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Trinidad – The Potential of ‘Online Only’ Ethnography

Daniel Miller21 December 2021

By Daniel Miller and Sheba Mohammid

Open access image CC BY Liftarn

The ASSA project runs until October 2022. Mostly the last year of the project is dedicated to publishing our results, for example The Global Smartphone has now come out in Spanish and Italian, and the monographs from Ireland and Italy are also published. There is also a continuation of applied work such as Charlotte Hawkins’ contribution to a tele-psychiatry project in Uganda. But there is also one final ethnographic project. This is being carried out in Trinidad by Sheba Mohammid with the support of Danny. Sheba is very suited to this work having written her PhD on how Trinidadians use YouTube. As a final project this is more oriented towards completing the trajectory of our mHealth research. The story so far is that the ASSA project began with the intention of studying mHealth apps for smartphones. Over time as we realised older people make very little use of these bespoke apps, the project shifted to the study of how people turn the apps they are comfortable with into health apps, for example, WhatsApp, LINE and WeChat, but also Google and YouTube. For example, Marilia Duque’s manual on the use of WhatsApp for health in Brazil demonstrates how what we learn from the everyday practices of our research participants can then be used to inform others. In Trinidad we are hoping within a one-year project to research smartphone usage, plan and implement an mHealth intervention, and evaluate it – though that is quite ambitious in the limited time period.

The Trinidad project is progressing well and it looks like the emphasis will be on issues of diet in relation to diabetes, hypertension and also concerns over anxiety… we shall see. After three months, however, something quite different has emerged that is worth reporting on. Early on in the pandemic Danny shared a YouTube video on how to conduct ethnography with only online access. Given the stringent covid controls in Trinidad, online methods have been the only way we could conduct our ethnography. The good news was that, at least in this instance, the optimism of that YouTube video has been vindicated. Sheba’s work certainly amounts to conventional ethnography. As well as interviews, she has regularly spent periods of three or four hours online with her research participants, hanging out and chatting about all manner of things.

Sheba conducting ethnography online. Photo by Sheba Mohammid.

The online ethnography has focused upon building relationships, as is aspires to in traditional ethnography, and from this foundation trying to attain greater insight into the practices of participants and the wider ecosystem of social connections in which these are situated. Besides some in-depth formal interviews with participants, Sheba regularly spent time cultivating a better understanding and appreciation of their everyday lives. Participants have spent time with their webcam on, hanging out with her while they attended to childcare, cooking, breastfeeding, arranging appointments on the phone or dealing with the daily minutiae in between their chats. The success of the online ethnography so far has depended on Sheba being flexible and determined to follow up, send reminders and work around participants and their evolving schedules and internet problems etc. More than anything, Sheba has prioritised sensitivity and a privileging of their well-being in a time when it was not uncommon to have participants dealing with Covid19 related deaths in their households, their own infections or economic fallout from job loss and insecurity during the pandemic.

As participants grew closer to Sheba and more interested in our study, a deeper intimacy emerged where participants became eager to share more information and would send her WhatsApp screenshots of interesting feedback they received on their apps or new social media accounts on diet and fitness that they thought she might be interested in. All of this amounted to an ongoing, sustained conversation over the last few months with many participants and an engagement in their lives that buttressed the formal interviews on mobile phones and health with participant observation on their everyday lives. For example, after an interview, a participant may take her phone outside to demonstrate to Sheba how she had been setting up her kitchen garden. There were constraints that Sheba had to work around and be adaptive to in the online fieldwork. For example, she felt that it was often intrusive to ask people to show her their phone screens to look at conversations in the way that then team had done in the past in in-person fieldwork. Sheba instead adapted this method by exploring other opportunities within the online interactions. She was able to go online with participants and look at social media together to gain their perspectives. For example, she would have them walk her through which YouTube fitness accounts they preferred or which Instagram or TikTok influencers they found appealing and why or why not. She followed where this ethnography took her and ended up talking to some key Trinidadian social media influencers that participants pointed out as noteworthy. Many of Sheba’s participants were recruited through recommendations and participants asking their family and friends to talk to her. While she initially used some of her own networks in Trinidad to source participants, she then worked to extend her fieldwork to include a diverse range of participants.

The online ethnography over the past three months has enabled Sheba to gain greater access into a broad demographic of participants in both rural and urban Trinidad and from a broad cross-section of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. This was achieved largely through participants themselves helping her to recruit more and more participants. For example, one woman in her 60s living in Port of Spain who worked in a retail store introduced her and shared WhatsApp contacts with the members of her AquaAerobics group or when Sheba was trying to recruit more male participants, a female participant linked her online through WhatsApp to her nephew who helped her get more contacts to further male participants and so on in a true snowballing manner that has taken place through online ethnographic work. This recruitment has only been incentivised through participants deepening their relationship with Sheba and gaining an enthusiastic interest in the project and wanting to see us succeed in collecting meaningful data and translating that into something applied next year. So more on that to come in 2022. It will no doubt be a challenge but it is heartening so far to have been able to create such a supportive network of participants, many of whom are interested in being involved in the applied work so we can achieve our aim of creating something from the bottom up.

Happy New Year from Danny and Sheba!

Stay tuned for more…

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.