Mobile phones, communities and social networks among foreign workers in Singapore

ERIC C. THOMPSON
2009 Global Networks  
Transnational mobility affects both high-status and low-income workers, disrupting traditional assumptions of the boundedness of communities. There is a need to reconfigure our most basic theoretical and analytical constructs. In this article I engage in this task by illustrating a complex set of distinctions (as well as connections) between 'communities' as ideationally constituted through cultural practices and 'social networks' constituted through interaction and exchange. I have grounded
more » ... analysis ethnographically in the experiences of foreign workers in Singapore, focusing on domestic and construction workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh. I examine the cultural, social and communicative role that mobile phones play in the lives of workers who are otherwise constrained in terms of mobility, living patterns and activities. Mobile phones are constituted as symbol status markers in relationship to foreign workers. Local representations construct foreign workers as users and consumers of mobile telephony, reinscribing ideas of transnational identities as well as foreignness within the context of Singapore. Migrant workers demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the various telephony options available, but the desire to use phones to communicate can overwhelm their self-control and lead to very high expenditures. The research highlights the constraints -as well as possibilities -individuals experience as subjects and agents within both social and cultural systems, and the ways in which those constraints and possibilities are mediated by a particular technology -in this case, mobile phones. WORKERS As the diffusion of mobile communications has proceeded apace over the past decade, both the technology and the social contexts within which it operates have been transformed (for example Haddon 2005; Woolgar 2005). Research on the proliferation of mobile phone use in less affluent social contexts is now demonstrating the variety of social-technological configurations that mobile phone adoption can
doi:10.1111/j.1471-0374.2009.00258.x fatcat:t4dt5pl3rfbwvld4jeidwo5g6u