Theorizing Digital Divides and Inequalities.


Massimo Ragnedda and Glenn W. Muschert, Theorizing Digital Divides and Inequalities, in  an Servaes, Toks Oyedemi (eds) Social Inequalities, Media and Communication: A Global perspective, 2016, Lexington Books

Inequalities that exist in the digital sphere are certainly entangled with inequalities present in the “social sphere”. The aim of this chapter is to sketch a concept of stratification and inequalities in the digital sphere, the goal of which is to clarify whether the digital divide simply extends traditional forms of inequality, or whether it also includes new forms, which might include counter-trends that alleviate traditional inequalities and/or which form new modalities of inequality. The discussion will proceed from a theoretical perspective using Max Weber’s theory of stratification, in order to clarify how social stratification in the digital age is reproduced online. The main idea is that inequalities in the digital sphere are based on features that, just as in the social sphere, go beyond the economic aspects of inequality.

Indeed, what we argue is that to understand digital inequalities, the discussion should not focus on class dynamics (economic aspects), but also status/prestige (cultural aspects), and group affiliations (political aspects). As in “real life,” social stratification in the digital sphere is the result of this complex interplay of three factors. Indeed, as relevant to inequalities the material and ideological realms traditionally studied in 19th and 20th Century sociology, Weber’s insights provide an opportunity to revises Marxist conceptions of class that give primacy to structured economic inequalities (i.e., class dynamics).  While the relevance of class cannot be denied, a nuanced approach to stratification might also include aspects of social stratification in the digital sphere which relate to differential rewards experienced by groups and individuals in such areas as market influence, political power, and social status/prestige.

This complexity is precisely why we adapt Weber’s perspectives on stratification to contemporary dynamics observed in digital spheres. With this idea in mind, we explore from a theoretical point of view, the social inequalities in the age of the Internet, focusing beyond the economic role of social class, to encompass two broader dynamics of stratification described by Max Weber: i.e., “status” and “party”. Thus, we assume that the basic principles of social stratification should be sought not only in the economic sphere, but also in the spheres of pol culture and politics. Our aim is thus threefold: 1) to initiate a scholarly discussion of the importance of status and group affiliation in a postmodern society specifically in relation to digital inequalities; 2) to explore the importance of prestige in digital participation/exclusion.; and, 3) to explore the influence of group affiliation (Weber’s notion of “party” or political power) on digital participation/exclusion. These key distinctions Weber identified about inequality continue to be relevant in a digital age, although this perspective has thus far remained under-developed.

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