Uber Ride in Bogota

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Getting In Cars with Strangers: The Sociology of Uber

Uber is a new type of transportation that has recently become a global phenomenon. The idea is simple and efficient, but how did Uber convince millions of people that it is perfectly acceptable to take a ride with a stranger? In this post, Ami Stearns uses the concept of Georg Simmel’s “Stranger” to make the case for the normalization of Uber’s rideshare service.

I tapped a few icons on my phone, stepped out of the hotel lobby doors, and hopped in the car of a total stranger. While I was in Florida for a conference in March, I rode with strangers three or four times. Complete strangers!

Every experience I had with these drivers was efficient, friendly, and very cost-effective. I did not even have to carry cash with me or figure out tips. I did not have to feel awkward about bumming a ride to the airport. How? Uber!  Uber is a rideshare concept developed in San Francisco in 2009. “Hailing” a ride is done by clicking on a smartphone app (or do it the old fashioned way, on your laptop) that locates you instantly, shows you how many drivers are within range, asks where you’re going, and lines you up with a ride within minutes. Here’s where it gets interesting: the drivers are regular people using their own vehicles- no bright orange taxicabs with obvious logos. It is, essentially, getting in the car with a stranger.

Uber has had its share of troubles. For instance, Uber customers accidentally hopping into a stranger’s car they mistook for their Uber ride has become the new awkward. Of greater concern, taxi services claim that ridesharing companies such as Uber threaten their livelihood and operate underneath legal parameters. In December, Paris taxi drivers protested against Uber by causing major traffic snarls in the City of Lights. Other more serious controversies include stories about Uber drivers’ misbehavior, like this April 8th sexual assault in Houston and an alleged burglary after an Uber pickup at a Denver home (Uber does have a number of safety measures in place, so these stories are much far rarer than the media would have us believe).

Uber has successfully overcome the self-preserving resistance we all have to getting into an unfamiliar car that is not marked as a taxi. In pre-Uber life, this was a deviant behavior. Today, it is acceptable. Besides the safety measures mentioned in the previous section, Uber goes to great lengths to legitimize its drivers as part of the Uber team and provide cues that it is okay for customers to give them their business and trust. An Uber driver is a stranger, yes, but Uber gives its customers information to help us trust these strangers, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Think about visiting a massage therapist you have never been to before. You would never drop your clothes and let a random passer-by touch you all over (well, maybe you would, but that’s a different blog post!). However, the massage therapist’s uniform, his or her location within a building that specifies it provides massage therapy, and other “cues” allow us to interact, sometimes quite intimately, with a perfect stranger. If you would hop into a taxi without trepidation, Uber figures you should hop into one of their cars without any fear, also. The information, or cues, are provided when Uber sends riders a photo of the driver and the vehicle through the Uber platform on their smartphone or other device. Most vehicles have an Uber tag hanging somewhere inside or a small sticker on the window. Riders can rest easy knowing they could contact Uber immediately if there were a problem, in addition to being able to rate the driver’s service (if only I could have had the ability to do that with a particular NYC cab driver!). This all serves to surround the customer with cues that this is a legitimate driver associated with the larger, well-known, Uber corporation.

Think more about the trust we put in strangers in our society. We trust that the person coming into our yard to read the water meter is not there to case our house, because he or she is wearing a uniform and driving a water company vehicle. We trust that the barber we visit is not going to use those scissors to hurt us because we are clearly in a place where haircutting symbols and cues surround us (the signs, the tools, pictures on the walls). We trust that the stranger giving us a yearly physical will not do us any harm because there are lab coats, scrubs, medical symbols, and that familiar disinfectant smell. In modern society, we put our trust in strangers not only because we have to, but because we are put at ease by the information, cues, and symbols as a context for these strangers.

Georg Simmel was a German sociologist who wrote on a variety of topics. One concept he put forth was “the stranger.” The stranger exists within modern society as a result of economic forces. We don’t know how to fix our hot water heater, so we let a stranger into our house to do it for us, as long as he or she arrives in a clearly-marked vehicle and is carrying the appropriate tools we associate with someone who can fix hot water heaters. We need some blood drawn so we allow a stranger to stick a needle in our arm, as long as we are in surroundings that “look” medical and we see scrubs, sterilized equipment, and certain paperwork. We interact daily with perhaps dozens of strangers who are physically close to us, but very distant in terms of personal relationships.

As Simmel said, the stranger is near and far simultaneously. An economic exchange, such as paying someone for a ride in their car, requires nearness, but there is still distance because the persons involved in this exchange are not part of the same social groups. Uncertainty resides in this near/far quality of interaction with a stranger. In the absence of obvious cues such as bright yellow taxicabs, Uber must overcome uncertainty by reassuring customers that it is “okay” to get into these cars. Yes, an Uber driver is definitely a stranger in our society, someone with whom we will come in contact only when can’t drive ourselves or don’t want to drive ourselves. The only way to normalize such close contact with a stranger in our society is for that stranger to be surrounded by cues and symbols that reassure us.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think about a stranger that you interacted with this week. What did they provide for you? Explain how you were both near and distant from this stranger.
  2. Can you explain why the concept of “the stranger” was not possible in a pre-modern, pre-capitalistic era?
  3. Have you taken an Uber, Lyft, or other ride-sharing ride yet? What was the experience like? In what ways were you reassured that getting in a stranger’s car was appropriate? If you have not experienced a rideshare, find someone who has and ask them these same questions.
  4. Go to this blog post about Uber’s dedication to enhancing the quality of life for its women drivers. Read the blog and watch the video of three women describing their lives as an Uber driver. Instead of describing how Uber has normalized the act of getting into a stranger’s car, use Simmel’s theory of the stranger to describe how Uber has normalized a woman letting a stranger into her car. Do you see a difference? Why or why not?


  • Simmel, Georg. 1908. Soziologie. Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot.