Internet use among the poor: it's not funny and it doesn't mitigate inequalities
Robinson, L. (2009). A taste for the necessary. A Bourdieuian approach to digital inequality Information, Communication & Society, 12 (4), 488-507 DOI: 10.1080/13691180902857678

The “Diversity” issue of the journal Information, Communication and Society is out and it’s entirely devoted to the Communication and Information Technologies section of the American Sociological Association (CITASA). Laura Robinson’s remarkable article explores digital inequality among economically disadvantaged US youth. Her study focuses on everyday technological processes, by situating information seeking and media use within respondents’ larger social networks and access to resources. Unsurprisingly socioeconomic status does matter: it turns out rich kids use the Web for fun and recreation, poor kids are less autonomous and less playful. The empowering effect that is customarily ascribed to the Web has thus to be weighed with respect to class origin and “information habitus” – that differ from advantaged to less advantaged groups.

Common sense tends to see American teenagers as uniformly “wired”. That is because Internet penetration rate in North America is among the highest in the world (73.1% in Dec 2008 according to Internet World Stats). In reality, Robinson maintains, segments of the youth population lack high quality, high autonomy Internet access. She adopts a “holistic” (read: both qualitative and quantitative) approach to data collection in order to situate new media use within respondents’ (who are economically disadvantaged teenagers from a California high school) larger lifeworlds and examine the effects of digital inequality.

The data come from two primary surveys (n=850 & n=1,400),  and a number of focus groups and interviews (67). Respondents vary widely in terms of their material access to a range of information resources, as well as in the skills they possess. They are ethnically and economically diverse, with the most economically disadvantaged coming from families with incomes falling below federal poverty measures. While 3% had never used the Internet, 22% of respondents began using the Internet within the last year, 35% within the last two to four years, and 43% over five years ago.

Interviews reveal a dramatic divergence in informational orientation – which the author, drawing on Bourdieu,  calls the habitus internalized by respondents.  More or less constrained Internet access result in more or less playful or exploratory stances. Teenagers with high quality, high autonomy Internet differ from those with low quality, low autonomy Internet access in that the latter adopt a “task-oriented stance”. This is what Bourdieu would have called “a taste for the necessary”: they ration their Internet use, avoid what they perceive as wasteful activities, develop a utilitarian immediate payoff-oriented use.

Robinson’s study provides the sociology of Internet use with the potentially enriching notion of “information habitus”. It also provides an invaluable insight into the social processes through which economically disadvantaged youth acquire particular skills and habits associated with the use of information technologies.

Moreover, the ways diverse populations use the Internet, as well as their social circumstances, prevent inequality from being mitigated. So, not only Internet is not always fun: it is not much of a social and economic equalizer either.  For the majority of the most economically challenged respondents, Internet access does not have the same impact as it does for their economically privileged counterparts. The key factor here is the role played by temporal resources in developing a task-oriented information habitus. Less privileged kids regard the Internet as a dispensable luxury due to its immediate economic and temporal costs. This socioeonomically differentiated use of the internet ends up by replicating offline inequalities and accentuating the impacts of disadvantage.