Category Archives: anthropology

Comments on Haitian Monetary Ecologies and Repertoires: A qualitative snapshot of money transfer and savings

by Francisco Osorio

The Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion published this report by Espelencia Baptiste, Heather A. Horst and Erin B. Taylor. The purpose is to study “the variety of ways in which money, people and goods circulate” in Haiti. I will concentrate only on the role of mobile phones given in this study.

The study was conducted in 2010 based on 90 interviews and 5 focus groups, six months after the earthquake the whole world witnessed. The description of current life in Haiti is breath taken, although the report is optimistic somehow and willing to propose solutions to improve life in Haiti.

Following no particular order, the first element I will describe from the report is its opinion about if M-Pesa could be applicable in Haiti. They say “one of the key distinctions between the M-Pesa success in Kenya and the potential of mobile money in Haiti will be the ability to leverage the social and economic power of the diaspora” (p.24).  Unfortunately, I don’t understand very well what they mean with leverage. The report acknowledges the huge importance of remittances from abroad, but I don’t see why those remittances should be “leveraged”. In a different reading, perhaps they only argue that the possible M-Pesa for Haiti should consider that in the current context, remittances are one of the strongest sources of income. The report continues saying that “a model for incorporating the diaspora into future financial services in Haiti may be based in the Philippines where remittances and diasporas play a central role in the day-to-day economic affairs of Filipinos” (p.24). The report doesn’t say why this could be the case. Again, in a different reading, perhaps they are saying that it could be interesting to look at successful models, such as the Philippines.

The second element I want to describe from the report is the importance they put on intermediaries in relationship with mobile money services. This is a really important point. Contrary to some literature on mobile phones studies where it’s all about to bypass the middleman, this report argues the opposite: if mobile money services have a chance to be successful in Haiti, it would be by the role played of intermediaries helping between poor people and money services.  The argument is absolutely clear. Mobile money services should consider Haitian culture. One element of their culture is the role social networks currently play in relationship to the circulation of money. The infrastructure we know based on banks and ATMs simply is not there yet, so money passes through hands in a social network.  A mobile phone service could help to transfer money easily, avoid theft, and allow some form of credit. It is precisely in this new possibility that intermediaries could help by proving support and education because people trust them.

Finally, the report shows mobile phones ownership has been consistently increased during the years. The same trend can be found elsewhere in the world. Other similar findings are that people try to use when possible different phones to speak to different people depending on the network they are (charges between networks are expensive, that’s why in some countries phones use dual sim cards). In the case of Haiti, some people in the border have two phones, one of them from a Dominican Republic network, so they can reach people using that network.

Reference

Baptiste, E; Horst, H. and Taylor, E. 2010. Haitian Monetary Ecologies and Repertoires: A qualitative snapshot of money transfer and savings. Report from the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. November 16, available at http://www.imtfi.uci.edu/imtfi_haiti_money_transfer_project

Battery-charging business at Petionville Club golf course IDP camp in Port-au-Prince January 7, 2011

UNCTAD Information Economy Report 2010

Information Economy Report 2010: ICTs, Enterprises and Poverty Alleviation

Comments by Dr Francisco Osorio

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) published in October 2010 a very important macro-economic study on mobile phones and development. I say mobile phones because most of the report is about this technology.

Torbjorn Fredriksson is the study’s team leader, who presented the report at The University of Manchester on October 14th, organised by the Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics and Brooks World Poverty Institute (see news here). I was giving a printed copy but can be download it here.

The report is organised in five chapters:  (1) Exploring the link between poverty, ICTs and enterprises, (2) Trends in connectivity and affordability, (3) The ICT sector and the poor, (4) ICT use by enterprises and poverty alleviation and (5) The policy challenge.

After attending the presentation and later reading the report, I got the impression of a balanced study. It situates in the middle of two common discourses on M4D: either mobile phones are the final solution to development problems or mobile phones only perpetuates inequality in favour of the rich. The report is optimistic but it is not deterministic: there is evidence mobile phones can help socioeconomic development but also the lack of knowledge is important that cannot supports strong arguments either in favour or against. Simply said nobody knows yet.

We know one thing: mobile phones are important because is the communication technology poor people use the most after TV and radio. In other words, mobile phones are important for the poor. This simple sentence is the starting point of all research. When it is expressed in a graph, the statistical evidence shows a curve that goes up incredible fast (more phones than ever, more poor people using them).

Then the question: what does it mean? For the UNCTAD report it means an opportunity that could be used to help the poor. It does not say it will help, it might. Governments could support the mobile phone industry, because it may help to alleviate poverty. The report, although cautions, bets for an investment without strong arguments in favour. This jump into the unknown may pay well.

Even so, the most important conclusion is that we need more research. The report shows examples from many sources. Going through the references, the only anthropologist cited is Barendregt. Many references go to Donner and Heeks. The key examples come from India and Kenya but there are others from all over the world.

The report says it focuses on enterprises because they can significantly contribute to poverty reduction. The role ICTs play in enterprises, it says, is to give information access and better communications for poor people to help them build livelihood assets.

The report covers many aspects of this relationship between the poor, enterprises and mobile phones (the key ICT) and there is a very good quote that summarises one aspect of this relationship: mobile phones are more effective as a livelihood resource (communication tool) than as a source of livelihood (income generation) for the poor.

There are important distinctions to be made within enterprises. Considering its size, there are micro-enterprises, small and medium and large. Considering its purpose, they could be classified as subsistence based or growth-oriented. Considering use of ICTs, there are directs and indirect uses, either for economic and non-economic purposes. In other words, the landscape is not simple and many distinctions need to be made, instead of using concepts such as enterprises and the role of ICTs as mono-dimensional. The focus of the report is in the direct use of ICTs by poor in enterprises and direct use of ICTs by poor in ICT sector enterprises.

Other important aspect covered by the report is the problem that such a technology is facing around the world: affordability, network coverage, prices, taxes, and public policies against it, among others. Also, the open question is what would happen in the future. If TV and radio are important, well, some mobile phones integrate both into the handset (but they are too expensive to use for the poor). If the Internet is vital to access information, the mobile phone could be the way forward for the poor (still, many problems of affordability here).

As a final comment, I think this report could easily produce impact in the M4D academic community and for our project will be of great importance.

Mobile Phone papers presented in EASA 2010

The European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) held its 11th EASA Biennial Conference in Maynooth (Ireland) from the 24th to the 27th August 2010 (http://www.easaonline.org/conferences/easa2010/index.htm).

Anthropologists presenting their research on mobile phones (or that addressed the subject in a wider context) were concentrated in two workshops: Media Anthropology and Digital Anthropology. The first one was coordinated by John Postill (Sheffield Hallam University) and Philipp Budka (University of Vienna). The second by Daniel Miller (University College, London) and Heather Horst (University of California, Irvine).

Here you can see a list of those papers, authors and abstract. They will most likely translate into journals articles in the future.

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

John Postill (Sheffield Hallam University) and Francisco Osorio (Sheffield Hallam University)

The extraordinary rate of diffusion and adoption of mobile phones across the global South over the past decade has given rise to a new interdisciplinary field known as Mobiles for Development (M4D). The key debate in the field is whether mobile phones are having any significant impact on the economic livelihoods of marginalised people living in regions such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. Positions range from those who argue that mobiles are finally enabling poor people to overcome the digital divide to those who suggest that mobiles are in fact exacerbating old inequalities, through a number of in-between positions, including that of scholars who argue that only some low-income people (e.g. micro-entrepreneurs) are reaping the economic rewards of mobile phones. This paper is a critical review of the multilingual, peer-reviewed M4D literature on this unresolved debate from 2001 to 2010. Drawing from the theory of practice, we search for novel ways of mapping the shifting rewards of mobile practices under conditions of rapid change. The two main working assumptions are that mobile phones have blurred the lines between lives and livelihoods (Donner 2009) and that the rewards of mobile practices in the global South are of many different kinds (financial, social, expressive, sensual, etc., Warde 2005) and not solely ‘for development’.

2) Youth, Families and Participation in Networked Public Culture

Heather Horst (University of California, Irvine)

Youth throughout the world are growing up in world where new media and technology are changing norms of communication, creation and participation. Building upon ethnographic research among American youth and families in Silicon Valley, this presentation will focus upon the rewards of participation in and through new media and technology. Specifically, I focus upon the ways in which youth participate in networked publics that enable opportunities for developing recognition, reputation, specialized knowledge and feedback that extend beyond their place-based knowledge networks. At the same time, I suggest that for many youth and their families in Silicon Valley, place and place-based networks play a central role in shaping how youth come to understand and value their participation in networked public culture. Understanding this interplay is thus critical to understanding the rewards of new media participation.

3) Emerging futurities in Muslim Southeast Asia: science fantasy, digital development and the urge for moral technology

Bart Barendregt (Leiden University)

Thinking of the future is hardly possible without reference to the role of digital information technologies or the growing impact of knowledge industries. But how relevant are these concepts outside the Northern Hemisphere? Said to be on its way by 2020, Islamic Information Society posits an alternative to both Western ideas on the Global Village, as well as the hijacking of Islamic futures by radical conservatives. In this paper I examine how majority Muslim countries in Southeast Asia have increasingly become role models in Islam’s quest for a digital future. I will do so by targeting the history of technological developments from the top down, and manifested in state run and commercial techno-nationalist projects, but also through competing claims to the future as portrayed in the current fusion of modern popular culture (pop music, fashion, gadgetry) with religion and futurist thinking.

4) Phones, foreigners, and the fluctuating digital divide in Southern Mozambique

Julie Archambault (SOAS)

“I can’t wait for the World Cup”, explained a young Mozambican man during a recent phone conversation, “more tourists means more mobile phones and iPods for us”. For many in Mozambique, crime is not a way of life but rather a tactic, amongst others, to address needs and desires unfulfilled by more conventional means. Mobile phones participate in this economy as coveted objects and as communication tools that, in turn, lubricate the circulation of consumer goods. Many phones initially make it to Southern Mozambique in the pockets of tourists before being inserted into the local pool of goods that petty crime stirs up further. In the city of Inhambane, most of the male youth I work with have spent some time in jail, almost all of them for petty theft, often involving mobile phones. In this paper, I draw on their experiences to unpack the notion of ‘digital divide’ and to tease out the role mobile phones and mobile phone communication play in the workings of petty crime in the region. By looking into the circulation of mobile phones, I hope to shed light on broader economic dynamics, while contributing to our understanding of the socio-economic impacts of new technologies.

5) Culture, conflict and translocal communication: mobile technology and politics in rural West Bengal, India

Sirpa Tenhunen (University of Helsinki)

As media reports of political movements from various locations have shown, mobile technology can be a powerful political instrument. Howard Rheingold (2002) has famously argued that the new information technologies and especially mobile phones enable smart mobs. “Smart mob” is an evocative and yet problematic term in emphasizing the unruliness of protestors thus detracting attention from their patterns of action and meanings. This article seeks to understand the relationship between politics and mobile technology by examining how political activists in rural West Bengal, India use mobile phones for their daily political work. I illustrate how riots and protests relate to the increase in translocal communication enabled by phones. I also demonstrate how the political use of mobile technology for extra ordinary events is grounded in the social and political processes of ordinary everyday life and draws from the local understanding of politics by emphasizing certain aspects of it.

6) Migration and virtual community 2.0

Lee Komito (University College Dublin)

Explorations of the impact of new technologies on community and social life often reflect a utopian or anti-utopian polarisation by framing new technologies either as inimical to community (especially when framed in terms of social capital) or as enabling a redefined community composed of ‘networked individuals’. In the context of migration, transnational ethnic groups are manifest through email, discussion groups and web pages, and the utopian/anti-utopian duality revolves around technologies supporting long-term durable social relations versus fragile and instrumental relations subject to easy disruption, and whether technologically mediated social relations can support ‘virtual communities’. Studies of social media practices of non-nationals living in Ireland suggests that information exchange and coordination of activities via these new media are enabling durable, non-local social groups that complement migrants’ other social relations. This is not only transforming the migration process, but also illustrates the problems inherent in any utopian/anti-utopian duality.

Mobile phone revolution in the Tundra?

By John Postill

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

Tentative discussion as author didn’t focus on mobile phones during anthropological fieldwork. Paper based on fieldwork and conversations in 1998-2007.

Mobile phones could well turn out to be revolutionary among Russian reindeer nomads. Novelty is that mobiles bring to Tundra ‘real-time interactive private oral communication’, p. 52.

Mobiles require little energy, and herders already had small portable power generators for lighting years ago, p. 62. Phones carried under their parkas (malitsa), close to body; this protects batteries from winter cold, p. 62

Elena interesting remark: ‘There is nothing to talk about when you visit your neighbours’ – coz now can keep up with news and gossip via mobiles, p. 63

[Great for micro-coordination, see Ling]. For example:

1. Male herder said you can now be with herd and on your way home and tell wife to ‘heat the stove and brew some fresh tea’, p. 63.

2. Reindeer herdering union’s HQ could coordinate slaughters, timing, supplies, meat delivery to oil company settlement, etc, all via mobiles, p. 64

3. collect info for herders’ insurance companies, p. 64 [Freedom of the tundra and modcons all at once? where do I sign up?]

In sum, there is much potential of mobiles to improve herders’ livelihoods, p. 65

Mobile trends among reindeer nomads:

  • Young men are early adopters and drivers of mobile phone changes
  • Middle-aged men starting to use mobiles for work as well as networking with relatives
  • Young and middle-aged women use phones more for leisure, incl. news and gossip, p. 66

In 2006 (only seven months after mobiles introduced) herders laughed at anthropologist for using ‘totally outdated’ mobile and in 2007 for using ‘female’ handset, i.e. have been very quick to absorb wider societal normative views on mobiles.

Researchers in metropolitan centres have argued that mobiles increase the elasticity of life, from precise moments of pre-mobile life to ‘approximate’ moments, esp. teens and young adults ability to ‘tie together their peer group against the backdrop of a relatively nomadic life’.

But in Russian Tundra very different: mobiles don’t increase freedom, they reduce it: ‘planning security increases, moments are stated more precisely, and life becomes less “elastic”‘ , i.e mobiles ‘tighten the grip on people’s life rhythm, and reduce freedom and flexibility’, p. 71.

Mobile Phone Studies using Anthropological Journal Databases

By Francisco Osorio

Our main question is what anthropological studies of mobile phones can be found in a literature review. For that reason we used three peer review journals databases: Abstract in Anthropology, Anthropological Index Anthropology Plus and Sage. We limited the search between 2000 and 2010 (although we need to wait until 2011 to have the 2010 list complete), using the keyword mobile.

The first problem is that the keyword mobile can direct to studies on mobility or other areas not related to mobile phones. The second problem is that at the beginning of the decade the words ‘cell phone’ or ‘cellular telephony’ were more frequent than today’s ‘mobile’, so some studies could not be discovered. The third problem is what can be labelled ‘anthropological’.

The initial query gave us 97 journal articles. The full list (alongside abstracts) can be found here (http://bit.ly/c0nCSW). The first problem was easy to resolve, because we went for the abstracts in every case selecting only mobile phone studies. The second problem was solve in part by chance, because those databases also coded the articles with the word mobile or phone and because we read every bibliography within each article looking for references not discovered by our method. At this stage, we had a fair understanding of the literature review guided by the references of every essay. The third problem is more complicated. It is reasonable to assume that the databases used contain anthropological journals or anthropological studies. Nevertheless, some anthropologists studying mobile phones could have published elsewhere. Also, it is the case that sociologists or communication scholars (among others) use anthropological methods, concepts or conduct fieldwork in different cultures, publishing in the journals contained in the databases (and elsewhere).

The first solution is to consider a wider definition of the concept ‘anthropological studies of mobile phones’, that is, any study about mobile phones in different cultures using standards social science methods related to cultural and socials aspects. In that sense, we excluded articles exclusively related to language (discourse analysis), games, urbanism, design, education and health. Therefore, the wider definition gave us 63 articles (see the full list here http://bit.ly/cNY2Lx).

The second solution is to consider a narrow definition of anthropological study, meaning the one conducted by a professional anthropologist. In that case the answer is 5 (from those 63).

We were shocked by this finding, so we considered widen the literature review into journals devoted to development (also known as ICT or ICT4D), for which we used the selection created by the University of Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics (see list here http://bit.ly/9b9YO0). We found 32 articles in the wider sense of anthropological studies of mobile phones (that number also considers articles discovered by reading the bibliography in every essay). See the full list here. In the narrow definition, 1 of those 32 was published by a professional anthropologist.

Therefore, from 2000 to the present march 2010, we have found so far 6 articles published by anthropologists.

The list ordered by author is the following:

Barendregt, B. (2008). Sex, Cannibals, and the Language of Cool: Indonesian tales of the phone and modernity. The Information Society, 24(3), 160-170.

Horst, H., & Miller, D. (2005). From Kinship to Link-Up: Cell phones and Social Networking in Jamaica. Current Anthropology, 6(5), 755-778.

Horst, H. A. (2006). The Blessings and Burdens of Communication: Cell phones in Jamaican transnational social fields. Global Networks, 6(2), 143-159.

McIntosh, J. (2010). Mobile phones and Mipoho’s prophecy: The powers and dangers of flying language. American Ethnologist, 37(2), 337-353.

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.

We are aware of the limits of this literature review, so we welcome any comments about how can we improve the list.