Theory, Uncategorized

Gender, technology and inequality: what my research is all about

As I write up my research the stories in the data and what’s motivating me to do this work becomes clearer.  Here’s a brief extract:

This research is concerned with the unequal position in society of poorer young women in the UK and how we might understand this inequality in relation to their use of mobile devices. It responds to Green and Livingstone’s call to ‘gender’ the digital age in the face of what they see as an absence of gender in mainstream digital age theorising (2013). Feminist approaches underpin this research: a commitment described by Standing to “…translate between the private world of women and the public world of academia, politics and policy” but to do this “…without reinforcing the stereotypes and cultural constructions we are challenging” (1998)

This research asks questions about how these devices are helping poorer young women overcome the inequality they are experiencing in some aspects of their lives or indeed how these devices might be making this inequality worse.

It also looks how the use of these devices might be helping to produce and manage their gender identity (Yates & Lockley 2008). The research is driven by gaps in the data that have been identified in both the literature and data on the use of technology – and in particular mobile devices – by socially excluded young women.

Green, Eileen & Singleton, Carrie 2013. ‘Gendering the Digital’: The Impact of Gender and Technology Perspectives on the Sociological Imagination. Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, 34.

Standing, Kay 1998. Writing the voices of the less powerful: research on lone mothers. Feminist Dilemmas in Qualitative Research: Public Knowledge and Private Lives. London: Sage Publications.

Yates, Simeon J. & Lockley., Eleanor 2008. IV Moments of Separation: Gender,(Not So Remote) Relationships, and the Cell Phone. In: Holland, S. (ed.) Remote relationships in a small world. Peter Lang.

All, Devices, Theory

How mobile devices might be engineered for addiction

I’ve been wondering why the women I’ve been interviewing are still using Facebook so much. Research on 16-18 year olds in London found that it is basically dead to them. Yet most of the women I’m interviewing (who are between 18-24) are still looking at Facebook a lot: often the first app they’re looking at after they wake up. This doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it – on the contrary they talk a lot about how its become boring, a routine. They’re also using a lot of other platforms – WhatsApp, SMS, Instagram – so its not a question of being loyal to a particular platform.

Reading a brilliant article about Addictive Technologies illuminated this issue for me in that it talks about how the platform is engineered to get you addicted to the ‘serotonin’ it emulates.

“Facebook doesn’t just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions. It wants you to have the same feelings–the positive ones at least–that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person. The company shorthand for this is “serotonin,” the neurotransmitter that sparks feelings of happiness.”

There’s lots of theory to help us understand what’s going on here – the technical codes in the design of the software and devices that reflect the cultural horizon of our society, the network effects that pulled the women onto Facebook in the first place – but this is an opportunity for a reflexive moment. I need to look more deeply at what we’re doing when we choose to look at a particular app, fiddle about with something on our phones, check Twitter again for a little serotonin buzz. I want to understand how these urges and ‘addictions’ then impact on decisions we make about what else we are doing with our phones; how much we spend on them and why we choose particular devices over others.

All, Digital inclusion, Open University, Theory

Opening up to debates: capabilities, affordances and consequentialism

Last week I presented some thoughts on capability theory and digital inclusion at the Open University’s Society and Information Research Group.

There was a great discussion afterwards and I’d like to thank the individuals involved for their contribution. Some issues raised include the following:

  • What do we know about the way in which smartphones might be making young people vulnerable to crime?
  • Are ‘walled gardens’ like Facebook appealing environments to young people with limited ‘digital capabilities’?
  • In our gradations of digital inclusion, in future years will we be seeing more and more refuseniks who are sophisticated manipulators of their online persona’s – individuals who are politically opposed to the increasing encroachment of surveillance technologies into everyday life?
  • How might we use the theories of Foucault and Latour to understand the power dynamics experienced by marginalised young women in their interactions with the state?

All of these will feed into my research at a later date. A couple of issues were raised which I want to share some brief thoughts on here.

How do we understand the relationship between affordances and capabilities?
This last question feels very cogent for me right now as I feel that both terms provide a means to articulate the dynamics between a technology, individual agency and the state. It was suggested during the discussion that affordances (“functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object” (Hutchby 2001) 444) might be a means to directly interrogate a technology’s use, and that capabilities might complement this by enabling us to understand the socio-technical framework – the imbrications of society and technology, and the structures (network operators, software designers etc) which shape our uses of technology.

How does capability theory handle people’s ‘competing’ rights?
A further discussion looked at the ethical underpinnings of capability theory: the challenges of ‘ranking rights’. Alexander (2008) describes Sen’s theory as ‘broad consequentialism: a way of looking at the consequences of exercising rights. This ‘pluralistic consequentialism’ suggests that a a variety of fundamental principles can be taken into account when assessing a situation or a policy. This is set against the monistic model of utilitarian philosophy which suggests that only utility can be taken into account. Alexander shows how rights and capabilities are not equivalent – but are interdependent so without capabilities you cannot exercise rights.

All in all this discussion showed me the value of opening up work for debate and discussion at an early stage, and reminded me how lucky I am to be part of such a vibrant and challenging intellectual environment at the Open University.

Bibliography of works cited

Alexander, John M. 2008. Capabilities and social justice : the political philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate Pub. Ltd.

Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009. Equality Measurement Framework: 13. Participation, influence and voice, London, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Eynon, R. & Geniets, A. 2012. On the Periphery? Understanding Low and Discontinued Internet Use Amongst Young People in Britain, Nominet Trust

Hutchby, I. 2001. Technologies, texts and affordances. Sociology, 35, 441-456.

Kleine, D. 2011. The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’: steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development. Ethics and Information Technology, 13, 119-130.

Johnstone, Justine 2007. Technology as empowerment: a capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics & Information Technology, 9, 73.

Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9, 33-59.

Sen, A.K. 1999. Development as freedom, Oxford University Press.

Research, Theory

Technology as freedom and unfreedom: why I like the capability approach

I’ve been working with a new theoretical framework for my research over the summer. Capability theory draws on the writings of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It is concerned with models of development that give people the freedom to choose the lives the value: giving us analytical frameworks to appreciate how people’s perceptions of their own situations and capacities might be constrained by poverty or social marginalisation. As a feminist who’s work is concerned with the lives of young women, its important to me that this framework is especially able to incorporate concerns of gender justice (Nussbaum, M., 2003)

Whilst these ideas are deeply embedded in development contexts – serving as the basis for indices such as the UNDP Human Development Report – its only in recent years that there has been a broader movement of people trying to use this framework to understand technology. A recent special issue of the Journal Information Technology for Development was dedicated this to this subject: “Development as freedom – how the Capability Approach can be used in ICT4D research and practice”.

I’m only just starting to engage with this theory but I’m really excited about it for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it gives us a language and framework to talk about technology and social justice – opening up a realm described by Justine Johnstone (2007) as ‘technological justice’ “looking at computer technologies in terms of their contribution to people’s abilities to define and lead lives that they value”.

Secondly, it works well with the notion of ‘affordances‘ I have previously discussed on this blog – the things which a certain technology might promote or inhibit and it also gives us space to interrogate the ideologies embedded in technologies. In her work on the Capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’ Dorothea Kleine (2011) talks about how these affordances can limit or allow freedom of choice. I particularly like the neat phrase “Technologies can be a source both of freedom and of unfreedom.” (2012)

So far, the work I’m reading on capabilities comes from the ICT4D (ICT for development) field. But I’ll save my post about ICT4D and why we can’t use the same theory to apply to technology and development in my own backyard for another day!


Johnstone, J. 2007. Technology as empowerment: A capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics & Information Technology, 9, 73.

Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9, 33-59.

Kleine, D. 2011. The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’: Steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development. Ethics and Information Technology, 13, 119-130.

Kleine, D., Light, A. & Montero, M.-J. 2012. Signifiers of the life we value? – considering human development, technologies and fair trade from the perspective of the capabilities approach. Information Technology for Development, 18, 42-60.