Undergraduate student Alec Wilson investigates the discourse around the legitimization of ride-hailing apps in Vancouver

Alec Wilson is a fourth-year Sociology major who is interested in ethnography and text analysis. His prior studies have focussed on social motivations for environmental protest, investigating economic morality through public discourse, and historical research. Outside of school, he volunteers with the Lettuce Harvest Foundation, a non-profit community-based agriculture program. Alec’s supervisor is Professor Amanda Cheong.

Alec’s research project is a discourse analysis of public documents from media, government councils and courts regarding Uber’s introduction and legitimization in Vancouver.

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UBC Sociology undergraduate student Alec Wilson

What was your project about? What are the main take-aways from your work?

Launching their service illegally in 2012, Uber spurred an extensive public debate in Vancouver about whether to integrate their controversial service. This debate alluded to divides in class and loyalty to the traditional taxi system, which sought to protect traditional employment regulation and the sustainability of their business model in BC. My work has reinforced findings from other cities regarding how ride-hailing successfully negotiates public acceptance of their service despite serious controversies. Uber’s framing of themselves as an innovative new technology benign to its repercussions for working conditions and detached from any prior rules regarding regulation allowed them to focus the debate on consumer freedom, cheaper prices, and quicker rides. I have also learned about the role that academic speakers play in public discourse, who are used tactically in discussion and media publications to assert claims about the value or harm of Uber’s service, often with some bias. This skewed the definition of the transportation problem in Vancouver, which ultimately informed public opinion and the government’s final decision to allow ride-hailing.

What inspired you? How did you get interested in this topic?

Uber’s absence in BC was a hot topic amongst some of my friends and family when I first began attending UBC, prompting me to wonder where they accessed this information and why they became impassioned about the topic. As I researched the controversies of Uber more (like their reduction of transportation workers to independent contractors, poor record of public safety, and mostly meagre wages), I became more bemused by their public success. Later on, as my passion for sociology grew, I began to read more from Joseph Gusfield, an American sociologist who provided a fascinating analysis of the history (and rhetorical project) of drinking-driving laws in the United States. After reading Gusfield’s The Culture of Public Problems, I knew that I wanted to conduct a study similar to Joseph Gusfield’s but related to my interest in economic sociology. Consequently, I thought that Uber’s integration into Vancouver would be a perfect place to begin exploring two topics of inquiry that are important to me – attitudes towards working conditions and rhetorical analysis. I know I am a novice, but I hope to do the topic justice.

What was the most difficult part of this learning journey? What was most satisfying?

Wishing to portray the discourse surrounding Uber in Vancouver from their introduction to legalization (2012 – 2020), I had to use a wide scope that included over 100 public documents. In past research I have done for the Urban Ethnographic Field School (UEFS) and in my qualitative methods class, I have typically been wary of large data analysis – preferring a more in-depth approach to a smaller dataset. Expanding my research scope, however, has helped me hone my research skills and become more comfortable with qualitative analysis tools like NVivo and R. While developing themes in such a large dataset can be perilous, as for every finding or interpretation there is the possibility of multiple contrary statements, the themes that I did end up finding felt more concrete as they had more data to support them. Having tons of evidence to support an argument is certainly satisfying, as I could prove the significance and generalizability of my data.

What skills did you develop or strengthen as a result of this project?

On top of skills in qualitative analysis, research writing and theoretical application I have used for other smaller projects, my thesis has helped me branch out to important social research programs like NVivo and R. NVivo is an incredible tool for qualitative analysis and learning its initially irritating interface has been very helpful for organizing my findings. In addition to NVivo, R has helped me develop data-frames to present quantitative findings (like the number of times ‘employee safety’ is mentioned in 100 articles) in a way that is flexible to my data. I look forward to strengthening both skills in future research. 

What assistance did your supervisor provide to help you succeed with this project?

Professor Amanda Cheong has been a great help. She has been the backboard for my initial worries and ideas about the project and was also the one who initially suggested that I take a self-directed R course this semester to help present my findings. Professor Cheong has also been an invaluable asset for talking about important research tools, applying for graduate school, and navigating some of the invisible curriculum which exists for someone wishing to do social research.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in a similar project (e.g. directed studies, honours thesis, quantitative or qualitative research)?

Take a chance on your ideas and reach out to faculty! Self-directed research is a great way to learn and recognize the implications of all the skills you have amassed in your undergrad. While learning research skills and theory in class is valuable, I found it hard to recognize the value of those skills until they were applied. The daunting process of conducting your own research will allow you to engage with your own curiosity and to artfully apply your knowledge to investigate social problems. Even if you feel that your interest or idea is half-baked, consider reaching out to a professor to figure out whether research would be worth pursuing. Remember that they also love social research and will most likely be happy to help make your interest more concrete.