- Anthropological Studies of Mobile Phones
As far as I am aware, The Cell Phone (2006) was the first attempt at an ethnography of the mobile phone.1 Our funding came from UK aid, and this meant we had quite specific concerns with the impact of the phone upon poverty. One result of this was that we emphasized the way people expanded their social connections. In order just to get by, many Jamaicans without any income tried to find ways to "link-up" with Jamaicans who had some kind of income. This was in contrast with much of the more general writing of the time, which showed how connections via mobile phone tended to replicate the tight network of close friends and relatives.2
What makes an approach anthropological is partly how one draws conclusions from this difference. Most journalists and social scientists seek to understand a technology in terms of generalization. What difference have mobile phones made; what do people do with them? But we didn't see our findings in Jamaica as a test for a hypothesis about the social connections of the mobile phone. We simply assumed that you would find a wide range of appropriations of the phone, depending upon the local cultural context. This approach is also reflected in my own recent project summarized in How the World Changed Social Media.3
This difference in approach has consequences. Generalized observations lend themselves to explanations that invoke technology as causation. The reason for the social change may derive from the properties of the device or platform. In order to avoid a simple technological determinism, [End Page 1093] the most popular language today is that of "affordances."4 This term acknowledges properties and propensities in the technology that are subject to modification in actual usage. Our project on social media was more radical in its focus upon cultural relativism. We showed how the same genre of activity, such as playground banter or the meme, quite happily migrated from Blackberry phones to Orkut or Facebook or Twitter. If the genre of usage remained largely the same across these very different platforms, then the properties or affordances of the platforms were largely irrelevant to explaining their usage.
This review provides an opportunity to consider how anthropologists have extended their reach in the fifteen years following that initial ethnography. The most obvious point of departure is the book by Sirpa Tenhunen. The volume is based on the continuous study of a village of around 2,400 inhabitants in West Bengal between 1999 and 2013. Reference is made to theoretical frames such as domestication, remediation, and polymedia, but the real strength is simply empirical—the depth and breadth of observation. The anthropologist is not trying to present a typical Indian village. She knows that India is too diverse for that; rather, the goal is to understand a specific Indian village. This kind of time scale helps avoid much hype and exaggeration, especially facile dualisms, such as opposing screens to face-to-face communication. Instead, Tenhunen situates the phone amongst a wide variety of forms of co-presence. At first it is very local issues that matter, e.g. being able to tell people about a death so they can attend funerary rituals. Gradually, however, the phone takes its place alongside more general changes during this period, in which people become aware of and able to interact with a wider landscape, whether political, social, or economic.5
As in the Why We Post project, the emphasis is often less on radical change than on more conservative uses of the phone, in particular, uses oriented around repairing the problems caused by other shifts within modern life. The key to understanding phone usage remains kinship; for example, telling one's relatives about work opportunities or organizing healthcare for family members. Gradually, more radical changes occur, especially for women, as wives can now stay in touch with natal families when they leave home to marry. But the emancipatory impact is limited. Generally, phones are not individually owned, and women may...