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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Inequalities 2: Online power inequalities

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Open/close headingThe racial ravine

Of course international inequalities go much deeper than rather banal lists of statistics surrounding the digital divide and language usage. These global inequalities are also played out in terms of online power inequalities. It is important to note that the digital divide is alive in kicking in northern countries. According to Silver (2000, 27), in America, this divide is fast becoming a 'racial ravine'. In the US only 5% of users are African-American and Latino households are even less likely to use the internet (Thurlow et al. 2004, 87). According to Hacker and Steiner (2002) white people are also more likely to benefit from internet use. In terms of website design, issues of race are also often designed out by omission (Nakamura 2002). Racist practices also proliferate in some online venues. While the Council for Europe's Convention on cyber crime encourages European countries to address such online race hate and prevent the distribution of racist ideas and xenophobic materials and ideas, the online researcher may have to confront such issues in very direct ways when using online research methods to avoid concurring with and also in resisting racism. Online inequality in power relations, be they based on race, sexuality, age, class or gender, do not go away in the anonymity of internet-mediated research, precisely because online and onsite lives are mutually dyadic (Madge and O'Connor 2005). However, at present there is little legal redress for anyone with negative experiences while participating in (or conducting) online research but Mann and Stewart (2000, 45) make some sensible practical suggestions to afford some sort of protection. For example, where a researcher sets up a private discussion site then incoming messages that might alienate or insult participants can be excluded, or a 'hate filter' may be deployed to filter out messages from extremist groups


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[Open/close heading]Gender and sexual parity in online use?

Moreover, despite recent moves towards gender parity in online access, some gender divisions in internet use remain, as do digital gaps across educational level and occupational labour (Losh 2004). Ono and Zavodny (2003), for example, show that once men and women are online, women tend to use the internet less frequently and less intensely than men. Studies have shown how online discourses and practices continue to reflect and reinforce the unequal gender power relations present in onsite institutions and social conventions (Hocks 1999; Josok et al. 2003) and sexist practices abound (Cunneen and Stubbs 2000). Moreover, while the gender gap with regard to internet use is narrowing, the majority of women on the internet still continue to be white academic professionals (Travers 2003). The majority of participants on bulletin boards and listservs are also still men and men also dominate participation volumes and agenda setting even in feminist and mixed-gender cyberspaces (Gurak 2001). Recent studies suggest that effective use of the internet to increase women's empowerment may be overshadowed by its commercialization (Shade 2003) and its role in affirming norms of femininity and consumerism (Pitts 2004). Differences have also been explored to some degree on internet use according to sexual identity. This has largely focused on representation online and the use of the internet as a medium for community, information exchange and the expression of identity (Alexander 2002a; Alexander 2002b; Groom and Pennebaker 2005; Snyder 2002; Yang 2000). This research suggests that issues of sexuality will also need to be considered by the online researcher.


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[Open/close heading]Lifespan and economic background

Access to the internet is also dependent on household income and education levels (Mann and Stewart 2000, 33). A number of studies have attempted to explore the factors influencing the use of the internet, many focusing on internet use in North America. Wasserman and Richmond-Abbott's (2005) study found that those who were more knowledgeable in the use of the internet were also more likely to use it more frequently while Mills and Whitacre's (2003) attempt to explain the gap between internet use in urban and rural areas in the USA found that factors related to education, income and other household attributes were likely to be of more importance than issues of infrastructure and access to internet technology. They found that factors likely to increase internet use included education and income (with internet use expected to be higher in households with higher levels of education and disposable income), age (with younger households more likely to use the internet), marital status (with households headed by married couples more likely to use the internet) and number of children (with more internet use in households with more children). Heung's (2003) study of international travellers also found that those who made use of the internet for online purchase of travel products were likely to be those from Western countries with higher education levels and higher annual household income. Thus access to and use of the internet is clearly skewed.


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Open/close headingCultural differences

A further key issue is the way in which cultural differences are played out through internet communication. The online researcher has the potential to cross, sometimes unwittingly, geographical, cultural and linguistic boundaries. This raises many unanswered questions surrounding how ethnocentricity might be avoided, and quite simply there is a lack of research to draw on. How can the online researcher communicate across difference in the anonymous scenario? How can the development of dialogue be established without visible paralinguistic cues? Can emoticons replace the empathy of a smile or a tear? If a researcher is unfamiliar with the cultural field how will they know what questions to ask and how to interpret responses? Essentially, can online research methods ever replace 'being there'? As Paccagnella (1997) suggests, obtaining information about someone's life through online communication although seemingly easy and convenient, is always a hazardous and uncertain procedure. That said, in some instances the anonymity of internet-mediated research may be useful. Ma (1996) has documented the way in which the anonymity of the internet enabled East Asian participants to be less bound by face-to-face cultural rules or be overshadowed by the American host culture. The computer-mediated communication thus enabled more direct communication and greater self-disclosure as there was less fear of rejection or disagreement in the virtual venue. Moreover, if participants are communicating in a second language then maybe written language might be more suitable than speech, especially with asynchronous communication (cf Mann and Stewart 2000, 200). But this too raises ethical issues. Of course, this issue of ethnocentrism and communicating across difference is equally applicable to onsite research but '…it is yet to be seen whether the technology which allows people to speak across cultural boundaries will also allow them to understand each other' (Mann and Stewart 2000, 201). So another key ethical issue is the development of a critical online reflexivity.


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[Open/close heading]Case study: Social Exclusion and the internet in Tanzania (Claire Mercer, University of Leicester)


Image of a training session at the Multipurpose
                  Community Telecentre (MCT) referred to in the case study.
Training session at the Multipurpose
Community Telecentre (MCT)

Social exclusion and the internet in Tanzania (Claire Mercer, Department of Geography, University of Leicester)

In order to understand who is using the internet in rural Tanzania, I spent two months at the country’s first donor-funded Sengerema Multipurpose Community Telecentre (MCT), in rural Mwanza in 2003 (Mercer 2006). Research methods included an open-ended questionnaire of MCT users (265 responses), semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with users and non-users, and a town survey (299 responses) which collected basic socio-economic data about households and livelihoods in the town.

Key findings of the MCT user survey show the following axes of exclusion:

  •  Gender and age: The largest user group was young males (under 30), who comprised 59% of the total customers over the research period. Overall men comprised 74% of all users. Half of the users were under 25 years old, and 86% overall were under 35.
  • Education: 75% of users have been educated beyond primary school. This compares with 4% of the adult population of Mwanza Region having completed secondary school, and 5% nationally (NBS 2002).
  • Occupation: Employment profiles of users revealed a wide range of activities. The most common were: Students (34%), teachers (17%), farmers (14%), businessmen (13%), businesswomen (2%), doctors (2%) and nurses (1%).

The majority of users of the internet cafe at the MCT represent what might be termed a local elite. Education, occupation, knowledge of English, and financial position are all key factors affecting an individual’s ability to use the MCT. There are a reasonable number of farmers making use of the cafe; but if we compare this against the regional occupational profile, which shows that in rural Mwanza, 79% of activity is classed as farming, fishing or livestock (NBS 2002), we can see that this group is relatively under-represented amongst MCT users. This is an important finding, given the project donors’ assumption that rural farmers will be one of the key beneficiaries of the MCT. Moreover, a half-hour computer session costs 500 Tsh (US$0.45); the mean monthly income for a household in Mwanza region is 17,566 Tsh/- and the median monthly household income is just 6,108 Tsh/ (NBS, 2002). We might then question the need for, and sustainability of, an expensive and technology-dependent project being placed in a poor rural area where access to education is relatively low, and incomes are below the national average and dependent upon rain-fed agriculture.

The qualitative research revealed these exclusions in more detail. For many residents in the town, the MCT was associated with ‘development’ and was therefore not a place for people of little education and low income;

"People here are afraid to use the MCT, they don’t believe it is for them. Most people are afraid of computers, they think it’s difficult to learn. Even I used to feel this way. Most women feel this way" (Female nurse, 28).

This feeling of exclusion was compounded by a discourse of inclusion common among MCT users;

"It’s a good place, but the people living around the MCT don’t know its importance. They are not educated. It’s only the workers here in the town, who are educated, they are the ones who know the importance of the MCT" (male accountant).

Indeed, a number of informants claimed that ‘local people’ were not using the MCT, due to ‘poverty’ and ‘ignorance’. Rather, the MCT was being used by the employees and students resident in the town, who have come from elsewhere in Tanzania.


The introduction of the internet in Tanzania has been met with much enthusiasm, particularly among young people eager to follow global trends and news stories. However, claims that the internet is the latest technology which will speed up the development process, should be treated with caution. Certainly, the internet is new to Tanzania, and the problem of lack of local content, particularly in Swahili, will hopefully become less of a barrier to widespread use with time. Nevertheless, at present, the internet is seen as a leisure pursuit rather than a source of information and education (on, for example, health or farming topics). This should come as no surprise, since it mirrors experiences with the internet in societies around the world. This does not mean that the internet cannot have developmental benefits in the future, but it does suggest that policy makers and development planners need to be realistic about the contribution which internet projects can make to the development process overall.

Of more concern is the apparent exclusion of certain groups from internet cafes in urban and rural areas. Education and English are key here. People who have not even seen a computer automatically exclude themselves from internet cafes because they do not feel ‘educated enough’ to use them. The under-representation of women is a further cause for concern. Issues of gender relations, and women’s access to cash income, may be significant here. Poverty is the other major barrier to internet usage for the majority of Tanzanians. Given the realities of most peoples’ daily lives, especially in rural areas, the internet is a luxury that few can afford.


Mercer, C. (2006) Telecentres and transformations: Modernizing Tanzania through the Internet, forthcoming in African Affairs.

National Bureau of Statistics (2002) Tanzania Household Budget Survey 2000/0. Dar es Salaam. Tanzania.



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