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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


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ASSA Live Twitter Chat: Questions and Answers

Georgiana Murariu20 May 2021

Last Friday, the 14th of May, part of the ASSA team (Danny, Laura, Maya, and Xinyuan) took part in a one-hour live chat on Twitter answering questions from members of the public. Since we got quite a few interesting questions and the Twitter thread got quite long, we wanted to publish them here for others to read as well – the post is quite long so be prepared to do quite a bit of scrolling!

Social gerontologist Gemma Carney asked us three questions, which we tackled separately. The first was about gendered preferences when it comes to spending time on the smartphone.

Laura Haapio-Kirk had observed some gender-related dynamic when it came to smartphone behaviour in her fieldsite of Japan:

In his fieldsite of Ireland, Danny Miller notes that gender roles are currently changing but in a traditional household, it is possible that different halves of couples are responsible for different functions/tasks on the smartphone.

Q2, from Yearri Panji Setianto, focused on privacy as a concept that is interpreted differently by different cultures and communities around the world. How did the team develop rapport with participants whilst maintaining it?

Laura Haapio-Kirk responds by emphasising the importance of befriending people:

It is also worth remembering that each researcher spent more than a year in their field site, which helped build trust within the local community, as Xinyuan Wang points out.

In al-Quds, where Maya de Vries and Laila Abed Rabho did their fieldwork, frequently visiting people’s houses and having meals together was a significant part of building and maintaining rapport.

Q3, which came from Cristina (@crixy_5), asked why the ASSA team thought older people did not make use of specialist health apps much.

The answers to this ranged from a lack of digital skills to preferences for already-ubiquitous apps such as WhatsApp as opposed to having to download a specific health-related app. In China, apps with many functions such as WeChat are commonly used for health purposes but older people may also benefit from younger relatives using specialist health apps on their behalf in addition to this. 

Q4, from @alwanbrilian, is about using ethnography as a method in the smartphone era.

Ethnography is seen by the ASSA team as a holistic tool that can help place people’s behaviours, preferences, and communication in relation to the rest of their lives:

Q5, from @omru651: ‘What are your most contradictory findings or most surprising ones?’

Each researcher had a different surprising/contradictory finding relating to their fieldsite:

Q6 was a question about our comparative methodology, from @Adrian_vintila:

There were many strands to the comparative methodology: monthly 5000-word reports written by each team member on what was happening in their fieldsite, long hours of analytical discussion, and more!

Q7, from Ana Ghica: “Lots of media articles talk about smartphones and their contribution to an increase in loneliness for teens/younger people. Was this observed in older people in your fieldsites?”

ASSA research did not find any evidence of greater loneliness resulting from smartphone use – on the contrary:

Q8 and Q9 saw us return to the questions social gerontologist Gemma Carney had asked – are children really ‘damaged’ by tech, and is age less important than we think?

Although our project looked at intergenerational relations and the smartphone’s impact on the family, ASSA did not specifically research smartphone use among children. Danny Miller and Xinyuan Wang suggest two great resources for those who do want to read about the issue further –  Professor of Social Psychology Sonia Livingstone‘s blog Parenting for a digital future and danah boyd’s ‘It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens’.

Our final question was a great one, sent to us by anthropologist Charlie Rumsby:

Laura had found that while in her fieldsite, older people do take selfies, these are not something they would generally post or even an everyday practice, while Maya found that among her participants, selfies were challenging to take, though more generally, photos were captured all the time.

Danny suggests that smartphone photography is more about sharing images with others rather than capturing memories, and Xinyuan adds that selfies are also a way of crafting the ideal self and social relations. A more detailed discussion of this can be found in chapter 5 of the Global Smartphone book, on pages 110-115.

And with those answers, we wrapped up the live Twitter chat – it was great to be able to have a dialogue with others about our research and findings and we look forward to doing similar initiatives in the future!

In the meantime, we hope that we will be able to continue this dialogue with members of the public at our virtual launch event on the 26th of May, which will take place on Zoom. You can register to attend via Eventbrite and you will get a Zoom link closer to the event. All welcome – we look forward to seeing you there!

ASSA Team Update – April 2021

Georgiana Murariu28 April 2021

It’s been almost two years since the members of the ASSA team came back from fieldwork and we have lots of updates and new material coming in the next couple of weeks!

What is the ASSA team up to?

The 6th of May will see the launch of the first three books in the ‘Ageing with Smartphones’ series, which is based on the results of the team’s research:

All of the books will be open-access and downloadable from the UCL Press site.

A Twitter thread summarising some of the points in the Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland book is here. This can also be found on Instagram here.

The Global Smartphone is a comparative book that focuses on the take up of smartphones by older people in all of our 10 fieldsites, many of which you might have become familiar with by now if you have been following this blog!

  • Cuan, Ireland
  • Thornhill, Dublin, Ireland
  • Lusozi, Kampala, Uganda
  • Yaoundé, Cameroon
  • Bento, São Paulo, Brazil
  • Santiago, Chile
  • Kyoto city and Tosa-chō in Kōchi Prefecture, Japan
  • Dar al-Hawa, Al-Quds (east Jerusalem)
  • NoLo, Milan, Italy

The rest of the books will talk about each specific fieldsite in more depth, focusing on ageing, retirement, and the changes to the way in which people live, communicate, resolve intergenerational conflicts, and care for each other and their own health – all aided by the smartphone, of course.


We also have a 3-week course on Futurelearn coming up on the 10th of May, called ‘An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health‘.

The course is free to take and is also based on the results of the ASSA team’s research – it is self-paced and makes use of interactive discussions and short films in what should be a comprehensive look at topics like smartphone use in different social and cultural contexts, models of ageing, and different aspects of mobile health (including the team’s alternative approach to it).

You can now pre-enrol onto the course and you will get notified when it starts. The team will be present throughout the course to interact with learners and give feedback on the various discussions happening throughout the course.


On the 26th of May we will host an open session where members of the public and anyone interested in the project can meet the team and hear more about their fieldwork while having the opportunity to ask them questions.

The event will be hosted by UCL’s Centre for Digital Anthropology and chaired by Hannah Knox. You can register for the event here.


In the meantime, we have also updated the Publications page on our website with a few recent open-access papers on performing healthy ageing through images, deploying visual aids such as emojis and stickers to maintain a digital public façade, and much more!

We’ve also published a Discoveries page, which summarises the main findings of the project. These are illustrated through short videos, infographics and a few cartoon-style illustrations. There will be more cartoons to come in the near future and we are excited to share the results of our research through this creative medium!

In the meantime, we will continue blogging here on a weekly basis.

Finally, if you haven’t had a look at our project trailer yet, you can do so below!