From Differentiated Use to Differentiating Practices: Negotiating Legitimate Participation and the Production of Privileged Identities

Sims, Christo
Information, communication & society

Prevailing approaches for studying relations between digital media and social inequalities focus on 'differentiated uses' of digital media. Since differences in access do not fully account for differences in use, many scholars have proposed that differences in digital skills, or related concepts such as literacies, help explain the discrepancies. By implication, interventions aimed at equalizing digital access and skills should help ameliorate gaps in use and hence lessen social inequalities. The contention of this article is that these well-intentioned efforts oversimplify and distort relations between digital media and social inequalities. My argument is based on an in-depth ethnographic study of the launch of a well-resourced public middle school in New York City that attempted to reform public schooling in inclusive ways in light of the rise of digital media. I argue that while the intervention helped mitigate differences in access and skills, it did not ameliorate differences in purportedly beneficial uses. Moreover, and paradoxically, the intervention helped remake some of the very social divisions that concern digital inequality scholars. To overcome this seeming paradox, I propose an alternative approach for studying relations between digital media and social inequalities, one focused on 'differentiating practices'. Such an approach directs attention toward the role of digital media in negotiations over legitimate participation in the social practices that make and mark social difference in situ. Doing so offers scholars a way to situate their accounts of differentiated use while gaining clarity about when and how digital media contributes to the production of privilege.