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The Cell Phone: Anthropology of Communication CH 3-4

October 14, 2010

In The Cell Phone, authors Heather Horst and Daniel Miller conduct and ethnographic study in Jamaica to determine the impact of cell phone use on underprivileged communities and in everyday lives.  The first four chapters are dedicated to discussing the necessary theoretical background as well as the social, economic and technological circumstances that play an important role in understanding the impacts of the cell phone in Jamaica. Mary discussed the infrastructure in Chapter 2. In Chapter 3, I’ll discuss the locations chosen by the researchers for their study.


Before diving into the two specific cities in Jamaica that the authors chose to conduct their study, Horst and Miller give an overview of Jamaica itself, hitting the high notes of politics, consumer income, and the major industries. Some important things to note:

  • Jamaica is now the 4th most heavily indebted emerging economy with debts at 150% of GDP
    • Between 60-70% of the country’s revenues go directly towards servicing this debt
    • The country remains highly reliant on aid
  • Crime is one of the principal barriers preventing more sustained economic development
    • 3rd highest rate for violent crime in the world
  • Unemployment is around 15-17%
    • Unemployment of 14-19 year olds in the poorest sectors of Jamaica is 47%
  • 60% of students complete secondary school
    • Only 30-40% are functionally illiterate @ the end of primary school
  • Reasonable standard of living
    • 87% of households have electricity
    • 50% have an exclusive flush toilet
    • 64% have access to piped water (but might be outside)

Having this background information on Jamaica helps us to understand the setting in which this study is being conducted.  For example, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the amount of Blackberrys and iPhones found in Jamaica are slim to none; the economic circumstances just don’t afford for them.

When picking the two unique locations, specific efforts were made to make certain that studies were conducted at one urban site and one rural site:

“There has always been a rural-urban divide in Jamaica, which has implications for income levels, survival strategies, and access to educational and occupational opportunities.” (43)

Assessing only one group of people within the many subsets of Jamaica would result in inconclusive results.  The following discusses the social and economic conditions that lay the necessary framework for understanding the conditions of the two fieldwork sites.


Orange Valley is a central Jamaican farming community of roughly 500-600 residents, with an estimated 14,000 people living in the surrounding area that use Orange Valley for their transportation stations and markets.  The average household is 5.2 people, a rather large number but not abnormal for poorer communities. Twenty-four percent of households surveyed earned less than minimum wage. Landlines are rare to find; cell phones are often the only type of telephones available.


Portmore is a low income area of approximately 200,000 residents that isn’t necessarily extreme in terms of violence or poverty. Rather, this area represents “the ordinariness of life as a low-income person trying to make ends meet in an urban context, in an area that potentially reflects the future of Jamaican society.” (43) Within Portmore is an area called Marshfield, where the majority of the research was conducted. Here, individuals enjoyed higher salaries and a higher standard of living than Orange Valley; everyone surveyed from Marshfield owned a TV, stove, refrigerator and other appliances. However, there is a great gap between the rich and poor in Portmore:

“…without proper connections and the support of family members, urban life creates more stress for low-income persons than in rural areas, where you can consume ground provisions…” (54).

Living in an urban area, although surrounded by more individuals with money, is difficult for struggling Jamaicans without their family and land to support them. SOCIAL connections become a big part of life and survival for low income Jamaicans. For many poor individuals, half of their income is dependent upon begging and the kind gifts from friends and neighbors. Because money is scarce, the primary source of survival is other people and social networks.

“This conclusion lies at the very heart of this volume, since it is the backdrop for understanding the cell phone not as a mere addition or luxury item, but as something that dramatically changes the fundamental conditions of survival for low-income Jamaicans, because it is the instrument of their single most important means of survival – communication with other people.” (57)


Chapter four discusses the cell phone as a possession– in particular, the types of social messages sent by owning and using a cell phone.  Today, those without a cell phone are looked at as ‘deficient’. “When reporting their lack of cell phone ownership, facial expressions often spoke volumes about an individual’s sense of denigration and shame.” (59) Not surprisingly, there is a definite social gap between those who have cell phones and those who do not.

“I think it symbolizes maybe in a small way some kind of success, and I think people is fascinated to know that while they can’t afford maybe a big car like the person who is very successful, at least they have the ability to speak whenever they want. It is kind of an equalizer, the great equalizer.” (64)

Questions to Consider: To me, this is a very powerful statement that speaks loudly about Jamaican individualism. Based on the reading, what conclusions can you draw about why “having the ability to speak whenever they want” is such a powerful thing for Jamaican people to possess? What comments do you have about the cell phone being ‘the great equalizer’?

Chapter four goes into great depth on a lot of different facets of cell phone possession, so in an effort to keep this post from becoming a novel, I’ll talk about a few of the areas I found most interesting:

WHY CELL PHONES OVER LANDLINES?                                                                                                                                                    Landlines are much cheaper than cell phones…in fact, it costs roughly 30x more to make a call with a cell phone in Jamaica versus a dialing with a landline phone (76). So why would Jamaicans (with little money to spare) choose to spend a significant amount of their very small incomes on a service they could purchase for much cheaper? The book reveals a few interesting elements of Jamaican social norms and culture that contribute to this decision:

In rural areas….

  • Lack of landlines. Many places (such as Orange Valley) have very limited access to use of landlines. This results in the use of public phones:
    • Negative history of public phones, which were often out of order, vandalized or unavailable
    • Little privacy. Landline telephone use was often ‘rented out’ by public stores based on the length of the call, where ones’ entire conversation was in the open for the public to listen to
    • Negative histories and experiences with use of landlines
      • Jamaicans are very suspicious of telephone companies, believing they are hiking up their bills and charging them for more minutes than they have used

In urban areas…

  • Although landlines in homes are much more common, many also believed that they were being overcharged by the telephone company.
    • Family conflicts often arose as a result of the landline bill. Because a ‘family’ in Jamaica often consists of multiple adults (brothers, in-laws, etc). living together, each is responsible for contributing towards the landline bill according to their use. “Jamaica is unusual for the degree to which relations between members of the same household are monetarized, and a sense of fairness is rendered most explicit in the monetary exchanges that go on within a household.” (75) Often, family members become hostile and suspicious of one another for not fully owing up according to their usage.
      • The cell phone is seen as something whose individualized billing permits an extended household to ‘live good’ together.
    • Even if the ultimate bill for the cell phone is much greater, the worry is gone over what the phone bill will be next month because minutes are bought using pre-paid cards.


I thought it was quite interesting to learn that ‘texting’ does not account for a very large proportion of most Jamaican citizen’s cell phone usage. It is quite obvious that in the States, especially among youth, text messaging is a widely used means of conversing with friends and family. However, Jamaicans have been quoted as disliking the extra effort that goes into writing text messages. MOST IMPORTANTLY, text messaging is also thought to be less popular because it saves people with limited education from embarrassment since an inability to spell correctly. When texting is used, non-predicative text (such as ‘ur’ for ‘your’) is a much more popular route to avoid misspellings.

Far more widely-used than texting, Internet access though the phone has become a significant application used by low-income Jamaicans. Most individuals with phones do not possess a computer with Internet access, thus making their phone much like a personal computer. For many, their only exposure to the Internet has been through the use of cell-phones.   Thus, how they have come to know the Web is entirely different from those who experienced it via computer. It reminds me of what Kim brought up in class last week, about how her kids don’t think of buying ‘albums’ when you buy music, but instead think of buying ‘songs’.  Can you imagine surfing the Web for the first time on a cell phone? I think my idea of connection speed and Skype would be much different.


WHEW, a LOT of information was provided in these two chapters! Primarily though, I think the author is attempting to give the reader insight into the nature of Jamaican individualism.  As described in the family billing scheme for landline telephones, Jamaicans find a sense of individuality and autonomy by having their own cell phones and thus their own bills. In turn, they can use these phones as a means of expression, by having loud conversations for others to overhear and by accessorizing their phones to display their unique sense of style. The introduction of the cell phone not only provided Jamaicans with a new technology, but a new element for their social relationships. It is very interesting to read about!

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