Friday, 14 January 2011

Digital Diasporas: how migrant communities are embracing new media

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01:  In this photo illust...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
Source: University of Cambridge

Across the world millions of people live and work huge distances away from their home communities and only rarely get the chance to visit them. In the past, these migrants relied on letters and occasional phone calls to keep in touch. New media has changed that.

Today, even those on modest incomes are able to choose from an expanding range of new media to communicate, often on a daily basis, with family and friends.

A conference taking place at Cambridge University this week will look at how diasporas have increasingly embraced new media, how they make use of communication technologies and how new media play a significant role in shaping their experiences and relationships. Topics discussed will include whether new media isolate communities or help them to integrate within a host country, and whether access to cheap long distance communication is acting as a spur to greater migration.

Digital Diasporas: Migration, ICTs and transnationalism, which will take place at CRASSH (The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) on Thursday and Friday, will bring together researchers from throughout the UK and overseas to share their research and discuss common themes.

The conference has been organised by Dr Mirca Madianou, Newton Trust Lecturer in Sociology at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. It marks the end of a three-year ESRC-funded study led by Dr Madianou and Professor Daniel Miller from UCL on "Migration, ICTs and the transformation of Transnational Family Life", which has looked in particular at the experiences of migrants from the Philippines and the Caribbean working in the UK as well as their left-behind families.

"Rapid technological developments in new media have been accompanied by a sharp decrease in the cost of communication - whether by mobile phone or via the internet. This means that even lowly paid migrant workers have access to long distance communication. For example, once the hardware and internet connection costs have been met, chatting via Instant Messaging (IM), or videocalling through SKYPE are virtually free," said Dr Madianou.
The conference will look at the implications of the huge flow of communication through new media on family life, sociality and intimacy, identity and political involvement. "Our research shows that many migrant workers are in touch with their left-behind families on a daily basis. This means that communication via new media not only is an integral part of all their lives, but it also changes the whole experience of migration and transnational family life," said Dr Madianou.

Dr Madianou's own research has focused on the experience of migrant workers from the Philippines, a country with over ten percent of its population working abroad. "The official figures put the number of Philippine workers in the UK at 206,000 but there are likely to be many more. The majority of them are female and many are working as nurses, carers and domestic workers. Many of these women are mothers with left-behind children. Given that family separation is extended, most transnational parenting depends entirely on new media," she said.
"Women use Skype to keep in touch with young children who are unable to manage a phone conversation. They also use SKYPE to help with homework, or even cooking. They talk to older children by mobile phone - and they tend to text or email with their husbands. Social networking sites such as Facebook are used to add context. A migrant worker who has sent money for a specific purpose - for example, to pay for new clothing or a family celebration - will look at photos uploaded on to Facebook for evidence that his or her money has been well spent."
One of the themes to be explored at this week's conference is the popular assumption that new media such as satellite television channels tend to isolate diaspora communities and prevent them from integrating within host populations, with the perception that these technologies are helping to create and reinforce potentially dangerous divisions.
"Host communities tend to be fearful of strangers and see the presence of satellite dishes, for example, as a threat, perhaps picturing some kind of subversive political activity taking place. In my past research in Greece the satellite dishes of the Turkish neighbourhood had been described by a journalist as the 'umbilical cord' linking the minority to the Turkish homeland," said Dr Madianou. "The reality is frequently much more banal. What is being watched may be nothing more extreme than a local version of a game show like Who Wants to be a Millionaire."
Another question that will be tackled by participants is how increasing access to new media affects decisions about emigration and settlement.
"In the Philippines, the government actively encourages people to work overseas as their remittances are vital to supporting the population. People leaving the country are shown how to use new media as part of their preparation for going overseas, and the government also runs a scheme which shows those who are left behind to use communication technology," said Dr Madianou.
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