No. WP 02-07

Deconstructing the Digital Divide in the United States:

An Interpretive Policy Analytic Perspective


Christina Courtright and Alice Robbin
School of Library and Information Science
Indiana University-Bloomington and


Prepared November 14, 2001

Paper prepared for International Association of Media and Communication Research and International Communication Association "Symposium on the Digital Divide," November 15-17, 2001, Austin, Texas, USA.

** Please note: For conference distribution only


Official discourse during the 1990s about information and communication technology posited the existence of a "digital divide" between technology "haves" and "have nots." Statistical data issued by the National Technical and Information Administration (1998, 1999, 2000) were deployed as evidence to justify this assertion and were regularly invoked to demonstrate the need for a concerted programmatic response and to stimulate a community of common interests (Stone, 1997). The statistics classified the population according to standard demographic, social, and economic categories and defined a group's social location according to its conditions of access to technology. The official policy solution to the digital divide was a multi-faceted approach that promoted ways to enhance citizen access through funding and incentives for telecommunications infrastructure development, special Internet rates for schools and libraries, and local technology initiatives.

During the past five years the metaphor of the "digital divide" has become part of the national discourse of the United States, an abstract symbol that condenses public concerns about social inequality and evokes hopes for solutions related to the use of information technology. The digital divide is a potent resource whose symbolic properties and communicative power have activated a wide array of participants in the policy debates about how to create a more just society.

This paper analyzes the language of the U.S. policy communities that are engaged in the policy debates about the "digital divide." Following Edelman's (1964, 1971, 1977) and Cobb and Elder's (1983) work on symbolic politics and agenda building, this paper explores the public rhetoric of the digital divide by principal stakeholders. We examine how stakeholders employed the metaphor of the digital divide and their definitions of the problem and proposed solutions.

The research is also designed to uncover the extent of consensus among the stakeholders regarding the official version of a "digital divide," a shared worldview that has generally been assumed by the scholarly community (see Bimber, 2000; Bucy, 2000; Burstin, 2000; Hindman, 2000; Kibirige, 2001; Lentz and Oden, 2001; Parker, 2000; Venturella, 2000; Wallin, Wilson, and Resier, 2001). We begin, instead, with a different assumption that derives from Schattschneider's (1960 [1975]) working definition of democracy as a "political system" where "alternatives of public policy are defined by competing organizations and leaders" (p. 138).

A classical interest group conception of politics and policy formation in pluralist societies guides this study1. Along with a host of political theorists, we posit conflict among interest groups and issue networks that attempt to influence the direction of American political life (Berry, 1997; Cigler & Loomis, 1998; Lasswell, 1958 [1936]; Lowi, 1979; Sabatier, 1999; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993).

The process of defining problems and proposing solutions constitutes the ongoing activity of policymaking, both public and private. Policymaking is not a straightforward technical exercise, traditionally conceived of as agenda setting followed by policy formulation, adoption, implementation, and assessment (Dunn, 1994). Rather, policymaking is an iterative process, characterized by persistent conflict with regard to three basic components: whether a problem exists, and if so, what it consists of; what must be done; and how it must be done.

"Problem definition has acquired increasing importance in the study of public policymaking" because "description of a given social problem can affect its rise or decline before government," and these "descriptions are linked to the solutions that government devises" (Rochefort and Cobb, 1994, p. vii). We concur with Schön (1979) that "problem setting" is at the very heart of policy difficulties, much more so than problem-solving, which is traditionally considered the thorniest part of policy work. In fact, when policy efforts focus on problem-solving, the problem itself is usually assumed.

We extract from Toulmin, Rieke and Janik (1979) and Dunn (1994) the essence of the rhetorical form and from Gauss (1983) and others (e.g., Billig et al., 1988) the tensions of modern liberal theory to analyze the different policy arguments that structure the policy debate. Modern liberal theory provides the philosophic basis for the participation of individuals in groups and the political realm and for the premises of political arguments about the "digital divide." The theory supports a political agenda to achieve a more just society that affirms (i) the development and realization of an individual's full intellectual and moral capacities and contributions and (ii) the "realization of the human spirit in society" through mutual interdependence and cooperation as necessary for creating a "mutually enriching social life" through associative relationships and "belongingness" in a community (Gauss, 1983, pp. 20, 15).

Our analysis privileges an epistemological orientation to policy analysis that emphasizes an interpretive approach, exploring the symbolic language that determines how policy is framed or understood (Feldman, 1989; Yanow, 1996). We focus on "What does this policy mean to the stakeholder?" We analyze the language and attend to the categories embedded in public policies and administrative practices because "any attempt to revise or reform these policies will have to engage in the meanings" attached to those categories (Yanow, 2000, p. 49). This study employs a semantic content method to analyze the meaning of the "digital divide" metaphorical expression and the stakeholders' definitions of and proposed solutions for the digital divide (Bauer, 2000).

Policy stakeholders were identified through news stories and opinion pieces published in the top five U.S. newspapers during the year 2000 that included the term "digital divide" in the headlines or lead paragraphs. Because their views and activities have obtained national press coverage, we identify them as influential political actors that compete to set a public and national agenda around the digital divide, although there are certainly others. The evidence examined for this study consists of published reports, press releases, newspaper interviews, and other materials produced by organizations in the United States that are involved in the digital divide as a policy issue. These documents were examined to ensure that the term was utilized in their own reports and other literature. Through this process, the authors excluded groups whose primary documentation was either not available or failed to include the term "digital divide," leaving a sample of 52 policy issue stakeholders.

The remaining part of the paper discusses our findings. Section one explores the meaning of the metaphoric expression of the "digital divide." Section two analyzes how the stakeholders' defined the problem. Section three discusses the political values invoked by the stakeholders. Section four explains the policy solutions that stakeholders offered. We conclude with a very brief recapitulation of the findings and suggestions for future research.

The Meaning of Metaphor

Metaphors are used when literal descriptions do not suffice. Metaphoric language creates new meanings from existing understandings. These new meanings are formed by partially structuring one experience in terms of another (Black, 1962, 1979; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lakoff, 1993). In this way, for example, the concept of a "divide" becomes shaped by popular understandings of technology. In addition, the structuring term itself may become partially restructured (Black, 1962). For example, the positive, progressive connotations of "digital" become associated with a negative phenomenon when used to frame "divide." This metaphor is paradoxical, dissonant, and stimulates action. Moreover, the use of the term "divide" itself, when applied to U.S. society, clashes with deeply held notions about social inclusion and community, and is a much stronger term than "gap" or "disparity." The language used in metaphors sheds light on certain aspects of a concept, while obscuring others.

A review of stakeholders' use of the metaphor "digital divide" reveals four basic types of metaphors in widespread use. The first two, "metaphors of muscle" (Table 1) and "metaphors of motion" (Table 2) are physical, action-oriented, "can-do" images that are consistent with traditional U.S. values of fixing problems, overcoming obstacles, and forging ahead. The next two, "metaphors of opportunity" (Table 3) and "metaphors of social inclusion" (Table 4), reflect deeply held values about the relationship between the individual, the group, and the nation, a relationship that has evolved over recent political history. Interestingly, the language of "divides" was often replaced by the use of "gaps" and "disparities" when the problem was framed as less severe (Table 5).

Problem Definitions

Policy difficulties are rooted more in the definition of problems ("problem-setting") than in problem-solving, Schön (1979) contends. When policy efforts focus on problem-solving, the problem itself is usually assumed. Indeed, many of the texts included in our sample do not engage the problem at all, but rather assume it and move immediately to positing a solution.

In this section, however, we examine how the problem of the digital divide is defined by stakeholders. The language of problem-definition, often narrated as a sort of "story," creates a frame that, like metaphor, highlights aspects deemed most important by its user and obscures other aspects (Schön & Rein, 1994; Rein & Schön, 1996). We use the concept of "socio-technical frames," adapted from Bijker's (1995) definition of technological frames, and Iacono & Kling's (2001) discussion of how those frames are used to advocate action, to designate how stakeholders conceptualize the relationship between technology ("digital") and social problems ("divide").

Most of the stakeholders defined the digital divide as a lack of "access" to computers and the Internet (Table 6) and relied on the statistics collected by the NTIA (1998, 1999, 2000) to support their claim that a digital divide existed. Many stakeholders added the dimension of skills and education as important to the problem definition, and a smaller number also stressed ownership of technology.

At the same time, many stakeholders in our sample also directly contested the official definition of the digital divide (Table 7). Some disputed the very existence of a digital divide, basing their contention on the same official concept of "access to technology" and the government statistics. Other groups agreed that a digital divide exists, but they disagreed with the official definition centered on access, and claimed instead that skills and education are either more important or equally important. Two stakeholders added the lack of useful Internet content to their definition of the problem. Only a handful of stakeholders discussed the problem designated by "digital divide" as part of a complex set of socio-economic, historical, and even cultural factors.

Stakeholders appeared reluctant to attribute responsibility for the digital divide, although the narratives they used to describe the problem often identified causal factors, such as membership in one or more historically disadvantaged groups, or lack of resources. The language of "fortune" or "chance" was repeatedly used, and this language was often linked to that of technological agency (Table 10).

At times, discussions of the failures in school systems seemed to cast blame on teachers or schools, but such attribution was weak and usually qualified. Thus, although the digital divide was often seen as "caused" by either existing disadvantages or technology itself, there was a marked absence of finger-pointing.

There are two plausible explanations for this absence of finger-pointing. There appears to be a general consensus about the existence of social inequality in American society. Even those stakeholders who argued that the digital divide was disappearing implied that they concurred with this assessment. We also think that this absence may be attributed to the tendency to favor problem-solving over problem-setting, consistent with deeply held "can-do" beliefs that Americans can fix problems, as reflected in the metaphorical language used throughout the documents that we examined. Even though systemic problems were indicated throughout stakeholders' problem narratives, most did not explore the complexities that these entail, but rather forged ahead to simpler solutions than such complexity might warrant.

Political Values

The stakeholders also employ a language of explanation that reflects conceptions of modern liberal theory. Their narratives of the digital divide overwhelmingly reflect the concept of equal opportunity (Table 8). Although equal opportunity is historically centered on the individual, its use in this policy debate was, however, entirely couched in terms of individuals' memberships in a socio-economic or demographic group, such as minorities, the elderly, and low-income. This apparent contradiction most likely reflects an actual tension in political values regarding individual and group identities, that, while historically part of the political debates in the United States, has developed since the civil rights struggles of the past and resonates today in contentious debates over affirmative action.

In seeking explanations for the problem of the digital divide, many of the narratives also reflected on existing social, economic, and political divisions in the society, arguing that the nation was weakened by "divides." These stakeholders privileged the value of social inclusion, and translated that value into political actions that actively bring disadvantaged individuals or groups into a common unity. This value, which emphasizes the importance of the community, may seem opposed to equal opportunity, which privileges individuality, but we argue again that political history reveals an evolving tension between the two values, which in practice are not employed as mutually exclusive. In fact, several stakeholders used language that reflected both values simultaneously.

In addition, stakeholders whose socio-technical definitions of the digital divide reflected a complex web of factors, rather than simple access to technology, tended also to employ the language of social inclusion in their narratives. Those who held that lack of access to technology constitutes the definition of the digital divide also consistently utilized the language of equal opportunity.

Problem Solutions

Most of the solutions proposed by stakeholders focused directly on ensuring access to technology; the majority of access-based proposals also involved training. In general, stakeholders' proposed socio-technical solutions were consistent with the socio-technical frames as well as the values¾primarily equal opportunity¾posed in their problem definitions. Only a very small number of stakeholders questioned the usefulness of equal opportunity and technological access unless broader socio-economic and non-technological problems were equally addressed.

However, there were differences among stakeholders in terms of the minimum components of a "level playing field" necessary for equal opportunity to be meaningful. Some indicated that access to technology would be sufficient to achieve this "level playing field," while others insisted that structural solutions, including education and skills, were essential components in order for equal opportunity to exist.

A striking aspect of the problem solutions proposed by stakeholders is the almost-unanimous choice of some form of partnership among government, business, and/or non-profits. Although many stakeholders pointed to the need for government leadership, most did not request improved public policies, but rather favored public-private alliances and local initiatives to address the problems they have identified. Nor did stakeholders oppose government involvement in their solutions. The only exception to this consensus are those stakeholders who contested the existence of a digital divide problem, for they claimed that market forces and private charity were already taking care of any inequities in access that may exist.

The rhetoric of "public-private partnerships" dominated the stakeholders' assessment of institutional arrangements required to reduce technological problems associated with social inequality. This broad consensus around public-private partnerships suggests an evolution of conceptualizations of the government's role over the past several decades: from rejection of government as "the problem" during the Reagan years, to promotion of local non-governmental initiatives ("1,000 points of light") during the Bush years, to a consensus forged during the Clinton years that government should encourage private efforts while also providing leadership where necessary. This "partnership" form of institutional arrangement for problem-solving appeals to, affirms, and reinforces the rules of the game of contemporary American political process: that successful policy outcomes require consensus and negotiation (Howe, 1988, p. 99). Advocating this institutional form is a political expression of "inclusion."


Our analysis of stakeholders' portrayals of the digital divide shows a widespread use of evocative, metaphorical language that highlights some aspects of the problem while obscuring others, and expresses deeply held beliefs about individuals, groups, and community in the United States and about the political process. The political discourse reflects fundamental values for achieving solutions to social and other problems that have operated in the United States since its inception.

Most notably, a philosophy of action draws on the concrete experiences of everyday life and focuses on "doing" and on a search for simple, visible solutions to complex problems and technological "fixes." These are the metaphors of "muscle" and "motion" that we described earlier.

Public policy recognizes inequality and internal cleavages in society (membership in historically disadvantaged groups, for example), but privileges competition over social justice (equalizing the shares) and is designed (at best) to ensure equal opportunity to resources. Metaphors of "opportunity" and "equal footing" dominate the problem definitions and solutions proposed by the stakeholders.

Politics is intrinsically conflictual and policy controversies are often intractable (Rein & Sch`n, 1996; Sch`n & Rein, 1994); as such, stakeholders search for ways to reduce its divisive and corrosive effects on the polity. The dominant expression of "partnership" reinforces a vision of the rules of the game that emphasizes consensual governance mechanisms as a basis for collective policy action, a seeking of "common ground" for reducing the tensions of political life by all the stakeholders.

Our sense is that our analysis of digital divide policy problem-definitions and -solutions that we have described in this paper reflect a conception of political purpose and action that are uniquely American. It would be of great interest to apply this analytic framework to portrayals of the digital divide in other countries. We note, for example, that although many policy stakeholders in Western Europe appear to have appropriated the metaphor of the "digital divide," their conceptions of the nature of the problem and their recommendations for eliminating this "divide" rest on a different political discourse about both technology and public policy. Although the evidence points to increasing political liberalization and a weakening of the role of political institutions, these changes are situated, albeit uneasily, within a social democratic tradition that has historically privileged social equality (Hoff et al., 2000) and a social contract to ensure social inclusion (Cammaerts, 2001).

Participants in this international conference are uniquely positioned to contribute to this comparative analysis. We look forward to more discussion on the persuasive powers of metaphorical language that shapes and influences our understandings of policy problems and solutions.


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Table 1: Metaphors of muscle
There are physical obstacles… 
"The digital divide is an obstacle to Orange County becoming a center for the technology industry"
"A new set of problems makes that tall hurdle even more difficult to clear"
"…barriers that hold people back"

that can be overcome…
"…bridge the digital divide"[most common metaphor]
"…spanning the digital divide"
"This report…analyzes this new frontier of the digital divide"

…or destroyed or defeated.
"…projects that seek to break down the digital divide" 
"…break down barriers that hold people back"
New content will "really drive a nail in the coffin of what everyone has been talking about as the digital divide" 
HUD event: "Conquering the Digital Divide: Delivering the Promise of Technology to America's Families"
"This is a national crusade"

Table 2: Metaphors of motion
Motion that is negative:progress is blocked
"Minorities, low-income families and seniors are in the slow lane on the Information Superhighway"
"Schools with high minority enrollments are about one year behind the rest of the nation"
"The information revolution will leave many behind"
"In some instances, this divide is actually widening"
"Latinos lag far behind non-Hispanic whites"

Motion in the right direction: making progress 
"Programs such as the E-rate and the technology grant initiatives are helping to narrow the digital divide"
"…reverse the growing digital divide"
"The digital economy is moving our Nation toward greater prosperity"
"Council committee gives green light to effort to close the digital gap"
"Delivering the promise of technology to America's families"
"…ensuring that this technology reaches its full potential"

Table 3: Metaphors of opportunity
Life, liberty, and…
"The Internet is above all about freedom - the freedom to compete, to prosper, to advance in a virtual and level environment, a more perfect marketplace for not only goods and services, but also ideas"

Leveling the playing field 
"We can close gaps not simply in access to technology, but in access to opportunity itself"
"For the first time in history a technology exists that, to a large extent, can level the playing field"
"The Digital Divide is about more than connecting to the Internet, it is about connecting to opportunity in the new digital economy"

Getting one's fair share
"To date there has been an unfair access to the Internet"
"…the difference in the shares of each group that is digitally connected""…the share of households with Internet access…" "…share of individuals using the Internet…"

Table 4: Metaphors of social inclusion
One nation, indivisible…
"…on the wrong side of digital divide"
"If we leave any American stranded on the other side of the now famous digital divide"
"The Digital Divide, which is being drawn between rich and poor, black and white and urban and rural, is separating our society"
"By using technology to unite our country, we make it stronger; by dividing, we are all weakened" 
"The digital divide that separates those Americans connected to the Internet from those who are not"
"Orange County is split by a deep digital divide"

Table 5: When is the problem not a divide?
When the problem can be easily remedied
In encouraging firms to try new marketing strategies for Latinos: "this disparity has translated into what has come to be known as the digital divide"
When it's less of a problem for some than for others
In the same NTIA report:
  • The disparity in Internet usage between men and women has largely disappeared· Digital gaps are narrowing for rural residentsBut…
  • A digital divide remains for people with disabilities, the elderly, and certain racial and ethnic minorities
When there isn't a problem "There is a "digital deluge of opportunity"


Table 6:Socio-technical frames used in defining the problem
Sector Number of actors
The digital divide is a matter of:
access to computers & Internet
ownership of technology
skills/effective use
deeper social and economic issues
other/not specified
Policy advocacy

Note: totals do not add up to 100%, as many stakeholders cited multiple factors involved in the digital divide

Table 7: Contesting the official definition of the digital divide
There used to be a divide but it's gone "With dirt-cheap Internet access and computers approaching the costs of television sets, assertions of a 'digital divide'…are as correct as pinning last week's Dow at 1,000"
"There is no digital divide in terms of race"
"But if the digital divide is defined solely as a question of who does and does not have the ability to surf the Web, then it's hardly an intractable crisis"

The issue is about more than access to technology "We've never been fans of the 'digital divide' term to begin with, because it doesn't do justice to the social divides we worry about"
"America has long been divided… The term 'digital' has only recently been introduced to the list"
"Providing access is not enough. We need to encourage the creation of useful content"
"The problem has been more about skills and how to use the technologies"
"Putting technology in the classroom is a good step, but teacher training is an essential element"

Table 8: Most significant values underlying problem definitions
Equal opportunity
Motto of one non-profit: "Creating opportunity through access"
"To be on the less fortunate side of the divide means that there is less opportunity to take part in our new information-based economy"
"We have hundreds of thousands and millions who have the ability, the curiosity, the desire to learn and to succeed but have not had the opportunity and the access" 

Community/social inclusion
"Access to computers and the Internet and the ability to effectively use this technology are becoming increasingly important for full participation in America's economic, political and social life"
"There is still much more to be done to make certain that everyone is included in the digital economy"
The digital divide "is separating our society between the technology 'haves' and 'have nots'"

Table 9: Other values underlying problem definitions
Civic participation
"People without ready and reliable access to the tools of our information age are increasingly becoming second-class citizens"
The digital divide "furthers the perception that minorities are becoming politically disenfranchised"

"Increasing computer literacy and access among those on the down side of the Digital Divide will make the county more attractive to companies by providing a good supply of skilled workers"
"the digital divide is a business issue that needs to be addressed to allow the high technology industry continued access to a highly skilled workforce"

Table 10: Attributing causes to the digital divide
Fortune or chance
"The problem of the digital divide that shortchanges thousands of our young people… children whose families have not had the chance to share fully in the nation's growth and prosperity"
"[The program helps] millions of young people, primarily from at-risk communities, who might not otherwise get a chance to improve their lives."

Technological agency
"It will be tragic if [the Internet], that has done more to break down barriers between people than anything in all of human history, built a new wall because not everybody had access to it" 
"the information revolution will leave many behind"
"technological advances are widening the gap between rich and poor"
"a technology exists that, to a large extent, can level the playing field"

The educational system
"the failure of basic education does not go well with the computer-based, highly unforgiving environment of the Internet"
"The lack of qualified teachers in high-tech subjects is reaching crisis proportions in schools"


1. At the same time, we do not mean to imply or overstate the role of interest groups as a basis for political action. Other theories contribute to our understandings of politics and the policy process.  We do not ignore, in particular, the institutionalist perspective and concur with March and Olsen (1995, p. 9) that “shared preferences or common will” are “a basis for action within a collectivity.”