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Digital Divide and Meaning: Symbolic Interactionism as a Theoretical Framework for Research on the Digital Divide

Fatimah Attiya Shahid

ANTH 230, Theory and Practice Dr. Jan English-Lueck December 17, 2009

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Abstract The term “digital divide” has developed many meanings since the adoption of the internet on a grand scale. It was initially meant to describe those without access and those with the access to internet and communication technologies (ICTs), however researchers are continuing to reveal more gaps between “who” uses technology. Therefore we require a need of more context concerning differentiated use and environments to analyze the gap that exist in certain social groups. This article presents the role and impact of symbolic interactionism in the digital divide. By using secondary quantitative data that has become the staple of understanding the problem, I present the symbolic interactionism (SI) theory as a means of changing human – computer interaction studies. I propose a multi methodological approach utilizing ethnographic methods, photo narratives and interpretative anthropology to build meaning and context for the individuals involved (Geertz, 1983). Interpretative anthropology will be included as a means of revealing the symbolic meaning associated with SI. First I seek to identify the symbolic meaning associated with individuals as users. Second, it uses those symbols as affecting individual’s motivation to use technology. Finally, it investigates how the frequent usage of technology ultimately leads to individual’s reproduction of symbolic meaning in technology, therefore starting the process over again. We're changing the world with technology. - Bill Gates (University of Waterloo Speech, 2008)

Shahid 3 It is dangerously destabilizing to have half the world on the cutting edge of technology while the other half struggles on the bare edge of survival. - Bill Clinton ( ) Introduction The quotes above summarize the ongoing digital divide debate. On one end there is the hope and promise of technology, on the other end there are the hopeless who anxiously await technology’s promise. Can we make technology as promising as Bill Gates suggest while simultaneously making it engaging for the hope Bill Clinton addresses? I aim to take a look at multiple theories that address the complex problem of the digital divide by addressing more subjective techniques for understanding why some choose to use and while others do not. Since the introduction of the internet there have been a number of studies on the digital divide. Studies have taken a comprehensive look at how high technology effects low-income communities, which highlighted community centers as part of the solution (Schon, et al, 1999). Researchers responded with a comprehensive look into how low-income communities benefited from community centers, such as “Plugged In� in Silicon Valley (Gordo, 2003). Sociologists agree that understanding the differentiated use warrants more research into both inequalities in access and patterned ways of interacting with the world. (DiMaggio, et al, 2001). Recent studies of the digital divide have even shown percentages of broad activities and usage per demographics (The Pew Institute). While this information is necessary for understanding the landscape of social inequalities, social scientist still do not know much about how different groups of people use technology on the ground in their everyday lives, in what context and to what effect. With a

Shahid 4 strong theoretical framework, this missing research can provide the bridge between understanding the interaction (or the lack thereof), the human and the computer. I present in this paper the role of symbolic interactionism (SI) in the use of technology (or lack thereof ). I then move on to a Marxist look at how this use (or lack of use) creates a power structure that makes up the majority of digital technology users, therefore leading to Weber discussion of passive power by those who do not engage in effective use. I present a qualitative ethnographic study that focus on systems of meanings and interpretative resources that lead to the deployment of and the effective use of technology for researchers and practioners. Human computer interaction is the bridge that connects the technology developers and designers with the user. There has been much debate about the need for more theoretical approaches to the field of human computer interaction (Rogers, 2004). This article presents a methodology that can be beneficial for human computer interaction practioners when designing technology. This theoretical approach can help researchers and practioners understand the lived experience surrounding their technology and incorporate findings into the current heuristics used in technology design.

Literature Quantitative Attempts Technologists, social scientists and government officials began researching the digital divide during the mid-1990’s (Van Dijk, 2005). Most research on the digital divide has been centered on addressing the original definition of the divide; the social inequalities of those who have access and those who do not, where they access technology and what type of technology, with a particular interest in information communication technologies. The information reported

Shahid 5 has been statistical regression analysis showing the demographics such as age, gender, race and income to gain a sense of who is getting online. Currently, 74% of people report using the internet or email, 78% report using cell phones and 55% report using a high speed internet at home. (Pew Research Internet and American Life). DiMaggio (2001) table 1 presents similar information on demographics and access points revealing the many different inequalities inside the digital divide. His research revealed that while the gaps with simply using the internet were somewhat closing, large gaps continued to exist between college graduates vs. high school graduates, low-income vs. high income and age gaps. Regardless of access points gaps continue to persists and create inequalities. Furthermore, past research responded to these trends with in-depth look into access points such as, community centers, schools and at home uses to see how internet was being used in everyday life and reveal different patterns of use among the demographics (DiMaggio, 2001, Gordo 2003, Gordo 2004, Haythornthwaite, 2004). This data, often a series of surveys and interviews, revealed the importance of community centers in helping community members with access and training (Schon et al, 1999). DiMaggio 2001 comprehensive review noted that there is an importance of media reducing knowledge gap, if the motivation exist through existing social influences such as positive reinforcement from friends, troubleshooting and relevant information. In her longitudinal ethnographic research Gordo shows how community technology centers help increase economic benefit and facilitate creative learning in poor communities. (Gordo, 2003). In a reprinted paper in 2004 Gordo address lack of digital penetration in the urban poor she also called for more understanding of why users want to access information (Gordo 2000). Finally, Haythornthwaite (2004) found various surveys on how people felt the internet impacted their personal lives, experienced technology users were four times more likely to admit to an impact in

Shahid 6 their personal life. This included activities such as personal finance, healthcare, and learning about new things. By taking a look at the activities associated with technology use reveals how technology acts as a critical resource in people’s lives, both those with effective access and those without.

Theoretical Attempts In Van Dijk 2005 book she argues that researchers studying the digital divide should move away from the individualistic and descriptive background data that exist, and move toward a more theoretical foundation. She attempts to do this in her analysis of the digital divide by noting three important theorists, Weber, Marx and Bourdieu. She begins by stating four categories; labor, household, nation and education. Van Dijk states that an individual’s dominance in these categories plays a major part in Weber’s power exclusions, Marx’s exploitation of those exclusions and finally Bourdieu’s re-distribution of resources. (Van Dijk 2005:18 - 19). Like wise Rasmussen (2000) used Giddens, structuraton theory to explain the need for theory that addressed both arguments regarding the social inequalities surfacing in new media (Rasmussen 200:13). The author states that the human as a agent and the social structure that contributes actually work hand in hand in creating the deepening divide. One reoccurring theme among all the previously mentioned literature is the need to move beyond the descriptive projections to a more extensive look into the digital divide. Gordo ask researchers to question the “why” and “what for” (Gordo, 2000), DiMaggio recommends a research agenda focused on the institutional context and social identity (DiMaggio, 2001) and Van Dijk suggest looking at less of “who” is using technology, but whether it is of satisfactory use (Van Dijk, 2005:21).

Shahid 7 In this paper I will attempt to respond to the quantitative data that has saturated the debate on the digital divide, with an in-depth theoretical perspective that addresses more context of the differentiated use problem presented by DiMaggio and Gordo. Now that access gaps are somewhat closing it’s time to take a closer look at why and how the gaps in inequalities of usage patterns exist and result in some users continuously using technology for things such as emails, health information and job hunting and others for more social activities. However, unlike previous research, I will use previous quantitative and qualitative data collected to formulate my methodology. By doing this I hope to gain insight for practitioners to understand and develop human centered methodologies that not only address the human’s psychological interaction but the socio-psychological and socio-anthropological context.

Understanding of the Symbolic Interactionism Framework The idea of symbolic interactionism was birthed out of Weber sociology. Blumer, a proclaimed devotee of Gregory Mead describes symbolic interactionism under three premises. The first premises that human beings act toward things on the basis of meanings that the things have for them. In this case meaning describes anything the human may note in the world, from trees, to other humans. The second premise is that humans define those meanings based on the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows. The third premises suggest that the human then handles and modifies the meanings through an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things. (Blumer 1969:2) Different theoretical themes emerge under the symbolic theory and method such as identity theory which Stryker describes as “the symbolic interactionist formula asserting that self is the product of society … that it is in concrete networks of social interactions that selves are

Shahid 8 produced, and by recognizing that in a world in which societies are highly differentiated, the selves that are produced will be equivalently differentiated.” (Stryker, 1987:91)

The Making of the Divide: Symbols, Meanings and Interactions (or lack thereof) In Van Dijk ( 2005 ) theoretical framework she presented four stages of access to the digital technologies; motivational access, physical access, skills access and usage access. Again, pointing out how those dominate in her positional categories has more access to these factors. However, what are missing in the motivational access is why some become motivated to use technology than others and how this is reflective in their position under Van Dijk usage access categories? I believe in order to answer this question of dominance in motivational access; researchers should utilize Mead’s understanding of self, mind and objects, objects in this context being technology. According to Blumer (1969) Mead saw the self as a process of interacting with the human and therefore a mechanism which formed and guided his actions (Blumer, 1969:62). Could it be that the reflexive action with the self in regards to technology can reveal societal institutions that encourage the use or non-use of digital technology? Furthermore, to understand dominance in usage access one can take a look at Meads position of “the act”. Human action according to Blumers translation of Mead, is “built up on the coping with the world instead of merely being released by pre-existing psychological structures…” By using a symbolic interactionist framework, we begin to make a connection between the humans understanding of the world and the motivation to use or not use digital technologies based on these understandings of themselves in society. Furthermore, using the Latour’s action network theory(ANT), we gain a

Shahid 9 sense of the role that non-human objects such as technology design have with being compatible with the symbols in people’s everyday life. (Learning Theories Knowledgebase). By extending Latour’s ANT to the design principles used by developers we can possible make a connection between the symbols in developers everyday life become incorporated in technology design. From this we can then get a clear picture of reoccurring themes associated with Van Dijk’s theoretical framework concluded; social exclusion, exploitation and control (Van Dijk, 2005 ) We’re able to discover a connection between the self, society, the act, the object (technology) and the interaction (or lack thereof). Those who continuously use these resources not only access the material but control the symbolic meaning of the material (Bourdieu, 1987). Constantly using technology decreases the knowledge gap as well as improves your expertise and skills with the object (DiMaggio, 2001) this opens up the door for those who are controlling the usage of technology to penetrate employment opportunities for producing technology. This control and penetration of those dominant thus leads to the constant reproduction of these symbols during design and development of technology.

From the practioners perspective, those who control the production, the development and design of technology draws heavily on past research regarding the role of those who have the power to produce. (Zdravomyslov, 1986) The symbol shift and role of the user in this context becomes the human’s interaction with technology as a producer of the object, the material. The realm of the practioner in an industry led by capitalist objectives may decrease their ability to see symbolic meaning in technology for those outside of the technology explosion. According to Marxist materialism, this role produces the contradiction of the human in society, as being both

Shahid 10 the author and the actor of technology (Zdravomyslov, 1980:17). Utilizing the SI theory researchers can reveal this contradiction and how it impacts how users interface with design and ultimately determine its relevancy. According to Bourdieu, those who control the means of production, control the reproduction of it’s symbolic power (Bourdieu 1987 ). The symbolicspecific differences in the design of digital technologies therefore perpetuate what past researchers have shown in their theoretical work by Weber, Marx and Bourdieu that encourage the divide of power, control, exclusion and exploitation of those with access and without. Where does the reproduction of the symbolic meaning and power exist in technology design and how does it impact Van Dijk motivational access to digital technologies? Past researchers have called for more theoretical research that reveals both the human and social structure as an agency in the digital divide. The following theoretical methodology attempts to find this overarching theme of structuration theory between the human and institution, by using symbolic meaning in all actors of the digital divide. It proposes a methodology that first identifies the symbolic meaning associated with individuals as users. Second, it uses those symbols as affecting individual’s motivation to use technology. Finally, it investigates how the frequent usage of technology ultimately leads to individual’s reproduction of symbolic meaning in technology, therefore starting the process over again.

Theoretical Methodology The populations Early data collected has provided me with the necessary secondary data to formulate my groups of interest. In DiMaggio’s 2001 literature review, an in-depth look at the various theories surrounding technology access, he illustrated in Table 1 the different gaps that exist within the

Shahid 11 larger context of the digital divide and income and education inequalities in technology usage continue to persist. Therefore, I will target individuals falling within the marginalized populations of the divide, both lower and upper-middle class, elderly and young, techie and nontechs. Thirty-six participants will be included in each group. I feel they make the ideal groups with revealing symbolic meaning and interaction. Practioners who come from various backgrounds can also serve as valuable information on the human as an actor and author of technology production. Research Plan While most researchers have saturated the discussion of the digital divide with quantitative data, the data still misses the perspective of those it seeks to highlight. I will use a multiple methodological approach; in-depth interviewing along with participant observations will help reveal any differences between the everyday symbols surrounding interaction with digital technology use and the value of that usage. Utilizing interpretative anthropology and ethnographic qualitative methods help to highlight the lived experience of technology use. All data will enter into computer assisted qualitative data analysis software, to aid in analyzing the themes and categories that emerge from those I study. Access I plan to solicit volunteers to act as informants from online community groups and use snowball recruiting to build my sample. Locations will include high schools, non-profits, university campuses and the workplace for practioners, in order to observe how social relations, everyday experience and meaning affect interaction with technology. Participants will be organized according to Van Dijk four dominance categories: labor, household, nation and education. This will help us later on finding out a correlation between

Shahid 12 dominance and three social theoretical issues: social exclusion, exploitation and reproduction of symbolic capital. Fieldwork will begin with conducting ethnographic methods with the target populations using interpretative anthropology and photo narratives to describe the everyday symbols and interactions associated with technology usage. Figure 1 below details the set-up the research plan. In the middle you have three actors; the human as the user, the object technology as a non-human actor ( Latour ) and the human as a means of producing the object. The research plan is to identify all symbols and meanings associated with the actor’s motivation to use or not use the technology. It should be noted that technology is purposely left ambiguous because the DiMaggio (2001) observation with different types of technology used being included in research plans.

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Figure 1: Actors and surrounding symbols

Each surrounding circle will be filled with data relating to the symbolic meaning of the actor in the middle. If it exists, data will simultaneously organize itself among the three categories Van

Shahid 14 Dijk concluded as being a result of technology usage: social exclusion, exploitation and the reproduction of symbolic meaning.

Research Questions that will frame the methodology Individuals as users 1. What are the social interactions within the lives of individuals who do not use digital technology and those who do? How do these social interactions correlate with the digital experience? 2. Are their social interactions rooted in Van Dijk’s three assumptions regarding social inequalities due to technology? 3. Do these social interactions correlate to technology usage? 4. If there is a correlation how does it affect their dominance in the Van Dijk types of Access? 5. How do the individuals interpret their social interactions in relation to interaction with computers? Individuals as developers 1. How does the developer and designers collaboration work center around social interactions and technology? 2. Is there social interactions outside of work and inside of work that affect practioners design and development? 3. What are the observable social inequality indicators of ICT usage in the environment?

Shahid 15 Practical Applications: Human design or Social design or both?

The practical applications of this data lie in the design of technology for individuals. Currently, human-computer interaction, which is a broad term for the study of human’s interactions with technology, contain psychologically based principles. Therefore there are social contexts that are missing from the design and study of technologies. (Rogers, 2004) If we start to incorporate in-depth investigations of the symbols and meaning associated with marginalized user’s interaction, maybe we can begin the process of re-defining human-computer interaction principles. Given the data that emerges, we can alleviate the reproduction of symbolic meanings for users who frequently use technology and start incorporating symbols that are more holistic and covering different social context. Could the investigation into human interaction with technology based on socio-anthropological theories and not psychological produce more culturally and socially sensitive artifacts? This is the question my theoretical framework above attempts to answer.

Conclusion Finally, in order to integrate the power dynamics in digital divide structure, practioners of human computer interaction must incorporate into their human centered design activities these symbols and systems of meanings that represent the critical daily activities of those outside technology use. The partnership of researchers and practioners of technology design has occurred before and resulted in the current guidelines used by human factors professionals (Rogers, 2004, McKay 2005). Approaches such as ecological theory, activity theory, external cognition and even overarching themes of activity and symbolic interactionism created some

Shahid 16 guidelines practioners use today; such as affordances and mapping actions during interaction with technology. However, as Rogers and McKay mention in the conclusions of their report, there needs to be new theoretical approaches that address how practioners design technology in order to break down barriers of the digital divide (McKay, 2005: 32). I do not propose that there will be guidelines that dramatically reduce the social inequalities in people’s life as technology has not been proven to be “causal” only a strong factor in relation to one’s life. However, if we mix socio-anthropological theory with the current psychology theory that has lead to human factors guidelines, we can equip human factors practioners with the necessary tools on the frontline, during the software development lifecycle, that slowly begin to design technology that addresses social inequalities without reproducing them. The question and limitations that may be present in this proposed theoretical framework is whether or not making technology a symbol of meaningful interactions that increase motivational access result in decreasing face-to-face interactions and increasing dependency on technology?

Shahid 17 Bibliography: Anderson, Ben and Tracey, Karina 2001 Digital Living: The Impact (or Otherwise) of the Internet on Everyday Life. American Behavioral Scientist 45: 456-47. Bourdieu, Pierre 1987 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Blumer, Herbert 1969 Symbolic Interactionism Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, New Prentice-Hall, Inc.


DiMaggio, Paul., with Hargittai Eszter., and Celeste, Coral. and Shafer, Steven 2001 From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use: A Literature Review and Agenda for Research on Digital Inequality. Paper presented for The Russell Sage Foundation Inequality Project, Summer 2000. Geertz, Clifford 1983 Local Knowledge: The Interpretation of Cultures. Washington D.C.: Basic Books Gordo, Blanca 2004[2000] The Digital Divide and the Persistence of Urban Poverty. Progressive Planners Reader. URL: (accessed on November 12, 2009) Gordo, Blanca 2003 Overcoming Digital Deprivation. IT&Society1(5):166-180. Grusky, David. B., ed. 2001 Social Stratification. Oxford, UK: Westview Press. Dijk, Jan A. G. M van. 2005 The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Shahid 18 Haythornthwaite Caroline, and Wellman, Barry, ed. 2002 The Internet in Everyday Life. Maden.MA.: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Learning Theories Knowledgebase 2009 Actor-Network Theory (ANT) at URL: from (accessed on: December 16th, 2009 McKay, Elspeth 2005 Human-Computer Interaction Closes the Digital Divide: A multicultural, Intergenerational ICT case study, ACM International Conference Proceeding Series. Darlinghurst, Australia: Australian Computer Society, Inc 46:29-33 Pew Research Center Pew Internet and American Life Project Research on Digital Divide URL: ( accessed on October 30,2009 ) Rasmussen, Terje 2000 Social Theory and Communication Technology. Hampshire England: Ashgate Rogers, Yvonne 2004 Theoretical approach to Human Computer Interaction, Annual review of information science and technology 38: 87-143. Schon, Donald. A., with Sanyal, Bish. and Mitchell William. J, ed. 1999 High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Stryker, Sheldon 1987 The Vitalization of Symbolic Interactionism. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50(1):83-94

U.S Department of Commerce 2002 A Nation Online ( accessed on: November 12, 2009 ) Wyatt, Sally, with Henwood, Flis, and Miller, Nod, and Senker, Peter, ed.

Shahid 19 2000 Technology and In/Equality questioning the information society. New York, NY: Routledge Zdravomyslov, Andrei Grigorevich, ed. 1980-86 Developments of Marxist Sociological Theory: Modern Social Problems and Theory. New Bury Park: Sage Publications, Inc

Symbolic Interationism Framework  

Theory and Practice

Symbolic Interationism Framework  

Theory and Practice