A Village Goes Mobile: Telephony, Mediation, and Social Change in Rural India 9780190630287, 9780190630270

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A Village Goes Mobile: Telephony, Mediation, and Social Change in Rural India
 9780190630287, 9780190630270

Table of contents :
A Village Goes Mobile
1 Introduction
Diffusion of mobile telephony in the Global South
Social consequences of mobile telephony
Cultural diversity of mobile telephony
The promise of mobiles for development
Challenging developmental optimism
Research foci
Ethnographic research in rural West Bengal
Overview of the book
2 Theorizing Phone Use Contexts and Mediation
Domestication: technology use in the home
Remediation: emergence of media from cultural contexts
Contexts in media-​saturated environments
Mediatization paradigm
The contested notion of media logic
Cultural perspective on mediatization
Mediation and interdependency between information and communication technology–​based and face-​to-​face communication
The materiality of media in open-​ended cultural contexts
3 Why Mobile Phones Became Ubiquitous: Remediation and Socialities
Ethnographic fieldwork in caste neighborhoods
Mobile telephony and changing communication
Radio: untapped potential
The allure of visual media
The last gadget to arrive: the computer
4 Mobile Telephony, Economy, and Social Logistics
Mobile phones and the market
Differing benefits of mobile phones for microentrepreneurs
Phones and labor relationships
Benefits of phones for agriculture
Coordinating kinship
Coordinating and arranging health care over a mobile phone
Social logistics and cultural meanings
5 Mediating Gender: Mobile Phones and Women’s Agency
Co-​constitution of gender and technology
Social change and generations
Gendered calling patterns
Changing gender and kinship relationships
Mediation of gendered space through mobile phones
6 Mediating Conflict: Mobile Telephony and Politics
Theorizing technologically enabled rebellion
Globalization and conflict
Activist phone use and local politics
7 Smartphones, Caste, and Intersectionalities
Changing village intersectionalities
Phone use barriers
Entertainment from memory chips
Internet browsing through personal phones
8 Conclusions
Analyzing mobile phone use in contexts
Gender and kinship: subtle changes
Economic benefits of mobile telephony
Political empowerment
Bridging the digital divide?
The promise of mobiles for development

Citation preview

A Village Goes Mobile


STUDIES IN MOBILE COMMUNICATION Studies in Mobile Communication focuses on the social consequences of mobile communication in society. Series Editors Rich Ling, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Gerard Goggin, University of Sydney, Australia Leopoldina Fortunati, Università di Udine, Italy Haunting Hands: Mobile Media Practices and Loss Kathleen M. Cumiskey and Larissa Hjorth A Village Goes Mobile: Telephony, Mediation, and Social Change in Rural India Sirpa Tenhunen

A Village Goes Mobile Telephony, Mediation, and Social Change in Rural India

Sirpa Tenhunen



1 Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries. Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America. © Oxford University Press 2018 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above. You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer. CIP data is on file at the Library of Congress ISBN 978–0–19–063028–7 (pbk.) ISBN 978–0–19–063027–0 (hbk.) 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Paperback printed by WebCom, Inc., Canada Hardback printed by Bridgeport National Bindery, Inc., United States of America


Acknowledgments  vii 1.  Introduction   1 Diffusion of mobile telephony in the Global South   2 Social consequences of mobile telephony   3 Cultural diversity of mobile telephony   5 The promise of mobiles for development   6 Challenging developmental optimism   9 Research foci   10 Ethnographic research in rural West Bengal   13 Overview of the book   17 2.  Theorizing Phone Use Contexts and Mediation   22 Domestication: technology use in the home   22 Remediation: emergence of media from cultural contexts   23 Contexts in media-​saturated environments   25 Mediatization paradigm   26 The contested notion of media logic   27 Cultural perspective on mediatization   29 Mediation and interdependency between information and communication technology–​based and face-​to-​face communication  30 The materiality of media in open-​ended cultural contexts   32 Conclusions  35 3.  Why Mobile Phones Became Ubiquitous: Remediation and Socialities   37 Ethnographic fieldwork in caste neighborhoods   38 Connections  43 Mobile telephony and changing communication   45 Radio: untapped potential   54


The allure of visual media   57 The last gadget to arrive: the computer   59 Conclusions  61 4.  Mobile Telephony, Economy, and Social Logistics   64 Mobile phones and the market   66 Differing benefits of mobile phones for microentrepreneurs   70 Phones and labor relationships   74 Benefits of phones for agriculture   76 Coordinating kinship   79 Coordinating and arranging health care over a mobile phone   82 Social logistics and cultural meanings   86 Conclusions  87 5.  Mediating Gender: Mobile Phones and Women’s Agency   89 Co-​constitution of gender and technology   90 Social change and generations   94 Gendered calling patterns   100 Changing gender and kinship relationships   105 Mediation of gendered space through mobile phones   109 Conclusions  117 6.  Mediating Conflict: Mobile Telephony and Politics   120 Theorizing technologically enabled rebellion   123 Globalization and conflict   128 Activist phone use and local politics   130 Conclusions  140 7.  Smartphones, Caste, and Intersectionalities   144 Changing village intersectionalities   150 Phone use barriers   156 Entertainment from memory chips   157 Internet browsing through personal phones   162 Conclusions  164 8.  Conclusions   167 Analyzing mobile phone use in contexts   169 Gender and kinship: subtle changes   170 Economic benefits of mobile telephony   171 Political empowerment   172 Bridging the digital divide?   174 The promise of mobiles for development   175 References  179 Index  197

[ vi ] Contents


This book is a result of more than a decade of research in rural India, made possible by numerous organizations and people. Among the most important persons to thank are the villagers of Janta who welcomed me for extended periods of fieldwork. I began fieldwork in rural West Bengal in 1999 as a postdoctoral researcher with the Academy of Finland (Projects 42968 and 54485). The Helsinki Institute of Science and Technology supplied funding for preliminary fieldwork on mobile telephony around the time rural West Bengal received mobile phone network coverage. The same institute provided an excellent research environment for me to embark on technology studies. I am particularly thankful for Ilkka Arminen, Lucy Suchman, Johanna Uotinen, and Marja Vehviläinen, who gave valuable comments on my first papers on mobile telephony at institutional seminars. I performed most of the research for this book as an academy researcher (Academy of Finland) during 2007–​2011 (Project 118356). I was able to continue fieldwork in 2012–​2013, particularly on the use of smartphones, as the result of funding from a research project titled “Mobile Technology, Gender and Development in Africa, India, and Bangladesh” funded by the Academy of Finland and led by Laura Stark. Other project members included Perpetual Crentsil, Jukka Jouhki, and Sanna Tawah. I  am grateful to Kakali Das, Asima Kundu, Rekha Kundu, Ashis Pal, Samik Pal, and Dana Sugu for their research assistance. I thank Ilse Evertse for language editing. I wrote this book at the Department of Social Research within the discipline of social and cultural anthropology at the University of Helsinki and the Department of History and Ethnology at the University of Jyväskylä. I  thank colleagues in both departments for many fruitful discussions. Students from my 2015 technology course at the University of Jyväskylä helped to hone my arguments. Thanks go as well to scholars at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata, with which I have been affiliated during my fieldwork in India. A University of Western Ontario fellowship


enabled me to write and present papers on my work in Canada in 2015. I  am grateful to Bipasha Baruah and Dan Jorgensen as well as my lecture audiences at the University of Western Ontario for their insightful comments. Invitations to lecture and present papers were crucial in helping me to develop my ideas, and I am grateful for all my hosts: Roger Jeffrey and Assa Doron invited me to the National University of Singapore, Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan to Yale University, Ramaswami Mahalingam to the University of Michigan, Uwe Skoda to Århus University, Jo Tacchi and John Postill to RMIT University in Barcelona, Arild Ruud to the University of Oslo, and Nadja-​Christina Schneider to Humboldt University of Berlin. I  have also benefited greatly from comments and discussions at conferences during which I  presented papers:  International Communication Association, London, 2013; Mobile Telephony in the Developing World, Jyväskylä, 2013; NFU Conference, Oslo, 2012; Gendering Asia Network Workshop, Copenhagen, 2010; EASA Biennial Conference, Maynooth, Ireland, 2010; Globalizing South Asia Conference, Helsinki, 2010; Critical Internet Research Conference, Milwaukee, 2009; Gendering Asia Network Conference, Helsinki, 2009; All India Sociological Conference, Karnataka University, 2007; XXXII All-​ India Sociological Conference, Chennai, 2006; XVI ISA World Congress of Sociology, Durban, 2006; and Annual Conference of the Monash Asia Institute, Mumbai, 2004. I have also given lectures related to this book at the Helsinki School of Economics, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, NIAS, in Copenhagen and the Institute of Management in Kolkata. I thank the audiences for their comments. Chapter 4 is derived, in part, from “Mobile Technology in the Village: ICTs, Culture, and Social Logistics in India” (Sirpa Tenhunen, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, no. 3 [2008]: 515–​34,  http://onlinelibrary. wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2008.00515.x/epdf). Chapter  5 is derived, in part, from “Mobile Telephony, Mediation, and Gender in Rural India” (Sirpa Tenhunen, Contemporary South Asia 22, no.  2 [2014]: 157–​70, http://​www.tandfonline.com/​10.1080/​09584935.2014.899981). Chapter  6 is derived, in part, from “Culture, Conflict, and Translocal Communication:  Mobile Technology and Politics in Rural West Bengal, India” (Sirpa Tenhunen, Ethnos 76, no.  3 [2011]:  398–​420, http://​www. tandfonline.com/​10.1080/​00141844.2011.580356). Chapter  7 is derived, in part, from “Gender, Intersectionality and Smartphones in Rural West Bengal” (Sirpa Tenhunen, in Transforming Gender in India, edited by Kenneth Bo Nielssen and Anne Waldrop, London:  Anthem Press, 2014). Chapter portions are reprinted in revised form with permission from the publishers.

[ viii ] Acknowledgments

Special thanks go to the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript as well as the founding editors of the Oxford University Press series on mobile communication—​Gerard Goggin, Leopoldina Fortunati, and Richard Ling—​whose comments helped me to improve the manuscript. I  also thank the editors at Oxford University Press for their help throughout the editing process. Finally, I thank my partner, Juha Laitalainen, who has enriched my life and whose support and care have helped me to finish this book. I dedicate the book to the memory of my mother, Kaarina Tenhunen (1932–​2011).

Acknowledgments  [ ix ]





hile much of the world was becoming media saturated around the turn of the millennium (1999–​2000), I  spent a year in an Indian village in West Bengal doing fieldwork on women’s political participation.1 Like numerous other village ethnographers who have worked in rural India, I  faced the hurdles of living in a village without modern conveniences. It was a year without computers and phones, not to mention e-​mail and the internet; occasionally, visitors from other villages conveyed the local news. When I left this village scene, which appeared quintessential, I had little idea that it was on the verge of changes. On my return in 2005, a mobile phone network covered the region. Although the phone density was initially low, the village had started to resemble an urban neighborhood crisscrossed by translocal networks. I could not help but be interested in the changes that had occurred and were still occurring. This book is the result of my long-​term ethnographic fieldwork (1999–​ 2013) in the village of Janta in the Bankura district of the state of West Bengal, where I observed the appropriation of mobile telephony since the inhabitants started using phones. The book depicts how mobile telephones emerged as multidimensional objects that not only enable conversations, but also facilitate status aspirations, internet access, and entertainment practices. The book also explores how the multifaceted use of mobile phones has influenced economic, political, and social relationships and how these new social constellations relate to culture, social change, and development. I analyze social institutions as culturally constructed spheres tied to translocal processes that, nevertheless, have local meanings. Using a holistic ethnographic approach, I develop an understanding of how new


media mediate social processes within interrelated social spheres and local hierarchies. I delve into the social and cultural changes to examine agency, power relationships, and development issues: Who benefits from mobile telephony and how? Can people use mobile phones to help them achieve the goal of changing their lives, or does phone use merely amplify the existing social patterns and power relationships? How are people as mobile media users constrained by the different axes of their identity and social position and can they refashion their identities through this use? My observations of the changes that accompanied the appropriation of phones differ, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic scenarios of mobile telephony’s impact. Villagers told me that they had experienced their ability to use mobile phones as a major change; nevertheless, the phones could not, for instance, reduce poverty in the region immediately or drastically.


In Janta, the diffusion of mobile telephony corresponds to what has happened in much of India and the Global South during the past decade. In India, teledensity increased from less than 1 per 100 persons in 1991 to 81.82 per 100 persons in 2015 (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India 2012, 2016). Since mobile networks are cheaper to build than landline networks and since communication by phone does not require literacy, mobile phones have been increasingly adopted in regions with no extensive prior form of communication technology. In developing countries, mobile phone ownership nearly tripled between 2002 and 2006. By the end of 2010, mobile networks covered 90 percent of the world (International Telecommunication Union 2010). The worldwide number of mobile subscriptions grew from one billion in 2000 to over six billion in 2012, of which nearly five billion were in developing countries. Ownership of multiple subscriptions is becoming increasingly common; the number of mobile subscriptions is therefore likely to exceed the world population figure (World Bank 2012). The expansion of mobile telephony did not end with the overtaking landline telephony; it is now extending to internet access. Mobile broadband subscriptions exceeded the number of fixed connections in 2008, and much of this growth now occurs in developing countries (World Bank 2012, 11–​30). As mobile telephony has triumphed surprisingly rapidly in the developing world, mobile phones are now used in all spheres of life worldwide. Besides this book, three book-​length works have so far examined a specific population’s mobile phone use on the basis of ethnographic research

[ 2 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

in developing countries:  Horst and Miller (2006) studied mobile phone use in Jamaica, Wallis (2013) among rural migrant women in China, and Archambault (2017) among youth in Mozambique. R.  Jeffrey and Doron (2013) explored mobile telephony in India in its totality, drawing mainly on secondary sources, but also on ethnographic research in Varanasi, India, which includes policies, industries, and businesses. This book focuses on phone use in a particular locality in rural India. This village in rural West Bengal offers a fruitful microcosmos to develop and broaden the scholarly discourse on mobile technology and digital media in general. Although my research was mainly carried out in one village, this book crosses village borders. In addition to the village’s social life, I  observed people’s translocal networks. Moreover, while the village has unique features and by no means represents all of rural India, it exemplifies many of the forces and processes that people elsewhere share. I will next elaborate my research approach and introduce my research questions, relating them to earlier research on mobile phone use. In just three decades, the scholarly discussion on mobile telephony has grown into a large, multidisciplinary field. I will therefore introduce the key issues of this scholarly debate from a social science and an anthropological point of view. My main focus will be on the scholarly discussions of mobile telephony in developing countries. However, since the lion’s share of the research on mobile telephony has focused on Western countries, I  present this discussion briefly as a starting point that will help readers to understand and analyze the commonalities and differences in the cultural and social aspects of phone use.


As Goggin (2006, 39)  notes, scholars of society and culture largely neglected the telephone2 until the 1990s. At this time, the role of telecommunication in social policy and the economy started to expand and the onset of mobile telephony increased scholars’ interest in studying telephony. The first studies in the 1990s focused on Nordic countries, reflecting the early start of mobile telephony in this region (N. Green and Haddon 2009). Roos (1985), who analyzed mobile phone use in Finland, was among the first to discuss how mobile phones help blur the boundaries between public and private, thus allowing people to become unwilling witnesses of each other’s private conversations in public places. Two pioneering edited volumes (Katz and Aakhus 2002; Brown, Green, and Harper 2002) exemplified the emerging academic discussion on mobile telephony, which centered on


[ 3 ]


the social consequences of mobile telephony in Western countries. Brown, Green, and Harper (2002, 4) sought to explore the meanings people give to their mobile technology, how they integrate the devices into their work and home lives, and how they interact with those devices and with other people through those devices. Katz and Aakhus (2002) based their central argument on the observation that, since the onset of mobile telephony, excuses for not being reachable no longer exist; mobile phones have created a condition for perpetual contact, which Katz and Aakhus identify as the contemporary Apparatgeist and a sociologic. Katz and Aakhus (301) state that “whenever the mobile phone chirps, it alters the traditional nature of public sphere and the traditional dynamics of private relationships.” These volumes identified such social consequences of mobile telephony as the improved coordination and flexibility of workplace and home activities and mobile telephony as a tool for surveillance; these themes have proved enduring research topics. Ling and Yttri (2002) developed the concepts of micro and hypercoordination to describe how Norwegian adults and teens use mobile phones to coordinate their social activities. Microcoordination refers to how, with the help of mobile phones, it is possible to adjust agreements to meet as the need arises, instead of setting predefined meeting times. The authors use the term hypercoordination to denote how mobile phones, in addition to instrumental coordination, are employed in emotional and social communication. Hypercoordination was found to be especially important for Norwegian teens’ relationships with their peers. Teenagers elsewhere were also found to be among the heaviest users of mobile phones. Kasesniemi and Rautiainen (2002) describe how Finnish teenagers pioneered the development of texting as part of the youth culture. They conclude that teens use texting to construct an identity and to fine-​tune their social relationships. Mobile phones were found to enable teenagers to overcome the spatial boundary of the home and to communicate with their peers without direct parental control in Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Germany as well (Fortunati 2001; Ito, Okabe, and Matsuda 2006; Yoon 2006a, 2006b; Höflich and Hartmann 2006). Gergen (2002) elaborates on the concept of absent presence to explain how communication technologies have made translocal communication possible, thereby eroding face-​to-​face communication. He notes that for the classification of communication, mobile telephony is an enigma, since, unlike other media, it can strengthen the dyadic communication from person to person. Gergen also notes that mobile phones can potentially act as bridging devices across disparate enclaves of meaning. Ling and Campbell (2010) argue that mobile phones help blur the boundaries

[ 4 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

of social spaces. As Fortunati (2002, 615) concludes, mobile phones transform social relationships and influence the meaning and experience of time and space. Castells (1996; Castells et al. 2007) extends the work of social analysts with regard to the consequences of mobile telephony by arguing that mobile phones enhance a specific value, namely individualism, and by maintaining that telephony helps favor individual projects and interests rather than societal norms. His thinking inherently associates the triumph of individualism with agency, while traditional social networks are seen as obstacles to agency.


The rapid worldwide spread of mobile technology has led to substantial variation in phone use, which has helped draw attention to the role of culture and meaning in its appropriation. Various studies (see, e.g., Stammler 2009; Ito, Okabe, and Matsuda 2006; Yoon 2006a, 2006b) have revealed that no single mobile phone culture has emerged. Much of the anthropological research on the use of new technologies emphasizes the way technologies tend to reinforce existing structures and, especially, adherence to kinship patterns (Horst and Miller 2006; Barendregt 2008; Archambault 2010; Doron 2012; Jouhki 2013; Lipset 2013). Horst and Miller’s (2006) pioneering ethnographic study of mobile phone usage in Jamaica differs from sociological studies through its emphasis on how particular cultures can foster different patterns of the use of similar technologies, as well as through its description of the appropriation of phones in Jamaica in relation to local practices and categories. The authors describe how mobile phones have fed into, and reinforced, local practices regarding the building of extensive networks that keep lines open to as many individuals as possible. By emphasizing local meanings, these studies concur with those of Miller and Slater (2000) that information and communication technologies (ICTs) are media continuous with and embedded in other social spaces. Instead of acting as a radical change agent, new media are perceived as means of cultural reproduction. Nevertheless, there is a growing interdisciplinary interest in how mobile telephony growth induces change and impacts development in the Global South.3 At the turn of the millennium, the discourse on ICTs for development had envisaged that access to the internet and computers would induce development in the Global South. The ideas that emerged about the empowering capacities of computers and mobile telephony echoed the debates of media and communication scholars on the digital


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divide. The digital divide concept, which surfaced in the 1990s, referred to the unequal access and usage of digital technologies. Castells’s (2001, 269) argument that not having access to the internet is tantamount to marginalization in the global, networked system summarized the digital divide idea well. Discourses in ICTs for development have profoundly influenced national development strategies. In India, the government’s National e-​Governance Plan endeavored to provide all government services at computer kiosks in 2006, and the Modi government introduced the Digital India Plan with similar but more comprehensive goals in 2015 (Kapoor 2015). However, the National e-​Governance Plan, along with other massive investments in computer-​based development initiatives, has tended to fail to deliver on its promises. Sreekumar and Riviera-​ Sanchez (2008) note that although there are not many substantive studies on the impact of ICTs for development projects, anecdotal evidence of their success often crumbles when scrutinized critically. According to Sreekumar and Riviera-​Sanchez, a typical success story refers to farmers who, with the help of computers, are able to access market prices and improve their incomes and lives. However, on closer examination, schemes like this are usually only useful for a few wealthy farmers with storing facilities, who do not depend on wholesalers or money lenders for credit to cover the costs of cultivation. For instance, Cecchini and Raina’s (2002) research in rural India (Maharashtra) shows that the elites were the main users of public computers. Mobile phones are more affordable than computers and do not require a constant source of electricity. Moreover, mobile phone users do not need much technological knowledge—​even those who are illiterate can talk over the phone. Consequently, during the past two decades, mobile phones have emerged as the first extensive electronic communication system in most parts of the developing world. In 2015, 92 percent of the people in developing countries had mobile phone subscriptions, whereas only 34 percent of households in developing countries had internet access (International Telecommunication Union 2015). The rapid spread of mobile telephony revived many of the hopes for development raised by the discourse on ICTs for development and gave rise to the mobiles for development discourse, which addresses the use of mobile technologies in global development strategies.


In India, the rapid growth in phone density coincided with broader economic reforms. A  similar deregulation of the telecommunications

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sector, which opened telephony to private operators, has accompanied the growth of mobile telephony in most parts of the Global South. Mobile telephony expansion is thus often celebrated as a showcase example of how neoliberal globalization can promote development and reduce poverty, and mobile phone users in developing countries have been depicted as iconic figures signifying change and progress. In turn, multinational companies have become infrastructure builders and, hence, initiators of development policies, which had earlier been considered the purview of governments (Horst 2013). In his review of mobile telephony and development literature, J.  Donner (2008a) distinguishes three strands of the discussion: scholarly works on the factors that determine the diffusion of mobile phones in developing countries, studies on the impact of mobile phones on development, and studies on how users actively choose to use their phones. Of these three strands, I discuss the latter two. Most social scientists are critical of technological determinism, which views technical innovation, or technology in general, as the sole or prime cause of change in society. Nevertheless, economists have been interested in exploring the role of mobile telephony in economic development (Bayes, von Braun, and Akhter 1999; Jensen 2007; Samuel, Shah, and Hadingham 2005; Waverman, Meschi, and Fuss 2005; Esselaar et  al. 2007). Jensen’s (2007) longitudinal study of sardine prices at various landing ports in northern Kerala, India, over five years has become one of the most cited examples of the economic benefits of mobile phones. Jensen found that the arrival of mobiles brought significant and immediate reductions in the price variability and in the amount of waste in Kerala’s fishing system. These findings have been generalized to other contexts and applied to the development of mobile technology–​based applications that convey price information to small-​scale entrepreneurs in the Global South. Popular journals like the Economist have regularly reported about these business benefits. Like the global development narrative used to depict a farmer who used a computer for economic activities, the narrative now portrays a successful entrepreneur who uses a mobile phone to increase business profits. One crucial economic role of mobile telephony has been money transfer by low-​income people. By 2012, mobile money transfer systems had more than forty million users. The largest of these is M-​Pesa, which began in Kenya and now operates in six countries. In 2011, twenty million users transferred $500 million per month through M-​Pesa (World Bank 2012). Morawczynski (2009) found that the M-​Pesa application was utilized for the cultivation of livelihood strategies, which helped residents cope


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with and recover from economic crises. It was used for the solicitation and accumulation of financial assets and to maintain social networks. Although the mere calling and texting functions of phones have given users developmental benefits, an increasing number of studies (World Bank 2012)  have focused on the developmental applications of mobile technology, such as M-​Pesa, which users must download on their phones. Such applications allow users to receive information or services via the internet or text messages. Based on examples from Kenya, India, and Ecuador, Rea et al. (2017) describe how mobile money transfer systems can become rails on which other financial products such as business-​to-​ person and government-​to-​person payment channels can emerge and ride in regulatory contexts. A World Bank (2012) report on the developmental applications of mobile telephony starts with the assumption that mobile communications offer major opportunities to advance human development and presents various successful mobile technology developmental applications. Nevertheless, the report’s overall stance toward M-​development (the use of mobile technologies in global development strategies) combines technological optimism with skepticism. The report acknowledges that most of the successful projects it mentions are small-​scale undertakings. It laments the lack of a viable business model for developmental applications of mobile technology and provides recommendations. The authors emphasize the role of the government as a regulator; in addition, they recommend careful consideration of the local context and the existing information systems into which new information services must be integrated before any M-​development applications can be implemented. The main challenges for developmental applications of mobile telephony in low-​income countries are to continue delivering services once initial funding of the pilot projects ends and to scale up or replicate effective models in large-​scale implementations. Even the mobile money industry has only achieved significant scale in a handful of countries, despite M-​Pesa’s success in Kenya (World Bank 2012, 66). The low-​income people targeted by educational services often choose to spend their income on other, more urgent, priorities instead of educational text messages. Nevertheless, pilot cases have proved that it is possible to use mobile technology to set up electronic marketplaces, banking systems, and labor banks, as well as to deliver information on education, health issues, and women’s concerns via phone. The technology exists, but the problem is whether the various telemarket, government, service provider, nongovernmental organization, and industry stakeholders can cooperate to provide affordable developmental applications in sustainable ways.

[ 8 ]  A Village Goes Mobile


Ethnographic studies of mobile telephony have vigorously challenged the technological determinism and optimism inherent in the M-​development discourses. Horst and Miller (2006) observed that phones rarely helped people in Jamaica start new businesses; instead, Jamaicans used phones to solicit economic help, which burdens the well-​being of those from whom assistance is frequently sought. Archambault (2011, 2017) found that, in Mozambique, young people’s opportunities to use phones for development purposes are limited because of a lack of jobs and business opportunities. She broaches the idea that the link between ICTs and development might be based on wishful thinking. By studying phone users’ positionality in various contexts in urban China, Wallis (2013) shed light on the reasons that marginalized workers’ use of mobile phones did not necessarily lead to a better income, a better job, or more autonomy. Phone use may also be detrimental as in a Dar es Salaam slum, where mobile phones afforded minors the ability to conceal their sexual behavior from their careers, which is a key element in the intergenerational transmission of female poverty through early pregnancy and marriage (Stark 2013). Stark also demonstrates that teenagers aiming to gain social capital with the help of mobile phones often increase their risk of HIV infection and contribute to the fragility of family bonds. Tawah (2013) points out that, although Cameroon traders receive support from their mobile phone use, individual traders were still stuck in poverty. These traders continued to cope as before, although they now have phones to coordinate their trade, which has increased their business costs. Tawah concludes that social and economic forces, such as the lack of capital, harsh market competition, vulnerability, and the gender hierarchies in Cameroonian society, create barriers that cannot be tackled simply with the use of phones. Ethnographic studies demonstrate that impact studies have tended not to account for the many factors other than mobile telephony that influence the well-​being of phone users. For instance, mobile telephony is likely to strengthen economic growth in locations where a sizeable market demand emerged prior to its onset. Initially, interest in economic impacts dominated the M-​development debate. However, most ethnographic studies on mobile telephony in the Global South indicate that people tend to largely use their phones for purposes other than mere narrow economic ones (J. Donner 2009; Horst and Miller 2006; Sey 2011; Archambault 2011, 2017; Watson and Duffield 2016). Recent research on mobile telephony has sought to develop a nuanced understanding of the role that mobile technology plays in development by noting the range of benefits that users gain from mobile


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phones. Burrell (2014) criticizes the overt importance assigned to mobile phones as improving access to market information. For instance, the utility of phones led to lively trade networks among market women in Ghana, instead of them simply acquiring or exchanging information impersonally. Burrell notes that price is often an important factor in decision making, but it is just one of several variables such as long-​term relationships with trade partners and individual attitudes toward risk. Oreglia (2014) discovered unlikely ICT users in rural China, where older women had learned the basics of mobile phone and computer use. These women pursued their goals of maintaining relationships and accessing online entertainment after receiving training from their children, through collaboration and knowledge sharing with their peers, and through frequent reliance on other people to perform specific actions. Ling and Horst (2011) conclude that ethnographic studies do not indicate that mobile phones can bring about revolutionary changes in daily life, but do show that phones help people adjust to and reshape existing activities. The consequences of mobile telephony depend on how users choose to use them, as well as on the terms that mobile services are offered to their users. Nevertheless, this does not mean that mobile technology plays no role in social change or that some changes could be experienced positively.


This study explores and analyzes the incremental and drastic changes I witnessed in Janta over the course of the appropriation of mobile phones. Indeed, this research project continued longer than I had planned, because each visit to the village revealed more unexpected changes relating to new aspects of mobile phone use. I argue that mobile telephony contributes to social change and development by helping to diversify the cultural contexts of social interaction. This book develops a research strategy to understand the role of new media in development by exploring how different forms of mediations interact as part of the local hierarchies when a powerful new medium is appropriated. The book unveils mobile phone use as a multidimensional process with diverse impacts by exploring how media-​saturated forms of interaction relate to preexisting contexts by either clashing or merging with them. Throughout the book, I discuss mobile phone use in relation to ongoing social changes in rural West Bengal. I thereby answer Postill’s (2012) call to understand the role of media in social change by undertaking diachronic ethnography that examines the actual changes instead of describing the

[ 10 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

ethnographic present. In rural West Bengal, phones were adopted not by a stagnant society, but by a changing rural society and culture influenced by broad processes, such as political reforms, the introduction of new agricultural methods, economic liberalization policies, and the women’s movement. These processes are not limited to the village, but are nevertheless locally articulated. The evolving features of mobile phones and mobile phone–​based services are one source of change. Technological change is not an independent factor that impacts society from the outside; instead, technology and society are mutual components (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1985, 23). Technologies emerge through choice and negotiations between social groups; they are designed in the interest of a particular social group and against the interest of others (Webster 1995). Phone density in rural India has risen as a result of state efforts to expand the networks and the competition between service providers and phone manufacturers across the rural market, which has led to a decrease in handset prices and to tariff reductions. State and multinational companies play central roles in shaping the mobile market’s recent expansion into new regions. Governments can enable the business of private service providers by means of deregulation and play a role by ensuring that new technologies also benefit the poorest strata of society. Indeed, the Indian state has successfully contributed to the growth of the telecommunications industry through government deregulation and reregulation (Singhal and Rogers 2001; R.  Jeffrey and Doron 2012). The theoretical framework of this book draws from three, largely separate, scholarly discourses:  media anthropology, mediatization/​mediation scholarship, and development research. Since the 1990s, when the critical school of anthropologists suggested that anthropology should be liberated from the space mapped by the development encounter, the concept of development has had a troubled relationship with anthropology. The work of Escobar (1995), who views development as the West’s convenient “discovery” of poverty in the Third World to reassert its moral and cultural superiority in supposedly postcolonial times, embodies this critical school of thought. This criticism views development as a monolithic and uniform enterprise heavily controlled from the top. As Slater (2013) notes, critiques of development have tended to mirror the grand narratives of those they critique. From the viewpoint of the critical school, ICTs could be interpreted as yet another technological fix and modernist mythology that promise accelerated growth. I concur with Wajcman (2002), who argues that ICTs do not offer simple technological fixes for social problems, but are part of social changes through the ways technologies are socially produced and used. My understanding of development follows recent anthropological


[ 11 ]


formulations that show that development ideas are partial and heterogeneous. Slater (2013) argues that development is about strategic thinking and acting on the basis of provisional and contingent values and knowledge, which all discourses and practices seeking to understand and act on the future are. I also build on the work of Nussbaum (2000) and Sen (1999), who take capabilities into consideration, that is, what people are effectively able to do, instead of merely measuring wealth and poverty levels. I furthermore draw on the work of Sen (1999), who views development ideas as originating from contemporary local and global debates. Appadurai (2004, 2013) has availed of Sen’s notions by coining the term the capacity to aspire. He (2004, 2013) views the limited capacity to form conjectures and refutations about the future as a hallmark of poverty. Hence, the capacity to aspire can be regarded as a key element for the empowerment of the poor. To frame my aim in anthropological terms, I am interested in how mobile telephony influences and draws from local social, cultural, and political processes as cultural practices and enables agency. The anthropology of media emerged in the 1980s and 1990s during a historical conjuncture when the reflexive turn challenged preexisting paradigms, thus enabling new research foci (Ginsburg, Abu-​Lughod, and Larkin 2002). The discipline of anthropology had evolved as the study of non-​Western cultures, whereas media are identified with Western modernity; consequently, anthropologists developed an interest in studying media relatively late. When they turned to studying media, anthropologists explored the topic as integrated into communities as parts of nations and states and as transnational networks. They have often challenged the work of communication scholars and sociologists by emphasizing the persistence of difference and the importance of locality (Ginsburg, Abu-​Lughod, and Larkin 2002, 25). Anthropologists were also latecomers to the study of internet-​based sociality and culture. Miller and Slater’s (2000) study of internet use in Trinidad was one of the first ethnographic studies of digital media to challenge the idea that people’s online lives and experiences could be divorced from their offline lives, as proposed by Rheingold’s (1993) virtual community concept. Horst and Miller (2006), who carried out the first ethnographic research on mobile telephony, argue that the use of mobile phones in Jamaica led to the reinforcement of preexisting cultural practices, instead of helping to privilege individual projects and interests rather than the norms of society, as Castells suggests (1996; Castells et al. 2007). I follow media anthropologists in exploring local meanings and understandings of mobile telephony. At the same time, I  am interested in exploring the intertwining of change and continuity. Issues of media

[ 12 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

and change have been the key focus of the recent scholarly debate on mediatization/​mediation. Mediatization refers to the interrelation between the change in media communication and the change in culture and society (Hepp and Krotz 2014, 3). My endeavor has many aspects of the mediatization paradigm in common, but there are also crucial differences. To discuss how this book draws from and contributes to the mediatization debate, I will introduce this broad and topical scholarly debate in Chapter 2 and build my theoretical approach.


Janta is a multicaste village with 2,441 inhabitants (Census of India 2011a) in the Bankura district of West Bengal in India (Figs. 1.1. and 1.2). Agriculture is the main livelihood, although it has become less sustainable in the past decade, and young men increasingly work in cities in other parts of India. West Bengal, which lies in the eastern part of India, is considered a middle-​income state in India. Unlike its neighboring states, it is not among the poorest states of India. Poverty reduction in West Bengal, largely attributed to land reform, was among the fastest in India between 1970 and 2000 (Planning Commission 2012). West Bengal has not fared as well as other parts of India in terms of infrastructure and education and health care, however. My research materials from this village and its translocal connections span more than a decade, illuminating diverse spheres of the social life and providing a unique scope for understanding the role of technology in social and cultural change. I speak Bengali fluently, which has facilitated my interaction with the villagers. I made several fieldwork trips to the area to study the use of mobile telephony, which has made it possible to explore

Figure 1.1:  Most of the ethnographic fieldwork was carried out in the village of Janta. (Photo by author.)


[ 13 ]


Janta, West Bengal

Figure 1.2:  Location of Janta in India.

the different phases of mobile technology appropriation, from shared village phones in 2005 to when the villagers started using smartphones in 2012. The book is based on eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork including interviews, observation, and survey data on the use of mobile phones in rural West Bengal: two months in 2005, five months in 2007–​8, two months in 2010, and two months in 2012–​13. I gained some of the greatest insights into the role of mobile phone use by interacting and chatting with the villagers and by noting my observations in my fieldwork diary. I began my research on mobile telephony in 2005 by

[ 14 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

interviewing the first ten phone owners in the village. My initial interview questions delved into phone owners’ motivations to buy the phone, patterns of phone use, and the perceived benefits and possible disadvantages of the phones. I  kept my interview questions loosely structured to explore unanticipated aspects of emerging phone use. I  retained the questions I formulated for my first interviews as part of subsequent interviews but I added new questions on such themes as phone use for political action, gender relationships, economic activities, and the use of smartphone applications in the course of observing new facets of phone use. Initially, I had little success in eliciting long conversations about mobile telephony. I consider these difficulties somewhat typical for ethnographic fieldwork and interviews—​ethnographers usually increase their understanding of the cultural universe under study, gradually discovering the key questions, the themes, and their meanings in the course of the research process. These initial hurdles also had to do with the newness of phones—​ the ten persons I interviewed in 2005 had purchased their phones just one or two months before the interviews; consequently, they had not yet gained much experience with mobile phone use. Moreover, both phone ownership and use were still rare and hence not a part of everyday life I could easily observe. To gain a deeper understanding of phone use than was possible with the help of interviews or observation at the time, I filmed one hundred phone calls from communal phones in the village shops and discussed these calls with the callers.4 The filming captured phone use as a part of ongoing social situations, while discussions with the phone users helped me understand the broader context of calls. In retrospect, the method I developed resembles sensory ethnography (Pink 2009) in that I used filming to elicit discussions by asking people to reflect on their largely taken-​for-​ granted everyday activities. In 2007–​2008, I again interviewed all phone owners of the village. The distribution of interviews reflected mobile phone ownership in the village at the time of the interviews:  of 72 interviews, 60 took place in the Tili caste (upper-​caste) neighborhood. In addition, I interviewed 2 Tati, 2 Chasa, 6 Brahmin, and 2 Bagdi caste persons. Most of the people I interviewed were men since men were usually considered the primary phone owners in a household. However, during each interview, I  asked questions about the phone use of other family members. When other household members and especially women were present, I also asked questions directly of them. I carried out a few interviews in adjacent villages, as well as in nearby towns and cities, to specifically understand translocal political communication. When I returned to the village in 2012, phone ownership had become ubiquitous, which, for the first time, made it possible to interview several women and scheduled caste (low-​caste)


[ 15 ]


phone owners. During my fieldwork in 2012–​13, I interviewed 25 women and 39 men who owned personal phones. Forty-​five of them belonged to a higher caste and 19 to scheduled castes. In addition, I interviewed 32 political activists about political phone use. In total, I interviewed 178 persons about their mobile phone use. When I  visited the village in 2010, I  concentrated on observing mobile phone calls5; however, observation has been a key research method throughout this project. For instance, interviews alone would not have made it possible to study subversive phone use. Nevertheless, most calls were not considered secret or private, and talking to people about their phone use was relatively easy. However, calling gradually became a taken-​ for-​granted practice and, as such, it was harder to talk about than when phones were still considered novelties. Phone use becoming a tacit part of everyday life underlined the importance of observation as a research method. I not only observed phone conversations, but also discussed the calls with the callers. Often, I was able to listen to both parties of the phone calls because people commonly used the phone’s speaker so that they could share their calls with others present. My long-​term research enabled me to observe changes in everyday life, and I describe many changes based more on my observations than on people’s recollections of past events. In general, it was not easy for people to reflect on changes in their everyday life except for the latest transformations they had experienced and witnessed. As Portelli (2002) has elaborated, oral history accounts, indeed, reflect people’s perspectives at the time of their reminiscing. Had I not noted my observations in my fieldwork diary, I would have forgotten many details of the changing practices I encountered in the village. The central goal of this study is to understand the cultural aspects of phone use, so my main research data are qualitative. However, I  also wanted to obtain some understanding of the emerging patterns of phone use—​such as who calls whom and how often—​through quantitative data on calling patterns. A  research assistant, Samik Pal, conducted survey interviews in the neighboring villages6 of Janta. Another research assistant, Rekha Kundu, collected phone diaries of 27 families in the Tili neighborhood in 2011 and conducted a survey of 158 households in Janta in 2010. Phone diaries offered quantitative data because they list the callers and their kinship position and classify the topic of calls within a few categories. My data are representative of the phone use in the village of Janta, and the survey data helped me to make limited comparisons to nearby villages although the survey sample is not statistically representative of the region. I do not use a pseudonym for the village because it is generally known in the region that anthropologists have worked in Janta and because people

[ 16 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

from surrounding areas, for whom village identity matters, would recognize the village even if I  used a pseudonym. I  protect the anonymity of the villagers I interviewed, to whom I promised confidentiality. However, I do not hide the identities of all the party representatives and the activists who spoke to me as officeholders, many of whom are well known in the village and in the region and would consequently be recognized from their positions even if I were to hide their identities.


Chapter 2 develops a theoretical framework to understand the appropriation of mobile telephony in Janta as a myriad of fluctuating contexts, networks, and spheres of life extending outside the village. I  draw from paradigms and concepts, such as domestication, polymedia, remediation, and mediatization/​mediation, to clarify my conceptual choices. Chapter 3 describes and analyzes the incremental process through which mobile phones became ubiquitous in Janta. First, I  provide an analysis of how different types of mobile technology remediated earlier channels of communication. Second, I  place mobile telephony within the broader media ecology of the village. I introduce the village as the main setting of the research and describe the changing patterns of connections and interaction among the villagers, as well as between the village and the outside world. Mobile telephony invigorated and built on these connections that influence the forms of socialities in the village. Mobile phones were neither the first nor the only media in the village: radios and televisions preceded mobile telephony, and by 2012 some villagers had acquired landline phones and computers. I compare the appropriation of mobile phones to the adoption and use of other media to understand why, of all the available media, mobile phones became ubiquitous. Chapter 4 gives a nuanced picture of the role of mobile phones in economic activities in Janta village. Rather than juxtaposing economic and social uses, it explores them in tandem. How are phones used instrumentally and socially, and how do these different usages mesh and interrelate? I delve into the interconnections between phone use for logistical purposes within different symbolic domains, including the economic uses of phones, as well as the micromanagement of kinship relations. How are phones used within the various branches of rural economy and livelihoods as well as for health care? And how does the ability of phones to increase logistical efficiency influence social relationships? Chapter 4 analyzes how the social production of mobile technology, as part of the economic liberalization and


[ 17 ]


market operations, conditions mobile telephony. I  illustrate how—​with the help of mobile telephony—​the enhancement of logistical efficiency relates to development as economic growth and increased well-​being: the small reductions in time and money required to run errands that phones effect do add up. The market rationality and cost-​efficiency that phones enable do not, as such, guarantee economic growth and development. The level of competition, the market’s size and growth rate, and government regulation, in addition to the ability to communicate, crucially influence the profitability of small-​scale businesses. Mobile phones have been more instrumental in increasing the number of economic activities in Janta and the surrounding region than in helping individual entrepreneurs earn better incomes. Many opportunities have been missed to reap developmental profits from mobile telephony as a result of the persistent idea that mobile telephony belongs to the market realm; phones are rarely used to deliver public services in India, although mobile applications could help improve the efficiency of, for instance, public health care. Mobile phones are widely used to increase the logistical efficiency of the economy and social relationships, which influences culture in specific ways. I  introduce the concept of social logistics as a tool to develop our understanding of the relationship among technology, culture, and social structure. The term social logistics highlights that logistics is inevitably socially mediated and not confined to economic life as separate from other domains of culture and society. Janta villagers, like villagers in diverse places such as Tanzania, Egypt, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Thailand, mention the same mobile phone benefits: the ability to call for help, to save time, and to find market information (Bayes, von Braun, and Akhter 1999; Bruns, Lamar, and Tiam-​Tong 1996; Coyle 2005; Samuel, Shah, and Hadingham 2005; J. Donner 2006; Overå 2006; Abraham 2007; Jensen 2007; Aker 2008; Jagun, Heeks, and Whalley 2008; Frempong 2009; Waverman, Meschi, and Fuss 2005). In all these places, phones are associated with a form of social logistics characterized by the increased multiplicity of social contacts and the greater efficiency of market relationships. However, in common with other ethnographies on the appropriation of ICTs (Horst and Miller 2006; Miller and Slater 2000), I found that the use of phones in rural West Bengal has accentuated kinship ties and village solidarity. I argue that—​like other ICTs—​mobile phones mediate logistical patterns that are responsive to market demands. These technologies mediate cultural practices by selectively amplifying the ongoing processes of cultural change, thus bringing about the homogenization of social logistics.

[ 18 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

The remaining chapters demonstrate how mobile technology encourages heterogeneity and the contest of meaning by mediating discourse and social interaction. Chapter 5 examines how mobile phones mediate gender and kinship relationships. I illustrate the ways in which the physical qualities of phones help strengthen the multiplicity of discourses by mediating relationships. First, they enable translocal communication, helping callers to transgress social boundaries. Women benefit because phones have enabled the reconstruction of the meaning of the home and the outside world. Second, phones give callers new possibilities to choose the context for their phone calls and speech and thereby enable engagement in critical and unconventional discourses. Instead of drastic improvements or changes, for instance, in economic power relationships, the positive impacts of women’s phone use appear subtle and ambiguous:  most calls are about the slight redefinition of home boundaries. Mobile telephony amplifies dominant discourses in that calling patterns are gendered, but by helping to blur cultural boundaries and providing unconventional speech contexts, it also creates spaces for agency and critical discourse. Chapter 6 continues to explore how mobile phones facilitate the multiplicity of discourses and social contexts with a shift in focus to the sphere of politics. As media reports on political movements in various locations have shown, mobile technology can be a powerful political instrument. This chapter examines how political activists use mobile phones for their daily political work. I seek ways to recognize the disruptive and political potential of mobile technology without ignoring its social and cultural rootedness. I illustrate how riots and protests relate to the increase in translocal communication that phones enable. I also demonstrate how the political use of mobile technology for extraordinary events is grounded in the social and political processes of ordinary, everyday life and draws from the local understanding of politics by emphasizing certain of its aspects. This chapter confirms the cultural continuity amid the increase in translocal relationships, but it also pinpoints how cultures harbor conflicts and alternative discourses, which translocal communication helps amplify with the help of phones. The village of Janta offers a microcosmos to explore how the appropriation of widely accessible information technology relates to local hierarchies and inequality. Throughout the book, I explore mobile phone use in relation to the intersecting class, caste, and kinship hierarchies in the village. Chapter 7 focuses on the question of whether internet-​ready smartphones disrupt local hierarchies. I illustrate how phones mediate intersectionality in unanticipated ways, although mobile phone use hardly constitutes a revolution. Phones offer opportunities and technical affordances that


[ 19 ]


challenge hierarchies. Contrary to their hierarchical position, young wives and children may become the phone-​use experts in their families. As a result of the market being flooded with cheap Chinese smartphones, low-​ income people in the village have been able to acquire smartphones and find that the ownership of such high-​tech objects is empowering. The widespread ideology, according to which not being connected is a sign of exclusion from the global currents and development, has made bridging the digital divide a significant symbolic act. However, the significant, life-​altering choices offered by the use of mobile phones are mainly available to the wealthier and well-​educated section of the village. Wealthy men use their phones for their businesses to increase earnings. College-​educated men and women can use search engines to access useful textual information on the internet by means of their phones. Because of the high cost of calls, low-​income people find smartphones more useful for listening to music and watching movies than for daily calls. Less-​educated working-​class men and women, as well as small-​scale farmers, download internet content on their phones’ memory chips; they then use this content to restructure their leisure and work activities. Those who are able to use smartphones independently have more scope to choose the contexts of their phone calls because they do not need help with their phones. With smartphones increasingly replacing simple phones meant for making and receiving calls, education and wealth will benefit phone users more than caste and gender will; consequently, the way smartphones are used accentuates class and educational differences. My aim is to understand how mobile telephony contributes to social change to understand the role that mobile phones play in development and power issues. In addition to summarizing my key findings and theoretical arguments, the concluding Chapter 8 assesses the role of mobile telephony in development by engaging with the anthropology of development. Instead of offering simple technological fixes for social problems, ICTs are part of diverse social change paths through the ways in which technologies are socially produced and used. Ethnographic research on the multiple uses and influences of ICTs can, in turn, help create development interventions and policies that would account for the multiplicity of actors and ongoing social processes.

NOTES 1. See Tenhunen (2009). 2. De Sola Pool (1977) is a notable exception.

[ 20 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

3. The scholarly discussion on the developmental effects of mobile telephony is expanding rapidly, and my aim here is to point out the key issues rather than to give an exhaustive account of the entire debate. H. Donner (2008a) and the World Bank (2012) provide extensive overviews of the discussion. 4. I also explained to each caller the purpose of my filming and asked for permission. Similarly, I explained the purpose of my research to the people I interviewed and observed and asked for their permission. It helped to explain that I had carried out ethnographic research in the village since 1999 and I circulated some of the publications among the few people who could read the English-​language texts. 5. Filmmaker Mirja Metsola filmed these calls as part of her film project, and I used the filmed calls for my research. 6. Survey questions gathered information on mobile phone usage, usage motivations, attitudes toward mobile phones, and other media access and usage information. The survey covered 117 respondents from the following villages: Dhengasole, Satmouli, Ghugimura, Lego, Chatramore, Parairy, Chandabila, and Pamua. Of the respondents, 79 percent were men and 21 percent were women; 69 percent belonged to higher-​caste groups and 31 percent to lower-​caste groups.


[ 21 ]



Theorizing Phone Use Contexts and Mediation


his book explores the appropriation of mobile telephony within myriad fluctuating contexts, including networks and spheres of life, which extend outside the village in rural West Bengal. In exploring mobile phone use in differing contexts, I draw from various paradigms that have emerged in technology studies, anthropology, and communication studies. I  next discuss the approaches that underpin this study, clarifying my conceptual choices in relation to them.


The domestication paradigm has been a popular choice as a theoretical framework to understand mobile phone use (Bolin 2010; N.  Green and Haddon 2009; Haddon 2003, 2011; Ling 2004; Lipset 2013, to mention just a few). With this paradigm, I share my interest in exploring how technology is adapted to everyday life and how it contributes to changes in everyday life through negotiation and social interaction. The domestication paradigm1 was developed to gain an understanding of how people appropriate technology by examining the way artifacts are used, but also the way they are adapted in use and subsequently interpreted (Mackay and Gillespie 1992). Appropriation refers to negotiations that lead to the acquisition of technologies: the placing of technologies in a home (incorporation), incorporating their use as part of routines (objectification), and incorporating technologies as part of users’ identities (conversion). By

taking into account how users position technology in their homes and make it useful and meaningful as part of a sequential process, the domestication paradigm pertinently demonstrates that technology use must be studied in relation to the contexts of use. Nevertheless, I found the domestication concept of limited use for analyzing the multiplicity and fluidity of the mobile phone uses I encountered in the village. The domestication paradigm was developed to provide a framework for thinking about ICTs in the home and among the interacting household members in Western countries (Haddon 2001). Based on the Western notion of the domestic, the domestication concept did not adequately help me understand the use of technology in the broad domain of Janta households—​ Chapter 3 demonstrates that most households in Janta are not private or clearly separated from each other. Moreover, as Haddon (2001) points out, it was always clear that ICTs are not used only at home—​schools, computer clubs, and gaming arcades were already significant arenas of ICT use in Western countries in the 1980s. Lie and Sørensen (1996) note the need to apply the domestication concept to look beyond the home, and several studies have applied the domestication approach to contexts outside homes, such as computer courses (Hynes and Rommes 2006), universities (Koskinen 2012), and mobile settings (Bolin 2010; N. Green and Haddon 2009; Haddon 2003, 2011; Ling 2004). Applying the domestication paradigm to a variety of contexts other than the home does not, however, solve the problem of how to understand the multiplicity of new media contexts. Portable devices, like smartphones, can be used in various contexts to extend social networks across diverse social spheres, whereas the domestication paradigm tends to highlight one medium within one context of use.


As Chapter 3 will illustrate, the village experienced several types of phone technologies within a short time. Technologies were adopted and then discarded as new options became available, raising the question of how technologies, which domestication theory suggests have become part of their owner’s identity, can be so easily abandoned. Sørensen (1994) suggests that this type of fluidity in technology use can be addressed as re-​domestication, or de-​domestication, in the domestication paradigm. However, I  want to address not only how the villagers advanced from using one technology to another, but also the changes in user preferences and use contexts, as well as their interconnections. I  thus make use of

T h e or i z i n g P h o n e U s e C o n t e x t s a n d M e di at i o n  

[ 23 ]


the remediation and mediation concepts. Bolter and Grusin (1998) developed the remediation concept to refer to a process in which each act of mediation depends on other acts of mediation, with media constantly commenting on, reproducing, and replacing one another. These authors demonstrate how new visual media achieve a cultural significance by rivaling and refashioning earlier media, such as perspective painting, photography, film, and television. Furthermore, they maintain that an ever-​ elusive attempt to generate communication technologies that erase their presence from the viewer and create a virtual reality that is indistinguishable from the reality it purports to represent characterizes the history of media in the West. To demonstrate their argument, Bolter and Grusin provide a broad analysis of Western culture; they discuss the way different media forms have refashioned one another across the centuries, from the Renaissance until the coming of modernism. Photography remediated painting, film remediated stage productions and photography, and television remediated film, vaudeville, and radio. While the authors acknowledge that media refashion one another in socially shaped contexts, they do not analyze ethnographic data or cases to explore how new media contexts are created socially. Instead, they briefly analyze various media—​computer games, digital photography, photorealistic graphics, digital art, film, television, virtual reality, and the internet—​mainly using secondary data. I share Bolter and Grusin’s (1998) assumption that media emerge from cultural contexts and I explore how new media contributes to an increase in the heterogeneity of cultural contexts. I explore the social creation of media contexts by analyzing how people take advantage of new media by creating novel communication contexts. Chapter 3 draws directly from Bolter and Grusin’s remediation concept by exploring how people moved from one technology and mode of communication to another. However, in the village the first telephones, namely shared phones, did not remediate prior communication technology; instead, the shared phones remediated the prior practice of delivering other people’s news through visiting. I therefore extend the concept of remediation to analyze this continuity between calling and face-​to-​face communication as one communication context among many (see “Mediation and Interdependency between Information and Communication Technology–​Based and Face-​to-​Face Communication”). My understanding of remediation draws from Gershon (2017), who argues that remediation is fundamentally about coordinating people’s space-​ and time-​bound experiences of media—​it is about people relating media ideologies and practices associated with a recently introduced medium with those of the older media. This interpretation of the concept highlights how remediation is not about changing technologies per se, but about people’s

[ 24 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

ideas and practices associated with communication via different channels. My use of the term mediation is also not a complete departure from Bolter and Grusin’s (1998) definition of remediation—​for instance, they included theatre in their list of remediated forms of communication. While the subsequent chapters also draw from Bolter and Grusin, they, nevertheless, mark a departure from the authors’ concept because I explore how people use new media to refashion communication contexts.


The flourishing of handheld devices and internet-​based social media has made the many contexts of media use worldwide obvious. New concepts have been developed to tackle this new multiplicity of mediated contexts in media-​saturated environments. Based on her research on the media use of American college students, Gershon (2010) developed the notion of media ideology to examine how people choose an appropriate medium for their message. She argues that the medium shapes the message because people have media ideologies that shape the ways they think about and use different media, while media ideologies about one medium are always affected by the ideologies people have about other media. Gershon also acknowledges that people together devise how to use different media in socially appropriate ways, a process she calls an idiom of practice. Madianou and Miller (2012) introduced the polymedia concept to address similar issues. Based on their research on new media use between migrant Filipino mothers and their children who remain in the Philippines, they developed the term polymedia to refer to new media as an emerging polymedia environment in which users employ new media as a communicative environment of affordances, with the choice of medium depending on social, emotional, and moral concerns. In other words, people choose certain means of communication not only because it is convenient or available, but also because it conveys a message. Madianou and Miller acknowledge that the polymedia concept draws from scholars who have advanced the media ecology concept to pinpoint that the technical, social, and cultural nature of new media is not separable (Horst, Herr-​Stephenson, and Robinson 2010; Ito et  al. 2010; Slater and Tacchi 2004). The difference between the two concepts is that, in comparison to the media ecology concept, the notion of polymedia underlines the unprecedented plurality and proliferation of new media: mobile phones, voice over internet protocol calls over the internet, e-​mail, a variety of social media, web cams, etc. (Madianou and Miller 2012). Madianou and Miller point out that concepts such as polymedia

T h e or i z i n g P h o n e U s e C o n t e x t s a n d M e di at i o n  

[ 25 ]


and media ecology are relevant for environments in which the cost of a wide variety of media use is low once users have obtained the hardware and paid for the connection. In the Philippines, migrants and their families tend to have both the motivation to communicate through new media and access to new media as a result of overseas earnings. Yet, in large parts of the Philippines, access to new media continues to be low; consequently, Madianou and Miller describe polymedia as an emergent condition even within their fieldwork sites—​for instance, mothers and children were usually not equally immersed in the polymedia environment. Despite the worldwide triumph of mobile telephony, polymedia is not the prevailing condition in much of the developing world. This was also true of rural West Bengal during my fieldwork. Subsequent chapters of this book reveal how most people must use their phones sparingly because of the relatively high cost of communication. Consequently, I seek to understand the role of mobile telephony in an environment that is not media saturated. Accordingly, I develop the mediation concept to examine the role of new media in an environment in which media use remains tangential as a result of poverty, the high costs of communication, and illiteracy.


Two terms—​mediatization and mediation—​have been used to address the general effects of media on social organization. I use the notion of mediation instead of mediatization because my focus is on a great variety of social and communicative contexts and their changes within a shorter time frame, whereas mediatization commonly refers to long-​term changes by which the society becomes dependent on the media. Since the two terms are closely related, I next discuss the mediatization debate to clarify my understanding and use of the mediation concept. Couldry (2012, 134) notes that mediatization is the prevalent term in Germany and in Scandinavian countries, and mediation is more typical in English-​and Spanish-​speaking countries. Couldry (2008) initially preferred the term mediation developed by Silverstone (2002), which he saw as being the more flexible of the two terms. Silverstone sees mediation as referring to open-​ended and dialectical social transformations, in which institutionalized communication media are involved in the circulation of social life symbols. He argues that, instead of replacing the world of lived experience, media are dialectically engaged with it, and one cannot inquire into one without simultaneously inquiring into the other. However, Couldry (2012) subsequently switched to the term mediatization because he finds it more unambiguous than

[ 26 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

mediation, which carries multiple meanings (such as dispute resolution). Many scholars (e.g., Hepp and Krotz 2014; Hjarvard 2008) ascribe different meanings to the two concepts—​mediatization is used to refer to the study of media-​related long-​term changes, whereas mediation is defined as the use of any medium to achieve communication. The main focus of the mediatization paradigm is change—​it refers to the interrelation between the change in media communication and the change in culture and society (Hepp and Krotz 2014, 3). In comparison to communication scholarship, which focuses on the contents or effects of a single medium, the mediatization notion offers a perspective to understand changing media as a part of social and cultural processes. This topical debate can be traced back to 1930s Germany, where Manheim (1933) first used the term mediatization to analyze the changes brought about by mass communication. The concept only reemerged in the 1980s and 1990s and developed into a paradigm during the 2000s and 2010s. The mediatization paradigm’s idea of culture and society as influenced by the respective leading media of each historical phase resonates with the communication scholarship of the 1950s, namely the medium theory such as that of Innis (1950) and McLuhan (1994). J. B. Thompson (1995) introduced the term the mediazation of culture to refer to the transformation that the onset of printing technology brought about from the late fifteenth century onward. Most contemporary mediatization scholars, however, use the concept to examine modern media-​saturated societies, thereby equating mediatization with individualization, modernization, and globalization processes and as connected to modern media, print, radio, film and television, and digital media (Krotz 2007; Lundby 2009; Hepp 2013).


Hjarvard’s (2008, 2011) influential understanding of mediatization builds crucially on the idea of media logic, a term originally coined by Altheide and Snow (1979), who defined media logic as the influence of major media’s form and logic on people’s lives. Criticizing mass communication research for its overwhelming focus on media contents and their effects on audiences, Altheid and Snow (9)  argue that forms of communication change the way people interpret social life. In a similar vein, Hjarvard (2008) views the mediatization of society as a long-​term social and cultural process through which the society becomes increasingly dependent on the media and their logic. Hjarvard (2011, 123) denies viewing media logic as singular or uniform; instead, he argues that media logic comprises

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the various modalities through which the media enable, limit, and structure human communication and action. He further describes media logic as “the institutional, aesthetic and technological modus operandi of the media, including the ways in which media distribute material and symbolic resources and operate with the help of formal and informal rules” (123). Hjarvard’s (2011) concept of mediatization is well illustrated by his work on the mediatization of religion in Nordic countries. Drawing on secondary data and survey research, he argues that the media have become an important source of information about religious issues. Consequently, religious information and experiences are molded according to the demands of popular media genres, while the media use religious symbols, practices, and beliefs when narrating stories about secular and sacred issues. Moreover, Hjarvard notes that the media have taken over many of the cultural and social functions of institutionalized religions by providing spiritual guidance, moral orientation, ritual passages, and a sense of community and belonging. For Hjarvard, the mediatized religion in Nordic countries exemplifies mediatization as a unilateral process of the diffusion of media logic to traditionally nonmediated social spheres. Media become integrated into the operations of other social institutions, while they also acquire the status of social institutions in their own right. Hjarvard views media as an institution on par with other major societal institutions, and his analytical focus is on the relationships between institutions. He also presents mediatization as equal to high modernity’s other significant social and cultural transformative processes, such as individualization, urbanization, globalization, and secularization. He maintains that mediatization is highly interdependent with these processes, because, for instance, the rise and spread of communication media have enabled the globalization of culture and commerce. At the same time, globalization has influenced the ways through which media are produced, distributed, and used. The concept of media logic has been mostly applied to examine mass media’s role in social change in Western countries. The worldwide proliferation of new media has, in turn, made evident the problems with the media logic idea. As Couldry (2008, 2012) argues, the influence of media is too heterogeneous to be reduced to a single media logic. Even if each medium does have its own media logic, which Hjarvard (2011) proposes, this still raises the question whether the same media could exert the same logic regardless of their social and cultural contexts. Morgan (2011) argues that, in its most extreme form, mediatization offers a blunt account of historical change during which media production unilaterally transforms ancient social institutions, such as religion, education, politics, and entertainment, into itself by replacing their mode of social relations with mediated forms

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of connectivity. Morgan’s analysis of eighteenth-​century British evangelical print culture reveals a range of factors and agents that contributed to change in religion during an era when print media exploded and emerged around the globe. Morgan argues that print media were not an autonomous social force that changed a passive religion; instead, many factors and agents influenced changes as parts of a network. Similarly, Deacon and Stanyer (2014, 1033)  maintain that mediatization scholars overemphasize the role of the media as agents of change. Madianou and Miller’s (2012) concept of polymedia, in turn, has demonstrated that instead of succumbing to media logic, people make active choices to produce desired meanings in different contexts.


Critical debate (e.g., Couldry 2008, 2012; Lundby 2009; Hepp 2013) on the notion of media logic and the institutional theory of mediatization has led to the emergence of a cultural perspective on mediatization (Couldry 2008; Hepp, Hjarvard, and Lundby 2010; Hjarvard and Petersen 2013; Martín-​Barbero 1993; Krotz 2007), which emphasizes flexibility. Krotz (2007) defines mediatization not as a specific process, but as a metaprocess grounded in the modification of communication as the basic practice of how people construct their social and cultural world. Nevertheless, Krotz identifies mediatization with a structural shift comparable to globalization and individualization—​the increasing involvement of media in all spheres of life and the social construction of everyday life, society, and culture as a whole. Hjarvard (2008, 2011), who initially developed the institutional perspective on mediatization, has also drawn closer to the cultural perspective: Hjarvard and Petersen (2013) argue that mediatization is not a linear process through which the media impose their logic on the cultural realm; instead, it is contextual and depends on the general social pressures toward mediatization, as well as on the possibilities to use media for various cultural purposes. Although the integration of media into cultural practices evokes cultural change, the outcome is dependent on the contexts in question (Hjarvard and Petersen 2013). In a similar vein, Hepp, Hjarvard, and Lundby (2010) argue that it is important to capture the diversity of mediatization, instead of assuming a single line of development. These authors, nevertheless, identify mediatization with the media dominance in late modern societies and argue that the globalization and individualization entail overall processes at work, although the outcomes depend on particular social and cultural contexts.

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In underlining the need to take cultural contexts into account, the cultural perspective on mediatization shares an interest in exploring media use holistically as part of social and cultural contexts with media anthropology and ethnography. However, as Hepp, Hjarvard, and Lundby (2015) note, empirical work rooted in the mediatization concept remains scarce. When empirical examples are used to demonstrate mediatization, the choice of concepts often reflects that it has mainly been discussed in terms of cases from Western countries (Hepp and Krotz 2014; Hepp 2013; Hjarvard 2013; Hjarvard, Lundby, and Hepp 2010; Lundby 2014). Despite development toward greater flexibility to account for the multiplicity of cultural and social contexts, mediatization scholars discuss social changes through Western-​based concepts, such as individualization, secularization, and modernization. These concepts tend to exclude local understandings of cultural domains and concepts of person in most parts of the Global South where the proliferation of new media has contributed to social dynamism during recent decades. Similar to a large body of ethnographic research, cultural studies, and postcolonial scholarship2 that has explored how processes emanating from the West influence the Global South but, yet, take local forms, this book sustains a critical voice regarding the common assumptions about the spread of new media.


Like much of the mediatization scholarship I have discussed, I explore how mobile phone use relates to social spheres, but instead of preconceived institutional notions, I use ethnographic data to examine the local meanings of social spheres and their ongoing changes. In contrast to mediatization scholarship, which focuses on long-​term changes, I explore a shorter time frame based on ethnographic fieldwork. As a family of methods that entails direct and sustained interaction with people, ethnography has great potential for developing an understanding of media use, particularly as part of social and cultural contexts. Unlike mere textual analysis of media contents, ethnography helps unveil both tacit and explicit meanings of action and mediated communication in their contexts. My approach is similar to that of Baldassar et al. (2016), who argue that instead of treating face-​to-​face/​physical and ICT-​based forms of communication and co-​presence as mutually exclusive, or even as competition,

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it is more fruitful to examine the way the two forms of communication interrelate with each other. Andersen (2013) similarly uses the mediation concept to explain why mobile phones have become objects of broad moral concern in Papua New Guinea. She argues that morally charged stories about phone friends make the central problem that mobile phone use generates in Papua New Guinea explicit: how to maintain morally appropriate forms of exchange in a context where spatiotemporal relations have been radically distorted and in which the participants’ identity can easily be hidden. Archambault (2017) demonstrates how mobile communication has opened virtual and discursive spaces within which illicit activities can be pursued with some degree of discretion among the youth in Mozambique. In a similar vein, Jorgensen (2014) explains the popularity of phones in Papua New Guinea by noting that phones have enabled discursive intimacy outside everyday surveillance and without the mediation of relatives or third parties. Baldassar et  al. (2016) build on the concept of co-​presence (Licoppe 2004; Ling 2008) to examine mediated strategies of co-​presence. Mobile phones and digital media have extended social fields to include those who are physically out of reach and have provided the means to maintain a symbolic proximity that promotes a sense of presence while absent. I build on the view endorsed by anthropologists (Mazzarella 2004; Boellstorff 2008; Horst and Miller 2012):  mediation need not only be assigned to media technologies, because it can be regarded as a general condition of social life. I  view all interactions as mediated in the sense that their contexts always influence interaction and speech. As Horst and Miller (2012) argue, there is no pure human immediacy, but all interaction is as culturally inflected as digitally mediated communication. People commonly respond effortlessly to changes in contexts:  they have fairly clear ideas of what can be expressed, how, and in whose presence. The capacity for monitoring speech contexts is an essential part of social competence (Hymes 1974). Contexts, in turn, comprise not only physical surroundings, but also what people do, when, and where (Cole, Engestrom, and Vasquez 1997, 22). As conversations, mobile phone calls represent speech contexts but they are also more than just dyadic exchanges between two individuals. To speak is to take up a position in a social field in which positions are defined relative to one another in constant flux (Hanks 1996, 201, 211). In other words, even if the ability to communicate translocally over the phone creates conditions for specific open-​endedness and ambiguity in comparison to face-​to-​face communication, two persons conversing over the phone are not oblivious about the more far-​reaching reception of their discourse by multiple publics. Hence, mobile phone–​enabled speech contexts

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emerge as part of relational and affective dimensions of social life. Indeed, it is the way phone-​enabled discussions relate with preexisting social and cultural contexts that determines their impacts. I furthermore follow Hanks (1996) by analyzing speech contexts as a part of routine social perceptions and actions. The question is therefore not how unmediated culture becomes mediated through new media, but how different forms of mediations interact when a powerful new medium is appropriated. The interconnections between ICT-​based communication and face-​to-​face contexts are more conspicuous in places like Janta, where face-​to-​face communication plays a more prominent role in comparison to media-​saturated environments. I analyze how phones help link speech contexts and give callers new possibilities to choose and create the context for their speech and to engage in critical and unconventional discourses and action. I  relate mobile communication to diverse social contexts, analyzing the relationship of mobile phone–​mediated conversations with other speech contexts and media—​in this sense, this book is not a study of a single medium.


Although the cultural perspective on mediatization has challenged the idea of media logic, media technologies still have material attributes that influence their use. Unlike Grint and Woolgar’s (1997) suggestion, technologies are not open texts that can be written and read in any way. For instance, mobile phones and especially smartphones enable many activities besides communication, but there are several actions that they simply do not afford, such as traveling. I  concur with Hutchby (2001), who proposed a reconciliation between constructivism and realism using Gibson’s (1979) theory of affordances. Gibson, a scholar of the psychology of perception, developed the affordance concept to refer to how technologies offer certain possibilities for action. Hutchby (2001) argues that for the affordances to materialize, users must perceive them. For Hutchby, affordances are functional and relational aspects that frame, but do not determine, the possibilities for action in relation to an object. He points out that materiality need be contemplated not only in physical terms, but also as having a materiality affecting the distribution of interactional space or navigation. Hutchby’s notion makes it possible to make sense of how technologies can be understood as artifacts that may be both shaped by and shape the practices humans use in interaction.

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I account for the materiality of mobile telephony, which I view as crucially influenced by the social construction of mobile telephony. The history of the mobile phone is complex—​mobile phones contain other technologies, the antecedents of which stretch back nearly a century (N. Green and Haddon 2009, 18–​19). Nevertheless, motivation to improve logistics and the ability to navigate with the help of phones formed a strong undercurrent in the development of wireless communication technology. Marconi developed his pioneering radio technology innovations for maritime communication in the 1900s, and the Detroit Police Department led the way in land mobile use in 1921 (Goggin 2006, 24–​25). The first portable radiotelephone was launched in 1943 for American forces (25). Landline phones were initially developed and marketed for business purposes in America (Fischer 1992). Although the industries were unable to envision the role phones could play for social purposes, phones were gradually adopted for social uses in homes in the 1920s. The purposes for which wireless communication was developed by no means cover their actual uses; nevertheless, mobile telephony has been put to logistical uses worldwide. Chapter 4 develops an understanding of how the cultural specificity of mobile phone appropriation relates to technologies’ affordances, which enable logistical efficiency. I take into account both the affordances and the social practices, and thereby my approach closely relates with recent theories of practice. Recent theories of practice (Schatzki, Knorr-​Cetina, and von Savigny 2001; Reckwitz 2002; Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012; Pickering 1995) have much in common with the affordances paradigm in that they take the materiality of technology into consideration, as well as their role in social change. Building on Schatzki, Knorr-​Cetina, and von Savigny (2001) and Reckwitz (2002), Shove, Pantzar, and Watson (2012) use the notion of practice to examine how the perception of materiality relates with everyday life. They view practices as comprising materials, competences, and meanings, arguing that practices emerge, persist, shift, and disappear when connections between these types of elements are made, sustained, or broken. Shove, Pantzar, and Watson differentiate their approach in terms of theory and method from those who undertake detailed ethnographies of situated practice. Such ethnographies as Suchman’s (1987) study on the use of photocopiers and Orr’s (1996) work on the training of service technicians have radically reformed the understanding of technology use. Shove, Pantzar, and Watson (2012), however, state that they are interested in the trajectories of practices-​as-​entities instead of the context-​specific processes; consequently, they do not use detailed ethnographic research at specific locations. However, ethnographies that focus on one context by no means exhaust the scope of ethnographic research—​in anthropology

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the interest in looking at larger trajectories of everyday life is usually labeled holism, which has been the hallmark of ethnographic fieldwork since its beginning. Like Shove, Pantzar, and Watson, I  am interested in larger trajectories of everyday life, but unlike them, I use the ethnographic method to analyze interrelated symbolic contexts as well as how people are able to reconstruct and change them. Moreover, contrary to these authors’ discussion on the social life of leisure practices, such as Nordic walking and snowboarding, my focus on practices in rural India underlines the issues of inequality and local understandings of hierarchies. In a social field, actors are not situated symmetrically vis-​à-​ vis an innovation. As De Sardan (2005) argues, the introduction of an innovation is likely to serve the interests of some people, while damaging the interests of others. A number of hierarchies plague South Asian societies to the extent that hierarchy was long considered a defining feature of South Asian sociability (Dumont 1970). Although this stress on hierarchy and its ubiquitousness have prevented academics from perceiving alternative South Asian realities (see, e.g., Mencher 1975; Appadurai 1986; Srinivas 1989; Chatterjee 1993; D. Gupta 2000), local hierarchies continue to be a defining feature of life in the village of Janta. Chapter  3 introduces the concept of caste as well as the caste structure of Janta, and throughout this book, I explore how the appropriation of mobile telephony relates to local hierarchies by applying the concept of intersectionality. As Wallis (2013), who pioneered in applying an intersectional framework to studying mobile telephony, demonstrates, the concept of intersectionality brings attention to how multiple axes of identity and modes of power relate to mobile phone use. Based on her study of young migrant women, Wallis used the concept of intersectionality to theorize how social constructions of gender-​, class-​, age-​, and place-​based identities produce particular engagements with mobile technologies that, in turn, reproduce and restructure these identities. What makes my study distinct from Wallis’s approach is that whereas Wallis explored urban female laborers whose lives were largely structured by the demands of their workplaces, my focus is on a rural community with its distinct social structure—​my study is not limited to one group such as young women; instead, I examine the dynamics of intersectionalities within a community. My focus on local hierarchies helps analyze both power issues and development:  Who benefits from mobile telephony and how does the appropriation of phones relate to power issues? Consequently, my approach departs from mediatization studies in that I explore how mediation relates to development and power issues. Slater (2013) points out that scholarship has tended to view new media use in Western countries as an identity

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issue, whereas much research on new media use in the Global South has focused on the instrumental uses of new media, such as their economic role. However, mobile phone use relates to people’s cultural identities and practical aims both in Western countries and in the Global South, and these two types of uses are interrelated. The use of mobile phones for instrumental purposes depends on the context of use: for instance, I will illustrate that many instrumental uses are gendered. Therefore, both the social and the instrumental uses of new media can influence the construction of identities. In turn, social uses can be instrumental in the sense that they have consequences regarding people’s capabilities. I will, therefore, explore the role of both types of phone use in respect to development and power issues.


Chapter 2 has related my theoretical choices to the debates on social change and new media use in contexts:  using a holistic ethnographic approach, I  develop an understanding of how new media mediate social processes within interrelated social spheres and local hierarchies. I have opted to use the concept of mediation because it allows one to understand how a medium reconciles both culture and the material world and both constrains and enables social actors’ use of that medium. I delve into mobile phone use as a multidimensional process with diverse impacts by exploring how media-​saturated forms of interaction relate to preexisting contexts. My approach shares with the domestication paradigm an interest to explore how technology is adapted to everyday life and how, in turn, it contributes to changes in everyday life through negotiation and social interaction. My approach differs from the domestication approach in that I  examine mobile phone use in a variety of contexts and in relation to face-​to-​face communicative contexts. My approach resembles studies that draw on the polymedia concept and mediatization scholarship in that I  explore mobile phone use in multiple contexts. However, unlike studies based on these approaches, I explore an environment in which people’s media use remains tangential because of economic and social barriers. While I share an interest in exploring the changing role of media in relation to social institutions with the mediatization paradigm, I understand these spheres as culturally constructed domains that must be studied ethnographically. Whereas mediatization scholars explore long-​term structural changes, I study shorter-​term actual changes based on ethnographic fieldwork. Like Gibson (1979), Hutchby (2001), and Shove, Pantzar, and Watson (2012),

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I  take the material attributes of the technologies into account, but my approach differs in that my focus is on symbolic contexts and I highlight the power hierarchies by accounting for the intersectionalities of phone use. Finally, this book not only analyzes media-​related social changes but also assesses how they relate to development. I view the instrumental uses of mobile phones and mobile phone use for identity work as intertwined and significant for development and power issues.

NOTES 1. Although it is employed by a wide range of authors, Silverstone and Haddon are the most notable developers of the domestication paradigm (Silverstone 1994; Silverstone and Haddon 1996; Silverstone, Hirsch, and Morley 1992). 2. See Gaonkar (2001) and Xavier Inda and Rosaldo (2008) on introductions to these debates.

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Why Mobile Phones Became Ubiquitous Remediation and Socialities


ranslocal connections did not start in Janta with mobile telephony; instead, mobile phone use drew crucially from preexisting connections. However, by 2012, the village had ceased to rely on village sociality and visiting for news; news sharing was now more about the exchange between family units over the phone—​news was still shared, but in much smaller circles than before. The village had started to resemble an urban neighborhood crisscrossed by translocal networks. The change took place gradually as phone density increased and people experimented with various types of phone technologies—​from shared kiosk phones to mobile phones, landline phones, and smartphones. In this chapter, I describe and analyze the incremental process through which mobile phones became ubiquitous, influencing the forms of socialities in Janta. First, I  provide an analysis of how different types of mobile technology remediated earlier channels of communication. Second, I  place mobile telephony within the broader media ecology of the village. Bolter and Grusin (1998, 55)  developed the concept of remediation to refer to how media are constantly commenting on, reproducing, and replacing each other (see Chapter  2, “Remediation:  Emergence of Media from Cultural Contexts”). Since the village leapfrogged landline phones, mobile phone use remediated earlier communication practices rather than any preexisting communication media. Nevertheless, mobile phones were neither the first nor the only medium in the village: radios and televisions


preceded mobile telephony, and by 2012 some villagers had acquired landline phones and computers. Hence, I will also explore how the use of other media influenced socialities in the village in comparison to the appropriation of mobile phones, providing some answers to the question why, of all the available media, mobile phones became ubiquitous. I furthermore consider whether and how mobile phones remediated these other media (Chapter 7 explores in more detail the use of smartphones for recreation). I will start by introducing the village as the main setting of the research and describe the changing patterns of connections and interaction among the villagers, as well as between the village and the outside world. I  will then examine how mobile phones remediated preexisting communication practices before comparing mobile phone use with the use of other available media.


One travels to Janta along reddish dirt roads that snake across lush paddy fields in all shades of green (Fig. 3.1). The village is formed by clusterings of densely built mud houses and cemented buildings, a few old temples, and roofed meeting places (atsalas) (Fig. 3.2). Caste crucially influences daily interaction, as well as the social networks in the village, because it is divided into caste neighborhoods. Caste is a social institution that evolved from Hindu religious thinking during the Veda epoch (1000–​600 bc), which defines the cosmic order into four hierarchically organized categories, or varnas, based on purity:  the Brahmins, the highest group, are in charge of religious rules, speech, and prayers; the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, maintain and conserve the sacred order (dharma); and the Vaishyas, as merchant caste, create prosperity. The Shudras, the lowest caste, serve the

Figure 3.1:  Road to Janta. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

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Figure 3.2:  Courtyard in Janta. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

upper castes with their manual labor (Stern 1993, 55). The varna classification of the religious texts does not, however, reflect how caste is classified in everyday life in India because only the Brahmins are labeled by their varna title. Other castes are called by their local jati names—​jati is a widespread local term for caste. The hierarchical standing of numerous jati groups is locally determined, but in relation to the varna hierarchy and its principles. The higher the caste, the purer it is held to be. The concepts of purity are associated not with hygiene, but with the distance from biological processes like birth, death, and refuse. For example, the skinning of animals, fishing, cleaning, cremation, and laundering are impure professions. The impurity is transmitted when a person touches someone who is purer or when the purer one enjoys food or drink prepared by someone who is considered ritually less pure. Researchers differ in their opinions as to whether the origin myth and the concomitant caste ideology represent only the views of the highest caste or whether they are also accepted by the low castes. Neither have they reached a consensus about the degree to which the low castes have accepted the axioms of purity that classify them as impure. Caste groups have been able to improve their position by imitating the higher-​caste ways of life. Individuals, however, cannot change caste during their lifetime. Caste is something one is born into and, according to caste ideology, a person who has fulfilled his duties in this life can be born into a higher caste in the next

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one. Many untouchables or Dalits have, however, attained a new position during their lifetime by converting to Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. Reform movements have also emerged from within Hinduism, such as the bhakti movements that started in the eighth century and emphasized human equality before God. Inhabitants of Janta are Hindus, and practicing religion is part of everyday life. I was invited to attend numerous rituals and have food as religious offerings (prasad). Every evening, women blow a conch shell to purify their house and perform religious rituals (puja) by their home altars. Each house has a small shrine with pictures of gods and goddesses where women of the household perform puja. Numerous annual celebrations require a priest to carry out the rituals. The most important annual religious celebration is Durga puja, which commemorates the goddess Durga’s visit to her father’s house with her children. People participate by setting up sculptures and pictures of the goddess at their home, but people from the same neighborhood also create communal pandals with large sculptures. During Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) puja women draw intricate figures and footsteps on the floor to welcome the goddess to the house. The main harvesting season ends with the harvest festival in January, which is celebrated by cooking special dishes and giving new clothes to family members. The village has several shrines under trees and at the crossroads that are dedicated to the goddess Manasha (Goddess of snakes) (Fig.  3.3). People bring terracotta sculptures of horses, elephants, and snakes to these shrines, where Manasha is worshipped for good harvests, fertility, and the goddess’s ability to remove poison. In times of crises, people make vows to dedicate terracotta sculptures to these shrines to seek divine help. The principal of arranging social life according to inherited caste identities and the separation of castes through avoidance of interaction have undergone many changes. I  analyze these changes in Janta in Chapter 7 (see “Changing Village Intersectionalities”), which focuses on the appropriation of smartphones within the local hierarchies, including the castes. Nevertheless, caste still has a crucial influence on marriage, political organization, and everyday interaction, especially in rural India. As a Bagdi woman explained, “Here we have caste discrimination, didi (sister). We do not touch the Bauris, we do not touch the Muslims. No Tili touches us.” In Janta, villagers know one another’s caste identity, while the caste identity of strangers is assessed on the basis of their dialect and behavior or directly inquired about, unlike in the cities, where it is no longer an appropriate topic of conversation with strangers. Caste purity is chiefly maintained by caste endogamy and by avoiding touching or sitting at the same level as a

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Figure 3.3:  A village shrine dedicated to the goddess Manasha (Goddess of snakes). (Photo by author.)

lower-​caste person, receiving cooked food from a lower caste, or touching the dishes from which a lower-​caste person has eaten. The dominant caste, both numerically and in terms of land ownership in Janta, is the Tilis (50 percent). Other major caste groups are the Bagdis (15 percent) and Casas (16 percent). Caste and class have to a large degree overlapped in Janta: most Tilis and Casas own land, while most Bagdis, who are classified as a scheduled caste,1 earn their livelihood by means of daily labor, mainly agricultural work or work in brick factories. In Janta, 87 percent of Bagdis are landless, whereas 59  percent of Tilis are landowners. Janta has about ten other small caste groups, which each form 1–​2 percent of the population. The most significant of these are the Brahmins, who own land, hold office jobs, and do not participate in farm work like other landowning villagers do. Some castes continue their hereditary occupations (Tatis weaving, Kumars pottery, Napits barbering, and Cutas carpentry), but with the exception of the carpenter caste, their hereditary occupations only supplement their income from farming. Ideas of purity and pollution prevail in the village but they do so in a different setting compared to the jajmani system in the pre-​British era or to the post-​British period when the low castes were dependent on the few large landowners of the dominant caste, which lasted until the

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implementation of the land ceiling laws after India’s independence in 1947. Service relationships between castes have become secondary to market relationships, and no single large landowner can act as the highest authority in the village. With the exception of the Tilis, the castes do not meet to discuss disputes as a community. The Tili committee (samiti) still announces rulings on disputes, but unlike the party and the panchayat (local governing unit), it cannot enforce its will on the villagers. Even the head of the Tili committee emphasized that the caste committee is separate from politics. The main tasks of the caste association are to give advice when families divide their property and to organize religious festivals. When I asked the villagers whether the Tili samiti ever discusses breaches of caste purity, I was told that the maintenance of caste purity is up to individual households. Instead of a communal body supervising caste discrimination, caste practices are debated in various arenas. Moreover, opportunities for intercaste socializing now start in the primary schools, where children of all castes have their midday meal together (sponsored by the central government), and these opportunities have multiplied. Many villagers are aware of the wrongfulness of caste discrimination and the arguments for ending it but tend to be more liberal in their speech than in their behavior. Tili women criticize Bagdis for their impure habits, but they also go so far as to admit that they follow caste rules for the sake of society. They say that in their hearts they know it is wrong. Most women have attended school and learned about anticaste ideas promulgated by Hindu reformists such as Vivekananda. At school, they have also met children from different caste groups and even made friends with them. I have carried out research for this book in all the Janta neighborhoods, although I have been able to observe daily life more in the Tili neighborhood than in other parts of the village. I lived with a family in the Tili neighborhood in 1999–​2000 and continued to spend most of my time in this neighborhood during consequent trips. During these fieldwork trips, I lived in a guesthouse in the nearby town of Vishnupur and cycled to the village. After having my lunch in a Tili house, I spent much of my time waiting until people had time for interviews. These periods of waiting offered an opportunity to observe daily life and chat with the family members and neighbors. I spent my time in a low-​income neighborhood where the neighbors’ interaction is lively and visible because the houses are not separated by fences. I  could not have made the same kind of observations in the upper-​class village houses because many of these houses are fenced, and interaction with neighbors is scarce.

[ 42 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

When I lived in the Tili neighborhood, some villagers initially objected to my visits to other neighborhoods on safety grounds, although they were probably also concerned about purity issues. Since I lived in the Tili neighborhood, my level of purity was judged to be on the same level as theirs. I had to avoid touching the castes higher up in the hierarchy, and my interaction with the lower castes was considered a potential threat to the neighborhood. I was able to assure people that my safety was guaranteed because of the Tili neighborhood assistants whom I  had arranged to accompany me to monitor my purity and interaction in other neighborhoods. By 2010, I was familiar with the entire village. As an older woman, I was then free to move around; the villagers even let me cycle to Vishnupur after sunset, which would not have been possible earlier—​they just asked me to call once I had arrived at the lodge.


News traveled incidentally during my stay in Janta in 1999–​2000. Women were often not able to obtain the news of a serious illness or even the death of a close natal relative in time to view the body before cremation and participate in the death rituals. When mobile phones first became available, women invariably mentioned their new ability to participate in the death rituals of their affinal relatives as the biggest benefit. Other villagers, who had heard the news through their networks, once told us that a woman from a neighboring household had been involved in a conflict in her marital village. Her transgression had warranted an unusual punishment: the cutting off of her hair. Although the news was worrisome, it did not result in immediate action. The brother of the woman in question discussed plans to visit her for a few weeks until he finally traveled to find out how she was—​by that time the situation had calmed down and required no mediation. Before the onset of mobile telephony, news from other villages used to be mainly shared through visitors, because visiting also meant being informed of other people’s news (khobor neua) and delivering it to the relevant people in other villages, often on request. Despite the slow delivery of news, the social networks of rural West Bengal, one of India’s most densely populated states, have always been well-​ knit. The nearest neighboring villages are almost adjacent to Janta. Many people from Janta commute daily to Vishnupur (a town twelve kilometers from Janta): farmers sell vegetables at the marketplace, a few villagers go to office jobs, college boys and girls attend school there, and laborers go to find work. Unlike many of the remotest villages in the district, Janta

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has good road connections. The villagers can commute by bike and bus to villages and cities farther away. Engine sounds rarely disturb the village’s peaceful environment, although there were a few cars and tractors, as well as several motorbikes, during my fieldwork periods. Like most villages, Janta has a post office and a daily mail delivery. Literate villagers used to exchange information on crucial news such as serious illnesses by letter, but calling has replaced most letter writing. According to the village postmaster, the flow of private letters first decreased and then stopped completely in 2007. Even before the advent of phones, letter writing was, in practice, rare. For instance, a literate family whose life I observed closely received two letters during a ten-​month period. Since even the literate part of the older generation is not used to writing, these letters tended to be brief rather than informative, such as one letter I saw that simply stated “your brother has been bitten by a snake,” without any information on whether the brother had recovered. One of the village’s most decisive connections to the outside world is a result of state policies. Subsidies strongly influence the village’s main source of livelihood, agriculture. A. Gupta (1998) shows that these policies draw from the global discourse on modernity and development. As in many other parts of India, agricultural production has, almost simultaneously, experienced growth and crisis in Janta and West Bengal. Extreme poverty, which manifested itself as occasional food scarcity, disappeared from Janta in the 1990s, reflecting the decrease in poverty in the entire state from 73 to 32 percent during 1977–​2000 (Banerjee et al. 2002). Rural West Bengal’s economic growth is often presented as an example of the benefits of land reforms, because West Bengal has implemented land reforms, distributing land to the landless, more rigorously than most other states (Rogaly, Harriss-​W hite, and Bose 1999, 13). Any landless farmer, or those owning less than 3 bighas (1 acre) of land, are eligible to receive 0.5–​3 bighas (0.16–​1 acre) of land. However, the plots given are usually only 0.5 bigha and not large enough to support even a small family. Moreover, not all landless farmers have received land because of the lack of land for distribution given the land ceiling. Although the allotted plots are far too small to support even a small family, they have given daily laborers additional income and increased the amount of arable land. Nevertheless, the new type of irrigation technology had the most decisive—​but brief—​economic impact on the region. Inexpensive, movable pump sets became common in the village during the 1990s, allowing even small-​scale farmers to grow several crops a year. However, the region’s rapid agricultural growth stalled around 2000. According to the villagers, the cost of farming, including the prices of pesticides, fertilizers, agricultural labor, and the kerosene

[ 44 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

required to run the irrigation pumps, had tripled in the previous seven years, while the crops’ market prices did not follow the rising costs. Using tube wells and pump sets for irrigation led to sinking of the water levels, which increased the cost of irrigation because wells had to be dug deeper. In 2012, most small farmers had given up growing irrigated paddy crops. Irrigation pumps are still used as a backup source of water to compensate for the weak monsoon rains, which had been deficient for several consecutive years. Only large-​scale farmers have continued making profits as a result of their greater production volume and investments in side businesses. The main coping strategy of small farmers is to send their young men to work as paid laborers—​mainly in the southern and western parts of India.


Large-​scale migration from the village to the cities is a recent phenomenon in Janta. Consequently, most translocal connections in the village used to derive from marriage practices involving women marrying outside their natal village. Marriages are not only about the union between two individuals, but also essentially a form of alliance creation between kinship groups (Fruzzetti [1982] 1990, 37). The two lines continue to interact socially and economically after the marriage. Before the building of mobile phone networks, news of relatives in other villages, of women’s natal families and men’s in-​laws, traveled via letter (exchanged by the literate part of the village) and visitors. As mentioned earlier, visiting meant being informed of other people’s news (khobor neua) and delivering it to the relevant people in other villages. This kind of information-​sharing system would be understood as gossip in most places, but in rural Bankura, it was considered a useful way of social sharing and also a sign of caring for others. People assessed what could be shared and what should remain unspoken—​ not all family issues were shared. This type of news sharing often led to long chains of intermediaries; consequently, the visitor networks on which the villagers relied for most news of their kin and friends in other villages and districts were frequently slow and unreliable. The inadequate communication infrastructure contributed to the villagers’ relative isolation. The more remote the village, the smaller the chances of asking for, or getting, help from outside the village during emergencies and conflicts. In 1999–​2000, most villages in West Bengal had neither electricity nor landline phones—​at a time when urban India was already shifting toward the use of mobile phones and surfing the internet. One had to travel to town to make a call from a public call office (PCO), but people seldom did. The

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PCOs were the brainchild of Sam Pitroda, a US-​based Indian engineer and entrepreneur credited with creating the administration and the business concept of the PCOs (Saxena 2009). The PCOs were called rural exchanges, but were only available in towns in the Bankura region. Although the developmental impact of this project has been much celebrated, PCOs were an elitist project because they did not serve the majority of rural people, who had no landline phones. Only a few people who owned landline phones could call each other when traveling. In Janta, I was the only person who used the PCOs from time to time. The villagers could not use them because their relatives and friends mostly lived in villages that lacked PCOs. When I returned to the village in 2003, the district had just been covered by a mobile phone network. In the fall of 2003, there were four privately owned mobile phones, and when I returned to the village in 2005, there were ten phones in Janta and its two small adjacent villages. The BSNL (a government-​owned service provider) mobile phone network covered rural West Bengal in 2002, and private service providers announced plans to open services in the region. The demand for BSNL mobile connections exceeded the company’s ability to provide SIM cards, requiring months to obtain a BSNL card through the official routes. The first private service provider, Airtel, which started its services in the region in 2004, allowed interested customers to obtain a connection instantly. Although the number of phones in the village was initially low, phone services became available for the entire village early thanks to the BSNL, which placed public mobile phones in all villages. Initially, these shared phones, called tower phones, used electricity from solar panels and wireless local loop technology by connecting the wireless connection to the landline network. The new shared phone system replicated Pitroda’s PCO initiative, but this time, shared phones were made available to the village neighborhoods, truly making phones accessible to rural people. Phones were placed in neighborhood shops,2 and shop owners made a small profit by operating them—​they were also responsible for ensuring that someone answered the phone and letting the relevant villagers know that they would be called again at a prearranged time. Placing the shared phones in caste neighborhoods strengthened the value of neighborhoods as social groups. It also meant that people did not have to travel to other caste neighborhoods or interact with other caste people to make a phone call. A three-​minute call cost the caller two rupees, with many phone keepers also charging two rupees for delivering the news of an incoming call. Since daily laborers earned around fifty to eighty rupees (one to one and a half euro) a day, phone use was expensive: receiving and making a short phone call cost around 8 percent of a laborer’s daily earnings, which is equal to

[ 46 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

the cost of one person’s daily portion of rice. Nevertheless, these shared phones created a crucial incentive to buy mobile phones because the neighborhood phones meant everyone was suddenly within phone reach. Two private service providers introduced their share phone systems, called coin phones. These mobile handsets looked like large landline phones in which one could drop coins and talk for one minute for one rupee. For some time, these phones were the cheapest way of calling, but they had disappeared by 2010 because most households had at that time acquired its own handset. The ringing of a phone in a village shop was the start of a long chain of messages. To call a person in a village, one first needed to ask the person answering the neighborhood phone to deliver a message to the intended person requesting him or her to be at the neighborhood phone at a specific time. Sometimes, especially if the matter was urgent, the callers simply related the entire message to whoever answered the phone, asking that person to forward the message. For example, I observed a man who was waiting for a call answer the phone when it rang and agree to deliver an important message: the caller wanted his father to know that there was no need for him to take an agricultural loan from the cooperative bank. Those answering the phone could also give information on behalf of the person with whom the caller wanted to talk. The shop owner, for instance, told a caller that the person to whom he wanted to speak had left for Maharashtra. He then sent people to find more information about the man who had left the village. The man’s family could not be found, but the neighbors could give fairly exact information on his movements and schedule. When the shop owner realized that the call had come from the vicinity of the railway station to which the man in question was allegedly heading, he suggested that the man would probably show up at the caller’s house and would stay the night. As these examples illustrate, most calls were public events, and it was their public nature that helped me research and film phone usage. The public and collective manner of operating the phones drew from the village sociality and earlier patterns of communication that had entailed visiting and delivering other people’s news. These cultural grounds explain the ease of phone sharing in the village: except for microentrepreneurs, who were often on the move and could benefit economically from private ownership, the villagers did not initially have strong incentives to purchase personal phones. Car and tractor drivers, as well as small-​ scale entrepreneurs, who found phones useful for staying in touch with customers and calling for help if they experienced problems on the road, were the first group of mobile phone buyers. By 2007, the number of phones had risen from ten in 2005 to one hundred and the phone density rose to four phones per one

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[ 47 ]


hundred persons. New phone owners included midsize farmers, insurance and savings schemes salesmen, carpenters, self-​taught village doctors, college students, government employees, and factory workers, as well as graduates who provide schoolchildren with tuition and families who have a family member living and working outside the village. The diffusion of mobile phones in the village followed caste lines until 2006, with mainly upper castes buying phones. By 2010, the calling charges were half that of 2008, and the scheduled castes had caught up with the higher castes in terms of phone ownership. In the spring of 2010, only 4 of the 158 households surveyed in Janta did not have a phone. While mobile phones were initially used as house phones, their use was now mobile:  people walked around the neighborhood, in the fields, at the bathing site by the river, and in vegetable gardens while talking on their phones. Women often carried out chores, such as cooking and sweeping the floor, holding their phones. Whereas in 2010 most phones were basic models just meant for talking, by 2012 most families had a cheap Chinese-​made phone with smartphone facilities:  a music player, camera, internet, video camera and player, radio, double-​SIM facility, and a memory chip (Chapter 7 discusses how people in different social positions use their smartphones in Janta). These Chinese phones with their multiple applications were offered at much lower prices (around ten euro) than even the simplest branded phones. By 2013, only two types of handsets (by Samsung and Nokia) available at the nearby phone shop were meant for just receiving and making calls; all other phone models had extra applications. Chapter 7 explores smartphone use in more detail. The growth of teledensity in India has been unprecedented. The Indian government had set a goal of increasing the teledensity to fifteen by the year 2010 (Indian Government 1999), but by 2012 teledensity had risen to seventy-​eight. Why were villagers willing to trade the cost-​effective system of shared village phones, which built on the practice of sending news by means of visitors, for private phones? I  next examine how shared tower phones were used to discuss why shared phones were discarded. Calls from shared phones were made not daily, but rather weekly or even monthly. Callers thus only went to phone shops sporadically, and the number of daily calls at the various shops fluctuated between three and seven. Moreover, because of the heavy load on the networks, the phone calls did not always go through. Of the sample of one hundred calls made from public phones that I filmed, most (58 percent) were made to villages in the district—​12 percent were made to other districts, 16 percent were made to other states, and one call was made to the United States. Figure 3.4 illustrates that the actual talking times were short. The

[ 48 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

60 50


40 30 20 10 0 0-1







Figure 3.4:  Calling times from public phones. (Source: Phone calls filmed by the author in 2005.)

shortest of the calls were often about making an appointment for a call, but they could also be two parties merely asking how the other was and in turn assuring that everything was fine. Whereas in Jamaica these types of calls, during which no clear message is exchanged, formed the majority of mobile calls (Horst and Miller 2006), in my sample, they formed a minority: 9 percent of the calls. Calls were kept brief not because of cultural ideals of keeping conversations short, but because the villagers aimed to keep the costs down. In fact, when villagers receive calls from relatives who could afford long calls, they exchange detailed information about kin and family. Most phone calls took place within the neighborhood, but shared phones also made it possible to maintain defiant and secret contacts far more efficiently than what had earlier been possible by means of secret letters, which a few young men and women in the village exchanged in the 1990s when they had relationships against the will of their parents. The following list of call topics (Table 3.1) from tower phones gives some indication of the purposes for which phones were initially used—​the subsequent chapters in this book explore these uses and their changes in detail. Sixty-​six percent of the calls (66 calls, N = 100) dealt with only one topic, while the rest included various types of messages. Although I  witnessed many shopkeepers doing a remarkable job of delivering other people’s news, people still complained that they did not succeed in delivering everyone’s news according to the villagers’ expectations. One Tili man explains the difficulties with shared phones: “There were problems in using the coin phones. When someone wanted to contact us, they could not reach us. Also, we could not reach our in-​laws and other relatives when we wanted to do so.”

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Call topic Organizing a call

Number of calls 31

Exchanging general news




Visiting and traveling


Giving and receiving help


News about health


Organizing rituals


Marriage arrangements




Only arranging a call


Only business


Only general news


Only arranging rituals


Only marriage arrangements


Only help requests


Only visiting


Only illness




Source: Phone calls filmed by the author in 2005.

Privately owned mobile phones ensured that people received information without delay. Moreover, one no longer needed to leave one’s home to make or receive a call or get other people’s news. Yet, according to one Tili man’s argument for getting a personal phone (“Phone was convenient for getting people’s news from outside the village”), privately owned phones were still understood as a medium for getting other people’s news (khobor neua) instead of having to visit the people for their news. Privately owned phones continued to remediate the earlier practice of delivering other people’s news. However, unlike shared phones, mobile phones offered people new possibilities to choose in whose presence they wanted to talk because they could now carry the phone and simply move to a spot where fewer people were listening to make a call. Preventing others from hearing one’s call in the neighborhood shop was possible, but troublesome. If villagers did not want their immediate neighborhood and family to hear their call, they commuted and made calls from other neighborhoods and villages. This was how a few villagers who were wanted by the police could stay in touch with family members in Janta while in hiding elsewhere. As

[ 50 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

villagers soon realized, private handsets did not offer this affordance because police3 can easily monitor mobile phone calls from private numbers. Although privately owned mobile phones offered opportunities for choosing with whom to share conversations, the ubiquity of mobile phones did not end phone sharing—​only 6 persons of the 130 I  interviewed mentioned that they never let anyone use their phone. Many phone owners took the role of phone booth managers, such as the following Tili man, who describes his phone sharing: “Do other people come to use your phone?” “Yes, they do come to make phone calls. Some people do not have money to buy the phone or they are not able to use the phone on their own. There are still many people who are not educated enough to be able to use the phones so how could they buy the phone. Therefore, they come to make phone calls in my house.” “Does this mean you also deliver other people’s news?” “I have to be a good person. Thus, I deliver the news to nearby houses even in the middle of the night if I receive important news over the phone.”

He notes that people’s capacities to own and use phones differ. Indeed, phone ownership created new hierarchical relationships, but these hierarchies based on mobile phone ownership tended to dissolve as quickly as they evolved in the sense that mobile phones became ubiquitous in just a few years. Mobile phones were usually shared by family members because most households4 had acquired one or two phones. Since public calling kiosks have disappeared, people usually carry a phone with them to call home when they travel outside the village. Many village households have acquired two phones: one is kept at home, and a family member moving outside can take the other to call home. A few households still do not have a phone, while others own only one phone. Those people who do not own a phone could use a neighbor’s phone to receive and make calls, and those traveling outside the village could contact their families in the village by calling the neighbor’s phone. Consequently, most phones were still shared, but news and information were distributed in much smaller circles than when shared village phones were used. Meanwhile, the circulation of information has become so fast that I heard people complaining that it has become difficult to withhold certain information—​for instance, problematic information about potential brides and grooms, as well as about the reputation of their houses, which can adversely affect dowry negotiations. Wright, Steenson, and Donner (2010) argue that mobile sharing bridges social networks, while changes in phone sharing reaffirm social space in

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new ways. The use of shared phones in Janta drew from the practice of delivering other people’s news. Private mobile phone use, in turn, has built on the preexisting use of shared phones to exchange news. As a result, the social practice of news delivery in the village was refashioned—​ a process that can be characterized as remediation although the initial sharing of news was not mediated by a particular medium. As I explained in Chapter 2 (see “Mediation and Interdependency between Information and Communication Technology–​Based and Face-​to-​Face Communication”), I view all interactions as mediated in the sense that their contexts always influence interaction and speech. Hence, a medium can also remediate prior communication channels based on face-​to-​face interaction. Compared to the times when most people used shared village phones, the sharing of phones in smaller circles in the village has decreased the value of the entire neighborhood and village, but has simultaneously strengthened the translocal relationships between relatives as well as relationships between people in neighboring houses. Moreover, personally owned mobile phones have led to the diversification of social networks, while mobile phone use exhibits clear gendered patterns (Chapter 5 explores mobile phone use in relation to gender). Only 5  percent of the calls from the shared phones (see Table 3.2) were to friends. According to a mobile phone use survey (see Table  5.1), calling friends has become one of the most common call categories among men; women now also call their friends, although less often than men.


To whom call was made

% of calls

Nonspecified kin


Business associate


In-​laws’ house


Parents’ house




Uncle’s house




Father’s brother


Husband’s brother Call destination unknown Total

1 11 100 (N = 89)

Source: Phone calls filmed by the author in 2005.

[ 52 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

The significant decrease in handset prices and call tariffs provided an important additional incentive to buy mobile phones. Initially, handsets cost thousands of rupees, but in 2013 one could get a multimedia handset for less than a thousand rupees. Calling tariffs have come down from one rupee per minute to ten paise (one-​hundredth subdivision of the Indian rupee) at its lowest. Service providers have also offered generous packages of free calling time as part of their promotional campaigns. Importantly, receiving phone calls is free; it therefore makes sense to get a phone even if one has no money to buy calling time. Most villagers preferred to use the slower and cheaper services instead of 3G services, which have been available in India since 2010. Although 2G technology suffers from congestion in networks, restricted and slow speed, restrained bandwidth, and security concerns, the number of 3G service subscribers has remained low (4 percent in 2011) in India because of the high cost of 3G (Dhillon 2013). Mobile phones also enable cost-​cutting in the form of missed calls:  a person can signal interest to contact someone by calling a mobile number and hanging up before the mobile’s owner picks up the call; the recipient’s name will be displayed on the call log as a missed call. These types of missed calls have become widespread practice in the Global South. J.  Donner (2008b), who analyzed missed calls in Rwanda, found that university students and small business owners availed beeps both for instrumental and for relational purposes. In Janta, of the sample of 130 missed calls, the great majority were made between friends (69 calls) and siblings (35 calls), which indicates that this type of signaling is relational and considered most suitable between people on the same hierarchical level. In many parts of the world, text messages have been one of the cheapest ways to communicate. In Janta, most people were aware of the SMS function of phones because they receive promotional messages daily from companies. Students have used SMS offers from service provider companies to communicate, especially with their friends. However, most people had not ever sent free SMS messages because they did not have much experience reading and writing even if they possessed texting skills. Even those who were able to type using the Latin alphabet explained that they could better express themselves over a brief phone call than by writing a short message. Around the time when the mobile phone network covered the region, it became possible to buy landline phones in Janta, and a few people did. Having a landline phone was valued as a sign of an upper-​class lifestyle—​ before the onset of mobile telephony, landline phones had only been within the reach of the wealthier urban strata of society. However, after

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just a few months’ trial, unexpectedly high phone bills were enough for most people to give up their landline and switch to a mobile phone, the costs of which could be kept better under control by means of the prepaid pricing system. For instance, one former landline phone owner (a Chasa caste man) explains why he abandoned his landline phone just after four months’ use: “If I buy a mobile phone for fifteen hundred rupees, I can receive calls for free for even twenty-​five years. But if I have the landline phone, I keep getting three thousand rupees bills monthly.”

Indeed, the postpaid billing system of landline phones makes it difficult to control the phone bill and monitor who uses the home-​based phone, especially if the person in charge of the household economy works outside the home. Electrification was the final incentive to buy a mobile phone: the entire village was connected to the electric grid by 2012, significantly spurring the purchase of phones. Even in neighborhoods without electricity, some people possessed phones, which required charging a phone in other people’s houses or in the neighborhood shops. The latter option was not popular because phones were known to be stolen when left without supervision in a shop. Some people charged their phone in a neighbor’s house every day, but tapping into someone else’s electricity regularly tended to strain relationships. Consequently, many people chose not to purchase a mobile phone until they had access to electricity.


Other available media in the village include radios and televisions, which preceded mobile phones and landline phones, while computers arrived after mobile phones. I will next examine how these other forms of media influenced village socialities and whether and how mobile telephony remediated these media. As a relatively inexpensive device not requiring literacy, radio was once considered the most effective channel for reaching rural audiences in India. Radio broadcasting was envisioned as the main agent for planned social change in India in the 1950s. The state-​owned All India radio broadcasted educational programs, as well as entertainment with educational elements, such as social forestry, sex education, substance abuse, gender equality, literacy, and family size (Singhal and Rogers 2001, 72). Commercial radio stations were permitted in India in 2000, and FM

[ 54 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

stations have captured new audiences, especially in urban areas, although they are not allowed to broadcast news. However, despite the emergence of commercial radio, television has overtaken radio in popularity. A total of 81 percent of my survey respondents (N = 121) watched television, whereas only 35 percent said they listened to the radio, although 63 percent of the respondents owned a radio. Many radios remained unused because they had become defunct or the batteries were dead. My observations about the decline of radio are similar to the results of all India census data on radio ownership. In 2002, 35 percent of Indian households reported owning a radio or a transistor. By 2011, that proportion had come down to about 20  percent. In rural India, the proportion of households with a radio or transistor fell from 31.5 to 17 percent between 2002 and 2011 (Celestine 2012). The most favored radio programs in Janta and its neighboring villages included Bengali songs and news on All India Radio. Commercial radio stations offer music and entertainment but are more geared toward urban audiences. Therefore, they do not offer content that would captivate the rural audiences in West Bengal. At the same time, smartphones, which mostly also offer the ability to listen to radio, contributed to making radio sets obsolete. Radio stations worldwide have benefited from mobile telephony in that they have enabled interactive programming because mobile phones can be used to call radio programs. Community radios, which provide local people with even more scope to participate in radio content creation, have been hailed as having great emancipatory and developmental potential (Couldry and Curran 2003; Downing 2001). One example of the innovative use of community radio are the e-​tuktuks in Sri Lanka, which combine community radio with a mobile telecentre (Tacchi and Grubb 2007). In India, state regulation prevents FM stations from broadcasting debates on current affairs; however, since 2006, the Central Government of India has allowed nongovernmental organizations and other civil society organizations to own and operate community radio stations. Tarafdar (2015) notes that the community radio channels have an advantage over All India Radio and private FM stations in that they offer local language programs on local issues. However, at the time of my research, no such popular community radio station covered rural Bankura. In summary, because of the state regulations and commercial stations’ interests in mainly pleasing urban audiences, rural people were not highly motivated to incorporate radio listening as part of their everyday life, despite radio’s great potential as an inexpensive device for reaching them. The lack of radio’s relevance and the untapped opportunities to involve people with radio broadcasting with the help of mobile phones demonstrates how

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remediation crucially depends on regulatory frameworks and social construction of technology. In contrast to the dwindling popularity of radio, the loudspeaker remained a commonly applied medium in rural West Bengal. Slater (2013), who found that loudspeakers were the most widespread local media experience in rural Sri Lanka, points out that most works on new media in the Global South have neglected the loudspeaker. In Bankura, too, loudspeakers were omnipresent, especially in rural towns where companies and cinema halls used loudspeakers mounted on cars to market their products and promote new films. Political parties also used loudspeakers for political campaigning. In Janta and its adjacent regions, loudspeakers were mostly used at picnic spots and at marriage sites to play loud music. In the nearby town of Vishnupur, loudspeakers mounted on cars were used daily. In Janta, an enterprising man mounted a kerosene engine and a loudspeaker on a bicycle rickshaw, creating an inexpensive form of transport for the loudspeaker. Banks hired him to drive his vehicle through villages, making announcements that reminded people to pay off their loans by the payment date to avoid legal action. This loudspeaker was also hired for picnics and celebrations such as marriages and religious rituals. The business of hiring loudspeakers in Janta was made possible by mobile telephony because it enabled people to call from neighboring villages and order the loudspeaker from its owner. That the market for loudspeakers prevailed despite the emergence of digital media alternatives has to do with the simplicity and low cost of the loudspeakers. It is easier and cheaper to mount a loudspeaker on a car than to buy a radio or television advertisement. Digital music players have the disadvantage of requiring constant electricity, whereas loudspeakers can be operated with a generator in case of power cuts, which were common in the region. However, as a unidirectional medium, which did not leave much choice for the audience regarding what to listen to and when, loudspeakers were hardly considered highly meaningful or a particularly captivating medium. It speaks to both the ubiquity of loudspeakers and the rigidity of their affordances that during school exam time, the blaring of loudspeakers was forbidden in the village. The perseverance of loudspeaker-​mediated information is indicative of the specific social construction of a public sphere in which noise is tolerated, and loudspeakers helped strengthen the meaning of the public sphere as an arena for loud speech and music generated by companies, political parties, and other social groups. As illustrated in Chapter 7 (see “Entertainment from Memory Chips”), much of the use of smartphones for entertainment remediated a loudspeaker since smartphones were used to play music in public places.

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Cinema has been the first media experience for many in rural India. In the 1990s, villagers had to travel to a nearby town to see films in its cinema hall, but traveling folk-​theatre (jatras) groups also set up their plays in villages. Villages were also visited by modern theatre groups, which performed contemporary Bengali hits and Bollywood songs. Recorded songs were played while the actors and actresses created scenes from popular movies by dancing and lip syncing. By 2000, the village had its own video hall, where mainly popular Hindi and Bengali movies (intially video tapes, but DVDs since 2000)  were shown daily, which has adversely impacted the popularity of theatre groups, although these traditions have persisted in West Bengal.5 Some of the wealthier households also purchased DVD players. The majority of people who went to see films in the movie hall were men, although there was also space for women: men and women sat on opposite sides of the theatre. However, most women did not enter the hall, and many were not allowed to do so. By 2003, the village movie hall faced severe competition from a few television owners who had acquired DVD players and started showing movies for a small fee. The DVD players made it possible to show movies in all neighborhoods. Films thus became more accessible to women, who could pool money together with their female neighbors to arrange movie showings in their houses. This made going to the village movie hall redundant. However, television watching soon replaced these neighborhood movie showings as more households purchased televisions. Midsize and large farmers started purchasing televisions in the mid-​ 1990s, but lower-​income people only began to do so with the onset of cable television, which occurred in rural Bankura much later than in the cities. In 2010, cable television offered one hundred channels, including dozens of Bengali-​language channels, for just one hundred rupees per month. Before the cable system, television owners had to set up expensive disk systems to receive commercial channels in addition to the few state channels that did not require a disk. Disks signified translocal economic connections and wealth because they were often purchased by means of remittances from family members who worked outside the village. Since the commercialization of Indian television and radio in the 1990s, they have, as media, helped rural people discover alternative lifestyles, especially consumerist, urban models (Johnson 2001). Despite the greater popularity of commercial channels, public broadcasters have continued to educate rural viewers on issues such as nation building, birth control, public health, and agricultural methods (Johnson 2001; Mankekar 1993; Singhal and Rogers 2001).

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Television viewing was and still is not limited to set owners because they feel duty-​bound to allow others to watch with them. When the sole owners of televisions were in the wealthier section of the village, heterogeneous groups of people gathered to watch television in the one room in a house reserved for this purpose. Because people from a caste neighborhood’s different economic classes, genders, and ages gathered in front of television sets, television brought together people who would otherwise not have socialized for so long, as Johnson (2001) points out. Visiting to watch television did not necessarily enhance open cross-​caste social interaction, however, since social boundaries were marked by deferential gestures such as lower-​class women watching television while standing or sitting on the floor near the doorway, instead of on a chair. Nevertheless, televisions initially served to bring different caste groups together more than the community and mobile phones did since phone sharing primarily takes place within caste neighborhoods. The rise in television density has reduced the number of uncomfortable encounters between castes because it is now possible to watch television in other people’s houses in one’s own neighborhood. Now that more low-​income people can afford televisions and cable connections, there are more televisions and fewer people watching one television, and watching television dominates evenings in one-​room dwellings to the degree that it disturbs family life. In one house, I was told that they have had to limit television viewing by their neighbors in their one-​room house to the evening hours since small children need to sleep during the day. However, they cannot prevent their neighbors entering their house every evening to watch television, even if they would prefer not to spend every evening with their neighbors. By 2012, watching soap operas by means of cable television had largely replaced watching movies by means of DVD players because several channels offer soap operas in Bengali twenty-​four hours a day. The ability to watch soap operas on television at home has led to new, gendered patterns of television and film viewing. Both men and women watch soap operas, but women are their main audience. Unlike women, men have the option of spending their leisure time outside the home in neighborhood tea shops or clubhouses, where they mainly watch movies and television news. Men are, therefore, more knowledgeable about television news than women. For example, women had not heard of the Delhi rape case in 2012, although it had been a major news item for weeks at the time I did my fieldwork there, while men in the same neighborhood could discuss the case. Television and radio were the main sources of news because most villagers did not read

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newspapers. It was possible to order a newspaper in the villages, as I did when I lived there, but most villagers were not interested in doing so. One of the biggest changes I witnessed in the village entailed especially women spending their evenings watching Bengali soap operas on television. Kumar (2016) made similar observations in rural Uttar Pradesh, where he witnessed how increased interaction on both social and mass media has reduced face-​to-​face interaction in common spaces substantially. My observations from Janta are similar in that sharing of both mobile phones and televisions by just families and next-​door neighbors decreased broader social interaction in the village. In Janta, when fewer people owned televisions, most women spent their evenings chatting with other women in the household and with neighboring women—​I have nostalgic memories of the times I spent my evenings in the village chatting with women by the light of kerosene lamps. Although neighboring women still gather to watch television together, there is much less time for conversation, and fewer people gather in front of a television in comparison to when people met to chat at each others’ verandas. Women’s gossip used to center on family conflicts and exceptional families, such as men with two wives. Now women watch soap operas portraying tensions and conflicts in families, as well as other topics they used to chat about. As elsewhere in India (Munshi 2012), the soap opera themes in West Bengal are designed for female audiences; they, therefore, depict strong female characters. With the acquisition of cable television for homes, soap operas became primarily women’s recreation, while men’s clubhouses and movie halls allow men better access to news and cinema. In summary, the benefits of television compared to radio, which is more affordable, are its visuality and the soap opera storylines, which capture rural audiences, especially women at home. As described in Chapter 7, smartphones remediated television and cinema in the village in the sense that they were often used to watch films.


While the villagers were introduced to and adopted a number of gadgets—​ DVD players, disks, cable television, tower phones, coin phones, mobile phones, landline phones, and smartphones—​within a relatively short period, one gadget was conspicuously absent in the village for a long time: the computer. There are still no public computer labs in Janta, but by 2011, three Janta families had bought computers; one person needed a computer to practice accounting and two young men started new businesses that

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required computers. One of these computers was used to design and print invitations for celebrations, especially weddings, and to print identification card photos. Another computer was used to download music, videos, and photos on phones’ memory chips (Chapter 7 explores this internet usage). Computers are not much used to browse the internet; only a few people use the internet to check their exam results or use Facebook. To use Shove, Pantzar, and Watson (2012)notions, computers did not become popular because of the missing elements of practice. Shove, Pantzar, and Watson view practices as consisting of three elements:  materials, competences, and meanings. Materials refer to how practices require access to things, technologies, and tangible physical entities. Competences include people’s ability to use technology: skills, know-​how, and technique. In addition to having access to and the ability to use technologies, people must be motivated to use them and find their use meaningful. Shove, Pantzar, and Watson argue that practices emerge, persist, shift, and disappear when connections among materials, competences, and meanings are made, sustained, or broken. First, there was a problem with access: computers cost around fifty times more than smartphones and are therefore too expensive for most villagers. Moreover, unlike mobile phones, computers require a constant source of electricity, which, despite electrification, villagers do not have—​there are regular power cuts because of load shedding. Second, the villagers lacked the crucial competence required to use computers; even the most literate villagers are not used to text-​based communication. There was not much need for, or interest in, using computers for typing. Similar barriers to computer use are common in much of the developing world (Sreekumar and Riviera-​Sanchez 2008)  and they are commonly viewed as having to do with inequality, poverty, and power hierarchies. In other words, such elements of practice as access and competence reflect local hierarchies. In Janta, all three computer owners belonged to the wealthiest and best-​educated strata of the village. When these computer owners offered computer-​based services to the rest of the villagers, they discovered the market for visual objects, such as invitation cards and identification photos, which reflected the importance of visual culture in the village. In comparison to computers, phones have enabled people to obtain news from relatives and friends, listen to music, and watch cinema, all activities that people indulged in before they owned phones. It would be possible to watch movies and listen to music on computers, but on phones, these activities are much cheaper. Moreover, the lack of a broadband network did not make computers a better tool than smartphones for accessing the internet—​even the entrepreneur who downloaded content from the internet for the villagers did so with the help of mobile internet.

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My depiction of the arrival of mobile telephony in Janta shows that it was a gradual process involving the trial of different phone technologies. Different mobile technologies were adapted and discarded within a short time. The state played a role through regulating telephony and through the state-​ owned service provider company BSNL, which set up the public phones in the villages. These tower phones created a crucial incentive for people to buy mobile handsets because tower phones brought rural people within the reach of telephony. The difference between this and the adoption of phones in Western countries is that most people in Janta leapfrogged landline phones, going directly to mobile technology. New technologies influenced patterns of social interaction, while shifting from one medium to another entailed breaks as well as continuities. As new technologies were adopted, new contexts of mediation had implications for forms of sociality, although the old practice of obtaining news about other people continued. I illustrated that people were willing to discard community phones because mobile phones were easier to use and made possible sharing of news in smaller circles, which, in turn, has contributed to the multiplicity of discourses in the village. The rest of the book will delve into how mobile phones have helped people to construct new communicative contexts, which I explore as a part of broader cultural domains and contexts, paying attention to how mobile phone–​enabled conversations relate with other contexts of speech and action in the village. Mobile phones remediated preexisting communication practices, and smartphone use also remediated loudspeakers, radios, and televisions. The two media that did not become popular were expensive computers and affordable radios. The social construction of these media—​the computer as expensive and mainly based on textual practices and radio channels as more geared for urban audiences—​adversely influenced their use for remediation. Meanwhile, the loudspeaker has prevailed as an omnipresent medium because of its simplicity and low cost. Mobile telephony has contributed to an increase in people’s translocal connections (Chapter 5 explores the gender patterns of these connections) and helped strengthen the bonds of next-​door neighbors, while the importance of village and neighborhood sociality has decreased. Whereas television viewing used to bring together people from different neighborhoods, mobile telephony was not used in a similar vein to bring together people from different neighborhoods and castes—​even shared community phones usually served caste-​based neighborhoods. The processes of remediation I have explored bear a resemblance to how Shove, Pantzar, and Watson (2012) analyzed the elements of practice as

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consisting of three elements: materials, competences, and meanings. My ethnographic data reveal that the emergence of these elements of practice is largely determined by local hierarchies: the diffusion of phones followed caste and class lines, and not only shared phones and personal mobile phones but also televisions were used in hierarchical contexts. In other words, materials, competences, and meanings were experienced through intersectional identities and social positions, and subsequent chapters will explore these intersectionalities in more detail. Mobile phones have become the most popular media in rural West Bengal because they are affordable and can be integrated into preexisting communication practices, including people’s motivations for creating new social and communicative contents. Mobile phones allow people better contact with their relatives and friends and also allow them to choose the context for their speech. While there is continuity, the new media played a role in shaping socialities:  as a result of privately owned televisions and mobile phones, the village has evolved toward more atomized households because news travels in smaller circles, which has contributed to the emergence of new speech contexts (I explore these new contexts in Chapter 5). Despite the existence of the few media alternatives introduced in this chapter, the village cannot be considered a polymedia environment in the sense that Madianou and Miller (2012) developed the notion: there is no great multiplicity of communication media to choose from, and most people can only afford to use media sparingly. While the cultural meanings of phone use and obtaining people’s news have prevailed, cost-​efficiency is a dominant motivation for people to use phones. Chapter 4 explores in more detail how phones have enabled people to increase the logistical efficiency of their businesses and daily lives in culturally meaningful ways.

NOTES 1. The scheduled castes refer to people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, who are officially designated as disadvantaged people in India, for whom the constitution lays down the general principles of positive discrimination. 2. A similar system of shared village phones was established in Bangladesh in 1997 by Grameenphone (Bayes, von Braun, and Akhter 1999); however, unlike the pathbreaking Grameenphone initiative, BSNL did not target women as phone owners. 3. Hiding from the police is a crucial issue because the local police arrest men at random when called to solve a case involving villagers. Consequently, when people hear that a police car has entered the village, men of the neighborhood in question must run away, even if they are innocent of the crimes under investigation. In one case, police caught a suspect just because he was the only

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man who had remained in his house in the neighborhood—​he was deaf and dumb and therefore could not be warned about the arrival of the police. 4. The average size of the household was four. (Source: Author’s survey 2004.) 5. The West Bengal government initiated an effort to rejuvenate jatra culture in 2013 (Chakraborti 2013).

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Mobile Telephony, Economy, and Social Logistics “Why did you buy your phone?” “For business, but it is not only for the business. People need to receive information fast from all directions. Earlier nobody received information in time. Now one can get information at an affordable rate.” (Janta textile storekeeper, a man) “What benefits do you gain from your phone?” “Before the phone there were letters, which took a long time. Now communication is faster. This gives people more time, which means they can accomplish more.” (College graduate, a man) “What benefits do you gain from your phone?” “I can communicate my whereabouts, where I am and when I will return.” (Teacher, a woman)


hen I asked mobile phone owners how they benefit from their phones, the prevalent answer was that a mobile phone enables them to do more in less time: one can now manage various errands within a fraction of the time and the costs required previously (Fig. 4.1). As the interviewed teacher’s statement reflects, phones have changed the logistics of villagers’ lives. Researchers studying mobile telephony in various locations have identified the same phenomenon:  mobile phones have helped transform the way people organize and coordinate their everyday lives. Mobile telephony has improved the coordination of travel and transport systems (Katz 1999). In addition, mobile telephony has enabled nuanced management of the social interaction between small groups, an activity that Ling and Yttri (2002) labeled microcoordination. Ling (2004) argues that

Figure 4.1:  Mobile telephony has reduced the need to travel to convey news. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

mobile communication has challenged mechanical timekeeping as a way of coordinating everyday activities since mobile phones enable people to continuously renegotiate meetings and activities while on the move. Because mobile phones, as well as other ICTs, were largely developed with logistical concerns in mind, it is not surprising that ICTs are used to improve logistical efficiency. The early forms of wireless communication were initially designed to improve the logistical efficiency of the navy, the military, and the police in the United Kingdom and the United States (Agar 2004). However, Harvey (1989) argues that overcoming spatial barriers has been especially central for late capitalism or neoliberalism. According to Harvey, capitalism has expanded as a result of constant efforts to shorten turnover times, especially with the help of ICTs. Landline phones, faxes, and the internet have mostly improved economic efficiency in Western countries, whereas the rapid spread of mobile telephony in many parts of the developing world made it possible to overcome spatial barriers of time and money for the first time. But, as I discovered, people can benefit from the logistical affordances of mobile media in a multitude of ways besides their economic uses. Moreover, people’s social positions greatly influence which of the mobile phones’ logistical benefits people can use. In this chapter, I provide an ethnographic description of the many logistical benefits of mobile phones and analyze their intersectionality. I explore mobile phones’ logistical affordances within the economy, but also in other spheres of life: how are mobile phones used for logistical purposes within the interconnected domains of economy and kinship and how can the homogenization of social logistics with the help of mobile phones occur in

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the midst of cultural appropriation? Consequently, this chapter sheds light on the interconnections between different contexts of mediation, revealing how instrumental uses relate to social relationships and their meanings.


The ability to microcoordinate with the help of mobile phones has improved business efficiency worldwide, but the economic improvements have been most notable in those parts of the Global South where mobile phones are the first form of electronic communication. Bayes, von Braun, and Akhter (1999) discovered that village phones in rural Bangladesh reduced transportations costs and improved market efficiency by giving farmers better access to market information. Using data obtained from ninety-​two countries between 1980 and 2003, Waverman, Meschi, and Fuss (2005) found that an increase of ten mobile subscriptions per one hundred people raises a country’s gross domestic product growth by 0.6 percent. Samuel, Shah, and Hadingham (2005) conclude that mobile phones increased the efficiency and profits of most of the small businesses they surveyed in Egypt, Tanzania, and South Africa. J.  Donner (2006) describes similar benefits from mobile phones with respect to small-​scale entrepreneurs in Rwanda, where phones help entrepreneurs extend their market, stay in touch with customers, pick up stock, and deliver products efficiently. He finds that most productivity gains from phones arise from the possibility of rapid information exchange afforded to those people beyond a convenient traveling distance, even if the distance is just a matter of a kilometer or two. Many researchers (Samuel, Shah, and Hadingham 2005; J. Donner 2006; Overå 2006; Abraham 2007; Jensen 2007; Aker 2008; Jagun, Heeks, and Whalley 2008; Frempong 2009)  present evidence on how mobile phone use helps small-​scale entrepreneurs expand markets in developing countries. Nevertheless, as J. Donner and Escobari (2010) note, studies on the economic uses of mobile phones highlight different benefits. Some highlight the use of mobile phones to exchange price information, for example, by informal traders in Ghana (Overå 2006), grain markets in Niger (Aker 2008), and fishermen in India (Abraham 2007; Jensen 2007). Others demonstrate that mobile phones increase small-​scale entrepreneurs’ communication with their customers: Molony (2006) found that mobile phones helped strengthen preexisting trust-​based relationships between market women in Tanzania, while Frempong (2009) discovered that micro and small enterprises in rural Ghana use phones to stay in touch with their customers.

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As mentioned in the introduction, Jensen’s (2007) five-​year longitudinal study of sardine prices at various landing ports in northern Kerala, India, has become one of the most cited examples of the economic benefits of mobile phones. Jensen gathered time series data at three fish markets in coastal India. As soon as the mobile network covered the region, fishermen bought mobile phones, storing lists of up to one hundred buyers in their handsets’ address books. This allowed them to call different buyers from sea to determine the best price at which to sell their catch and the best place to do so. Hence, mobile phones helped reduce the price variability and the amount of waste in Kerala’s fishing system significantly, which increased both the consumer and the producer welfare in the region (Jensen 2007, 879). These findings have been generalized to other contexts and applied to the development of mobile technology–​based applications that convey price information to small-​scale entrepreneurs in the Global South. However, Srinivasan and Burrell (2013), who returned to the site of Jensen’s work to explore the generalizability of his findings, argue that the Kerala fish markets cannot be regarded as archetypical free markets. Rather, these fish markets are an exceptional case influenced by special circumstances, such as the fishermen’s collectives and government regulation. Moreover, the coastal geography and prevalent credit relationships have allowed northern Kerala fishermen to optimize their profits by using their mobile phones to sell to different markets. Unlike in the north, on Kerala’s southern coast, where the steep ocean floor and rough surf prevent the use of large boats, conditions differ. And not all fishermen in northern Kerala profit equally from using mobile phones to access price; affluent fish market actors who can afford to invest in their trade and, consequently, catch larger volumes of fish benefit most from this information. Burrell (2014) views Jensen’s (2007) study as part of a larger popular discourse that sees mobile phones as a platform for impersonal delivery of market information (Eggleston, Jensen, and Zeckhauser 2002; Qiang 2009). Popular media have ensured that economists’ views regarding the ability of phones to offer small-​scale entrepreneurs market information have gained wide-​scale attention (Economist 2005, 2007). Also, service provider companies and handset manufacturers have propagated phones’ economic impacts through their research and publications (Nokia Research Centre 2008; Coyle 2005; Waverman, Meschi, and Fuss 2005). Consequently, a popular new development narrative and discourse have emerged to depict a successful entrepreneur who uses a mobile phone to expand his or her business activities. J. Donner and Escobari (2010) note that this narrative has quickly turned into conventional wisdom, although it is largely based

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on anecdotal evidence. Burrell (2014) traces economists’ narrow focus on mobile telephony to the legacy of developmentalist thinking, which regards technologies transferred from “the West” as carriers of modernity. When mobile phones are reified as modernity in material form, they are perceived as causing a change from personal to impersonal exchange relationships. However, there is considerable diversity in how mobile phones are used for economic purposes—​the same benefits do not apply everywhere, and all small-​scale entrepreneurs do not reap similar economic benefits from their mobile phones (Samuel, Shah, and Hadingham 2005; J.  Donner 2006; Overå 2006; Abraham 2007; Jensen 2007; Aker 2008; Jagun, Heeks, and Whalley 2008; Frempong 2009; Molony 2006). Much of the scholarship on small-​scale entrepreneurs’ mobile phone use depicts the use of early adopters; nevertheless, microentrepreneurs’ experiences of phone use are likely to change over time as phones become ubiquitous. Burrell (2014) argues that the narrow focus on these phones’ few economic benefits has obscured their multitude of functions and their indeterminate range of uses. To ground her critique, Burrell examines the multifaceted ways market women in Accra, Ghana, incorporate mobile phones into their day-​to-​day trade practices. Her research illustrates that rather than leading to more impersonal and calculative trade relationships, market women use their phones to deepen relations with their trade partners and as opportunities to enhance their affiliations at all levels. Whereas the Western narrative tends to make a distinction between social and business calls, many researchers have found that entrepreneurs themselves either emphasize the importance of social calls or do not make this distinction. In Rwanda, J.  Donner (2009) found that small business owners demonstrate a strong mix of business and personal use of their mobiles. Sey (2011), who undertook a multimethod study of entrepreneurs’ mobile phone use in Ghana, likewise argues that phone use cannot be reduced to either economic or social uses because the importance of connectivity cuts across all social and economic activities. Srinivasan and Burrell (2013) found that the majority of fish market actors use mobile phones not only for trading but also to maintain relationships and request help during emergencies. I share Burrell’s (2014) interest in developing a more nuanced picture of the role of mobile phones in economic activities. Rather than juxtaposing economic and social uses, I  explore them in tandem:  I delve into the interconnections between phone use for logistical purposes within different symbolic domains, including the economic uses of phones, as well as the micromanagement of kinship relations. How are phones used within the different branches of rural economy and livelihoods? How are phones used instrumentally and socially, and how do these different

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uses mesh and interrelate? And how does the phone’s ability to increase logistical efficiency influence social relationships? In looking for answers to these questions, I  follow anthropology’s long intellectual tradition of viewing economy as embedded in social relations.1 I explore how phones are used to coordinate social life and increase economy efficiency and how these uses relate to cultural meanings and developmental impacts. I introduce the social logistics concept as a tool to develop the understanding of the relationship between phone use for economic and social purposes. I start by examining the diverse uses of phones for livelihoods: small-​scale business (such as shopkeepers; pesticide, fertilizer, and insurance salesmen; electricians; carpenters; and decorators of celebrations), agricultural production, and labor arrangements. Subsequently, I describe how phones are used to coordinate kinship relations: to keep in contact with the immediate family and more distant relatives, as well as to manage family conflicts and summon help during emergencies. A central topic of the calls between family members is health issues, and I illustrate how people use phones in private to obtain informal information on health care and arrange health care for themselves and family members. My initial research on the mobile phone use of the early adapters in Janta supported prior research findings on the economic benefits of phones for small-​scale businesses. It did not take the local entrepreneurs in Janta long to realize that mobile phones could help them extend their clientele. Mobile phones allowed microentrepreneurs to keep in touch with their customers, even when they are on the road. Phones were also used to check product availability, order stock, and compare wholesale prices in different markets. As the following excerpts from the interviews demonstrate, phones helped people in diverse fields increase their income and their businesses’ efficiency (Tenhunen 2008a): “How was your business before the phones?” “That time I  had to go to meet the parties. But now I  can coordinate the business from my home.” (Irrigation machine installer, a man) “Have phones enabled new types of business here?” “Yes, before the phones it was not convenient. One had to travel to buy the products from the wholesale market and spend money for gasoline. One liter of gasoline cost fifty-​five rupees. Traveling was also a waste of time. Now I can take care of the work at home and spend just a couple of rupees over the phone. I also communicate with clients about installing machines. Doing business without the phone used to be inconvenient, and for that reason, I got the phone two and half years ago.” “Why did you buy your mobile phone?”

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“For communication, and the other reason is this little shop. I  need the phone to find out about prices and organize the fetching of products from the wholesale markets. Nowadays, they even deliver products to my home. Earlier I had to travel to the marketplace. Now if I say I cannot come they can send the products. I can only do this work thanks to the phone.” (Shopkeeper, a man) “Do you benefit from your phone for your work?” “Yes. Clients can place orders for wooden products. I am a carpenter. I can discuss the work details and location with the clients.” (Carpenter, a man) “Do you have more work than before thanks to the phone?” “Yes, communication is fast over the phone as I do not need to travel.”

However, the picture of mobile phones’ economic benefits became more complicated after I had a chance to observe phone use within diverse economic fields over time. I will next delve into the variation in entrepreneurs’ experiences of phone benefits.


Most small-​ scale entrepreneurs concentrate on selling their services and products to villagers, such as the small neighborhood shops where villagers buy their daily groceries like sugar, salt, flour, spices, biscuits, soap, and washing powder. As one store owner explains, phones have not increased their business margins considerably:  “The income from this business does not depend on the phone. My income depends on how much I  sell.” Another store owner mentions that phones have made his work easier. Indeed, most entrepreneurs maintain that they use phones for convenience and not to increase their income. Depending on their ability to obtain credit from wholesale sellers, store owners can order stock for their village store from a nearby town and compare different wholesale sellers’ prices. Consequently, they now spend less time commuting than before they owned a phone. If they must travel to make the purchase themselves, they can first call and check a product’s availability before traveling to purchase it. However, the convenience of doing business via phone has helped more people start stores, thus increasing competition. Whereas previously there were just one or two stores, now there are several small stores in each neighborhood, and this proliferation prevents store owners from increasing their sales. Moreover, using phones for business has created a new expenditure.

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The sale of talk time is a new type of business that phones have enabled. In 2013, these sellers made a profit of thirty rupees when selling talk time worth one thousand rupees. Since villagers only buy small amounts of talk time, the daily profits from their sales offer only the possibility of a side business rather than a main livelihood. Certain other new lines of businesses in the village also benefit from phones but have not yet proven lucrative: pesticide and fertilizer sales, printing invitation cards, a photo studio, and the sale of downloaded audio and visual data on phone chips. Nevertheless, there is a market for these services, and previously the villagers had to travel outside the village to access them. Other entrepreneurs in the village and the region who have benefitted economically from phones include insurance and investment agents, carpenters, mechanics, a chicken farmer, artisans who build wooden structures and other constructions for celebrations, and a ganja (marihuana) seller. They have all used their phones to communicate with wholesale markets and customers in the village, as well as to extend their clientele to people outside the village in common. An insurance salesman describes how he benefits from his mobile phone: “Has your income risen?” “Yes. My income has risen since I  am doing commission business. The commission is according to the sales. The income has risen slightly or is beginning to rise. Earlier I had to travel more, but now it is much less.”

Whereas carpenters and insurance agents report modest economic gains, the village chicken farmer and the ganja seller in the region have prospered remarkably. How can this difference in engendered profit be explained? The chicken farmer was among the first in the village to obtain a mobile phone and, shortly thereafter, he also bought a three-​wheeler, which helped him extend his clientele because he can receive orders even when he is out making deliveries. He explains how he uses his phone for his business: “I need to travel a lot. I go out early in the morning and come back 1:30 PM. I leave again in the afternoon and return in the evening. So I am out the whole day. Thanks to the mobile phone I  can communicate directly with my clients even when traveling. And if there is any problem at home, they can contact me. Moreover, if something happens on the road—​for instance, the day before yesterday my vehicle broke down in the forest area, and I could call someone to repair it. The repairman came and fixed the vehicle immediately. Owning a mobile phone is extremely useful.”

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His investment in a three-​wheeler and a mobile phone increased his monthly sales from 30 to 150 quintals.2 He soon invested in the village’s first refrigerator to store chickens. He also bought a color television and a DVD player and became the first villager to have cable television. During my subsequent visits, I  observed his wealth and business expanding. By 2012, he had acquired three vehicles and was about to complete a large, luxurious, two-​story house, the first in the village with modern conveniences such as running water and a flush toilet. The way he was able to pioneer the use of his mobile phone to increase business profits reflects his overall interest in trying different business ideas. He told me he had realized that he could not make ends meet by farming his small plot of land. He resorted first to selling ready-​made clothes and then became a village storekeeper. He finally tried his luck at raising poultry after he observed a small farmer in a neighboring village growing chickens. He soon shifted from hatching chickens from eggs at his farm to buying chicklings and growing them to sell. Over the past decade, his business raising poultry has emerged as the most lucrative village business. In addition to the new logistical efficiency enabled by phones, his business has benefitted from the growing demand for chicken meat: over the same decade, chicken meat replaced goat meat as part of the meal during many social occasions and celebrations, and chicken meat became part of some villagers’ everyday diet. The growth in agriculture and economic prosperity, which started in the 1980s and 1990s, has contributed to these changes in eating habits. In a similar manner, the ganja seller’s success has been largely based on his ability to extend his clientele considerably through the use of his mobile phone. Selling ganja is illegal, and mobile phones help him stay in touch with his customers discreetly. Competition in both the chicken and the ganja markets has not increased substantially because both lines of business carry significant risks that deter people from starting them. Ganja selling is risky, it is stigmatized as a criminal activity, and most people in the region consider it harmful. Running this business requires managing police demands for bribes. Chicken farming demands substantial investments to raise the chickens and transport them to customers. It also carries economic risks because chickens are difficult to raise, especially during the extreme spring and summer heat. As mentioned, most other businesses that successfully use mobile phones to increase their profitability have had to deal with growing competition. Moreover, using mobile phones for business incurs new costs that might not be compensated for by the increases in business profits. An agent who trades agricultural products explains:

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“When I  compare my income to the time I  did not own the phone, it has remained the same. Maybe communication is now easier but many people have experienced the same benefits. Therefore, competition has increased.” “But can you now do more business than before you owned the phone?” “Yes, I can do more business but the profit margin has decreased.”

His mobile phone has helped him to do business efficiently but has not led to an increase in income from the business. Fishmongers’ experiences with mobile phones are similar: the trade does not require large investments and several fishmongers supply the same villages with fish. They wake at dawn and travel to buy fish from the fishermen who fish in the ponds near the town of Bishnupur. The fishmongers return to sell the purchased fish in adjacent villages, mostly door to door, but they also receive a few orders by phone. Although fish is consumed more often than meat as part of the daily diet, the competition and the ease with which this business can be started means that selling fish is by no means lucrative, even if one receives orders by phone. Among women, the most common form of economic activity is preparing and selling popped rice (muri). Because women earn only a meager income from selling muri to regular customers, they do not use phones. In summary, mobile phones have offered many logistical affordances for small-​scale entrepreneurs, only one of which is the ability to obtain market information. Phones are used to communicate with wholesale markets and customers, and they also are used to solve problems at home and outside the home without delay. Mobile phones have made doing all kinds of businesses easier—​they have helped save time and energy regardless of one’s line of business. This logistical benefit does not necessarily mean that one could earn a higher income than without the phone; nevertheless, having a phone contributes to a person’s ability to live a good life. But this benefit is contradictory in the sense that ease of doing business tends to increase competition and thereby lower profits. Moreover, various aspects of one’s identity influence how one can benefit from mobile phones in terms of improved economic efficiency and income. The business benefits and logistical affordances of mobile phones proved highly intersectional in the sense that the most lucrative businesses belong to upper-​caste (Tili and Chasa) men. Lower castes (Bagdis) have been able to enter carpentry and transportation business (see “Phones and Labor Relationships”), and one Bagdi neighborhood shop was owned by a Bagdi person. Mobile phones did help a few low-​caste men and upper-​caste women enter the volatile field of investment sales, but this did not prove a sustainable form of livelihood—​the Sahara group was active in the region

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until its license was canceled in 2014 as a result of its inability to refund investors. In other words, phones opened few new business possibilities for women and scheduled castes in the village (Chapter 5 explores the gendered spheres and Chapter 7 examines the caste structure in the village in more detail). None of the village businesses was particularly large, but the ones with a larger turnover could benefit more than smaller businesses, such as fish selling. Other crucial factors that influence how one can benefit economically from mobile phones include the nature of competition within one’s field of business and the size and composition of the markets, including one’s position within these markets. Mobile phones could be used to improve one’s income from small-​scale business provided that the market’s of one’s business extended outside the village.


Phones have helped make transportation a viable livelihood for villagers (Fig. 4.2). The number of car drivers in the village has tripled over the past decade, indicating that there is more demand for hired cars because rides can be negotiated efficiently by phone. My findings are similar to those of Ling et al. (2015), who studied trishaw (rickshaw) operators in Myanmar. They found that operators who have not adopted mobile phones, usually because of poverty, age, or a lack of interest, have fewer business opportunities. Mobile phones strengthened ties with important clients, which meant a more stable income for operators, although they became dependent on these few customers. Nevertheless, a phone is no guarantee of passengers in rural West Bengal, and owning a car is not profitable unless one waits for customers in a designated place in the nearby town. Owning a second-​ hand car used to be lucrative because driving passengers to nearby cities for errands could ensure an income of several hundred rupees per day. Public transportation by train or bus takes half a day, but a two-​way car trip to Kolkata can be done in a day, thus avoiding the need to pay for lodging. However, old vehicles became worthless in 2011 when the state government enforced a ban on cars that do not meet emission standards. The price of vehicles (over five hundred thousand rupees) that fulfill the emission standards is far beyond most villagers’ economic capacity. This legislation did not influence bicycles; consequently, mobile phones help some villagers earn extra income from transporting small amounts of goods using bicycle vans. As mentioned in Chapter  3 (see “Radio: Untapped Potential”), one man motorized his bicycle van, and banks hire the owner of this cheap vehicle to drive around the countryside

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Figure 4.2:  Mobile phones have helped transform the transportation business. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

and play a reminder through the loudspeaker of when people’s debts are due. Nevertheless, cars are a more significant form of transport than bicycles because people often need to travel long distances in rural areas like Bankura. Hence, government regulation and the car market strongly influenced the use of mobile phones in the transport business. Since only the largest landowners can afford new cars, most young men in the village can only drive other people’s cars. A phone helps them with this work but it does not increase their earnings because they mainly work for one client who pays them a monthly salary (fifteen hundred to three thousand rupees), which barely feeds a small family. A  driver explains

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his use of a mobile phone at work: “My income has not risen thanks to the phone. Phone helps to get news from home and there is good communication with the clients.” For most drivers, the options are to work for upper-​class families transporting their family members or to drive clients for those car owners who rent out their cars as an investment. Since drivers usually receive a monthly salary, negotiating rides over the phone with customers mainly help the car owners—​not the drivers—​ expand their earnings. Mobile phones also give car owners better control of the income from their cars, since they can now call or text customers after the trip to inquire how much the driver charged them. The most important benefit of phones for drivers is that they can stay in touch with their families while on the road and can call for help if they suffer engine failure. The most common form of nonfarm work in the village is in tile factories. Phones are not useful for this work; work-​related information spreads efficiently by word of mouth because the factories are close to the village. A few people working in a steel factory farther away said that they find phones useful to stay in touch with the factory administration. Farm workers own phones to stay in touch with farmers, who, in turn, have found that mobile phones have made it easier for them to hire agricultural labor. As one farmer explains, “Nowadays there are fewer workers and more demand for them due to the new industries nearby. If I see a group of workers, I can write down their numbers and contact them when we need workers.”


Since mobile phones became available, agricultural produce can be sold by phone. Whereas deals were previously closed by signing a written contract well in advance of the products’ delivery, sellers can now continue haggling with various buyers until it is time to deliver the products. Prices can be settled by phone at the last minute, which has decreased the middleman’s profit and benefitted the farmers. There is, however, much variation in how farmers have benefitted from phones. Large farmers who own more than nine bighas3 of land describe how they use their mobile phones for farming: “I can get information about fertilizers and their prices. I can compare prices: for instance, I can find out that the price is high in Sonamukhi and Durgapur. We can also order trucks to transport the products.”

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“If I need seeds, I can place the order over the phone, and they will send the van to deliver the seed. This way I ordered seed potatoes. I can also communicate about sending vegetable to the marketplace.” “I can call about fertilizers or negotiate about the price of seeds. Seed potatoes are available in all places, Garbeta and there are so many places beyond Vishnupur. Before this kind of communication was not possible because traveling by motorcycle incurred costs. Now I can just spend one rupee (over the phone) for communicating instead of spending forty rupees for gasoline.” “If I cannot travel to purchase pesticide, I can place the order over the phone, and they can send someone to bring it. That way I can save from travel costs. I can also use phone numbers from radio and television advertisements to call companies that sell seeds.” “I can find out about markets and prices. I  could not get this information by going to one market since I need to make inquiries to various marketplaces.” “I can ask about the prices, where to take the products. Potato, paddy, all.” “Where do you call about the prices?” “Vishnupur and also Nikantapur but mostly Vishnupur. The price is a little bit less in Vishnupur because there are not many other marketplaces nearby. Prices are higher in few markets further away. Vishnupur is close by so most people sell their products there.”

Large farmers, indeed, use their phones to get market information about their produce and about fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides. Small farmers share some of these benefits, such as inquiring about seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, but most denied using phones to market their produce because they cannot grow large quantities of agricultural produce for sale. Small farmers, who own one to three bighas of land, describe how they use their phone: “Do you get any benefits for farming from your mobile phone?” “No, I do not get benefits from my mobile phone for farming since I do not own much land.” “Do you mean that you do not grow products for sale?” “To sell agricultural produce, one needs to own large areas of land. We do not own much land, and we, therefore, consume at home what we are able to grow. I can only sell bitter gourd but onions and wheat, those I do not sell. We have such a big family, two brothers with their families.” “If I have gone to the marketplace they can inform me from home if they need something for work.” “The benefit of phone for agriculture is that one can communicate news. For instance, I can call a shop whether they have the product before traveling to fetch

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it. The news is also communication with the in-​laws in case there is any trouble (bipod).” “Do you think that farmers’ income has risen thanks to the phone?” “Yes, I think their income has risen. For instance, if the water pump is broken one can immediately call someone to fix it. The repairman can come immediately and fix it. Then there is more communication with companies. We can communicate about fetching of vegetables. Moreover, those who have found jobs in companies even in distant places can communicate with their relatives in the village. The relatives in the village can request those who have moved to work in cities to find jobs for them, too. They can also inform the date one should travel to join the company. This way people are moving out of the village.”

Indeed, mobile phones’ crucial economic role for small farmers is that fellow villagers, who have already moved to work outside the village, can provide information on job opportunities over the phone. The above comment is perceptive because farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable (see Chapter 3, “Connections”). Hence, the easiest way for small farmers to increase their income is to send a family member to do paid labor outside the village. Midsize and large farmers regularly ascertain the vegetable prices in the nearby towns of Bishnupur, Bankura, Asansol, and Durgapur. Nevertheless, it is not profitable to transport large crops, such as paddy and potatoes, over large distances. Most people therefore prefer to sell them in nearby markets. Even midsize and large farmers often rely on a dealer who has provided them with credit to invest in farming because many such dealers also act as money lenders. Small-​scale farmers (those who own one to three bigha) do not benefit from comparing prices between different markets by phone because they do not have much to sell. A farmer may travel daily to sell just a few vegetables at the Vishnupur open market and use the day’s income to buy groceries there. However, phones have helped all farmers with work arrangements because the men can now call from the field if they urgently require equipment or pesticides—​fields can be located several kilometers from the farmers’ houses. The role of phones in farming is especially prominent during paddy harvesting because mobile phones have enabled farmers to hire harvester machines from the Punjab. Earlier, small farmers relied on manual labor, but the increases in daily laborers’ wages have made labor-​ saving technologies more affordable in relation manual labor. During harvesting time, both local farmers and the Punjabi drivers of the massive harvester machines talk busily over their phones and take photographs in the paddy fields with their camera phones. The use of mobile phones to

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rent harvesters has strengthened small farmers’ ties to the market, thus reducing their self-​sufficiency. Harvesters not only replace manual labor during the work-​intensive harvesting phase, but also influence the farms’ work and production cycles. When machines harvest paddy, it no longer needs to be processed by manual boiling, which was traditionally women’s work. Instead of storing paddy and refining it gradually, the whole stock is harvested and sold. Those who have hired a harvester buy rice for their own consumption instead of storing their own paddy. Harvesting machines leave no straws to be stocked for cows; therefore, harvesting by machine has made keeping cows to produce manure for vegetable gardens less economical. Since boiled paddy sells at a higher price than unboiled paddy, most small farmers continue boiling their paddy and saving straw for cow fodder. A few men mentioned that they use phones to discuss farming options and tips with their relatives. They criticized companies for bombarding them with advertisements that only benefit these companies and for not providing information by phone that would help farmers improve their farming practices. Since the economic reforms, farmers have increasingly been left to fend for themselves in terms of testing new varieties of seed, fertilizers, and pesticides. The central government and states have reduced their investments in developing the farming sector by means of research and public education. Phones could be used to educate farmers about improved techniques. A few pilot cases have proven that it is possible to deliver farming information via phone (Banks 2016). However, many of these pilot projects lack scalability. For instance, IKSL, the information system set up by one of India’s largest fertilizer producers, the cooperative IFFCO, Bharti Airtel, and Star Global Resources, has attracted fewer than 2 percent of Indian farmer households (R. Jeffrey and Doron 2012, 140). In Janta, only two women, sisters who went to college, used an educational, text message–​based service, Nokia Life Tools. They used a promotional campaign that gave them free access for a month but gave up the service once the service provider company started to charge them. As these sisters’ experience illustrates, the groups targeted by the developmental applications of mobile technology often choose to spend their income on other more urgent priorities than text messages, even if they convey useful information.


Although business calls are an important call category, most people say they purchased their phone to stay in touch with relatives. A high percentage of

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their calls are indeed to relatives because only a minority of the villagers (4 percent in 2004) rely on business as a livelihood. The following woman’s call to her brother illustrates the interconnections between kinship and economic information (the excerpts are from the woman’s conversation during the phone call): “I am fine, brother. My son-​in-​law stayed with us for nine days and did all the work. Everything was destroyed by hail. But we are all well. Bola’s marriage has been arranged. He was not telling the truth that day. He gets eleven thousand, and the marriage is on the fifteenth.Will you come? We have to go with others. We have to repay the loan from the cooperative bank. Interest is increasing by the day. Give whatever you are able to give. The more you can give, the better. Do you know where the bride is from? From Durgapur. She is beautiful. They will give earrings, a ring and eleven thousand. Since he liked her, the dowry they will receive will be less. What can money buy, after all? He has still not come back from work. Call next Sunday again. I will wait here around seven o’clock. We are all fine. There are no problems. Sagor’s uncle got a government job from the camp office. He sold the land for thirty thousand rupees and with the money got the job from the camp office. Call again. Take care and stay on good terms with everyone.”

Kinship relates to economy not only because relatives offer one another loans and support during crises, but also because land use follows kinship considerations. Kinship and economy are culturally constructed and symbolically related, exemplified by the giving of large dowries upon marriage, which is an important financial transaction in the region (Tenhunen 2008b). Kin relations also facilitate market relationships and transactions. Moreover, the economic principle of cost-​efficiency enabled by phones is, in addition to economy, applied within the sphere of kinship. For most people, the biggest benefit of mobile phones is that they enable them to stay in touch with relatives at an affordable price, thus avoiding the need to pay for travel each time they wish to make contact. They say that travel costs of hundreds of rupees have been reduced to just a few rupees as a result of mobile phones. Another clear economic benefit of phones is that they help people save time. One need no longer be absent from work to travel to meet people to remain connected. This is especially important for daily laborers, for whom having to miss a day of work to spend time traveling may mean not being able to feed their family that day. I was surprised to discover that the son of my former host family, who was in his twenties, had already worked in several different states in India. When I lived in the village in 1999, nobody envisaged that he

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would one day have a future outside the village and in nonfarming activities. In 2013, he worked as a laborer in South India, sending what he was able to save home, allowing his family to pay back the debts they had made to arrange his twin sisters’ marriages. Young men are increasingly emigrating to work outside the village, and phones are integral in helping them stay in touch with their parents. According to a woman whose son works outside West Bengal, before the arrival of the village phone, they only talked to their son about once a year. Thereafter, the village phone allowed the son to call his parents weekly at a predetermined time. Now that most households have phones, it is common for parents to talk daily to a son working outside the village. The increase in communication has led to sons living elsewhere still being considered part of the village households, whereas these absent members were earlier not listed when I  inquired about the household members. These increased connections are economically important for village households because they help tie the absent members to the household, which means they are also more likely to feel duty-​bound to care for their family and send remittances. New, cemented houses in the village are often a sign of a family member working outside the village. Phones are used for daily interaction with close family members, and calling frequencies symbolize the closeness of the bonds:  more parents mentioned calling their sons daily than their daughters who live elsewhere, but some also call their daughters daily.4 For instance, I observed a son who works as a car driver calling home every day, whereas the daughter, who lives with her in-​laws, called only occasionally to chat. The two main phone call categories are calling for news (khabor) and managing trouble (bipod). Whereas it is common to call the closest family members frequently merely to inquire how the other person is, calls to more distant relatives are usually to tell them about problems:  economic crises resulting from misfortune, accidents, and illnesses. These calls could be about trying to raise money from relatives or requests for relatives to visit a very ill relative. “These days we get news immediately even if something happens in America. For instance, one girl from this village died in a motorcycle accident. Two persons died in the morning. They immediately called my house and distributed their news in the village. This was possible thanks to the phone. Without the phone, it would have taken two hours before we received the news. Another advantage of the phones is that if someone’s relative has problems. They can call to inform us about the trouble and ask us to come.”

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Indeed, a phone call in Janta often signals news of trouble. A  family I  observed right after they had acquired a mobile phone and gave their phone number to their relatives, for instance, immediately received a few calls from relatives who related their economic misfortunes over the phone and requested economic help, which the family in question was not able to give. These requests do not become an additional economic burden, especially among low-​income people, since there is a general understanding that their economic resources are highly limited and they, therefore, can only give a small amount of money or must simply decline many requests.


Not all calls are about getting help in dire circumstances, but the villagers perceive the ability to call for help as one of the phones’ most crucial benefits. As one villager mentions, “For example, if someone’s father dies, the daughters are able to go there immediately and see the body before the cremation. And if a relative gets into trouble, I can go there immediately. When my daughter was very ill, I went with her to Vellore. She suddenly lost consciousness, and I was able to call a car immediately. This is the kind of convenience that we get from the phones.”

I met people who had been motivated to purchase their first phone because of a family member’s illness. As mentioned, phones allow seriously ill patients in the village to be transported to a doctor or a hospital because it is possible to hire a car by phone. However, phones have not made it possible to summon trained medical help to the village in times of emergencies. Public health centers do not have sufficient staff to attend to patients outside the center, and trained medical doctors in towns do not leave their clinics to attend to their patients in the villages. The self-​taught doctor who lives in the adjacent village is the only person family members can call if a villager is too sick to travel. I witnessed him injecting a patient who was too sick to travel and too poor to see a doctor outside the village on the basis of a medically trained doctor’s earlier diagnosis. Because the trained doctor’s prescriptions could not be found, the self-​taught doctor had to remember what had been prescribed. He initially managed to give the medicine that had previously worked, but then changed the medicine when his store ran out. Since the medicine in question was an antibiotic, such a change could have endangered the patient’s health.

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India’s health care is one of the most commercialized in the world: the country’s public expenditure on health accounts for less than one-​third of its total health expenditure—​one of the lowest in the world (Drèze and Sen 2013). Health costs are a common reason that small landowners become landless. This is exemplified by a family in Janta who was forced to sell their agricultural land to treat their son’s cerebral malaria. Luckily, the son recovered and can now maintain his family by working as a laborer in a steel factory. However, not all people who sell their land obtain regular jobs, and not all patients recover. Not only are health costs the most important reason for families becoming impoverished, but also those who are unable to pay for private health care simply cannot be treated for serious illnesses because public health care does not have resources to treat people who need special care. People do not trust their district’s public or private health-​care systems or those in West Bengal state. After expensive medical tests, many people believed they had not received the right treatment in West Bengal. As Drèze and Sen (2013) point out, private health care in India is poorly regulated. Patients are often left to the mercy of unscrupulous practitioners, and fraud, overmedication, exploitative pricing, and unnecessary surgery are common. Faced with serious illnesses, the villagers prefer to spend large sums of money to travel to southern India, especially Vellore and Bangalore, to obtain proper treatment at the few hospitals with a good reputation for fair pricing and reliable care, instead of visiting the hospitals close to them. It is an arduous task for villagers to travel to South India to obtain care in a foreign-​language environment. Some people who have acquired an understanding of the medical organizations in the few popular South Indian hospitals offer their services as medical agents at a price, traveling with patients and helping them obtain treatment. Many of my acquaintances and friends from Janta have now started to collect information from fellow patients over the phone to make arrangements for treatment and travel instead of hiring these medical agents. Phones also help raise money for medical treatment from relatives and stay in touch with the health-​care personnel outside the village or with other patients who have traveled to obtain medical treatment. Two public health workers in the village have phones but do not use them to stay in frequent touch with the villagers because the government only pays them a small remuneration, which does not cover their phone costs. The government does not even provide health workers with phones. For instance, one health worker had received her phone from her husband’s employer as a gift and a token of his caring attitude. Health workers, who receive two weeks of medical training, collect information about the health

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situation in the village, advise people about child nutrition, and encourage women to give birth in hospitals. The worker responsible for getting pregnant women to give birth in hospitals phones pregnant mothers occasionally because her remuneration is based on the number of women she can persuade to do so. She has not benefitted economically, however, because she now spends most of her remuneration paying her phone costs. A worker in charge of child welfare in the village does not use her phone to communicate with the villagers because of the costs. Instead, she uses the phone to communicate with the health administration. Health workers regularly report on the people they have advised, including providing the administration with their phone numbers, so that their superiors can check that the reported cases exist. The health workers submit paper reports to the local health office, where they are captured on a computer and delivered digitally to Delhi. In summary, the central government has mainly used mobile technology to control and oversee health workers’ activities—​not to improve the efficiency of health service delivery. Instead of mobile telephony, the Indian state has invested in the delivery of health services through the National Health Insurance (Rasthriya Swastiya Bima Yojana), which uses computers. All beneficiaries are issued with a biometric-​enabled smart card containing their fingerprints, photographs, and iris scans. Smart cards, which are part of the Unique Identification System (Aadhaar)5 in India, have attracted public critique centered on what is seen as the scheme’s potential for state monitoring and surveillance (Noy 2014). They have also met with many practical problems, since Indians working in agriculture, construction workers, and other manual laborers have worn fingers caused by a lifetime of hard labor, which makes identifying them by means of fingerprints impossible (Sruthijith 2010). The local administration sends a half dozen clerks equipped with laptops to enter the villagers’ information into a database. One day each year, the villagers queue to ensure their information is stored on a smart card. The smart card entitles each person to thirty thousand rupees of health care at a list of accredited hospitals and health centers from which they can choose. The program provides much-​needed public resources for health care, although thirty thousand rupees is not enough to cover the cost of a major operation. The program’s reliance on private health-​care providers has been criticized because the latter are not incentivized to limit their costs (Drèze and Sen 2013). Moreover, reissuing smart cards annually seems wasteful. The way villagers use their phones to cope with the overpriced private health-​care system shows the potential benefits of phones for health care. Telemedicine has been criticized for missing the importance of the wider

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context of a patient’s ill-​health and suffering (Helman 2007): face-​to-​face meetings provide health practitioners a wide range of information about the patient in comparison to the limited forms of communication enabled over the internet or a mobile phone. However, the above-​ mentioned examples of people’s private use of mobile telephony for health care demonstrate that it is possible for mobile phone users to create social contexts of health care that include and use digital media. Elsewhere in the developing world, many mHealth systems deliver large-​scale health care. For instance, in Bangladesh the state promotes both eHealth and mHealth as a route to cost-​effective, equitable, and quality health care (Ahmed et  al. 2014). Crentsil (2013) has shown that mobile technology can be harnessed to increase the well-​being of the most vulnerable part of the Ghanaian population: HIV-​positive women who can currently simply phone in, make their next counseling appointment, and discuss their treatment with hospital counselors. Nevertheless, only a third of the patients Crentsil interviewed possessed a phone. The calling costs are another major challenge for patients and local health workers. In Indonesia, the government issued mobile phones to midwives to improve health services in the rural province of Aceh, which was recovering from the devastating impact of the 2004 tsunami. Chib and Hsueh-​Hua Chen (2011) describe how the ability to obtain advice using their mobile phones gave the midwives the courage to handle difficult pregnancy cases. The midwives also benefited from the community’s increased trust. Chib (2013) maintains that despite ample evidence of successful mHealth projects utilizing mobile telephony to improve communication, coordination, and access to health care (Fjeldsoe, Marshall, and Miller 2009; Cole-​Lewis and Kershaw 2010; Krishna, Boren, and Balas 2009; Vital Wave Consulting 2009), there remains inadequate proof that mobile phones could be adapted to provide mass health care. In rural West Bengal, inexpensive mobile phones could be used to provide health information, to monitor many illnesses, and to call doctors to visit patients in the village during medical emergencies. Nevertheless, health workers in Janta only use mobile technology to list their clients’ mobile phone numbers for their handwritten reports, whereas the National Health Insurance uses a market-​driven high-​tech solution to register people as part of the scheme—​like the idea of e-​governance, Aadhaar comprises the desire to attain transparent citizen relations through a high-​tech start-​ up. As Chib (2013) argues, the existing power dynamics influence the appropriation of digital technologies for health care. In India, high-​tech ventures such as Aadhaar have captured the popular imagination, while the potential of mHealth, which is based on technology regarded as more mundane, has remained largely untapped.

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My findings on the impact of phone use in rural West Bengal show a peculiar duality. On the one hand, Janta villagers mentioned experiencing the same benefits from phones, such as the ability to call for help, save time, find market information, and access markets, as villagers in diverse places in the Global South where phones have been associated with a form of social logistics characterized by the increased multiplicity of social contacts and greater efficiency of market relationships (Bayes, von Braun, and Akhter 1999; Bruns, Lamar, and Tiam-​Tong 1996; Coyle 2005; Jensen 2007; Samuel, Shah, and Hadingham 2005; Waverman, Meschi, and Fuss 2005; Esselaar et al. 2007). On the other hand, in common with other ethnographies on the appropriation of ICTs (Horst and Miller 2006; Miller and Slater 2000), my research exemplifies how the appropriation of phones draws from the local culture. In rural West Bengal, phones have accentuated kinship ties. My observations raise the question, how can the homogenization of social logistics occur in the midst of cultural appropriation? In the most general sense, logistics refers to the careful organization of a complicated activity, so that it occurs successfully and effectively. As a concept and a practice, logistics have evolved into a discipline practiced in different ways and contexts—​from military systems to business and event management (Langley 1986). Russel (2000) argues that the underlying general theory of logistics practices involves developing and managing the capabilities and protocols that are responsive to customers’ requirements. I prefer to use the term social logistics because it accentuates that logistics is inevitably socially mediated and not simply confined to economic life as separate from other domains of culture and society. Whether one arranges a business deal or maintains personal relationships, one must operate within meaningful relationships in a social structure. In other words, logistical maneuvers draw on symbolic systems, and improved logistical efficiency does not entail a shift from personal to impersonal systems. Phones mediate cultural contexts that amplify cultural patterns, but they do so selectively. This is possible because, as Derne (2005, 46) maintains, all cultures recognize contradictory aspects of the human experience that provide multiple cultural resources on which individuals can draw in times of change. Instead of having long face-​to-​face discussions, phones reinforce brief phone conversations in rural West Bengal, where most people can afford to use their phones only sparingly. When keeping in touch becomes more frequent and casual, the meanings of relationships change. Mobile technology has an impact on logistics, but not directly on cultural meanings,

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because similar logistics can thrive in different cultures. Moreover, the logistical affordances of mobile telephony are manifold while people’s ability to reap these benefits is greatly influenced by their social positions, as determined by many factors such as class, caste, and gender, as well as one’s position in relation to markets.


Mobile telephony influences development understood as economic growth and increased well-​being: the small reductions in time and money needed to run errands that phones enable do add up. In fact, phone users are likely to underestimate the logistical benefits of phones because they are hard to calculate and measure. In Janta, most people could accomplish more in a shorter time because of the ability to coordinate activities with the help of mobile phones. However, phones have been most economically beneficial for the wealthiest entrepreneurs and large farmers, while laborers and other low-​income people have benefited least. Those entrepreneurs whose markets extend outside the village used phones to expand their clientele, and phones also enabled the start of a few new businesses. In addition to the ability to communicate, the profitability of small-​scale businesses is influenced crucially by the level of the competition, the market size, and its growth rate, as well as government regulation. An analysis of my ethnographic data indicates that mobile phones have been more instrumental in increasing the number of economic activities in Janta and the surrounding region than in helping individual entrepreneurs improve their incomes. The overall economic activity in the region has grown, but the increased competition within many lines of business has hampered the growth prospects of individual businesses. By connecting kinship and economic practices further, phones have influenced the relationships between these two domains. The economic uses of phones are linked to an intensification of kinship relationships with the help of mobile phones and to how the two spheres are currently coordinated according to cost-​efficiency principles. However, despite the increased efficiency, many opportunities to reap developmental impacts from mobile telephony have been missed as a result of the persistent idea that mobile telephony belongs to the market realm. A  popular developmental narrative identifies mobile phones as engines of economic growth and as part of the market economy—​as a result, considerably less attention has been given to how governments could greatly enhance the delivery of useful information and services with the help of mobile technology.

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This chapter has shown that, as part of the economic liberalization and market operation, the social production of mobile technology has conditioned the way mobile telephony is used to increase the economy and social relationships’ logistical efficiency, as well as the way this influences culture in specific ways. Instead of homogenizing cultures, mobile technology reinforces those cultural patterns and processes that can be reconciled with improved efficiency and coordination in social interaction and business transactions. Cultural reasons motivate people’s phone use, while the increase in logistical efficiency serves to create novel speech contexts. Chapters 5 and 6 explore these novel speech contexts by focusing on how phones contribute to the multiplicity of discourses by mediating discourse and interaction.

NOTES 1. The embeddedness position is associated with the substantivist school in anthropology and is especially identified with Polanyi (1944) and the idea of moral economy in history and political science (E. P. Thompson 1971; Scott 1976). However, the cultural construction of economy has been a theme in anthropological research since Malinowski’s (1922) research on the Kula rings in Papua New Guinea. 2. In India, the quintal is equivalent to one hundred kilograms and is a standard measurement of agricultural product mass. 3. In West Bengal, the bigha is interpreted as being one-​third of an acre (1,333 square meters). 4. A major phone function is to help maintain translocal connections with women’s natal families. I discuss women’s phone use and relationships between in-​laws in detail in Chapter 5 (see “Mediation of Gendered Space through Mobile Phones”). 5. India’s UID project began in 2009 with the establishment of the Unique Identification Authority of India, a governmental agency with a mandate to issue every Indian resident a twelve-​digit identification number that is linked to unique personal biometric markers (Noy 2014).

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Mediating Gender Mobile Phones and Women’s Agency


hen I moved to live with a family in the village in 1999, the situation of the young wife in the family puzzled me. Like most married women in the region, she had moved from her natal village to live with her in-​laws in Janta after her marriage. She had not visited her parents since her marriage about a year before. The villagers explained that young wives are not supposed to visit their natal families for a year after their marriage. No one supported my interpretation of her treatment as unnecessarily strict, and I never heard her demand to be allowed to visit her natal home. But I  could see that she missed her parents and was overwhelmed with happiness when her father visited her a few times during the year. It used to be a well-​accepted fact of village life that young wives do not visit and hardly communicate with their parents the year after their marriage, and even the young wives seemed to approve of this custom. Fast-​forward thirteen years, and I again witnessed a newlywed wife in the village. She had just arrived to live with her husband’s family in the village and was now completely preoccupied with her personal mobile phone, with which she communicated daily with her parents. I was told that it is natural for young girls to want to stay in touch with their natal families. When I mentioned that things had changed, the older women—​who had not been allowed to stay in touch with their natal families after their marriage—​ looked surprised, as if they had not noticed the change. These observations beg the question of how mobile phones have enabled such a significant—​and yet seemingly unacknowledged—change


in women’s lives, and in this chapter I  explore the changes in gender relationships that mobile phone use has enabled:  how is the use of mobile phones gendered and how do mobile phone–​mediated conversations and interactions feed into gendered processes of social change? While exploring these questions, I pay close attention to intersectionality as diverse configurations of identity among the women. I  start by discussing theoretical debates on the relationships between gender and technology as well as studies on women’s mobile phone use in India and elsewhere.


Few studies have revealed that women in different parts of India have experienced the opportunity to use mobile phones as a major asset, although, in comparison to men, women’s access to mobile telephony tends to be more restricted (Tenhunen 2008a; Doron 2012; Tacchi, Kitner, and Crawford 2012; Jouhki 2013). That women’s use of mobile phones can be a contested issue in India became headline news worldwide when international news agencies reported that the Sunderbari village council of the state of Bihar banned women from using mobile phones. The village elders felt that phones polluted the social atmosphere and enabled elopements (Burke and Kumar 2012). Kärki (2013) observed similar reactions to women’s phone use in rural Rajasthan. Parents there explained that they wanted to have their daughters married off underage to prevent them from talking over the phone with boys and eloping. People in rural Rajasthan told Grodzins Gold (2009) that phones spoil relationships because face-​ to-​face meetings are being replaced by phone calls. Doron (2012) notes the destabilizing nature of mobile phones for social relationships in Banaras (a city on the banks of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India) but maintains that phones can be incorporated into households in ways that reaffirm dominant norms and practices by restricting young women’s phone use. In his study on rural Tamil Nadu in South India, Jouhki (2013) found men to be more active, dominant, and technologically literate users of mobile telephony than women. He argues that young men enjoyed more freedom and agency in the sphere of mobile telephony than did women. S. S. Lim (2014) sums up much of the recent research on women’s use of mobile media in her review article, concluding that even as the technological landscape of mobile media changes, the social settings within which women appropriate mobile media tend to remain fundamentally unaltered. For instance, Dobashi’s (2005) research on Japanese housewives and Wajcman, Bittman, and Brown’s (2008) study of Australian women demonstrate that

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women used mobile media mainly to fulfill their familial obligations. As Fortunati (2009) points out, women tend to be more vulnerable than men to the pressure of double work—​the challenges of balancing obligations in both the home and the workplace. Consequently, women have availed mobile media in many locations to manage their double workload instead of using phones to induce radical changes in gender relationships. Also, much of the anthropological research on the uses of new technologies share an emphasis on technologies tending to reinforce existing structures and, especially, adherence to kinship patterns (Horst and Miller 2006; Barendregt 2008; Archambault 2010). In comparison to anthropological studies on ICTs, which have tended to focus on how technology use amplifies preexisting cultural patterns, it is the studies on reproductive technologies that have addressed the disruptive effects of technology. Strathern (1992) broke new ground in anthropology by arguing that new reproductive technologies could destabilize ideas of nature. A few studies on women’s mobile phone use in the Global South have indicated the potential for change. For instance, Chib and Hsueh-​Hua Chen (2011) demonstrate how female mobile phone users in Indonesia maneuver through their social constraints to reap benefits from ICT use. Oreglia (2014) describes how older women in rural China pursue their goals of maintaining relationships and accessing online entertainment after receiving training from their children and through collaboration and knowledge sharing with their peers. Oreglia argues that enlarging the definition of meaningful use can introduce new parameters for evaluating the impact of ICTs in rural, developing areas. Ellwood-​Clayton (2003) found that texting enabled many young women in the Philippines to transcend cultural and personal sanctions, giving them access to engage in romantically taboo behavior. She argues that texting as a secret dialogue away from parental eyes provides a place where young women can experiment with alternative strategies and romantic agency without stigmatization. E.  Green and Singleton (2007) describe how new phone technologies enabled young Pakistani British men and women to extend their participation in translocal social networks. Based on their study of mobile phone use among Palestinian teenage girls, Hijazi-​Omari and Ribak (2008) demonstrate how mobile phone use dialectically reaffirmed but also challenged intergenerational and cross-​gender relationships. Palestinian teenage girls in Israel developed romantic ties over mobile phones and acquired SIM cards secretly; nevertheless, Hijazi-​Omari and Ribak argue that the sense of freedom the girls gained from their clandestine mediated relationships did not amount to a serious challenge to prevailing power structures. Using domestication theory, they argue that technology continually defines but

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is at the same time defined by the communities that adopt or resist it, the cultures that practice it, and the relationships in which it is intertwined. Gender and technology studies have shared an interest with anthropological studies on mobile communication in seeking to understand the gender aspect of technology (Oakley 1974; Cockburn 1983; Kramerae 1988; Wajcman 1991). As Wajcman (1991) points out, feminists have long viewed the symbolic representation of technology as sharply gendered. Commanding new technologies is a highly mythologized and valued activity since it signifies being involved in directing the future. Consequently, men’s affinity with technology is integral to the constitution of male gender identity and the culture of technology. As seen by the constructivist framework, the relationship between technology and society, as well as that between gender and technology, is mutually constituted:  the central tenet of feminist technology studies is that specific technological artifacts may be shaped by gender and may have gender consequences. The process can be explored by examining the design and use of technologies (Lohan and Faulkner 2004). Women’s everyday uses of technology can, in turn, influence how gender is constructed. It is not uncommon for women to use technological artifacts—​ especially home appliances—​ and women may become active users of technologies that were initially associated with the male domain. However, as Cockburn and Ormrod (1993) note, the gendered assessment and the hierarchy of how men and women use technology have a propensity to prevail even when women use technologies. Research on the social uses of the telephone in Western countries has systematically shown clear gender differences:  women use the telephone at home more often than men (Ling 1998; Moyal 1992). As technology owners, men tend to develop a sense of agency and women a sense of sustenance. For instance, Cockburn and Ormrod (1993) illustrate how stereos, videos, and televisions were marketed in Great Britain in the 1990s as more important and male than refrigerators and washing machines, which were associated with the home sphere and women. At times, supposedly masculine technologies have been appropriated for distinctively feminine ends, as Fischer’s (1992) social history of the telephone in North America up to World War II illustrates. I aim to provide a nuanced picture of the contested nature of kinship and gender in the village to explore how mobile phones mediate relationships, women’s agency, and ongoing processes of social change. I  employ the concepts of mediation and intersectionality to understand how technology continually defines, but is at the same time defined by, cultural practices. I  view agency as active reproduction of social and cultural formations

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through social action and discursive means. Instead of the juxtaposition of social forces and the inner world untainted by the social forces, the subject is constructed through multiple discursive formations of the given culture; at the same time, the discursive formations provide a possibility for agency (Hekman 1995). Drawing from Schneider (1980), I perceive kinship as a symbolic system consisting of indigenous categories of social organization, but in a post-​ Schneiderian vein, following Collier and Yanagisako (1987), I  explore gender and kinship as interrelated domains that enable fluidity and agency and relate to power issues. Although my study uses survey data, observation has been a key method to study women’s phone use because it would not have been possible to study especially subversive phone uses through interviews, and my study complements those studies on the gendered use of mobile phones that mainly draw from interviews with phone users (Doron 2012; Jouhki 2013). As male researchers, Doron (2012) and Jouhki (2013) have gained more information about men’s calls than was possible for me as a woman in a village setting. As a woman, I  was perhaps in a better position to observe women’s phone use than a male researcher could have been, and this chapter focuses more on the phone use of women than on that of men, although I regard gender as a relational concept. I maintain that even if women use mobile phones less than men and mainly call their relatives, it is worth observing what kind of conversations women carry out by phone because women find these calls significant and there is a chance that their calls are part of discursive change that may eventually lead to epochal changes. I am interested in how mobile telephony is influencing and drawing from local cultural practices. I go beyond anthropological works on practice, such as those by Bourdieu ([1980] 1992), Sahlins ([1985] 1987), and Ortner (1989), by paying attention to actors’ critical faculties, disjunctures, and discontinuities in daily practices. Following Latour (1999), I acknowledge that the materiality of mobile technology plays a role in facilitating and mediating certain types of interaction and activities. I follow Schatzki, Knorr-​ Cetina, and von Savigny (2001), Reckwitz (2002), and Shove, Pantzar, and Watson (2012) in viewing material objects as a key part of practices. I analyze the role of materiality through the concept of mediation, which helps trace the complex interactions between cultural contexts and technology use instead of assuming that the impacts of technologies are straightforward. In this chapter, I explore the mobile phone–​mediated spheres, paying special attention to different facets of phone users’ identity and how phone users actively recreate contexts and take advantage of them in the midst of ongoing social changes.

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It was a telling sign of the potential of phones for women that the first phone in the village was acquired by an elderly woman’s sons for her use. Her sons had emigrated to work outside the village and the phone helped them stay in touch with their mother. It is, however, equally revealing that the first group of mobile phone buyers were men, microentrepreneurs as well as car and tractor drivers who found phones useful for staying in touch with customers and calling for help if they experienced problems on the road. While the appropriation of phones has been fluid in that phones have been acquired for and used by both men and women, the reasons for the phone use and acquisition have remained not only gendered but also generational in Janta. In fact, mobile phone appropriation worldwide has tended to take place vis-​à-​vis specific generations, as Fortunati (2009) points out. To understand the diverse configurations of identity and social relationships among phone users and consider phone use a part of social changes, I will start by delineating the generational patterns of gendered phone use in the village.


When I searched for phone owners in Janta, I was usually introduced to young men—​they are the most mobile household members and were initially perceived as the principle phone owners. Young men often described the reason for buying a phone as a personal fascination: they had bought their phones to express a sense of technological sophistication and agency, while the older generation was initially keen to criticize this fascination, which they regarded as expensive and useless. One young man, who ran a small bicycle and machinery repair shop, for instance, had managed to obtain a red Nokia 450 phone even before it was possible to use it because the region had no mobile network yet. When I asked him where he had acquired the phone, I was stunned when he answered Finland—​at that time, Nokia phones made in Finland were still considered a sign of technological superiority and modernity with which the phone owner wanted to be associated. Villagers relate how sons bought phones against the will of their parents: “The phones were still very expensive, and I forbade my son to buy it. I said do not buy it. Mobile phones are expensive, and we are poor people. We spend on food whatever we earn. I kept telling him that the phone is expensive, do not buy it but he did not listen and went ahead and bought the phone.” (Farmer, a man, Tili caste)

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“Who had the biggest fascination for buying the phone?” “It was my eldest son. He kept saying that he wants a phone and his father told him not to get it but my son kept having this fascination. He said that everyone is buying phones, so I will also get one.” (Housewife, a woman, Tili caste) “Why was he so fascinated with the phones?” “In comparison to writing letters, one can get news immediately over the phone. It is very convenient.” “Who decided to get the phone?” “I bought it. I earned money by doing some work and bought it with my own income.” (A young man, Tili caste) “Did your parents approve the buying of the phone?” “They only saw the phone after I had bought it. I did not tell at home earlier that I am planning to buy one.” “But are they happy now that you bought the phone?” “Yes.”

Although young men were among the first to acquire mobile phones and initially in charge of operating a phone, phones were bought to serve entire households. Women use phones less than men but from the beginning they have had access to mobile phones because mobile phones have not been perceived as private. The great majority of the people I interviewed personally (124 of 130) said that they share their phone. Of the one hundred phone calls made from the public phone shops in Janta in 2005, 29 percent were made by women. By 2011, mobile phones had replaced public phones, and women’s share of phone use had grown to 36 percent based on the phone diaries. People soon realized that mobile phones were practical—​in addition to being useful for conducting business and projecting technological sophistication and agency—​ for maintaining kinship relations, and the older generation’s resistance to phones disappeared. As mobile phones became associated with communicating with kin, it became common for women to receive mobile phones as gifts from their fathers, brothers, or husbands. When cheap smartphones became available around 2011, it was again time for the young men to express their technological sophistication by pioneering the use of smartphones—​if their older models were still working, they were kept in the house and used by the rest of the family, particularly by women, who usually stay at home more than men do. At the same time, women who move outside the home for work or study started to acquire their own personal phones. Young women now also preferred smartphones, expressing their aspirations for change by readily discussing the multiple functions of these phones and demonstrating their ability to use them.

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Even women could now argue for purchasing a mobile phone, as one woman describes: “Who had the greatest fascination for buying the phone in your house?” “I did.” (Housewife, Tili caste) “Why?” “It was to stay in contact with my father’s house. I  have even more relatives: elder sister, aunts. I wanted to get everyone’s daily news.” “How do women benefit from phones?” “Those whose husbands work outside can get their husband’s news. Then there is the father’s house, and perhaps nieces live outside. The phone is convenient for calling them.”

The digital sphere constructed through mobile telephony was first associated with the male-​dominated public sphere but it proved much more malleable than the public sphere outside the home, from which women are still largely excluded—​the majority of women continue to be housewives, despite women’s growing aspirations to be able to earn money and move freely outside the home. As one female schoolteacher (Tili caste) describes, the malleability of digital sphere has benefited women; nevertheless, the changes have not been radical: “Do you think phones have changed women’s position in any way in this village?” “Phones are extremely convenient. Those who stay outside the house can call home. When I am traveling, I can call home and inform my whereabouts and when I will return. Earlier they used to have to worry about me at home when I  was out. But now I  can inform everyone. However, women here have many problems, and phones do not help to solve all of them.” “But don’t men still use phones more than women?” “My father can use the phone, but my mother does not. I believe this will change—​everyone will soon learn to use the phones.” “But can women use phones at their in-​laws’ house?” “The attitude according to which women are not allowed to use the phones is also disappearing except that many women cannot use the phones because of the costs.”

Nevertheless, mobile telephony is still strongly associated with the men’s sphere in the sense that young men have been able to reap benefits from informal business opportunities offered by mobile telephony. They sell phones and talk time, repair phones, and download content on customers’

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phones. In 2005, three and a half million people were estimated to be employed in all aspects of the telecom industry in India (Mani 2012). As I have illustrated, generations are an important context in terms of phone use. In its sense of kinship descent, the concept of generation has a long tradition in social anthropology (Kertzer 1983). Nevertheless, the notion of social generation—​people who were born during the same date range and share similar cultural experiences—​has mostly been applied to Western countries, whereas the ethnographic scholarship of rural India has highlighted caste, kinship, and gender relationships. Mannheim (1952) introduced the concept of social generation, and it has since been developed to better take human agency and social divisions, such as gender, class, and ethnicity, into account (Aboim and Vasconcelos 2014; Woodman and Wyn 2015). I next briefly examine generations in Janta. As Fig. 5.1. reveals, the population in Janta is predominantly young. Another striking demographic aspect of the village is the skewed male-to-female ratio, which is in line with broader demographic trends in India. According to the 2011 census, there were 940 women per 1,000 men, and in 1991–​2011, the ratio of female children in the age group zero to six years had decreased from 945 to 914 per 1,000 male children—​the lowest level since the Independence of India. The imbalance is explained by girls receiving poorer nutrition and health care than boys, as well as the higher rate of abortion of female fetuses. In particular, wealthy urban Indians influence the sex ratio by determining the sex of their unborn child with ultrasound tests and aborting female fetuses, although this practice is illegal in India. There are also significantly fewer girls than boys in Janta, which may indicate the neglect of

300 250 200 150 100 50 0



20–30 30–40 40–50 50–60 60–70 Men

70–80 80–90 90–100


Figure 5.1:  Age groups according to gender in Janta. (Source: Author’s survey, 2004.)

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female children because I did not find any evidence of villagers determining the sex of unborn children with ultrasound. I next briefly sum up the key changes that have had different influences on age groups in Janta. The identification of social generations helps reveal that those groups whose structural position has undergone changes use phones to negotiate local hierarchies:  in addition to women, both young men and low-​caste people use their phones to reconstruct their identities (see Chapter 7). As mentioned in Chapter 3 (see “Ethnographic Fieldwork in Caste Neighborhoods”), small-​scale farmers and landless laborers benefitted from the increase in agricultural productivity until the 1990s. This changed in the late 1990s:  since the economic liberalization, small farms have become less profitable. The cost of farming has increased, and the prices of agricultural produce have fallen. Consequently, wage work provides more security than land ownership. Instead of taking for granted that they have a future in agriculture like their fathers’ generation did, young men use their mobile phones to seek work outside the village. As discussed in Chapter  7 (see “Changing Village Intersectionalities”), it is now the possibility of doing paid labor—​rather than farming of small plots of land—​that brings prosperity. Low castes benefit from their caste status in that they have traditionally worked at the tile factories in the region. Whereas it was the small farmers who experienced a sharper rise in their standards of living in the 1990s, since 2000 their position has become increasingly precarious in comparison to that of laborers. The increase in education over the past decades is another major change in the village. As Fig.  5.2. shows, the decline in illiteracy is most dramatic in higher-​caste women:  the age group of eleven to fifteen years is fully literate in the Bengali language (see Chapter 7, “Phone Use Barriers,” for more information on teaching Bengali and English at schools in West Bengal). This is the highest rate in any age group and is also higher than the literacy rate of high-​caste boys in the same age group. High-​caste women have caught up with men in terms of literacy and the younger age groups in the low castes are catching up with the high castes, but the gap between the literacy levels of low and high castes is still wide. Both upper-​and low-​caste women have experienced significant improvements in education in relation to upper-​ caste men. In other words, upper-​caste men have been losing their relative education advantage. I delineate three groups based on how people have been affected by these changes, especially in relation to phone use. Those in the age group forty years and older have a low level of education or are illiterate. Consequently, they are unable to browse the internet, and many cannot even make a phone call without help, which is usually provided by younger members of

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Illiterarcy in Janta

% of illiterate 90 % 80 % 70 % 60 % 50 % 40 % 30 % 20 % 10 % 0%





Over 50

Age Low Men

Low Women

High Men

High Women

Figure 5.2:  Illiteracy in Janta. (Source: Author’s survey, 2004.)

the household or neighbors. The age group of twenty-​five to forty years is better educated and has experienced the decrease in farming’s importance. Most of the first college-​educated people in the village belong to this cohort. Those under twenty-​five years of age are the first fully literate generation who also know the Latin alphabet. Consequently, they have the best abilities to use the phones—​lower-​end phones do not offer easy solutions to type with Bengali letters. However, children’s phone use is marginal in the sense that they do not use phones to make calls independently. Most people simply cannot afford to allow their children to make regular phone calls. Children are also not perceived as consumers with a certain degree of autonomy. Children, both girls and boys, are nevertheless skilled at operating phones, even smartphones, which they use to play games and listen to music. Young men are considered the main operators and owners of household phones, and they are more motivated to use their phones to build networks outside the village than the older generations are. College-​ educated youths use smartphones to browse the internet. Because older people cannot use phones independently, they also cannot browse the internet. They do, however, have the possibility to use phones, because household phones are shared and the younger family members help them. But it is not only age that counts—​there are also crucial caste-​and class-​based

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differences. The upper class can best afford to use phones to make calls and browse the internet, while the lower classes and castes mainly use phones for recreation:  for listening to music and watching films. Chapter  7 will elaborate on these class and caste differences. A wealth of studies (Kasesniemi and Rautiainen 2002; Fortunati 2001; Ito, Okabe, and Matsuda 2006; Yoon 2006a, 2006b; Höflich and Hartmann 2006) have demonstrated that teens and children use digital media to construct identity and fine-​tune social relationships, especially in Western countries. In Janta, the generational divide differs from that in most Western countries, since children and teens in rural India still rarely have a chance to independently use digital media. However, phones are important for a broader group of the younger generation, which comprises juniors in a family who use phones to contest family hierarchies and build networks outside the family and home. Children and teens are growing up as the generations with the best ability to use phones and browse the internet.


I asked the survey respondents to list whom they had called that day and what they had talked about. Survey questions have their limitations in that, as based on people’s recollections and summaries of their calls, they provide crude information about phone calls. The survey interview question regarding the call purpose was an open one, and I classified the calls according to the categories the callers gave. Most calls are kept brief because callers want to minimize the cost; consequently, multipurpose calls were rare, and most people could provide one main purpose for a call. Nevertheless, call etiquette usually requires asking how the other person is and what his or her news is, regardless of the main purpose of the call. Many calls had no other purpose than inquiring about the other person’s general news. These calls I classified under the general news category. General news refers to the practice of asking about the other person’s news—​visiting is also called getting someone’s news (khobor neua), which is understood as an integral part of maintaining relationships. My data are representative of the phone use in the village of Janta, and the survey results support the patterns I found in Janta. As Tables 5.1 and 5.2 show, the survey answers portray women’s calling patterns as distinct from men’s. The majority of phone owners mentioned calling in-​laws as the main reason for obtaining their phone. However, in practice, men call their friends (bandhu) more than their in-​laws. Based on the phone diaries, 40 percent

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Whom men called

% of calls



Business associates


Unspecified relatives




Work associates






Other villagers











100 (N = 174)

Source: Author’s survey.


Whom men called

% of calls









Unspecified relatives











100 (N = 42)

Source: Author’s survey.

of the men’s calls entailed men calling their friends, whereas only 1 percent of women’s calls were to contact friends. The concept of a friend is a local category that interviewees themselves chose to use, which is noteworthy since it is common to refer to close acquaintances by kinship terms. When I lived in the village during 1999–​2000, people seldom used the category of

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a friend, but when they did, it usually was to refer to acquaintances who belong to different castes. The introduction of mobile telephony helped men especially to stay in touch with unrelated people they had met at school and on different occasions outside the village. This had repercussions for people’s social life because, unlike kinship terms, the term friend does not explicitly designate a hierarchical relationship between the persons who are considered friends. As among the middle-​class in Hyderabad studied by Saavala (2012), friendship was considered fundamentally antihierarchical and egalitarian in Janta. In the survey, the difference between men and women who talk to their friends was smaller: 25 percent of men’s calls and 12 percent of women’s calls were to friends. The difference derives from the fact that the phone diaries, unlike the survey, did not cover any college-​ attending women—​there were no college-​educated women in the neighborhood where the few families filled in the phone diaries. Among the women, it is college students who maintain friendships outside the village. The rest of the women mainly phone their relatives. Men’s calls are more often about work or travel than are women’s calls, which are mainly about discussing the general news or calling for no purpose other than to inquire how the other party is. Although these calls serve no specific instrumental purpose, they deepen and strengthen relationships, which may help obtain both emotional and economic support when needed. Tables 5.3 and 5.4 illustrate the differences in men’s and women’s call topics. Table 5.3.   MEN’S CALL TOPICS IN 2007 Call topic

% of calls

General news and chatting








Health issues


Study issues






Request for money


Inquiry about whereabouts


Marriage negotiation


Total Source: Author’s survey.

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100 (N = 334)

Table 5.4.   WOMEN’S CALL TOPICS IN 2007

Call topic

% of calls

General news and chatting


Study issues




Inquiry about whereabouts




Grocery shopping





100 (N = 71)

Source: Author’s survey.

Since women’s calls are more limited to their close kin than men’s calls, this exemplifies that, in digitally constructed spaces, women are construed as more homebound than men. Jouhki’s (2013) research illustrates that mobile phone use follows a similar gendered pattern in the rural areas of the Villupuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India: women use the phone primarily to contact relatives in their native villages, whereas men prioritize work and business calls and the contacting of friends. There is a resemblance to gendered phone use patterns elsewhere—​ women tend to have a greater role in communicating with relatives than men in Western countries. However, there are also crucial differences that exemplify the meanings of gender and kinship in rural West Bengal. First, the nexus of phone calls in this region is not so much the nuclear family, but the relationships between in-​laws. Second, although men call their friends more than women, men’s calls to their daughters and sons are also a significant call category. Indeed, it is often the young men who are mainly responsible for regularly calling their married sisters, who live outside their natal village. But because of mobile phones, women have taken the initiative to independently contact their natal relatives. Since most men initially said they acquired their phones to stay in touch with their relatives and especially the in-​laws, phones have had a largely unintended effect of diversifying social bonds by making it possible for male villagers to maintain relationships with friends outside the village whom they had met at school and college. A few young men have even established relationships with people in faraway places in West Bengal and in neighboring states simply by dialing a random number and starting to

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chat. As Castells et al. (2007) have argued, mobile phones influence the nature of the networks. However, far from encouraging individual-​centered networks in the vein proposed by Castells et  al., mobile phone–​enabled networks crucially draw from existing gender relationships and gendered constructions of space. Indian rural men’s phone use appears more individualistic than women’s because men are freer to establish bonds outside the domain of the home than women, whose gender roles specify that their primary activity domain should be the home. In Granovetter’s (1973) terms, men have been able to increase their weak ties (e.g., with acquaintances and friends of friends), whereas phones have helped women mainly to maintain strong kinship bonds. Granovetter famously argued that jobseekers in Boston found their weak connections to be more useful in the job market than the strong bonds of close friendship and kinship. Granovetter (1983) further argued that poor people’s embeddedness in horizontal networks of strong ties with relative equals may serve to isolate them from the kinds of networks that would allow them to have political influence. The power of weak connections in Janta is demonstrated by a group of young men from the villages of the surrounding region. They were introduced to each other over mobile phones and used their mobile phone–​enabled network to sue the state to protest a selection process for vacant jobs, which they claimed did not follow the legal procedure. At the time of my fieldwork, the case was still open, and the young man from Janta taking part in the law case communicated frequently with the others involved in the case over the phone.1 However, understanding social dynamics requires more nuanced concepts of personhood than are offered by the notions of strong and weak ties—​and in the case of rural West Bengal, it requires interpreting the changing frames of gendered interaction. Women’s newfound ability to make phone calls is a part of other broader observable changes in the village’s gender relationships, which started to take shape long before the introduction of phones. Consequently, to relate mobile phone–​mediated communication with its social and cultural contexts, I  proceed by providing an overview of kinship and gender relationships in the village prior to the appropriation of mobile phones before moving to analyze mobile phone–​mediated gendered social contexts. I  draw from both observations and women’s own depictions of changes, which include changes in the marriage system, the increase in education for females, a few high-​caste women taking up white-​collar jobs, and women becoming visible in formal politics.

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Marriage is the key institution for the construction of gender and kinship relationships in the village. When a daughter marries into a family of higher status, albeit within the same jati (subcaste), it raises the status of the whole family. Most women marry outside their natal village, as illustrated by my sample of sixty-​seven women, of whom sixty-​six had married outside their natal village (Tenhunen 2008b). Village exogamy, in turn, is responsible for most of the connections between villages since marriages are not an end in themselves but a form of alliance creation—​postmarital visitations and gifts are the essence of marriage alliances (Fruzzetti [1982] 1990, 37). Women do not cut their ties to their natal families when they get married because the two lines continue to interact in ritual as well as in other contexts. In comparison to Benares, where, according to Doron (2012), the in-​laws of young wives often confiscate the phones their natal families give them, I never heard of such incidences in rural West Bengal, where such a confiscation would have been considered an extremely rude gesture toward affinal relatives. Before the phone system, much of the interaction between kin groups was considered the men’s responsibility, and women seldom visited their natal families. The marriage system has not changed in the sense that most marriages are arranged and take place within castes. Marriage rituals and their meanings follow Fruzzetti’s ([1982] 1990) description and analysis of the 1960s’ and 1970s’ rituals, reflecting the Bengali construction of the person. The gift of a virgin (dan) is the greatest and most auspicious gift a man can give, and this giving of a bride is accompanied by other gifts. The size of the dowry reflects the groom and the bride’s parallel status, although the dowry’s size is defined by many factors. Alliances are preferably sought from villages where a member of the extended kin can investigate the potential groom or bride. Fifty years ago, the ideal bride was a child given to the groom’s family, along with voluntary gifts of brass utensils and gold jewelry. Today the ideal bride is a high school graduate, and the marriage arrangements always entail negotiations on the size of the dowry given to the groom’s side. Elderly villagers claim that earlier one’s complexion was not an issue in marriage negotiations, whereas today such personal characteristics directly influence the dowry’s size. The bride’s educational status, light complexion, and holding a government job can reduce the dowry significantly. Parents usually try to find out about the potential bride or groom’s character and reputation because any defect affects the dowry size.

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Rising dowry demands have led to alternatives to the traditional marriage practices. Marriages are often arranged suddenly to bring down the cost of feeding the extended kin at the wedding party. These short-​cut marriages are arranged at either the bride’s or the groom’s home or in a temple, which lowers the cost even further. Short-​cut marriages are often, but not always, love marriages that are understood as unions initiated by the couple instead of their guardians and parents. Love marriages resemble arranged marriages in that the parents or guardians usually negotiate the dowry and set the marriage date after the couple has expressed their wish to get married. Love marriages in Janta also take place within castes and therefore support caste endogamy. Despite these traditional aspects of love marriages, they were understood as causing changes in the integration of families into networks of kinship. Most love marriages occur between people from the same village, and married women tend to consider it absurd that one’s parents’ house could be seen from one’s in-​laws’. They feel that a married woman adjusts better with her in-​laws when there is a considerable distance between her parents’ home and her marital home, because in-​laws getting too involved with each other’s household issues and especially conflicts is considered problematic. A recent tragic incident in the village was related as proof of the risks of a young wife in a love marriage within the confines of the village: the young wife, who had moved from her natal house to her in-​laws’ house next door, had such frequent conflicts over her work contribution in her in-​laws’ house—​where she was expected to do more than she was used to doing in her parents’ house—​that her husband’s grandmother committed suicide. She explicitly mentioned the constant unrest in the house between the women as the reason for taking poison. The general explanation for the whole course of events was that the young wife lived so close to her natal family that it hampered her adjustment to her new role as the daughter-​in-​law. Many of the aspirations for changes in gender relationships in rural West Bengal have been influenced by translocal political movements. Women were allocated quotas in the local governing organs, panchayats, in 1993. During the CPI(M) rule of West Bengal (1977–​2011) women of all castes joined mahila samitis (women’s committees) and regularly attended the meetings. The women’s committees focused on raising women’s consciousness about their rights, motivating women to participate in panchayat-​led programs. The first female panchayat representative from Janta, Tapati Kundu, arranged income-​earning opportunities and a literacy program for women. According to her, women should identify and protest against cultural practices that are harmful to women. She advocated the protection of kinship-​related morality by protesting against women’s mistreatment and

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demanding that men should fulfill their duties as breadwinners. But she also demanded changes in such central cultural institutions as the marriage system by advocating women’s right to divorce and earn an income and the eradication of the dowry system. The women’s awakening propagated by women’s organizations has reached women who describe the desired course of development for women as the freedom and right to study, take salaried jobs, move about freely, and participate in politics: “What kind of change is necessary for women according to you?” “Women should grow up studying; they should participate in politics. Women should participate in politics just like men do. That is what I want. Men and women are the same.” “What kind of change have you seen in women’s lives?” “I want my daughter to study before getting married.” “What other changes have you seen?” “Much has changed. Before women could not go out, they could not study. It would be regarded as dishonorable, but now women and men have the same rights. Previously wives could not move outside the house. Now if I tell my husband that I want to attend the women’s committee and talk with a group of women and that we want to work together, he will say that I may go, but it was not like this before. “It is, of course, different these days. Women are not scared. Previously women were afraid of their mother-​in-​law and their husband. Nowadays women are not afraid of anyone. Everything happens as they want it to. Whatever they say happens.” “What kinds of freedom do women have these days?” “Women can arrange things as they want them. Previously they did not study much. Now they study and see the world outside and learn to understand what to do. These days women have many fascinations: dress, education. Women have attained a new level in every respect. This is what we call modern. It was not like this earlier.”

Even if female representatives have taken active political roles, the scope of the panchayats’ power is limited, and state policies toward women have been ambiguous. While involving women in its activities and state administration, the CPI(M) carried out land reform without considering women as land owners until most of the land had been distributed (Basu 1992). Land mainly gets passed through the male line through inheritance, and ideas of the home as the women’s place prevent women from participating in market activities such as running small-​scale businesses. Only a few middle-​ class women have benefitted from women’s rights discourses

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economically; these discourses have encouraged them to get a college education, which has made it possible for them to find public-​sector jobs. The first upper-​caste girls (Tilis and Brahmins) of Janta graduated from college in the 1990s, and two of them found white-​collar jobs (one as a teacher and the other in public administration) in the 1990s. Few women have followed in their occupational footsteps in subsequent decades. The acceptance of female college students and women in white-​collar jobs comes easily, even by men, because the majority of the villagers have little or no firsthand experience of such drastic changes. In general, high-​ caste women do not work outside their house or move about alone outside their neighborhood. Upper-​caste married women rarely move outside their own neighborhood and village alone, although a Tili woman may travel alone to see a doctor or visit her parental home if there is an emergency. They usually leave the village—​to go shopping, to see a movie in Vishnupur, and to visit their parents—​with their husbands. A married woman moving on her own outside her home is under scrutiny because, potentially, it is a threat to the family honor. The higher the caste and class, the more restricted a woman’s opportunities to move outside her house. Yet, women do not live under constant surveillance and prohibition. Family members usually share an understanding of the nuances of women’s going out. Women have the freedom to move about in their own caste neighborhood and are allowed to go outside the village, even alone, for work and study and for any other reason if accompanied by the men from their family. When asked about the concrete manifestations of changes, most women say that they have experienced subtle reforms in family life to which the increase in the general standard of living has contributed. A  higher standard of living, they say, enables one to be a good family person and to live happily as part of a small family where women can express their opinions, concerns, and wishes. The goals of freedom translate into husbands being more attentive to their wives’ wishes—​by taking them to the cinema, shopping, and on picnics. As a result of the increasing prosperity, husbands are now better able to fulfill their wives’ fascinations:  women can dress better, eat better, and decorate their houses. Instead of rejecting the traditional gender and kinship code of conduct, women seek to reform it. Those women, who at most have realized subtle changes in their own lives, express determination to provide more major changes for their daughters: better education, less hard work, new job options, marriage at a more mature age than before to well-​chosen families. The most striking new freedoms are indeed allowed for daughters because the unmarried girls have

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easy and affectionate relationships with their parents and siblings. Ideally, motherly love is expressed by ensuring that daughters go to school and do not have to work hard in their parents’ house. One important motivation for educating daughters is that affluent houses are known to demand educated brides: while checking out potential brides, one of the first questions asked is how far the girl has studied. But education is also seen as a way of broadening women’s understanding of the outside world: “Women study a lot these days, but I am like a blind person. If I had studied, I would be able to see a lot more, do all kinds of work. I had a daughter and was widowed at an early age. My situation is that of a frog in a well.” (A widowed Tili woman)

Women say education enables them to arrange their own lives, to bring up and educate their children, and to mix with people and move about. Illiterate women regret their inability to do financial calculations and to read important documents, street signs, and bus numbers. With women’s age at the time of marriage increasing and more girls becoming educated, people often claim that the newly educated daughters-​ in-​law are the main reason for family conflicts. As one Tili woman of the mother-​in-​law generation puts it, “These days they obtain a wife who brings fifty thousand rupees as dowry and says: ‘I am not going to do your household work.’ ” In turn, the young women and wives are vocally critical about their future and position as housewives: “The main thing is that men should listen to women, listen and understand what they want. Women should get married when they are a bit older—​I want all this, some progress (poriborton). We can go out only with our husbands. We have enough food and clothes, everything, but that is not all. I like to talk openly, I want to go out, but here I am restricted.” (A married Brahmin woman)

Next, I will analyze women’s motivations to use phones and their agency as phone users, which draws greatly from the aspirations that I just discussed (see “Changing Gender and Kinship Relationships”).


An often-​ noted feature of mobile phones is that they help blur the boundaries of social spaces (Castells 1989; J. Donner 2009; Gergen 2008; Ling and Cambell 2010; Sey 2011; Wright, Steenson, and Donner 2010).

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Mobile phones can be characterized as unique in their capacity to link otherwise absent worlds to the immediate circumstances (Gergen 2002, 239). Castells (1989) argues that digital communication has led to new spatiotemporal forms that, instead of places, emphasize the importance of the patterns of the desequenced, networked interactions. However, as Arminen (2010, 101) points out, activities, objects, spaces, and places do not have any natural meaning, but their meaning is achieved in interaction. Distant mobile communicative actions can, therefore, create new contexts for action, amounting to new types of activity. Wright, Steenson, and Donner (2010) have, for instance, described how phone sharing in urban India structures space by blending communal and family roles. The introduction of phones offered women a new, unobtrusive avenue to extend their contacts and space without moving out of their neighborhood. Similar to television, translocal communication with the help of phones has helped bring the outer world into the women’s sphere. Because of phones, women are better connected with their natal families, which, for most women, are a major source of support. Just a decade earlier, women could be facing food scarcity or being mistreated in their husband’s house for years before the news reached their parents. Today, the exchange of news is so intense that, for instance, news of a farming loss caused by a hailstorm reached some women’s parents within a few days, although they did not call their parents directly. Most people pointed out that a short phone call saves time and money compared to having to travel by bus to deliver important news, and even low-​ income families can afford to use phones to convey news about emergencies. However, there has been no clear linear change of calls replacing visits. The occasions when women can visit their natal families have never been numerous. Since women are in charge of household work, it is difficult for them to leave for visits if there is no one else to look after the children and take care of the household. Women tend to visit their parents’ home during one or more annual religious festivals, and women living close to their natal families are able to visit more often. One woman, for instance, called her parents daily and also visited them weekly. The ability to call may at times replace intended visits, but it can also strengthen the relationship and encourage more visiting than would have been possible without phones. Women’s ability to reach the outside world from home as a result of mobile phone use also manifests in how they now have more say in marriage arrangements. Marriages are arranged with the help of phones,2 and women also make calls for marriage arrangements. Traditionally, it is the father’s responsibility to look for suitable brides and grooms. Mothers cannot find

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potential brides for their sons or grooms for their daughters by visiting houses, but they have participated in marriage arrangements by finding out about suitable brides and grooms through their networks. The availability of mobile phones has increased women’s role in marriage negotiations. For instance, after one father of a prospective bride had invited several mismatches to the house to see his daughter, the neighboring women made a few phone calls and quickly arranged a meeting with a promising candidate: this potential groom owned land, had a side business, and was known to be good natured and hardworking. Yet, the connection did not lead to marriage. Instead, the family made their selection based on information the girl’s mother had received from her brother about another potential groom’s character and economic standing. This illustrates how phones are not used indiscriminately to extend the selection of potential brides and grooms through weak contacts. Instead, people continue to seek reliable information from their strong ties. Nevertheless, phones have helped increase mothers’ say in their children’s marriage arrangements, which has ultimately improved women’s chances of influencing the marriage system. The most decisive part of the marriage arrangement is when the groom’s party comes to see the potential bride. A visit to potential bride-​givers is a formal occasion. The girl’s family must arrange a table and a chair and offer special, costly food: abundant amounts of fruits and sweets. The girl sits in front of the visiting party and replies to their questions, which often concern how experienced she is in household chores. Afterward, the girl and boy usually give their opinion on the marriage proposal, although marriages are sometimes arranged without considering the bride and groom’s views. One cannot drop in to see a potential bride unannounced, so phones facilitate arrangements for these meetings, making it possible for potential grooms to see more brides than they could have seen before the arrival of phones. This means that both the groom’s and the bride’s family have better opportunities to make a selection they consider ideal for their situation. Phones have also made it easier to express opinions about proposed marriage partners—​rejection no longer must be conveyed face-​to-​face, but instead can be communicated by phone. Consequently, phones help with the logistics of marriage arrangements, amplifying the market logic of marriage arrangements that has emerged over past decades as a result of the strengthening of the monetary economy in rural India. Nevertheless, low-​income people are compelled to limit the number of visits by their daughters’ potential suitors because each visit incurs significant costs. As described earlier, before the establishment of a working phone system in rural West Bengal, young women were not supposed to meet or contact their natal families for one year after their marriage. This practice

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was rationalized by the need to help newlywed wives adjust to their in-​ laws’ households. Older women proudly told me about this challenging transition—​moving to live with strangers. The distance between houses was experienced as contributing to the honor and status of the houses, and good relationships with in-​laws are highly valued. Thanks to phones, it has now become commonplace for newlywed women to call their parents, even daily. A newlywed wife in the village could be completely occupied by her mobile phone even right after her marriage. “There she sits, holding her phone, waiting for a call, or talking over the phone with her natal family,” one older woman said of a new wife in the neighborhood, fearing that the phone might indeed hamper the new wife’s integration into her in-​laws’ family lives. Vatuk (1972) witnessed how women in an urban neighborhood in Meerut had already increased their contacts with their natal families in the 1960s and 1970s. Women’s close interaction with their natal relatives has also been observed in rural Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan (Raheja and Grodzins Gold 1994), as well as in a low-​income neighborhood in Delhi (Grover 2010). Raheja and Grodzins Gold (1994) maintain that women’s regular visits to their natal homes challenge the local patrilineal ideology. Vatuk (1972) argues that women’s increased contacts with natal relatives blur the sharp distinction between a woman’s status as a bride and wife and that as a daughter and sister. At the same time, Vatuk notes that strong emotional ties between parents and daughters are allowed active expression when a daughter lives close to her parents’ home. According to Grover (2010), in the low-​income neighborhood in Delhi where women usually marry close to their natal families, women’s close ties to their natal relatives can help them bargain with their spouses, but they can also hamper their integration into their husband’s family. Lengthy retreats to one’s natal home can, according to Grover, lead to the abdication of a woman’s rights and entitlements in the conjugal home, meaning that she will ultimately forfeit the position of a respected senior woman, or a mother-​in-​law, in her husband’s patriline. Grover describes how husbands in Mohini Nagar complain about their wives spending too much time with their mothers, which tends to create frequent conflicts between couples and may even lead to arguments about women’s future rights in the conjugal home. Moreover, there are ongoing conflicts over married daughters’ labor in their conjugal and natal homes. Grover concludes that the close presence of natal kin is a double-​edged sword: it offers enduring support structures, while simultaneously weakening the marital bond and thwarting women’s adjustment. As in the low-​income Delhi neighborhood described by Grover (2010), women in Janta have also increased their contacts with their natal families, but with the help of mobile phones. However, women’s increased

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communication by phone is not considered as threatening in Janta as in the Delhi neighborhood since women do not frequently spend time at their parents’ house. Some families in Janta even encourage their daughter-​in-​ law to call her natal family regularly, whereas in other families a young wife must cope with the in-​laws’ often tacit reluctance to allow her to call. This shows that the increased communication is still perceived as a challenge to the family hierarchy. A young wife replied to my question whether her in-​ laws minded her using the phone: “They do not mind because they need not know about my phone use. My husband gives me the money for calls. I  usually call when my father-​in-​law or mother-​in-​law are not at home. If they are at home and I need to call, I go to the attic to make the call.”

In this family, a young wife’s calling practice has strengthened the married couple’s unity in relation to the broader family unit because the husband is funding the wife’s calls without his parents knowing. Since men are usually in charge of the household economy and only a few women have their own earnings, women’s ability to use phones usually requires support from a male family member. Many husbands, brothers, and fathers do fund women’s calling when they can afford it. In most families, phones are perceived as a collective family resource and men are motivated to contribute to the well-​being of the women in their families by allowing women to use the phones. It would, therefore, not do justice to measure women’s phone use solely through the notion of the Euro-​American personhood as the ability to use a personal phone privately, although women increasingly have personal phones, which they mostly receive as presents from their male kin. The importance attached to relationships with in-​laws has helped women to gain access to phones. By calling their parents frequently, women have not adopted a completely new practice, but have instead strengthened the relationships between kin groups that were already valued. However, the greater communication density that phones enable as well as the fact that women themselves can now initiate contact instead of their brothers and husbands is new. Nevertheless, since most women have no source of personal income nor do they own personal phones, a woman’s ability to call reflects the position she has been able to carve in her in-​laws’ house, as well as the economic standing of the household. When women are able to call freely, it signifies that they enjoy a good relationship with their husbands and/​or in-​laws and that the household is wealthy enough to allow calling. For instance, two married sisters developed different calling patterns after

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their marriages because of their divergent positions in their marital families. One calls her parents freely, while the other hardly ever calls. The parents explained the difference as being a result of the daughter who calls freely having received a bigger dowry at the time of her marriage. Moreover, the daughter who can call freely gave birth to a son, while the other sister gave birth to a daughter. The above example highlights that not only wealth but also one’s position within the household can determine a woman’s access to a mobile phone. Consequently, a woman’s mobile phone use reflects not only women’s agency, but also her somewhat privileged position, at least among the low-​income strata that form the majority in the village. Women tend to mitigate the perception that a major change has taken place in how they can communicate with their natal relatives; by not emphasizing the concrete change they have witnessed in their lifetime, they help present it as nonthreatening. Yet, young daughters-​in-​law often choose to call when their in-​laws are not present, which signifies that their calling is experienced as subversive. Opportunities for private conversations in the village are limited, but people try to maneuver to not share all their discussions with the neighbors and the extended family. Mobile phones offer the ability to step away so that fewer people are within hearing distance, and phones were a novelty in rural West Bengal in the sense that they offered people new possibilities to choose and thereby reconstruct the context of their talk. Tacchi, Kitner, and Crawford (2012) similarly observed that women valued their newfound ability to talk by phone without everyone in the household or vicinity hearing their conversations in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. Mobile media have been found to offer opportunities for secret dialogue among women in the Philippines (Ellwood-​Clayton 2003), Palestine (Hijazi-​Omari and Ribak 2008)  and Mozambique (Archambault 2017) as well. One Janta woman who advised her daughter over the phone to disobey her mother-​in-​law is an example of how communication with natal relatives can include subversive elements. This incident also exemplifies that it is not the husband or the father-​in-​law who usually controls the young wife in the in-​laws’ house, but the mother-​in-​law. Daughters-​in-​law’s conduct toward their father-​in-​law tends to be deferential in that they veil themselves in front of their fathers-​in-​law and do not interact much with them. Mothers-​ in-​law, in contrast, show a propensity to act as the greatest authority in household matters, not only with respect to their daughters-​in-​law but also with respect to the other household members—​including the men. The daughter of the woman who gave advice over the phone had married into a well-​to-​do household where the daughter was responsible for all the housework. The daughter was happily married in that she was well off,

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but her workload exhausted her. Usually, women share tasks more equally than in this household, although mother-​in-​laws tend to be in positions of power. Over the phone, the mother advised her daughter to simply refuse to do the excess work in her in-​laws’ house. She feared that if the daughter continued to obey, her workload would grow unbearable. Following her mother’s advice, the daughter successfully refused extra chores. Without a phone, the opportunity for this conversation would have been limited, because the mother would typically only see her daughter when surrounded by her in-​laws. Another phone conversation between a mother and daughter entailed a highly detailed conversation about farming options, which women rarely discussed in public because farming decisions are regarded as part of the male domain. Phones offer women a channel to express unconventional ideas and exert their will through networking by offering them a chance to speak to only one listener at a time if they so choose. In addition to strengthening communication between daughters and mothers, phones also make it possible to maintain other—​defiant and secret—​contacts. One young woman, for instance—​unconventionally—​ discussed her own dowry arrangements with her married sister, who lived outside the village. Young college students can maintain relationships with boyfriends and girlfriends through personal phones, although nonmarital relationships are still rare in the region. The survey included one young woman whose boyfriend had purchased a phone for her and a married woman who used her personal phone to communicate with her lover. Nevertheless, phones are not considered a major threat to the marriage system—​most marriages are still arranged and continue to take place within the caste—​which explains why the discourse on the disruptive effect of phones was relatively weak in the region during my research periods. I tried to ask people about the harmful effect of phones, but they did not complain about phones spoiling social relationships. One woman told me that she had heard that a young woman had disappeared from a nearby town after starting a conversation with a man over the phone. People have become aware of the possibility that mobile telephony could have divisive influences but they are identified as happening elsewhere. In Janta, the disruptive influence of phones for kin relationships was not as strong as R. Jeffrey and Doron (2013, 183) maintained—​they found that cheap mobile phones made it possible for young couples to establish relationships unknown to disapproving elders in India. As mentioned earlier, I witnessed romantic liaisons, which led to love marriages, in Janta even before people started to use phones. Some village women not only make phone calls from their homes but also use phones on the way to attend college or work outside the home in

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white-​collar occupations (mainly as teachers). The few village women who go to college or have a service job outside the village always carry their personal phones. College students usually receive their phones from their parents, and female white-​collar workers purchase their phones independently. They use phones to inform their home about schedules and possible delays in commuting from work and to monitor how things are at home. I did not hear women express that they felt calls from home acted as unwanted surveillance. Women value the ability to call for help if they face problems, such as missing buses, accidents, vehicle breakdowns, jams, and demonstrations on the road. As a female college student explains, “I travel to college by bus, so people can call me to tell me if the bus is not going to come. And if the last bus does not come, I can call home. The ability to call gives me mental courage. If I face any inconvenience outside the home, they [the family] will come and get me.”

Phones have helped to change the meaning of the outside sphere for this woman, conflating it with the home sphere and simultaneously giving her courage and thereby influencing her subjectivity. Women have agency as phone users in that they are able to shape communicative contexts and pursue their goals of reforming the kinship-​based code of conduct for women. As discussed in Chapter  2, speech contexts are more than just dyadic exchanges between two individuals. As Hanks (1996, 201, 211) argues, to speak is to take up a position in a social field in which positions are defined relative to one another and are in constant flux. In other words, when two persons converse over the phone, they more or less take into account the more far-​reaching reception of their discourse by multiple publics. Hence, I view the emergence of mobile phone–​enabled speech contexts as connected to relational and affective dimensions of social life. Indeed, it is the way phone-​enabled discussion relates with other social contexts that contributes to its social impacts. Whether the changes I have portrayed can be labeled as women’s empowerment largely depends on the definition of empowerment, which in turn relates to how one perceives power (Rowlands 1997). If one chooses to understand power as diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge, and “regimes of truth” (Foucault 1991; Rabinow 1991), then empowerment can mean more than the ability to have individual autonomy or formal positions of power. I have illustrated that mobile phone use leads to cultural and social changes, although it does not directly increase women’s autonomy or economic power. Women mention that the ability to call gives them self-​esteem and confidence. Phones have helped increase women’s

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ability to negotiate and influence gender relations; phones, therefore, contribute to women’s empowerment, when it is broadly conceptualized as a structural transformation of gender relationships (Rowlands 1997).


Whereas in many parts of India women’s mobile phone use has been experienced as a threat to the marriage system (Grodzins Gold 2009; Doron 2012; Jouhki 2013; Kärki 2013), in rural West Bengal the marriage system and the ensuing hierarchical relationships between kin groups have encouraged and legitimated women’s mobile phone use. Differences in the gendered appropriation of mobile telephony in India are not surprising given the vast regional diversity. Contrary to colonial ideas about India, and especially its villages, as the land of tradition and unity as a civilization, ethnographic studies of the newly independent India revealed the enormous diversity in castes and kinship systems across regions and communities (Jodhka 2016). Contemporary ethnography has further contributed to the nuanced understanding of the conceptualization of persons in different parts of India (e.g., Östör, Fruzzetti, and Barnett 1982). Moreover, Indian states differ socially and economically as a result of their differing state policies. In rural West Bengal women do not cut their ties to their natal families at the time of marriage, and the maintenance of relationships between kin groups is highly valued, which explains how women have carved a space to increase their contacts with their natal families. The old practice of maintaining relationships with the in-​laws has continued, with new emphasis on women as the initiator of contact. This increased communication can provide women with both economic and mental support in a wide variety of situations, even against the will of their in-​laws. It is tangible proof of the changes caused by women’s ability to use mobile phones that it has become common for newlywed wives to stay in touch with their parents over the phone right after marriage, whereas just a decade ago I observed that contact between kin groups was avoided for a year after marriage. Moreover, it has become acceptable for women to own personal phones, although when phones first became available men were usually regarded as the main owners. I have pinpointed the many intersectional dimensions of women’s identities and mobile phone use. Upper-​class and upper-​caste women who have office jobs and go to college have been able to acquire personal phones, whereas most women share mobile phones purchased by their sons or husbands. However, women’s phone use is determined not only by class

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and wealth, but also by one’s position in the family hierarchy. The right of young daughters-​in-​laws to use mobile phones is often questioned, but young wives’ positions in their husbands’ families vary. A woman’s ability to use a mobile phone signifies not only her agency, but also the position she has been able to carve for herself in her family. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influences the relationships between men and women, but—​more crucially—​it influences the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. Motivated by women’s rights discourses and political activism, women use phones to realize their goals of widening the domestic sphere. At the same time, phones have helped introduce changes in women’s relationships with each other: phones facilitate young wives to challenge their mother-​in-​law’s authority and build closer relationships with their mothers after marriage. Mobile phones are a double-​edged sword in that they undermine the authority structure of joint families, which could contribute to conflicts and make young women vulnerable. However, since women who call their parents often receive money for their calls from their husbands, women’s calling does not lead to conflicts with husbands, as long visits to women’s natal families do in the working-​class neighborhood in Delhi, as described by Grover (2010). A husband who provides money for his wife’s calls strengthens his relationship with his wife and loosens the grip of the joint family on the couple’s relationship. Moreover, women calling their natal families serves to reduce the distance between the kin groups, which can have unintended consequences for the meaning of all kin relationships. This may reduce the respect between kin groups, which could potentially lead to young wives becoming more vulnerable to maltreatment in their in-​laws’ house. Women expressed fears about the lack of distance between their natal home and their in-​laws’ house. However, I did not witness cases of maltreatment caused by this lack of distance. Unlike women’s lengthy visits to their natal homes, which are regarded as a threat to a woman’s work contribution in her in-​law’s house, greater communication by phone with one’s natal relatives contributes to a woman’s well-​ being and does not undermine her position in her in-​laws’ house. I have illustrated how mobile phones contribute to the multiplicity of discourses by mediating speech contexts, the meaning of which extends beyond dyadic communication. The role of new media in social change, therefore, depends on how the emerging media-​saturated contexts of social interaction and communication relate to preexisting contexts and social changes. Both kinship relationships and women’s rights discourses have encouraged and motivated mobile phone use, which, in turn, has transformed relationships by helping to create new contexts for speech and action. First,

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mobile phone use enables translocal communication, helping callers transgress social boundaries. Phones mediate discourse by contributing to the merging of different contexts. Phones in Janta make it possible to extend the idea of safety associated with the home to moving in the outside world. Phones also help women reach the outside world from their homes. Second, mobile phones give callers new possibilities to choose the context for their speech and to engage in critical and unconventional discourses, which can help women make concrete changes in their everyday lives. By enabling new contexts for speech, phones create possibilities to voice critical ideas, which can challenge the power structure in the household. Whereas women’s phone use challenges and rearticulates preexisting understandings of gendered spheres, men calling their friends and relatives mainly reaffirms the world outside the village as the male sphere—​phones therefore simultaneously induce contradictory meanings and social processes highlighting the contested nature of gender relationships. The digital sphere constructed with the help of mobile telephony has proved malleable—​a sphere that was initially considered male dominated, in the sense that the first phone owners were mainly young men, has now opened for women. Women increasingly have been able to use mobile phones and a few women have acquired personal phones. However, the feminization of mobile telephony does not translate into drastic improvements or changes in women’s lives, for instance, in economic power relationships. Instead, the positive impacts of women’s phone use are subtle and ambiguous: most calls are about the slight redefinition of the home boundaries that are hardly acknowledged and articulated—​over time, however, these small changes can lead to epochal changes. Whereas mobile phone use has proved fluid in the sense that women increasingly use phones and mobile phones have helped women to move in the public sphere, mobile telephony–​ related informal businesses have conspicuously remained a male-​dominated domain. Home and the domain of the household remain the main arena for pursuing women’s rights in rural West Bengal, and the idea of the public, economic sphere as men’s domain remains largely unchallenged.

NOTES 1. Chapter 6 describes how the ability to establish political transnational contacts across political hierarchies has served to transfer political life in the region. 2. The survey did not include calls for marriage arrangements because it was not carried out during the marriage season. However, I did have the opportunity to observe calls for marriage arrangements in the village during the marriage season.

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Mediating Conflict Mobile Telephony and Politics


olitical turbulence was a constant feature of life in Janta, although the same political party—​the Communist Party of India, CPI(M)—​ governed the region and the state of West Bengal from 1977 until 2011. During the first week of my fieldwork in 1999, a man from the Tili neighborhood was stabbed in the night and later died of his injuries. The victim and the perpetrator were cousins involved in a dispute over land ownership, but since the stabber was a local CPI(M) leader, the murder had political repercussions. The rival political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held a public meeting in the village, after which almost the entire Tili neighborhood changed its affiliation from the CPI(M) to the BJP. When the CPI(M) tried to intimidate the villagers to stop supporting the BJP, its local supporters decided to put an end to the harassment and attacked the CPI(M) leaders, who had gathered for a meeting. The CPI(M) supporters were able to call for help, and a special police riot unit came to the village to pick up the suspects. The BJP leaders called on the Tili women to help, and the women surrounded the police cars the whole day, effectively preventing the police from picking up the suspects from the village. Both women and men narrated these events with pleasure and triumphantly—​the villagers had successfully exposed the fragility of the ruling party. On returning to the village in 2003, I found that the entire Tili neighborhood had again changed its political affiliation, this time back to the CPI(M). Moreover, the man who had stabbed his cousin in 1999 had escaped legal consequences and had even been promoted within the Communist Party hierarchy. The party representatives never explained why they had promoted

the stabber, but the assumption was that they did it after careful deliberation: on the one hand, the promotion showed that the CPI(M) could use force without legal consequences, and on the other hand, it demonstrated that the party gives its loyal followers unconditional support. When I asked villagers why they were again supporting the CPI(M), I  was told that the party had strengthened its support for villagers in need of help. However, I  also heard stories of intimidation. For instance, local CPI(M) leaders had threatened one family with the loss of their land rights as a result of supposed ambiguities in their land deeds, but offered to help rectify the issues with the authorities if they promised to endorse the CPI(M) publicly. Dasgupta (2009) explains the stability of CPI(M) rule in West Bengal as a result of the party’s hegemony and efficiency in governing. In Janta, however, the situation could be better characterized as dominance without hegemony, to paraphrase Guha (1998), who developed this notion to explain the nature of colonial rule in India. When I returned, most villagers supported the CPI(M) for instrumental reasons. According to them, they did not support the CPI(M) in their hearts. The lack of hegemony became evident when I revisited the village in 2010. At that time, many people in the Tili neighborhood told me that they planned to vote for the opposition party—​the Trinamul Congress Party—​in the upcoming state election, although they continued to portray themselves publicly as CPI(M) supporters. They had correctly anticipated the emergence of a viable political alternative: in 2011, the CPI(M) lost the West Bengal state election to the Trinamul Congress Party (Figs. 6.1 and 6.2). Although losing the state election did not influence the constitution of the units of local governance, the panchayats, the local CPI(M) representatives abandoned their positions after the state election; frightened of the aftermath of the regime change, they simply ran away. An angry mob caught the leader who had stabbed his cousin in 1999 and beat him to death. Although the Trinamul Congress Party had cautioned its supporters to not take revenge—​introducing the slogan “We want change and not revenge”—​the killing of the CPI(M) leader was a tragic sign of the persistence of violent political practices despite the regime change. As the 1999 revolt in Janta illustrates, the rise of the Trinamul Congress Party was not the first challenge the CPI(M) had faced in Janta during its long rule. Moreover, the Left Front Government (an alliance formed by the CPI(M) and a few smaller parties) has confronted fierce public criticism expressed especially by newspapers throughout its rule. This raises the question of how the Trinamul Congress Party was able to rise to power, while many other opposition movements had perished or lingered on without being able to come power. Lahiri (2014) describes how private twenty-​four-​hour television news channels contributed to the new

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Figure 6.1:  Mamata Banerjee’s election poster. She led the Trinamul Congress Party to victory in West Bengal state elections in 2011 after more than three decades of Left Front Government rule. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

Figure 6.2:  Symbol for the Communist Party (the CPI[M]‌) in Janta village. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

communicative environment, which was a crucial factor in the rise of the Trinamul Congress Party. Overall, media including both television and mobile telephony played a more prominent role in West Bengal in comparison to what it could do in many other autocratically ruled regions because in India these media are governed by the central government—​the state government under criticism by the emerging opposition was not able to control these media. This chapter focuses on the pivotal role of mobile telephony for political change and the rise of the opposition in West Bengal. I  examine how mobile phones mediated political action and discourse and how political activists utilized the affordances of mobile telephony. I  develop the analyses of the use of mobile phones for political action as embedded in preexisting society and culture by exploring how the use of mobile phones drew from and contributed to the local understanding of politics and power relationships. I start by discussing different conceptualizations of the relationship between politics and new media to frame my analysis of mobile phone use for political purposes in rural West Bengal. THEORIZING TECHNOLOGICALLY ENABLED REBELLION

To understand mobile phone use for political action, I use the concept of mediation, which I introduced in relation to the mediatization paradigm in Chapter  2 (see “Mediatization Paradigm”). In fact, a large part of the mediatization paradigm scholarship has focused on politics analyzing the increasing importance of the media for political processes, institutions, organizations, and actors (Strömbäck and Esser 2014, 6), As Schulz (2014) points out, the mediatization paradigm led to a dismal view of politics as subordinated to media logic:  when the media focus on what common people find relevant at the expense of substantial policy debates, both politicians and media become susceptible to populist strategies (Mazzoleni 2014). Similar to what happened to the general conceptions of institutional mediatization, which I  discussed in Chapter  2 (see “Cultural Perspective on Mediatization”), the initial ideas about the mediatization of politics have evolved toward more relativistic stances. An increasing number of scholars now take an actor-​centric perspective on mediatization and view the effects of mediatization as the result of interactional relationships instead of a one-​way impact (Strömbäck and Esser 2014, 229). Mediatization is perceived as guided by multifaceted media logics and as contingent on many factors, which may vary across localities. The new formulation of the paradigm helps us especially to better understand the multiple properties of new media, which have defied the institutional autonomy of mainstream media (Schulz 2014). My understanding of mediation is similar to

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the actor-​centric understanding of mediatization in that I explore how political activists utilize the affordances of mobile telephony. Instead of preconceived institutional notions, I  use ethnographic data to examine the local meanings of politics and power relationships and how the use of mobile phones contributed to their changes. While the early mediatization scholarship tended to view traditional news media as eroding the autonomy of political actors, studies on the role of mobile phones in political action have highlighted the liberating effects of new media. The ousting of President Estrada of the Philippines in 2001 after mass demonstrations organized through text messaging was a striking example of a myriad of actions in which mobile phones have emerged as powerful devices (Rafael 2003). Rheingold (2002) has famously argued that the new information technologies, especially mobile phones, enable smart mobs—​groups that, contrary to the usual connotations of a mob, behave intelligently or efficiently as a result of networks enabled by technology. Similarly to Ibahrine (2008) and Fortunati (2002), Rheingold argued that phones help widen the public sphere and strengthen civil society through the creation of new networks and the proliferation of information. Ibahrine (2008) and Fortunati (2002) note that mobile phones are especially crucial for strengthening political agency within an authoritarian regime:  because of phones, information can spread horizontally instead of flowing predominantly from the power elites to those at the bottom of hierarchies. Gergen (2008) theorizes mobile telephony’s political role by drawing attention to their often-​noted quality of underscoring the importance of relational interchange within small, closely knit groups. He argues that civil society is being slowly replaced by small, intensely interdependent communication clusters utilizing mobile phones and favoring intense participation in small enclaves—​usually friends and family. He concludes that this could, on the one hand, result in atomistic and self-​serving communication cells replacing community participation, which could lead to the general public detaching itself from politics. On the other hand, he points out that mobile technology could also intensify the political deliberation of those communication cells for which political issues matter. Castells et al. (2007, 213) argue that wireless communication adds to and even changes the media ecology, expanding the information networks available to individuals and social groups to emphasize the interpersonal level and enhance the efficacy of autonomous communication oriented toward political change. Although they highlight that mobile phones play a political role by enabling autonomous communication, thereby homogenizing political communication, they also argue that wireless technologies are shaped

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within the social context and political structures of a given society. As they note, in the Philippines, the existence of a relatively weak state provided a prior condition for the key role of mobile phones and the internet in the Estrada protests. Castells et al. (2007) also acknowledge the importance of the support of the military and the Catholic Church for the anti-​Estrada movement (191, 202). Liu (2017) sheds light on the social embeddedness of political communication by examining how social activists used mobile phones in China. Calling for protests is one of the strictly forbidden contents in China; consequently, senders of such contents must select receivers whom they know will share a sense of solidarity. Liu argues that the harsh suppression of activism by the authoritarian regime contributed to how mobile communication activated communicators’ social ties for recruitment and mobilization. The preexisting understanding of social ties as guanxi, in turn, guaranteed reliability, reinforced obligations, legitimated mobilization appeals, strengthened empathy, and consolidated solidarity for mobilization. Drawing from Ling (2008), Liu (2017) points out that mobile phones have unique technological and social affordances such as mobility, as well as the ability to enable synchronous and personalized communication. According to Ling (2008), as a direct interpersonal means of communication based on preexisting social ties, mobile interaction can enhance the credibility of information and strengthen social cohesion. Smartphones enable internet-​based applications and therefore offer additional affordances besides texting and calling functions. Quintelier and Vissers (2008) argue that the internet offers multiple opportunities for political engagement: participating in online polls, debates, blogging, and organizing offline meetings through social networks. Online technologies also lower the transaction costs of participation in terms of time and effort, since it is easier and faster to access multiple online news sources through the internet, rather than through traditional media. The internet offers a wealth of information about politics, as well as public and civic life, which has the potential to contribute to a more informed and mobilized electorate, specifically when this information is conveyed via social networks. Finally, online media allow direct, and potentially mobile, contact with politicians and other people, including instant feedback via social network sites. However, mobile media is not always used to increase transparency or strengthen the civil society, as the use of texting functions of mobile phones to incite ethnic violence in Kenya in the run-​up to elections in 2008 graphically demonstrated (Osborn 2008). Examples of the use of mobile media for suppression and violence have contributed to critique and challenge of the overtly optimistic views (Rheingold 2002; Shirky 2008; Castells 2012)  on the democratizing potential of new media.

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Morozov (2011) cautions against perceiving the culture of the internet as inherently emancipatory. Presenting examples from Iran, Russia, and China, he demonstrates how the promotion of technological tools as prodemocratic agents has provoked authoritarian regimes to crack down on online activity. Many governments have resorted to not only closing down or blocking websites but also using social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters. Governments have also become equipped with using online propaganda and generally outresourcing and outsmarting their beleaguered citizenry. Sari (2012) argues that although social media facilitated the mobilization and coordination of civilian resistance during the Arab Spring, they were not Facebook driven in the sense that structural and economic forces crucially enabled these protest movements. In Egypt, the government suppressed online access during the demonstrations; consequently, as Groshek (2012) points out, mobile technologies were a vital, but not the principal fulcrum of the social unrest. Lee et al. (2014) note that digital media may help people unevenly, benefitting those who are already politically active or powerful the most. Leijendekker and Mutsvairo (2014, 1035) caution against equating the expression of political opinions on the internet with the democratization of collective action and decision-​making opportunities—​for instance, Mugabe’s autocratic rule in Zimbabwe was able to remain substantially unchanged despite its open political critique on the internet (Leijendekker and Mutsvairo 2014) until 2017. Nevertheless, despite these reservations, many studies demonstrate that both mobile media and internet use facilitate engagement in politics in new and expansive ways, diluting the impact of elites. For example, mobile media has contributed significantly to transparency, collective identity, and action as well as the participation of new political actors in Papua New Guinean politics (Logan 2012). Even in autocratically ruled societies, social media are used for social activism. Sohrabi-​Haghighat and Mansouri (2010) argue that, although Iran’s regime has tried to get the upper hand by promoting surveillance technologies, new ICTs have realized the capacity for democratic change in Iran. Weighing multiple political, economic, demographic, and cultural conditions in Middle Eastern countries, Hussain and Howard (2013) find that information infrastructure and especially mobile phone use consistently appears as a key factor behind regime fragility and social movement success. Based on a survey of participants in Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests, Tufekci and Wilson (2012) show that social media in general, and Facebook in particular, provided new sources of information the regime could not easily control and were crucial in shaping how citizens made individual decisions about participating in protests, the logistics of

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protest, and the likelihood of success. M. Lim (2012) describes how social media helped sustain longstanding political networks and facilitate new connections among middle-​class youth opposed to the Egyptian regime. She sums up the debate on the advantages and disadvantages of social media for political activism by noting that it is an oversimplification to frame social movements such as the Egyptian revolt as either a Facebook revolution or a people’s revolution since people and social media are not detached from each other. This chapter examines how mobile phones mediated political activists’ networks, as well as the contexts of political action in Janta and the surrounding region. How did the dominant party and the opposition utilize the affordances of mobile media and how did the media-​saturated forms of interaction relate to preexisting contexts? I  carried out my fieldwork on political activists’ phone use before smartphones became common. Consequently, my focus is on the calling and texting functions of phones, which differ from the affordances of internet-​based communication: whereas calling and texting are based on prior relationships of the parties who communicate, the internet enables anonymity. Udupa (2017) demonstrated how online anonymity deepens the conditions of ambiguity necessary for online abuse and insult exchange among the middle class in urban India. Political groups in India and especially the right-​wing party (BJP), which came to power in the national elections in 2014, utilize social media in multiple ways, including trolling, as discussed by Udupa (2017). The top regional politicians in West Bengal have Facebook pages. Some of my Facebook friends from West Bengal show their support for the current ruling Trinamul Congress Party by liking the posts and pages of the top politicians in the region, but I have not been able to detect Facebook posts criticizing the party. Even after the onset of smartphones (see Chapter 7 for internet browsing using smartphones), only a minority of villagers used them to browse the internet; consequently, the calling and texting functions of smartphones continued to be important for most of the villagers. Miller et al. (2016, 146) found that in both South India and Brazil there was a genuine fear of direct negative consequences for oneself and one’s family should members of rival parties feel antagonized. One of the crucial political affordances of the calling function in West Bengal was that people could discreetly contact opposition leaders, whereas Facebook can be experienced as too public for expressing rebellious views, especially in times of conflict in rural India. Since political organizations are translocal, this chapter discusses the concept of translocal governmentality as set forth by Ferguson and Gupta (2002). I  illustrate how phones contribute to the new forms of politics,

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which challenge the earlier principles of verticality and encompassment. Rural politics was part of translocal organizations even before phones were available, but, as I will demonstrate, phones have helped to change the way political hierarchies are imagined and practiced. Phones mediate political action and discourse by offering opportunities for constructing new contexts of speech and action. I  analyze the political use of mobile phones by mainly drawing from ethnographic research in rural West Bengal, although I  also use media reports. The bulk of the material for this chapter consists of interviews with thirty-​two political activists in 2007–​8. By political activists I  mean active members of party organizations. I interviewed party workers from different levels of their organizations, including urban (from the rural town of Vishnupur, as well as one activist and one party leader from Kolkata) and rural activists. I returned to rural West Bengal to observe the political use of phones and talk with party activists in November–​December 2010. This time, I concentrated on observing political work by the rising opposition party, Trinamul Congress, which by that time had made major headway in the region. I will next describe the emergence of political conflicts over land and displacement in West Bengal before moving on to analyze my research data and village politics because these conflicts have crucially influenced village politics. These translocal conflicts also provide media-​reported examples of how phones have been used in West Bengal to coordinate more or less spontaneous political protests.


West Bengal is the only state in India where the CPI(M) has been in power continuously since 1977. The greatest achievements of communist rule in the state include relatively strong communal harmony and land reform. In the 1990s, the West Bengali communists became ardent supporters of the economic reforms by welcoming new businesses and industries, thus emulating the Chinese Communist Party’s economic strategy. The state government boosted the development of new industries by creating special economic zones for which it acquired land through the Land Acquisition Act. The act, which was passed during the colonial regime, gave the state the right to redeem land for public purposes. Finding vacant land in one of the most densely populated states in India is difficult, however, and forced acquisitions have not provided a solution. In 2007, West Bengal was forced to reverse its plans to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram because of local farmers’ resistance (Chakrabarti 2007; Telegraph 2007). The

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proposed special economic zone was to have been sited on irrigated land, but the farmers of the more than thirty villages affected by the plans were not willing to trade their livelihood for a monetary compensation they considered too meager. When the local development authority issued a land acquisition notice, the villagers erected road blocks and forced government officials and ruling party supporters out of the area. Although the state had promised to respect the villagers’ opinions, it first sent a police contingent and later its cadres, as loyal party activists are called, to suppress the resistance. When the police arrived, the women and children surrounded the village to protect it from the police. The police had relied on surprise tactics and, unprepared for the defense, fired at the villagers, killing fourteen and injuring many more. Village resistance is by no means unusual in India or West Bengal. India’s struggle for independence was largely won as a result of grassroots resistance movements. Since independence, gheraos (encirclements), the surrounding of politicians or buildings until the protestors’ demands are met, and strikes have been especially common in West Bengal. This was not the first police atrocity in West Bengal. The conflict in Nandigram, however, differed from earlier ones—​and not only because forcing people to give up their land was considered more unjust than many prior police atrocities. First, the villagers could effectively remain informed of the police contingent’s movements with the help of mobile phones. Second, twenty-​four-​hour news stations broadcast vivid reports of the conflict, whereas such events would only have merited a brief newspaper report before the liberation of television broadcasting. As Lahiri (2014) points out, the critical views of the Left Front Government that the newspapers in West Bengal regularly expressed did not have significant repercussions; most people did not read them because of their low levels of education and literacy, as well as their poverty. However, since 2000, news media have crucially expanded their scope in West Bengal as a result of the influx of private television networks with twenty-​four-​hour news channels. These channels have sought to increase their viewership by transmitting news that appeals to common people. Consequently, CPI(M) leaders blamed the media for the Nandigram conflict. The media representatives that Lahiri interviewed argued in turn that the media had played a catalytic role by simply projecting the anti-​Left discontent that had arisen as a result of Left Front policies and practices. The CPI(M) tried to counteract the importance of the private news channels that air conflicts in real time by establishing its own news channel called 24 Hours; it was not, however, among the most popular channels—​only 8  percent of my survey respondents (N  =  121)

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watched it, which made it the sixth most popular of the twenty-​seven channels watched by the respondents. Most people could stay at home and watch television during the conflict caused by the ensuing riots, curfew, and a general strike announced by the opposition. Almost overnight, the chief minister’s image was transformed from that of a heroic reformist leader to a villain whose effigies were burned in the streets. Mobile technology fed the direct newscasts since reporters at the scene transmitted news, photos, and film to the television stations and newspapers by means of mobile phones, although political parties have tried to restrict reporting over the phone against their views in the troubled region. It is telling of the phone’s political role that throughout the conflict—​which lingered on in Nandigram despite the cancelation of the special economic zone—​phones were confiscated. Ruling party members snatched phones from reporters covering the violence, while the police sought to investigate the course of events from suspects’ mobile phone records. The committee of the opposition, Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh, chased resident Communist Party supporters from the affected villages. The Communist Party’s attempts to secure its supporters’ return to their homes transformed the area into a war zone. In addition to the main opposition parties—​the Congress, Trinamul Congress, and BJP—​the Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh also received support from the Maoists, for whom the land dispute offered an opportunity to broaden their base in West Bengal. After the violence, the ruling CPI(M) suffered its greatest electoral defeat in decades. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, the Left in West Bengal lost twenty-​six of its thirty-​six members of parliament, paving the way for a congress victory in the nationwide election. A sizeable number of voters also voted silently against the Communist Party in the panchayat (local governing body) elections in 2008, although party cadres used intimidation to prevent them from doing so in many regions. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress won the state elections in the spring of 2011 and renewed its electoral victory in 2016.


I found the villagers of rural Bankura (located about 150 kilometers from Nandigram) much less vocal about politics when I  visited them after Nandigram events than before—​the party cadres’ violence against the opposition in Nandigram had made people cautious. Whereas the villagers

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could previously criticize the ruling party openly, I was now advised to stop asking direct questions about the violence in Nandigram. I was told that fear had caused people to fall silent. The apparent silencing of the opposition did not stop its growth, however. An opposition supporter I met in Janta reflected on the silent growth of the opposition. He carefully avoided commenting on politics during our discussion but mentioned that he carries the local opposition leaders’ numbers in his phone. Other opposition activists explicitly stated that mobile phones help them secretly mobilize against the ruling party. Before the state elections in 2011, the regional Trinamul office in the nearby town of Vishnupur buzzed with excitement—​ and phone calls. Party activists were among the heaviest phone users in rural West Bengal, along with salesmen and small-​scale entrepreneurs. In comparison to the other rural people in the survey, who store ten to eighty contact names on their phones, party activists and salesmen store one hundred to four hundred contacts. I asked phone owners, both common people and party activists (those who belong to party organizations), to list the calls they had made and received on the day of the interview. With the exception of the political activists, none had received or made political calls, which demonstrates the rarity of spontaneous political events during which information is transmitted horizontally. Of the political activists who had formal positions in political parties, the opposition activists (N = 18) had received and made more than double the number of political calls made by the ruling party activists (N  =  18), as indicated by Table 6.1, which lists the purpose and number of the activists’ calls. A local BJP leader who in 2010 represented the rising opposition in the state of West Bengal highlighted the pivotal role of mobile telephony for political work: “Why did you buy your mobile phone?” “I am a party activist.” (A BJP leader from Janta, a man) “Does this mean that you get phone calls about politics daily?” “I make and receive political calls daily.” “Who calls you?” “The BJP party leaders.” “Where do they call you from?” “The leaders live in Bankura and Bishnupur. I am a local leader, so also local political workers call me about various issues.” “For what reason do they call you?” “They call me if there are problems or about various kinds of work. I  also make phone calls to leaders if I find out that someone is being harassed here.”

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Trinamul Congress (opposition)





Public funds



Other patronage



Political awareness





Total Source: Author’s interviews, 2010.

Opposition activists used phones for spontaneous activities, such as organizing wildcat strikes and reporting the ruling party’s misdeeds, more than the ruling party. For instance, whereas the women’s committee of the CPI(M) still organized its meetings in Janta and adjacent villages by means of letters, the Trinamul Congress Party established women’s committees in villages solely with the help of phones. One Janta Communist Party leader still emphasizes the importance of the letters for political work: “Do party members call you daily?” “No, they do not call me daily. Perhaps if they are not able to meet me, they call me.” (A CPI(M) leader from Janta, a man) “Do you think that these days most people who are involved in politics own a mobile phone whereas previously communication was mostly by letter?” “Most political leaders have mobile phones. They can inform people about programs. But they still send letters. They inform us by letters about important programs.”

The Communist Party organization’s structure and its strategy with regard to the opposition explain the difference in the two parties’ communication practices. The CPI(M) is a predominantly hierarchical structure, with higher units encompassing lower ones and with information and decision making flowing mainly from the top (M. Gupta 2010, 26). In turn, Trinamul uses phones to connect top leaders with grassroot activities and across regional units. The communication style of Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee exemplified the emerging communication practices. According to Dayabati Roy (pers. comm., 2010), who observed the Trinamul leader in Singur, Banerjee had maximized her reachability by having several assistants make and receive calls for her on multiple phones registered in her name. She frequently connected with different party levels and made

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unexpected appearances at crisis scenes. Vishnupur political activists mentioned having used the phone to make known the misuse of government money allocated for a rural work guarantee scheme and to organize a local protest. According to one of the top leaders of Trinamul (the former biggest opposition party and current ruling party in West Bengal), it used to take two months to arrange a general strike in the state, whereas such a strike can currently be arranged in just a few minutes with the help of mobile phones. A Vishnupur Trinamul leader emphasizes that without the protection offered through phones, they would not have been able to increase their constituency: “How do you benefit from your phone for your political work?” “Thanks to the phone, the work that used to take twenty-​four hours takes only twenty minutes. I can access a larger area and more people than before. If I did not have the phone, I could not communicate with so many people. Today rural people understand that the CPI(M) is destroying their opportunities. That is why we need development, to make progress. People have come forward, protested and started a movement. When the CPI(M) has seen this movement, they have started a wave of terror. If some person gets in touch with a Trinamul leader, the CPI(M) becomes violent towards that person. They burn houses and poison ponds. They cut paddy from the field. Whenever people hear them plan this, they call us over the mobile phones. They call us immediately if they get to hear about an attack. We can send our cadres, we go by ourselves or call the police. We inform the administration and immediately reach the place. So, they are not able to torture people. If we did not have phones, it would be very difficult. We now have the courage to support people. We could not have progressed this much without phones.” (A Trinamul party leader from Vishnupur, a man)

Workers of the Trinamul Party office in Vishnupur frequently make calls to express support for their party members. The rule of the CPI(M) has not been solely based on violence, but coercive means have been crucial repeatedly for its electoral success (M. Gupta 2010). Since overt support for the opposition ran the risk of provoking CPI(M) intimidation, phones offered the opposition a covert way of communication. Where the CPI(M) has sought to overpower the opposition through violent means, Trinamul has organized protection through phones, sending its cadres to protect its supporters even if an attack is merely anticipated. R.  Jeffrey and Doron (2012) describe how Bahujan Samaj Party activists used mobile phones similarly amidst election campaigns to organize support and communicate across the party hierarchy in Uttar Pradesh. A consequence of this greater

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readiness for action was that violence escalated in West Bengal during the growth of the opposition, because, in addition to party cadres fighting each other, the CPI(M)-​backed police, as well as the Naxalites (Maoists), were responsible for frequent violent attacks. As M. Gupta (2010) notes, all parties became equipped with violent tactics. Nevertheless, political activists use phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The use of phones for political patronage draws from the local understanding of politics, and I next explore the cultural construction of local politics, drawing from my earlier research on rural politics in West Bengal (Tenhunen 2003, 2009). Scholars of rural India, who have long noted the importance of quarrels, rivalries, and disputes over honor, have paid attention to the implications of these events for the symbolic understanding of politics. Unlike academics, the villagers do not need lessons on the political nature of everyday life. Villagers share taken-​ for-​granted ideas about the political sphere that cannot be grasped by classifying everyday forms of resistance as separate from conventional political activities, as Scott (1985) does. My approach to studying the implementation of political ideas in a West Bengali village is similar to Ruud’s (2003) interest in examining how village polity is influenced by the larger world and yet largely follows its own concerns. My study adds to the ethnography of West Bengal by exploring the cultural construction of politics and its relationship with the larger symbolic whole. By focusing not only on the concepts of power and politics but also on their enactment, my study goes beyond those studies on the cultural construction of politics and power that have left the question of political agency open (e.g., Geertz 1980; Dumont 1970). My approach resembles studies that have addressed political practices in their cultural form, such as Davis’s (1983) and Hansen’s (1999) studies, but differs from these studies in that I do not proceed from a general definition of politics. Like Davis and Hansen, political scientists have tended to remain faithful to Cohen’s (1974) pioneering formulation of politics and culture, which relies on a separate conceptualization of politics and political culture: despite their interest in examining political practices as a cultural phenomenon, politics is given a general definition. In 1999, the Janta villagers maintained that it was impossible to live in their community without the protection of one of the two main parties—​ the CPI(M) and BJP. The parties’ power was largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice could call a village meeting, led by local political leaders, during which a solution would be negotiated between the disputing parties. The parties also have their elected representatives in the local decision-​making

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bodies—​ panchayats—​ that authorize the distribution of local public finances. The villagers judge the parties not as much by their ideological programs as by their morals. The understanding of politics as morality is in line with the literal meaning of the Bengali term rajniti (politics), which is a compound word consisting of the words raj (king, ruler, state, or government) and niti (morality, principle). Voters give the party their support and, in return, expect assistance when they face hardships. The ruling Communist Party, for instance, assisted small-​scale farmers by distributing crop seeds. Party leaders acted as conciliators in family conflicts, tried to help gamblers and alcoholics overcome their addictions, mediated in divorce proceedings and concomitant property disputes, and helped with the registration of property. Since the local public health centers did not have sufficient resources to treat patients with serious illnesses and the poor cannot afford private doctors, the indigent villagers’ only hope was that their party would arrange the required treatment for such patients. The ruling party’s approval was also frequently needed in other spheres of life: one had to turn to the CPI(M) in rural Bankura if one needed help with registering one’s land, to report a case to the police, or to obtain a job in the government or the new industries. While the early studies on the Left Front Government in West Bengal (Kohli 1987; Lieten 1992; Gazdar and Sengupta 1999; Bhattacharyya 1999; Bandyopadhyay 2003)  focused on policies, several studies have made observations similar to mine regarding how the party mediates all spheres of activity in different parts of rural West Bengal (Ruud 2003; Roy 2007, 2008, 2013; Majumdar 2009)  Whereas this system was experienced as highly authoritarian in Janta, Dasgupta (2009) viewed it in a positive light as efficient governance. The scholarly focus on the Left Front Government’s achievements at the expense of critical analyses reflected the CPI(M)’s image as a progressive force that had given land to the landless and exposed the corrupt practices of the erstwhile ruling party, the Congress. Nevertheless, several critical analyses of West Bengal poli­tics pinpointed the factors that were about to endanger the stability of the Left Front rule in West Bengal (Chatterjee 2009; Bardhan et al. 2009; Majumdar 2009; Mallick 1993; Roy 2007, 2008). Because the local leaders of the West Bengal Communist Party belonged to the upper classes of the region, political work resembled the patron–​ client relationships that prevailed before the land reforms, when the landless had to turn to the big landlords for work and protection (Tenhunen 2003, 2009; Ruud 2003). Party members formed a kind of kinship community, calling one another by kinship terms such as sister, brother, aunt,

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or uncle. Kinship provides the metaphor for political parties and their activities so that kinship-​based party membership is differentiated from other types of relatives, who are defined on the basis of indigenous ideas of blood relations, code of conduct, sentiment, and spatial aspects. Kinship ties mean having certain expectations of solidarity. Serious disagreements about these solidarities can lead to the splitting of the joint family or the termination of interaction among kin. Although political relatives resemble other types of relatives in a moral sense, there are also crucial differences. Party membership is less arbitrary than kinship: one cannot select new blood relatives or relatives through marriage in the way that one can change political affiliation. As mentioned, a whole neighborhood in Janta changed its affiliation from the Communist Party to the BJP to protest against a local Communist Party leader, a wealthy landowner who had stabbed his cousin. The perpetrator and the victim were not only kinsmen, but also belonged to the same party. When I told the villagers that the Communist parties in Eastern Europe had faced resistance when they had tried to abolish religion, they drew an analogy with the Left Front’s attempts to deprive party members of their relationship with in-​laws (kutum) who do not support the party. The BJP activist emphasized that his party, unlike the CPI(M), allows people to maintain their relationships with relatives who support a different party. But when I asked a BJP supporter about his relationship with his brother, who supports the CPI(M), he replied that he had told his brother that they could be on good terms, but that if the brother got into trouble, he could not be of any assistance. The political discourse on kinship and morality also formed the context of the rise of Mamata Banerjee an opposition leader who became the chief minister of West Bengal. She is referred to as didi (elder sister), and her popularity is attributed to her modesty as well as her strong sense of morality. She is often seen offering support for sufferers of injustice on television news. Although she was a central government minister and continues to be the chief minister of West Bengal, she wears ordinary saris and still lives in a small house in a lower middle-​class part of Kolkata. The overlap between party membership and kinship allows parties to be efficient but also makes politics a vulnerable and conflict-​ridden business. National party organizations can intervene and consolidate their power by escalating and aggravating local family disputes. Although politics is motivated by symbolic structures, the local interpretation of politics does not curtail dissent, but provides scope for critical discourses by focusing attention on moral issues, thus creating scope for an unending debate.

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Land disputes in recent decades strengthened the opposition, but the moral critique of the ruling party is not new in rural West Bengal. The period of convergence between state policies and informal sources of authority disappeared from Janta in 1999 with the emergence of the new opposition. The newly affluent Tili farmers contested the authority of CPI(M) leaders through disputes about honor and kinship morality. At the same time, the introduction of quotas for women and low castes in panchayats in 1993 reduced the villagers’ dependency on rich farmers and party leaders. The new panchayat representation, together with greater economic opportunities, has contributed to the diminishing power of the dominant caste, the Tilis, and especially the wealthy farmers, including the local party leaders. The dominant caste’s diminishing power has, in turn, influenced the authority of the Tili-​dominated village meetings. In Janta, the BJP-​led revolt against the local CPI(M) leader’s misconduct decreased the importance of the village leaders. Instead of talking about “doing the party,” when seeking help from the party, the villagers talked about “doing the party panchayat.” When a major fight occurred in the village in 2004, the village leaders could no longer settle the matter. The dispute began when one woman accused another of stealing vegetables. The quarrel spread because the women’s families were also involved in a dispute about the building of a well. Many meetings were held, but the parties involved in the dispute would not agree to the solutions offered. At this time, the head of the panchayat was a low-​caste (scheduled caste) man, and Janta’s representatives were two low-​caste (scheduled caste) women. The women and the scheduled-​caste representatives—​for whom trans-​India quotas allocated a third of panchayat seats in 1993 and half in 2009—​hardly enjoy the same authority as those of higher castes who were also Left Front leaders and large farmers. The local village leaders’ loss of authority, as well as the new representatives’ relative inexperience and low status, resulted in a shift of power to the panchayat secretary and other translocal political formations. Whereas ten years ago political disputes were settled in local village meetings, in 2010 even an informal meeting could be translocal. For instance, a young Bagdi man made phone calls to CPI(M) leaders after someone had stolen paddy from his field. The CPI(M) leaders from Janta, along with leaders from adjacent villages, held several meetings arranged at a bus stand near the junction of two major roads connecting the adjacent villages. Phones have not made the political reasoning more relational, as Gergen (2008) propounds in his theory. Here, the political reasoning was relational long before phones, and phones have been used to enhance the networks of patronage. Political activists and leaders receive calls from people in

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different types of trouble, and phones have made it possible to react faster and to accomplish more in a shorter time span than previously. As a result, patronage is now increasingly sought from other sources in addition to local leaders. It is now easier for villagers to skip a local leader’s authority and call a panchayat secretary or someone higher in the party hierarchy directly. In turn, party activists can easily draw on diverse connections when settling disputes. An urban political activist, for instance, related how he could help a woman who had been raped by summoning the police, political leaders, and doctors by telephone—​while attending a family wedding. One of the top leaders of the main opposition party, Trinamul, pointed out that phones allow leaders to travel more than before: “How do you benefit from your phone for your political work?” “Before the mobile telephony political leaders like me had had to sit at home and receive visitors. Sometimes people from faraway places would come to meet me when I was not at home. Now I can travel and set up meetings with supporters. I can call the nearest political worker and communicate to all necessary places at once if there is any incident. This is the reason why every party activist needs a phone. Information about any type of action can be delivered in a fraction of a second.” (A Trinamul party leader from Kolkata, a man)

Whereas political leaders had to previously stay at home to receive people, they can now be contacted anywhere. Mobile phones have consequently freed leaders to visit their constituency without having to neglect their other duties, which contributes to an increase in translocal political contacts. Political calls often involve translocal patronage in the form of the central state’s development programs. The execution of government programs, such as the rural work guarantee scheme, was the most common phone call topic (see Table 6.1) for both ruling party and opposition activists. The opposition activists used phones to protest and draw attention to the mismanagement of funds. Hence, the increase in translocal political connections through mobile phone use has resulted in better possibilities to safeguard the transparency of public fund use in rural West Bengal. The above examples illustrate that mobile telephony has the potential to ensure transparent governance; yet, states and major development agencies tend to celebrate computers as tools of transparent governance. Whether computers or mobile phones can be used for clean governance ultimately depends on the administrative and political system in which these services are embedded. To effectively report mismanagement requires someone in a position of power to react to the report and those responsible for the wrongdoings to be held accountable for their deeds. In West Bengal, the

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opposition used phones to effectively create pressure to stop the wrongdoing, but phones per se cannot guarantee that feedback can work. India’s National e-​Governance Plan, published in 2006, envisioned the availability of all government services at computer kiosks. In 2015, the Modi government’s Digital India Plan restated this goal, also aiming to connect rural areas with high-​speed internet networks by 2019 (Kapoor 2015). Computerized land registers and internet payment systems have indeed improved governance in India by reducing officials’ opportunities to demand bribes. As Kuriyan and Ray (2009) point out, government-​ sponsored telecenters have also helped improve the general image of state governments by presenting them as clean and efficient. But the overwhelming attention that development discourses pay to computers and the internet has hindered the greater potential of relatively cheap and easy-​ to-​use mobile phones to ensure clean governance from being acknowledged. Ambitious plans like the Modi government’s Digital India cannot be realized if rural areas continue to suffer from regular and lengthy power cuts, which are common at least in rural Bankura, even if the government managed to build high-​speed broadband connections to villages by 2019 as planned. Rural Bankura already has received a few computer kiosks for the panchayat regions, which cover several villages. However, I never met anyone who had used these kiosks. When, for the first time, I received an e-​mail message from a villager, I inquired whether the sender had traveled to a computer kiosk to send it. She told me that she had asked a villager with access to the internet to send the message for her. When I requested to see the computer, we entered the house but found no computer. Instead, we met a young man with a small smartphone, which he uses to browse the internet. “So, one does not need computers anymore,” commented my village friend (Chapter 7 focuses on smartphone use). The increased multiplicity of political connectedness enabled by phones is part of the ongoing broader relationship diversification process in the village. Most phone owners mentioned calling relatives as the main reason for obtaining a phone. Whereas the shared community phones I studied in 2005 were used relatively seldom to communicate with friends—​only 5 percent of the callers called a friend—​calling friends was the main form of phone use by male mobile owners by 2008 (see Chapter 5, “Gendered Calling Patterns,” for the local meaning of the category friend). Before phones, it was not possible to maintain contact with casual acquaintances or school friends who lived outside one’s village. Consequently, phones have had the largely unintended effect of diversifying relationships by allowing villagers—​men in particular—​to maintain relationships with friends outside the village. Women called friends too, but less than

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men: 12 percent of women’s calls were to friends and the rest were mainly to relatives. As described in Chapters 3 and 5, in contrast to shared community phones, mobile phones offer the ability to move away from potential eavesdroppers—​although it is seldom possible to make a call in complete privacy in the village. The dispersal of power outside the village was accentuated by the building of phone networks, which has made it easier to seek help from outside the village during conflicts and crises. Before phones became available, the obvious person to contact was the local political leader, who settled disputes at meetings, but now rural people can also call activists and leaders in other villages. On the one hand, the role of local meetings in solving disputes has decreased, while on the other hand, local issues and disputes increasingly transcend local communities because it has become easier for activists to call public attention to local disputes. Rural people now have more potential sources of help than just the ruling party, which has led to the dispersal of power relationships beyond the village. More people have found new sources of livelihood and are now less dependent on local political patronage. Rising standards of living lessen the power of local political parties to increase their influence through patronage. In 2013, Trinamul was already ruling the panchayat because the CPI(M) elected members had fled from their panchayat office after the election victory of the Trinamul congress in the state election. The sphere and scope of local politics had, however, become almost insignificant. The Trinamul party did not have the means to offer similar benefits for their supporters as the CPI(M) had done, nor was Trinamul interested in gaining supporters through intimidation. As a consequence, when I visited the village in 2013, I found that after the end of CPI(M) rule in the village in 2011, not one general village meeting had been held to solve local problems and disputes.


My research supports the findings of Ibahrine (2008), Fortunati (2003), and Rheingold (2002) in showing that phones help strengthen the networks of civil society, shedding new light on the mechanisms of emerging phone-​enabled networks. Instead of connecting people in an unplanned, spontaneous manner to form smart mobs, the use of mobile phones for political action replicates earlier patterns of protest. Although smart mobs in West Bengal appear similar to other such activities elsewhere, a closer examination reveals that they are, first, centered on the

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local understanding of politics and, second, orchestrated by more or less established and hierarchical political organizations. In contrast to Castells’s (1996; Castells et al. 2007) idea that mobile phones encourage networked individualism and the forming of autonomous political groups, I have demonstrated that phone-​enabled networks are motivated by local understandings of politics and political relationships. Similarly to Liu’s (2017) findings from China, the communication of political activists in rural West Bengal is based on the local understanding of social relationships. The difference is that in rural India, political activists draw from their preexisting local understanding of political relationships, whereas in China guanxi networks activists were not specifically limited to the political sphere. This may increase the efficiency of the use of mobile media for politics in rural India in comparison to China where, as Liu points out, social movements could ultimately strengthen preexisting relationships more than bring about political change. My observations support Horst and Miller’s (2006) findings in that the appropriation of phones draws from local culture, amplifying what was occurring prior to their introduction. Despite the use of mobile media for politics, patronage relationships continued to prevail in rural West Bengal—​ political leaders still represented the rural elites while most people took the role of clients approaching leaders for support and help. Nevertheless, although mobile phone use was based on the preexisting understanding of relationships between political leaders and supporters, mobile telephony contributed to changes in these relationships. Phones were used for patronage relationships, but instead of supporting the power of village leaders, phones helped lessen that power by facilitating a multiplicity of patronage relationships and discourses. In contrast to the hierarchical flows of information and decision making of the CPI(M), the Trinamul Congress Party used phones to construct new political contexts, thereby introducing changes in how political hierarchies are imagined and practiced. Another example of the new speech contexts are the secret communication networks of people who in public supported the erstwhile ruling political party, the CPI(M), while supporting the Trinamul Party through clandestine communication and meetings with the help of mobile phones. In Chapter 4, I explored how mobile phones helped change the logistics of everyday life and economic activities, and, in this chapter, I have portrayed how the logistical affordances of mobile telephony were also utilized in the sphere of politics. Consequently, while phone use built on earlier political patterns and meanings, it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal. Not only can activists connect more promptly

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with their supporters and voters, but also they can communicate more efficiently with different organizations, both horizontally (e.g., other activists and organizations such as the police and communal elected bodies) and vertically (with their leaders and subordinates). Incidents that appeared to be spontaneous reactions to the ruling party’s misdeeds originated often in communication between different levels of party hierarchies, followed by the horizontal spreading of information both within and outside the party. Even preorganized protests may appear spontaneous because organizations can initiate protests quickly and spread the word more broadly using mobile phones. Although translocal political calls mainly take place within preexisting networks, the use of phones in combination with information provided by the private television stations extended the information-​sharing networks. The proliferation of translocal connections has not meant that the local meanings of politics have disappeared. Instead of bringing outside forces and ideas to bear on the local, parties gain rural supporters by drawing on local concepts of politics. My research therefore exemplifies how understanding flows of ideas and connections enabled by ICTs requires examining how they are tied to local meanings, and my conclusion parallels Uimonen’s (2009) argument that ICTs simultaneously enable translocal communication and help build local identity. Studies on the relationship between culture and globalization in India (Derne 2008; H. Donner 2008; Fuller and Narasimhan 2007) have emphasized that instead of leading to major disruptions and changes, globalization has entailed the continuity and reproduction of local meanings. My study, too, confirms cultural continuity amidst translocal relationships in that the local understanding of political morality motivates phone callers. But my research also pinpoints how cultures harbor conflicts and alternative discourses—​local concepts of politics create a base for critical discourses, which translocal communication helps amplify. To summarize, the strengthening of civil society resulting from the use of mobile phones in rural West Bengal was about the proliferation of translocal relationships and the ability to create new contexts of political discourse and action. Local people gained in that they no longer must rely predominantly on local leaders and because phones offer an additional media for the articulation of critical and alternative discourses. The shift in power from local communities and leaders to translocal networks can entail democratization, as illustrated by the growth of the opposition in rural West Bengal, but it could also have unanticipated consequences, such as the proliferation of violence between party cadres in West Bengal and

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the decreased influence and power of the village-​level leadership. Despite the many affordances mobile telephony offers for political activism, mobile phone use for political purposes is embedded in local contexts and social processes in ways that elude generalizations about mobile phones simply as tools for democratization and strengthening of civil society.

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Smartphones, Caste, and Intersectionalities


hen I arrived in the Tili neighborhood in 2012, one of the first things I was told was that the lowest caste group, the Bagdis, had acquired fancy phones. The news surprised me since Bagdis had been among the last people in the village to acquire phones. The fancy phones turned out to be Chinese-​made phones with smartphone facilities: a music player, camera, the internet, video camera and player, radio, double-​SIM facility, and a memory chip. These multiple-​facility Chinese phones were offered at much lower prices—​the cheapest cost seven hundred rupees—​than even the simplest branded phones. Samsung and Nokia were now the only companies that offered one phone model meant only for receiving and making calls—​ all other phone models in the market included extra applications and gadgets. Later, I discovered that most of the villagers were now acquiring smartphones, although many of them were not even aware that their phones could be used to browse the internet or listen to the radio. Because phones only meant for making and receiving calls had become scarce in the market, users were simply compelled to buy multifunction phones once their old phones stopped working (Figs. 7.1 and 7.2). However, the Bagdis had made their decisions to buy phones with many functions consciously because a smartphone was often the first electronic gadget they had purchased. The Bagdi neighborhood was the last in the village to receive electricity; therefore, unlike the upper castes and classes in the village, they had not previously owned televisions. Consequently, smartphones had allowed the Bagdi neighborhood to leapfrog a whole range of gadgets—​cameras, music

Figure  7.1: By 2012, inexpensive smartphones had replaced simple phones meant for making and receiving calls in rural Bankura. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

players, and televisions—​which most of the world has acquired one after another as separate gadgets over many decades. The lion’s share of the research on smartphone use has focused on those regions that were the first to use them: Europe, East Asia, and North America. Goggin and Hjorth (2009) introduced the idea of mobile phones

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Figure 7.2:  Advertisement of a mobile phone repair shop in Vishnupur. (Photo by Juha Laitalainen.)

as media, raising the question of what happens when mobiles stop being thought of as telecommunication devices and are considered part of daily media ecology. The contributors to these authors’ book explore a wide variety of smartphone uses:  games, combining photography with online maps, Twitter, and smartphone-​enabled cultural memory practices. Oksman (2010), who studied the use of smartphones in Finland, found that mobile media are best suited for situations in which other media are not available or where people have time on their hands. Users specifically appreciate the ability to watch news whenever they want. Gopinath and Stanyek (2014) demonstrated that mobile music entails not only portable listening, but also sound vehicles, gestural choreographies, dance, popular music production, and musical instruments and ensembles. I  found that mobile media practices in Janta differ from the ones in Western countries. First, smartphones were the first and only electric gadgets in many households; consequently, they were mostly not used as a substitute for other media. Second, most people did not have direct access to the internet and even those who used their personal phones to access it used it sporadically and for limited purposes because of the high cost and slow connection. This chapter explores how phone use mediates social hierarchies: How are smartphones used as part of local hierarchies? How is people’s smartphone use constrained by their social positions and how do people use smartphones’ affordances to refashion the preexisting contexts and hierarchies? R.  Jeffrey and Doron (2012) argue that mobile telephony has a great potential to disrupt the inequalities in India. But one could also draw on a more pessimistic prognosis that local hierarchies hinder transformations; after all, most ethnographic studies on mobile telephony (Horst and Miller 2006; Barendregt 2008; Archambault 2010; Doron 2012; Jouhki 2013)  show that the use of technologies tends to reinforce preexisting cultural and social patterns. In a similar vein, de Sardan (2005) contends that the introduction of any innovation is likely to serve the interests of some people while damaging the interests of others. Ideas about the empowering capacities of mobile telephony echo media and communication scholars’ debate on the digital divide. The digital divide concept emerged in the 1990s to refer to the unequal access and usage of digital technologies. The idea is well summarized by Castells’s (2001, 269) argument that being disconnected from the internet is tantamount to marginalization in the global, networked system. Early debates on digital divides tended to assume that ICTs are inherently good and progressive, that their nonuse is solely caused by a lack of access, and that providing ICT resources for socially disempowered groups is a means to empower them (N. Green and Haddon 2009). As digital technology has

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become ubiquitous, the discussion on the divides has moved from issues of access to contextualizing the usage of technology (Tsatsou 2011, 319). For access to matter, people must find the use of ICTs socially and culturally meaningful; people’s needs, desires, skills, and capacities matter in how and whether they access technologies (Mansell and Steinmueller 2000, 37; Loader 1998). My early observations on mobile telephony in Janta were based on how the dominant caste there, the Tilis, used phones, and I initially found fairly uniform patterns of mobile phone use, except for the gendered patterns. But by 2012, it was possible to observe greater variation, especially in how people use smartphones, because practically all households had acquired phones. Whereas the emphasis of previous chapters has been on calling, this chapter focuses mainly on the use of multifunction smartphones, which highlights the hierarchical and interactional aspects of phone use. Is the ideology about the need to bridge the digital divide simply an extremely powerful utopian ideal, or does internet access empower people? How does people’s use of the internet and smartphones differ according to their social position, and how do people in different social positions use the affordances or possibilities for action that phones offer? Affordance is a term developed by Gibson (1979) to refer to how the properties of objects determine the possibilities of action (see Chapter  2, “The Materiality of Media in Open-​ Ended Cultural Contexts”). Unlike Gibson, I  examine affordances in their broader social context by identifying and analyzing different modes of mediation: how people in different social positions have different possibilities to use digital media and how the use of new media enables reconstructing identities and social contexts. As discussed in Chapters  1 and 5, a large body of scholarship has demonstrated that mobile media use differs, for instance, among and between men and women and across age groups. However, the differences in phone use within specific groups of the same culture in developing countries have not received much attention—​Wallis’s (2013) study on how migrant women’s social position constrains them as phone users in China is a notable exception. Wallis used the concept of intersectionality to explore how multiple axes of identity and modes of power relate to mobile phone use, arguing that social constructions of gender, class, age, and place produce particular engagements with mobile technologies that, in turn, reproduce and restructure these identities. Wallis found that disciplinary regimes as well as gendered job hierarchies produced young migrant women as particular gendered, classed, aged, and placed working subjects. Hence, migrant women remained relatively immobile in their work sphere despite their use of mobile phones. Wallis, therefore, argued that the mobile phone

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enables “immobile mobility,” which she defines as a sociotechno means of surpassing spatial, temporal, physical, and structural boundaries. She described how immobile mobility allowed migrant women inclusion in expanded and enriched social networks; nevertheless, this tended to reinforce their identity as migrants or not Beijing people. The term intersectionality was originally coined by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989, 139)  and refers to how mutually reinforcing vectors of race, gender, class, and sexuality constitute subjectivity. The concept has helped to highlight how focusing on one aspect of identity, such as gender or class, as apart does not do justice to social complexity. Although the notion of intersectionality has enabled women’s movements to increasingly acknowledge that women’s interests and aspirations vary according to their social position, the idea is not new. Various feminist perspectives have proposed gendered identity as fractured and contested (Nash 2008). Intersectionality is a relatively new term to describe an old question in the theorization of the relationship between different forms of social inequality (Walby 2007). One of the complications of simultaneously theorizing multiple complex inequalities is that, at the point of intersection, it is insufficient to treat these inequalities merely as if they should be added up because they can also change one another (Walby 2007). Moreover, they may often mutually constitute each other. Crenshaw (1989) developed the concept of intersectionality to make the law more sensitive to different registers of identity. Since then, the concept, which was first used to address fixed categories, has traveled and remained open to various definitions. Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall (2013) maintain that the intersectional categories are fluid and changing—​they are at the same time creating and being created by the dynamics of power. Choo and Ferree (2010) argue for a process-​centered understanding of intersectionality and looking at how actors come to adopt belonging to categories while manipulating those categories. Menon (2015) has criticized the definition of intersectionality based on fixed categories, questioning whether intersectionality could add to the complexity and unstable configuration of identities in Indian politics. However, I  find the concept useful for understandings of identity in rural India: it helps to shed light on how age, gender, caste, and class overlap and relate symbolically with discourses of space and body in distinct ways. Consequently, instead of beginning with fixed categories, I  proceed by examining the local construction of identity based on ethnographic data. I focus not only on how people as mobile media users are constrained by their social identities, but also on how they use mobile phones to refashion their intersectional identities. I introduced the local key hierarchies, caste, and class in Chapter 3 (see “Ethnographic

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Fieldwork in Caste Neighborhoods”) and in this chapter I discuss their ongoing changes. I start by unveiling the dynamics of local social hierarchies to analyze how mobile telephony feeds into these processes by mediating local hierarchies.


The quintessential Janta village scene—​cows and goats, a clustering of small brick and mud houses connected by dirt roads and paths—​hides the fact that the village has experienced diverse social upheavals. Land reforms and the increase in agricultural productivity resulting from the introduction of new farming technologies improved especially small farmers’ and landless laborers’ living conditions after India gained independence in 1948 and during the CPI(M) rule of the state of West Bengal during 1977–​ 2011. Since the economic liberalization in the 1990s, however, farming of small farms has become less profitable because of the increased farming costs and decreased prices of agricultural produce. When I  asked the villagers what kind of development (unnoti) they had experienced, both the small landowners and the landless said that they no longer had to endure regular periods of starvation and food scarcity, which had been common two decades prior. As one low-​caste Bagdi woman summarized, “One can now feed one’s family if one works.” The following excerpts from interviews elaborate how the new affluence has been experienced: “Do you mean that the village is now far more developed than before?” “It is much better than earlier. Before, if I could not feed myself, we could earn one rupee by working for the rich farmers. With one rupee’s income, it is not possible to fill one’s stomach. This means I cannot raise my children. I cannot educate them. That is why our parents could not send us to school. Nowadays, the government helps by giving schoolbooks. It helps in many ways. There is no more poverty (obhab). Nowadays, if one works, there is no poverty. If I work for the brick factory and make one thousand bricks, I earn one hundred rupees. If both of us work, there is no poverty, and we can even save some money. The government gives assistance (sahazo) to those who cannot work. For instance, to those who have a little land, but cannot afford to sow, the government gives seeds.” (A Bagdi man) “Everything is now good, food, everything. When there is a festival, we can go out looking like the upper class (bhodrolok). In the days of poverty, we had to wear thick clothes and eat coarse rice (mota kapor, mota bhat). I used to face such

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hardships that I wore fifteen-​rupee saris. Now even men dress well. We used to not be able to wash dirty clothes, but now if clothes are dirty, we wash them with soap. These days we do not manage without soap, and when we dress well, nobody recognizes us as Bagdis. We go out together with other women like ladies.” (A Bagdi woman)

Development is experienced and talked about as the improved ability to earn enough to feed one’s family. At the same time, the new affluence is conceptualized as part of the broader cultural standard of living, often captured by the expression khaua, makha, pora, which literally means eating, rubbing of oil, and wearing of clothes, which points to the local understanding of essentials of life. One can fill one’s stomach twice a day (as opposed to having rice only once a day) with a greater variety of vegetables and with better-​quality rice than before (when the main course was coarse rice, mota bhat). Women no longer have to wear the epitome of poverty, thick saris (mota saris). Women recalled that these cheap and durable saris, which are still found on markets, were uncomfortably hot and so heavy that it was difficult to get out of the river after bathing (women bathe with their saris on). The scarcity of khaua, makha, pora is experienced both physically and socially. A Tili woman, who experienced periods of food scarcity, told me that during those times she avoided visiting because she feared that people would think that she hoped to be fed. Another Tili woman compared her current position to her past poverty: “Now that my sons are working and earning and I can go to anyone’s house, they say, kakima (aunt) have some muri (puffed rice) or rice. Earlier, when I went to visit they would say she has come for food.” It is possible to deduce from people’s appearance—​ their dress and general health—​whether they lack the proper khaua, makha, pora. The new ability to maintain a proper standard of living translates into pride, not only in oneself but also in one’s increase in caste status. Whereas it was the small farmers who experienced a sharper rise in their standards of living in the 1990s, it is the landless and scheduled caste laborers who have prospered since 2000—​in contrast to the small farmers, whose position has become increasingly precarious. It is now the possibility of doing paid labor—​rather than farming of small plots of land—​ that brings prosperity. The price ratio of farming products and costs has grown more unfavorable for farmers, and farms are becoming smaller as they are increasingly splintered through inheritance. Bagdis benefit from their caste status in that they have traditionally worked at the tile factories in the region. Young Tili men now look for work as laborers mainly from the western and southern parts of India where they are emigrating. A few young men have also found work as car drivers in Vishnupur, but they earn

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less there than Bagdis do with their work at the brick kilns near the village. Because work at the brick kilns is not available during the rainy season, Bagdis also work as agricultural laborers. The Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, which officially guarantees at least one hundred days of paid unskilled manual work annually, has increased job opportunities for casual work. Although people obtain less work in practice than guaranteed, the Rural Employment Guarantee Programme has diversified their sources of income. Moreover, government quotas have given scheduled castes real possibilities for class mobility because almost half of the jobs in India’s central government and seats of education have been reserved for scheduled castes and tribals (Varshney 2000). Even if quotas have only helped a few Bagdis in the village to obtain salaried jobs, these exceptional career paths are important tangible examples of the emerging new opportunities. One of the first Bagdis to acquire a phone in the village had completed the Madhyamik examination, which had enabled him to obtain a salaried job. When I met him in 2012, he told me that his children had recently passed the Madhyamik examination with top results and all of them were now studying in the best colleges of the region. I mentioned this positive news in the Tili neighborhood, and the next day my Tili friends told me that they had discussed the news and had come to the conclusion that the Bagdi man must have been drunk and therefore telling lies. Their reaction was telling of the Tilis’ disbelief and bewilderment about the prospering of the landless lower castes while they, the higher-​caste landowners, were finding it hard to make a living. For the anthropologist Louis Dumont (1970), the caste system in India presented an ideal type of hierarchy that does not originate from political and economic power. Dumont saw the Indian hierarchy as built on caste and purity concerns. Castes maintain distance because those lower in the caste hierarchy are impure and can transmit impurity to those higher in the hierarchy. Few scholars today try to dispute that caste is not about purity, but the emerging consensus is that it is not solely about purity. The resilience of caste in modern India has to do with the multiple meanings of caste. Low castes can build their positive self-​image on their shared myths about royal origins (D. Gupta 2000). Dalits1 studied by Saavala (2001) chose to emphasize auspiciousness in their ritual life instead of purity concerns. In Janta, the new job opportunities have lessened the landless laborers’ dependency on landowners, and Bagdis comment on the remarkable improvement in their caste position: “We are Bagdis, but now we can go to the didi’s house. There has been a lot of development. I can give a Brahmin a glass of water. Previously they did not take

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from our hands. When I am able to give a didi a cup of tea, that is development.” (A Bagdi woman) “Nowadays it does not matter if there is touching since it is possible to wash the pollution off. It is possible to go and eat in higher-​caste houses without having to wash the metal utensils oneself. In earlier days, one had to sit in a separate place and wash one’s dishes. People’s way of thinking has changed. Before, rich people did not care if poor people could not afford to eat and wear proper clothes. And now everybody has become the same. You eat, and I also eat. Yes, they have realized that they need our labor and should not keep a distance. They are compelled to treat us better.” (A Bagdi man)

There are signs of the lessening of caste discrimination as low castes are no longer dependent on the few large landowners of the dominant caste. Low caste status is no longer necessarily tied to low class position and poverty, as it was in previous decades. Moreover, opportunities for intercaste socializing, which start in primary schools, where children of all castes have their midday meal (sponsored by the central government) together, have increased. However, the change does not seem as overwhelming as the Bagdis describe. Caste groups still live and interact in their own neighborhoods, and intercaste marriages are rare. Villagers know one another’s caste identity, while strangers’ caste identity is concluded on the basis of their dialect or behavior or deduced from their clothing. Issues of pollution and touching are the key principles in how villagers perceive caste. Higher castes seldom visit lower-​caste neighborhoods. Lower castes enter the higher-​caste neighborhood as day laborers, to sell fish and vegetables, or just to chat. When lower castes visit the higher castes, they usually stand or sit in the yard—​they do not enter the house. Lower-​caste laborers have their meals on the veranda as part of their payment, but they never enter a higher-​caste house. Higher castes do not eat food prepared in lower-​caste houses. When Brahmins invite Tilis to a meal at their house on special occasions, Tilis must pay for the food to indicate their hierarchically lower position. Bagdi workers can eat in higher-​caste households, but they usually must wash their own dishes to avoid polluting their hosts. My assistant, who belongs to the Tili caste, always took care to wash her and my dishes when we had tea at Brahmin households, which means that my level of impurity was determined by my contact with Tilis. Bagdis’ exaggeration of the changes communicates their goals, awareness of new opportunities, and new sense of pride. Despite the continuity of caste discrimination, Bagdis are not particularly motivated to organize themselves to change their position as a caste group, nor have the scheduled castes in the entire state of West Bengal joined the Dalit movement

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through which scheduled castes have organized, particularly in the Western parts of India. They also do not emphasize their interest to improve their position by adopting upper-​caste practices, a process that Srinivas (1987, 1989)  has called sanskritization. The lower castes in Janta talk about imitating the upper strata of village society in terms of consumption, of being able to eat and dress so well that they can no longer be recognized as low—​thereby circumventing the purity criteria for social ascent by striving for a new identity through consumption. As Schneider (1980) pointed out, gender, class, and kinship connect through the concepts of personhood to which they all refer. The discourses I  have looked at in this chapter—​body, caste, and class—​are interlinked because they all ultimately refer to how personhood is understood. Consequently, rather than doing away with other identities, improvements in any one of these statuses can contribute to other statuses by leading to the reinterpretation of all interconnected statuses. Although acquiring a higher status by earning more does not influence one’s purity and ritual status, it can influence the collective pride in one’s caste group. In turn, the new pride can motivate caste members to question the cultural code of conduct based on ideas of purity. Any act of consumption can be viewed as identity work and management of intersecting identities. As Miller (1987) argues, material goods influence the construction of the self through objectification. But the close relationship between the mobile phone and the body contributes to the device’s personal and symbolic significance, which immobile gadgets such as television and DVD players never do (Cambell 2008). Phones can even be perceived as extensions of their owners’ physical selves (Gant and Kiesler 2001). Oksman and Rautiainen (2002) note that in the Finnish language, a mobile phone is even called an extension of the hand (kännykkä). As Fortunati (2003) argues, both body and technology are socially constructed domains with fluid boundaries. In rural West Bengal, the closeness of phones to an owner’s body has special importance since one’s standard of living and one’s social standing are measured through discourses on bodily processes (khaua, makha, pora). I experienced the strong identity statement a phone can make when I returned to the village with my new Nokia Lumia phone in 2012. I tried to avoid encouraging imaginations about my high status and riches, but there was nothing I  could do to prevent the respect that my new phone engendered. As mentioned, in 2012, one of the first things I  was told was that the lowest caste group, the Bagdis, had acquired fancy phones. Although the Bagdis did not buy branded phones, their smartphones were identity statements, signifying their position’s relative improvement in relation to the upper land-​owning castes in the village. Smartphones

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represent Bagdis services and consumer products from which they had been excluded. This exclusion, in turn, had contributed to their social standing in neoliberal India, where media images have delineated the urban middle classes as the consumers of not only the newly available commodities but also the new India produced through the meanings of these commodities (Fernandes 2000). The widespread ideology, according to which not being connected is a sign of exclusion from global currents and development, has also contributed to how purchasing digital technology has become a significant symbolic act through which people can seek to improve their position and challenge hierarchies. Throughout India and South Asia, it has become a common anecdote by the elites to demonstrate social and economic changes by telling how someone’s driver, cook, or maid suddenly acquired a mobile phone (Nisbett 2007). Nisbett, who repeatedly heard the story from information technology elites in Bangalore, notes that the comment entails a dual discourse—​the pride that these working-​class people could have acquired something so symbolic of high-​tech India mixed with the uneasiness about how the lower classes have suddenly manage to catch up in a high-​tech sphere considered the preserve of the elite. When I  told my upper-​caste friends in the town of Vishnupur about the popularity of smartphones among the Bagdis, they commented that common people’s use of phones as entertainment centers entails the misuse of phones, which should be used for making calls. The low castes’ and classes’ use of mobile phones for entertainment stirred controversy because their new ability to possess such advanced technological gadgets was experienced as disruptive of local hierarchies—​a Bagdi caste person owning a smartphone challenges the upper-​caste views of lower castes as backward. The moral critique by the upper classes in West Bengal toward mobile media use by the lower classes resembles van Wessel’s (2004, 95–​96) finding that middle-​class informants in Baroda (the third largest city in the western Indian state of Gujarat) explicitly rejected the centrality of consumption and moralized against the new consuming or materialistic ethos—​despite their ability to acquire all of the essential items of a middle-​class household. The moral discourse by the upper classes was aimed at questioning the connection between consumption and social position and restating the difference between the classes. The elites’ critique of lower-​class consumption served to highlight the factors that still are seen as separating the lower classes from the upper classes: the ability to use the new gadgets in correct ways as a result of one’s moral and intellectual superiority. Van Wessel (2004) argues that, in addition to consumption, morality remains central for the middle-​ class identity. Similar to the upper-​class people van Wessel interviewed in

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Baroda, the elites in rural West Bengal moralize against the materialism—​ even while they participate in it themselves. Also in rural West Bengal, class identity is not understood as being just about consumption. The lower classes’ ability to reach new levels of consumption is accompanied by the new emphasis by the elites on the idea that upper classes are distinct from lower classes because of their moral superiority. Moral discourse about mobile media reconciles discourses about the intersectional elements of identities: body, consumption, class, and caste.


Despite the upper-​class critique of mobile media use by the lower classes and castes, the ability to own a smartphone is experienced as emancipatory by those on the lower rungs of the local hierarchy. Nevertheless, mere smartphone ownership does not mean that everyone is able to use a smartphone in the same way or is interested in doing so. I next examine the diversity of phone use in the village by examining how the intersectional aspects of one’s identity, namely class and education, largely determine how smartphones are used. I pay attention to phone use barriers and affordances, thereby shifting the focus to how the material aspect of mobile phones mediates their use. The biggest barrier to men’s and women’s phone use is the cost of calling. Low-​income families share an understanding that phones must be used sparingly, thus reflecting their financial means, whereas the upper classes can spend generously on phone calls. Wealthier people can make and receive tens of calls a day, whereas low-​income families only receive and make a few calls weekly. The villagers’ monthly phone expenses varied between thirty and one thousand rupees. The importance of education for phone use was highlighted when I  observed a twelve-​year-​old girl effortlessly learning to browse English-​ language information from the internet using a smartphone while the older, less educated generation in the same family needed help just to type in a number. In Janta, 74 percent of the men and 58 percent of the women were literate2 (Census of India 2011a). Yet, most literate people are not used to reading regularly. Also, being literate does not guarantee the ability to use a phone. Most people can answer a phone, but typing in a number requires knowledge of English script, which the older generation knows poorly even if they attended primary school because they did not have much opportunity to study English. The state’s former ruling Marxist government banned the study of English at school before Class 5 in 1981, and English was only reintroduced from Class 2 in 1999. Initially, people

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bought branded phones with Bengali or Hindi script, but these phones were no longer available in 2012 when most people had switched to using Chinese phones, which do not include the Bengali or Hindi alphabet. An inability to read English numbers and text does not exclude anyone from calling because phones are shared, and people can help each other use a phone. I  witnessed both young men and women acting as phone-​ use experts in their families. The inability to use a phone independently, does influence people’s ability to choose the context for their conversation, however. Those able to operate a phone can engage in more heterogeneous discourses than those who require help to operate a phone because they cannot choose to speak when no one else is present.


Considering the difficulties many villagers face making calls even from basic phones, it was puzzling to discover that most households owned a smartphone in 2012. Because most people in the village are not able to read the English alphabet, they find the possibility of using phones for leisure activities, such as listening to music, taking and storing photos, and watching movies, a more interesting feature than browsing the textual content of the internet. Since most phone owners are unable to browse the internet independently, they use the internet indirectly on their phones. They buy music, videos, and pictures, which are downloaded on the phone’s memory chip in shops that sell chips and downloaded content from the internet. Although this practice differs crucially from the autonomous use of smartphones to browse the internet in Western countries, it offers easy access to internet contents. In this chapter, I relate access of the internet with the help of memory chips to how more educated people use smartphones independently to analyze social differences in smartphone usage. My focus is on how smartphone use relates with the unstable configuration of identities and I analyze how people in different social positions refashion their intersectional identities through the use of mobile phones. A typical package sold in the downloading shop in Janta includes popular Hindi and Bengali songs, Hindi films, devotional Baul music, and pictures of scenery, women, film stars, gods, and goddesses. Chips can be exchanged and borrowed; the content can be erased, and new content can be downloaded. Phones can be connected to loudspeakers or a television so that content can be heard at a higher volume, or movies can be watched on television. The common use of memory chips to access the internet through intermediaries means that internet use in India is a

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much broader phenomenon than assumed. According to the International Telecommunication Union (2016), 15.2  percent of households in India owned personal computers, and 22,6 percent of households had internet access at home in 2016. Internet access and computer use in India have been hampered by the high prices of computers, illiteracy, frequent power cuts, and the shortage of programs and relevant internet sites in local languages. It is difficult to measure mobile internet use, but according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the mobile internet user base in India had grown to 306 million by the end of 2015, and most of these users were urban (219 million). Subscribers in urban India used the mobile internet for online communication (80  percent), social networking (74  percent), entertainment (30  percent), online shopping (13  percent), and online ticketing (11 percent). Among rural Indians, 52 percent used the internet for entertainment, 39 percent for social networks, 37 percent for communication, 1 percent for online shopping, and 0.4 percent for online ticketing (The Indian Express 2016). In 2013, browsing the internet directly on a mobile phone cost ninety-​ eight rupees per month for a limited amount of gigabytes, which low-​ income people found too expensive. Service providers have introduced inexpensive data plans (starting from twelve rupees) allowing the internet to be browsed for a limited period and amount of data, which may mean just one night. Consequently, people tended to access the internet by means of their phones only sporadically. Moreover, browsing the internet on a mobile phone is not easy because most low-​end phones are not particularly user-​friendly. For instance, I failed to teach a young woman who had studied up to Class 10 to access the internet and use e-​mail on her mobile phone. I, too, found it difficult to operate the low-​end phone model to access the internet. But it must have been even harder for someone who had never browsed the internet with the help of a computer to even grasp the idea of the internet when accessed on a small phone screen. As J. Donner (2015) points out, access to the internet by means of smartphones does not provide the same affordances as a broadband connection by means of a computer. In addition to the difficulties of reading on a small screen, it is hard to use smartphones to author internet contents, which is one of the key internet affordances compared to printed text. Moreover, the same properties responsible for mobile telephony’s rapid growth in developing countries, such as usage-​based pricing, present significant constraints to effective internet use. When every click on the internet costs money, users are likely to conserve airtime and their data bundles’ balance carefully. Instead of surfing and browsing the internet, the hundreds of millions of new internet users are, in J. Donner’s (2015, 124–​25) words, likely to dip

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and sip the internet. He (153) concludes that practitioners, theoreticians, and policy makers should be wary of proclaiming that the digital divide has been bridged as a result of smartphones. Memory chips offer a practical solution to these problems because shop owners can download visual and audio content from the internet on behalf of their customers, and accessing this content does not require knowledge of English script or English. The amount of downloaded material depends on the size of the memory chip, but a typical downloaded package contains hundreds of songs, dozens of pictures, and a few films. Each download costs 10–​30 rupees and the memory chips around 150–​350 rupees. Villagers find these costs more affordable than buying a monthly or daily internet package. The downloading shopkeeper uses a personal computer to connect to the internet with the help of a mobile connection. He downloads the content on a phone’s memory chip using a chip reader installed in the computer. The presence of a large desktop computer, one of the first three computers3 that the village now has, gives his business credibility, and the shop has become the information technology hub of the village. The shop owner has taken a short course in phone repair that allows him to fix phones as well. He also sells phone accessories and phones; he takes orders and then fetches these items from the market so that he needs not invest in storing phones in his shop. J. Donner (2015) concludes that selling pirated content is a widespread practice throughout the developing world. Nevertheless, research on such data-​sharing practices is scarce. One notable exception is Pearce (2011), who found that peer-​to-​peer content sharing via mobile devices has made the consumption and exchange of digital content common in Armenia. She argues that such mobile phone uses exemplify convergence, the integration of digital audio, video, text, and data, as well as a social change in the way media circulate. Pertierra (2012) analyzed similar practices of informal circulation of digital media in urban Cuba. There, people had personal computers, and they relied on the circulation of film and television content via external hard drives. When I observed a woman buying content on her phone, I realized how little scope the customers have to choose what they want to download since most people are not aware of what is available from the internet. The customer only discussed the language of the content with the shop owner, whether she wanted it in Hindi or Bengali. As mentioned in Chapter  5 (see “Social Change and Generations”), young men run the entire mobile phone–​related economy in the region. They also dominate the downloading business, which means they choose the content. A  typical downloaded package, therefore, includes action movies and pictures of young women, neither of which is of much interest for female customers. Playing content

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from memory chips is, indeed, more popular with men than with women, although women do listen to music and watch movies on their phones. Women, however, find television soap operas more interesting than the memory chip contents since soap operas are geared more toward the interests of women. Typical soap operas dwell on family relationships and present strong female characters, whereas popular Bollywood and Bengali cinema available in rural Bankura tends to be action oriented and revolve around male characters. The use of smartphones for entertainment challenges ideas about phone users as rational individuals in search of useful information with the help of ICTs, although entertainment is not completely devoid of information. Television viewers in India, for instance, use soap operas to gain new information on phenomena such as an urban lifestyle and alternative family types (Johnson 2001; Munshi 2012). Rangaswamy and Cutrell (2012), who observed that low-​income youths in urban India use phones for recreation just as the villagers of Janta do, suggest that these entertainment practices have the potential to lead to the discovery of new skills and abilities by offering a space to experiment with technology. They also argue that the use of smartphones to access entertainment can have the valuable social effect of binding people and creating an informal technology hub. However, many smartphone users make a distinction between phone use for entertainment and as a practical benefit. A young male college student, for instance, argued that the internet could be useful, but that it is not possible to obtain these benefits by means of a phone. He pointed out that it is difficult to read exam questions, which are available on the internet, on a phone screen. Another man drew attention to how students are distracted from their studies because of their addiction to the recreation that phones provide:  “They are fascinated by the internet. Getting one item from the internet takes a long time. They are all the time copying cinema and music from the internet. It is a big problem.” In comparison to the polymedia environments in Western countries (for instance, Walsh, White, and Young 2007), the high cost of mobile phone use in relation to incomes prevents intense addictions in Janta, although people often talk about young people’s mobile addictions. The fact that people tend to use phones for entertainment does not mean that they are not interested in useful information. Smartphones have been educational in Janta in that they have introduced people to the internet as a concept. Memory chips could be used for sharing educational content, but so far, this opportunity has remained untapped. Villagers unable to browse the internet independently were interested to learn from me how I checked the weather forecast or found information

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about medicine on the internet. They were also curious to see my Facebook account and appreciated the photos of my contacts. It would be possible for more people to start accessing useful information on the internet if internet browsing were more affordable and if they could access textual content in Bengali script or if they could use the English alphabet. They would also need access to more user-​friendly smartphones than the ones they can currently afford. Nevertheless, the idea of ICTs as tools to access useful information does not much help one understand the popularity of listening to music on phones. In rural Bankura, it is common to see men cycling while listening to loud music from their mobile phone speaker. Unlike in Western countries, in rural Bankura people do not use headphones when listening to music from their phones; instead, they allow others to listen to their personal choice of music. I never saw women listening to music on their phones in public places like men do; consequently, listening to music on phones through the phone’s loudspeaker is used to ascertain the meaning of the public sphere as a masculine space where men can spend their leisure time. Even before the advent of mobile phones, one could see and hear young men traveling to picnics with music blasting from large loudspeakers. Men listening to music in public spaces on their phone speakers build on this earlier male-​dominated practice. Gopinath and Stanyek (2014) argue that sound projected outward has the capacity to transform and control space, thus territorializing it and leading to aesthetic and social transformations. They view the ubiquity of mobile music as creative opportunities accessible in an ever-​increasing array of places, suffusing everyday life with a new kind of aestheticization. When people play their selection of music for others to hear, they share their moods as reflected by their choice of music and demarcate space as shared, whereas listening to music using headphones highlights social boundaries between people and the social spaces they inhabit. New media technologies thus influence how affects, feelings, and beliefs are shared (Moore 2011, 17, citing Blackman 2007). The ability to listen and choose from a wide selection of music and to share this music with others contributes to the affective quality of public spaces and the home sphere. Emotions let us know we are somehow involved; consequently, feelings also engage the self in thinking and actively reconstructing social worlds (Tacchi 2009). As Moore (2011, 2) argues, stylization in all aspects of personal and intimate life is part of a drive to give form not only to the self, but also to the world and to relations with others. Both accessing and sharing music and films directly from the internet are fluid activities because one has great freedom to choose when to watch

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and listen and with whom to share the content. Phone memory chips also enable some of this fluidity. One scheduled caste man explains his smartphone usage while doing agricultural work in a field: “It is possible to watch a film. I can download films on the memory chip. I can take a break from my work and watch a film for a while. Then I can turn it off and continue to work and later maybe listen to some music and again continue working. Nowadays people use phones mostly for listening to music.”

Most people find the way they can now reshape the line between work and leisure exciting and energizing. They can select the time and the company with whom they wish to share the content of their phone’s memory chip and are no longer tied to television programming or cinema hall schedules. Leisure activities can be constructed as more relational than before. Gopinath and Stanyek (2013, 2014) view this kind of breakdown among work, consumption, and marketing as characteristic of the neoliberal era:  mobile music can be seen as enabling labor by helping to manage moods. The same ability to use pictures and music in diverse contexts also applies to the use of religious content, which is part of the usual downloaded content package on memory chips. The ability to listen to devotional music and to look at pictures of gods and goddesses on a personal phone has the potential to transform the way religion is practiced, since viewing (darshan) of pictures of gods and goddesses is a central medium of worship and communication in Hindu devotion and transports the viewer to the presence of the supernatural (van der Veer 2002). Religious images can now be viewed from phones in greater privacy than the images in household shrines or temples.


Most phones in the village are now internet ready, but only a small minority of villagers are even aware of the possibility to browse the internet directly with the help of a mobile phone. As mentioned before, using a smartphone to browse the internet is considered expensive and difficult because the screens of low-​cost smartphones are small. Even people who are able to use search engines to browse the internet with their phones often prefer to use internet shops, for example, to access exam questions and results. The few people who have used their personal phones to browse the internet in the village all have a college education and, therefore, belong to

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a minority. In 2012–​13, I  found thirty-​three villagers (1.3  percent of the population of the village) who either had a college degree or were studying in college.4 Accessing the textual content of the internet requires an even higher level of literacy than operating a phone for calling, as well as the ability to write the English alphabet since the English alphabet is usually used to write even Bengali when communicating through the internet—​ cheap smartphones do not offer easy solutions for using the Bengali alphabet. The few who had tried the internet had found many uses for it. All who had browsed the internet mentioned having used the Google search engine to access sites. A  young man explained the internet:  “Through this, many kinds of things can be accessed fast”; another claimed that he found the internet the biggest benefit of having a smartphone. A female teacher became convinced of the benefits of the internet when a student at her school hurt her arm. The teacher studied the nature of the injury on the internet and realized that the student needed to be taken to the hospital and operated on. She had also used the internet to search for information on mobile phone brands before buying her phone. Two sisters who were both college students had used a service provider’s free trial period to browse the internet with their phone but had not continued after that period. Two young men, both of whom had service jobs, occasionally used search engines to search the internet after the free trial period. A few other men used the internet for chatting; to download music and movies; to find out about prices, products, jobs, and exam results; and to send e-​mail and access study sources such as literature and dictionaries. One villager had also tried Google Maps to navigate and internet banking to send money. A few young men in the village access Facebook through their mobile phones, and I have followed their Facebook use through my account. Whereas the calling function of mobile phones was regarded as useful for obtaining news, one young man emphasized that Facebook is not for news, it is for pictures. This comment illustrates that people are not interested in using Facebook to provide their contacts with news indiscriminately; instead, they use the call function to deliver news—​calling gives them better control of whom they tell what information. As in a South Indian city that Venkatraman studied (Miller et al. 2016), Facebook is used in Janta to build cosmopolitan identities. Many of the young men are actively increasing their number of Facebook friends through connecting with people they do not know aside from seeing them listed as other people’s contacts. For example, one young man found new contacts from my friend list and became connected with my niece, who lived in Moscow. When I told the villagers

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about this connection, their reaction exemplified how Facebook socializing challenges the norms of village life: they were so appalled and upset that a young man had dared to make contact with my niece that they held a meeting to discuss the issue. Facebook users are indeed effectively building a circle of friends outside the realm of kinship and village sociality, and Facebook is especially used to construct a community that shares leisure activities. Whereas many of my Facebook friends from Europe and Northern America regularly report on their family life through Facebook, villagers mainly post pictures showing themselves at outings, at places they find scenic and exotic such as shopping malls. They use English phrases such as good night (which no one ever wishes to another in the village) and posting romantic pictures with English texts to create a cosmopolitan image.


In this chapter, I  have analyzed how phone ownership and use relate to intersecting class and caste hierarchies. Based on ethnographic research on local understandings of identities, I  have analyzed the intersectional vectors of identities as unstable symbolic configurations and power relationships. First, I shed light on the intersectionality of smartphone use in the sense that intersectional aspects of one’s identity, particularly class and education, largely determine how people use smartphones. Second, I examined how people refashion their identities through smartphone use as well as through their discourses about phone use. Phone use is part of the construction of intersecting hierarchies of how the ability to use digital technologies indicates upward mobility, even if this newfound ability is contested by the upper classes and elites. The ability of low-​class individuals to obtain smartphones can destabilize local hierarchies but consumption of high-​tech items—​albeit a crucial part of identity work—​appears only as one vector of hierarchical identities, reflected by how elites blame low-​ class people for using smartphones in incorrect ways. Smartphones offer different affordances for people in different social positions so that the internet opens diverse textual information on useful topics for the well educated. Moreover, smartphones enable the creation of new social contexts. Facebook enables users to expand their social bonds beyond the home, village, and kinship sphere. However, most people use smartphones to create new affective social domains by playing music and cinema through phone speakers. Although phones are far more accessible than computers, the availability of internet-​ready phones in Janta has not—​regardless of class and

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education—​caused people to become internet users. Grasping the textual content of the internet—​most of which is in English script—​requires more than the average level of education in the village. C. Jeffrey et al. (2008) have argued that in the context of widespread unemployment in rural north India, education is better understood as a contradictory resource, providing marginalized youth with certain freedoms, but also drawing them more tightly into systems of inequality. However, the lack of education plays a crucial role, at least in excluding people from the internet’s textual content. With smartphones increasingly replacing simple phones meant for making and receiving calls, education and wealth will benefit people more as phone users than will caste and gender; consequently, the way smartphones are used accentuates class and educational differences. As digital technologies become ubiquitous, digital divides are bridged in terms of the ability to use digital media, but what people are able to and choose to access through new media highlights the marginalizing impact of the educational divide. Phones also offer opportunities and technical affordances that challenge existing hierarchies. I  have highlighted how intersectionalities are symbolically constructed, which offers opportunities to refashion identities. Contrary to their hierarchical position, educated young wives and children may become the phone-​use experts in their families. Low castes are able to make identity statements simply by possessing smartphones. Yet, if the benefits of phones are assessed on the basis of their educational impact and life-​altering aspects, they do not appear particularly transforming. Mobile phones have mainly given the wealthier and well-​ educated section of the village significant life-​altering choices by offering new business opportunities and useful information. Low-​income people find smartphones more useful for listening to music and watching movies than for daily calls because of the high cost of calling. However, if one considers the cultural value of smartphones and content sharing, the impact of phones appears more prominent. The use of smartphones for entertainment challenges ICTs for development discourses’ ideas of rational individuals in search of useful information with the help of ICTs. Listening to music makes it possible to connect with and work in the affective dimension of everyday life, which can be shared with others using the phone’s loudspeaker. Listening to music or watching movies on a phone’s memory chip also allows people to select the time and the company with whom they wish to share the content, thereby allowing a creative reshaping of the line between work and leisure. The new ability to consume entertainment downloaded from the internet introduces people to the idea of the internet, exposing them to various contents and

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influences that were previously available only to the upper classes through other media. Smartphones have helped people connect to the internet, but cheap smartphones do not offer the same affordances as computers and broadband connections. People’s access to the internet via smartphones remains limited and sporadic. Nevertheless, as a result of the memory chip economy, rural Indians are far more connected to the internet than statistics reflect. The ability to access the internet and use smartphones enables agency and relates to social change, but in far more diverse ways than those that the ICTs for development discourses or the discourse on the digital divide envisioned. People’s social positions constrain the way in which they can use smartphones, but their positions also provide motivations to use digital media to maneuver within the intersectionalities of their identity. Long-​term studies will show whether the use of the internet through intermediaries and the memory chip industry paves the way for more diverse uses of the internet.

NOTES 1. Dalit (broken in Marathi) is a term low-​caste activists use for the scheduled castes or ex-​untouchables. The term highlights how low castes and former untouchables have been actively dominated by the holders of power. 2. The literacy rates for entire India are 65 percent for women and 82 percent for men (Census of India 2011b). 3. I found three computers in the village in 2013: in addition to the computer used for downloading content on memory chips, one belonged to a photography shop and was used to edit photos and design marriage invitations card and the other was privately used by a student to practice accounting. 4. According to the National Sample Survey data from 2007–​2008, the higher education enrollment in India is about ten percent of the university-​age population (Shariff and Sharma 2013)

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his book has analyzed how mobile telephony contributes to social change in rural West Bengal. As I  have shown, life did not become media saturated—​at least not during the period of my ethnographic fieldwork there (1999–​2013)—​although mobile telephony became ubiquitous. Most people’s phone use remains tangential because of economic and social barriers. By exploring mobile telephony as embedded in local cultural domains, I developed a framework for understanding new media in an environment where people’s media use remains constrained. I mainly worked at one location, but my focus was on the translocal connections to which mobile telephony contributed significantly. Indian villages have been regarded as representative of authentic, traditional India since colonial times (Jodhka 2002). My motivation for the long-​term ethnographic fieldwork that I undertook in Janta was based on my interest in change. Every visit revealed new and interesting developments—​mobile telephony was just one of the many changes I witnessed there. While post-​1990s India tends to be associated with its rapidly growing metropolitan centers, rural life has prevailed. Despite the increasing pace of urbanization, the country is still predominantly rural—​a greater number of Indians live in rural areas today than ever before (Jodhka 2016). Many of the changes I have depicted in this book—​the decline of agriculture caused by the fragmentation of landholdings, increased contact between urban and rural worlds, new aspirations, changes in caste and gender relationships, and rising levels of education—​are trends that have also been observed in other parts of rural India (Otten and Simpson 2016;

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Kumar 2016). My intention was not, however, to present Janta as a typical Indian village. There is great diversity in rural India, as anthropologists’ village ethnographies have revealed for decades. Further studies are needed to understand the differences in the appropriation of mobile telephony, and of new media in general, in different parts of rural India. The theoretical framework developed in this book should help with comparisons of the appropriation of new media between different localities in India, as well as elsewhere. My description of the arrival of mobile telephony in Janta shows that it was a gradual process of trying different phone technologies, in which the state played a crucial role. Because of the state-​owned phone company BSNL, which placed public mobile phones in all villages, phone services were available for the entire village early on. Initially, these shared phones used solar panel electricity and wireless local loop technology, which connected the wireless connection to the landline network. The shared phones created a crucial incentive to buy mobile phones, because the neighborhood phones meant that everyone was suddenly within phone reach. As I described in Chapter 3, mobile phones have become the most popular media: they are affordable and can be integrated into preexisting communication practices, including people’s motivations for creating new social and communicative contents. When new technologies were adopted, the new mediation contexts had implications for forms of sociality, although the old practice of obtaining news about other people was not abandoned. Since mobile phones became ubiquitous, sociality has been increasingly based on relatively autonomous households exchanging news translocally. At the same time, television watching has also contributed to decreased face-​to-​face interaction in public places and neighborhoods. As a result, the sense of collective village and neighborhood identity has weakened. Throughout this book, I have utilized the concept of intersectionality to understand the great variation of mobile phone use among different user groups. I have explored how people as mobile media users were constrained by their social identities, as well as how they used mobile phones to refashion the many vectors of their identities. Wallis (2013), who pioneered in applying an intersectional framework to studying mobile telephones, argued that the concept of intersectionality brings attention to how multiple axes of identity and modes of power relate to mobile phone use. What makes my study distinct from Wallis’s approach is that whereas Wallis explored Chinese urban female laborers whose lives were largely structured by the demands of their workplaces, my focus is on a rural community with a distinct social structure. I analyzed the refashioning of overlapping identities by interpreting their symbolic reconstruction.

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I explored the appropriation of mobile telephony within a myriad of fluctuating contexts, including networks and spheres of life outside the village in rural West Bengal. By doing so, I drew from various paradigms that have emerged in technology studies, anthropology, and communication studies. My approach shares some similarities with mediatization scholarship, as well as with studies that draw from the polymedia concept, although it also differs crucially. The term polymedia refers to new media in an environment where the cost of a wide variety of media use is low once users have obtained the hardware and paid for the connection and where, depending on their social, emotional, and moral concerns, they can choose to use new media (Madianou and Miller 2012). Despite the worldwide triumph of mobile telephony, polymedia is not the prevailing condition in much of the developing world or in rural West Bengal, where most people can only afford to use their phones sparingly. I demonstrated that, especially in the absence of many media alternatives, mobile phone use is best understood by analyzing how mobile phones have mediated contexts related to preexisting action and speech contexts, which no medium mediated. However, this approach can be equally fruitful for exploring relationships between differently mediated contexts even in media-​saturated environments. I, therefore, argue that the role of new media in social change depends on how the emerging media-​saturated contexts of social interaction and communication relate to preexisting contexts and other ongoing social changes. My approach is actor centric because I explored how people use the new opportunities to create new contexts with the help of their phones. Two terms—​mediatization and mediation—​have been used to address the general effects of media on social organization. I  chose the latter term because my focus is on a great variety of social and communicative contexts, some of which are not mediated by media, whereas mediatization commonly refers to changes through which society becomes dependent on media. Moreover, despite the development of greater flexibility to take the multiplicity of cultural and social contexts into account, mediatization scholars tend to discuss social changes by means of Western-​based concepts, such as individualization, secularization, and modernization. Instead of these preconceived institutional notions, I used ethnographic data to examine the local meanings of social spheres. In contrast to mediatization scholarship, which often focuses on long-​term changes based on secondary sources, I  explored a shorter time frame on the basis of ethnographic fieldwork.


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I present two main arguments about mobile telephony–​mediated social change. First, I argue that mobile phone use contributes to changes in social logistics, which impacts practices in culturally specific ways. I maintain that economic liberalization and market operations have conditioned the ways mobile telephony has been designed and used to increase the logistical efficiency of economy and co-​ordination of social relationships. In turn, these relationships influence culture in specific ways and serve to create novel speech contexts. Second, I maintain that mobile phone use strengthens the heterogeneity of discourses by mediating the discourse and social interaction. I analyzed how phones help connect speech contexts, give callers new possibilities to choose the context for their speech, and allow them to engage in critical and unconventional discourses and actions. I related mobile communication to diverse social contexts and ongoing social changes, analyzing the relationship between mobile phone–​mediated conversations and other speech contexts and media—​in this sense, this book is not a study of one single media. The lion’s share of studies on mobile telephony have been conducted in Western countries, where similar emerging mobile phone use patterns, such as the improved coordination and flexibility of the workplace and home activities, were first identified. Castells (1996; Castells et al. 2007) maintained that telephony helps favor individual projects and interests instead of helping to reinforce societal norms. The worldwide spread of mobile technology has helped challenge these generalizations—​anthropological and ethnographic studies on mobile telephony have specifically revealed that no single mobile phone culture has emerged. I also found the appropriation of phones in rural India distinct from that of many other localities: for instance, local understandings of gender, kinship (Chapter 5), and politics (Chapter 6) motivate phone use in Janta. Moreover, phone use has implications for caste identities, as depicted in Chapter 7. Nevertheless, at a certain analytical level, there are similarities between phone use in Janta and elsewhere. Fortunati (2002, 615) summarizes the studies on mobile phone use in Western countries by concluding that mobile phones have transformed social relationships and influenced the meaning and experience of time and space—​this inference also applies to the village where I worked.


In Chapter  5, I  demonstrate how women’s increasing access to a mobile phone has influenced their relationships with men, but—​more crucially—​ how it has influenced the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies

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within families and between kin groups. Phones have helped introduce changes in women’s relationships with each other: phones help young wives challenge their mother-​in-​law’s authority and build closer relationships with their mothers after marriage. Some women expressed fears about the lack of proper distance between their natal home and their in-​laws’ house. However, I  did not witness cases of maltreatment caused by this lack of distance. Unlike women’s lengthy visits to their natal homes, which would be regarded as threatening their work contribution in their in-​laws’ houses, greater phone communication with their natal relatives contributed to their well-​ being and did not undermine their position in their in-​laws’ houses. While kinship relationships have encouraged and motivated mobile phone use, phone use has, in turn, transformed relationships by helping to create new contexts for speech and action. Mobile phones give callers new possibilities to choose the context for their speech and to engage in critical and unconventional discourses, which can help women make concrete changes in their everyday lives. However, the positive impacts of women’s phone use are subtle and ambiguous: most calls are about the slight redefinition of the home boundaries, which are barely acknowledged and articulated. Phones also mediate discourses by contributing to the merging of different contexts. They have helped change the meaning of the outside sphere for many women by extending the safety associated with the home to the outside world when they need to be there. The few village women who go to college or have a service job outside the village therefore always carry their personal phones. They use phones to inform people at home about their schedules or possible delays in commuting from work and to monitor how things are at home—​ and request help in case of emergencies. Nevertheless, women are positioned differently in how frequently they can use a phone. Even when in-​laws encourage their daughter-​in-​law to call her parents, such calls may have to be made sparingly because of economic constraints. A woman’s ability to call reflects the position she has carved for herself in her in-​laws’ house, as well as the household’s economic standing. When women are able to call freely, it signifies that they enjoy a good relationship with their husbands and/​or with their in-​laws and that the household is wealthy enough to allow calling.


Small-​scale entrepreneurs were the first group to make use of mobile phones in Janta. I was struck by the similarities between how they used mobile phones to improve their logistics and how phones were used elsewhere. As in many other locations, the villagers appreciated the way mobile


[ 171 ]


phones enabled them to call for help, save time, extend their markets, and find market information. I view these similarities in phone use patterns as deriving from mobile telephony’s material affordances. Mobile phones, as well as other ICTs, were largely developed with logistical concerns in mind. Wireless communication was initially designed to improve the logistical efficiency of the navy, the military, and the police in the United Kingdom and the United States (Agar 2004). Overcoming spatial barriers with the help of ICTs has proved central for late capitalism, which has expanded as a result of constant efforts to shorten turnover times. Landline phones, faxes, and the internet have mainly helped improve economic efficiency in Western countries and urban centers. The rapid spread of mobile telephony made it possible for many parts of the developing world to overcome spatial barriers of time and money for the first time. I discovered a great multiplicity of ways people can benefit from the logistical affordances of mobile media besides the phones’ economic uses. I prefer the term social logistics, because it accentuates that logistics is inevitably socially mediated and not simply confined to economic life as separate from other domains of culture and society. Whether one arranges a business deal or maintains personal relationships, one must operate within meaningful relationships in a social structure. In other words, logistical maneuvers must draw on symbolic systems, and improved logistical efficiency is not limited to the economic sphere, nor does it entail a shift from personal to impersonal systems. Instead of homogenizing cultures, mobile technology helps to reinforce those cultural patterns and processes that can be reconciled with improved efficiency in social interaction and business transactions. Nevertheless, as I  showed in Chapter  4 (see “Differing Benefits of Mobile Phones for Microentrepreneurs”), people do not benefit equally from the logistical affordances of phones. In Janta, phones have been economically most beneficial for the wealthiest entrepreneurs and large farmers who market their produce and products outside the village and can use their phones to expand their markets. Entrepreneurs who mainly market their products in the village use phones to obtain stock and request price information, but such uses have not resulted in considerably increased income. On the contrary, since phones have made it easier to start small-​scale businesses, competition has also increased.


Chapter 6 revealed mobile telephony as a crucial factor in the rise of the opposition in West Bengal, where the Communist Party had been in power

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from 1977 until 2011—​when the Trinamul Party gained power. In 2010, opposition activists told me how mobile phones helped them mobilize secretly against the ruling party—​party activists were among the heaviest phone users in rural West Bengal. Although phones helped both the opposition and the ruling party act more efficiently, opposition activists used phones for spontaneous activities, such as organizing wildcat strikes and reporting the ruling party’s misdeeds, more than the ruling party did. Opposition activists emphasized that phones help them react faster to events. News about local political disputes can be communicated upward in the party hierarchy, and party leaders can, in turn, coordinate political action and request that news about such actions should be spread horizontally through the party hierarchy’s lower levels. Phones thus played an important part in local political processes. When the Communist Party, CPI(M), sought to overpower the opposition through violence, Trinamul organized protection by phone, sending its cadres to protect its supporters even if an attack was only anticipated. Nevertheless, political activists use phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The parties’ power is largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice could call a village meeting, led by the local political leaders, during which a solution will be negotiated between the disputing parties. Political activists and leaders receive calls from people with different types of trouble, and phones have made it possible to react faster and to accomplish more in a shorter time span than before. Consequently, in addition to local leaders, patronage is now increasingly sought from other sources. The rise of the opposition in Janta and elsewhere in West Bengal exemplifies how the use of mobile technology can amplify multiplicity by strengthening clandestine political activities and alternative discourses. In contrast to the CPI(M)’s hierarchical flows of information and decision making, the Trinamul Congress Party used phones to change the way political hierarchies were imagined and practiced by encouraging translocal communication across its hierarchical units. Although the activities of smart mobs in West Bengal appear similar to comparable activities elsewhere, a closer examination revealed that they are, first, centered on the local understanding of politics and, second, orchestrated by more or less established and hierarchical political organizations. Unlike Castells’s (2007) idea that mobile phones encourage networked individualism and the forming of autonomous political groups, I have demonstrated that local understandings of politics motivate phone-​enabled networks. Phone use for political purposes built on earlier political patterns and meanings, but it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal.


[ 173 ]

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Not only can activists connect more promptly with their supporters and voters, but also they can communicate more efficiently with different organizations, both horizontally (e.g., other activists and organizations such as the police and communal elected bodies) and vertically (with their leaders and subordinates). Incidents that appear to be spontaneous reactions to the ruling party’s misdeeds often originate from communication between different levels of party hierarchies followed by the horizontal spreading of information both within and outside the party. The use of phones in combination with information provided by private television stations extended the information-​sharing networks. Local people benefitted because they no longer had to predominantly rely on local leaders and because phones offered an additional media for the articulation of critical and alternative discourses. While the shift in power from local communities and leaders to translocal networks may nurture democratization, as illustrated by the growth of the opposition in rural West Bengal, it has also meant a decrease in the influence and power of village-​level leadership. These findings on the political uses of phones should not be generalized to other contexts and locations. Research on the political uses of new media has resulted in mixed conclusions, which reflects the degree to which the use of new media for political activities is embedded in local social structures and power hierarchies. There are well-​known examples of how mobile phones have enabled political action, but the promotion of technological tools as prodemocratic agents has also incited authoritarian regimes to control activists. In West Bengal, media played a more prominent role than in many autocratically ruled regions because the Left Front state government could not control the media, which the central government regulates in India. Despite the many affordances mobile telephony offers for political activism, mobile phone use for political purposes is embedded in local contexts and social processes in ways that elude generalizations about mobile phones simply as tools for democratization and the strengthening of civil society.


By 2012, the villagers had switched from using simple mobile phones to using smartphones, which highlights the hierarchical contexts and aspects of phone use. The people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy especially cherished the opportunity to own high-​tech gadgets, which in neoliberal India represent upper-​class identities. The widespread ideology, according to which not being connected is a sign of exclusion from global currents and development, has also contributed to the purchase of digital technology

[ 174 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

becoming a significant symbolic act through which people seek to improve their position and challenge hierarchies. Since accessing the internet’s textual content requires an even higher level of literacy than operating a phone to make a call, only a few people in the village use their personal smartphones to browse the internet for various purposes: Facebook; downloading music and movies; finding out about prices, products, jobs, and exam results; and sending e-​mail and accessing study sources, such as literature and dictionaries. Smartphones have helped people connect to the internet, but cheap smartphones do not offer the same affordances as computers and broadband connections. It is hard to both author content and read from a small screen—​cheap smartphones are not user-​friendly. Moreover, people’s access to the internet via smartphones remains limited and sporadic because of the high cost of browsing. As a result of these obstacles, most phone owners use the internet indirectly. They buy music, videos, and pictures, which are downloaded on their phone’s memory chip in shops selling chips and content downloaded from the internet. With smartphones increasingly replacing simple phones meant for making and receiving calls, education and wealth will benefit people as phone users more than caste and gender will; consequently, the way smartphones are used accentuates class and educational differences. As digital technologies become ubiquitous, digital divides are bridged in terms of the ability to use digital media, but what people are able and choose to access through new media highlights the marginalizing impact of the educational divide. The use of smartphones for entertainment challenges the ICTs for development discourses’ ideas of rational individuals in search of useful information with the help of ICTs. Instead, people’s new ability to consume entertainment downloaded from the internet introduces them to the internet by exposing them to various entertainment contents and influences, which were previously only available to the upper classes through other media. Accessing entertainment from the internet can, however, increase the capacity to aspire, a term coined by Appadurai (2004, 2013). Appadurai (2004, 2013) views the limited capacity to form conjectures and refutations about the future as a hallmark of poverty. Capacity to aspire can, hence, be regarded as a key element for empowerment of the poor.


Appadurai’s (2004, 2013)  attention to the importance of cultural aspirations is an important reminder that development is not just about the practical improvements and instrumental uses of new media. Within


[ 175 ]


the mobiles for development discourse, development is often narrowly understood as being about how people can use their phones for practical purposes. Nevertheless, as in other parts of the world, mobile phones in developing countries are part of identity work. When young men in rural India use their smartphones to create cosmopolitan identities with the help of Facebook, they may be paving the way for new types of demands and activism, although online activity does not easily translate into real-​ life changes, as noted by Miller et al. (2016). The expansion of mobile telephony is often celebrated as a showcase example of how neoliberal globalization can promote development and reduce poverty. A popular development narrative has emerged regarding successful entrepreneurs using their mobile phones to expand their business activities. Nevertheless, scholarly work on the developmental impacts of mobile phone use is relatively scarce. Economists have highlighted the economic impacts of phones, whereas ethnographic studies in particular have strongly questioned the link between mobile telephony and development. My observations about the appropriation of phones differ interestingly from both optimistic and pessimistic assessments of the role of phones in development. Villagers told me that they had experienced mobile telephony as a major change. Mobile telephony has become such a ubiquitous part of everyday life that the villagers would find it hard to manage without their mobile phones. Simply the fact that people can use mobile phones to strengthen social networks gives people new possibilities to survive a crisis, although phones do not guarantee that help will be offered. However, mobile telephony did not mark an end to the poverty and the developmental problems in the village. My observations of rural India over a decade have been a poignant lesson on economic growth and development. Despite the high economic growth in India, most small farmers I know in Janta have been struggling for more than a decade to make ends meet. I next assess the role mobile telephony played in development issues. I do not perceive development merely as poverty reduction; rather, I understand it as improvements in capabilities (Nussbaum 2000; Sen 1999). However, I acknowledge that the ability to engage in sustainable livelihoods plays a crucial role in improving people’s capabilities. I also draw on Sen (1999), who views development ideas as originating from contemporary local and global debates. Appadurai (2004, 63) views Sen’s work as a major invitation to anthropology to widen its understanding of how people engage their own futures, and he introduced his notion, capacity to aspire, to highlight the importance of navigational ability for welfare. The small reductions in time and money needed to run errands that phones enable do add up. In fact, phone users are likely to underestimate

[ 176 ]  A Village Goes Mobile

the logistical benefits of phones because they are hard to calculate and measure. In Janta, most people could accomplish more in a shorter time if they were able to coordinate their activities with the help of mobile phones. However, the biggest economic change in the village since the turn of the century was a result not of the use of mobile phones, but of the agricultural policies that resulted in a decrease in small farmers’ profits. My identification of age-​based phone user groups helps reveal that those groups whose structural position has undergone changes use phones to negotiate local hierarchies:  youth, women, and low-​ caste people (see Chapter  5, “Social Change and Generations”). Since the economic liberalization in the 1990s, the cost of farming has increased, and the prices of agricultural produce have fallen. Consequently, wage work provides more security than land ownership. Instead of taking for granted that they have a future in agriculture like their fathers’ generation had, young men use their mobile phones to seek work outside the village. The increase in education over recent decades is another major change in the village. Both upper-​and low-​caste women have experienced significant improvements in education in relation to upper-​caste men. I  delineate three groups based on how people have been affected by these changes, especially in relation to phone use. Those in the age group forty years and older are illiterate or have a low level of education. Consequently, they are unable to browse the internet and many cannot even make a phone call without help. The age group twenty-​five to forty years is better educated and has experienced the decrease in farming’s importance. Most of the first college-​educated people in the village belong to this cohort. Those under twenty-​five years of age are the first fully literate generation who also know the Latin alphabet—​they have the best abilities to use phones. However, children’s phone use is marginal in the sense that they do not use phones to make calls independently. Most people simply cannot afford to allow their children to make regular phone calls. Children, both girls and boys, are nevertheless skilled at operating phones, even smartphones, which they use to play games and listen to music. Young men are considered the main operators and owners of household phones, and they are more motivated to use their phones to build networks outside the village than the older generations are. College-​ educated youths use smartphones to browse the internet. Because older people cannot use phones independently, they also cannot browse the internet. They do, however, have the possibility of using phones, because household phones are shared and younger family members help them. But it is not only age that counts—​there are also crucial caste-​and class-​ based differences. The upper class can best afford to use phones to make


[ 177 ]

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calls and browse the internet, while the lower classes and castes mainly use phones for recreation. As described in Chapters 5 and 7, people have been able to introduce incremental changes in gender and kinship system and caste identities with the help of mobile telephony. While most people could avail the logistical affordance of their phones in various ways, the economic benefits were not distributed equally. Despite the limitations I observed in phones’ roles in development, I also saw untapped potential to improve people’s capacities with the help of mobile telephony. For instance, although people use mobile phones to call for help privately, it is still not possible to call medical help to the village or to obtain medical advice from an expert over the phone. The Indian state has not used the potential to provide its services cost-​efficiently with the help of mobile phones. Many pilot projects have provided developmental services in India and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it has proved hard to scale up these projects—​most poor people are not willing to pay for educational messages once the pilot project ends. Service provider companies have not been able to provide sustainable, affordable health-​care solutions or useful information for low-​income people as part of their business practices, and the state has not introduced initiatives to harness the potential of mobile technology. The identification of mobile telephony as belonging to the market realm hampers its use for developmental purposes in India. Again, my findings should not be generalized—​ new institutional setups for mHealth are being developed in different locations: for instance, the governments of Bangladesh and Indonesia are actively promoting both eHealth and mHealth as a route to cost-​effective health care (Chib and Hsueh-​Hua Chen 2011; Ahmed et al. 2014). An overarching interest in a few success cases and successful pilot projects at the expense of sustainable development has dominated the mobiles for development discourses to date. Despite their many benefits for users, mobile phones alone do not solve developmental problems; the complexity of social processes and actors requires multiple solutions. Detailed attention to ICTs’ multiple uses and influences can, in turn, help create development interventions and policies that take the multiplicity of actors and ongoing social processes into account. Long-​term holistic ethnographic research can, hence, improve our understanding of how to better encourage digital inclusion through policy and design.

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2G, 53 3G, 53 Abraham, Reuben, 18, 67, 68 absent presence, 4 affordance, 32, 33, 56, 66, 73, 74, 87, 122, 123, 125, 127, 141, 147, 148, 156, 158 agency, women’s, 89–​119, 170–​171 Aker, Jenny, 18, 66, 67, 68 Altheide, David, 27 Andersen, Barbara, 31 Appadurai, Arjun, 12, 34, 175–​176 Archambault, Julie, 3, 5, 9, 31, 91, 114, 147 Arminen, Ilkka, 110 Baldassar, Loretta, 30, 31 Banerjee, Mamata, 130, 132, 136 Bangladesh, 18, 66, 85, 178 Basu, Amrita, 107 Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh, 130 Boellstorff, Tom, 31 Bolter, Jay, 24, 25, 37 Bourdieu, Pierre, 93 Brown, Barry, 3, 4 Burrell, Jenna, 10, 67–​68, 69 Cameroon, 9 capacity to aspire, 12, 175, 176 caste, 13, 15–​16, 38–​43, 48, 58, 61–​62, 74, 98–​100, 102, 104; changes, 151–156; and class, 41; and gender, 105, 108, 117; and marriage, 105–​106; and neighborhoods, 37, 46; and politics, 137; and smartphones, 144–​166

Castells, Manuel, 4, 103, 109, 124–​125, 140, 147 cell phones. See mobile phones Chatterjee, Partha, 34, 135 Chib, Arul, 85, 91, 178 China, 3, 9, 10, 91, 125, 126, 141, 148 cinema, 57, on smartphones, 162 Cockburn, Cynthia, 92 computer, 5, 6, 7, 10, 59–​60, 158 contexts, of speech, 19, 31–​32, 62, 116, 118, 141, 169, 170 co-​presence, 30, 31 Couldry, Nick, 26, 28–​29, 55 Coyle, Diane, 18, 68, 86 Crenshaw, Kimberlé, 149 Crentsil, Perpetual, 85 Cuba, 159 Davis, Marvin, 134 de Sardan, Jean-​Pierre, 34, 147 Derne, Steve, 86, 142 development, 6–​9, 11–​12, 18, 34–​35; economical, 87–​88; and gender, 107–​109, 150–​155, 175–​178; in West Bengal, 44–​45, 68 digital divide, 6, 20, 147–​148, 159, 165–​166, 174–​175 Digital India Plan, 6, 139 domestication, 22–​23 Donner, Jonathan, 7, 9, 18, 51, 53, 66–​68, 109–​110, 158–​159 Doron, Assa, 3, 5, 11, 79, 90, 93, 105, 115, 117, 133, 147 dowry, 51, 105–​107, 114–​115 Dumont, Louis, 34, 134, 152 DVD players, 57, 58, 154

9 8 1

Economic uses, of phones, 64–​79, 171–​172, 76; differing benefits, 70–​73 Egypt, 18, 66, 126, 127 Electrification, 54 Ellwood-​Clayton, Bella, 91, 114 Escobar, Arturo, 11 Ethnographic research, 13–​17, 38–​43 Facebook, 60, 126–​127, 161, 163–​164 Ferguson, James, 127 Finland, 3, 4, 147, 154 Fischer, Claude, 33, 92 Fortunati, Leopoldina, 4, 5, 91, 94, 100, 124, 140, 154, 170 Foucault, Michel, 116 Friends, 31, 42, 45–​46, 52–​53, 60, 62, 83, 100–​104, 115, 119, 139–​140 Fruzzetti, Lina, 45, 105, 117 Gender; and agency, 89–​117; and calling patterns, 100–​104; and education, 98–​99, 108; imbalance, 97; and kinship, 105; and space, 109–​110; and technology, 90–​92 Generations, 94–​100 Gergen, Kenneth, 4, 109–​110, 124, 137 Gershon, Ilana, 24–​25 Ghana, 10, 67–​69, 85 Gibson, James, 32, 35, 148 globalization, 128, 142, 176 Goggin, Gerard, 3, 33, 145 Granovetter, Mark, 104 Green, Nicola, 3, 22–​23, 33, 147 Grint, Keith, 32 Grodzins Gold, Susan, 90, 112, 117 Groshek, Jacob, 126 Grover, Shalini, 112, 118 Grusin, Richard, 24–​25, 38 Gupta, Akhil, 44, 127 Gupta, Dipankar, 33, 152 Gupta, Monobina, 132–​134 Haddon, Leslie, 3, 22–​23, 33, 147 Hanks, William, 31–​32, 116 Hansen, Thomas Blom, 134 Harper, Richard, 3, 4 Harvey, David, 65–​66 health care, in India; health workers, 13, 82–​85; National Health Insurance, 84; Unique Identification System, 84

[ 198 ] Index

Hepp, Andreas, 13, 27, 29–​30 Hjarvard, Stig, 27–​30 Hjorth, Larissa, 145 Horst, Heather, 3, 5, 7, 9–​10, 12, 18, 25, 31, 49, 86, 91, 141, 147 Hutchby, Ian, 32, 35 Hymes, Dell, 31 hypercoordination, 4 identity, 4, 23, 31, 34, 36, 40, 74, 90, 92, 94, 100, 126, 142, 148–​149, 153–​156, 164–​166, 168, 176 Ibahrine, Mohammad, 124 ICTs, for development, 5–​6, 165–​166 illiteracy, 98–​99 Indonesia, 85, 91, 178 Internet use, 2, 5, 6, 12, 60, 98–​100, for politics, 125–​127, 139, 157–​166, 174 intersectionality, 19, 34, 66, 90, 92, 148–​149, 164, 168 Israel, 91 Ito, Mizuko, 4, 5, 25, 100 Jamaica, 3, 5, 9, 12, 49 Janta, caste, 41–​43; education, 98–​99; occupations, 41; phone diffusion, 45–​54 Japan, 4, 90 jatra, 57 Jeffrey, Robin, 3, 11, 79, 115, 133, 147, 165 Jensen, Robert, 7, 18, 67–​68 Johnson, Kirk, 57, 58, 160 Jorgensen, Dan, 31 Jouhki, Jukka, 5, 90, 93 Kärki, Jelena, 90, 117 Kasesniemi, Eija-​Liisa, 4, 100 Katz, James, 3, 4, 64 Kenya, 7–​8, 125 Kerala, fishing system, 7, 67 khaua, makha, pora, 151, 154 Kinship, 5, 16–​19, 66, 69, 91–​93, 95, 97, 101–​109, 112–​119, 170–​171, 178; coordination of, 79–​82, 86–​87; and marriage, 45, 105–​106, 110–​111; natal families, 111–​115; and politics, 135–​137, 164 Korea, 4 Krotz, Friedrich, 13, 27, 29, 30

labor relationships, 74–​76 Lahiri, Indrani, 121 land conflicts, 128–​130 landline phones, 17, 33, 37, 53–​54 land reform, 13, 44, 107, 128, 135, 150 Latour, Bruno, 93 letters, 44, 45, 49, 64 Lie, Merete, 23 Lim, Merlyna, 127 Lim, Sun Sun, 90 Ling, Richard, 4, 10, 22, 23, 31, 64, 74, 92, 109, 125 Lipset, David, 22 Liu, Jun, 125, 141 Loader, Brian, 148 Logan, Sarah, 126 loudspeaker, 56, 61, 75, 157, 161, 165 love marriages, 106, 115 Lundby, Knut, 27, 29–​30 Madianou, Mirca, 25–​26, 29, 62, 169 mahila samiti, 106 Mankekar, Purnima, 57 Martín-​Barbero, Jesús, 29 materiality, of media, 32–​34 Mazzarella, William, 31–​26 media, anthropology of, 11 media ideology, 25 media logic, 27–​29 media ecology, 25–​26, 37, 124, 147 mediation, 30–​32 mediatization, 13, 26–​30; actor-​centric, 123–​124; cultural perspective to, 29–​30; and politics, 123–​124 memory chips, entertainment from, 157–​162 Mencher, Joan, 34 Menon, Nivedita, 149 mHealth, 69, 82–​85, 178 microcoordination, 4, 64 Miller, Daniel, 2, 5, 12, 25, 30, 127, 140, 153, 175 missed calls, 53 mobile phones; applications, 7–​8; and body, 154; and development, 6–​8, 175–​178; diffusion, 2; and economy, 7, 64–​79; and gender, 89–​117; and politics, 120–​140; smartphones, 144–164; social consequences of, 3–​5; and space, 5, 24, 32, 51, 103–​104, 109–​119

Molony, Thomas, 67, 68 Money transfer, 7–​8 Moore, Henrietta, 161 Morozov, Evgeny, 126 Moyal, Ann, 92 Mozambique, 3, 9, 31, 114 M-​pesa, 7–​8 Munshi, Soma, 59, 160 music, 161–​162 Myanmar, 74 Nandigram, 128–​131 Nash, Jennifer, 149 National e-​Governance Plan, India, 6, 139 neoliberalism, 7, 65, 155, 162, 174, 176 Niger, 67 Nussbaum, Martha, 12, 176 Oksman, Virpi, 147, 154 Oreglia, Elisa, 10, 91 Ormrod, Susan, 92 Orr, Julian, 33 Ortner, Sherry, 93 Osborn, Michelle, 125 Overå, Ragnhild, 18, 67–​68 panchayat, 42, 106–​107, 121, 130, 135, 137–​139, 140 Pantzar, Mika, 33–​35, 60–​61, 93 Papua New Guinea, 31, 126 patron–​client relationships, 134–​140 Philippines, 26, 114, 124, 125 phone calls; men’s, 102, 103; from shared phones, 50, 52; times, 48; women’s, 101 phone use, for agriculture, 76–​79; barriers of, 156–​157; children, 99; in contexts, 168; internet browsing, 162–​166, 172, 175, 177–​178; in politics, 120–​143, 172–​174; sharing, 46; teenagers, 4, 9, 99; women, 89–​104 Pink, Sarah, 15 Pitroda, Sam, 45 Politics, in West Bengal; BJP, 120, 127, 130, 131, 134, 136, 137; CPI(M), 106, 107, 120–​121, 128–​130, 132–​137, 140–​141, 150, 173; Left Front Government, 121, 129, 135; police atrocity, 128–​129; Trinamul Congress Party, 121–​123, 128, 130–​133, 138, 140, 141; women’s participation, 106–​107

Index  [ 199 ]


Polymedia, 25–​26, 29 Portelli, Alessandro, 16 Postill, John, 10 poverty, 7, 9, 11–​13, 26, 44, 60, 74, 129, 150–​151, 153, 175–​176 practice; elements of, 60–​62; idioms of, 25; theories of, 33 puja, 40 Rabinow, Paul, 116 radio, 54–​56 Rafael, Vicente, 124 Rautiainen, Pirjo, 4, 100, 154 Reckwitz, Andreas, 33, 93 Remediation, 23–​25 Rheingold, Howard, 12, 124, 125, 140 Roos, Jeja-​Pekka, 3 Rowlands, Jo, 116–​117 rural India, changes, 167 Ruud, Arild, 134, 135 Rwanda, 53, 66, 68 Saavala, Minna, 102, 152 Sahlins, Marshall, 93 Sari, Hanafi, 126 Schneider, David, 93, 154 Schulz, Winfried, 123 Sen, Amartya, 12, 83–​84, 176 Sey, Araba, 9, 69, 109 Shared phones, 24, 46–​54 Shirky, Clay, 125 Shove, Elizabeth, 33–​35, 60–​61, 93 Singhal, Arvind, 11, 54, 57 Slater, Don, 5, 11–​12, 18, 25, 34, 56, 86 small-​scale entrepreneurs, 7, 18, 47, 66–​74 smartphones, 18–​20, 23, 48, 55–​56, 59–​60, 95, 99, 125, 127, 144–​166 Snow, Robert, 27

[ 200 ] Index

social logistics, 18, 64–​88 South Africa, 18, 66 Srinivas, Narasimhachar, 34, 154 Stark, Laura, 9 Strathern, Marilyn, 91 Suchman, Lucy, 33 Tacchi, Jo, 25, 55, 90, 114, 161 Tanzania, 9, 18, 66, 67 Tawah, Sanna, 9 Telecom policy, India, 6; BSNL, 46, 61, 168; Digital India Plan, 5; National e-​Governance Plan, 6, 139; public call office, 45; teledensity, 2; tower phones, 46 television, 24, educational programs, 57, 57–​59; cable television, 57; public broadcasters, 57; soap operas, 59 text messages, 53 Thailand, 18 transportation, 74–​76 Tsatsou, Panayiota, 148 Udupa, Sahana, 127 Vatuk, Sylvia, 112 Wajcman, Judy, 11, 90, 92 Walby, Sylvia, 149 Wallis, Cara, 3, 9, 34, 148–​149, 168 Watson, Amanda, 9 Watson, Matt, 33–​35, 59–​61, 93 West Bengal; development, 150–​156; land reforms, 44; poverty reduction, 13; social networks, 43–​45 Yanagisako, Sylvia, 93 Zimbabwe, 126

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