Steven Sam (right) speaking with young mobile phone users in Sierra Leone
Steven Sam (right) speaking with young mobile phone users in Sierra Leone

The Centre's Steven Sam has been awarded a PhD for his fascinating research exploring and critiquing the potential for mobile phone technologies to affect structural social change. As a case study, he focussed on mobile phone use by young people in the post-conflict nation of Sierra Leone. We asked Steven to share some of the insights and experiences gained through his research. 

What initially interested you in exploring youth & mobile phones in Sierra Leone?

Research into young people’s use of mobile phones in Sierra Leone initially appealed to me because of young people’s predicaments in the country. The livelihood of the majority of young people is shaped by the country’s political arrangements and the decade-long civil conflict, leading to a widespread socio-economic deprivation and poverty among them. My interest was to explore the mobile phone’s role in shaping and transforming the contemporary lives of marginalised young people in a toxic political environment. My research built on the premise that for the mobile phone to make any significant implication on young people’s livelihood options its uses should facilitate socio-economic and political issues that underpin their marginalisation.

Can you give a brief overview of your research?

My research challenges the dominant functionalist sociological or economic growth perspectives that have dominated mobile phone for development research. It adopts a constructivist approach and transdisciplinary theories (the capability approach and domestication theory) to critically examine the effective use and implications of mobiles on the socio-economic development of marginalised young people in post-conflict 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.

What were some of your key findings?

My overall findings suggest that 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.

If there was one thing that you’d like people working in the ICT development sector to take away from your research, what would that to be?

One important point to take away from my study is that ICT is indeed a great tool to engender development processes, but it is not a one-size-fits-all or panacea to ameliorate the problems of the poor. My research shows that the effectiveness of ICT in development processes depends on a wide range of factors. For example, it depends on how well the technology is adapted to the local needs, skills and knowledge of the poor and marginalised. It is also contingent on the availability and accessibility of additional economic and social resources and appropriate institutional and infrastructural configurations that engender effective use and development outcomes. Therefore, it is crucial to take these factors into consideration while designing and deploying ICT for development project interventions that aim at achieving better and sustainable development outcomes.

What has the research taught you about communication and social change more generally?

While my study generally reinforces the importance of ICTs in social change processes, it also demonstrates that technology alone is not sufficient to engender social transformation of marginalised publics. Change has to be understood as a holistic and collaborative process involving individual or group agency, appropriate livelihood resources availability and institutional willingness (political will) to embrace change. In this process, technology serves as an important conversion factor to transform planned change activities into actual development outcomes.

What did you enjoy most about doing a PhD?

I loved working with my supervisors, colleagues, and also the excellent services provided by the Centre for Communication Social Change, School of Communication and Arts and the library. Another aspect of my PhD journey that I liked best was engaging with my research participants to share their experiences and narratives on how the negotiate their everyday lives in an environment of scarce resources. 

What was most challenging?

The most challenging part of my study was living with family on a very limited budget. I struggled with the psychological aspect of negotiating family maintenance and study pressure. However, I appreciate my excellent supervisors for giving me extra psychological support to cope with both pressures.

Do you have any advice for others considering a PhD in your field?

Future PhD students should consider approaching research in the field from a socio-technical rather than technical standpoint. In other words, they should approach research with an open mind to critically explore the relationship between ICTs and socio-economic transformation from the perspectives of the research participants.

Read more about Steven's PhD project on his CfCSC Research Profile.

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