Tenhunen (2008) on mobiles and social change in rural India

By John Postill

Tenhunen, S. 2008 ‘Mobile technology in the village: ICTs, culture, and social logistics in India’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 14, 515-534

* Anthropological fieldwork in West Bengal village in 1999-2000. Further visits in 2003, 2005, 2007-8, p. 518

* Eschews narrow focus of most technology appropriation studies to date on usage; technology and society are mutually constitutive, p. 529

* Phone usage cannot be separated from village sociality, ‘most calls are public happenings’, messages often being passed on in public or via intermediaries, p. 521; local identity has always been part of networks that extend well beyond the village, p. 522, not least through village exogamy, p. 523

* Most calls happen within kin groups, often asking for help, but mobiles allow people to extend their connections as well, p. 524

* Like researchers in other parts of the world, Tenhunen found that mobiles were improving the livelihoods of micro-entrepreneurs and some farmers, etc., p. 528

* They also further the ongoing decline of traditional village patronage; newly prosperous villagers can now use mobiles to bypass village elders [see same argument made for TV in 1990s rural Kerala by Johnson 2001]

* Mobiles allow women and young people some leeway in conducting their affair(e)s away from the relentless village surveillance

* Mobiles entangled with other processes of social change under way in West Bengal: land reform, new agricultural methods leading to poverty reduction (73% poor in 1973-4 to 32% in 1999-2000), education, women’s movement, spread of radio and TV, p. 529

* Takes issue with practice theorists (Giddens, Bourdieu, Ortner, Sahlins) for playing down critical human agency, esp. the capacity people have to consciously change the conditions of their existence, in this case partly through the aid of mobile phones: ‘actors can consciously strive for change, or show disregard for a cultural code of conduct – such as villagers who obtain help from outside the village instead of from the village leaders, or women who use the phones to broaden their culturally constructed space’, p. 531.

* Also distances herself from ICT domestication tradition and instead focusses on ‘local’ cultural settings, p. 517

* Inspired by anthropological research on mobiles amongst poor Jamaicans by Horst and Miller (2006) but finds that they overemphasize how mobiles contribute to cultural reproduction at the expense of investigating their role in cultural change.

* Along with radio, TV, and DVDs, mobiles ‘offer culturally approved social alternatives and the widening of culturally constructed spheres, especially those of women’, p. 530

* Duality of mobiles: on one hand have improved local people’s ‘social logistics’ (markets, connections, efficiency), on the other they have reproduced existing local culture, strenghtening kinship ties and ‘village solidarity’, p. 530

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