The Democratic Divide

The Democratic Divide

Seong-Jae Min (Pace University, USA)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 8
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0315-8.ch083


The democratic divide, or the political participation gap in cyberspace, raises a critical social question as it suggests that new communication technologies, which are expected to contribute to the development of all humans, actually widen the political inequalities among different segments of people. Studies of the democratic divide show that human behavior in cyberspace is not equal, as individuals possess different levels of digital literacy and political motivation. The democratic divide will likely persist in a variety of forms.
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The specific idea of the democratic divide began when studies on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) were merged with traditional political science and sociology literature during the 1990s and early 2000s, developing a new area of inquiry on how human political behavior translates into cyberspace. ICTs are a broad area of study that includes computer, telephone, and wireless technologies and networks, but social scientists tend to focus on the Internet, the most dominant of all ICTs, and its impact on politics and society. Today, leading researchers in this area include Pippa Norris at Harvard University, the United States, the first scholar who elaborately defined the concept of the democratic divide (Norris, 2001); Eszter Hargittai at Northwestern University, the United States, who focuses on individuals’ digital literacy skills (Hargittai, 2002); and Jan van Dijk at the University of Twente, the Netherlands, who researches broad social inequalities in cyberspace (van Dijk, 2005).

While democratic divide research became active in recent years, the very origins of the democratic divide as well as the digital divide may be traced back to the early sociology and communication studies that chronicled humans’ adoption and use of technologies. In the early twentieth century, French sociologist Gabriel Tarde (1903) proposed the idea that those who adopt new innovations have certain socio-demographic characteristics. He, for example, suggested that early adopters have more cosmopolitan attitudes. Tarde’s idea was empirically tested by rural sociologists Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross (1943), who found that farmers who adopted an advanced breed of seed corn were wealthy and innovative, and they had broad interpersonal connections and mass media exposure. In the 1960s, communication scholar Everett Rogers (1962) enhanced the idea by detailing the characteristics of technology users at different stages. In the 1970s, the idea that people adopt and use technologies differently was broadened by the so-called knowledge gap hypothesis (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970), which argues that each new medium increases the inequalities between the information-rich and information-poor, and by the “Sesame Street effect,” (Cook, Appleton, Conner, Shaffer, Tamkin, &Weber, 1975), which asserts that, even when everyone has equal access to media and technologies, the information gap between the haves and have-nots will not decrease because the haves typically make better use of media and technologies. An important implication of this line of study is that there exist differences or inequalities in people’s adoption and use of media and communication technologies, and without successful policy initiatives, the adoption and use of such technologies often reinforces their existing socio-economic statuses. Thus, the rich become richer and the poor remain poor or even become poorer; ultimately, the smart become smarter. This observation is at the heart of the digital and democratic divides that involve peoples’ differential uses of ICTs and their consequences. One significant concern is that those who are well educated, resourceful, and technologically competent make better use of ICTs, including active political engagements, whereas those who are less educated, poor, and lack technological skills become further marginalized.

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