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Ethnographic Interviews on the Digital Divide
Unformatted Document Text:  Ethnographic Interviews 3 theme emerged in our conversations, and one that was not mentioned by Goodwin and Spittle, was that of the educational benefit of computers and their potential for increasing a child’s eventual job prospects. Each of these three topics emerged in our discussions with respondents from various socioeconomic, educational, and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Yet in these conversations, one theme overrode all others in discussions of the digital divide: that of individualism. Much like Goodwin and Spittle’s analysis of how limitations on discursive strategies in turn constrain the ability to envision policy alternatives, we believe that the rhetoric of individualism provides a key to understanding the constraints that exist on the way the topic of the digital divide is conceived of and discussed among the U.S. public today. In the U.S., to follow Tocqueville’s (2000) definition of the term, individualism refers to the sense that self-reliance and initiative are virtuous traits to be encouraged and rewarded. The presumed virtues of individualism have often been called upon to offer justification for a declining commitment to social obligation, most recently in the form of the dismantling of the welfare state. Individualism is a “habit,” as Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler and Tipton (1985) imply, to the extent that “habits” may be described as ways that abstract concepts about human relations become concretized and socially reproduced through practices that reflect material conditions (see Bourdieu on the habitus, 1984). Bellah et al. (1985) argue that individualism is a “first language” that structures and limits the way that people are able to speak of their own experiences. As Frederic Jameson (1987) writes in his critique of the work of Bellah et al. on individualism:

Authors: Clark, Lynn., Demont-Heinrich, Christof. and Webber, Scott.
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Ethnographic Interviews 3
theme emerged in our conversations, and one that was not mentioned by Goodwin and
Spittle, was that of the educational benefit of computers and their potential for increasing
a child’s eventual job prospects. Each of these three topics emerged in our discussions
with respondents from various socioeconomic, educational, and racial/ethnic
backgrounds. Yet in these conversations, one theme overrode all others in discussions of
the digital divide: that of individualism. Much like Goodwin and Spittle’s analysis of
how limitations on discursive strategies in turn constrain the ability to envision policy
alternatives, we believe that the rhetoric of individualism provides a key to understanding
the constraints that exist on the way the topic of the digital divide is conceived of and
discussed among the U.S. public today.
In the U.S., to follow Tocqueville’s (2000) definition of the term, individualism
refers to the sense that self-reliance and initiative are virtuous traits to be encouraged and
rewarded. The presumed virtues of individualism have often been called upon to offer
justification for a declining commitment to social obligation, most recently in the form of
the dismantling of the welfare state. Individualism is a “habit,” as Bellah, Madsen,
Sullivan, Swidler and Tipton (1985) imply, to the extent that “habits” may be described
as ways that abstract concepts about human relations become concretized and socially
reproduced through practices that reflect material conditions (see Bourdieu on the
habitus, 1984). Bellah et al. (1985) argue that individualism is a “first language” that
structures and limits the way that people are able to speak of their own experiences. As
Frederic Jameson (1987) writes in his critique of the work of Bellah et al. on
individualism:


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