Working Papers

An idiosyncrasy credit or a generalist discount?

Conditional advantages to working broadly in a virtual labor market


This article challenges the widespread notion that spanning recognized categories, or generalism, is disadvantageous. In markets, buyers face the fundamental challenge of gaining insight into the underlying ability of sellers. Economic sociologists rely on theories of categorization to explain how participants navigate this assessment. Social actors who span multiple categories have been found to be disadvantaged. We do not believe this is always the case and seek to identify conditions under which generalism by job seekers is valued. We start with the contention that spanning is an ambiguous indicator of quality, and suggest how it is perceived is dependent on other, salient indicators. We investigate two – relevance and reputation – which are often confounded with generalism. We propose that the same spanning behavior can be advantageous or disadvantageous depending on these other indicators. We hypothesize that those who evince the necessary attributes an employer is looking for by being relevant are advantaged when they also span disparate areas because employers value broader experiences. Spanning should also be advantageous for highly reputable applicants because it is more consistent with the belief they possess superior skills. In short, we identify idiosyncrasy credits. We test and find support for these hypotheses in the context of a virtual labor market for freelancers –