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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing



This five-year project at UCL Anthropology employs a team of ten anthropologists who work on a collaborative and comparative project based on simultaneous 16 month ethnographies. The project started in October 2017 and the fieldwork in February 2018.

This project investigates fundamental changes in people’s relationship to age and health associated with the global rise of the smartphone. The aim is to combine an intellectual challenge in understanding the contemporary nature of age and the impact of new media, with an applied challenge to use this knowledge to help make mHealth (mobile health) interventions more effective.

Through simultaneous 16-month ethnographies a team of anthropologists will explore the experience of ageing for those between the ages of 45-70, i.e. neither clearly young nor elderly, who represent an unprecedented population experiencing increased life expectancy and changed aspirations. We will examine the impact on this ambivalence of smartphones and previously youth associated technologies. mHealth initiatives first developed around youth-orientated issues of fitness and wellbeing but are increasingly helping older populations deal with disease and frailties. mHealth has potential both for helping those with limited access to professional care but also threatens to bypass and undermine professional medical services. Our aim is to complement technology-led mHealth interventions with ethnography-led participatory design, consisting of a three-way collaboration between mHealth professionals, our ethnographically-informed team, and our informants in the field. We aim to demonstrate how such collaborations can lead to more culturally-appropriate mHealth interventions and more effective improvements in people’s lives.

This exercise in engaged anthropology will inform our intellectual advances in the field of digital anthropology which has not, so far, considered the smartphone from a global comparative perspective. Reflections on mHealth and the smartphone will in turn also contribute to the core aim of advancing our understanding of the experience of ageing in this new interstitial period of life between young and old, and to appreciate the major transformations in society and sociality represented by the new ubiquity of the smartphone. Both the intellectual and applied components will be shown to depend upon sensitivity to the forms of cultural diversity uncovered by our comparative ethnographic approach.

The intention is to produce a series of popular monographs, comparative work, film and accessible teaching materials on the same lines as the recently completed Why We Post project.

Most of the team are based at UCL and work with Daniel Miller with funding from a five year European Research Council advanced grant. The anthropologists will include PhD students, Post-Doctoral and full time teaching staff. The project also includes collaboration with other departments, sources of funding, and supervision as listed below.

Research sites

• BRAZIL: MAIN SITE: SUBURB OF SAO PAULO. Anthropologist: Marilia D. Pereira, based at ESPM Sao Paulo, funding from ESPM.
• CAMEROON: MAIN SITE: YAOUNDÉ. Anthropologist: Patrick Awondo, based at Anthropology UCL, funding from ERC.
• CHILE: MAIN SITE – MIGRANTS WORKING IN SANTIAGO. Anthropologist: Alfonso Otaegui, based at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research (CIIR), Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Santiago, in collaboration with ERC. Funding from Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
• CHINA: MAIN SITE – SHANGHAI. Anthropologist: Xinyuan Wang, based at Anthropology UCL, funding from ERC.
• IRELAND: MAIN SITE – DUBLIN Anthropologist: Pauline Garvey, based at Anthropology Maynooth, Ireland, funding from ERC
  IRELAND (SECOND) MAIN SITE- Small Town on East Coast: Daniel Miller based at UCL, funding from ERC
• ITALY: MAIN SITE – MILAN – multicultural neighbourhood. Anthropologist: Shireen Walton, based at Anthropology UCL, funding from ERC.
• JAPAN: MAIN SITE – KYOTO. Anthropologist: Laura Haapio-Kirk, based at Anthropology UCL, funding from ERC.
• JERUSALEM: – EAST.  Anthropologist: Maya de Vries, Based at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
• UGANDA: MAIN SITE – KAMPALA Anthropologist: Chalotte Hawkins, based at Anthropology UCL. funding from ERC
• Shorter additional project – TRINIDAD : MAIN SITE –  SAN FERNANDO. Anthropologist: Daniel Miller

For further information contact Daniel Miller at d.miller@ucl.ac.uk.