Mobile phones, migrants and becoming modern

Cara Wallis’ ethnographic study of young migrant women working in Beijing’s restaurants, beauty parlours and markets is an exploration of the cultural, social, aesthetic and economic dimensions of mobile phone use. This gripping study demonstrates how mobile phones have become a key component in the constitution of selfhood, friendship and group solidarity, to the point that they represent “an anchoring and inclusion in networks of sociality and modes of self-transformation that are crucial to their well being in the city” (p. 184). The book speaks to the broader processes of globalization, migration, marketization and informatization that have been key components of the reform era, and illuminate the role of technology in China’s neoliberal project where individual merit, material wealth and consumption have become hallmarks of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

The ‘quality’ (suzhi) and ‘civilization’ (wenming) of the Chinese people has been seen as central to development since the beginning of China’s encounter with western modernity. The main target is the lagging countryside from where the dagongmei of Wallis’ study hail. The term dagongmei invokes rural, low class, callow and temporary, a classification that concretizes their liminality in the city. In the civilizing narrative (in which Wallis rightly identifies a form of neoliberal governmentality), low paid employment in the city is framed as an opportunity for migrants to receive a social education, become more cultured, and learn the desired ways of urban modernity. Learning to use technology is closely implicated in the accompanying discourse about self-improvement through the acquisition of technological, linguistic and ‘civilizing’ skills. Wallis shows how migrant women internalize, enact and reproduce this duty via the mobile phone (p. 12), in accordance with the idea of self-improvement as a patriotic act and the “stringent regulatory practices” that prevail on their appearance, gestures and speech (cf Sandra Bartky’s ‘disciplinary practices of femininity’). For these migrant women a mobile phone is an important symbol of the urban modernity they desire and are expected to strive for.

Rural-to-urban migrants tend to work long hours, have limited time off and usually lead highly circumscribed social lives. Removed from a familiar social world many face alienation in the city. Mobile phones help overcome this dislocation by allowing migrants to establish and navigate social networks, engage in forms of entertainment and participate in consumer culture. A cell phone represents agency to control personal resources and enhance feelings of self-worth amid what is for many a humdrum existence punctuated by discrimination and loneliness. The phone is a lifeline to loved ones ‘left behind’ in the countryside and Wallis finds that many women developed and maintained friendships entirely through their mobile phones via cheap text messaging, QQ instant messaging and digital gift giving. Camera phones are a “tool of empowerment and form of hope because they allow migrant women in some manner to rework the constraints of their lives” (p. 142). But it is not all rosy. Social networking replicates class and cultural conditions and having a mobile phone does not confer social mobility. Although there is the potential for resistance on an individual (e.g. defying bosses’ bans on bringing a phone to work) and collective basis (e.g. the organization of factory based protests), mobiles can also be used by bosses as a tool for surveillance, control and discipline. The visceral recollections of migrants who’s prized possession has been impounded testify to the psychological importance (and thus vulnerability) of ownership.

Given the psychological and practical importance of a mobile phone, it is not surprising that migrant workers dedicate a substantial proportion of their financial resources to buying one. For migrants, buying a mobile phone is nothing to do with fashion or mindless materialism. In Wallis’ study, every interviewee described the mobile phone as “the first big urban purchase” (p. 73) entailing serious decision-making and sacrifices, to the extent that every informant could recall the exact date, time and place of the purchase, how long it took to save up the money and even who accompanied them to buy it. As Jack Qiu has described in his ground-breaking work on the “working class network society”, the motivations and behaviours of this sector attest to the importance to technology, contrary to the dominant association of technology with young, well-off urban consumers. Migrants attach “deep emotions and longings for modernity” (p. 78) to the mobile phone, in a discursive context in which modernity, technology and consumerism are determinants of ‘quality’. The quest for ‘quality’ is an individual duty for the good of the entire nation and, for migrants, a mobile phone is a manifestation of their ‘quality’ produced by economic capital from labour. Ulitmately, Wallis concludes that “the ways that the mobile phone is articulated to young migrant women’s desire for self-development and self-improvement reveal how the party state’s modernization goals have become deeply internalized in the mind and bodies of China’s citizens” (p. 180).

Cara Wallis, Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones, New York: New York University Press, 2013. 264 pp. ISBN: 9780814795262

This post first appeared on the EU-funded academic website, where I am Editor of the Contemporary China section.