Thesis title: Mobile phones and the margins: an ethnographic study in post-conflict Sierra Leone


Thesis abstract: 

This thesis critically examines the extent to which mobile phones contribute to the socio-economic and political development of marginalised young people in post-conflict Sierra Leone. Most studies that have undertaken similar tasks were found to approach this topic from either the functionalist sociological or economic growth perspective. The outcomes of these studies are inconclusive, leading to more questions than answers in terms of how mobile phones can truly impact on the lives of poor individuals. A frequent critique in this respect points to the lack of strong theoretical and methodological studies that demonstrate empirical evidence outside the conventional technology project-based interventions and strictly economic formulations. This dissertation responds to this critique by adopting a constructivist approach to examine the uses and implications of mobile phones on the everyday livelihood of marginalised young people in post-conflict Sierra Leone. It argues that mobile telephony can create a development change in the lives of poor people, but the kind and extent of changes depend on how it is adopted and utilised by individuals, the socio-economic and political contexts in which it is used and the availability of an enabling environment (e.g. organised institutional structure) and resources (e.g. infrastructure, income and innovation). This thesis draws on empirical data collected through an ethnographic approach to substantiate this argument using Amartya Sen’s capability approach and domestication theory. The key research respondents comprise marginalised young people that lack or have limited access to economic, social and political opportunities in rural and urban communities in Sierra Leone.

The findings from the empirical work are analysed based on three contexts. The first analysis explores an in-depth and broad understanding of how mobile phones are adopted, appropriated and incorporated into the everyday lives of the marginalised. The second analysis focuses on the implications of mobile phone ownership and use on the economic, social and political dynamics that underpin young people’s marginality. The final analysis provides insight into the institutional, infrastructural and individual capability deprivations that enhance or inhibit effective use of mobile phones. Overall, marginalised young people prove to be knowledgeable and ingeniously skilful in their utilisation of mobile phones. However, evidence towards their emancipation from marginality or improved livelihood contrasts with the widely optimistic views held in mobile phone for development literature. Economically, apart from those who leveraged mobile phones to support other business activities, the extent of the implication on livelihood is negligible for those who rely solely on the mobile phone for employment or entrepreneurship purposes. Looking through Sen’s capability approach lens, the social implications offer some sense of achievements in terms of building social capital to influence well-being. Nonetheless, there is no evidence to suggest the integration of mobile phones into other formal social needs such as health and education systems. On the political front, mobile phones make valuable contributions in generating political discussions, deliberations and engagement in political discourses at the community level. Yet, at the national level, political and decision-making processes on policy and development initiatives remain largely under the control of political elites. The final conclusion drawn from this study is that the extent to which mobile phones can enhance the livelihood of marginalised young people in a sustainable way does not depend on the mobile phone alone. It also depends on the presence of additional skills, economic and social resources and appropriate institutional and infrastructural arrangements. As a result, the thesis suggests that further research into this relationship between the mobile phone and the development of marginalised young people in Sierra Leone requires an action research approach to develop an integrated framework to better harness the development potential of mobile telephony.