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Developing Digital ‘Capital’: Exploring evidence-based models of digital inclusion (Ref: PHDMCS1801)

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  • Full or part time
    Dr N Jenkins
    Prof D McGillivray
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Recent debates in academic and policy communities about digital inclusion have stressed that possession of basic digital skills and the right technology is insufficient to ensure that the most vulnerable members of the population are able to participate effectively in an increasingly digitally-mediated world (Helsper & Eynon, 2013; White, 2016). There is a need to generate more robust evidence of the relationship between digital skills and digital understanding (or literacy) to ensure that people can access and use digital devices and associated platforms for positive economic, social and cultural outcomes (Bach, Shaffer, and Wolfson, 2013). To do this, there is a need for more focused research into the types of digital usage, the practices associated with that usage and the extent to which people ‘understand’ the implications of their use in terms of security, privacy, and informed decision making (Piercy, 2016). In essence we need to know more about what access to and use of digital tools and technologies afford or enable and what they may prevent or deny. There is a need for citizens to develop “critical digital citizenship” (McGillivray et al, 2015) or “digital understanding” so that they can be ‘sceptical’ of what transformations the digital world will actually produce. As a recent blog on ‘digital understanding’ by the UK’s doteveryone suggests, “For example, people with digital skills can go on Facebook; those with digital understanding know how Facebook collects data about them. People with digital skills can shop on Amazon; those with digital understanding know they can exercise their consumer rights on the internet” It is already well known that access to and use of digital environments is differential. The UKs Office of National Statistics (ONS) 2016 survey on internet and smartphone use showed that although nearly three quarters of adults had used the internet ‘on the go’ via mobile or smartphone, laptop or tablet or alternative hand held device, of those aged 65 and over, only a third had done so. Further disparities by location, income levels and disability are also evident, producing what Helsper (2016) has identified a “digital underclass” whereby those who remain unconnected are increasingly likely to be vulnerable and socially isolated across a number of social and economic indicators and, at risk of becoming permanently left behind in a fast changing, technology driven landscape. Economic, social and cultural gaps still exist between those that are able to reap the benefits of participation in the digital sphere and those that are not.

Theoretically, this project will draw on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, capital and field to explore the differential access to, use of, and understanding of digital environments. As Willig (2015) and colleagues stress, ‘Internet access may not, in and of itself, level the playing field when it comes to the potential payoffs of being online. Instead, those from more privileged backgrounds may reap more of its benefits if they are more likely to use it in potential beneficial ways’. Danielssen (2011) has also highlighted the continuation of class distinctive habituses that impacts on access to leisure and education. What is important here is that the affordances and possibilities of digital practices are unequally experienced, distributed and interpreted and, therefore, it cannot be taken for granted that they are empowering, liberatory or can address existing systemic societal inequalities.

Methodologically, this project involves collaboration with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). The successful candidate will be hosted by SCVO and its three-year funded project, One Digital. This project is designed to enhance basic digital skills and digital understanding of both third sector organisations themselves and the clients that they work with. It is envisaged that the candidate will employ a mixed methods approach, including (digital) ethnography, whereby they will physically present during project delivery and observing online activity. Second, they will use a range of quantitative (surveys) and qualitative (interviews, focus groups) techniques to assess the effectiveness of specific One Digital interventions over a two-year period, from April 2018 to April 2020.


The successful candidate would be expected to publish a range of outputs over the course of the three-year studentship, including policy/practitioner blog posts for SCVO, Third Force News and associated digital inclusion sectoral outlets. Academic outputs would include 3 or 4* publications in peer reviewed international publications including New Media & Society, Information, Communication and Society, European Journal of Communication, Journal of Information Policy, Public Administration Review and equivalent.

Funding Notes

The studentship offers an annual stipend (currently £14,553 per annum) for three years and payment of tuition fees. Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed and successful candidates will be put forward to a final selection panel which will decide on the award of studentships. Successful applicants will be expected to contribute up to 6 hours/week to UWS’ academic related activities.

Candidates must be available to commence their studies on 1st April 2018

To apply please submit a personal statement (up to 1000 words) indicating the relevance of your experience and qualifications and referring to the project description where possible.


Relevant literature

Alam, K., & Imran, S. (2015) The digital divide and social inclusion among refugee migrants: A case in regional Australia, Information Technology and People, 28(2) pp. 344-365

Bach, A., Shaffer, G., Wolfson, T., (2013) Digital human capital: Developing a framework for understanding the economic impact of digital exclusion in low-income communities, Journal of Information Policy, 3, pp. 247-266

Beattie-Smith, S. (2013) Offline and left behind: Digital exclusion amongst Scotland’s CAB clients, Citizens Advice Scotland, available at:

Buchanan, S., Tuckerman, L. (2016) The information behaviours of disadvantaged and disengaged
adolescents, Journal of Documentation, 72 (3), pp.527-548

European Commission (2014) Digital inclusion and skills in the EU in 2014, available at:

Go ON UK (2015) Basic digital skills UK report 2015, available at:

Good Things Foundation (2016) HMRC and digital inclusion, available at:

Good Things Foundation, (2016a) Health and digital: reducing inequalities, improving society, available at:

Hatlevik, O.E., Christopherson. K-A., (2013) Digital competence at the beginning of upper secondary school:
Identifying factors explaining digital inclusion, Computers & Education, 63 pp. 240-47

Helsper, E. & Eynon, R. (2013) Pathways to digital literacy and engagement, European Journal of Communication, 28(6), pp.615-629

Helsper, E. & Reisdorf, B. (2013) A quantitative examination of explanations for reasons for internet non-use,
Cyber psychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 16(2) pp.94-99

Helsper, E. & Reisdorf, B. (2016) The emergence of a ‘digital underclass’ in Great Britain and Sweden: changing reasons for digital exclusion, New Media & Society, pp. 1-18

Helsper, E. & van Deursen, A. (2017) Do the rich get digitally richer? Quantity and quality of support for digital engagement, Information, Communication & Society, 20(5), pp700-714

Helsper, E. (2012) A corresponding fields model for the links between social and digital exclusion, Communication Theory, 22(4), pp. 403-426

Hogan, P. (2016) Bridging the digital divide, Citizens Advice Scotland, available at:

Jamieson, L. (2016) Social media and internet use: Report to inform the development of the Growing Up in
Scotland study (GUS), Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

McGillivray, D., Jenkins, N., Mamattah, S. (2016) One Digital Scotland programme evaluation report, SCVO,
available at:

How good is research at University of the West of Scotland in Social Work and Social Policy?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 22.80

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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