Accepted paper:

Gender, kinship and mediation in rural West Bengal, India

Authors:

Sirpa Tenhunen (University of Helsinki)

Paper short abstract:

My paper explores gendered mobile phone use in rural India. Based on long-term fieldwork (2005-2013), I argue that the role of new media in social change depends on how the emerging media-saturated contexts of social interaction and communication relate to pre-existing contexts and social changes.

Paper long abstract:

My paper contributes to the understanding of gender, mediation and social change by exploring mobile phone use in rural India. Based on long-term fieldwork (2005-2013) in rural West Bengal, I provide a nuanced picture of the contested nature of kinship and gender. I argue that the role of new media in social change depends on how the emerging media-saturated contexts of social interaction and communication relate to pre-existing contexts and social changes. By enabling new contexts for speech, phones create possibilities to voice critical ideas, which can challenge the power structure in the household. Both kinship relationships and women's rights discourses have encouraged and motivated mobile phone use, which, in turn, has helped transform relationships. Women's increasing access to a mobile phone influences the relationships between men and women, but—more crucially—it influences the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. Phones have helped introduce changes in women's relationships with each other: phones facilitate young wives to challenge their mother-in-law's authority and build closer relationships with their mothers after marriage. Unlike women's lengthy visits to their natal homes, which are regarded as a threat to women's work contribution in her in-law's house, greater communication by phone with one's natal relatives does not undermine their position in their in-laws' house. A woman's ability to use the mobile phone does not only signify her agency but also the position she has been able to carve for herself in her family.

panel P067
The digital turn: new directions in media anthropology [Media Anthropology Network]