Social inequality and the digital transformation of Western society: what can stratification research and digital divide studies learn from each other?

Uwe Matzat, Erik van Ingen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


We examine what the social change induced by the ubiquitous use of social media and other Internet applications in Western society implies for sociological research on inequality and stratification. Stratification research on the one hand and studies of the digital divide on the other hand used to be quite separated. We provide an overview of research on inequality in the field of social media and other Internet-use research and argue that separation between this and mainstream inequality research is no longer useful. Digital divide research in the 1990 s examined which groups were disadvantaged with respect to access to the Internet. Later attention shifted towards a so-called second order digital divide, focusing on inequalities in the distribution of a diverse set of digital skills as well as inequalities in forms of Internet use. Recently researchers have started to address questions with regard to a third-order digital divide consisting of inequality in outcomes of Internet use. This type of research creates a bridge to traditional inequality research, as it focuses on the (real-life) consequences of what individuals do online. Since variation in Internet use leads to inequality of outcomes of Internet use, inequality of life chances is directly addressed by digital divide research. We argue that the ubiquity of use of social media in almost all human domains, and the fact that research has shown that this usage affects socio-economic positions and quality of life, urges inequality researchers to take into account digitalization as an important dimension of inequality. Most important, the shift to a third order digital divide provides the opportunity for both areas of research to focus on outcomes as a point of convergence. Looking ahead, we propose a comparative approach for future sociological research that takes into account findings of stratification and digital divide research.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSoziologie des Digitalen - Digitale Soziologie?
EditorsSabine Maasen, Jan-Hendrik Passoth
Place of PublicationBaden
PublisherNomos Verlagsgesellschaft
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)78-3-8452-9500-8
ISBN (Print)978-3-8487-5323-9
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Publication series

NameSoziale Welt
PublisherNomos Verlagsgesellschaft Baden
VolumeSonderband 23

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