Social capital and the three levels of digital divide.

Social capital and digital divideMassimo Ragnedda and Maria Laura Ruiu (2017) Social capital and the three levels of digital divideIn Ragnedda M., Muschert G. eds. (2017), Theorizing Digital Divides, Routledge.

Introduction. Although the relation between the Internet and social capital has been largely investigated (Wellman, 2001; Vergeer and Pelzer, 2009; Hampton, Sessions, and Her, 2011), the nature of such relation is still unclear. The ongoing dispute is still between two opposite positions emphasized in the really early stage of Internet studies (Wellman, 2001): on the one hand, the Internet increases and improves social relationships (Lévy, 1997); on the other, it negatively affects face-to-face relationships (Stoll, 1995). A number of studies have implicitly investigated that relation by emphasizing the role of the Internet in promoting both new democratic, participatory and open spaces (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991; Kapor, 1993), and collective action (Frantzich, 1999; Diani, 2000). This enthusiastic attitude, which we can define as a “techno-evangelist” approach, sees the Internet as a place of freedom in which people (with similar and different perspectives) meet up for “building” something together. According to this approach, the virtual space gives to users a “power capital”, represented by freedom of choices and democratic spaces of discussion. In these virtual spaces, citizens have the power to decide and mobilize people and resources towards a common objective. By contrast, a “techno-skeptic” approach sees the other side of the coin, in which Internet users increase their activity online while decreasing and weakening their social interactions and civil participation offline (Kraut et al., 1998; Gladwell, 2010; Fenton and Barassi, 2011). More specifically, earlier studies show how online activities may also enhance and increase social, human and economic capital (Hargittai and Hinnant, 2008; Hassani, 2006). These are part of a broader body of research that has focused on how social capital may affect digital divide (Chen, 2013; DiMaggio and Cohen, 2003). Literature on this relationship mainly refers to how the digital divide may increase the inequalities in terms of possession of social capital (Pénard and Poussing, 2014; Di Maggio et al., 2004; Katz and Rice, 2003). More specifically, Kvasny (2006), Robinson (2009) and Sims (2014) adapted Bourdieu’s theory to the Internet and new media research.

Social capital and digital divide

This chapter proposes a nuanced perspective which investigates the potential new applications of social capital in the context of digital divide and explores how social and digital capitals are interrelated. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is twofold: first, shedding light into the reciprocal influences existing between social capital and digital divide; and second, emphasising how digital capital is a distinctive form of capital, but strongly intertwined with other types of capital (e.g. economic, social, cultural). More specifically, this chapter attempts to investigate the interrelation between social capital and the three levels of digital divide (Ragnedda, 2017). The analysis here proposed regards not only how access to the Internet (first level of digital divide) influences and is influenced by social capital, but above all how users/citizens use the Internet, what they use it for (second level of digital divide) and the returning benefits of using it (third level of digital divide). Second, in analysing the relationship between social and digital capital we shall mainly focus on the differences and similarities outlined by three key authors (Putman, Coleman and Bourdieu) and, finally, we shall attempt to provide a more nuanced definition of digital capital. Indeed, while literature often refers to digital capital, there is still a lack of a clear definition of this concept. In the majority of cases the concept of digital capital is used with regard to the resources upon which the development of new products and services for the digital economy rely (see e.g. Tapscott et al., 2000; Roberts and Townsend, 2015).

In order to do this, we will first explore the multidimensionality of social capital by analysing the main traditional approaches to social capital and how they can be applied to the study of social and digital inequalities; then, in the second section, we will focus on the evolution from digital divide to digital inequalities and on how digital capital may influence both social and digital inequalities; then, as indicative examples, we will discuss five macro-areas through which one may observe the interrelationships between social and digital capital and, finally, we draw some conclusions.


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