Deconstructing Digital Empowerment: The Case of Community Health Worker's in India

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The term ‘empowerment’ is widely used to address the claims of social and economic impact by technology within developing countries. While existing research in ICT4D often links empowerment with technology, the term is used seemingly to make broad positive claims of technological change. It does not highlight how within everyday practices of human actors, the processes of empowerment come about and for whom. It also does not explicate why technology, despite claims of empowerment, leads to uneven outcomes thus widening marginalities and reinforcing inequalities. This thesis deconstructs the link between empowerment and the technology outcome. It is a thesis by publication and consists of three papers centred around three interrelated themes in relation to digital technology, namely, empowerment, power, and structure. The first paper problematises the link between ICTs and empowerment. It highlights the gaps and inconsistencies in existing ICT4D research, such as the lack of a proper conceptualisation of empowerment, the misalignment between the technological outcome and the empowerment concept and the missing concept of power and social structures that envelope empowerment processes. The second paper adopts a Foucauldian lens on power. It uncovers how technology mediates the dialectical relations between the individual capabilities of human actors and the systems of domination and control during the enactment of technology. The third paper integrates the concept of socialised affordances and social positioning from Giddens’s structuration theory. While a socialised affordance lens helps delineate the potentialities of a technology from its outcomes. The social positioning lens brings to light how structural resources, norms and rules define the social positions of human actors, and how that shapes the perceptions, use and outcomes of technology. The empirical data of the thesis comes from a qualitative case study that addresses the empowerment of Community Health Workers (CHWs) in India. It consists of qualitative data of CHWs and other Primary Health Care centre members from 2 Primary Health Care centres, using an mHealth intervention in their routine processes. This thesis critically contributes to the narrative about the role of ICTs in enabling empowerment of individuals. It explores how power and structure shape the processes through which empowerment outcomes of technology materialise. The social outcomes of technology are mediated through power processes and social positioning of human actors in everyday practice. This sensitises us to the indeterminate and uneven outcome of technological adoption and the importance of incorporating broader social and structural processes in ICT4D research.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Zheng, Yingqin, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - May 2021

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