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  • Unseen Connections:The Materiality of Cell Phones
  • Joshua A. Bell, Briel Kobak, Joel Kuipers, and Amanda Kemble

In his much cited 1986 essay on the "Cultural Biography of Things," Igor Kopytoff proposes a biographical approach to objects and things as a way to understand commodities and commodification. Doing so he remarks, "What would make a biography cultural is not what it deals with, but how and from what perspective. A culturally informed economic biography of an object would look at it as a culturally constructed entity, endowed with culturally specific meanings, and classified and reclassified into culturally constituted categories" (1986:68, emphasis added). Kopytoff's work, and indeed the collection in which it appeared (Appadurai 1986a), helped spawn an entire genre of anthropological writing, and initiated a wider rethinking of the role of commodities in everyday lives globally (see Miller 1987; Gosden and Marshall 1999; Hoskins 1998, 2006; Bestor 2004; Foster 2008; West 2012; Tsing 2015; Joyce and Gillespie 2015). This collection of essays focuses on the aspect of reclassification inspired by Kopytoff's work by applying the biographical approach to a contemporary commodity that emerges from a network of transnational supply chains: the cell phone.

Kopytoff's work helped launch a powerful approach to the longue durée of capitalism and commoditization in Africa (cf. Burke 1996), and indeed elsewhere (cf. Thomas 1991). However, while he was well aware of the ways [End Page 465] in which commodities were made and unmade, Kopytoff's biographical approach insists that commodities are born at the moment of exchange.1 Taking a cue from recent anthropological work on globalization and commodity supply chains (see Lee and LiPuma 2002; Tsing 2005, 2015; Foster 2008; West 2012), the articles in this collection explore the life of the cell phone both before and after its point of sale, evaluating its position as a commodity during the various phases of its production and manipulation. Doing so, the collection seeks to bring the "global assemblage" (Collier and Ong 2005) of the cell phone into view, as well as the networks that the device helps to sustain and create (see Hockenberry, this issue). Each piece in this special collection examines the sorts of exchange spheres that Kopytoff described, detailing how different relations and contexts foreground various aspects of an object's materiality throughout its lifetime. The essays reaffirm that the significance and value of the object is always unstable and open for reclassification (Graeber 2001, Tsing 2015). In this collection's discussions of the cell phone such negotiations are present through concerns over origins of material, like coltan (Mantz, this issue), in debates over who makes one's device (Hockenberry, this issue), the nature of infrastructure that they are a part of (Taylor and Horst, this issue), conversations over digital versus landline connection (Dent, this issue), or attempts to conceal broken phone parts and repair from anxious customers (Bell et al., this issue). By paying attention to the social and material relations within production, use, breakdown, repair, and innovation, this collection aims to demonstrate the extent to which the life of a commodity indeed merits biographical attention even—perhaps, most especially—as supply chains grow in scope, scale, and complexity. Doing so, this collection pulls together an analytical approach to commodities, and their supply chains, with a materially focused ethnography of infrastructure and media.

Anthropology of the Cell Phone

Smartphone, shŏujī, keitai, handy, celular, móvil, ponsel, ovare voa2: with over 6 billion users worldwide and counting, and some 2 billion purchased annually, what we in this collection will refer to as the "cell phone" has become integral to people's lives throughout the world. Alongside the rapid and global proliferation of cell phones, there has been a steady growth in anthropological research on the device's integration into daily life. Since [End Page 466] the mid-2000s much of the ethnographic literature on cell phones has explored the social and communicative transformations of these devices.3 Anthropologists have focused on how cell phones mediate social relationships (see Glotz, Bertscht, and Locke 2005; Horst and Miller 2006; De Bruijn, Nyamnjoh, and Brinkman 2009; Lipset 2013), and shape subjective experience, such as identity and gender, along specific...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1518
Print ISSN
0003-5491
Pages
pp. 465-484
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-24
Open Access
No
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