The digital divide

The sociological term ‘digital divide’ refers to unequal access to information and communication technology based on social, economic, cultural and political factors. At its core, according to Ragnedda and Muschert (2013, p.10), it is the “difference between those who have access to the web versus those who do not.” However attempts to define the digital divide spread far beyond Ragnedda and Muschert’s conception. Other scholars have contested that the divide is between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ on who has access to information on the internet (Dobson and Willinsky, 2009; Eshet and Aviram, 2006 and Lupton, 2013).

However, the digital divide is not only a question of access the internet – digital constraints remain in place even for those who have online access due to questions of skills and literacy (Lupton, 2013; Ragnedda and Muschert, 2013). This is why Norris (2001) conceives of the digital divide as “any and every disparity within the online community”:

  • Between industrialised and developed societies (global divide)
  • Between information-rich and poor within a nation (social divide)
  • Between those who do and do not utilise digital resources to participate in social life (democratic divide)

Norris’ conception confirms the digital divide as a multidimensional phenomena. Measurement of it requires consideration of variables such as education, ethnicity, gender, geography, and socio-economic positions (Wessels, 2010 and Wilson, 2006).

Theoretical Explanation

The digital divide  is a concept, which finds its roots in more traditional ideas of social exclusion and inequality: Castells (2001, p.248) explained that “the differentiation between the internet ‘haves and have-nots,’ adds a fundamental cleavage to existing sources of inequality and social exclusion in a complex interaction”. Social exclusion is a similarly contested concept which blends ideas of power, inequality and class, particularly from Weber’s work on social closure (Burchardt et al, 2002) where higher classes monopolise access to opportunities (Weber ,1978). Exclusion is one mode of this closure where power is exercised down, with a higher group cutting off opportunities to the group beneath it (Parkin, 1982). However, post-Fordist economic change and concurrent failures in social welfare programmes (Evans, 1998) led to the concept of social exclusion gaining traction. It has sustained relevance into the 21st century due to its reapplication into the debate around the digital divide.

Much like the digital divide, social exclusion is difficult to define due to its contested nature. Most accounts agree that it is multi-dimensional (encompassing a variety of diverse measures) and dynamic (subject to change over time)(Reiser, 2004; Burchardt et al., 2002; Byrne, 2005; Levitas et al., 2007; Madanipour et al., 1998). These features demonstrate social exclusion to be context dependent, which explains why academics tend to agree that it is multi-dimensional without having any consensus on what these dimensions are. Burchardt et al (2002: 31) identified four measures:

  • Consumption: ability to purchase goods and services
  • Production: participation in the economy
  • Political engagement: involvement with decision making
  • Social interaction: integration with community

These criteria are all applicable to digital life – making the digital divide fundamentally a question of exclusion, only specifically digital rather than broadly social as Burchardt et al intended.


Social exclusion has faced criticism as its contested definitions have made it challenging to study empirically, as nuances or lack of clarity in definition impact on measurability (Levitas et al, 2007). The same issue is true of the digital divide, especially as it can be considered as a global, social or democratic divide. Additionally, to conceive of who is excluded and how, it requires a value judgement on what the ‘average citizen’ is able to enjoy which the excluded are unable to access (Levitas et al., 2007). Again, this adds complexity to considerations of the digital divide as an average level of digital literacy and access must be decided.

As well as social exclusion, the digital divide has been linked to inequality theory, creating new theory of digital discrimination or virtual inequality (Mossberger et al., 2003). Ragnedda and Muschert (2013, p.12) state that “the digital divide was a way in which the social inequalities are (re)produced in the digital age using the new technologies of communication”. Marxist readings of this inequality say digital spheres reproduce existing social inequality through repression of the lower class by the dominant class using capital accumulation and cultural hegemony. They add that the dominant class continue to exercise control in the digital sphere, particularly to promote their own classes way of life.

Fuchs (2008, p.215) analysed the digital divide through a Bourdieusian lens, considering it to include “unequal patterns of material access to, usage capabilities of, and benefits from computer-based information and communication technologies that are caused by certain stratification processes that produce classes of winners and losers of the information society, and of participation in institutions governing ICTs and society”. Van Djik (2005) added that using the “resources and appropriation theory of diffusion, acceptance and adoption of new technologies,” claims that the digital divide is formed by “unequal distribution of resources leading to unequal access to digital technology that brings about unequal participation in society. Therefore, “the digital divide is inevitably tied with the concept of social inequalities (ibid.).”

Therefore, the digital divide is a multi-dimensional phenomena which draws on existing theory – grounding itself in theory of inequality and social exclusion.


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Wilson, Ernest J. (2006). The information revolution and developing countries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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