Rural Community Participation, Social Networks, and Broadband Use: Examples from Localized and National Survey Data

Article excerpt

Although attention has been given to how broadband access is related to economic development in rural areas, scant consideration has been given to how it may be associated with voluntary participation. This issue is important in that numerous studies have shown how much more vital community participation is in rural areas as compared to suburban and urban places. Drawing on three diverse data sets, we examine the influence of broadband access on community participation. In addition, we explore whether broadband access exerts its influence through, in conjunction with, or independent of social networks. The results suggest that broadband access and social network size have independent effects on volunteering in rural places.

Key Words: rural sociology, social networks, broadband, digital inequality, volunteerism

People are increasingly reliant on the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) in their business, academic, and personal spheres. The Internet is a pervasive medium through which individuals can engage in everything from personal communication to civic participation; it can serve as a vehicle for communication on formal (e.g., professional communication) and informal (e.g., emailing friends and family members) levels, as well as a source for entertainment and social activities (Quan-Haase and Wellman 2004). Moreover, Internet users can seek out information on topics such as finances, education, and politics that would improve one's life chances (La Rose et al. 2007). Because people can use the Internet to engage socially and civically, the technology is recognized as an important tool for many different aspects of social life.

Still, some researchers have warned that increased use of the Internet leads to weakened community ties, a decrease in common interests at the local level, and decreases in levels of voluntary or community participation (e.g., Turkle 1996,). However, other studies over the past decade have shown that this view is largely unfounded. In some cases, Internet use is positively related to active contributions to community vitality, such as various forms of civic engagement and community participation (Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal 2008, Wellman et al. 2001). Yet, few studies have attempted to examine the effects of broadband or examined any of the mechanisms and intervening factors that could be impacting these relationships.

The purpose of this paper is to explore and explicate a number of issues relevant to how Internet usage, in particular broadband use, is related to community participation among rural residents. To do this, we draw on theories of social capital, which provide a lens for our discussion. In particular, we focus on participatory capital (volunteering at various levels), network capital (social networks), and digital capital (use of the Internet and access to broadband technologies). We use three data sets to explore the theoretical perspectives empirically and address the potential intersections of these three types of capital.

Overview of Theoretical Background and Issues

Communities are greater than the sum of their parts. Rather than simply an aggregate of individuals, communities are characterized by the relationships, networks, activities, and functions that the individuals create and build together. The "networks, norms, and trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" within a community is referred to as social capital (Putnam 1993, p. 35). Social capital is a result of collective effort rather than individual contributions to a community (La Due Lake and Huckfeldt 1998). A critical component of social capital is the relationships that develop between individuals in a community. As a result, social capital is an important aspect in understanding rural communities, as they are unique in their types of social networks, relationships, and resources (e.g., Wilkinson 1991). The development of social capital can have an impact on community characteristics such as economic health, political participation (La Due Lake and Huckfeldt 1998), and capacity for community change and growth In addition, different types of ties and relationships can affect crucial facets of social capital, such as levels of community participation (Ryan et al. …

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