benefits of creating online spaces which can support social navigation. They suggest that following Norman (see the definition of ‘Affordances’)—objects that are rich in the history of use acquire new affordances which we can use for new ways of interaction, for example a library book with annotated notes is interacted with differently than a new book (op. cit.). They describe different sorts of interaction history—knowing what was done, knowing who did it, knowing why it was done and knowing how it was done. These are all important for different reasons in future actions and problem solving—for example the ‘who’ may be important as the views of domain experts have greater legitimacy as a ‘trace’ than that of an amateur (cf. Dieberger, Dourish, Höök, Resnick and Wexelblat, 2000). Dieberger, Dourish, Höök, Resnick and Wexelblat (2000) suggest that systems software is only slowly adopting social navigation. Social navigation systems exploit social behaviour and practices in order to help users explore and navigate (Chalmers, Dieberger, Höök and Rudström, 2004). People are said to transform space from their use and behaviour. However, the traces which are left behind can be sedimented and alter social practices—space is transformative and impacts on society (cf. Dieberger, Dourish, Höök, Resnick and Wexelblat, 2000), as well as society impacting on space.

Social Capital: Recent interest in the term social capital has its origins in the writings of Pierre Bourdieu (Schuller, Baron & Field, 2000). Bourdieu’s term ‘social capital’ was best articulated in his chapter ‘Forms of capital’ in 1983 (op. cit.), having remained often elusive and marginal in other works (op. cit.). The concept was defined as: “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (Bourdieu cited Portes, 1998, p. 3). Bourdieu’s social capital focuses on the benefits accrued by individuals through participation in groups, including the purposive construction of sociability for social capital advantages (Portes, 1998). Actors, through social capital, can also gain access to economic capital (loans, markets) and cultural capital (through experts or others with cultural capital). James Coleman is also associated with the concept of ‘social capital’, and is best known for using the term in educational contexts (Schuller, Baron & Field, 2000). He also defines it in terms of a set of resources which facilitate the actions of actors. The resources comprise of entities which have as part of them some elements of social structures, but the resources facilitate acting within the structure. Coleman sees social relations as providing social capital resources through creating information channels, establishing obligations and social norms (op. cit). Robert Putnam’s work on social capital is currently the most cited across a range of disciplines and fields (op. cit). In Bowling Alone, a book that charted the decline in community organisations and civic engagement in the US, Putnam suggested that the core of social capital theory was that social networks have a value, with social contacts affecting group and individual productivity (Putnam, 2000). Putnam talks of norms of generalised reciprocity—that you do someone a favour and expect that someone else will do something for you later on. Schuller, Baron and Field (2000) also point out Putnam’s definition of social capital as involving aspects of social life—trust, norms and networks—which help people pursue joint objectives and act more effectively together. Putnam (2000) suggests computer mediated communication (CMC) can support dense, large and fluid groups across the boundaries of geography and organisations, and allow for networks based on shared interests instead of just shared space. He talks of CMC increasing people’s ‘intellectual capital’ as information is capable of being shared at virtually zero cost. But he also argues that a lack of social cues means that computer-based groups are generally worse at trust and reciprocity and may indulge in ‘flaming’ and disinhibited behaviour.

Symbolic Capital: Symbolic capital is said to refer to a: “degree of accumulated prestige, celebrity or honour and is founded on a dialectic of knowledge (connaissance) and recognition (reconnaissance)” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 7). In Distinction (1984), Bourdieu refers to symbolic capital as: “the acquisition of a reputation for competence and an image of respectability and honourability…” (1984, p. 291). Bird and Smith (2005) note the convergence between Bourdieu and consumption theorist Veblen (1994) in that a seeming lack of interest in building economic capital in the form of conspicuous consumption or generosity attain the highest profits in terms of symbolic capital. There is a cost to building symbolic capital in terms of time, wealth or energy.

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