New book on Social Inequality

by Eszter Hargittai on June 30, 2004

Shameless plug: there is a new book out on Social Inequality edited by Kathryn Neckerman and published by the Russell Sage Foundation. The volume brings together recent research from the various social sciences on the topic of social stratification. I am often frustrated by how common it is for researchers to ignore papers by others on topics relevant to their work simply – or so it seems – because the researchers are in other fields. One nice aspect of this volume is that it features research by sociologists, political scientists, economists and demographers alike. The shameless plug has to do with the fact that I co-authored (with Paul DiMaggio, Coral Celeste and Steven Shafer) one of the chapters called “Digital Inequality: From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use”.

It is exciting to see a book on social stratification contain a chapter on digital inequality since many subfields of sociology seem to be taking quite some time in realizing and/or acknowledging that the increasing spread of IT is relevant to various areas of social scientific inquiry.

These are the five key issues we address in our piece:

1. The digital divide. Who has access to the Internet, who does not have access, and how has access changed?
2. Is access to and use of the Internet more or less unequal than access to and use of other forms of information technology?
3. Among the increasing number of Internet users, how do such factors as gender, race, and socio-economic status shape inequality in ease, effectiveness, and quality of use? What mechanisms account for links between individual attributes and technological outcomes?
4. Does access to and use of the Internet affect people’s life chances?
5. How might the changing technology, regulatory environment, and industrial organization of the Internet render obsolete the findings reported here?

See a more detailed outline of the chapter and a copy of a draft version here or send me a note if you’d like me to snail mail you a copy of the final chapter.

The book has 26 chapters on topics ranging from family and children to inequality in school and work, in health and political participation. With the index, the volume is over 1000 pages long. The paperback edition is $49.50 (the hardcover goes for $125.00). Contributors include Neil Fligstein, Richard Freeman, Bob Hauser, Mike Hout, Sandy Jencks, Theda Skocpol, Sidney Verba, Jane Waldfogel, Bruce Western and many others.



John Quiggin 07.01.04 at 11:49 am

A short comment on one point in the paper. Although users with old/slow computers can’t access sites with streaming media, Flash animations etc, these features add negative information (since they require a site that’s light on text).

Text is the only useful information on the Internet.


eszter 07.01.04 at 1:19 pm

John, thanks for the comment. You’ll have to elaborate on this a bit more though: Text is the only useful information on the Internet. What do you mean? (And how about people who are not very literate? Do you think the Internet will never be able to offer them anything?)


John 07.01.04 at 3:00 pm

Its a deliberate overstatement of course, but I think its essentially correct. As a way of accessing video, I think the Internet (cable TV on steroids, as you put it), I think the Internet will always (or at least for a long time) be dominated by special purpose devices : big screen TVs, TiVo etc

Obviously theres a use for the Internet as a method of archiving searching for and distributing files – music and so on – but this is not what I have in mind when I think about using the Internet.

And to concede a bit further, illustrations are useful, and particularly for readers with low literacy, but even old computers can mostly handle JPG files.

With those qualifications, I still think its true that the Internet is essentially suited to (hyper) text rather than video and will remain so. Trying to shoehorn video material into this framework wont work.


Ian Montgomerie 07.01.04 at 3:37 pm

PCs won’t be a dominant medium for accessing professional audiovisual media (TV, movies, etc.) for the forseeable future. But increasingly it will become a point of access for private media. Over the next decade we are going to see a transition where the majority of people in the developed world, and large numbers in the developing world, have full motion video support on their digital cameras or camera phones.

There is likely to be an explosion of independent video distribution, the equivalent of amateur local news reporting, which will occur almost exclusively on the internet.


Bob 07.01.04 at 4:55 pm

With the increasing ubiquity of computers, the cause of the digital divide is much less likely to be access to a computer at home than this:

“The UK is producing more university graduates than any other industrialised country, but the gap between the most and least well-educated is still critical, research suggests. The UK was second only to the United States in the adult illiteracy table, compiled as part of the OECD annual analysis of education.” – from:

Using computers stresses literacy and numeracry skills so weak aptitudes in either is apt to diminish the ways in which computers can be used by some with consequences for their employability.

In addition to that, I’ve often been surprised by the extent to which messages from entirely literate contributors elsewhere contain claims that a little online research would have shown to be flawed. Weak literacy is plainly not the only factor causing the digital divide. So too are underdeveloped research and diagnostic skills – possibly along with an uncritical regard for deeply cherished nostrums.

Maybe, this is stating the obvious but perhaps over much of the debate on the effect of the digital divide on income distributions has focused on access to hardware when that is a decreasing problem.


eszter 07.01.04 at 5:18 pm

Bob, I’m assuming you did not read the paper since part of what we do is talk about the differences that are not about access. That is precisely why the paper is not called “digital divide”, but “digital inequality”. It is emphasizing the fact that there are differences on various dimensions (not only access) that will be relevant for social inequality.


eszter 07.01.04 at 6:01 pm

Regarding the text question, I think it depends on what we consider “useful” information. It seems that some sites may use Flash or other non-text components to convey basic information about how to use the site. If people cannot access those parts of a site, that’s a problem. Even if it is just the ads on a site that use such media it makes the site much less accessible to those with lower-quality machines/connections. If you’ve tried to use an old machine recently or a dial-up modem to access Web sites you’ll know what I mean.


q 07.02.04 at 5:29 am

Internet Access Stratification is an interesting area, which will become more important as information spaces develop in complexity.

Worth a look:

Designing Information Spaces: The Social Navigation Approach – Hook, Benyon, Munro (eds), Springer 2003


dave heasman 07.02.04 at 2:53 pm

John Q trails “Text is the only useful information on the Internet.”

Well, that might be true if you’re an academic, (though probably not a graphic arts academic,or a music academic, or a sound poetry academic) but I only got a broadband connection for music. Round my house, radio is the killer Internet app.
And of course there’s porn…


harry 07.02.04 at 4:17 pm

Dave Heasman’s right, but it’s radio in general — come on, John, access to the World Service, Radio 4, all those documentaries, etc. These are even useful for academics, Dave.

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