By Georgiana Murariu, on 18 August 2021
By Georgiana Murariu & Laura Haapio-Kirk
In this blog post, we present the third comic in our ASSA comics series – this time set in Lusozi, a neighbourhood in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Researcher Charlotte Hawkins conducted fieldwork here for 16 months on the intersection of ageing and smartphone use. In order to do this, Charlotte took part in participation in community activities such as women’s groups and savings groups, including a group called ‘Togetherness is Strength’, which is also the title of this comic.
Here, we see how a community comes together to save money for smartphones through a rotation savings group, common in Kampala. Groups such as these are increasingly communicating via WhatsApp but in this particular fieldsite, not everyone has a smartphone. The savings group wanted to ensure every member had a smartphone so they were able to communicate via WhatsApp. When this issue is discussed at a meeting, we see how group members facilitate individuals’ access to smartphones through cooperation, in a way that is aligned with the ‘smart-from-below’ approach that is characteristic of so many of the research participants in this project.
Because not everyone will be acquainted with the way a rotating savings group works, in this comic we aimed for a balance between descriptive text and narrative visuals, such as the panels showing the celebration and funeral to indicate what money collected through these savings groups can often be used for. Membership of groups such as ‘Togetherness is strength’ goes beyond financial and economic benefits, however, giving younger generations in Lusozi an opportunity to sit with their elders and learn from them, as they would have more regularly in the past. At the beginning of scripting we played with the idea of including this element in the comic, however, after advice from our collaborator, artist John Cei Douglas, we decided to focus on one distinct event which Charlotte had observed during fieldwork – the coming together to help various members buy a smartphone.
Although we were equipped with photographs and short films from the Ugandan fieldsite as references, it is not always easy to transform complex stories from someone else’s research into a short comic that will be read in seconds. During the rough draft stage of the comic, we worked together with Charlotte to gather feedback on elements like the characters’ outfits, the setting (we had to think about ways of quickly conveying who is ‘running’ the meeting), and the dialogue between the characters, which had been adapted from her fieldnotes. Some phrases that we initially included in the script were slightly changed following a few rounds of feedback. Although the comics are a creative interpretation of the research findings, in condensing real-life dialogue, we did not want to depart too much from what the characters in the fieldsite would actually say. This very helpful guide to collaborations between artists and humanities researchers explains in further depth the processes involved in such endeavours.
After the script was improved based on Charlotte’s feedback, we also received notes from John, who, through a series of questions, asked us for specific details we hadn’t thought to include, such as how many characters are in the savings group itself and how we’d like the chairman/vice-chairman of the meeting to be differentiated. We eventually solved this visually through the addition of a clipboard. John also suggested we needed a stronger conclusion. We settled on showing how one of the members of the group continues to benefit from the smartphone acquired through the savings group many weeks later – in the last panel, he is shown helping his daughter with her homework by googling something. John has been instrumental in helping us figure out how to build the ‘flow’ of the comics and how to assemble different moments that, taken together, ensure that the message of the research is understood. As Dr Alpa Shah, associate professor of anthropology at King’s College London describes in this blog post, transforming anecdotes, research notes, and findings into comic-style illustrations can be a bit like translating something into a different language!
For us, the process consisted of a draft script on Google Docs shared between Georgiana and Laura, Charlotte, the researcher, and John the artist. In the end, we strove to achieve a common vision, that told a particular story from Charlotte’s research in a way that would work for this particular format. We hope we have got the balance right!
Recent publication: ‘Emotion work via digital visual communication: A comparative study between China and Japan’
By Xin Yuan Wang, on 12 August 2021
In the age of the smartphone, communication is becoming more visual. Through the smartphone, the production and circulation of digital visual media have become as costless and accessible as audio and text-based communication. However, as anthropologists, we argue that there is a pressing need to understand local forms of visual communication in the digital age, where the visual has become an essential part of daily communication. A recently published joint article by my colleague Laura Haapio-Kirk and myself addresses this inquiry based on comparative research across China and Japan.
In China and Japan, we are dealing particularly with the rise of visual digital communication among older adults. The ethnographies undertaken across both fieldsites as part of the ASSA project show how visual communication via digital media enables more effective and efficient phatic communication and emotion work. In addition, the ethnographies point to a question about ‘authenticity’ in interpersonal communication. For example, in some cases, the deployment of visual communication via the smartphone is not so much about being able to express ‘authentic’ personal feelings but rather, in being able to effectively establish a digital public façade according to social norms.
A finding from Japan, where Laura Haapio-Kirk conducted fieldwork, focused on stickers being used on the country’s popular LINE messaging platform. These are often personalised in various ways, including through the purchase of tailored sticker sets with a person’s name embedded within the stickers. These are often given as gifts.
A research participant in her late 70s, Wada-san, communicated via LINE messages daily with her daughter who lived in another city, often sending stickers that let her daughter know what she was up to throughout the day. The particular sticker set she downloaded featured a humorous and feisty grandmother character (see photo below). Wada-san’s daughter explained the following: ‘she sends me meaningless things (muimina koto), things that are just part of her daily activities’. Added together, this constant flow of messages made them feel closer in a way that was less burdensome than frequent phone calls throughout the day might be.
Similarly, one of the most common genres of communication among research participants in China consists of daily greetings and festival greetings. One of Xinyuan’s research participants, Suiqing, would wake up, select an image of flowers or natural scenery (taken by herself or sourced from the Internet), edit a greeting text which she would overlay on top of the image (such as ‘good morning’ or ‘I wish you a happy day’) and send it to her various WeChat groups, which are overwhelmed with visual greetings (as can be seen below).
To read the open-access article ‘Emotion work via digital visual communication: A comparative study between China and Japan’, please go to: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20594364211008044