paper presented at the panel ‘Making Connections
in the Internet Era: Theory and Practice’
for the 41st Annual Convention of the International
‘Reflection, Integration, Cumulation: International
Studies Past and Future’,
14-17 March 2000, Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR)
University of Amsterdam
Oude Hoogstraat 24, room E109
1012 CE Amsterdam, the Netherlands
email: email@example.com or: firstname.lastname@example.org
Women from developing countries, using the Internet for
gender activism, have specific Internet needs - and even among this ‘group’
the needs vary. These users further represent women on the grassroots level
without access to computer networks. The Internet situation among African
women’s organizations is highly problematic. The WomenAction case data
from Africa illustrate that an appropriate theoretical model must address
both technological and social issues. It must also integrate gender, North-South
and other differences. Available approaches are not entirely adequate nor
complete to do so. Together, they however offer enough building blocks
to address gender, Internetworking & development issues appropriately.
The diffusion of innovations theory demonstrates us -
through its constraints - how we should not approach the matter.
Constructivist technology studies (including gender & technology studies)
are good starting points for an appropriate model. They however need additions
to be suitable for the situation in the South. Critical development studies
and the integrative view on global communication offer suitable building
blocks for these additions.
social theory / information and communication technology
- social aspects / Internet / gender / development
The WomenAction case study in this paper, is a joint research
accomplishment by WomenAction and APC’s Women Program in Africa. The research
team involved Ellen Kole (University of Amsterdam), Buhle Mbambo (University
of Botswana), Marie-Hélène Mottin-Sylla (Enda-Synfev and
APC Women’s Program in Africa), Dorothy Okello (McGill University) with
the support of Lin Pugh (International Information Centre and Archives
for the Women’s Movement, IIAV). We would like to thank everyone else who
assisted this study and the respondents for making time and sharing valuable
information with us.
WomenAction is an international coalition of
Women’s Media and Communication Networks. Its mission is to be a global
information, communication and media network enabling NGOs to actively
engage in the Beijing+5 review process with the long term goal of women’s
empowerment, with a special focus on women and media.
APC Women’s Program in Africa is a network of organizations and individuals
working to empower African women’s organizations to access and use Information
and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for equality and development.
There is a strange contradiction in mainstream theorizing
and empirical research on Internet connectivity for women in developing
countries. Technology & development studies and the theory on the diffusion
of innovations generally lack attention for gender aspects. Sociological
(constructivist) studies on gender & technology, on the other hand,
pay no attention to North-South relations. Within the field of communication
studies, the attention seems to be either for gender or for international
relations, without linking the two.
So if we study Internet connectivity issues of women from
developing countries, which theoretical paradigm is appropriate? What empirical
research is available and what does it tell us? What can the different
approaches learn from each other? Do they have starting points in common?
Which errors and constraints should we not repeat? In this paper I explore
these topics, using empirical data from my present case study WomenAction:
the Internet platform for women’s organizations worldwide to review the
implementation of United Nations (UN) policy on women’s empowerment. I
focus on women who are active in Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
The paper consists of five sections. In section II I give
a brief overview of some prominent theoretical paradigms in the fields
relevant to this panel. In the next section I present the practical situation
and needs of African women, following from WomenAction research data. In
section IV, I reflect on building blocks from the available paradigms,
to arrive at an appropriate theory construct for the women under consideration.
In the last section I summarize the adequate building blocks and give examples
of relevant research issues.
II. Some prominent theoretical thinking
on gender, technology and development
Quite a few research fields study two components out of
the range ‘gender’, ‘technology/Information and Communication Technology
(ICT)’ and ‘society/development’. I limit myself to the fields that matter
to this panel: international studies, gender/feminist studies and ICT/communication
studies. Because of my background, I interpret international studies as
development studies or non-Western sociology. For ICT/communication studies,
I include the sociology of technology. Here follow briefly some prominent
theoretical paradigms in present research in these fields.
Let me start with development studies. From its
emergence in the 1960s we see a shift from neo-classical modernization
theories (first elaborated in Rostow 1960), via Marxist dependency theories
(among others Wallerstein 1974, 1980; Gunder Frank 1980) to nowadays critical
visions (Servaes 1989). The critical visions reflect the need for
context-related development strategies. This need emerges from the
disintegrating, culture-specific processes on the local level (called ‘empowerment’)
that exist together with interdependent, integrating processes on the global
level (‘globalization’). The tension and interaction between the local
and global level are paramount features in nowadays development studies.
Another important characteristic is the basic needs of people, both
material and immaterial, which should guide problem-solving in developing
Despite all the changes in development studies, in the
field of technology and development studies we cannot yet witness
a strong shift from the traditional prominent paradigm: the theory of
diffusion of innovations (Rogers 1962). This paradigm is a communication
approach of behavioural sciences. It covers the study of adoption or rejection
of a new idea or technology, among various user groups. Notwithstanding
the fact that many researchers, policy makers and practitioners still use
the diffusion of innovations model, there is a lot of critique too. Some
important criticisms are against treating technology as a neutral process;
focusing on the individual adopter and thereby ignoring social structures;
and neglecting development issues such as the widening socio-economic gap
(Rogers 1983: 121-124; McMaster et al. 1997: 72, 74; Kole 1999: 22-24).
Meanwhile in Western sociology of technology, constructivist
approaches (such as the social shaping of technology and Actor Network
Theory, ANT) emerged (for example Callon 1987, Bijker et al. 1987). A common
feature of constructivist studies is the analysis of the (social) contents
of technological processes, instead of treating technology neutral (Grint
and Woolgar 1997: 19). The focus is on the (re)creation of socio-technical
networks: Actors use their power sources to materialize their ideas
into a new technology, and embed it into existing structures. Constructivist
scholars reject dichotomies. They replace the dualism between ‘technology’
and ‘the social’ with an integrated network of relations. The line between
the ‘micro’ and ‘macro level’ is also a fluid and dynamic balance: What
starts as a practice on a limited scale on the micro level, may ultimately
develop into a macro-social phenomenon (Hagendijk 1996: 93-95).
Feminist scholars, at first criticizing all technology
studies for ignoring gender aspects, developed gender and technology
variants of constructivism from the early 1990s (Cockburn 1985, Wajcman
1991). Departing from the observation that technological processes and
products are gender-stereotyped, they focus on the co-construction of
gender and technology. Issues are for instance the underrepresentation
and lack of influence by women in technology processes; the inclusion of
non-paid and informal work in technology studies; and ‘gender benders’,
persons or organizations consciously breaking through traditional constructs
of ‘masculinity’ versus ‘femininity’ in technology processes.
An important accomplishment of constructivist studies,
both feminist and others, is transcending the user-designer opposition
by treating technology users as co-producers: Users can apply technology
in other ways than foreseen by the developers. Another constructivist notion
is ‘user-scripts’ (or gender-scripts), being the interests, meanings,
norms, ideologies and relations that are embodied in technology. Through
materializing in hard- and software, they prescribe schemes of operations,
tasks and responsibilities of the users.
I end up the overview of paradigms with communication
studies. In relation to technology and development, communication scholars
traditionally rely heavily on the diffusion of innovations theory, since
both have strong roots in behavioural sciences. On the other hand, more
progressive communication studies - in particular gender-focused research
(e.g., Frissen 1997) - take a constructivist approach. This enables communication
scholars to study both the contents of ICT messages and the social-technical
processes of ICT design, production, acquisition and use.
International communication studies offers
many different theories. The variety includes game and other theories on
the micro level, through meso models such as theories of global information
flows, to macro paradigms like systems theory and political-economy theories
(Frederick 1993: 188-207). Considering nowadays international relations,
Frederick proposes to develop an integrated theory of global communication.
His proposition has rather comparable features as the critical development
model and includes the role of civil society (ibid.: 267-275).
I will reflect on the above theoretical paradigms to construct
an appropriate model for gender, development and Internetworking (section
IV). Before that, I proceed with practice: the WomenAction assessment of
the information and communication needs of African women, active in NGOs.
III. Situation and needs of women’s
organizations in Africa
Let me first briefly present the WomenAction case study.
WomenAction case study
It is now five years ago since UN member states adopted
a policy document on women’s empowerment, the Platform for Action
(PfA), at the fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing. Apart from
subjects such as health, women’s rights and education, the PfA includes
a section on ‘Women and the Media’ (Section J). This section proposes
research, funds, skills enhancing, equal access and other actions to counter
‘[...] women’s absence at the top levels of the media industry and gender-based
stereotyping. In Africa, lack of access to information has major implications
for development. Often, information reaching women, particularly rural
women, fails to correspond to their real and practical needs’ (Njambi Wanjama
In June 2000, the UN monitor the national implementations
of the PfA by its member states. NGOs worldwide effectuate a shadow process,
producing alternative evaluation reports and lobbying for accelerated implementation.
The whole process by UN and NGOs, from 1995 on but gaining momentum in
the period 1999-2000, is called the Beijing+5 process.
To prepare for Beijing+5, a collaboration of UN organizations
and NGOs from North and South took the initiative for WomenAction: an electronic
platform to support worldwide NGO participation in Beijing+5. It consists
of a global and regional websites, databases and discussions on the Internet
or through email. The WomenAction mission is to be an information clearinghouse
to keep NGOs updated on the Beijing+5 process. Another objective is to
be a communication link to involve women in Beijing+5 and to stimulate
discussion. Its long-term goal is women’s empowerment, with a special focus
on women and media. Ways to achieve all this are training of regional facilitators
and lobbying at UN meetings on section J of the PfA (IWTC 1999:
The African WomenAction partners, however, faced the problem
that there were hardly any usable data on African NGO women ICTs. The few
available data (e.g., APC Women’s Network Support Program 1997, Huyer 1997,
Kole 1998) were either general, not regionally disaggregated or not up-to-date.
What kind of information do African women need to participate in Beijing+5?
Are they linking up by email or other computer network applications? What
are the problems they encounter in electronic networking? What are their
training and support needs? Are there differences between women from Anglophone
and Francophone Africa? To answer these questions, WomenAction and the
APC’s Women Program in Africa executed an electronic survey. 26 Women,
mainly from NGOs and other organizations in civil society, returned the
email questionnaire. The survey results were used in lobbying at the regional
Beijing+5 meeting (APC-Africa-Women and WomenAction 1999). They are also
available for WomenAction website design. Future research plans are an
electronic evaluation and the assessment of the design process.
WomenAction research results
The main results of the joint APC-Women-Africa/WomenAction
55 To 70% of the respondents work in information, communication,
ICTs or the media; or have special Beijing+5 assignments in these areas.
They act as intermediaries between the ‘Internet community’ and organizations
without computer network access.
These ICT intermediaries report substantially more Internetworking
problems than other organizations. For instance, 68.8% of the organizations
‘facilitating information and communication for Beijing+5’ experience lack
of skills in electronic communication, against 16.7% among other organizations
(see figure 1). 55% Of the organizations working in the information, communication
and/or ICT sector report search problems in information retrieval, while
only 9% of other organizations report these problems.
In information dissemination, lack of electronic connectivity
is the biggest problems. More than half of the respondents (57.1%) state
that ‘few’ of their recipients have a connection to a computer network
(figure 2). Lack of devices and connections occur mostly among respondents
in grassroots/Community-Based Organizations (CBOs).
Respondents rank email and Internet as the least successful
media to reach their grassroots. More traditional means of communication
like telephone, postal mail, radio in Anglophone Africa, and in particular
face-to-face communication surpass the modern electronic media in grassroots
Most respondents have a full Internet connection and a web
browser like Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer. Yet, the majority
of the respondents lack sophisticated technology features such as frames
or plug-in programs to read more advanced webpages. Less than one third
of them - including many ICT intermediaries - can use advanced multi-media
There is a very strong preference for text-based data, while
the respondents least desire graphical format. First choice applications
to retrieve and disseminate information are ‘email and mailinglists’. Websites
are third choice for information dissemination, after ‘newsgroups/discussion
groups/Bulletin Board Systems (BBS)’ (figure 3). The latter applications
are especially popular among small and Francophone organizations.
The women report a multitude of problems, including technical,
connectivity, financial, lack of skills, language, access problems, lack
of time and more. The average number of problems experienced in one field
(equipment, communication, retrieval, repackaging/redistribution or dissemination)
is two to three per user. A big half of the respondents (58.3%) experiences
problems in all areas (Pearson’s r of the problem scores ranges between
0.738 and 0.904).
All respondents ask for training and support, in particular
non-technical training and on-line available tools. ICT intermediaries
express an extra need for training of facilitators and for financial support
to redistribute electronic information to other organizations.
Asked to rank success factors of the WomenAction platform,
the respondents first and foremost chose for ‘women-friendliness of the
system/information’. This criterion even surpassed factors to ease the
work, such as ‘support and training’, ‘a user-friendly system’ and ‘time-saving
tools’ scoring high as well.
Disparities between user groups
Despite the low number of questionnaires, some data aggregations
into subgroups show noticeable differences:
The percentage of small organizations suffering from problems
in all areas of electronic networking (communication, equipment, redistribution
et cetera) is 71.4, against 42.9% of the medium-sized organizations. The
small ones ask for more training, in particular technical training (71.4%
against half of the medium-sized organizations). The former attach much
value to ‘user-friendliness’ and ‘time-saving tools’ as success factors
for WomenAction - whereas medium-sized organizations value ‘cooperation’
and ‘local/regional input’ higher.
In a comparable way, there are distinct needs and problems
among respondents from Francophone and Anglophone Africa. For instance,
in East (Anglophone) Africa financial problems are principal while in Francophone
Africa the respondents suffer more often from language and connectivity
problems. Another example is the strong Francophone preference for ‘research
institutes’ and ‘media institutes’ as suppliers of electronic information,
whereas the Anglophones require more often information from ‘governmental’
and ‘grassroots organizations’.
All female-only organizations experience problems; against
only 37.5% of the sex-mixed organizations.
Considering the survey results, the research team formulated
13 recommendations for policy and practice and 6 recommendations for further
research. The most important recommendations for practice and policy are:
For further research, the team recommends among others:
availability of (on-line) support tools to ease/speed up
sufficient training, especially non-technical
extra support for ICT intermediaries and small organizations
attention for disparities and respecting differences between
Anglophone and Francophone users
appreciation of other computer network applications than
the World Wide Web
links between the Internet platform and other media
emphasis on text-based information
raising resources to materialize the above recommendations
The research results and recommendations make it clear that
Internetworking in Africa is different from Internet use in the Western
world. In developing countries, low connectivity, lack of (access to) advanced
computer applications and problems regarding many aspects of society (finance,
education, technology, culture et cetera) demand different conditions and
working approaches. The study also illuminates the necessity of a gender
approach. Lack of time, the gendered nature of the problem score and the
highly expressed need for a women-friendly electronic environment ask for
attention to gender issues.
to study experiences of African women coping with problems
to assess the implementation of the recommendations in practice
- in particular in the global WomenAction website design
attention for the gendered nature of the problem score
We thus need a theoretical model capable of addressing
all these distinct issues. It must address technological and social issues,
while integrating both North-South, gender and other differences. Otherwise
it cannot be appropriate to the needs and situation of African women in
the NGO sector. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I search for appropriate
building blocks available from the theories I presented in section II.
IV. Reflection: searching for an appropriate
If one thing is unmistakable manifest from the WomenAction
case study, it is the fact that Internetworking in Africa is not merely
a technical issue. The problems, barriers and envisaged success factors
are political, social, economic, juridical and cultural as well. Examples
are the lack of money; African women’s high workload and its consequences
on tasks like information searching; and the need of support for non-technical
issues such as how to use the Internet for activist purposes. The topics
at stake thus ask for a model incorporating social issues.
This rules out the diffusion of innovations theory, neglecting
the social context (Rogers 1983: 118-126). The theory is further technology-driven
because of its ‘pro-innovation bias’ (ibid.: 92-103), an implicit assumption
not to reject a new technology. The paradigm associates the latest technologies
with ‘progress’ and thereby ignores the contigency of alternative technologies.
The WomenAction case data, however, point to the great value that traditional
media (face-to-face, telephone, postal mail and radio) have in Africa,
next to email and Internet. Even amidst computer network applications,
text-based systems are preferred above newer, graphical ones.
As a starting point for an appropriate paradigm, we must
therefore reject the technological deterministic innovations-diffusion
theory. Yet, the solution seems neither a social determinist model. Notwithstanding
all the social aspects influencing Internetworking processes, technology
certainly plays its part too - for instance in the long downloading times
and in on-line available support tools. The best option is thus a paradigm
that is multidisciplinary in nature.
A good choice are the critical views on development, advocating
an interdisciplinary, contextual character (Servaes 1989: 1-3). These approaches
study the options to use modern ICTs for local development of the people
in the South. At the same time they pay attention to the constraints that
the local users experience, following from social structures, including
technological products (ibid.: 31-34). Frederick’s integrative model of
global communication, including the same features (Frederick 1993: 269),
is another candidate paradigm. Another option are constructivist approaches,
departing from the mutual influence of society and technological development.
However, constructivism developed by studying situations
in the North. Consequently, there are some gaps that (critical) development
studies may fill in; in particular aspects concerning Southern empowerment.
Considering the development needs of African WomenAction users, we cannot
ignore local participation by developing countries - even if the actual
website development takes place elsewhere - and self-reliance within the
global constellation. Problems such as ignoring (needs of) future users
and lack of money will remain if the model does not address autonomy. The
questionnaire respondents themselves emphasize the practical relevance
of using the WomenAction survey data for development purposes:
The integrative model of global communication stresses this
social relevance: decentralization of modern communication technology,
to use it for large-scale access, to support UN principles such as human
rights and peace, and so on (Frederick 1993: 273-274). To critical development
scholars, aspects like ‘participating democratization’, ‘structural transformation
of power structures’, ‘appropriate technology’ and ‘local capacity building’
are not merely central issues. They are also the objective of development.
The critical development model is thus problem-oriented and normative.
It departs from the idea that basic needs of people need to be met. By
relating power relations to the dialectic process between local empowerment
and global control, critical scholars aim at steering (technological) development
towards autonomy (Servaes 1989, 33-38).
‘J’espere que ce questionnaire aboutira a une action concrete
[...]’ (‘I hope that this questionnaire results in a concrete action [...]’);
‘Nous vour suggérons ultérieurement de voir
en collaboration avec les organisations connectées dans quelle mesure
nous pouvons y associer les organisations dont l’aspect institutionnel
n’est pas encoire très dévellopé afin qu’elles accèdent
elles aussi à l’information’ (‘We further suggest to you to see
a collaboration with the connected organizations, in which case we can
associate with the organizations where the institutionalization is not
yet well developed, so that they also have access to the information’).
This is a legitimate choice in the case of NGO women in
Africa, striving to improve their lives, contributing to change gender
relations in society, and using the Internet as a tool in this process.
The majority of the WomenAction respondents (91.7%) are active in civil
society on subjects as women/human rights, environment, education, poverty
and health. For these women it is critical that Internetworking adds value
to their activist objectives: empowering themselves by learning new skills,
supporting their grassroots’ life-improving initiatives by supplying them
up-to-date information, establishing electronic coalitions to pressure
the implementation of UN gender policy, and so forth.
But even for ICT intermediaries, whose work focuses on
information, communication and ICT as such, a problem-oriented approach
is valid. The first reason is to improve their work situation wherein they
encounter so many problems. A far more important reason, however, is that
they are merely go-betweens. Their information, communication and ICT activities
have no other purpose than supporting others, in particular NGOs, in processes
of democratization, development and women’s empowerment. This is for instance
reflected in the content of the respondents’ websites, containing issues
such as ‘women in cyberspace for elections’; ‘African women on the Net
for housing’, ‘for refugee issues’; and ‘job and study opportunities’.
The global WomenAction website too, is structured along thematic issues
like ‘violence’, ‘girl child’, ‘decision-making’, ‘water & sanitation’,
‘disabilities’ and ‘arts/crafts’ - the daily issues of NGO women. Even
the PfA Section J activism is ultimately aimed at women’s empowerment.
We cannot perceive Internetworking separate from the struggle for women’s
A normative position contradicts most of the constructivist
studies, that are more or less fatalist in nature. In constructivist views,
the circumstances and the relations between actors, social aspects and
technology determine the outcome of a technological process. It recognizes
that there are no independent criteria for successful technology introduction.
This means that, strictly speaking, constructivist scholars see no possibilities
for prediction, anticipation and management of technology (Kole 1999: 39).
Since the 1990s, there is nevertheless a shift in constructivist
research. From the deconstruction of technology (how social aspects influence
the shaping of a particular technology) some scholars changed towards the
social construction of technology (new possibilities of technology and
how these influence social relations). Gender and technology studies, for
instance, aim to use outcomes from deconstructivist studies to redefine
technology and to open options for interventions so that both men and women
have equal access to technologies, and equal responsibilities in problem
solving (Oudshoorn 1996: 27-34). The dynamic interaction between society
and technology thus not only influences the outcome of Internetworking.
At the same time it holds the opportunity to manage Internetworking:
‘It is imperative for those who want to influence the
course of change in information and communications technology, in directions
that might support social development, to understand what forces shape
the evolution of ICTs, and how these forces interact [..]. This makes pro-active
policies and programs possible and allows for conscious social choice.
The question immediately arises as to how policy makers
can make such choices if it is impossible to predict future impact. The
answer is that pro-active policy-making rests upon the design of visions
for a preferred future. The inability to foresee future social impact should
not stop policy makers from designing alternative future courses and deciding
about their desirability. Then technological solutions must be shaped to
match these future visions.’ (Hamelink 1997: 29-30).
One important question remains about a need-oriented approach:
Whose needs are we talking about? The target group of the WomenAction questionnaire
are women’s organizations connected to the Internet, in particular ICT
intermediaries. Among the respondents, only one lacks an email connection
and three of them have no full Internet connection. Three quarters of the
respondents are NGOs, whereas only 12.5% are grassroots/CBOs. More than
half of the WomenAction respondents represent grassroots or other constituencies:
160 on the average, but up to 1580 organizations. We can thus say that
the analyzed needs are the intermediaries’ needs.
The critical development studies, emphasizing basic needs,
refer however to grassroots’ needs. There may be a tension between
the needs and situations of the grassroots and the NGOs representing them,
especially the internationally oriented NGOs. Electronic platforms can
be used to improve the lives of the grassroots women (for instance through
supplying information on safe water systems). Yet NGOs can equally well
use the Internet to strengthen the position of NGOs in the international
political arena - and these goals may be contradictory (Kole 2000, Mwangi
1997: 36-39). In the WomenAction partnership, some WomenAction global steering
committee’s members blocked the intended participating design of the researcher,
in favour of NGO designers. This however resulted in not (directly) translating
the African research results into website specifications.
The critical development approach emphasizes that empowerment
takes place bottom-up on the local level and control and oppression top-down
from the global level. It thus more or less assumes that tensions occur
only between the local and global level. Thereby it ignores the power struggles
among local and among global players. Focusing strictly on NGO women’s
organizations using the Internet as a tool for Beijing+5, this may be a
satisfactory view. It is nevertheless not at all adequate if we want to
incorporate the empowerment objectives of these NGOs/ICT intermediaries
in their claim to represent grassroots and CBO constituencies. To meet
this deficiency, an appropriate model must attend to more than one social
group on an analytic level. The empirical data support this criterion:
The survey finds different situations for separate groups such as ICT intermediaries
- end users; sex-mixed organizations - female-only organizations; and small
- medium-sized organizations.
Constructivist studies, in particular the ANT variant,
make this possible. ANT pays attention to the actions of every actor, to
all parties involved in the creation and transformation of socio-technical
structures. ANT scholars analyze how diverse actors try to realize the
(technological) solution they propose to a problem, in a process of negotiation,
manipulation, persuasion, representation and mobilization with other actors
(Callon 1987: 20-28). In a comparable way, feminist constructivists distinguish
between male and female actors, and also between separate groups within
the sexes to study gender issues, roles and identities in technology development.
The diffusion of innovations theory classifies actors
into five ‘adopter categories’: from innovators via three groups of adopters
to the laggards (Rogers 1983: 22). The disadvantage of this approach is
of course that the study only involves the adopters of a technology. Diffusion
scholars ignore other parties playing a part in the Internet implementation
process - such as donor organizations supplying money and usually setting
conditions; or grassroots not working with the Internet yet receive reformatted
‘electronic’ information. As a result, the studied diffusion process is
not adequate for developing countries. As Díaz Bordenave noticed
already in 1976 (in Rogers 1983: 123), more appropriate diffusion questions
are for instance: What are the implications of technology diffusion in
terms of equal sharing?; Who decides which innovations should be diffused?;
and: Who controls the communication sources and channels of innovation-diffusion?
These are important questions for the next stage of WomenAction research,
on the website design and implementation process.
A second problem with actor classification is that no
distinctions can be made within an adopter category. Another critique is
that the diffusion of innovations theory perceives adopters as passive
recipients. This is far from reality. Even end users may invent new ways
of operating a technology. The creative ways of ‘filling in’ the WomenAction
email questionnaire in alternative ways illustrates this. Constructivist
studies recognize this practice by replacing the user-designer opposition
with users being ‘co-producers’ of technology: All actors are actively
involved in the (re)construction of a social-technical network, in the
integration of a new technology into existing practices, technologies,
identities and working relations. In the WomenAction case, the survey respondents
(the future users) engage in the website design by expressing their needs
explicitly. This is a matter of directing the design in a certain direction
rather than writing computer program code. It nevertheless influences the
end result and we should therefore not ignore it.
The constructivist approach to actors enables explicit
attention to non-average users, grassroots people and other actors playing
a part in Internet introduction and use. If researchers take, for instance,
‘women’ as target group instead of the general category ‘users’, they cannot
ignore issues such as a women-friendly design.
The context of an actor group influences Internet issues;
think about the distinct WomenAction research results among Francophone
and Anglophone women. Context aspects involve politics, legislation, economy
and culture but also relate to strictly technical factors. Take for instance
the electronic connectivity in Southern Africa - notably South Africa.
It has a perfect distribution from ‘50% of recipients connected’ to ‘all
recipients connected’ while the other African regions account entirely
for the ‘few connected’ score.
In our search for an appropriate model, we thus need to
incorporate the context. The diffusion of innovations theory focuses
on individuals (the adopters) rather than the social system in which the
diffusion takes place. Although later versions of the model incorporate
socio-metric data (Rogers 1983: 110-111), the theory addresses social structures
as just one possible variable, and in a harmonious way only. Consequently,
diffusion scholars attribute success or failure of technology introduction
to individuals within society (‘individual blame bias’) rather than to
social structures (ibid.: 106). The model overlooks problems such as lack
of education and lack of capital among potential adopters; barriers that
are often social in nature.
Contrarily, the critical visions in development studies,
the integrative view on global communication and constructivist approaches
all have integrated the social context in their models. Yet they differ
a lot in how they approach context. The integrative vision on global communication
and development views study the tension between the local and the global
level, stressing their distinctness. But are the local and global really
separate from each other? Where does the local end and the global begin?
And if we see the local and global as distinct, then where is cyberspace
in this picture? Let us look at WomenAction once again.
Apart from being an electronic platform, WomenAction is
a dynamic partnership, open to all women’s organizations and individuals
striving for women’s advancement. Nine organizations initiated WomenAction
when they met at the CSW meeting in New York, March 1999. By now, already
31 organizations from all over the world join the initiative. From the
African continent, three members partaked in founding WomenAction (IWTC
1999: 8), now five participate. Eleven sites of African women’s organizations
link to the Flamme website (this is the Beijing+5 electronic platform
for the African region). 32 Women from all over the African continent subscribe
to the Flamme discussion/mailinglist. The more Flamme grows, the more it
looses its regional character. Among the 56 list members, there are already
5 African subscribers living and working outside the continent and 20 non-African
list participants. Further, the more the entire WomenAction platform extends,
the more it becomes a global player in the Beijing+5 process.
In a virtual context such as WomenAction, it is thus hard
to speak of separate ‘local’ and ‘global’ levels. The constructivist ANT
addresses this issue by perceiving a fluid and dynamic ‘line’ between local
and global (Hagendijk 1996: 93-95). The studied socio-technical transformation
process starts with ideas (‘actor worlds’) in the minds of actor, for instance
a technological solution (website) to a problem (lack of information).
Founding WomenAction was such a happening, limited to the micro level (the
New York CSW meeting). The successful realization of an actor world results
in a so-called ‘actor-network’, a stable network of alliances between human
actors and technological parts (Callon 1987). This are the resulting WomenAction
electronic platform (websites, discussion groups, databases) and partnerships
(lobby alliances, collaborations between WomenAction and the press or UN
bodies). WomenAction has gradually developed into a macro-social phenomenon.
In this view, the virtual world of Internet is one of the nodes in the
WomenAction socio-technical network.
Contrary to other constructivist approaches, macrostructures
and macro relations have a real meaning in ANT. While focusing on the micro
actions of actants, the culture transcending local situations may play
an important part in shaping these interactions (Hagendijk 1996: 155).
I would like to stress this point, to prevent making the same mistake (individual
blame bias) as innovations-diffusion scholars.
The above context discussion points to the constructivist
stand to reject dichotomies as given ‘facts’. Scholars from this tradition
perceive divides as social constructs. People create separations between
micro-macro, local-global, masculine-feminine, technical-social, real world-cyberworld,
designer-user and so on. To study technological development, the ANT principle
of ‘free association’ tells that the researcher must abandon all a priori
distinctions. I however agree with Hagendijk who proposes:
‘Instead of trying to do away with all the distinctions
that make up the cultural world, a better strategy might be to explore
the implications of existing cultural categories by applying them in novel
ways and in combinations that depart from some of their ideologically
inspired uses’ (Hagendijk 1996: 268, translation/emphasis EK)
This is in fact what feminist scholars in constructivism
do all the time. They reject the distinction between ‘masculinity’ (including
characteristics as ‘technical’, ‘rational’) and ‘femininity’ (‘non-technical’,
‘emotional’) as a given. Yet they study how these gender notions are (re)created
in technology processes, how development and use of technology shape gender
identities, how gender notions are materialized in technological products
(‘gender scripts’) and how all this may be reconsidered (‘gender bending’).
Considering the numerous new insights feminist studies
obtained using this approach, its application may prove valuable as well
in development divides. I propose researchers start using it for relevant
development divides like ‘North-South’ and ‘local-global’. One may for
instance study the African preference for mailing/discussion lists as information
dissemination media, in relation to the Northern practice to disseminate
widely through World Wide Web pages. Is this difference solely based on
the technological state-of-the-art or influenced by (attributed) North-South
characteristics such as ‘written’ versus ‘oral’ culture? Exploration of
the ‘Anglophone-Francophone’ distinction may shed light upon the role of
language (problems) in Internetworking; for instance, if/how language influences
connectivity. Another example is the dichotomy ‘urban-rural’, in Internetworking
in developing countries often running parallel with the NGO-grassroots
African women, using the Internet for gender activism,
have specific information and communication needs - and even among this
‘group’ the needs vary. These users further represent women on the grassroots
level without access to computer networks. The Internet situation among
African women’s organizations is highly problematic. The WomenAction case
data illustrate that an appropriate model must address technological and
social issues, and also integrate North-South, gender and other differences.
Available theoretical models are not entirely adequate nor complete to
do so. Nevertheless, the diverse models offer enough building blocks to
jointly construct a more appropriate paradigm for studying Internet, gender
What we can learn especially from the diffusion of innovations
theory are the pitfalls. We should not repeat its main theoretical constraints:
lack of attention to the context/social influences; ignoring several social
groups and disparities within groups; no attention for alternative technologies;
and neglect of conflict. The constraints result in non-adequate research
questions for a developing country situation.
Contrarily, critical development studies and the integrative
model of global communication integrate context factors. Their scholars
pay attention to positive and negative implications of ICTs, and to social
issues such as self-reliance and local capacity building. Their problem-directed,
normative frameworks are preferable for African women using the Internet
for empowerment. However, grassroots representation by ICT intermediaries
does not stand out in critical development studies. This is due to the
model’s emphasis on the grassroots level; and on tension and interactions
between the local and global level - neglecting tensions on the levels
Constructivist technology studies - including gender and
technology research - bring out several usable building blocks: the mutual
shaping of technology and society (or of technology and gender); the attention
to all social groups involved in Internetworking processes, and to distinctions
within groups; and the creative exploration of cultural distinctions, resulting
in new insights and more appropriate concepts. The big disadvantage of
constructivism is its fatalist nature, ruling out technology management.
Yet problem-solving management seems very important to support African
NGO women in Internetworking. Gender & technology constructivist studies,
on the other hand, counter this deficit by applying the mutual shaping
concept to social construction rather than deconstruction. Another added
value of the latter studies is the explicit attention to gender issues
in technological processes.
In summary, constructivist and gender technology studies
are good starting points to build an appropriate model for African NGO
women & Internetworking. This starting point however needs additions
to be suitable for the African situation. Critical development studies
and Frederick’s proposal for an integrative theory of global communication
offer very useful building blocks for this purpose. From a purely theoretical
point of view too, the preference for constructivism is a logical one.
It is a popular approach in so many fields - the sociology of technology,
gender studies, communication studies and now even starting in development
studies (Hamelink 1997, Kole 1999) and diffusion studies (McMaster et al.
1997). The choice for a model should, however, always take roots in empirical
data - or else it will be inadequate for one situation or another, or for
one social group or another.
In brief, an appropriate model may look as follows:
|problem-oriented and normative
||based on ‘participating democratization’,
‘advancement of women’, ‘appropriate technology’, ‘local capacity building’
|departing from the mutual influence
of technology and society
||implications of social issues
(economy, culture, politics, legislation, social relations) on ICT processes
(access, decision-making, use, etc.),
implications of ICT processes on society;
implications gender issues (identities, relations, power
sources, etc.) on Internetworking,
implications Internetworking on gender
|studying the transformation of
the social and technical to realize the emergence of a socio-technical
||negotiations, manipulation, website
building, alliances, mobilization of resources, training, electronic tool
|attention for distinct actor groups
(including the excluded), distinctions within groups and intermediary roles
||donor organizations, ICT implementers,
women; relation ICT intermediaries (-users) - grassroots
|creatively exploring cultural
divides, including specific development dichotomies
‘Anglophone-Francophone’, ’local-global’ - e.g., a fluid and dynamic ‘line’
between local and global
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