Sunday, September 6, 2009

Using Mobile Phones to Teach Sociology

So in the last decade-plus, mobile phones have truly come into their own. They're part of our everyday lives that many of us (including me) cannot seem to do without. This presents an excellent topic for that Intro to Sociology course.

Fuctionalism (mobile phones help to bring social structures together):

From an NPR story/podcast, "Mobile Phones Do Much More Than Make Calls" --

In Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere, cell phone technology has always been way ahead of what's available in the states. Around the world, people use their phones in innovative, creative ways.

For example, mobile phones help rural farmers gather information about crop prices, and bargain shoppers download coupons on the fly.

At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, LG unveiled a touch phone in a watch, and Sony Ericsson's new mobile phone (codenamed 'Idou') with a built-in 12.1 megapixel camera got plenty of attention. Also in Barcelona, Samsung showed its Blue Earth touchscreen phone. It's made from recycled water bottles, and has a solar panel that charges the battery.

And from a story on, "Beyond Voice: How Your Cell Phone is Evolving into a Business Productivity Tool" --

In the early days, cell phones were used merely for talking. Today, cell phones have a myriad of other applications. For many people, their cell phone is their daily organizer, music player, camera, GPS system, and news and weather device. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the very near future, cell phones will also be people’s banks, credit card, keys, remote control, and video conferencing platform, just to name a few. Clearly, today’s cell phones are much more than phones, and tomorrow’s will revolutionize the business world.

In addition to identifying the connecting/inter-dependence of social structures through use of mobile phones, also identify their latent and manifest functions, and when they become dysfunctional (e.g., in class! And cell phone addiction).

Symbolic Interactionism (mobile phones as physical objects and abstract symbols):

From a BBC story, "Chic gear to suit next generation" --

Some designers are experimenting with putting wires and electronics in their clothes.

Most examples of these are purely for the high-fashion catwalk, one-off concept pieces designed to look good rather than do anything.

Access to the technologies is a problem for designers too, and there is a gulf between the fashion industry, technologists and engineers in the thinking around wearable technology and computing.

Find out how mobile phones and their accessories are provided with meaning and in turn give individuals different types of status.

Conflict Theory, with a particular emphasis on race and global inequality (those who own the means of production exploit others to profit from mobile phones):

From an story, "War, Murder, Rape... All for Your Cell Phone" --

Cell phones, laptop computers and other portable electronics rely for their power on lithium ion batteries, which aren't just made of lithium. They contain copper and cobalt (often found together in a single ore called heterogenite) as well as nickel and iron, and generally have to be replaced every one to three years. (Up to 6 million will need to be replaced all at once with the recent recall of Dell and Apple laptop batteries). The DRC has 10 percent of the world's copper reserves and 30 to 40 percent of its cobalt, and with the prospect of a stable central government, the country's importance as a source of those materials for batteries and other uses is expected to grow.

The DRC's mines are in its southernmost province, Katanga, which went largely unscathed by the war that raged far to the north. Nevertheless, artisanal miners work under conditions that are only marginally better than those in the tin and coltan mines. They crawl through incredibly hot, cramped tunnels lit only by small flashlights or candles, using only shovels or their bare hands as tools. The BBC reported last year that the Ruashi mine employs 4,000 miners, some as young as 8 years old, who "dig and sieve from dawn to dusk."

Identify our false consciousness regarding mobile phones (how we stay compelled to keep upgrading and buying new accessories), or even the possible false consciousness of those who work under oppressive conditions to get the raw materials for mobile phones.

Conflict Theory, with an emphasis on feminist theory (use of mobile phones perpetuates patriarchal systems):

From a paper by Cindy Southworth, Shawndell Dawson, Cynthia Fraser, and Sarah Tucker, "
A High-Tech Twist on Abuse: Technology, Intimate Partner Stalking, and Advocacy" --

Abusers regularly use telephone technologies to stalk current and former intimate partners (Brewster, 2003). While most homes have traditional telephones, many families are also using cellular and wireless telephones, creating a new realm of tools for stalkers to use. In June 2004, approximately 169 million Americans used wireless telephones (Cellular Telecommunications &Internet Association, 2004). As wireless telephones become more sophisticated, abusers are finding ways to use advanced telephone features to aid them in stalking their victims...

Abusers can monitor their victims' cell or wireless telephone use through the call history on the telephone and through billing records. Most cell phones keep an internal record of incoming and outgoing calls. Stalkers also use phone-based instant messaging, simple text messaging, and pagers to maintain constant access to their intimate partners. Stalkers can use new location based services provided by cell phone carriers to track the location of their victims. In Rhode Island one abuser assaulted his wife after finding the shelter telephone number in her cell phone call history; as a result she did not attempt to leave her husband for another year (Safety Net, 2004).

Without suggesting personal disclosure, discuss observations of mobile phones used as monitoring devices, used to disseminate photos, etc.

Social movements (for later in the semester):

Podast from the BBC World Service, "Citizen Journalism - Democracy or Chaos?" and "The rise of Iran's citizen jouranlists" --

It has been 40 days since Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman, was killed during an anti-government protest in Tehran.

Within hours, graphic scenes showing her final seconds of life dominated newspapers and bulletins over the world.

Yet this moment wasn't recorded by a professional journalist working for a big news organisation. Instead, a regular bystander captured the powerful footage and uploaded it online.

The clip of Agha-Soltan's death is just one of hundreds of pieces of citizen journalism to come from Iran in the past few month.

With journalists forced to stay in their hotel rooms, or even leave the country, these amateur recordings quickly became the only means of getting uncensored news out of Tehran.

How has increased information technology advanced/complicated social movements?
Academics Blogs


  1. Wow, thanks for this. And in time for first week of classes! I am SOOO using this in class!

  2. On symbols - "Family, friends mourn 'Neda,' Iranian woman who died on video"
    From the L.A. Times,0,366975,full.story

  3. Neda – the tragic face of Iran's uprising (6/23/09)

  4. Great blog! I think you just talked me out of upgrading my cell phone until I actually "need" to. I never really thought about the raw materials being used for manufacture, and how they are obtained. And I am guilty of, right now, having 4 functional phones in a drawer collecting dust because of my compulsion to buy the new bells and whistles as soon as they are available. Thank you for making me think.

  5. actually you can use your cell phone as many things, GPS, camera, video game console, and a virtual teacher, all this in only one package, this is the reason for many people bought this cell phone.

  6. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.

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  8. This is an article nine years ago. It still looks very interesting now. At that time, we couldn’t imagine that we can do almost anything with a smartphone today.

  9. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. Samsung Galaxy A8s