The Third Digital Divide A Weberian Approach to Digital Inequalities


This book uses the theoretical framework developed by Weber to analyse the phenomena of the digital divide and digital inequalities in relation to social stratification.

The aim of this book is thus to sketch a concept of stratification and inequalities in the digital sphere, in order 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. As we shall see, inequalities that exist in the digital sphere are certainly entangled with inequalities present in the social sphere.

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. To understand digital inequalities, the discussion should not focus only 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. These key distinctions Weber identified about social inequality are still significant in a digital age.

Thus, this book focuses on how online activities and digital skills vary according to crucial sociological dimensions, in order to explain these in concrete terms in relation to the dynamics of social class, social status and power. The Weberian approach, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, provides a richer understanding of both digital and social inclusion and exclusion that goes beyond a narrow class-based analysis. Furthermore, I shall discuss how the trajectories of citizens’ lives – what Weber defined as “life chances” – are affected by digital capital and Internet usage. Being on the wrong side of the digital divide may have seriously implications for individuals’ lives and life chances. To put it differently, being excluded from the digital realm, or not being able to make a full use of the potentiality offered by information communication technologies (ICTs), may dramatically affect one’s opportunities to gain access to valued outcomes.

The capacity, or by contrast the incapacity, to access restricted and limited resources, opportunities, privileged positions and rewards in society is at the base of social inequalities (Grabb 1990). Such phenomena have always intrigued sociologists from all over the world, and several different approaches might be used to grasp the issue. For instance, a functionalist approach stresses the inevitability of inequalities and then attempts to explain their functionality for the whole of society. This sees a system of inequalities at the base of the division of labour (Durkheim 1984), based on skills and meritocracy. The approach, often used by the New Right movement (Murray 1990 and Saunders 1990), stresses the idea that society is meritocratic and inequalities are necessary (Davis and Moore, 1945). It was also at the base of neoliberal policies in the UK (Thatcher) and in the US (Reagan) in the 1980s. Such policies have dramatically influenced the structuration of social inequalities.

Another common approach used in explaining social inequalities is the Marxist approach, which basically explains inequalities as both a cause and a consequence of capitalism and greed. The focus is on the economic factor and on the division of society into two main macro classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat. The first class will benefit the most from inequality by exploiting the proletariat. This exploitation is supported by the hegemonic process, namely the idea that the values of the ruling class are imposed as ideology upon a whole culture (Gramsci 1981) or by the Ideological State Apparatus, namely the media, the family and the educational system (Althusser 1989). Both these approaches might be used to explain social inequalities in the Internet age, and I shall briefly mention both of them throughout our discussion.

However, in order to explain digital inequalities, I shall mainly use the Weberian approach, for several reasons which I will make clear below. Often, Weber is seen in opposition to Marx. However, as noted by several scholars, the Weberian approach could be seen as a positive interpretation of Marx, elaborating a constructive critique and an extension of Marx’s view (Gerth and Mills, 1958: 63; Sayer, 1991: 3-4). In the view of some, Weber may have “spent his life having a posthumous dialogue with the ghost of Karl Marx” (Salomon, 1945: 596). The influence of Marx on Weber’s theories is evident. However, the difference between these two authors becomes clear when discussing the theory of class: we may say that the Weberian theory of class is at the same time a distinct alternative to and a departure from Marx’s theory. His approach seems more complex than Marx’s, for whom economy and materialism comprise the base upon which social life is built. Although Weber is against this Marxist simplification, since he argues that social processes are always complex (Bendix, 1960: 6) and cannot be reduced to only economic factors, he often tends to discuss inequality and the concept of class in a “Marxian voice” (Wright, 1997: 29-30). As Collins (1986: 37) notes, Weber was “critically respectful” of the Marxist idea. Based on various sources and evidence, he proposed a modification of Marx and early Marxism.

To return to our theme, why is the Weberian approach appropriate here to understand the digital divide and related issues? I first started to think about this book during the commemorations of 150 years since the birth of Max Weber (2014). I have always thought that a knowledge of the “classic” fathers of sociology is important to understand and decode contemporary phenomena. My reasoning has been cleverly expressed by Italo Calvino (1999: 3), who suggests that “a classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading”. Weber’s analysis of social structure could be seen in this light. Weber must therefore be considered a living thinker rather than an old and dead theorist, and he remains a leading influence in social science. Paraphrasing Calvino (1999: 5), Weber’s classical approach has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers. Knowledge of his methodology and theoretical framework is still crucial to interpret and decipher the contemporary society in which we are living.

Weber’s thought is a keystone in modern social theory and his thought is a deep reservoir of fresh inspiration. Of course, the social, political, economic and technological world which generated his view was completely different to the one in which we are living today. However, like the work of all classic thinkers, his theoretical analysis is still vividly alive and useful to understand the world today. Max Weber’s mode of analysis can be highly stimulating in addressing social inequalities, usually described as the unequal distribution of opportunities, rewards, goods, wealth, education, healthcare, and punishments for different socially defined categories of persons within a group or society. Each society exhibits inequalities among individuals and groups, the sedimentation of social history, which gives rise to social strata in the practice of social relations, notably regarding access to social rewards such as money (class), prestige (status group) and power (political party). One of the challenges in this present work is to apply Weber’s theoretical approach to digital inequalities. The question is how to use this approach to understand digital inequalities, and how to readjust and reinvigorate it in the completely different economic, social, cultural and technological context of our contemporary world.

So, once again, why might a sociological approach be used to study the digital divide? More specifically, why might we use a Weberian approach to study digital inequalities? Firstly, sociologists are adept at examining inequalities as they exist in the world at large (Hadden, 1997); this is relevant for the digital divide because it deals with the inequalities that exist in the digital sphere. Secondly, the digital divide should be seen as a social, rather than a technological issue, and as such should be understood through sociological eyes. What is interesting and odd at the same time is that, although the digital divide and digital inequalities are fundamental aspects of social inequity in the information age, they have received less sociological attention than they should have done. Of course, a lot has been done, for example in the work of DiMaggio et al. (2001), Witte and Mannon (2009), Van Dijk (2005), Stern (2010), and Ragnedda and Muschert (2013), but a lot more is possible. Much more, indeed, should be understood and learned about how such inequalities are produced and reproduced in the digital realm. More importantly, much more should be done to explain how social and digital inequalities are intertwined and how they mutually and reciprocally influence each other.

This book, despite all its limitations, attempts to fill this gap in the literature, proposing a specific approach to study digital inequalities: a Weberian perspective. The key theoretical questions this book is going to investigate are:

–           How does the digital divide influence social stratification, and, reflexively, how does social stratification influence the development of the digital divide?

–           Is the digital divide creating new forms of social exclusion, such as forms of digital discrimination or digital exclusion?

–           Do traditional forms of inequality simply replicate themselves in the digital sphere, or does the digital divide operate under its own dynamics?


In order to attempt to provide answers to these fundamental questions, I think Max Weber’s theory of stratification offers the best perspective. Analysing, from a theoretical point of view, how social stratification in the digital age is reproduced not only by class dynamics (economic aspects), but also by status/prestige (cultural aspects) and in group affiliations (political aspects), is useful for a better understanding of digital inequalities. The digital divide should not only be approached from the point of view of economic structure (within the state and between states); we should also consider the broader axes of stratification, such as the social conditions of stratified relations, in order to understand the influence of class, status and power in creating the digital inequalities identified as the basis of digital discrimination. A nuanced approach to digital inequalities might also include aspects of social stratification in the digital sphere which relate to differential rewards experienced by different status groups and individuals in such areas as market influence, political power, and social status/prestige. It should reflect also on the fact that Internet use tends to reproduce online particular attitudes towards consumption or other distinctive lifestyle markers. These elements, as we shall see, characterize distinctive status groups, even in the digital realm.

My discussion of how the digital divide influences social stratification, and, reflexively, how social stratification influences the development of the digital divide will reveal the bi-directional nature of influence between social and digital inequalities which mutually and reciprocally influence each other. I shall address the digital divide in broad terms, attempting to explain why online inequalities are reproducing social inequalities, rather than mitigating them.

This is therefore a book about inequalities and how they are reproduced online, what social consequences they have, what patterns they follow, and what relations they have with offline inequalities. More specifically, it is about the multidimensionality and complexity of the digital divide, and the need to go beyond the binary division between those who access and those who do not access the Internet. This polar division is what is called the “first level” of digital divide. Scholars and researchers, as we shall see, have also addressed the second level, which includes digital skills and purpose and autonomy of use. These elements make using the Internet a qualitatively distinctive experience, and underline its inherent inequalities. However, this book is focussed on what I shall define as the third level of digital divide, namely the benefits that one gets from different access (first level) and different use (second level) of the Internet, and the ability to exploit these benefits in a digital-driven market to improve one’s life chances.

As we shall see, individuals’ access to and use of ICTs are shaped by the social structure (in Weberian terms) of which they are part. Hence, this book focusses on the third level of digital divide, the life chances that the access to and use of ICTs might give to users/citizens in the offline realm. This book looks at the social consequences of the use of ICTs and the rise of digital stratification. It is less concerned with how we access online resources, and more with the interrelations between online and offline, digital and social inequalities. This approach does not intend to deny the importance of the first level of digital divide, nor that of the more sophisticated second level; however, it holds that the third level is more interesting because it includes both the first and second levels and adds a further dimension. To put it differently, this book is more interested in the vicious circle between social and digital stratification than with digital skills and digital access. The purpose is to explain not only the antecedents of inequality that might affect access to and use of the Internet, but also the opportunities to improve life chances that are provided by such access and use. This analysis will be done through the Weberian lens, applying the multidimensional approach of social stratification to the study of digital inequalities, and analysing how different access to and use of the Internet affect the life chances of individuals.

I think that to broaden the scope of studies in digital inequalities, a new analysis 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. The goal is to identify digital stratification and digital inequalities, and read them through a Weberian lens. Acknowledging the complexity of the situation, I adapt Weber’s perspectives on stratification to the dynamics observed in contemporary digital spheres. Thus, this book clarifies the importance of studying the phenomena of the digital divide from a sociological perspective. The core idea is that social inequalities represent an issue typically studied by sociology, and that the Weberian approach is pertinent and useful in order to shed light onto this subject. With this idea in mind, I shall explore from a theoretical point of view the social inequalities prevalent in the age of the Internet, going beyond the economic role of social class to focus on the broader dynamics of stratification described by Max Weber. The key distinctions Weber identified about inequality continue to be relevant in a digital age, although this perspective has thus far remained under-developed. My aim is thus threefold: 1) to initiate a scholarly discussion of the importance of class and group affiliation in a postmodern society, specifically in relation to digital inequalities; 2) to explore the importance of status groups in digital participation/exclusion; and, 3) to explore the influence of group affiliation (relating to Weber’s notion of “party” or political power) on digital participation/exclusion.


Overview of the book

In the first chapter, I shall explain why the digital divide cannot be reduced to a specific, solid or static condition, and should instead be analysed in relation to the social inequalities that exist in the offline world. In other words, I will argue that digital inequalities must be understood in the cultural, social and political context in which they emerge. Indeed, is impossible to analyse the rise and diffusion of the digital divide and digital inequalities without taking into account cultural, social, technological, and political processes. Rather, it can be done (and has been attempted by several scholars and researchers), but the eventual picture will remain partial and incomplete. More importantly, the digital divide cannot be reduced to the basic and partial conception of access to digital technologies (Hargittai, 2002, 2010; Van Deursen and Van Dijk, 2009), but should also embrace different ways of using the Internet. There has been a change of perspective in the analysis of the digital divide, shifting from the first level to the second; however, as stated, this book shall focus mainly on the third level of digital divide, which shall be introduced in the first chapter. The shift from the first level to the third level will be described in the first chapter. The chapter shall start with an overview of the evolution of the Internet, evaluating the main theoretical approaches in analyses of the rise of the digital divide carried out by policy makers and scholars in earlier studies.

Once the main issue has been outlined, in the second chapter I shall explain why Weber still matters, and why this book uses a Weberian theoretical framework to analyse the new phenomenon of digital inequalities. In this chapter, I shall attempt to explain the relevance of Weber – who never knew the digital revolution – in understanding contemporary problems. I shall try to explain how the Weberian approach to social stratification, formulated more than a century ago, can be used as a lens to study digital inequalities. Moreover, vital concepts such as power, rationality, the “iron cage,” domination and life chances will be introduced in this chapter in order to orientate the subsequent chapters. All these concepts will be analysed in connection with the digital divide. This core chapter will give the reader a theoretical and empirical grounding in Weber’s thought, and describe the application of his theories to the digital divide. Furthermore, in this chapter I shall briefly underline the main differences between Weberian, Marxist and Durkheimian approaches in analysing social and digital inequalities. These approaches have dominated the debate among sociologists (Ashley and Orenstein, 1995), and even beyond the discipline (Adams and Sydie, 2001); I shall briefly outline how these classical approaches (and subsequent scholarly traditions) can be used in order to understand and explain the inequalities of the age of the Internet.

In the third chapter I shall discuss the relationship between offline patterns of social inequalities and digital inequalities. More specifically, I shall apply Weber’s three dimensions of stratification to the digital divide and social inclusion and exclusion among users. As we shall see, several scholars (e.g., DiMaggio et al., 2004; Van Dijk, 2005) have underlined a positive connection between social and cultural factors, digital resources and advantages in using digital technologies. However, what is missing is a more nuanced and comprehensive theoretical approach to investigate digital inequalities. I firmly believe that the Weberian approach provides a deeper understanding of where social and digital inequalities may lie. In this chapter, I shall use the social structure analysis proposed by Weber in Economy and Society (1978) (discussed in detail in the second chapter) as the platform to examine digital inequalities. The aim here is to understand the relevance of social class, status group and political party in shaping digital inequalities and creating forms of digital stratification. Furthermore, I shall discuss the relationship between offline patterns of social inequalities and digital inequalities. Weber’s three dimensions of stratification provide a framework to analyse social inclusion and exclusion among users. The Weberian approach explains how specific social hierarchies and social stratifications associate with different digital capital and practices to produce new forms of inequality. As we shall see, citizens’ cultural, economic and political backgrounds are related to what they do online but also to their digital skills. Does this mean that the digital sphere is structured like the social sphere? Is it possible to argue that the digital sphere is stratified? If so, does this mean that social and digital stratification follow the same patterns and reproduce the same hierarchies? This chapter attempts to answer these theoretical questions.

In the fourth chapter, I shall attempt to investigate the concept of life chances and how these play out in the market situation (whether finances/materials markets or markets of ideas). How do digital relations (or exclusions) affect life chances, and how does digital stratification affect life chances and individuals’ possibilities to improve their lives? Weber’s concept of “life chances” was intended to refer to individuals’ opportunities to gain access to scarce and valued outcomes (1978: 302); it has been further developed by Giddens, who has called life chances “the chances an individual has for sharing in the socially created economic or cultural ‘goods’ that typically exist in any given society” (1973: 130-1). Such “goods” are increasingly produced and reproduced online. Different online experiences provide different capacities and opportunities to produce economic and cultural goods to be invested in the digital-driven market, potentially to improve one’s life condition.

The aim of this core chapter is to investigate the extent to which new digital technologies offer new opportunities to improve people’s social lives. The Internet’s ability to transform lives remains crucial, and access to it can open doors to important societal resources, such as education, healthcare, and food, hence improving people’s quality of life. Weber argued that it is the market which regulates the life chances enjoyed by individuals; here, however, I argue that, in a society increasingly organized via digital networks, life chances are determined not only by the market but also by digital skills, motivation and capital resources. We shall see how what I shall define as “digital capital” strongly influences not only individuals’ capacities to use the Internet and find valuable information, but also how they use these capacities in order to improve their life chances. Again, the chapter will make clear the intertwined relationship between social inequalities and digital inequalities, and how they mutually and reciprocally reinforce each other.

Just as Weber moved beyond the distinction between property owners and non-owners to also focus on particular skills, lifestyles and other assets, in a digita0l society we should set aside the distinction between those who have and those who do not have access to the Internet in order to develop a social theory of digital inequalities integrated in social structures. As Weber stated, all skills and assets only have value in the context of a market; the same is true of digital skills and digital capital, which strongly influence individuals’ life chances and their ability to improve their quality of life.

In the final chapter, I want to draw together the threads of my argument regarding the rise of digital inequalities and the analysis of these phenomena from a sociological perspective. Furthermore, I shall give some indications for further research which may be of interest to researchers as well as policy makers seeking ways to tackle the digital divide.

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