Mobile rewards paper – notes

Mobile rewards: a critical review of the Mobiles for Development (M4D) literature

A paper to the Media Anthropology Network workshop, The Rewards of Media. EASA2010: Crisis and imagination (24/08/2010 – 27/08/2010)

Francisco Osorio and John Postill
Sheffield Hallam University


Recent academic and mainstream media debates about Wikipedia, Farmville and other new(ish) forms of non-remunerated digital labour (BBC 2010, Pink 2009, Shirky 2010). Why spend so much time (and money) on seemingly wasteful new media practices?

Recent turn to practice theory in media and ICT studies (Couldry 2004, Bräuchler and Postill 2010). What are its implications for the study of mobile phones and livelihoods in developing countries?

In this paper we first review the Mobiles for Development (M4D) literature, then we propose a practice-theoretical approach to mobile livelihoods that takes inspiration from Warde’s (2005) seminal essay on consumption and theories of practice, esp. the rewards of practice.

M4D review

An interdisciplinary field emerging out of ICT4D (ICTs for development).

Main areas of research interest and policy recommendations include: mobiles and market performance (Abraham 2007, Aker 2008, Jensen 2007, Muto and Yamano 2008), micro-entrepreneurs (Donner 2004, 2005, Jagun et al 2008, Molony 2005), infrastructure (Castells et al 2007), regulatory policy (Goodman 2005, Lane et al 2006), poverty reduction (Bhavnani 2008, Souter et al 2005), information poverty (Aminuzzaman et al 2003), mobile banking and money (Ivatury and Pickens 2006, Morawczynski 2008, Torma 2006) mobiles themselves as markets (Mujica 2007), emerging middle classes (Wallis 2011, Wei 2006).

Main geographical regions: so far sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia bulk of research. Other developing regions such as Latin America and Middle East-North Africa neglected to date, with some exceptions (Castells et al 2007, Frost and Sullivan 2006, Mujica 2007).

High hopes in many M4D studies (e.g. Kyem and Le Marie 2006), tempered with concerns. Bhavnani (2008) says that studies have shown mobiles can lower negative phenomena (corruption, crime, high prices…) and raise positive ones (education, efficiency, health) yet you still need access and pricing so that low-income can join in.

Critical perspectives on M4D

1. Negative:

Hype over transformational power of mobiles; in fact Africans still passive recipients of technologies from elsewhere (Alzouma 2008).

2. Nuanced:

Careful with old silver/magic bullet idea, now applied to mobiles (Acker and Mbiti 2010, Castells et al 2007). Don’t forget negative impacts: consumerist ‘status’ of owning mobile, ‘addiction’, crime, conflict arising from rapid change, uncertainty over user’s location, problems with trust (Bruijn et al 2009). Mobiles can in fact reinforce patriarchy and surveillance by employers and patrons (Horst 2008, Lyon 20nn, Wallis 2011). Indeed, they may even increase poverty, says Heeks (2008) provocatively.

Claims about better market performance wrought by mobiles (Jensen 2007) challenged. That may be the case, but these improvements may still co-exist with entrenched supply chains that do not eliminate intermediaries or the need to travel (for trust-building, owing to nature of business, etc) – so you can have both market continuity and change side-by-side (Jagun et al 2008).

Many M4D researchers concerned that poor people in developing countries ‘misusing’ mobiles for non-development purposes, says Donner (2009). Instead, we should move beyond return on investment model of M4D and take seriously the social pleasures of mobiles, for these can help improve both quality of life and standard of living (Donner 2009). Also must differentiate conditions on the ground, e.g. different types of micro-entrepreneurs (taxi drivers, retailers, knife sharpeners) may value different or no mobile features (portability, person-to-person, interlacing, etc.) (Donner 2007). And commodities will vary as well in their perishability, transport to markets, etc, e.g. bananas vs. maize (Muto and Yamano 2009).

Mobile anthropology

This paper rooted in anthropology of media and communication, esp. emerging research area around mobiles (Barendregt 2008, Horst and Miller 2006, Ito and Matsuda 2006,  Stammler 2007, Tenhunen 2008). Stress on non-metropolitan and/or cross-cultural lived experience and mobile practices. Tremendous diversity – actual mobile practices can only be understood in cultural, linguistic and historical context, e.g. continued importance of orality in many developing countries (Bruijn et al 2009, Hahn and Kibora 2008, Stammler 2009) – and indeed in the affluent North (Born 1997).

Horst and Miller (2006): poor Jamaicans use mobiles not to make money but to get money at critical times. Mobiles don’t herald shift to ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman) or ‘network society’ (Castells). Jamaicans have always maintained dispersed networks and valued what they call ‘link-up’.

Tenhunen (2008) fieldwork in West Bengal village. The ‘duality’ of mobiles (see also Morawczynski 2008): they reinvigorate village sociality and kinship relations but also enable change along with other processes, e.g. women more autonomy within traditional patriarchy, old village leadership further eroded.  Horst and Miller are an inspiration, but they downplay change by focussing on Jamaican cultural uniqueness; they overlook ability people have to strive for change. Practice theorists also neglect human agency.

Mobile rewards

A range of existing explations of mobile adoption in developing world: psychological (BBC 2010), effects (Jensen 2007), cost-benefits (Castells et al 2007, Sinha 2005), values (Souter et al 2005), motivations (Sinha 2005), uses and gratifications (Donner 2004), etc. Instead we propose practice theory because it can allow us to capture the multiplicity and messiness of actual mobile-related practices without foreclosing the inquiry.

Warde (2005) seminal article on consumption and practice theory. Practices generate their own patterns of consumption and rewards. Rewards can be of many kinds, and can be intrinsic or extrinsic to the practice itself. How can we apply this to the study of mobile livelihoods in the global South? Tentative proposal:


  • follow the (mobile) practices: what practice-specific patterns of consumption and reward do they generate, if any?
  • follow the (mobile) practitioners: taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, etc.
  • what are the key social (kinship, friendship, ethnicity…) and technical (ubiquity, customisability, reach, Donner 2008) practices of their varied social universes (i.e. their socio-technical practices, Wallis 2011)? (some mobile-specific methods need to be devised)
  • don’t neglect people’s ability to strive for social and economic change, and how mobiles may be part of this (Tenhunen 2008)

Diachronically (see Heeks 2008):

  • what are the main changes and continuities (Tenhunen 2008) within a given practical universe from Year X to Year Y?
  • what part did mobiles play in these changes and continuities?
  • in what ways, if at all, have mobiles contributed to the ongoing ‘blurring’ of lives and livelihoods (Donner 2009, see also Christensen and Røpke 2010) within these universes? e.g. personal/business call blur in Uganda.
  • how did users’ life-stages and positionalities (Wallis 2011) shape their social and economic uses of mobiles?




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One response to “Mobile rewards paper – notes

  1. John Postill labelled me ”negative.” Maybe it just happened that the box ”negative” had to be filled; so John put my name under ”negative.” I am sorry but I am not ”negative” at all about the introduction of mobile phones in Africa and the role mobile phones can play in the development of Africa.

    Here is what I said in my paper (P. 40):

    ”Cet article ne vise donc pas à remettre en cause l’utilité du téléphone mobile, d’Internet et des ordinateurs pour le développement de l’Afrique mais à rappeler les conditions sous lesquelles le déploiement de ces technologies peut véritablement contribuer au développement.”

    Translation: ”This article is not intended to question the usefulness of mobile phones, Internet and computers for the development of Africa but to recall the conditions under which the deployment of these technologies can effectively contribute to development.”

    The passage John is alluding to is about the African capacity to (industrially) produce mobile phones. I guess everybody would agree with me that for now that capacity is very low but this was not the core of my argument.

    I invite those who can read in English to read my paper here:

    Sorry for my English but my primary language is French.

    Gado Alzouma.

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