Broadly, my research is concerned with the new challenges and opportunities of digital connectivity among marginalized populations in the Global South. The regional focus of my work is sub-Saharan Africa and my methodological approach is ethnographic. I am interested in how various kinds of social units in that part of the world – families, villages, peer groups, clubs, firms, and religious groups – receive, translate, and, in a sense, reinvent digital technologies collectively. The mobile phone has become ubiquitous in my field sites and is the focus of my recent and ongoing research, though I have also looked extensively at computers and the Internet and specifically at Internet cafés as an access model.
As an ethnographer I am interested especially in emic accounts of technology, that is, how technology is interpreted and understood by receiving populations. How do they define functionality and assess efficacy according to their values, beliefs, and priorities? How is technology perceived to disrupt or alter an existing moral order and how are such disruptions addressed and reconciled? As a sociologist I am also concerned with inequalities in access and the uneven distribution of benefits and risks associated with technology among different social groups within society. Through this work I answer new and critical questions raised by global trends that make ever more marginalized and remote populations part of global, electronic networks. My work offers foundational understanding and theoretical grounding to improve design interventions that target such marginal populations aiming to achieve positive social change, poverty alleviation, or empowerment. I am an active member of several research communities including Science and Technology Studies (STS), African Studies, and the newly emerging field of ICTD (information and communication technologies and development). My work is also read and cited by scholars in information studies, anthropology, communication and media studies, and computer science.
Though I am a sociologist by training, I do fieldwork in a part of the world and use a methodological approach that frequently leads colleagues to confuse me for an anthropologist. The possibility of this combination – sociologist, ethnographer, and Africanist – reflects some degree of disciplinary convergence between interpretivist approaches in sociology and sociocultural anthropology. The early discipline-defining work in sociology (from Marx onward) that fixated on the study of modernity as a geographically bounded and historically emergent phenomenon has given way to a broader (if perhaps more scattered) range of theories and concepts. One outcome is the encroachment of sociologists into sites associated with various other disciplines. A scientific laboratory, the trading floor of the New York stock exchange, a Ugandan village, all offer legitimate ‘grist for the mill’ of sociological analysis.
As Bruno Latour declares “we have never been modern” sweeping aside many established and foundational dichotomies – nature vs. culture, traditional vs. modern, savage vs. civilized – that, in the past, allotted sites and subject matter across the disciplines. Likewise, I have found that the rejection of such oppositions is particularly fruitful for study in and of ‘Africa’ which has been especially rigidly positioned by such dichotomies in classical social theory. Traces of this way of handling a notional ‘Africa’ are still apparent in recent work to define the global transitions of the Information/Network Society. My approach is to offer arguments and analysis that are carefully grounded in long-term fieldwork to reconsider claims about the continent’s relevance (or irrelevance) in the digital age.
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), Ishita Ghosh (UC-Berkeley). Additional support from an IMTFI Grant for “A Work Practice Approach to Understanding Actors in Agricultural Markets: Revisiting the Fishermen of Kerala, India” with Janaki Srinivasan and Richa Kumar.
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- Burrell, J. and Oreglia, E. (forthcoming) “The Myth of Market Price Information: Mobile Phones and the Application of Economic Knowledge in ICTD.” Economy and Society.
- Burrell, J. (2014) Modernity in Material Form? Mobile Phones in the Careers of Ghanaian Market Women. Review of African Political Economy.
- Burrell, J. (in progress) Material Ecosystems: Theorizing (Digital) Technologies in Socio-Economic Development.
- Srinivasan, J. and Burrell, J. (2013) Revisiting the Fishers of Kerala, India. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. Cape Town, South Africa.
- 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]
Ethnographic Perspectives on the Information Society: A Review Essay, Heather Horst, Information Technologies and International Development.
Review of Invisible Users, Jo Ellen Fair, African Studies Review.
‘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 (2007-2009)
- 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)