About the Project
The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing is a multi-sited research project based at UCL Anthropology, funded primarily by the European Research Council.
The project employs a team of ten anthropologists conducting simultaneous 16-month ethnographies in Ireland, Italy, Cameroon, Uganda, Brazil, Chile, Al-Quds, China, and Japan. Launched in October 2017, with fieldwork beginning in February 2018, the aim of this collaborative five-year project is to conduct comparative analysis of the impact of the smartphone on the experience of mid-life around the world and consider the implications for mHealth.
How has people’s relationship to ageing and health been affected by the global rise of the smartphone?
We will examine the experience of ageing for people at mid-life, that is those who consider themselves neither clearly young nor elderly, who are experiencing increased life expectancy and changed aspirations around mid-life. By focusing on smartphone use, particularly for health, we aim to examine the impact of digital media on this new ambivalent age. Smartphones present a potential increase in our capacities at a time of concern that ill health might lead to a loss of our capacities.
mHealth (mobile health) initiatives are increasingly addressing the needs of older populations, helping people to deal with sickness, disease, and frailty. Yet, while mHealth can potentially help those with limited access to professional care, it simultaneously threatens to bypass and undermine professional medical services.
Can ethnographic collaboration lead to more culturally-appropriate and effective mHealth interventions?
Our aim is to improve mHealth interventions with ethnography-led participatory design. For us, ‘smart’ in ‘Smart Ageing’ means recognising the creative appropriation of technology by people, not just top-down interventions. A three-way collaboration is envisaged between health professionals, our ethnographically-informed team, and our informants in the field.
We will combine an intellectual challenge of understanding the impact of new media on the contemporary nature of ageing with an applied challenge to use this knowledge to help make mHealth (mobile health) interventions more effective. Both the intellectual and applied challenges will depend upon sensitivity to the forms of cultural diversity uncovered by our comparative ethnographic approach.
What are the outcomes for anthropology and beyond?
This exercise in engaged anthropology will inform our intellectual advances in the field of digital anthropology which, so far, has not considered the smartphone from a global comparative perspective. Our intention is to write a series of open access monographs and collaborative volumes, aimed at both anthropological and wider audiences alike. We will also share our findings on this website, in films, and through accessible teaching materials.
Both the intellectual and applied components will be shown to depend upon sensitivity to the forms of cultural diversity uncovered by our comparative ethnographic approach. The intention is to produce a series of popular monographs, comparative work, film and accessible teaching materials on the same lines as the recently completed Why We Post project.
Our ethnographies will consider how smartphones affect practically everything in people’s lives; from their relationships, to participation in cultural life, to leisure activities. We believe it is time for a comparative anthropological understanding of app culture and its relation to age and health. As such, we are committed to a comparative assessment of the uses and impact of the smartphone across our 11 fieldsites.
Age is central to how many societies are organised. Yet, traditional age-based practices such as retirement have not adapted to a marked increase in life-expectancy in many regions. People at mid-life may be uncertain whether to claim the authority of age on the one hand, or the status of youth on the other. For us ‘smart ageing’ means recognising that middle-age is being re-defined in the digital era, including via the creative appropriation of technology.
Today, huge numbers of mobile health applications are being launched world-wide, with the potential to improve the accessibility of health information and services. However, there is also the danger of substituting medical expertise with unregulated misinformation, damaging relationships between practitioners and patients. By paying attention to the social and cultural contexts of mHealth through ethnography, we aim to advance understanding and practice in this rapidly evolving field. mHealth does not mean just smartphone apps, our work focuses upon common uses of the smartphone for heath purposes such as the use of WhatsApp for coordinating care or Google for researching health information.
Most of the team are based at UCL, funded by a five-year European Research Council (ERC) advanced grant. The team includes PhD students, Post-Doctoral and full-time teaching staff. The project also includes collaboration with other UCL departments, institutions, sources of funding.