- I study the large-scale diffusion of digital technologies in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the Global South. I am interested in how various kinds of social ‘units’ in that part of the world – families, villages, peer groups, clubs, firms, religious groups, etc. – receive, translate, and in some sense reinvent digital technologies collectively. The digital technology currently diffusing most widely where I do research is the mobile phone, though in prior projects I have looked extensively at computers and the Internet and specifically at Internet cafes as an access model. I ask, how do socio-cultural dimensions and practices of everyday life shape who has access to these technologies as well as the conditions of access? How might digital technologies become part of the grassroots, self-organizing efforts of populations marginalized from the global economy?
- Lately, I’ve also been thinking a lot about technology provisioning and access beyond mainstream market processes – this includes the global trade in secondhand computers, technology donations channeled through aid organizations, the trade in scrap metal from electronic waste, and in general technology in the domain of informal, gray, and black market trade. I explore how these alternative commodity channels could change the way scholars model use and users in relation to design/development processes.
- The issue of socio-economic development is also a topic I consider in my work. In the new interdisciplinary field of ICTD (Information and Communication Technologies and Development) we ask, what kinds of gains, improvements, opportunities are possible through the spread of these new technologies in the Global South? Specifically, I am concerned with how any such opportunities may be more equitably distributed throughout society; whether through better technology designs, through policy changes, or other means.
- Future plans include some writing about culture and design, the political economy of user studies, mobile phones in trade practices, and gendered aspects of trade and livelihoods looking at West African market women in particular.
I’m an ethnographer. I approach these topics from a ground-level perspective spending time with African technology users to capture a rich, local commentary on technology and development issues. I am interested in their perceptions and opinions of these technologies and whether they see an alignment or misalignment with their values, aspirations, and sense of self. I combine open-ended interviewing techniques with in situ participant-observation.
Keywords: Sociology of Technology, Technology and Socio-Economic Development, Transnationalism and Diaspora Studies, Materiality, User Studies, Ethnography, Qualitative Research Methods
(1) How Marginalized Populations Self-Organize With Digital Tools (2011-present), NSF Grant # 1027310. With Janet Kwami (co-PI, Furman University) and students: Elisa Oreglia (UC-Berkeley), Bob Bell Jr. (UC-Berkeley).
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- Burrell, J. and Oreglia, E. “The Myth of Market Price Information: Mobile Phones and Rural Agricultural Trade Activities in China and Uganda.” (Under Review)
- Burrell, J. “Modernity in Material Form? Mobile Phones in the Careers of Ghanaian Market Women.” (Under Review)
- Beyond Market Prices - a web resource which aims to expand thinking about the role of mobile phones in the livelihood activities of agriculturalists and market actors of the Global South.
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(2) Ethnographic Study of Internet Cafe use in Accra, Ghana (2004-2011)
Burrell, J, Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. (2012) The MIT Press. [see MIT Press page] [buy it]
‘Beyond the Digital Divide‘ by Dillon Mahoney, The Journal of African History
‘How People Make Machines that Script People,’ by Daniel Miller, in Anthropology of this Century
‘Surfing the Internet in Ghana,’ by Kevin Donovan, LA Review of Books.
[Book Review] Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana, by David Banks, Cyborgology Group Blog (The Society Pages)
LSE Review of Books, review of Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana, by Gareth Jones.
How They Use the Internet in Ghana, by Rob Hardy (The Commercial Dispatch, Columbus & Starkville, Mississippi).
Review, by Lynn Spellman White (Practical Matters Journal)
- Burrell, J. (2012) Technology Hype Versus Enduring Uses: A Longitudinal Study of Internet Use Among Early Adopters in an African City. First Monday, 17(6) (3 June 2012). (Available online – open access journal).
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- Burrell, J. (2013) The Materiality of Rumors. in Materiality and Organizing. Leonardi, P., B. Nardi, and J. Kallinikos. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (pdf)
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- Burrell, J. (2011). User Agency in the Middle Range: Rumors and the Reinvention of the Internet in Accra, Ghana Science, Technology, & Human Values, 36(2): 139-159.
- ABSTRACT:This article is an analysis of rumors about Internet scamming told by Internet cafe users in the West African capital city of Accra, Ghana. Rumors provided accounts of how the Internet can be effectively operated by young Ghanaians to realize “big gains” through foreign connections. Yet these accounts were contradicted by the less promising direct experiences users had at the computer interface. Rumors amplified evidence of wildly successful as well as especially harmful encounters with the Internet. Rather than simply transferring information, through the telling of rumors, Internet users reclaimed a social stability that was disrupted by the presence of the Internet. These stories cast young Ghanaian Internet users as both good and effective in relation to the Internet. The study of accounts as they relate to the activities accounted for is an established area of interest in social theory. By considering how rumors function as accounts and how such interpretations of the technology are propagated among users, this analysis contributes to a broader understanding of user agency.
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- Burrell, J. (2008) Problematic Empowerment: West African Internet Scams as Strategic Misrepresentation. Information Technology and International Development, 4(4):15-30.
(Available ITID site – open access journal).
ABSTRACT: Internet scamming strategies associated with West Africa typically involve the creation and deployment of fictional narratives depicting political turmoil, corruption, violence, poverty, and personal tragedy set in a variety of African nations. This article examines Internet scammers complicity in promoting these creatively dramatic and yet stereotyped representations of Africa and Africans. Their approach is an example of what De Certeau describes as a ‘tactic’ where scammers manipulate the space of representations produced by hegemonic forces in the West to realize subversive ends. The attempts of Internet scammers highlight the difficulties of creating self-representations that are both ‘authentic’ and persuasive underlining the complexity inherent in efforts by marginalized communities to be heard by those they perceive as powerful. This remains the case despite new mechanisms of communication, such as the Internet, that make connecting (in a purely functional sense) much easier and less expensive.
- An earlier version titled, Problematic Empowerment: West African Internet Scams as Grassroots Media Production was the winner of the 2008 Nicholas C. Mullins Award given by the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) for “an outstanding piece of scholarship by a graduate student in the field of Science and Technology Studies.”
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- Burrell, J. (2009). The Fieldsite as a Network: a strategy for locating ethnographic research. Field Methods, 21(2):181-199.
(pdf) and (in Vietnamese)** translation facilitated by the Journal Donation Project at The New School for Social Research.
To be reprinted in Virtual Research Methods (Sage, 4-volume set) edited by Christine Hine.
ABSTRACT: Through the work of constructing a fieldsite, researchers define the objects and subjects of their research. This article explores a variety of strategies devised by researchers to map social research onto spatial terrain. Virtual networked field sites are among the recent approaches that are challenging conventional thinking about field-based research. The benefits and consequences of one particular configuration, the fieldsite as a network, that incorporates physical, virtual, and imagined spaces will be explored in detail through a case study. I will focus in particular on the logistical issues involved and practical steps to constructing such a field site. This article includes suggestions for ways of studying social phenomena that take place on a vast terrain from a stationary position.
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(3) The Moral Economy of the Mobile Phone in Rural Uganda (2007-present)
- Audio/Video for talk as part of the Liberation Technology Seminar Series, Stanford University.
- Burrell, J. (2010) Evaluating Shared Access: social equality and the circulation of mobile phones in rural Uganda Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 15(2): 230-250.
(Available here – open access journal)
ABSTRACT:This article examines forms of shared access to technology where some privileges of ownership are retained. Sharing is defined as informal, non-remunerative resource distributing activities where multiple individuals have a relationship to a single device as purchaser, owner, possessor, operator and/or user. In the specific case of mobile phones in rural Uganda, dynamics of social policing and social obligation were mediated and concretized by these devices. Patterns of sharing mobile phones in rural Uganda led to preferential access for needy groups (such as those in ill health) while systematically and disproportionately excluding others (women in particular). The framework for sharing proposed in this article will be useful for structuring comparisons of technology adoption and access across cultural contexts.
En Français: La sociologue Jenna Burrell constatée que les téléphones mobiles exacerbent les relations de domination entre les sexes : les hommes se servant des téléphones mobiles comme des outils d’échange sexuel.
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- I did some consulting work in fall 2007 for the Grameen Foundation AppLab. My report for that project titled “Livelihoods and the Mobile Phone in Rural Uganda” is publicly available.
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(4) Technology and Transnationalism – Ghanaians living in London (2004-2006)