Creating an Analytical Lens for Understanding Digital Networks in Urban South Africa

Creating an Analytical Lens for Understanding Digital Networks in Urban South Africa

Nancy Odendaal (University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-986-1.ch068
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Recent literature on African cities examines the way in which social networks function as critical livelihood arteries in the ongoing survival strategies of the poor. An understanding of livelihood strategies is not new, but these transactions cannot be defined in space or frozen in time. This terrain comprises a divergent range of intentions, communications and movements exchanged between a multiplicity of actors making sense of their life worlds; negotiating, scheming and bargaining. Urban life continues to be reinvented at the margins, despite prevailing exclusionary economic and social forces. The potential exists for harnessing these strategies for developmental aims—building on the social capital created despite the absence of, or in addition to, the usual resources available for survival. One of these resources is Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Clearly the “real-time” communication, information transfer and exchange functions facilitated by mobile phones, e-mail and the Internet create the potential for informed decision making around the use and distribution of scarce resources. However, this chapter begins with the premise that ICT can only be considered a meaningful development tool if it is appropriated as ongoing input into the day to day decision-making of the poor. It is at this scale—the local, the individual, the social—that the appropriation of digital technologies is examined. The social appropriation of technology is considered in tandem with the network strategies people employ to manage and access resources. A conceptual bridge between the theoretical foundations of actor-network theory and the more contemporary writings on the African city is constructed to posit a theoretical lens for understanding digital networks in South African cities. The chapter concludes with a number of methodological implications with regards to future research into ICT and social networks in developmental contexts.

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