Dual Heritage: A comment on Jonathan Donner’s framing M4D

by Francisco Osorio

I would like to comment on Jonathan Donner’s 2010 essay Framing M4D: The utility and continuity and the dual heritage of ‘mobiles and development’, published in The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries Vol. 44(3): 1-16.

The dual heritage refers in the wider sense to a fact that could be seen in two different perspectives, which in the strongest sense are incompatible and the weaker sense complementary. Proponents of the stronger sense would not need to change those perspectives, because one of those would prove to be true, given more evidence from future research. Followers of the weaker sense would see either the need of a theory able to explain how it could be complementary or the proposal of an entire new theory that could integrate (and replace) those two original perspectives. I propose Donner argues for the weaker sense in the dual heritage debate.

What’s the fact? The mobile phone is an example of a pervasive technology widespread in the first decade of the 21st century among poor people, perhaps like no other. It seems to have profound impact on socioeconomic development.

Donner proposes the mobile phone has been theoretically approached from two main frames according to the M4D literature. There’re many ways to describe these two frames, but perhaps the basic one to start with is understand the mobile phone as a phone or to understand it as a computer, in other words, telephony or computing.

The telephony framework is linked to the following proposal: user choice. It means that the phone is basically used by two people (simple case) so that they can talk about whatever they feel like it. In the widest sense, the mobile phone can be used for anything they want; they can choose what to do with it. Suppose now that you’re interesting in development. How this framework could be used to promote development? According to Donner, because “some calls individuals might choose to make might lead to beneficial development outcomes” (p. 3). Importantly enough, we’ve got evidence that this is the case, using Jensen’s study among Keralan fishermen. They are the best example we can think of, therefore, they are the archetypes of the MD4 telephony framework, according to Donner.

The computing framework is related to the following idea: the directionality embedded in services and applications. If you see the mobile phone as a technology that can do more than voice calls, and you are interested in development, you can design an app or propose a service that could allow you to alter a social context, in other words, intervention. For example, an application that sends information to farmers about the price of a product in a given market or inform about the proximity of rain. There is also evidence that this approach works in the context of development, being the archetype the Bangladeshi Village Phone Operator. Other good examples are Frontline SMS and Ushahidi.

But Donner says those two frames have also problems. Consider the telephony framework. Because of the freedom of the users, the mobile phone can produce (and it is the case) contradictory effects: at the same time the mobile phone can produce good outcomes and bad development. Anthropologists are very good in showing this contradiction throughout their research, for example, in rural West Bengal mobile phones increase individualism and, at the same time, accentuate kinship ties and village solidarity (Tenhunen 2008).  Among Russian reindeer-herding nomads, mobile phones are highly valued and perceived as beneficial and, at the same time, have reduced mobility and alter the perception of time (Stammler 2009).

The computing framework has also some problems. Its archetypical case proved later problematic when mobile phone ownership increased, so there were fewer jobs for the operators. Donner reviews two other examples of this framework: M-PESA and MXit. He summarises the situation saying those “systems are having some M4D outcomes, but not exclusively M4D outcomes (nor indeed exclusively good outcomes)” (p. 9). But Donner’s argument is that M-PESA, to take just one case, cannot be fully understood using the computing framework, nor the telephony one for that matter. He then asks, how do we understand Facebook or Twitter in the context of development?

After following Donner’s analysis, it is possible to use another framework, such as Kuhn’s proposal in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). We can see two paradigms in M4D. They could be observed as such because of competing perspectives about the same subject matter, which in the strong sense are incommensurable (the core assumptions cannot be translated between each other); both have exemplars (Jensen’s 2007 Keralan fishermen and Aminuzzaman’s 2003 Bangladeshi Village Phone Operator) and long established research traditions: terrestrial or fixed telephone studies in one hand, and sociotechnical systems and development informatics from the other. Both have theories, for example, Adaptive Structuration Theory for the computing framework, and Mass Communication for the telephony framework.

I am not sure how far I want to go using Kuhn’s proposal, because it seems to be one scientific community of researchers, at least the very few self-identified with the label M4D. This community has one well-known researcher and, sometimes, historian: Jonathan Donner. We could argue that other criteria are met to be considered a scientific community, such as participations in M4D congress and conferences, a clear literature, some journals publishing on the subject (although not yet a Journal of Mobiles and Development Studies), university courses, seminars, growing number of PhD dissertations, public and private research funding, among others.

The interesting point was to witness this community in the first decade of this century and today follow it into the next decade. As mobile phone technology transforms itself, so this community of researchers would.

Finally, Donner’s invitation is an epistemological one. It is an open call to anyone willing to participate in the M4D community about how we must conduct research on the subject, what theories to use, what methods and techniques to follow, what are our assumptions about technology, culture and development, among other important questions. This is a really interesting invitation to participate.


Aminuzzaman, S.; Baldersheim, H. and Jamil, I. 2003. Talking back! Empowerment and mobile phones in rural Bangladesh: A study of the village phone scheme of Grameen Bank. Contemporary South Asia 12(3): 327-348.

Donner, J. 2010. Framing M4D: The utility and continuity and the dual heritage of ‘mobiles and development’.  The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries 44(3): 1-16.

Jensen, R. 2007. The digital provide: Information (technology), market performance, and welfare in the south Indian fisheries sector. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3): 879-924.

Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stammler, F. M. 2009. Mobile phone revolution in the Tundra? Technological change among Russian reindeer nomads. Folklore (Tartu) 41: 47-78.

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


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