Cellphones’ ambiguous effects on rural households in Western Kenya (2015, Article)

“Never at ease”: Cellphones, multilocational households, and the metabolic rift in western Kenya

Agriculture and Human Values (Dec. 2015) DOI: 10.1007/s10460-015-9654-3
Download the pdf from my ResearchGate site here.

AHV coverHIGHLIGHTS: New field data from Western Kenya (building on the chapter published in 2014 – read it here) suggests:

  • Rural households are networked to migrant members elsewhere in the country, who can be called upon for financial, social, and emotional support.  These networks were larger than expected.
  • Frequent telephonic contact within households seems to be decreasing the frequency with which members physically see each other, and extending the time between migrants’ return visits to the rural area.
  • The lack of physical presence is disrupting the transmission and generation of agroecological knowledge about the rural area.
  • Migrant men believe themselves to be quite involved in rural affairs; frequent telephonic contact constrains the already limited autonomy of female-headed households in the rural sphere.

The article is part of a series of papers from a 2014 symposium on “Labour Dynamics of Agrarian Change”.  SSHRC-funded research in Kenya (2015-2020) will continue to explore these issues in other settings and in greater detail.
ABSTRACT: Western Kenya has been a labour-exporting region for over a century, with many households straddling both rural and urban contexts. While the spatial separation of migrants from their rural places of origin represented the first tangible metabolic rift within Kenyan agricultural production systems, that rift is being reshaped as rural families engage in new forms of interconnection with migrant members (“multilocationality”). These changes appear to be driven by the ongoing crisis of agrarian livelihoods and are supported by the advent of cellphone communication and mobile money transfer technologies.
Interviews and ethnographic data collected in a western Kenyan community and amongst its out-migrants reveal the role of cellphones in mediating social, financial, and knowledge flows within multilocational households. The increased ease of communicating and sending money is associated with less frequent physical movements between rural and urban settings, with commensurate disruptions in the acquisition and development of agro-ecological knowledge, and a shifting burden of agricultural labour. Gender relations are also put under further stress: migrant men remain (or believe they have remained) involved in rural affairs but appear to be using cellphone technologies to reinvent their household roles, replacing previously social or labour contributions with financial ones and by asserting claims over the on-farm decision-making of rural households previously considered female-headed.

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