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The Internet and Social Inequalities

Witte, James C. and Susan E. Mannon (2010), The Internet and Social Inequalities, New York, Routledge. 

The Internet reproduces and accentuates the social inequalities. The analysis of this phenomenon must go beyond the simple questioning about Internet access and look into its uses.   

In The Internet and Social Inequalities, James C. Witte e Susan E. Mannon propose to demonstrate that the asymmetries in the access and use of the Internet emerges from and reproduces the stratified and unequal logic of economical, cultural and symbolic resources distribution in the north American society. This is the general hypothesis of the study that guides the authors’ argumentation and the statistical exposition across the book. However, the authors promote a division of this more general hypothesis in three sub-hypothesis, each one oriented to a specific perspective of conceptualization of social inequalities: the “conflict”, the “cultural” and the “functionalist” perspectives. Adapting these three perspectives to the relationship between the inequalities and the Internet, the authors define the logic and argumentative sequence of their analysis.

The theoretical patrimony of the “conflict” perspective leads the authors to seek testing to what extent the Internet can be understood as an expedient used by dominant classes to reproduces their resources and their position in the social structure. Taking as reference the basilar premises of the Marxist perspective, but refreshing them with the contributions of Erik Olin Wright, the authors try to demonstrate that in the United States the access to the Internet and to the skills needed to use it, tend do vary according to the income level, the education or the social origin. The richest, more educated and with more qualified professions, as well as those that come from families possessing more economical and scholar resources, are the ones that access more often to the Internet and that have more skills to use it. As the skills in the Internet use are valued in the labor market, its possession is decisive to produce social inequalities and to reproduce family economical and scholar resources.
Regarding the “cultural” approach to this problematic, the authors are interested in analyzing to what extent the class inequalities in the Internet uses are accompanied by and related to the prestige or status inequalities. Therefore, they analyze the social inequalities problematic according to the theoretical and conceptual proposal of Max Weber. The operationalization of the social status concept is made, in a first moment, from the level of prestige of the profession exercised and the family origin. In this level, the authors conclude that individuals with higher levels of social status tend to use the Internet more frequently. Then the authors look to the conceptualization of the uses of the Internet as practices integrated in the individuals’ way of life. They conclude that the kind of uses of this technology and its diversification level vary according to the scholar and economical capital: the ones that have higher levels of schooling and the wealthiest tend to use the Internet in a broader set of activities comparatively to those that have less scholar and economical resources and, unlike these, use it with rather intensity, for example, in work tasks or to buy products.

At last, the authors analyze the phenomenon of Internet inequalities from the functionalist perspective. To what extent do these inequalities result from labor division, more specifically from the differentiated rewards assigned to people that have activities functionally more relevant to the society? To answer this question the authors analyze the evolution of the organization and kinds of content present in the first page of the Yahoo! Portal. They conclude that the type of commercial information and other services available on this page is essentially dedicated to users with the largest economical resources and more qualified. In this sense, the Internet rewards this type of users.

This book presents an abundant statistical information regarding inequalities in the use of Internet in the United States. And it promotes an interesting dialogue among this phenomenon and the three theoretical perspectives mentioned. However, the analyzed indicators aren’t always sufficiently robust or adequate to test the hypothesis under analysis – mainly in the chapter dedicated to functionalism.

Frederico Cantante            

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