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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.

The geographies of health and wellbeing – by Pauline Garvey

Laura Haapio-Kirk15 August 2018

Author: Pauline Garvey

Photo (CC BY) Anna Li

Fairly frequently the Irish media focuses on the ‘downsizing dilemma’ for retirees (O’Rourke 2017), but what receives less attention is the downsizing that comes with marital breakdown. As I conduct research the frequency with which I meet men and women who are separated or divorced is striking. This observation is backed up by recent census data that reveals that separation is currently a significant aspect of life for many Irish families. The Central Statistics Office figures show a significant increase in the percentages of people who separate in the forty-plus age groups (CSO, 2016). The rate of separation peaks at age 48.

This trend in mid-life is significant because, otherwise, marital breakdown is decreasing in the general population. In fact, there was a decrease of 11,115 separated or divorced persons aged under 50 between 2011 and 2016. By contrast there was a substantial increase of 29,224 persons over the age of 50 between 2011-2016. Not only is there an age factor but there is also a gendered dimension in how people report their marital status. Lunn et al. (2009) found that more women than men report themselves to be separated. The conclusion they drew was that men who are separated are more likely to identify themselves as ‘single’ rather than ‘separated’. Also a higher rate of re-marriage by men goes some way to explaining the disparity in figures between the rate of female separation and the rate of male separation, but it also raises questions about how Irish women self-identify following separation (see Hyland 2013).

What we learn from this is that marriage separation is particularly significant for people in their 40s and 50s, that a larger proportion of women do not re-marry and think of themselves as separated rather than single. This alteration in domestic circumstances may be experienced with a mix of emotions but the people I have spoken to are keenly aware of the importance of being accessible to others as they age. This has been discussed with me as either an issue regarding physical (‘what if I fall getting out of the bath?’) or emotional wellbeing (‘my daughter knows when I’m watching Love Island and she’ll text me “he’s a wally” …so I don’t feel alone’). One woman told me of a series of health problems she encountered around the time she was due to retire. As a result of what she calls a ‘bad reaction to life’, she suffered from acute depression and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for 6 months. On her release and return home she described the effect of having automatic text messages sent to her from the hospital as part of her treatment. The text messages that she received were automatic daily messages: ‘they sent me texts every day or every second day saying ‘how are you doing?’, ‘hope everything is ok?’. So although the messages were not personalised, she describes them as  ‘sending some positivity, it was superb to think that someone knew you weren’t well and could send a text to say you weren’t alone’. The key issue for her is that regular text messages inquiring about her health represented ‘a life line, some contact from the outside world to say we care about you and hope you are getting on alright’. 

As my research continues it is clear that while no life experience can be viewed in isolation, the geographies of age, the places that one experiences midlife, can matter a great deal. My respondents are not just well or unwell, they experience age, health, illness or wellbeing in specific places, whether that is in the privacy of their homes, public spaces or doctors’ clinics. Similarly in contrast to being single, this research causes me to consider the ways in which ‘being separated’ is relational? Should we think of separation as a geographical term, suggesting a lingering connection to place as well as to person?

 

Central Statistics Office, Ireland (2016), available online at https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp4hf/cp4hf/ms/

Hyland, L. (2013) Doing’ separation in contemporary Ireland: the experiences of women who separate in midlife, D.Soc.Sc Thesis, University College Cork, available online at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/1179/HylandL_DSocSc2013.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Lunn, P., Fahey, T. and Hannan, C. (2009) Family Figures: Family Dynamics and Family Types in Ireland, 1986-2006, Dublin: ESRI and UCD.

O’Rourke, F. (16/09/2017) The downsizing dilemma? Getting rid of the family furniture, The Irish Times, available online at www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/the-downsizing-dilemma-getting-rid-of-the-family-furniture-1.3214649