Professor Arul Chib on the agency of marginalized communities

Arul Chib
‘I find the best demeanor to enter a research project is with humility. As researchers, we should be wary of merely having good intentions.'

Professor Arul Chib

Professor of Technology and Development

One of the research projects at the beginning of your career looked at midwives and their use of mobiles in tsunami-affected Indonesia. Can you tell us more about this?

‘The 2004 tsunami in Indonesia was an an unprecedented natural disaster, with severe loss of life and a disrupted healthcare system. There was a scarcity of skilled healthcare workers such as rural midwives and community healthcare workers, posing challenges for pregnant women. To overcome this situation, the aim of our UNICEF-sponsored project was to improve the effectiveness of midwives to reduce maternal mortality. This was done by giving them a mobile phone with a health application. Midwives who encountered a pregnant woman could use the app to seek medical advice or register the women in a database. This would help signal abnormalities during the pregnancy in advance of complications arising. In addition, the project tried to improve communication, encourage knowledge-sharing and strengthen capacity building in the system.

As responsible researchers, we reached out to community leaders to seek their inputs. We learnt that the community was organized hierarchically along gender lines, with all leaders being male whereas the midwives were all female. We  realized our lack of sufficient awareness of these social structures during the design phase One has to realize that this project was executed almost twenty years ago. It was a period during which introducing such interventions with new digital technologies were regarded as a miracle solution. The idea was that all problems would be resolved instantly, which obviously was not the case! Back then, we did not co-create the intervention with the main target group. These insights all came later.

‘For this project, it turned out that the male leaders were not eager to allow women to own the mobile phones. Yet, the midwives came up with innovative strategies to counter these existing power relations to use the phones effectively, such as sharing or hiding them. It struck me that the project objectives went beyond medical issues, also affecting social change and gender equality. Giving midwives mobile phones helped empower them as women.

‘Looking back, we gained valuable insights about designing and implementing these kinds of interventions. Clearly, not all design questions can be answered by academics or the organizations we cooperate with. Often, the communities hold the answers. Therefore, we should pay more attention to the agency and creativity of our community partners. They should not solely be seen as “inactive” or “vulnerable”. They make agentic decisions, and their decision-making process should be both understood and respected. As researchers we should be careful not to put ourselves in the role of the gatekeeper or protector of these communities. Nor should we impose non-agency on them.’

'Even after twenty years of experience in the field, I do not consider myself an expert.'

What is the best approach for a researcher when it comes to these kinds of projects?

‘I find the best demeanor to enter a research project is with humility. As researchers, we should be wary of merely having good intentions. These often blind us and lead to hubris. Even after twenty years of experience in the field, I remind myself not to consider myself an expert. The people from the community are the real experts. As academics, we should listen carefully when we enter and engage with a community. That goes for any kind of community. For instance, I have recently entered the ISS community. At this early stage, I am focused on trying to be a good listener. I observe these surroundings to see where to provide support and add value. Moreover, I look for collaboration for future research projects.’

What will you try to bring to the ISS research community?

‘Studying digital technology, like I do, cuts across the different research themes and groups of this institute. The questions asked in relation to digital technology and development often relate to two topics. First: access. This is the famous question of the “haves” and “have-nots”. Another question that is often justifiably raised is about impact. This often relates to the possible negative effects of digital technologies.

‘It would be interesting to help people think about this field in a more nuanced manner. This would lead to questions that lie somewhere between access and impact. For instance: is there a distinction between users and developers? Whether and how does co-creation occur? Do people use technologies merely in ways that were intended or does a different kind of appropriation and agency evolve? Can we understand usage, or even non-usage, in terms of user agency? All these questions can shed light on effective impact.’

Can you give an example of research on usage-appropriation?

‘A few years ago, many Syrian refugees arrived in Europe. When asked about their relationship to technology, many answered that they would choose their mobile phone over a passport. Back then, therefore, research focused on the potential of digital technologies. Mobile phones certainly served many instrumental purposes. During the journey from Syria to Europe, for instance, refugees would check online maps, use m-banking and stay abreast with the current state of the war. Or they would use it for emotional support to be in touch with family members left behind.

‘The mobile phone, however, could also be a source of risk. Being in the possession of a mobile phone could jeopardize a refugee. For instance, it could lead to being tracked by official agencies. Consequently, phones would often be confiscated by smugglers. Or the data on the phone could jeopardize their possible immigration status in Europe if seen by the border authorities. Consider a vacation or a party back in their home country. These kinds of images would not coincide with the image of the “poor refugee” who had endured atrocities. Refugees would, therefore, delete photos which showed happy memories of their lives, counter to the empowerment research being conducted.

‘Whilst researching a range of immigrant groups and their technology usage, it became apparent to me that they deployed varied means of usage, and non-usage, to negotiate their precarious situations. It is evident that marginalized groups appropriate digital technologies to meet their own needs. Further, they negotiate complex issues related to surveillance, data and privacy.

‘This is interesting because technology is often perceived as a neoliberalist agenda of top-down inventions imposed on people. Such a perspective can be limiting as it does not take the agency of people into account. Again, marginalized groups like refugees or sex workers make their own strategic choices. They navigate the affordances of devices in their own way, which is deserving of scholarly attention.’ 

'Just because I'm studying digital technologies, doesn't mean that I am immune to their effects!'

How do you personally use digital technologies?

[laughs] ‘On Facebook I am a little bit like Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I have two profiles: an academic one and a personal one; though it is more complex, as we are in a romantic relationship! I need these “split personalities” to establish boundaries between the various roles in my life. I am not just an academic, but also a son, brother, husband, father and friend. Social media certainly have an addictive aspect, and just like every human being, I am prone to their power.

Just because I study digital technologies, does not mean that I am immune to their effects! However, I am circumspect and reflexive of my use of social media particularly. Therefore, I both try to moderate my use as well as use tools to monitor the amount of time spent on them. So far, this has worked. When I feel myself fail, I uninstall the social media apps from the phone for a period. As a researcher, I have a role to play in educating people on digital technologies, pointing out both the positive and the negative effects. But we cannot go out to save the world when we cannot save ourselves. [laughs] So that is what I try to do first.’

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