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Mobile phones and actual changes in the global South

May 28, 2013

This post is part of the media and change series.

Presentation notes from Postill, J. 2013. Mobile phones and actual changes (big and small) in the global South: a preliminary exploration. Keynote address to the Mobile Telephony in the Developing World Conference, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, May 24-25, 2013. [PDF]


The study of mobile phones has boomed over the past ten years. Today it is doubtless one of the more vibrant research areas across the whole of media and communication studies. But this is also an undertheorised field, as a number of authors have pointed out. In this paper I heed the call for further theoretical work by addressing a blind spot in our field of vision, namely the elusive relationship between mobiles and sociocultural change. I suggest that we think about change not in the present continuous as we usually do (how things are chang-ing at present) but in the recent past, revisiting the empirical examples we have to date on actual changes that have already taken place, and then try and work out what part, if any, mobile phones played in those changes. I explore this approach through examples drawn from three strands of the bourgeoning mobile telephony literature, including some of my own primary research, namely political mobilisation, mobiles and markets, and everyday mobile sociality.


Good afternoon.

First of all, I’d like to thank Laura Stark and the rest of the organising committee for their invitation and for all the brilliant work that has gone into putting this conference together. I’m thrilled to be here and I look forward to some great papers and discussions.

I’d also like to thank two people who can’t be here today, namely Francisco Osorio (Universidad de Chile) and Arnau Monterde (IN3, Open University of Catalonia), with whom I’ve done some collaborative work on mobiles and social and political change that has shaped my thinking on these issues.

The focus on actual changes in the title of this talk is no accident. In fact, it comes out of a series of conversations we’ve been having over at the Media Anthropology Network under the theme “Theorising media and social change”. I am particularly grateful to Sirpa Tenhunen and Elisenda Ardevol for their shared enthusiasm for the topic, which will result in the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change we are currently preparing.

The study of mobile phones has seen a tremendous growth over the past ten years or so, and today it is doubtless one of the more vibrant research areas across the whole of media and communication studies (Ling and Horst 2011).

Great opportunity for media and communication studies to continue to internationalise; from the outset mobile studies has been a global field in its geographical remit, unlike media or internet studies. An opportunity that we should take now before the window closes and mobiles become normalised, taken for granted (Ling and Donner 2009).

But this is also an undertheorised field, as a number of authors have pointed out (Pearce 2013, Ling and Horst 2011).

In this talk I will heed this call for further theoretical development. There is nothing, I repeat: nothing, more practical than the practice of theorising. We should theorise not for its own sake, but in order to be able to ask better questions; do better empirical research – which in turn will help refine our theories in a dialectical process (Couldry 2010).

I will address a question that is integral to all studies of mobile phones in the developing world but at the same time a blind spot, namely the elusive relationship between mobiles and sociocultural change.

First I will discuss some of the key challenges that go with trying to theorise change, a slippery concept to work with, and how we may begin to overcome them. My suggestion is that we think about change not in the present continuous as we normally do (how things are chang-ing right now) but in the past, revisiting the empirical examples we have to date on actual changes that have already taken place, and then try and work out what part, if any, mobile phones played in those changes.

In other words, I’m not asking the question ‘What part, if any, are mobiles play-ing is current changes taking place in the developing world?’. What I am asking is rather: ‘What part, if any, did mobiles play in recent changes in the developing world?.

I explore this approach through examples drawn from three strands of the bourgeoning mobile telephony literature, including some of my own work, namely political mobilisation, mobiles and markets, and everyday mobile sociality.

Theorising change

Sociocultural change is a mind-boggling notion. After all, change is everywhere, it is the hallmark of modernity, or so we are told. And it has been an integral part of popular and political culture for a very long time.

Take for or example, Britain’s former PM Harold MacMillan’s address to the Parliament of South Africa in 1960 in which he famously announced that “The wind of change is blowing through this continent.”

Or think of Bob Dylan’s release 4 years later, in 1964, of the album ‘The times they are a-changin’”.

That is precisely the trouble, that the times are always a-changin’; so in everyday and media parlance, as well as in the humanities and social sciences, change happens not in the past but in the present continuous, in the -ing form (Postill 2012).

The present continuous of how things are currently changing is firmly entrenched in grant applications, calls for papers, scholarly publications, informal academic conversation, and so forth.

We may say we are studying new media and social change, but more often than not what we mean is social changing; change in progress. Most of us suffer, as I have suggested elsewhere, from an undiagnosed condition called ‘imminentism’ – i.e. the fascination with the present and the near future, with the ‘emerging’ future (Postill 2012). Indeed just two days ago, on the way here from Melbourne, an ad by the global bank HSBC caught my eye. It read: “The future is emerging”.

Mobile studies, like the rest of media and communication studies, is no exception. Part of the problem, I would suggest, has to do with a divide running through the entire field. I don’t mean the familiar digital divide but rather a less noticed epistemic divide, the one that separates media and communication historians from non-historians. We don’t seem to talk to each other much, which I think is a pity.

So how do we get to the study of mobile phones and sociocultural change? How do we move, for the time being, from the study of ongoing (or potential) changes to the study of actual changes that have taken place in the recent past? I suggest we do so indirectly, via the following eight principles:

  1. First of all, let us be specific – let us speak not of change in general but of one or more specific changes. Whilst change is everywhere and anywhere at the same, a change is more concrete, e.g. a regime change in Tunisia, an environmental change in Sumatra, a financial change in a local firm, or a change of marital status by one of your research participants. We can leave change in general to social philosophers.
  2. Let us also distinguish between past, present and future changes to get away from the present continuous, with its penchant for clouding our thought.
  3. For the time being, we can focus on changes that have already occurred in the past, i.e. on actual changes, especially in the recent past. For one thing, they are easier to study than ongoing changes, let alone future changes. We can leave these for later; first we need to get better at this game of studying changes.
  4. Think of changes diachronically; otherwise you’ll be trying to clap with one hand; you can’t take a snapshot only, we need at least two points in time. Multi-sited research is an option in this line of work, but multi-timed research is a must.
  5. And think of changes processually, i.e. stage by stage; changes go through a life course (a curriculum vitae, a Lebenslauf) not a life cycle – changes have a beginning, a middle and an end, a collective socio-technical biography. Changes may be unpredictable, but they still have a ‘processual form’ (ref) that is amenable to reconstruction after the fact.
  6. Let us stay away from technocentrism polemics. Assume neither that ICTs such as mobile phones will have played a key role in the process of change nor the opposite; impact (or the lack of it) is open to empirical investigation; that said, it is likely that impact will be uneven – more mobile phone impact at certain stages, less at others.
  7. While we’re at it, let’s avoid ‘what’s so new about this ‘new’ technology’ polemics, too. To silence the nonbelievers in the novelty of a given technology, be specific about the technology and date it – no-one can seriously argue that Twitter is an old platform. It may have borrowed ideas from all sorts of places, but there is no doubt that Twitter was launched in 2006, not earlier, and that it has spread unevenly around the much of the world ever since (except for China, North Korea and a few other countries). Twitter is barely seven.
  8. In principle, all changes, big and small, matter. Only time will tell whether an accumulation of seemingly insignificant, hardly noticed changes will turn into a cascade of epochal transformation.

So to explore how these ideas could work in actual research practice, I turn now to three literatures on mobile phones in the global South, namely (a) political mobilisation, (b) markets and mobiles and (c) everyday mobile sociality. In other words, I’m about to explore these ideas by considering in turn mobiles in relation to political, economic and social changes.

Political mobilisation

Good example of media and communication research area where global South and North in there from the outset. The best place to start arguably Rheingold’s book Smart Mobs (2002). Seattle 1999, Manila 2001, etc, to show how mobile technologies amplify human talent for cooperation, in the process changing the world (Monterde and Postill forthcoming).

Best known example Manila 2001. Impeachment trial against President Estrada over corruption. When seemed that would get off scot-free, huge gatherings at emblematic EDSA square, central Manila. Text messages, ‘pass it on’. Partly as a result of these protests, Estrada resigned.

Madrid 2004 following terrorist bombs just before general elections – ‘pasalo’ smart mob when tried to blame Basque separatists. Vote swing, Socialist Party surprise win over the ruling Popular Party.

Some authors critical, though, of smart mob idea for being technocentric, e.g. Rafael (2004), Miard (2008). More recent technocentrism debate reignited with Shirky’s (2008) Here Comes Everybody, optimistic contra Morozov pessimism.

With spread of online and social media since mid-2000s  and 2011 wave of protests calls for holistic research on mobiles – cannot separate them from rest of ‘media ecology’, e.g. Chiumbu (2012) South Africa, or Wilson and Tufekci (2012) on Arab Spring.

This is fine but careful with media ecology holism as can give you static, snapshot, simplified accounts where specificity of mobiles, role they played, can get lost. So we need what we could call ‘dynamic holism’ – these collective actions unfold over time; and different technological affordances will come to the fore at different stages of that unfolding (Monterde and Postill forthcoming).

Clear example is England riots of 2011 where the mostly young, low-income protestors found that Blackberry was the ideal technology for riots, whilst others (mostly the middle classes?) found Twitter to be highly suited to coordinate the clean-up operations; i.e. there were different soci0-technological mixes at different stages. Or see the Egyptian uprising of January 2011 for another example.

What of actual changes then, and how do we study them over time? Well I have an example not from an emerging economy but rather from a sadly submerging economy: Spain.

Three complementary ways:

  1. You study mobile collective action as a process of change in its own right. In this case, you could revisit through historical research the 2004 protests in Madrid and undertake a stage-by-stage analysis of their birth, development, decline and death, examining carefully the uses and effects of mobiles at each stage – in relation to other means of communication (Monterde and Postill forthcoming).
  2. You compare mobile action at two points in time, for instance 2004 and 2011. If Madrid 2004 texting was the key mobile app that enabled collective action at very short notice, in Madrid 2011 occupation, texting was just one among myriads of technologies within a much more complex and diverse communicative landscape. This doesn’t mean that texting has been replaced but rather that it’s now one among many other mobile options open to protesters in an age of ‘polymedia’ (Madianou and Miller 2011).
  3. Or one could borrow a conceptual trinity from the historian and social theorist William Sewell (2005), formed by the notions of trends, events and routines and track changes and continuities in mobile phones for protest in Spain, say from 2004 to 2011. Sewell  (2005: 273) argues that the temporality of any historical sequence is complex, i.e. ‘combination of many different social processes with varying temporalities’. Three types of temporality:
  • Trends = ‘directional changes in social relations’, marked by historians as ‘rise’, ‘fall’, ‘decline’, etc.
  • Routines = ‘practical schemas that reproduce structures’. Institutions are ‘machines for the production and maintenance of routines’.
  • Events = ‘temporally concentrated sequences of actions that transform structures’.

The two big events would likely be March 2004 and May 2011, one important trend would be the spread and appropriation of smartphones and social media from the late noughties, and we would find both continuities and changes in activists’ and protesters’ day-to-day routines being shaped by those events and trends.

Mobiles and markets

If the obligatory entry point to mobile collective action is Rheingold’s (2002) Smart Mobs, is equivalent in the study of mobile phones and markets in the global South was conducted by Jensen (2007). Team collected data during five years among 300 sardine fishing units in three districts of Kerala, in India.

Between 1997 and 2001, a mobile phone service was introduced throughout Kerala, a state in India with a large fishing industry. Using microlevel survey data, we show that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.

A number of Mobiles for Development (M4D) researchers have stressed the complexity of the issues at stake and questioned narrowly financial assessments of the purported ‘benefits’ of mobiles. Thus, Jagun, Heeks and Whalley (2008) suggest that although Jensen (2007) and others may well be correct in arguing that mobiles can improve market performance by meeting some of the ‘informational challenges’ that hinder economic actors in the global South, this may further disadvantage people without access to mobiles. Heeks (2009) is critical of M4D studies that define the costs and benefits derived from acquiring a mobile phone in simple monetary terms, and suggests that poor people derive a ‘complex mix’ of values (financial, psychological, social, symbolic, etc.) from mobiles.

Similarly, Donner (2007, 2009) argues that the ‘benefits’ of mobiles are likely to vary considerably depending on the type of entrepreneurial activity, to the extent that some micro-entrepreneurs may have no need for mobiles. Thus, whilst taxi drivers may benefit from the micro-coordination features of mobile phones and wholesalers from speedy access to accurate price information, shoeshines and knife sharpeners may find no economic use at all for this technology. Donner suggests that the M4D field requires ‘a better taxonomy’ of those small businesses more likely to gain from specific technological features (2007: 11).

Following a similar argument, in yesterday’s doctoral workshop, Sanna Tawah presented some rich  ethnographic materials. She’s just come back from studying informal trade in the Cameroonian grasslands, worsened since 1980s and structural adjustment policies supported by Western institutions; yes mobiles integrated into lives of petty traders but again don’t remove hurdles of poverty, poor education; mobile money may work in East Africa, but in West Africa not making many inroads etc.

OK, these are fair critiques of Jensen’s well-known case study about mobiles and markets among Kerala fishermen.

Yet if we’re interested in mobile-related changes (big and small), careful with YES-BUT types of argument such as: “Yes, mobiles are making a difference, but they don’t change the status quo in any fundamental way”. Or “Yes there are changes, but let’s not forget the continuities”.

I wish to propose that we break the YES-BUT device into its two component parts (a) yes and (b) but, and concentrate our energies on the ‘yes’ to begin with. This way we’ll be able to see actual changes that have already taken place. We can leave the ‘but’, i.e. the continuities, for later.

NB1 – I’m not suggesting we ignore entrenched inequalities, or cultural continuities, rather that we study actual changes carefully before moving onto the continuities.

So in the Cameroonian example, Tawah tell us that during her fieldwork traders appreciated mobiles because:

  • They eased communication
  • Made them feel connected to friends and family
  • Facilitated business transactions
  • Reduced transport costs
  • Reduced trade-related stress

When making this list of changes I have taken the liberty to switch the tense from Tawah’s original present simple to the past simple, e.g. from the original wording that mobiles ‘make them feel connected’ to the idea that they made them feel connected at that particular point in time. Whether or not traders will feel that way in 2014 or 2015 or 2020 remains to be seen.

I do this to hypothesise that some changes have already taken place, and that they merit attention in the past tense. So when research participants claim that mobiles have reduced transport costs, I would want to know since when, by how much, with what social and economic consequences, etc.

NB2 – The bullet point list above refers to seemingly positive changes, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t include in our analyses changes that some research participants deem negative, e.g. “Mobiles have made young people immoral”.

Everyday sociality on the move

Everyday life, mobiles and social change in developing world is another growing area of research, especially amenable to ethnographic research.

Here Horst and Miller (2006) make a convenient starting point to the discussion.  In their ethnography The Cell Phone, based on fieldwork in Jamaica, they interrogate influential scholarly ideas about a Network Society (Castells) or ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman) by developing an account of mobile phone uses that starts and ends with the cultural history of Jamaica, where ego-centred ways of networking (or ‘link-up’ as Horst and Miller call them) have been around for a long time. In an argument analogous to Miller and Slater’s (2000) thesis about the internet in Trinidad, mobile phones fit into existing forms of relating to other people, including to those friends and relatives who have emigrated. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no novelty. There are of course novel aspects to mobile phones, but these must be understood, the authors insist, within the culturally specific dialectical (two-way) processes whereby people and things constitute one another.

But there’s a problem with this stance, according to Tenhunen (2008).  Building on fieldwork on mobile ICTs in rural West Bengal (India) to argue that many anthropologists, including Horst and Miller (2006), have a tendency to overstress social reproduction at the expense of social change. Tenhunen also takes issue with practice theorists for overlooking historical agents’ ‘critical faculties’. This author regards mobile technology as ‘a source of dynamism’ that shapes culturally specific ‘social logistics’, highlighting the need to attend to people’s desire for social change. Thus, she shows how mobiles have given young women in rural West Bengal greater autonomy from their elders’ surveillance, whilst paradoxically reinvigorating traditional cultural forms such as kin-based reciprocity

Since Tehnunen article was published 5 years ago, I should mention some developments in practice theory, incl. Bräuchler and Postill (2010) Theorising Media and Practice. In the introduction to the book I argue that practice theory is no panacea for media and communication studies. Nevertheless, one of the research areas it can help us with is the uses of (mobile) media in everyday life.

Or take Shove et al (2012) The Dynamics of Social Practice, published last year. They ask the following questions:

  1. How do practices emerge, exist and die?
  2. What are the elements of which practices are made?
  3. How do practices recruit practitioners?
  4. How do bundles and complexes of practice form, persist and disappear?
  5. How are the elements, practices and links between them generated, renewed and reproduced? (2012: 14).

Taking these questions to mobile phone research in the global South could be an interesting exercise. Like practice theorists in other fields of inquiry you would still ‘shadow’ people engaged in practices such as fishing, trading, motoring, teaching, learning, drinking and so on, but here with an emphasis of a specific material element of the practices, namely mobile phones as socio-technical artefacts integral to numerous practices.

And in following the practitioners you would inquire once again about actual changes that have already taken place, taking care not to fall into the YES-BUT trap (yes there have been changes, but let’s not be celebratory and move on quickly to the continuities). So you would ask questions such as:

What are the mobile-related changes that have already taken place among these practitioners (say taxi drivers) in the early 2000s? What stages did they go through? How can we explain them?


To recap, I have argued that the study of mobiles in the global South needs more theorising. This is not something we should do for its own sake, or because we want to keep up with metropolitan fashion. Theory allows to ask better questions, to do better empirical research – which in turn will help refine our theories.

How do we begin to grapple with the huge but crucial question of mobiles and sociocultural change? I suggested by not conflating past, present and future and addressing – for the time being – actual changes that have already taken place in the recent past (i.e. 1990s to the present), coming back to this question again and again through examples related to political, economic and social life in developing countries.

I should clarify that I’m not suggesting we should give up on the present continuous, but rather that in mobile phone and other media research we should become more aware of the crucial distinction between emergent changes that are still in progress, and changes that have already occurred.

We should also use ‘changes’ in a value-neutral way. Whether a mobile-related change is positive, negative or both is something open to investigation and debate; it shouldn’t determine our research choices.


Chiumbu, S. 2012 “Exploring mobile phone practices in social movements in South Africa – the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign”, African Identities 10 (2): 193-206.

Couldry, N. 2010. ‘Theorising Media as Practice’ in B. Bräuchler and J. Postill (eds), Theorising Media and Practice, Oxford: Berghahn.

Donner, J. 2007.  Customer acquisition among small and informal businesses in urban India: Comparing face to face, interpersonal, and mediated channels, in The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, vol. 32, pp. 1-16.

Donner, J. and M. Escobari 2009, A review of the research on mobile use by micro and small enterprises (MSEs), in Proceedings of the 3rd ACM/IEEE International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, IEEE, April 2009

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.

Heeks, R., A Jagun, J Whalley (2008). “The impact of mobile telephony on developing country micro-enterprise: a Nigerian case study.” Information Technologies and International Development 4(4)

Horst, Heather and Daniel Miller 2006: The Cell Phone. Oxford: Berg.

Ling, Rich and Donner, Jonathan 2009. Mobile Communication. Polity Press.

Ling, Rich and Heather A. Horst. (2011). Mobile communication in the global south. New Media & Society (NMS) 13(3):363-374.

Madianou, Mirca and Daniel Miller 2011, Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia (London: Routledge, 2011).

Miard, F. 2008 Call for Power: Mobile phones as facilitators of political activism. Unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Oslo, 2008, 66.

Monterde, A. and J. Postill forthcoming 2013. Mobile ensembles: The uses of mobile phones for social protest by Spain’s indignados. In G. Goggin and L. Hjorth (eds.) Routledge Companion to Mobile Media.

Morozov, E. 2011 The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: Public Affairs, 2011).

Pearce, K. E. (2013). Phoning it in: Theory in mobile media and communication in developing countries. Mobile Media & Communication, 1, 76-82.

Postill, J. 2012. Media and social changing since 1979: Towards a diachronic ethnography of media and actual social changes. Paper to the Media Anthropology Network E-Seminar Series, December 2012.

Rafael, V. 2003 “The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines”, Public Culture 15(3) 399–425

Rheingold, H. 2002 Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Perseus).

Sewell WH, Jr (2005) Logics of History: Social theory and social transformation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Shirky, C. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008).

Slater, Don and Miller, Daniel (2000) The internet: an ethnographic approach. Berg Publishers, Oxford.

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

Tufekci, Zeynep and Christopher Wilson 2012, “Social media and the decision to participate in political protest in Egypt: Observations from Tahrir Square”, Journal of Communication 62 (2): 365.

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