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An Anthropological Approach to mHealth: Health & Care in the Smartphone Age

alex.clegg3 March 2022

Open access image by Mohamed Hassan

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

As part of the ASSA project, we are currently working to publish a volume called: ‘An Anthropological Approach to mHealth: Health & Care in the Smartphone Age’. This volume consolidates insights from the team’s various anthropological initiatives in mobile health or ‘m-health’ – health-related uses of the phone – in diverse settings around the world. Drawing from an ethnographic perspective, we seek to contribute an anthropological understanding of mHealth, a growing industry often otherwise dictated by top-down priorities such as bespoke app creation. Instead, building from our own ethnographic insights about older people’s everyday uses of phones, and other studies stressing the evident importance of ‘informal mHealth’ (Hampshire et al., 2021), we illustrate a ‘smart-from-below’ approach which prioritises the everyday appropriation of phones and existing communicative apps for health purposes. We analyse the failures of conventional mHealth initiatives and the emergence of our alternative perspective, and how that led to several initiatives in which team members were themselves involved.

In this book, we offer a grounded ethnographic picture of mHealth in our various research contexts, with a view to broader global trends in population ageing, health and economic crises, the Covid-19 pandemic, declining public investment, increasing phone access, and global migration. This shows the potential of prioritising the everyday appropriation of mobile technologies in line with both social change and longer-standing care norms.. This is intended topromote an anthropological approach to support the relevance and effectiveness of mHealth going forward. We have already created a free online course (available here) for those interested in the topic but hope that the book will benefit other medical anthropologists and ethnographers interested in digital health, as well as digital health practitioners interested in social research around the design, implementation and evaluation of their work.

We have organised the book into three parts, reflecting what anthropology can offer for contextualizing, analysing and informing mHealth. Part one consists of three chapters concerned with contextualizing mHealth;

  • Xinyuan Wang on mHealth practice in mainland China;
  • Shireen Walton on visual digital communications about health during covid in Italy, and
  • Laura Haapio-Kirk on social self-tracking in Japan.

This is followed by contributions analysing mHealth:

  • Daniel Miller on googling for health in Ireland, and the ways it exacerbates existing disparities;
  • Patrick Awondo on the failures of various mHealth initiatives in Yaoundé, Cameroon; and
  • Pauline Garvey outlining the uses of phones to seek information and support around the menopause in Dublin, Ireland.

The volume concludes with three chapters informing specific mHealth initiatives:

  • Alfonso Otaegui’s recommendations for scaling the ‘nurse navigator’ model in public oncological clinics in Chile;
  • Marília Duque’s protocol for meal-logging and WhatsApp communications in Brazil; and
  • Charlotte Hawkin’s and John Mark Bwanika’s work on a digital mental health programme in Uganda.

Taken together, the volume seeks to provide a grounded ethnographic discussion on the challenges and opportunities of anthropology for mHealth, and of seeking health and care in the smartphone age. We aim for publication in 2022 with UCL Press, follow ASSA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to keep updated.

References

Hampshire et al. (2021). Informal mhealth at scale in Africa: Opportunities and challenges. World Development, 139:105257, 1-23

Sharing is caring: communities of abundance in rural Japan

Laura Haapio-Kirk22 October 2018

Harvested corn. Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk

Last week I returned from ten days among the wonderful people of my rural fieldsite in Kochi prefecture. The vibrant green rice terraces I had been mesmerised by back in August are now the colour of gold, and in the fields small pyramids of drying rice are beginning to appear. It is harvest season and I was able to experience first hand, as people kept telling me, how Kochi is truly a land of abundance. I was given bags of chestnuts and yuzu lemons, and large Japanese pears (nashi); people here are adamant about sharing the fruits of their labour. The gifting of food binds the community and is, as one woman told me, important for creating a feeling of wealth without money: “Even if we have no money here in Kochi, we have abundance because we can grow so much delicious food and we love to share it.”

Community is sustained in this small rural town through a number of institutional initiatives, such as group activities for elderly residents, or regular workshops in the town hall, for example for new mothers. But it is also through these informal networks of reciprocal giving that community is made. The building and sustaining of community is especially important to people here because Japan’s ageing and shrinking population is felt most acutely in rural areas. It is not rare to come across abandoned schools which have been repurposed as community spaces, and indeed entire empty villages. Yet, I have also come across another quite different picture – young people and families moving into this rural town in search of a slower pace of life and self-sustainability. I have met numerous families who left behind jobs in cities both in Japan and abroad, to start new lives in a place where they feel safe; both protected by a community that looks out for each other, and as a number of people have told me, far enough away from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 for the food to not be contaminated.

Akaushi – a famous breed of local cow. Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk.

This group of relatively recent immigrants, who have mostly arrived within the last eight years, are active on Facebook community groups where they buy and sell clothing, and post about local events. I have been told that local people are less active on Facebook, but perhaps more reliant on one-to-one messaging through Line. However, I have come across local people practicing traditional crafts who share their work on social media. For example, one woodworker in his sixties who uses Instagram to promote his products has customers as far as Tokyo. He told me “It is important for us to be active online because this is how we can reach the rest of Japan and the world, and show the beautiful things that we make here from nature.” Indeed, one of the first people to move to this community eight years ago blogged about her experience and inspired others to follow her move from urban to rural living. Blogs and social media are one way that people in rural Japan can influence a wider perception of the rural from being depopulated and dying, to re-populated and thriving. Social media also provides an opportunity for local people to build and develop their community in new ways. As my bags of fruit demonstrate, they have always had an extraordinary tradition of sharing.