“Communication and ‘The Good Life’ Around the World After Two Decades of the Digital Divide
Preconference E-Book, Social stratification and digital divide: a weberian approach
Massimo Ragnedda and Glenn W. Muschert.
Defined as stratification in the access to- and use of the Internet, the so-called digital divide is inevitably tied with the concept of social inequalities. Systems of structured inequalities exist in every example of human society. That is, each society exhibits inequalities among individuals and groups, and as these are the sedimentation of social history, this give rise to social strata in the practice of social relations, notably regarding access to social rewards such as money, prestige and power.
Sociology in particular (and the social sciences in general) have a long and fruitful tradition in the study of social inequalities, and sociology, more than any other discipline, has contributed to the debates about stratification. Despite this, the phenomenon of the digital divide (a fundamental aspect of social inequity in the information age) has received less sociological attention than it should (although this is changing – see e.g., DiMaggio et al., ; Witte & Mannon ; Van Dijk J ; Stern ; and Ragnedda & Muschert ). To broaden the scope studies in digital stratification a new analyses based on Max Weber’s would be useful in order to open up a new set of questions about the social stratification of the digital sphere.
Increasingly, aspects of social life are migrating and expanding on-line, including the functioning of key institutions (not to mention participation in such structured interactions). Aspects of many of the following social domains are increasing handled in the digital sphere, notably education at all levels, economic relations, social interactions (including social networking), political participation, employment, leisure activities, communication, news media, and entertainment media. The digital divide is a concept that deals with the inequalities that exist in the digital sphere, and certainly, sociologists are adept at examining inequalities as they exist in the world at large, yet there is much to be learned such inequalities in their digital dimensions. Social inequalities are an issue most typically studied by sociology which has numerous concepts available to describe stratified social relations. The future of digital divide research should focuses on how online activities vary according to crucial sociological dimensions, including gender, age/generation, education, income, employment, and race/ethnicity and, further, to explain these in concrete terms in relation to dynamics social class (lifestyle and culture), social status (prestige and market influence), or power (political impact). Indeed, these key distinctions Weber identified about inequality are still significant and important in a digital age, although this perspective has thus far remained under-developed. It is a complex idea and so far poorly addressed.
While Marx’s concept of class highlights the existence of objectively structured economic inequalities in society, we assume that the basic principles of social stratification should be sought not only in the economic sphere, but also in the spheres of politics and culture. Weber revises Marx’s analysis arguing that social stratification relates to the access of different groups and individuals in social rewards such as money, power and prestige. Weber’s potential contribution to digital divide studies is on two planes: first, Weber argues that there are a variety of economic factors relevant to the formation of class relations. In addition to the access (or lack thereof) to the means of production, skills and credentials (or qualification) can be dominant features of many professions. Those with access to and control over such qualifications enjoy a “market situation” more advantageous than those without such control.
It is worth researching, how the new skills and credentials required by the contemporary digitally-enabled networked society may function to facilitate or suppress digital divides. For example, there are differences in connection speeds (i.e. the Digital Agenda for Europe 2012 states that 50% of the EU will subscribe to broadband above 100 Mbps by 2020: what will happen to the other 50%? Are we creating two Internets, one faster and the other slower? Which kinds of social consequences this could have?) and where one accesses the Internet, such that a person with reliable broadband who access the web at work, home, and on a mobile device would presumably be in a better position than one accessing the web via dial-up with limited access. Similarly, a person with great skill in navigating the web would be at comparative advantage in accessing information, as would a person with greater resources of time to spend on-line. Thus, the digital divide may be measured in a variety of ways, and along a continuum including the following aspects: access vs. non-access; number of sites of access; varying skill at using digital tools; the amount of time spent on-line; the variety of activities accomplished on-line; how frequently a person goes on-line; inevitably creates social inequalities in the society; and why a person does not go online (i.e. according to the Pew Research Internet Project 2013, 15% of American population do not go online. Interesting enough are the reasons for this digital exclusion: 33% for usability problems and 19% for economic reason. Furthermore, the usability problems are increasing, rising from 12% in the 2009 to the 32% of 2013. Finally, the 63% of not users would need assistance if they wanted to go online).
Secondly, Weber posits that the process of stratification expresses itself in two other forms, namely “status” and “party.” For this reason would be useful investigate the importance of status in a postmodern society in relation to new social and digital inequalities; the influence of social class and political affiliation upon digital divides; and, the importance of prestige in digital participation or exclusion (i.e. according to DAE 50% of citizens will use eGovernment by 2015: this data could be analysed both in terms of digital participation or digital exclusion).
The key theoretical questions need to be asked in the future of digital divide research may be:
– How does the digital divide influence social stratification or, reflexively, how does social stratification influence the development of the digital divide?
– Is the digital divide reproducing or limiting of social inequalities?
– Is the digital divide creating new forms of social exclusion, such as forms of digital discrimination or exclusion?
– Do traditional forms of inequality simply replicate themselves in the digital sphere, or does the digital divide operate under its own dynamics?
– Similarly, it is unclear whether inequalities in the digital world translate culturally, or whether they manifest themselves in culturally-specific ways.
– It is unclear whether the digital divide simply exacerbates traditional inequalities, or whether it also includes counter-trends that might mitigate traditional inequalities while forming new modalities of stratification.
In order to attempt to give an answer to these fundamental questions, we think that Max Weber’s theory of stratification is the best research methods and critical perspectives. We think that stimulating a research on how social stratification in the digital age is reproduced not only based on class dynamics (economic aspects), but also by status/prestige (cultural aspects), and in group affiliations (political aspects) could be useful in order to bridge the digital divide.
The digital divide should be approached not only from the economic structure’s point of view (within the state and between states), but policymaking should consider the broader axes of stratification such as the social conditions of stratified relations, to understand the influence of class, status, and power in creating the digital gap identified as the basis of digital discrimination. Understanding this complex interplay of these three factors that create social stratification would help policymaking to addresses the digital divide with the final aim to transform the digital divide into digital opportunities.
Digital Agenda for Europe. Scoreboard 2012, Available at http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/sites/digital-agenda/files/KKAH12001ENN-PDFWEB_1.pdf (Last accessed 24th March 2014).
DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W.R. & Robinson, J. (2001). The social implications of the Internet. Annual Review of Sociology 27, 307–336.
Pew Research Center (2013), The State of Digital Divides. Available at http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/11/05/the-state-of-digital-divides-video-slides/ Last accessed 24th March 2014)
Ragnedda M., G.W. Muschert (2013). The Digital Divide. The Internet and Social Inequality in International Perspective. London/New York: Routledge, 2013.
Van Dijk J. (2005). The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society. London: SAGE.
Weber, M. (1947). The theory of social and economic organization. New York: Free Press.
Witte JC, Mannon SE, (2010). The Internet and Social Inequalities. New York: Routledge.