Mobile phone use has had an impact on family dynamics in rural India. An ethnographic study of communities in West Bengal has shown that children are gaining more influence within family networks thanks to their digital skills, while women are using mobile phones to challenge male dominance in kinship systems. Sirpa Tenhunen is professor of social and cultural anthropology at the University Helsinki and author of “A Village Goes Mobile: Telephony, Mediation and Social Change in Rural India”. In addition to new media, her interests include the anthropology of politics, gender, kinship and environmental displacement. She currently leads a research project “Sustainable Livelihoods and Politics at the Margins: Environmental Displacement in South Asia” which is funded by the Academy of Finland. [Cover image credit: Juha Laitalainen, profile image credit: Linda Tammisto]

Families are actively shaped and reshaped through mobile communication. For instance, in Western countries, teens and children emerged early on as one of the heaviest users of mobile phones and this influenced their relationships with their peers and parents. As I describe in my recent book, the appropriation of mobile phones in rural eastern India (West Bengal) has been motivated mainly by kinship and family considerations. I found that children are gaining influence within family networks thanks to their digital skills, while women are using mobile phones to challenge male dominance in kinship systems by initiating and maintaining relationships in new ways.

Younger generations enabling older generations

In the village where I carried out long-term ethnographic fieldwork, children’s phone use remained marginal in the sense that children seldom use phones to make calls independently – most people just cannot afford to allow their children to make regular phone calls. Nevertheless, thanks to the rising levels of education among the younger generations, children and teens are growing up as the generations with the best ability to use phones and browse the internet. Children, both girls and boys, are skilled at operating phones, even smartphones, which they use to play games and listen to music.

The importance of education for mobile phone use was highlighted when I observed a 12-year-old girl effortlessly learning to browse English language information from the internet using a smartphone while the older, less-educated generation in the same family needed help just to type in a number. Since mobile phones are not considered private, children play an essential role in enabling the elder generation’s phone use by helping them to manage the phone’s functions. By taking an expert role with regard to the mundane use of mobile phones, children and young are able to introduce subtle changes in family hierarchies which have been mainly based on seniority in age.

Communication between mothers and daughters

In rural West Bengal, a family is not understood as a nuclear unit formed by parents and children; instead, people see themselves as part of more extensive and often trans-local kin networks. The majority of phone owners mentioned calling relatives as the main reason for obtaining their phone. The most important function of the phones for young married women is that thanks to phones, women are better connected with their birth families – for most women, birth families constitute a significant source of support in times of difficulties. Women appreciated how mobile phones offer them the possibility to move away so that fewer people are within hearing distance although it is seldom possible to make a call in complete privacy. For instance, young daughters-in-law told me that they usually call their birth family homes when the in-laws were not at home.

Another example is a mother whom I observed advising her daughter over the phone to disobey the mother-in-law. Her daughter had married into a wealthy household where the daughter was expected to take the responsibility of all housework while the mother-in-law did very little. Although the daughter was considered happily married by the villagers in that she was married to a wealthy family, the division of work between the women of the household was not regarded as fair. The mother saw that the only solution was that her daughter would express her view and refuse the excess work in her in-law’s house. Without the phone, the chances for this conversation would have been limited because the mother would have usually only met her daughter surrounded by the daughters in-law.

A threat to the marriage system?

Whereas in many parts of India, women’s mobile phone use has been experienced as a threat to the marriage system, in rural West Bengal the marriage system and the ensuing hierarchical relationships between kin groups have encouraged and legitimated women’s mobile phone use, with women now using the mobile phone to initiate and maintain contact with their parents once married. It is tangible proof of the change that it has become a common practice for newlywed wives to stay in touch with their parents over the phone right after their wedding, whereas just a decade ago I observed that contact between such kin groups was avoided for a year after the marriage.

Mobile phones help women to cultivate the matrilineal tendencies in the kinship system and thereby challenge the male dominance. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influences the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. Motivated by women’s rights discourses and political activism, women use phones to realise their goals of widening the domestic sphere. Mobile phones are a double-edged sword in that they undermine the authority structure of joint families, which could contribute to conflicts and make young women vulnerable. However, many husbands support their wife’s calling, even giving money for the calls, so calling does not lead to conflicts with women’s in-laws and husbands, like extended visits to women’s birth families could do. A husband who provides money for his wife’s calls strengthens his relationship with his wife, and loosens the grip of the joint family on the couple’s relationship by reducing lengthy visits to her family.

Nevertheless, women are positioned differently in how frequently they can make use of a phone. Even when in-laws encourage their daughter-in-law to call her parents, such calls may have to be made sparingly due to economic constraints. A woman’s ability to call reflects the position she has carved for herself in her in-laws’ house, as well as the household’s economic standing. When women are able to call freely it signifies that they enjoy a good relationship with their husbands and/or in-laws and that the household is wealthy enough to allow calling. The role of new media in social change, therefore, depends on how the emerging media-saturated contexts of social interaction and communication relate to pre-existing contexts and social changes. Both kinship relationships and women’s rights discourses have encouraged and motivated mobile phone use, which, in turn, has transformed relationships by helping to create new contexts for speech and action. By enabling new contexts for speech, phones create possibilities to voice critical ideas, which can challenge power structures in the household.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.