If you ever paid your neighbor’s brother-in-law to put up a screen door on your house and you paid in cash – or venison – you and your handyman-for-hire have engaged in a type of economic and social commerce known as informal work.

A $650,000 federal grant to study the economics and social stress of rural communities and their people will, researchers hope, point to ways to make those communities “more economically and socially sustainable” through exchanges like informal work.

Even more than that, researcher and author Emily Wornell said, the study might help people understand the importance of maintaining those types of interactions and other social capital – defined as the networks of relationships among people in a smaller segment of society – and what communities stand to lose if that social capital goes away.

“If we do see those shifts in rural communities (the shift from informal work to more formal arrangements, like the gig economy), it will be important for communities to understand an important part of their social capital is gone,” Wornell said. “It’s important for a community to know if it’s losing social capital, especially for rural places that are really struggling.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded a grant for $650,000 to Wornell and Ellen Whitehead, both of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Wornell is a research assistant professor in Ball State’s Indiana Communities Institute and Whitehead is an assistant professor of sociology. The grant is through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and will cover their five-year research project, “Rural Informal Work in Economically, Socially, Culturally and Technologically Changing Contexts.”

The grant was announced on April 20, although Wornell said work on the project has been ongoing since January.

Wornell said the project is “aligned with the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s goals of promoting economically and socially sustainable, resilient rural communities. We believe our research will produce a unique and nuanced set of findings that may guide policy discussion regarding the local and state response to informal work.”

Informal work is sometimes equated to the gig economy – like ride-sharing service providers, or freelance writing and editing, jobs that aren’t created, maintained, and paid by companies and employers – but Wornell said the two are different.

“Informal work traditionally has been considered work that is done under the table for barter and trade,” she said. “It’s not reported to the government and taxes are not paid. The gig economy is reported.”

She cited her past research into informal work like a contractor who does a construction project for friends or family for cash under the table. She cited another example of work done for barter and trade, as when a hunter provides meat to a neighbor who does childcare duties.

“It is incredibly common in rural communities,” Wornell said. “That said, it is a common feature of American society and it is done in urban places as well, but it’s done more in rural communities.”

There’s a “strong social capital” aspect to informal work, she said. “People are doing informal work with people they know and trust. That’s what distinguishes it from the gig economy. It’s primarily with friends and friends of friends. 

“That kind of immediacy helps create stronger bonds in a community.”

Wornell cited a tidbit from past research in which neighbors provided meat to each other. “I’ll help my neighbor because they’re struggling, and next year when I’m struggling, I know they will be there for me because I was there for them. It’s a way to create social networks.”

The study would examine how informal work has shifted in response to social, technological, and economic contexts. The technological change could include, for example, changes thanks to social media, electronic funds transfers, and, fundamentally, the availability of cellphone service or broadband internet access.

Over the course of the five years of the study, the researchers will analyze existing data during the first year, conduct surveys for the next year, then conduct on-the-ground interviews and surveys for two years. The final years “will be putting all of these various pieces together to see what it tells us about the phenomenon of information work.”

Keith Roysdon is a longtime writer and reporter whose articles are published on several news and pop culture sites. 

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