Mobail: Moral Ambivalence and the Domestication of Mobile Telephones in Peri-Urban Papua New Guinea

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Preliminary ethnographic data about the evaluation and use of mobile phones by low-income, peri-urban Papua New Guineans are analysed. These data do not affirm a modernist narrative that privileges discontinuity, dislocation and progress. They do not show a reduction of collective forms of sociality and agency in favor of ego-centric networks that disembed space and time from localities, alleviate poverty, and so on. Mobile phones neither dissolve the old nor constitute the moral world anew. Instead, their use in and effects on Papua New Guinea appear to be more complicated. By enabling voices to communicate over increased space and time, they make the person both more and less part of society. That is to say, they are used to fulfill collectivist values in ways that separate self from other. One significant purpose for which they are used thus exemplifies pre-existing meanings of kinship in everyday life. They also elicit a new self-reflexive voice, as well as an ongoing critique of postcolonial society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)335-354
Number of pages20
JournalCulture, Theory and Critique
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Research used for this essay was funded by the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research, by three University of Minnesota-based research funds, the Wilford Fund for Anthropological Research in the Department of Anthropology, the Imagine Fund, as well as the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance. A portion of this essay was presented in a session organised by Ilana Gershon and Joshua Bell at the 2011 American Anthropological Association. I am grateful to the peer reviewers and the editors for their careful readings of this essay which have helped me clarify my thinking about and exposition of my topic.

Copyright 2013 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


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