“The digital amplifies the logic of social reproduction”

Sociologist and professor of educational science at the University of Paris 8, Fabien Granjon has studied the use of connected data processing in the working class. The conclusion is clear. As in any common social practice, the use of connected digital technology is no exception to the rule. Cultural capital has a direct influence on them. Far from being a miracle solution to democratizing access to culture, digital technology exacerbates inequalities.

We often talk about the “digital divide”, but what does it mean?

The term “digital boundary” is the translation of the syntagm “digital boundary”. This is a category that became popular in the 1990s in the United States under the pen of journalists from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. They use this term to describe what their statistical studies reveal, namely that there are large differences in their territory in terms of the speed of equipment and the use of connected computer. They present their findings as establishing the existence of two groups of individuals: on the one hand the economically and academically most gifted public and on the other hand the least favored populations in terms of the same criteria. The former are believed to have entered the digital age, while the latter appear to have become more or less on the edge of technological modernity. The term “digital divide” therefore denotes this gap in the acquisition of digital information and communication technologies (TNIC).

The term does not appear to be unanimous. For what reasons?

Behind the term “digital divide” is the idea that the use of connected computing is subject to unequal logics, but this way of describing the phenomenon poses a problem. First, there is not a single divide, but different areas of inequality that do not only concern equipment and connectivity. It is for this reason that we sometimes talk about the existence of different levels or degrees of the digital divide. The so-called “first level” division is linked to the fact that owning or not having equipment, the “second level” division describes inequalities in use and the “third level” division aims to understand the differences in possibilities associated with these applications . Recently, some research works have evoked a “fourth level” digital divide to pinpoint the differences in skills in terms of the ability to protect one’s privacy and escape the algorithmic logic of GAFAM. It is likely that we will soon be talking about fractures at the fifth, sixth, nth level. This multiplication of fracture rates tends to show that there is a recurring problem of conceptualizing the problem.

What is this problem?

It seems to me that it is double. First of all, it seems to me very important to remember that numerical inequalities have nothing numerical about them. They are fundamental social inequalities that impose on themselves the practice of digital technology, a practice that we can not see why it would escape the unequal dynamics that run through our society right through. It is important to consider that the differences in practice are constitutive of social inequalities, which certainly determine the conditions of access and use, but more fundamentally, these inequalities still shape in the abilities, desires, dispositions of individuals that affect their ways of acquiring TNIC. Taking this fact seriously invites us to be aware of the conditions for the possibility of developing related computer practices, but also of the social logics that determine the updating of applications.

So, and this is a consequence of what I just remembered, it seems to me that it is a mistake to focus only on practices that prove to be needy or deficient. We need to consider that seemingly comprehensive and expert digital practices can also stem from inequalities because they fit into living conditions and lifestyles that do not allow them to be used as support to ensure a good or at least a better life. This includes showing that comprehensive and routine practice does not necessarily equate to welfare gains. In this way, we insist on the importance, not of strictly digital skills, but of the centrality of the social regulations that affect the production of applications. Associated computer practices cannot be reduced to practical manipulations of content, objects, and interfaces. They are first and foremost a product of a relationship to practice socially constituted in a lifestyle. They are the result of a social adjustment framed by values, beliefs, representations, an ethos that is socially situated. For those who do not have the inclinations and desires necessary to seize this so-called “opportunity” that would be digital, the potential of connected computer can in fact not be actualized to real benefits. .

Can you give a concrete example?

The interest in the cultural field provides many examples. If the Internet makes it possible to reduce certain restrictions on access to cultural content and facilitates relations with cultural works, it will not fundamentally change the conditions for the formation of tastes and aesthetic dispositions. In the absence of relays in offline life, the options offered do not necessarily lead to lasting changes. I am thinking, for example, of this seasonal worker who I interviewed and who told me that he had been attracted to opera for a period of time and had gone online to pick up recordings and librettos. But in the absence of daring to experience opera as a live performance – “it’s not something for me! And to find support for this budding passion in his close circle, it quickly faded in to eventually disappear. He could have found a way to interact with opera lovers online to nurture his budding interest, but this possibility was not considered by him insofar as he never felt entitled to give an informed opinion about this art form. He felt on the one hand too little expert and felt on the other hand not having enough control over the language to imagine a discussion on such a topic. Although in his entourage he was recognized as a “sweet talker”, he never considered being able to give a speech about the opera, even within the framework of an ordinary conversation. On the one hand, relatives with whom he could talk but who have no appetite for this cultural form, whose social value is borne by a cultural elite from whom they, to say the least, feel distant. On the other hand, potential internet amateurs who share an identical taste but are considered to necessarily belong to a privileged social universe that he imagines he can not enter into dialogue with …

Cultural capital seems to be a key factor in the use of digital

Yes quite. All studies show that cultural capital is a key factor in understanding how ICT is acquired. And this for a simple reason: digital practices are cultural practices. It is therefore not surprising to note that the more individuals are removed from the school culture and have not during their early socialization been able to benefit from an entourage with significant cultural capital, the more they seem to have difficulty with to use connected computer. Being deprived, for example, of the most abstract school lessons closest to the worlds of art, removes us from cultural facilities and artistic activities, but also from certain online practices, which, if available, are not. mobilized. Democratization has never made use of it and even less given the opportunity to benefit from it. If the Internet potentially facilitates forms of cultural mimicry for working-class individuals, these cannot in all respects be considered to resemble the actual consumption of the upper class. The ordinary cultural bath, which is present in the most favored classes and framed by family preconditions, honestly does not find a similar one online. The use of digital technology may open up a new culture for some Internet users, they may provide access to knowledge, but they can hardly replace the socializing logics that make cultural appetite, sensitivity and the cultivated relationship to cultural things experienced in modes. proof for some and work for others.

And when it comes to education?

I have not specifically examined the school, so I will only say the obvious, but which seems to me worth remembering. First, it must be reiterated that the lower the level of school certification, the greater the likelihood of getting into a socially disadvantaged situation. However, the school only partially plays its supposed role as “social adaptation”. In fact, the school participates in the reproduction and legitimation of the social inequalities to which students are exposed as soon as they enter the school institution. Sociologist Marie Duru-Bellat, for example, has shown very well that at every stage of the school curriculum there are distortive effects due to social affiliation. The role that digital plays in the field of education reinforces these distortions, it is obvious. The good mastery of ICT in a school context is strongly indexed to the social environment. Knowing how to search, prioritize, classify, synthesize, arrange, etc. are specific skills that have little to do with ensuring a presence on digital social networks. The school’s use of digital technology requires skills and dispositions that benefit students developing within privileged families. The more students come from an educated background, the better they perform at the operational, formal, informative and strategic level of the Internet. Researchers Maria Paino and Linda Renzulli have, for example. shown that among first-cycle students, these skills allow for forms of discernment and social assessment that go hand in hand with more secure academic success. Contrary to what the discourse on the benefits of the “digital society” or “knowledge” claims to us, the technologicalization of the various spheres of activity does not particularly displace the logic of social reproduction. On the contrary, it would tend to amplify them.

Interview by Lilia Ben Hamouda

Granjon (Fabien), Working classes and applications of related data processing. Social-digital inequalities, Paris, Presses des Mines, 2022

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