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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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Drawing as ethnographic method

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 4 February 2019

Drawings made during a group interview about the smartphone.

The anthropological method of participant observation can only go so far when trying to understand the role of an object such as the smartphone in a person’s interior emotional life. The relationship a person has with their phone is deeply connected to the relationships that person has through their phone, to others and to themselves. Yet asking people about their relationship with their phone often yields limited responses: “It’s convenient for staying in touch”, “I rely on it for everything”. People take for granted that the smartphone is a helpful tool, but they typically have not considered their relationship to it specifically, and how it affects their relationships, behaviour, and identity, therefore I needed to find a way to have deeper discussions about the smartphone if I was to understand it in terms of affect. In order to explore the topic directly I thought that engaging informants in drawing might be a way to make the subject more tangible. I asked a group of middle-aged friends to make a two-minute sketch of their relationship with their smartphone, to bring to our next lunch date.

One of the members of the group has been undergoing chemotherapy for the past six months. While I was hoping that the drawing task would elicit reflection on the affective nature of the smartphone, I did not make that an explicit part of the instructions: I only asked if they could represent their relationship with their phone in a drawing. So I was delighted when this woman produced the most striking drawing out of the group, which shows her at the centre holding her smartphone surrounded by the range of ways she is emotionally affected by the smartphone in her daily life. She explained to me:

Especially while I have been sick, the smartphone has become very important to me. It is my connection to the outside world. The days following chemotherapy my body feels drained and I cannot leave the house. During that time if I receive a Line message or sticker from my friend I feel uplifted. But I can also feel sad and disappointed if I hear from my daughter that she is having relationship problems. When I am at the hospital having chemotherapy I watch films on Netflix and they often make me feel emotional. I also sometimes read surprising news stories. My smartphone makes me feel all of these things!

During this time of illness and potential loneliness, the smartphone offers an escape from her present situation to the world beyond.

“During treatment my smartphone connects me to the outside world”

It was striking that half of the drawings were based on a design of the individual at the centre, with feelings or behaviours or information radiating out. When we discussed this as a group, the majority of women said that they feel that the smartphone is the centre of their life (chuushin), some had even written the word on their drawings. They agreed that it is an object that is not only physically close to them but emotionally central too since it connects them with many of the important people and things in their lives. For many of the middle-aged people in my research, beyond this friendship group, shifting from garakei to smartphones meant an increase in dependency on the device for daily activities, from communicating with friends, to arranging nurse visits for their elderly parents, to booking shifts at work, to online banking. One woman told me:

I switched from my old garakei to my smartphone last year when my husband died and I needed to start being more independent. It has completely changed my life – I do everything with it. I recently went to Tokyo to visit my daughter and I would not have been able to do the trip without my smartphone and the maps app.

This increasing dependency on the smartphone was treated with ambivalence by some members of the friendship group in this case study. One woman explained that the smartphone is the centre of her life but she wishes that it was not, because it then becomes a kind of burden.

This idea of the smartphone as a burden was repeated when discussing another similarity between two of the drawings: both depicting the user sitting while looking at their smartphone. For these two women, rather than reply to messages in the middle of doing other activities such as while on the train or walking, they almost always wait to reply to messages when they have enough time to sit and focus only on the smartphone. They explained that they are not capable of multitasking, yet the burden of knowing that there are messages waiting to be replied to gives them the sense that the smartphone is taking too central a position in their lives. They often will not open messages unless they have the time to sit and reply, because they do not want the sender to see that they have read their message and subsequently feel ignored if they do not reply immediately. While the smartphone can increase a sense of burden for some relationships, for others it can ease the burden of care:

My father has a smartphone and he sends me messages all the time, so many of them! Because it is so easy to send messages he tells me what he is eating and what he is doing. Giving him a smartphone is a way that I can care for him when I am not physically there. Although I feel he sends too many messages, it is easy to reply to him with a sticker to show that I care. So while there is more frequent contact, it is less troublesome contact than a phone call which would be disruptive.”

This statement reveals the affective capacity of the smartphone to enable a new kind of care from a distance, which is perhaps even warmer than if it were face-to-face due to its less burdensome nature.

This visual methodological experiment provided a basis for a three-hour discussion of the smartphone. I plan to repeat this experiment with other informants as I think that the activity worked well for focusing a discussion. The participants were all interested to see how their drawings differed from everyone else’s, and they were far more interested in the topic of the smartphone than on previous occasions since they had already spent some time contemplating it beforehand. After the session a number of the women messaged me to say that they had come away from the experience with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role of the smartphone in their lives. The active nature of drawing enabled people to discuss their affective experiences in a deeper way, and connected people to their feelings about the smartphone more successfully than discussion alone.

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