Book review of Cara Wallis, Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones

Book review of Cara Wallis, Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones, New York University Press, 2013

Cara Wallis has written a rich ethnography on everyday mobile phone use, or mobile phone assemblage as she prefers to call it, among migrant women in Beijing. The book adds to the already existing literature on mobile phone/new information and communication technology (ICT) use among migrant workers in China. Wallis, however, focuses not on factory workers but on workers in the service sector that has hitherto not received the same attention among scholars. Like works by, in particular, Jack Linchuan Qiu (2009), she addresses the power structures underlining technology use, and the issue of whether access to new communication technology is empowering or rather lead to other forms of control and marginalisation. Her particular contribution is her explicit focus on how gender, class and place intersect, and how they shape both technology use and the technology itself (in this case mobile phones).

The book is an important theoretical contribution to both the field of migration studies and mobile communication studies. Wallis uses critical/cultural and feminist theories to address subjectivity, power, and technology within the context of gendered migration and communication patterns. Her feminist approach allows her to unpack the way gender and technology are co-constructed, how men and women experience modernity and use technology in different ways, and how mobile phone use in the process are gendered. Her study challenges deterministic theories of technology and social change by showing migrant women’s complex and evolving socio-techno practices. The book thus serves to dispute the widespread notion that access to ICTs by itself lead to empowerment and development. The picture is more complex and context specific as her study clearly shows, with empowerment and disempowerment co-existing and taking different forms in different fields (personal life, economic life, political life). In this context Wallis’ careful discussion and application of Michel Foucault’s concepts of “governmentality” and “technologies of the self” is very illuminating. The Chinese state’s technology/digital discourse portray mobile phones (and other digital devices) as symbols of modernity, progress and urbanity, and encourage marginalised groups of people such as migrant workers to improve their “quality (suzhi)” through migrating to the cities and developing technological skills. This form of social engineering, however, enables the state to control and discipline its citizens through internalising certain values and discourses of self-development and self-discipline rather than empowering them. Wallis thus has a clear understanding of how technology also can have a “disciplining” function, which she describes as the “regulatory technological gaze.”

The book’s is based on in-depth and long-term ethnographic work and a variety of methods. Wallis not only uses participant observation and face-to-face interviews but also makes careful use of what has come to be known as “netnography”, i.e. ethnography on-line. This means that she also observe and interact with her informants in online chat rooms, QQ groups, and through texting, as well as study their mobile phone use through asking them to keep mobile phone diaries and observe their texting and photographing habits etc.

The book begins with two chapters that outlines developments in Chinese society and situate mobile phone use within the discourse of modernity and development. It shows how mobile phones, on the one hand, become an important signifier of urban modernity for migrant women, but that they, on the other hand, only provide them with “consumer citizenship” and not full recognition as legal and political citizens. This is an important point that tells us much about both the so-called Chinese economic miracle and the nature of the emerging digital economy. The economic reforms have enabled many Chinese individuals to express themselves and their worth and place in society through consumption, but this is an illusionary form of citizenship that not only hides inequalities based on gender, place of origin, and socio-economic status, but also obstructs real citizenship. It is also worth pointing out that the economic reforms have led to a gender-segregated labour market, as demonstrated by these women who work in the service sector, as well as given rise to notions of “natural” or essentialized gender distinctions that serve to further constrain Chinese women, leading to new forms of “disciplinary practices of femininity.”

Wallis shows how the purchase of a mobile phone, the biggest and most significant of the migrant women’s purchases upon moving to the city, is the beginning of a new formation of subjectivity and part of their, partial, urban transformation. One of the chapters in the book focuses on how the women use their mobile phones for maintaining and shaping social and intimate relations. Mobile phones provide the women with some freedom from the traditional values and expectations rural women otherwise face. One interesting finding is the fact that whereas the women in the study have all migrated to the city, in that sense being very mobile, they are also quite immobile in the city due to their long work hours and lack of integration in the host community. Wallis however argues that their mobile phones enable a kind of “immobile mobility” as they for example can communicate with friends and relatives elsewhere and thus overcome some (but not all) of the spatial, temporal and structural constraints and boundaries they face in the cities.

One of the most interesting chapters to my mind is the one that examines how the women use camera phones as a performativity of identity, to re-construct the self, represent their world(s), and envisage new possibilities and futures for themselves. It is worth remembering that camera phones in many cases are the first cameras these women have ever owned. Furthermore, new digital technologies are making the visual more ubiquitous in our daily lives. People all over the world, including migrant women in China, increasingly use photos to represent and document their everyday lives. I found the chapter on mobile phone and labour politics perhaps the weakest (in terms of few empirical examples) although it holds a lot of potential as it addresses the issue of whether and how mobile phones (and ICT more generally) can empower marginalised groups of people and serve as tools of resistance. This is an interesting and important field that deserve more studies. To what extent, how, and in which areas can mobile phone/ICT use actually empower migrant workers. Do they led to more economic opportunities, enabling migrant workers to protect their rights and organise, and can they help transform their “consumer citizenship” into legal and political citizenship in the cities? ICT use however require digital skills but weak and marginalised groups are more likely to suffer from invasion of privacy, spam, identity theft, and succumb to “disinformation” and “rumours,” and ICTs can be used for purposes of control and surveillance not only by employers (as discussed in Wallis’ study) but also by companies and governments. New forms of digital divides are thus created at the same time as digital technologies are spreading to broader groups of the population. An important finding in Wallis’ study that relates to these new digital divides is that the migrant women’s reliance on one single technology, mobile phones, for most of their digital media use, give rise to a “necessary convergence,” which is quite different from and more constraining than the “selective convergence” experienced by privileged groups of people who own a number of different digital devices (smartphones, laptops, digital cameras etc) and easily can move between them and make the most of their respective advantages.

The strength of the book is the way Wallis addresses the myriad of different and often very mundane ways mobile phones are shaping and changing identity formation, communication patterns, and social relations, including courtship and marriage, among migrant women, and her clear focus on the relationship between individual agency and structural/technological constraints in this respect. Her participant observation and close interaction with the women, some of whom she has followed over many years, provide rich life stories and nuanced and complex pictures of these women’s socio-techno practices. There is a need for further ethnographic studies that look into the use and impact of ICTs on other groups of people in China, such as male migrant workers, the rural population, and minorities. Although Wallis argues that place rather than ethnicity play a more crucial role, I believe that ethnicity and religion are powerful and under-researched topics in both migration and communication studies in China. Finally, Wallis’ book adds to our general understanding of how gender, technology and power intersect, and therefore has significance well beyond the context of China.

Qiu, Jack Linchuan (2009), Working-Class Network Society: Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.




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