The Network Society, Social Capital and Ethnography

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Scott Webber
University of Colorado at Boulder

Many low-income teens and elementary age children today have dreams of participation in the network society whether as producers, consumers or future employees. There exists, however, a large chasm between their dreams of participation and their access to social capital through which they may achieve these dreams. Many propose that children on the "wrong" side of this element of the digital divide require access to computer hardware and software foremost, but often fail to recognize the necessity of social capital (Bourdieu, 1984).


From a more participatory and responsive democracy (Benton Foundation, 2000) to increased job possibilities (CEO Forum on Education and Technology, 1997), we can see today suggestions that all students should have available to them training, skills, and access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) so they may join in the network society. A repeated mantra at the recent symposium on the digital divide was that the digital divide is about more than access to technology and both of the authors (Scott Webber and Lynn Schofield Clark) strongly support this suggestion. It is within this context that the authors consider the case of David Cruz.


Through depth interviews, one element of a larger ethnographic project, the authors suggest that specific case studies offer useful examples through which we can understand the challenges facing low-income students today while at the same time also suggest specific solutions. David Cruz is a 15-year old high school freshman living outside of Denver, Colorado. He has visions of a successful career as a software developer, but either lacks the information that he needs to achieve his goals in this area or has not yet taken advantage of what limited useful information may exist within his social network of family, friends and teachers. David has access to computers at his home, the local public library and through his high school. He knows there are classes available at the public library and has taken some classes in his junior high school. Though David has not recently taken any classes to increase his computer skills and mentioned in an interview that he does not know how to make web pages needs to work on his typing, he is convinced of his future success in the computer realm.

His mother believes computers will be important to David's future success and encourages him to look into computer classes, but does not offer David specific information about the location or availability of these opportunities. She encourages David to succeed, but there are clear limits in her understanding of the skills needed to succeed today in the network society.

David lacks not only the specific computer skills (what Bourdieu has labeled cultural capital) but more importantly, we believe, he lacks social capital--networks of people who could help David to understand what either a computer job or a successful career in the IT world would entail.

We would suggest that while David may not be "typical," based on continued research in schools and community centers, we have reasons to believe his experiences, and his beliefs about those experiences, are not unusual or idiosyncratic either. Case studies and ethnographically gathered data can provide a level of evidence and understanding that would be more difficult to obtain through other research methods. Not only can we see the things that David, essentially, does not know about his future prospects (information that would be difficult to gather through a survey, for example), but we have not seen in our interviews that he even knows what he doesn't know--and that is the tragic part about the disconnect for teens like David and where the lack of social capital most affects David and others like him so adversely.

Through open-ended, though focused, ethnographic interviews with David and his mother, we can begin to understand, for example, the ways in which it is clear that there exists a great disconnect between, for many today, dreams and aspirations regarding future participation in the network society and a lack of means by which these dreams can be reached. Students like David have accepted the rhetoric surrounding the possibilities available when they increase their computer skills and join, hopefully, the network society, but require additional opportunity, guidance, mentoring and support so that these future prospects can be realized.


Beyond guidance from an individual, whether a parent or a researcher, and beyond access to either computer hardware and software or individual training courses, David Cruz and others like him require access to networks of individuals who can provide for him a community of individuals who can serve as teachers, role models and mentors. Programs that serve as useful examples include the iMentor program, which uses mentoring relationships, project-based curricula and professional development to "improve the lives of young people from underserved communities in New York City through innovative, technology-based approaches to youth mentoring and education" and the Computer and Communication Technologies Summer Youth Employment Program in Troy, NY, which provides not only training in specific technology-related skills for these participants, but also serves as resource for social and cultural capital for these underserved youths (information on iMentor available at; for information about the program in Troy, NY see Cintorino, 2001). Students like David need to be recruited, mentored and introduced to a wider network of individuals, not just skills, if they are to be included in the network society so many of us rather seamlessly join.

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