June 1, 2010

Anthropology: Taking it mobile

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kiwanjaAnyone taking more than a passing glance at the kiwanja.net website shouldn’t need long to figure out my four key areas of interest. I’ve always maintained that if your ideal job doesn’t exist, then you have to create it, and being able to combine my passions for technology, anthropology, conservation and development is for me – through kiwanja.net – that dream job.

Saying that, it doesn’t go without its challenges. Putting aside the difficulties faced by the global conservation and development communities, most of my thinking today centres around the sometimes uncomfortable tension between appropriate technology and the mobile phone, and the potential role of applied anthropology in helping us understand what on earth is going on out there. We can’t always rely on Indiana Jones, Hollywood’s answer to anthropology, to get us all the answers.

Last month in the May/June edition of World Watch Magazine, John Mulrow wrote one of the best articles to date on mobile phones and appropriate technology, and this month an anthropology-focused article came to my attention via a Tweet from John Postill, a Media Anthropologist from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. The role of anthropologists in mobile happens to be the second thing that challenges me, not because I don’t think they have a role – I’ve long argued they do – but because of the difficulties in finding both solid anthropological studies and meaningful numbers of anthropologists working in the field.

Although I majored in anthropology at Sussex University, I’m never quite sure what “doing anthropology” really looks like, and what you need to do to “become” an anthropologist. I don’t think just having studied it at university is enough. I’ve had numerous discussions with anthropologists at a number of universities on how my anthropology training may or may not influence my work, and was recently interviewed for a forthcoming book on the role of anthropologists in the ICT4D field. I’m really looking forward to reading more when that comes out, and I’ll no doubt blog about it, too.

So it was with great interest – and relief – that I came across a post on the wonderful “Mobile Livelihoods” blog last week that took a long, hard look at what anthropologists are doing in the mobile/phone field, and what they’re researching/writing about. I’m regularly contacted by students asking for help, and this makes everyone’s life so much easier. Kudos to Francisco and John for putting the hours in. You can read their post – which contains a list of 96 journal articles and details of how they categorised them – here.

Three articles of particular interest are available here (all in PDF format). Thanks to Francisco for kindly selecting them and sending them over:

  • Horst, H., & Miller, D. (2005). From Kinship to Link-Up: Cell phones and Social Networking in Jamaica. Current Anthropology, 6(5), 755-778
  • Tenhunen, S. (2008). Mobile Technology in the Village : ICTs, culture, and social logistics in India. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute(14), 515-534
  • Barendregt, B. (2008). Sex, Cannibals, and the Language of Cool: Indonesian tales of the phone and modernity. The Information Society, 24(3), 160-170

One thing that surprised me was the number of papers they found written by ‘professional’ anthropologists, which totalled just six (three of those are above). I guess that’s another challenge within the wider challenge – defining what a professional anthropologist is in the context of the mobile/technology field. Maybe we’ll tackle that another time …

Some useful/interesting anthropology resources:

Discover Anthropology [Website]
worldwise development [Website]
Mobile Livelihoods [Blog]
Anthropologist About Town
[Blog]
media/anthropology [Blog]
EASA Media Anthropology Network [Website, Mailing list]
The Cellphone: An Anthropology of Communication [Book]
Anthropology’s Technology-driven Renaissance [Article]Ken Banks is founder of kiwanja.net, a site that helps nonprofits use mobile technology to serve their communities’ information needs. See his profile page, visit his blog, contact Ken or leave a comment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @kiwanja.

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