The Digital Practices of African Americans

An Approach to Studying Cultural Change in the Information Society

by Roderick Graham (Author)
©2014 Monographs 164 Pages
Series: Digital Formations, Volume 90


How do social scientists study the impact of social networking sites on racial identity formation? How has the Internet impacted the accumulation of social and cultural capital? By synthesizing insights across a variety of disciplines, this book builds an original theoretical perspective through which these and other questions about core social processes can be addressed. Three case studies of how African Americans use information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used to illustrate this theoretical perspective. They show how groups can leverage ICTs to overcome historical inequalities. The book argues that the lenses through which scholars and society’s leaders think about new technology place too much emphasis on the technological and economic aspects of ICTs, and not enough on the impact of ICTs on social processes at the everyday level.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: The Information Society
  • Introduction
  • Models of The Information Society
  • Bell’s Post-Industrial Society and the Centrality of Theoretical Knowledge
  • Manuel Castells and the Space of Flows
  • Yochai Benkler’s Nonmarket Production and Personal Freedom
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Two: The Digital Divide
  • Introduction
  • Understanding The Digital Divide
  • The First Digital Divide
  • The Second Digital Divide: Digital Inequality
  • The Problem(s) with The Digital Divide Metaphor
  • A Problem of Definition
  • A Problem of Evidence
  • A Problem of Ideology
  • The Distortions of The Divide
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Three: The Digital Practice Perspective
  • Introduction
  • The Digital Environment
  • The DE as a Social Space
  • The Porous, Yet Discrete Space of the Digital Environment
  • The Digital Environment Is Layered
  • The Properties of The Digital Environment
  • Property #1—The Decreased Cost of Manipulating Information
  • Property #2—The Digital Environment Allows Community without Propinquity
  • Property #3—Social Networks Are Ahistorical and Multidimensional
  • Property #4—The Digital Environment Enables and Constrains through Code
  • Other Possible Properties: Speed and Quantity of Information
  • Digital Practices
  • New Leverage for Old Behaviors
  • Historically and Structurally Conditioned Goals
  • Types of Digital Practices
  • Applying a Digital Practice Perspective
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Four: The Digital Practice of Weak Tie Development
  • Introduction
  • Social Capital and Social Networks
  • The Strength of Weak Ties
  • Strong Ties and the “Hook-Up” in The African American Community
  • Social Networking Sites
  • The Digital Practice of Pursuing Bridging Capital Through Social Networking Sites
  • Data
  • Dependent Variables
  • Bonding
  • Bridging
  • Independent Variables
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Bonding
  • Own an SNS Profile?
  • Bonding Activities
  • Bridging
  • Owing Multiple SNS Profiles
  • Bridging Activities
  • Summary of Findings
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Five: The Digital Practice of Maintaining Complex Family Ties via Mobile Phone
  • Introduction
  • Applying a Digital Practice Perspective
  • Networked Individualism Within Families
  • The Uniqueness of Mobile Phones
  • The African American Family
  • Research Question
  • Data
  • Survey
  • Independent Variables
  • Controlling variables
  • Ethnoracial Group and Family Structure Variables
  • Dependent Variables
  • Ownership
  • Raw Measures of Making Calls and Texting
  • Mobile Phone Activities
  • Method
  • Analysis
  • Regression Models
  • Ownership
  • Raw Mobile Phone Frequency and Mobile Phone Activities
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Six: The Digital Practice of Maintaining Digital Enclaves
  • Introduction
  • Applying a Digital Practice Perspective
  • Publics and Counterpublics
  • The Networked Public Sphere Versus Segmentation And Polarization
  • African American Counterpublics Online
  • The Root as an Example of a Digital Enclave
  • Network Environment of the Root
  • Content Analysis of Political Commentary on The Root
  • Counterhegemonic Interpretations
  • Emphasizing History
  • Being America’s Conscious
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Seven: The Digital Practice Perspective and Social Policy: Improving the Social, Cultural, and Civic Quality of the Digital Environment
  • Introduction
  • Social Policy In The Digital Environment
  • The Telecommunications Act of 1996
  • Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998
  • Federal Communication Commission Policy Statement: Preserving the Free and Open Internet in 2010
  • The National Broadband Plan of 2010
  • Social Policy, Nonmarket Spaces, and The Digital Practice Perspective
  • Keep the Internet Open
  • Emphasizing Digital Literacy (or Digital Environment Literacy) in Public Education
  • Incentivizing Nonmarket Spaces
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Eight: Conclusion: Smart Mobs, Flash Mobs, Flash Robs and the Revolutionary Potential of the Digital Environment
  • Appendix
  • Appendix A
  • Appendix B
  • Appendix C
  • Appendix D
  • Appendix E
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index



The route that brought The Digital Practices of African Americans: An Approach to Studying Cultural Change in the Information Society to fruition was not a standard one. It all started with a bit of frustration I experienced while selecting course materials. As with most professors, I teach courses that are general, and fit the needs of the department—Introduction to Sociology, The Family, Urban Sociology, and courses that are related to my specialization—Race and Cyberspace, Internet and Society. In courses that are departmental needs I always found myself referring to the Industrial Revolution in a similar way. I would say: “The Industrial Revolution was a shift in the economy of society. The way in which people produced goods changed dramatically. At the same time, there was an equally dramatic change in the types of technologies available. But, the Industrial Revolution also changed [topic here].” And then I would delve into the social and cultural changes.

In my Sociology of the Family course, I talk about how the growth of factories pulled men away from the home. This created a devaluing of women’s work, as cash was not attached to their very important home activities. It also created a separation of the sexes, and helped produce an ideology of separate spheres, where men “should” be in the public sphere of work and politics, and women “should” be in the private sphere of home. In my Urban Sociology course I talk about how the growth of cities was due to the growth of manufacturing. Cities, urban environments we can call them, are not progeny of the Industrial Revolution per ← 1 | 2 → se, but like the current growth of cities in Africa, Latin America, and China it intertwined with the growth of manufacturing. With this as a context, I spend time talking about how social life changed in the city, how people who had crammed into cities for work now had to recalibrate their social interactions. In both cases, the Industrial Revolution was about not only economic and technological transformations, but also social and cultural ones.

Meanwhile, when teaching courses in my specialization, I found it harder to use the same spiel for the Digital Revolution. I couldn’t refer to literature that explored the social and cultural transformations. Sure, there was literature out there, but it was very thin. More importantly, I couldn’t find sociological literature that explored the social and cultural effects of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on society. This was odd. It had been 40 years since computing became available to everyday people with the advent of the personal computer, about 20 years since the Internet was readily available and 10 since the mobile phone became easily attainable. However you wanted to label our new age—digital age, computer revolution, network society, or information society—it was clear that things had changed. Yet, sociologists were not producing work that I could use in my classes, and I needed to look in disciplines like communication and law. This literature was of high quality and informative, yet the questions that are asked in these disciplines are not always the same as those asked by sociologists and the answers given do not always coincide with a sociological interpretation of phenomena.

It was the frustration I felt when I juxtaposed the ease in which I could cite sociological research on the social and cultural changes associated with the Industrial Revolution, and my inability to do so for the Digital Revolution that gave me the idea to write this book. I surmised that this lack of literature was not just a problem for classroom instruction. More sociological research on issues related to ICTs could inform civic leaders and policy makers outside academia. I decided that the best way to (somewhat selfishly) have better teaching materials for my classes, and (somewhat more altruistically) address the vacuum in scholarly work was to develop a perspective that could spur future sociological research on ICTs.

The most dominant research on ICTs seemed to suffer from techno-economic determinism. There was a lot of research on the change in the economic structure because of ICTs, and its consequences. There was also a lot said about the technology. But, social and cultural changes were downplayed, or at worst seen as occurring because of changes in the economy or technology. I even saw this techno-economic determinism in the media. Story after story talked about which tech company’s stock had risen or how much money they would raise in their initial public offering of stock. When stories about social and cultural trends were mentioned they were ← 2 | 3 → trivialized. For example, online dating is often framed as a quirky way to socialize, not a fundamentally new way that intimate relationships are initiated.

I saw this techno-economic determinism as a consequence of the dearth in sociological studies. The lenses through which scholars and society’s leaders see the Information Society are focused too narrowly. They can focus on the economy:

The lens can also focus quite well on technology:

But the lens does less well for generating questions about the construction of racial identity, the reproduction of inequality, the manufacturing of belief systems, and other sociological questions. And so the primary purpose of The Digital Practices of African Americans: An Approach to Studying Cultural Change in the Information Society is to construct a new lens through which to view the social and cultural transformations occurring in the Information Society.

But once the project was underway, I realized I had secondary purposes. First, I wanted to make this book accessible to the broadest range of readers possible. I wrote with the undergraduate student in mind, knowing that hitting this target meant more advanced readers would be fine (obviously it doesn’t work in the opposite direction). My experience as a teacher of undergraduates has made it clear that students (and most people generally) comprehend abstract ideas more readily when connections are made to instances from everyday life. And so numerous examples are used, including examples from my own life. I try to avoid jargon. When presenting results from empirical studies, jargon is often unavoidable, and indeed is necessary. However, technical terms are explained as much as possible without hindering the flow of the narrative. For those readers who are still unsure of the finer points of the data analysis, skipping these sections will not prevent an understanding of the main ideas. Another decision I made was to profile scholarly work from some of the most influential writers and thinkers. Academic articles tend to hide the individual author, and extract the main ideas. I chose to highlight the work of one or two of the more prominent scholars, to give the reader a sense of who are the more prominent thinkers in the field. ← 3 | 4 →

Another secondary purpose was to illustrate the agency that minorities currently have in the Information Society. A deliberate choice was made to use African Americans as illustrations of the digital practice perspective. In later chapters I explain that one of the reasons was because my African American background produced an inherent interest, and my knowledge of African American social and cultural conditions made it easier for me to apply the digital practice perspective to them. The fact is that minorities, and here I am mainly referring to African Americans and Hispanics, are not as disadvantaged vis-à-vis ICTs as one might think. Minorities have become very adept at using technology to overcome structural and historical difficulties, so much so that I cannot imagine labeling them disadvantaged with respect to this domain of life.

Given the very real unequal outcomes for minorities in so many areas of life, and the wealth of scholarly work showing the many digital divides between whites and minorities, I suspect that my view will be unconventional. But, as with everything else in this book, the key is to look past economic and technological aspects, and see how minorities use technology to achieve their goals in everyday life. From this angle minorities are extracting immeasurable benefits. They are finding ways through their own ingenuity and creativity of mitigating racial inequality through ICT usage. Scholars, policy makers, the media, and most importantly minorities themselves, need to be aware of this so that it can be nurtured and the potential of ICTs can be realized.

The plan of the book is as follows. In Chapters 1 and 2 I talk more about the lenses that suffer from techno-economic determinism. In Chapter 1 I discuss the models of the Information Society, focusing on the writings of Daniel Bell, Manuel Castells, and Yochai Benkler. In Chapter 2, I discuss the digital divide metaphor as another lens too narrowly focused on the economy and technology. Because this concept has been appropriated by the mass media and by policy makers, more attention in this chapter is placed on the wider society’s usage of the term.

In Chapter 3 I introduce a different way of approaching ICT usage. I explain the two main concepts that make up the digital practice perspective: “digital environment” and “digital practices”. The digital environment is defined as the social space produced through interconnected information and communication technologies (ICTs). The digital environment, or DE, is distinct from the physical environment, or PE. It is a space where one must enter via ICTs. Upon entry, one is faced with a new set of social forces, the navigation of which requires adopting new behaviors. Digital practices are the behaviors that result when groups navigate the digital environment.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 present concrete examples of how the digital practice perspective can be applied. Each chapter presents a case study that explores the ← 4 | 5 → digital practices African Americans have developed as they leverage the unique properties of the digital environment. These goals can be keeping in touch with family (Chapter 4), they can be ways to overcome a lack of weak ties (Chapter 5) and they can be the development of an alternative, African American-centered narrative about societal events (Chapter 6). Although the case studies presented here are exclusively on African Americans, the idea is to illustrate how the perspective can be used.

There is a reciprocal relationship between knowledge and social policy. The knowledge we have about the world should inform what government seeks to accomplish and the form that government policies take. Similarly, the issues government deems important—assuming it is representative of the electorate—should inform the types of scientific endeavors undertaken. Since the 1990s, social policy and academic output have been waltzing to the same economic tune. The federal government has been diligent in ensuring that business can grow in the digital environment. In contradistinction, I argue in Chapter 7 that social policy should focus more attention on nurturing nonmarket spaces, and that the digital practice perspective can inform the development and implementation of these policies.

Chapter 8, the conclusion, describes a series of ICT enabled street crimes by minority youth in urban areas called flash robs. These flash robs, I argue, show the potential of ICTs for social and cultural transformation. They are, indeed instances of criminal activity. But they are also examples of how groups in society have leveraged the properties of the DE. It is an example of social and cultural transformation. ← 5 | 6 →


← 6 | 7 →



The Information Society


Beginning in the 1970s, information and communication technologies (ICTs) became increasingly important to both large-scale organizations and individual people. These technologies increased our ability to both process information (the microprocessor computer chip, the personal computer) and communicate information (satellites, e-mail, and mobile phones). Scholars have worked to understand the economic and cultural transformations that have coincided with the wide-scale adoption of ICTs. This chapter will review three of these scholars and their theories: Daniel Bell, Manuel Castells, and Yochai Benkler. I will call them models of the Information Society.


ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (September)
social networking racial identity inequalities technology
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 164 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Roderick Graham (Author)

Roderick Graham (PhD, City University of New York Graduate Center) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He has published articles in Sociology Compass, New Media & Society, and Information, Communication and Society.


Title: The Digital Practices of African Americans