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Urban Digital Ethnography in Milan & Beyond

Shireen Walton27 November 2020

Photo of a Milan street, by Shireen Walton

As part of the ASSA project, I carried out ethnographic research an inner-city neighbourhood in Milan, where I lived for 16 months. During this time, I became involved in a range of local activities where I came to meet and know people over time, experiencing different aspects of daily life, offline and online. This included joining a Multicultural Centre that carries out social activities and provides social support in the area, a multigenerational women’s choir, and attending social events such as collective meals where people bring food and drinks to share together. During this time I lived in a casa di ringhiera apartment building, a type of popular housing built around the turn of the 20th century, and this formed a socially rich and immersive way of experiencing daily life, and sharing time with neighbours. The friendships I developed over time came to inform my ethnographic research on ageing, and my unfolding understanding of care and community in this context, which is the subject of my forthcoming monograph with the ASSA book series with UCL Press, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond.

The urban and digital ethnographic research methodology developed during my research builds upon scholarship that highlights the interrelatedness of urban life and digital media and communications (e.g. Georgiou 2013, Lane 2019). ‘Following the thing’ (Marcus 1995) with the smartphone and its related social and digital networks and infrastructures, I came to learn more about multiscalar networks in and across the city (Caglar and Glick Schiller 2018), the country, and transnationally, while looking at social media, maps, bespoke apps, and photo-sharing. I also keenly observed the smartphone as a material object, curious as to why some people adorned the object with physical stickers or photographs of grandchildren, or personalised their screensavers in certain ways, engaged with the smartphone, photos or apps with particular attitudes or in light of various moral or socio-ethical frameworks. Looking further at and inside the smartphone with research participants provided an opportunity for elicitation in interviews and discussion with research participants concerning practices, attitudes and evaluations, as part of a broader discussion of everyday lives, relationships, and experiences.

Fieldwork photo by Shireen Walton

In short, the smartphone was both an object of study and contained within it multiple site(s) of study. Spending time on my own smartphone ultimately formed a significant part of how I engaged with urban digital ethnography in practice[i] – both sited in place and virtually augmented, all the while keeping present over months of research (and continuing to be connected during the present times of the Covid-19 pandemic), with research participants and friends in Milan and various ‘affective economies[ii]’ within variously distributed physical and virtual spaces and places.

References

Ahmed, Sara. 2004. ‘Affective Economies’. Social Text 22 (2): 117–39.

Caglar, Ayse, and Glick-Schiller, Nina (2018). Migrants and City-Making: Dispossession, Displacement, and Urban Regeneration. Durham: Duke University Press.

Georgiou, Myria (2013). Media and the City: Cosmopolitanism and Difference. Cambridge: Polity.

Lane, Jeffrey (2019). The Digital Street. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levitt , P and Glick Schiller, N. (2004). ‘Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society’. The International Migration Review 38:3. pp. 1002-1039.

Marcus, George, E. (1995). ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography’ in Annual Review of Anthropology 24, pp. 95-117

[i] For further discussion of this kind of approach, see also Jeffrey Lane’s (2019) urban digital ethnography with young people and about social media in a Harlem neighbourhood in The Digital Street.

[ii] Affective economies is a term used by Sara Ahmed to describe how emotions do things, such as align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments. See Ahmed, Sara. 2004. ‘Affective Economies’. Social Text 22 (2): 117–39.

Intergenerational tensions in the digital era in Yaoundé

p.awondo15 October 2020

Juvenile and senile delinquency

In Yaoundé, the dynamics of interactions between different generations are exemplified by the debates that occupy a significant space in public discussion on Facebook and Whatsapp. Within this framework, tensions are at work in two ways. The first is through debates on the monopolisation of economic, political and social resources by “seniors”. The second is through debates around the perceived immorality of the younger generations. To the accusation of “juvenile delinquency” by the older generations who say that young people are “disrespectful and delinquent”, we have seen the concept of “senile delinquency” opposed by young people, who thus underline the irresponsibility of the “elders”. The intergenerational economic, social and cultural debate has transformed into a trial of the elders and is now in line with the convergence of moral and political discourse.

In Yaoundé, the public sphere in this context is first and foremost community-based; it is constructed in various associations and groups, some of which make identity claims. My research participants sometimes reflect these identity and community dynamics.  This intergenerational discussion transits via the smartphone, mainly through Whatsapp and Facebook, which have both emerged in recent years as powerful levers for constructing what the world of social science calls the “digital public space”, i.e. what characterises “that communicative fora (exist) online that give rise to public debates which, at least at times, influence other fora and feed into finding collectively binding decisions.[i]”  The smartphone has indeed been perceived as being part of ‘young’ culture because of its popularity and widespread use among this demographic as well as its association with technology and creativity.

The ‘trial of the elders’

In Yaoundé, an important point to observe is the way in which the smartphone and social networks have freed up speech around one of the greatest contemporary problems in the country – the context of the trial of the elders. This process revolves around several axes and is expressed in different ways: there is, first of all, access to employment and the distribution of resources; then comes the almost systematic denunciation of the manipulation of the younger generations, especially in the political field.

On the other hand, we can evoke the increasing politicisation of the question of generations and the crystallisation around the process of an ageing elite. This second point occupies a lot of space in public debates and is intensified in forums where, taking advantage of anonymity, people can say or relay positions that condemn gerontocratic power.

Fig 1 & 2: Campaign Bus of Nourane Foster (1) during the 2018 legislative elections and slogan and web photo of the 2018 Presidential Candidate (2) and his slogan “the power of experience”.

For example, during the 2018 presidential elections, when the incumbent candidate Paul Biya (who is now 87) used the slogan “the strength of experience” to advertise his campaign, young people launched counter-slogans as the “strength of youth” on discussion forums such as Cameroon Online. This slogan was later used by young candidates in the legislative elections that followed the presidential ones, which were won by Biya. As can be seen in the screenshots above, a young candidate for the post of deputy in one of Cameroon’s coastal regions chose this exact slogan in a direct allusion to the age of the 87-year-old president. To the “strength of experience” slogan, chanted by the “old” president, the young candidate (32 years old) responded with a provocation that paid off, since she has been elected as the deputy of an opposition party at only 32 and will become the youngest member of parliament in the history of the country.

Community debates around the age of leaders and civil servants

To further illustrate this situation, it is important to observe what happens in the private sphere as well, in addition to the conversations happening as public debates. During my fieldwork in Cameroon, I participated in a Sunday leisure sports group that was mainly made up of retired people. Participating in the group at every month, I saw how on the eve of the election, the debates were shifting towards the question of the age of leaders and, more broadly, the people who are senior members of the Cameroonian public service. Even if in general, people tend to avoid political debates so as not to threaten cohesion and friendship in the group, the events around the election forced a more engaged discussion.  The exchange started with the issue of the participation of the youngest in the vote.  One of the group members, a 66-year-old former geography teacher at the Lycée, spoke of the enthusiasm of his first son, who is 32 years old and also a high school teacher. For him, these elections were important because, in his own words: “for once, there may be a candidate who is young and concerned about the situation of young people”.

Immediately, one of the youngest members of the group, one of only three people under the age of 50, spoke up:

“Everybody is happy to see a person under 40 years of age running for the presidency of the Republic.  It’s good to say that things are moving a little bit, but we’re under no illusions about how it will all end. Even if there are more young people in this country, there is no illusion about the outcome of the elections. It is rather an everyday struggle that we have to fight in this country. A real revolution. Too many old people are in power. It’s worse than in the old days. When you go to the ministries, when you have old people in strategic positions, the people come too late to the responsibilities; it shouldn’t be like that, how can you expect to have a responsible youth”.


One of the older members, a founding member of the association, is quite annoyed at this comment. He is a 68-year-old businessman, who takes the opposite side of the last comment:

“Everyone is talking about old and young people; you want us to do the same with young people in this country. As a trader, I see in the markets how young people refuse to work. They want the easy life, the beautiful things but not the sacrifices that go with it. I am always surprised when people talk like that. A lot of young people are not aware and nobody stops them from doing anything. They have to fight on their own; to conquer things; to get privileges. It happens like that everywhere. I don’t see why here they think that someone has to give them anything.”


The two excerpts are fairly representative of the often passionate exchanges on this topic. The research participants reflect the classic ideological cleavages between young people who aspire to a new social order and “old” people who do not want to give up. There is nothing extraordinary about this, except that some retired people themselves seem to be revolted by the status quo. A majority of research participants stressed the fact that they have to fight to make room for their children in the world of employment, even after retirement. This professional quest by proxy and the time-consuming dimension of this support at a time when they should be resting seems to be a centralising element for the anger of the retired. Research participants thus assured me that they take their “share of responsibility” for the current situation, which is catalysing the frustration of the youngest children. This is all the more so since most of the public debates reflect the exchanges between our research participants and the young adults of whom they are either parents or guardians.

One could say that when it comes to the generational question in Yaoundé, there is a tension in on at least three levels: A first ‘knot’ is the one linked to political expression among the younger generation. Each side is constantly being put on trial by the other, with fighting taking place as if it was between two different species: the young on one side and the retired and elderly on the other. A second knot lies in the contrast between the strong claims about intergenerational relationships that are exacerbated and sensationalised by digital technology and the actual day-to-day work that takes place within extended families and communities. It is not uncommon for retirees to try to integrate young people into the urban fabric through the time devoted to this objective. The final ‘knot’ is in line with this second one and concerns, at the family level, the daily relations which they rebuild in order to practice reciprocity and mutual support. This is particularly the case when young people constantly assist older people in the use of smartphones and, more broadly, in managing the “new urban life”: paying bills with mobile money, transferring funds, updating applications, buying telephone credit. All these are vital and unavoidable actions that some of our research participants in Cameroon are not always very comfortable doing. This last ‘knot’ helps to mitigate the effects of the intergenerational tension because, in reality, there is dependence and complementarity and this is well exemplified by different generations working together on integrating the smartphone into each other’s everyday lives.

[i] Schafer S M (2015) « Digital Public Sphere» in Mazzoleni, Gianpietro et al. (2015, Eds.): The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. London: Wiley Blackwell. Pp. 322-328.