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Projects / Programmes source: ARIS

New technologies, new inequalities? Theoretical and empirical investigation of the role of mobile Internet access in differential engagement with online services

Research activity

Code Science Field Subfield
5.03.00  Social sciences  Sociology   

Code Science Field
S210  Social sciences  Sociology 

Code Science Field
5.04  Social Sciences  Sociology 
Keywords
digital divides, digital inequalities, social differentiation, internet access, survey research, survey methodology
Evaluation (rules)
source: COBISS
Researchers (1)
no. Code Name and surname Research area Role Period No. of publicationsNo. of publications
1.  38367  PhD Darja Grošelj  Sociology  Head  2017 - 2021  68 
Organisations (1)
no. Code Research organisation City Registration number No. of publicationsNo. of publications
1.  0582  University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences  Ljubljana  1626957  40,399 
Abstract
The ways people go online have been transformed by the emergence of new mobile Internet technologies. Technologies like smartphones, tablets, Internet TV and wearable technologies not only support new uses of the Internet but also reconfigure spatial, temporal and social dimensions of use. Therefore, the changing nature of Internet access, its implications for disparities in online engagement and their potential role in social differentiation need to be thoroughly examined. Inequalities in Internet access have been neglected in the “second-level digital divide” research, which has focused on differences in skills and usage, resulting in two shortcomings in current research. First, no theory-grounded framework of Internet access exists. Yet, only with a good understanding of what constitutes Internet access we can disentangle its role in engagement with online resources and, consequently, the impact new Internet technologies can have on social differentiation. Second, measures of Internet access employed in survey research have not been appropriately updated and do not capture social complexities around emerging technologies. Inadequate measures of Internet access are problematic because they can obscure important policy issues impeding successful transformation to a digital society. The proposed project will address these gaps in our understanding of Internet access in general and mobile Internet technologies in particular by pursuing three main objectives: • developing a theoretically-informed framework of Internet access identifying and describing its specific socio-technical dimensions; • developing nuanced survey measures of Internet access that will encompass current and future socio-technical developments surrounding ways in which people access online services; • determining what aspects of use of online services are most significantly reconfigured by mobile Internet technologies and assessing their potential impact on social differentiation. The project objectives will be achieved by following a detailed work programme with eight work packages. Empirically, a mixed methods research design is proposed including: • a series of focus groups to elicit users’ perceptions about new mobile technologies, • cognitive interviews to evaluate a newly developed survey instrument, • deployment of the questionnaire through the Slovenian implementation of the annual Eurostat survey on Information society technologies within in households, and • a systematic multivariate data analysis. The project results are expected to have an impact in various areas, but most importantly: • in the scientific community by providing a socio-technical framework of internet access and a survey instrument for measuring access inequalities. Importantly, the conceptual framework will not be technology specific and will as such be applicable in future studies on emerging technologies. Likewise, the readily available survey instrument will enable researchers interested in digital inequalities and their impact on social differentiation to effectively include high-quality measures of access in their research, regardless of the main focus of their research. • in the policy making sector by providing valid and high-quality data on contemporary complexities surrounding internet access and new mobile technologies. As our society is undergoing a digital transformation (e.g. EU’s Digital Agenda) such insight is crucial for effective addressing of policy issues stemming from digital inequalities. The proposed project will bring together theoretical knowledge, methodological approaches and international networks of the project leader who obtained her PhD at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, which is the world’s leading institution in the social science of the Internet, and of the Centre for Social Informatics, University of Ljubljana, which has one of the longest traditions in researching the Internet and related social issues.
Significance for science
Internet use is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in modern societies, where their core activities such as education, leisure, commerce, health information and government services, are rapidly and massively moving online. Within such framework, the inequalities in how people can access and use the Internet can have a profound impact on individuals’ life chances (Robinson et al., 2015). Research shows that the gap between Internet users and non-users has been narrowing over time, whereas the gap between Internet users in terms of their access arrangements has been widening (e.g. Ofcom, 2015; OxIS, 2015). The inequalities of access thus have not been resolved with more and more people using the Internet. Instead, specifics of access are becoming an important issue once again (but in a different form), with increasing access disparities among people who are using the Internet. Thus, a clear scientific challenge exists about how to conceptually integrate specifics of Internet access, patterns of using online services and social differentiation. The proposed research addresses this highly relevant issue of modern societies, which has not been – given its importance – elaborated in a sufficiently integrated way before. Scientifically, this project will contribute into the following ways: • The project will enhance our understanding of Internet access and help develop new theoretical and empirical approaches to examining its relation to digital and social inequalities. A proper conceptual understanding of this issue is very much essential for any discussion on social differentiation in digital societies. • The results of this research should be of interest to any researcher studying the complex interplay between social and digital inclusion where a full range of contextual factors should be taken into account. • A specific outcome of this project is also a development of a survey instrument for measuring disparities in Internet access. High quality measurement instrument is in fact an inherent part of conceptual understanding of these phenomena, so it directly and permanently contributes to the global scientific knowledge base.
Significance for the country
In addition to their academic value, the project results will have a substantial potential for their utilization in the commercial, academic and public sector, especially in entities that deal with digital or social inequalities. More specifically, the results will have an impact in the following areas: • Policy makers – particularly in technologically advanced countries - can benefit from conceptual clarifications, which contribute to understanding of the societal problems related to the specifics of Internet access. In particular, the pattern of Internet access and related online services used can create and perpetuate a very specific form of digital divide and complex social differentiation. Correspondingly, a proper understanding of these relations can contribute to the formulation of various policy measures to reduce related social differences - from modification in formal educational system and various public trainings to the creation and stimulation of development of certain digital applications. • In addition, the empirical results of this research (in Slovenia) will directly inform and pinpoint the policy makers about critical issues in disparities related to access and use of online services. • The survey measurement instrument can be of particular relevance for researchers and organizations that conduct surveys about adoption and use of ICTs, such as Eurostat, Ofcom, Pew Research Center. It is also relevant to commercial agencies, which intensively study user experience and societal consequences of new digital technologies and services. Namely, survey research conducted on samples representative of populations and with questionnaires, which have a firm conceptual background, is crucial for obtaining valid and high quality insight into patterns of Internet access and use, as well as into quantification of digital inequalities. Thus, it is very important that measures employed in (inter)national-level survey research are up to date and that they capture the full spectrum of specific conceptual dimensions. Simplistic measures, such as “Do you use the Internet, at least occasionally?” (Pew, 2013, p. 17) or “On which of the following devices did you use the Internet in the last 3 months? Desktop; Laptop; Tablet; Mobile phone; etc.” (Eurostat, 2016) are likely to obscure complexities in the ways people go online. For example, such questions are not able to detect trends like increased reliance on mobile Internet access for a range of online activities. Therefore, this project will offer help to existing surveys to better shape questions on Internet access and use. Importantly, the survey instrument will be publically available to any interested user (not only in a text format, but also in the online web questionnaire form). • The project is also in tune with the official national research priorities, which include research related to use of ICTs.
Most important scientific results Interim report
Most important socioeconomically and culturally relevant results Interim report
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