How offline backgrounds interact with digital capital

Ragnedda, M., Ruiu, ML., Addeo, F., (2022), How offline backgrounds interact with digital capital, New Media and Society.

Abstract: This article investigates the interaction between digital capital and some offline components (economic, cultural, political, social and personal) that represent the background against which we access and use the Internet. Based on a stratified sample of the UK population (868), six indexes (one for each component) were generated through factor analysis and univariate analysis. We summarised them into a unique model by performing a multiple linear regression to evaluate the role-played by offline components in the development/reinforcement of digital capital. The interaction between these new indexes and the digital capital index shows that, with the exception of the political component, all offline backgrounds positively contribute to digital capital. Moreover, the multiple regression analysis shows that the economic and social components have the strongest influence on digital capital.


The role-played by socio-cultural and economic backgrounds in influencing digital inequalities has attracted the attention of scholars since the very beginning of Internet studies (DiMaggio et al., 2001). Researchers have increasingly explored the relationship between digital and social inequalities by showing some interdependencies between the pre-existing backgrounds of individuals and their related degree of digital skills and experience in using the Internet (Blank and Groselj, 2015Van Deursen et al., 2015). The main contribution of this article is to conceptualise and measure how various components of individuals’ everyday lives (economic, social, cultural, personal and political components: referred to as the 5Cs from now on) contribute to the creation of digital capital. Our research builds on previous studies that have shown how individual backgrounds and the context in which people grow up influence how individuals approach (Gui and Argentin, 2011), use (Van Deursen and Van Dijk, 2014) and engage (Robinson, 2009) with digital technologies. More specifically, our research aims to analyse to what extent individual backgrounds influence the increase of digital capital, by following the path of other studies that underlined a connection between the cultural, social and economic backgrounds of users, and their Internet access and use (Helsper, 2012Van Deursen et al., 2014Van Deursen and Van Dijk, 2015). Adding to these studies, this work contributes to the investigation of the interaction between social (Bourdieu, 1985Coleman, 1990Putnam, 1995), political (Syed and Whiteley, 1997), economic (Bourdieu, 1985), personal (Becker, 1996) cultural (Bourdieu, 1985) and digital capital.

Indicators of components to include in this study were guided by the literature on the relationship between existing backgrounds and online experiences. In contrast, digital capital is a novel concept open to debate, which needs to be explored to identify its constitutive elements. To fill this gap in the research, this contribution adopts the concept of digital capital provided by Ragnedda (2018) and further developed by Ragnedda and Ruiu (2020), according to whom, digital capital is defined as ‘the accumulation of digital competencies (information, communication, safety, content-creation and problem-solving), and digital technology’ (Ragnedda, 2018). Findings by Ragnedda et al. (2020) show that digital capital is a specific capital and results from both digital competencies and access to digital technology. However, this article adds to Ragnedda et al.’s (2020) work by exploring the interaction between internalised capacities – digital competencies – and externalised resources – digital technologies – with existing components (5Cs), to understand what contributes to the formation of digital capital. In this direction, the originality of this article relies upon the inclusion of all these components (5Cs) in a unique model to observe how personal, cultural, economic, political and social backgrounds symbolically interact with individual digital competencies and digital access, thus enhancing the increase accumulation of digital capital. Therefore, against this background, the investigation is guided by the following research question:

  • RQ. To what extent do existing backgrounds interact with digital capital in terms of accumulating specific digital competencies and access to technology?

Answering this research question helps in understanding how digital capital can differ in relation to different socio-cultural backgrounds and shed light on the intertwined relationship between social and digital inequalities (Ragnedda, 2020). To provide an answer to this overall question, the article is split into five sections. The first section introduces the theoretical background at the base of this research, and the sets of hypotheses formulated to address the research question. The second section (and its related sub-sections) illustrates the methods applied to develop five indexes used to capture the 5Cs and the strategy of analysis adopted. The third section presents the main results of this research. The fourth section discusses the results obtained from multiple regression analyses that investigate the relationships between the six indexes considered (5Cs plus digital capital). Finally, some conclusions will highlight the implications and limits of this work and suggest further direction for continued research.


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