Blog Post

Digital Divide Research: one myth, problem and challenge.

The Myth: Digital Divide has a small literature. Pretty much, almost every book or paper on the topic will say this. I used to believe that not enough work has been done on Digital Divide, until I started studying for my qualifying exam. Fortunately or unfortunately I found out that the literature is actually very large. The problem is that the digital divide research is spread throughout all kinds of disciplines, such as: ICT4D, Community Informatics, HCI, Social Informatics, Sociology and Communication studies. In fact, the literature is not new, because it goes way back when academics were studying the diffusion of telephones and televisions.

The Problem: Quantitative approaches are addressed to answer the wrong questions. A lot of the research done on digital divide is done quantitatively. They rely on the data collected by International Telecommunication Union, World Bank and other agencies. And what these researches do is to identify a digital gap and try to correlate that gap with some sort of social, economic or political issue.  For example, there is a cross country study done by Luis Andres, he says that, based on his quantitative analysis, in order to bridge the digital gap we need to liberalize the telecommunication market to promote internet provider competition. I agree, but Brazil has had this free market for about 15 years, and we still have a vast digital divide. So, obviously, this is not an issue for Brazil, something must be happening that is keeping the divide wide. What I’m trying to say here is that in order to fully understand and propose meaningful solutions, the digital divide research requires local and context based research. It doesn’t matter if it’s quantitative or qualitative, I don’t want to get into this argument, but we need to understand that each country has its own set of policies, people have different cultural backgrounds, so solutions need to be tailored and not based on general analysis.

The Challenge: “How to talk to policymakers?”. Policymakers of the digital divide tend to have a technological deterministic perspective. They focus on single factors, such as “access”, because they are convenient since they are easy to measure. These simple measures can be used to influence public opinion since lay people can relate to them. Policymakers also need to justify allocation of resources, which is easier to do when they can create benchmarks. So policymakers are strung up on numbers, and how can we show them that subjective factors such as education and training can be of much better value to promote the digital inclusion that pure access? I don’t want to blame policymakers for approaching the digital divide quantitatively, but I’d like to leave this challenge for us, digital divide scholars, to realize a way to start conversations with people that can only see numbers.

This post can also be seen on the Social Informatics Blog:



I agree that digital divde research has to be done within the context. Eventually it is about the solutions rather than  simply reporting how it is and why it is. Sometimes the solution just requires just one detour from the problem in focus, which is probably hard to be discovered without "living in the context" and look beyond the numbers.


Anonymous (not verified)

The Challenge: “How to talk to policymakers?”. Policymakers of the digital divide tend to have a technological deterministic perspective

i like this your idea :)

good jobs brada :)

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Clearly, Brazil is a very good example. We had this free market since early 90s and we really still have a vast digital divide. However, it is true that if we consider digital as a broader concept, the access to telecommunication, both mobiles and fixed lines, are a counter example that free market does help in access. The country has changed a lot in that area, and almost everyone has conditions to buy a mobile. In the past fixed telephone lines were negociated as a very expensive asset. Again, it does limit to verify access, once there is a variety of conditions to afford minutes of talking and the quality of the device itself.

In that direction, I think it is an issue for Brazil too, but not generalized for all settings. Considering other digital something really must be happening that is keeping the divide wide. I totally agree that the digital divide research requires local and context based research and solutions need to be tailored and not based on general analysis. I think affordance and access is a good first step but not enough to reduce the gaps. Even for Brazil, there are several "different countries" if we look for each region. Outside of the Rio-Sao Paulo area, and main state capitals we face a poor quality of access yet. In other words, even the local should be defined in context. It is hard to generalize a country that big as Brazil, or China, India, Russia, USA... 


Thanks for sharing your thoughts and synopsis on this text. My research has encountered much of these issues; especially with how to talk to policymakers! Working on an afterschool literacy project for 2 years, applying for grants, talking with administration and teachers, I quickly became aware of peoples' reliance to solve these divide issue with simply supplying more tech without a critical engagement.

If you haven't read them already, David Tyack and Larry Cuban have also produced valuable scholarship in this topical area; notably, Cuban's Oversold and Underused (2003) on the tech/ed side.


Also, not sure if it helps your projects/research, but Tyack's One Best System (1974), which historicizes the development of the American educational system and its many iterations, has helped me contextualize, situate, and see the patterns of thought that are still prevalent today.


Anonymous (not verified)

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