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The Moral Economy of the Mobile Phone in Rural Uganda



Jenna Burrell, University of California, Berkeley

Date and Time

October 28, 2010 4:30 PM - 6:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


Wallenberg TheaterWallenberg Hall 450 Serra Mall, Building 160 Stanford, Ca 94305-2055

Mobile phones have been rapidly and enthusiastically adopted in rural and even non-electrified regions in Uganda. This trend brings with it new paradigms of access and use as phones have quickly become incorporated into the social dynamics of village life. In this talk I will consider the diverse practices of mobile phone sharing. By sharing I mean granting access or redistributing a privately-owned good without direct financial compensation. Sharing as a social practice is undertheorized but can be better understood drawing from literatures on gifting, common property, moral economy, reciprocity, and other intimate forms of exchange. In this talk I will discuss some of the implications of sharing configurations for equality in access to technology in this region. In rural Uganda, efforts at social policing and managing social obligations were mediated and concretized by mobile phones.  Patterns of phone sharing led to preferential access for needy groups (such as those in ill health) while systematically and disproportionately excluding others (women in particular). I propose a framework that takes into account the distinct roles an individual may have in relation to the phone and the benefits that accrue asymmetrically to each role. This framework may be useful for revising survey design work on technology adoption and access to suit research in a broader diversity of settings beyond the Euro-American context.

Jenna Burrell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. She completed her PhD in 2007 in the department of Sociology at the London School of Economics carrying out thesis research on Internet cafe use in Accra, Ghana. Before pursuing her PhD she was an Application Concept Developer in the People and Practices Research Group at Intel Corporation. Her interests span many research topics including theories of materiality, user agency, transnationalism, post-colonial relations, digital representation, and especially the appropriation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) by individuals and social groups on the African continent.