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Individuals and inequality

Daniel Miller14 June 2021

I am currently writing a second book about Cuan, my fieldsite in Ireland. This will allow me to spend much more time presenting evidence for inequality, focusing on an area of social housing located in the middle of Cuan, that remains quite apart from most of this quite affluent middle-class town. Detailed study, however, reveals many nuances to any simple or dualistic presentation that just opposes these different segments of the same town. The overall rise in income and possibilities in Irish society over the last 50 years have impacted upon most of the population, though not all. Bob would never have expected to be able to live outside of social housing, having worked first as a butcher’s assistant and retired finally as a school caretaker, low paid work that precludes the ability to purchase a property. Yet in retirement, he found his true vocation as a poet and today is as comfortable at the opera as he in the betting shop.

The term class is quite a crude categorisation. I would argue that Ireland has a much stronger egalitarian ideology than here in England, laid across still evident inequalities. Many of the oral histories of individuals I recorded talk of the extreme poverty of their origins but alongside the love of literature and the arts. I didn’t feel that this film represented class mobility or a change in class identity, or even that actually Bob sees things in such terms. It seemed there was both something Irish about Bob and also much that was simply individual. This is an additional point. Bob doesn’t have to be typical of anything or anyone, but for the anthropologist, it is hugely important to acknowledge that he exists and that abstract discussions of class and inequality need to balanced by meeting people as individuals, in this case as Bob.

The film is included in the recent book I wrote with Pauline Garvey, Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland.

Forget me not – portrait photography in the smartphone age

Xin Yuan Wang16 April 2021

One of my previous blog posts talked about photography as a hobby among older people in China, where the protagonist Mr. Shou brought up the question of the ‘sense of ritual’ in the digital age. In the newly released short video in this blog, I invite you to listen to the same Mr. Shou and what he thinks of his photography, a hobby he has managed to develop as a professional occupation after retirement.

‘Photographic memory’ has long been the subject of anthropological inquiry. In our project’s forthcoming comparative book, The Global Smartphone: beyond a youth technology, we argue that nowadays, smartphone photography is the opposite of traditional photography, whose aim, historically, has been to restore memories. Smartphone photography, on the other hand, is more about taking the opportunity anywhere, anytime to ‘put a frame’ upon anything that people notice in their daily life.

In a way, it is through smartphone photography people experience life. In the short film above, Mr. Shou’s case provides a different angle to this story, enabling us to appreciate the co-existence of both smartphone photography and ‘pre-smartphone’ photography in people’s lives. For example, in Mr. Shou’s case, his professional portrait photography would not reach many people without the successful WeChat blog he runs. Therefore, it is important to observe that ‘smartphone photography’ and ‘pre-smartphone photography’ do not necessarily rival each other, as both of them have found a niche in today’s exuberantly visual world.