Accepted paper:

Calling across social hierarchies? Deconstructing mobile phones and the promise of upward mobility in urban Togo


Roos Keja (Goethe University Frankfurt)

Paper short abstract:

This paper discusses how urban people in Togolese use and perceive mobile phones in private and professional contacts that are close by and distant. Ethnographic data from Sokodé questions whether mobile phones facilitate transgressing social hierarchies, asserting that intermediaries remain critical.

Paper long abstract:

This paper describes how people in the city of Sokodé use and perceive their mobile phones in private and public urban spaces, and how they maintain and establish different linkages. Sokodé is among the biggest secondary cities of Togo, its economy dominated by petty traders. Young and old are looking for ways to 'go on adventure' in a context of economic deprivation and lack of perspective. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, the paper sheds a light on how urbanites employ their mobile phones in their contact with family members, friends and business contacts close by and far away. We can see mobile phones as holding a promise to a possible way out of the daily hardship, even though calling costs are high, many phones are in bad condition and the telecommunication networks are unreliable. In this context, being reachable by others seems to be more important than to reach others - for instance for mobile money transfer. Furthermore, as we have found out, the mobile phone mainly seems to serve communication between people on the same level of the societal hierarchy. In several spheres, the direct encounter of people remains important for maintaining social relations and transmitting information. The paper argues that so far, mobile phones in urban Togo do not seem to facilitate a clear transgressing of social hierarchies, which cannot be seen apart from an unfree political context, economic hardship and social conventions.

panel P076
The Role of Networks in Rural-Urban-Transnational Encounters: The Mobility of People, Ideas and Spaces