Social Reproduction and its Applicability for Community Informatics
School of Information Sciences and Technology, Center for the Information Society, The Pennsylvania State University < email@example.com >
Digital divide rhetoric is generally utopian, touting innovative models for collaboration, economic activity, learning, and civic engagement. However, as information and communication technologies (ICT) become more widely available, we cannot naively assume that historically underserved communities are reaping these benefits. Social reproduction theory provides a basis fo understanding how ICT may in fact serve to reproduce, rather than alleviate, inequality.
For the past decade, committed researchers, politicians, policy makers, investors, and community-based organizations made concerted efforts to redress the digital divide, but the solution has remained somewhat elusive. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been portrayed in digital divide discourses as the great equalizer that may be leveraged by local communities to combat economic deprivation and foster social inclusion. Thus, there exists a sense of urgency in bridging the digital divide. ICT rhetoric is generally utopian, touting innovative models for collaboration, economic activity, learning, and civic involvement.
However, as ICTs become more widely available, we cannot naively assume that historically underserved communities are reaping these highly touted benefits. The rhetoric that celebrates the bridging of the digital divide may in fact ring hollow in communities where questions of material existence, not ICT, prevail. People in underserved communities are often consumed with meeting basic human needs such as earning a livelihood, finding comfortable and affordable housing, and creating safe neighborhoods. In light of these persistent economic hardships and related social issues like drugs, crime, discrimination, and homelessness, our well-intended efforts for redressing the digital divide are indeed challenged.
In what follows, I present social reproduction theory as a basis for understanding how ICT may in fact serve to reproduce, rather than alleviate, inequality. When digital divide interventions are informed by Western economic and technological rationalities, they tend to rely on the financial resources and the expertise of external entities. The people experiencing economic hardships and social ills are often portrayed as passive objects, with little agency. By examining the role of ICT in perpetuating these systems of inequality, we are then able to posit transformative ways of thinking about ICT as enabling the resourcefulness of historically underserved communities in meeting their self-determined needs.
Social reproduction theories are fueled by the central question of how and why relationships of inequality and domination are reproduced. This theory can be usefully appropriated by community informatics scholars interested in probing the relationship between class interests and power as exerted through the seemingly democratic practice of providing free or low-cost computer and Internet access and training.
Adopting a social reproduction standpoint, one may start from the premise that digital divide discourses tend to categorize and legitimize the power relations between those social agents with (the haves) and those without (the have nots) computing skills and access. Researchers identify and measure those who do and do not have access. Interventions based on this research seek out those without access, and provide them with opportunities to learn and acquire computing skills for little or no financial cost. Thus, one may conclude that the digital divide is a powerful discourse for socialization into a given social order (the information society).
How then does this socialization into a given social order take place? Reproduction theory provides some conceptual models for investigating this process. There is no single general reproduction theory, but reproduction processes constitute a fundamental problem that has been tackled in contemporary sociology, mostly in the study of educational institutions. In what follows, I posit three major approaches in reproduction theory.
First, Bowles and Gintis (1976) debunk the century-old ideal of public education as "the great equalizer" among disparate social classes in the U.S. Bowles and Gintis instead argued that public schooling reproduces social and class-based inequities. They adopt a Marxist perspective and argue that schools are training young people for their future economic and occupational position according to their current social class position. On the one hand, students of working-class origin are trained to take orders, to be obedient, and are subject to more disciplinary interventions. On the other hand, children of professionals are trained using more progressive methods, which give them internal discipline and self-presentation skills. The schools and their curriculum structure education so as to produce workers who will fill various socially stratified occupations, thereby maintaining class-based inequities and benefiting the means of capitalist economic production and profit.
While this theory has been criticized because it assumes that futures are largely determined by the economic structure and agents place within it, it does help to raise questions about the implications around the intensity, purpose, autonomy, quality and length of training and access found in public access centers, libraries, universities, workplaces and homes.
Human agency and resistance form the second explanation for social reproduction. From this perspective, dominated agents' resistance to school is a political response to oppression and limited life chances. Resistance theories privilege human agency with dominated agents being able to act, interpret, and exert some power in their lives. This agency, however, tends to keep dominated agents in the lower levels of the economic structure. In Paul Willis' (1997) study of working class male culture in the UK, he found that these males are talented enough to do school work, but they choose not to. Self-exclusion from an educational setting, which was associated with feminine qualities, was experienced as affirming a strong masculine identity. Instead of school, the youths engaged in practices such as theft, smoking, fighting, and consuming alcohol, which they perceived as masculine. The youths also engage in factory work, which became another site for expressing masculinity. While resistance was initially seen as positive, after five or so years of factory work, the young men felt locked into this working-class position and unwittingly reproduced the social structure.
This resistance-oriented approach would be useful for examining Internet drop-outs and those who simply refuse to adopt ICT, and to understand how and why this rejection of ICT may fact place folks at a disadvantage. The digital divide is founded on the implicit assumption that access and use provide distinct advantages, and those who fail to adopt ICT will be somehow left behind. Reproduction theory provides a lens for empirically examining this premise.
Culture represents the third explanation for social reproduction. For Bourdieu (1984), culture plays a paramount role in structuring life chances. Each class has its own cultural background, knowledge, dispositions, and tastes that are transmitted through the family. However, the culture of dominant groups forms the knowledge and skills that are most highly valued, and the basis of what is taught in schools. To possess these ways of knowing and skills, which Bourdieu calls cultural capital, means that one is considered educated or talented. To not have this cultural capital means one is considered ignorant or uneducated. Academic performance and educational credentials such as diplomas, certificates, and degrees are largely based upon the congruence between what is taught in school and the cultural capital possessed by students. Thus, those students coming from more affluent homes have greater chances of excelling in school and obtaining credentials that expand occupational opportunities because they posses larger quantities of cultural capital that are privileged in educational settings. In this way, cultural capital inculcated by families and schools plays a large role in structuring access to desirable employment and broader life chances.
Research informed by Bourdieu can provide explanations for how the dominant ideas of a society (i.e., economic development and digital divide) are related to structures of socio-economic class, production and power, and how these ideas are legitimated and perpetuated through ICT. This theoretical framework also provides answers to the question of how advantages fail to be passed on to dominated groups, and how we come to perceive the status quo as natural and inevitable (i.e., legitimacy through powerful institutions such as the media as well as schools).
In summary, social reproduction theories problematize taken-for-granted assumptions about the digital divide and the people on the wrong side of the divide. These theories may inform studies of how and why social agents conceptualize, appropriate, and perhaps resist ICT, and how these practices may unwittingly lead to continued social exclusion. These theories are perhaps most useful for enabling researchers to challenge notions about the ability of ICT alone to redress uniquely human problems of social justice and equity. For instance, Bourdieus theoretical perspective informed empirical studies of how and why the proliferation of free computers and Internet access regardless of mode of access (home or public) may be problematic for public life, and thus provided a rich understanding of the challenges faced by underserved groups (Kvasny, forthcoming; 2005; Kvasny & Keil, forthcoming). These empirical studies also explain the conflicts that may limit ICTs role in contributing to broadly desirable social outcomes. These conflicts include socio-economic class, history, race, and legitimate uses of ICT.
Reproduction theories would see the digital divide as creating docile bodies and reinforcing peoples place in society. Humanity is stolen from historically disadvantaged people as they come to be seen as have-nots, the unemployed, and the urban poor. This loss of humanity creates a fear of freedom in which people acquiesce to an unfair system. Bourdieu argues that the status quo is preserved because it is essentially unquestioned and naturalized. Agents go about their business and they tend not to pose the theoretical questions of legitimacy because the social world is embodied in both their practices and in their thoughts (i.e., habitus). They reproduce it without active reflection. This does not mean that the oppressed do not reflect on their position, but their perception of themselves as oppressed is often impaired by their submersion in the reality of being oppressed (Freire, 1970).
However, education can be a practice of freedom with the potential to transform rather than conform (Freire, 1970). To promote transformative uses of ICT, community informatics scholars should enter into dialogue with communities to construct alternative representations of working class subjects and uses of ICT. The working class should not tacitly accept the dominant class values, but critically interrogate their class position and engage in self-actualizing activities that will enable them to integrate ICT in their everyday lives. The awakening of class-consciousness is often bound up within a process of rehabilitating and rebuilding self-esteem, and reaffirming cultural dignity (Freire, 1970; Giroux, 1983; hooks, 1994). This type of critical, participatory research is transformative in that it may help communities to critically reflect upon the structures that repress their ability to thrive. Communities can then resist these structural forces by creating innovative ways of using ICT to support the issues that are important to their social life situations.
Thus, we must respect the particular worldview as well as the social and cultural capital found in historically underserved communities. We must genuinely engage with them so as to understand the nature of their material situation, raise critical awareness of their situation, collaborate to realize alternatives, and create localized interventions for bringing about change. Engagement along the lines advocated by Freire provides a path for how community informatics researchers can promote uses of ICT that upset reproductive processes.
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Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.
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Kvasny, L. (2005). The role of the habitus in shaping discourses about the digital divide. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 10(2). Available at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue2/kvasny.html; last accessed April 2005.
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Willis, P. (1997). Learning to labor: How working-class kids get working-class jobs. Farnborough: Saxon House.