Rural Internet Use and the Strengthening of ‘Weak Ties’

This thesis earned a First Class mark.

Full Text



‘Social capital’ and ‘the digital divide’ live double lives; in popular media they are buzzwords, and in academia they are debated theoretical constructs. Literature on both of these topics has proliferated from social theorists to The World Bank to new academic research to public policy initiatives to reportage and back again. Digital divide researchers wishing to study the intersections of social capital and internet use find themselves faced with an increasingly muddy field of enquiry. A significant part of this muddiness is the promulgation of ill-defined conceptions of social capital which seem to lack any context-sensitivity. To help clear this up and advance the field of inquiry, this dissertation offers: 1) a redefinition of social capital and 2) a new case study. After a critical evaluation of past literature, social capital is redefined as an individual asset related to normative behaviour, social networking across various communication media, and positive and negative products of localized social interactions. Using a qualitative methodology tailored to relevant fieldwork, individual practices and perceptions of the aspects of social capital and internet use were studied in the rural town of Alston in Cumbria, which enjoys an unusually high level of broadband internet access. The results of this case study are presented as evidence of the need to fundamentally understand community-specific social relations through individuals’ networks and norms. The research supports a thesis of the ‘social shaping of technology’, which explains differentiated adoption and use of the available information and communications technology. In the conclusion, community informatics, a promisingly context-sensitive approach to researching and deploying technologies, is recommended for future study. However, community informatics like any other research and practice approach needs to realize the distinct advantages of a bottom-up method of technology deployment should be complemented by a bottom-up approach to studying contextually-specific phenomena like social capital.

Cambridge MPhil Sociology Thesis

I conducted interviews in the rural English town of Alston to understand how a pilot broadband internet program had changed the community’s social landscape.

Details of Work

  • Established contact with key informant at the broadband provider office in Alston, Cybermoor
  • Developed semi-structured interview protocol
  • Traveled to Alston, living in the local youth hostel, and interviewed residents, April 14-21, 2009
  • Transcribed and coded all interviews
  • Wrote and submitted thesis

Related Publications

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One Laptop per Digital Divide?

Published Version



“When I first heard about the One Laptop per Child [OLPC] programme—the goal of distributing inexpensively produced laptops to every child in the world for education—my immediate reaction was: what a great idea! When faced with OLPC’s cute, little XO laptops, the problem of ‘The Digital Divide’ seems so simple and so solvable

“But that was my first alarm bell: simple. It seemed so simple. Solutions can often be simple—but development problems are rarely simple. They are usually historical, culturally specific and inherently complex. And while the XO laptop may have an expertly-designed-to-be-simple interace, it is anything but a simple solution.”