the project | 2016-2017

Newton Mobility Grants
Scheme 2016

British Academy &
Office of Higher Education
Commission, Thailand

Centre for Contemporary Social and
Cultural Studies, Faculty of Sociology
and Anthropology, Thammasat University

Media Ethnography Group,
Department of Media and Communications,
Goldsmiths, University of London

Mobile Media Practices in Everyday Life: Negotiating Commercial Infrastructures 
and State Control in Mainland Southeast Asia

This project initiates a long-term partnership between the Centre for Contemporary Social and Cultural Studies at Thammasat University, Thailand, and the Media Ethnography Group at Goldsmiths, University of London. The aim of the partnership is to establish a strong international network, and to build the capacity of post-graduate and early career researchers, to advance new ethnographic methods and critical perspectives for researching the unpredictability of everyday mobile media practices in mainland Southeast Asia. The proposition unifying the project’s training and research exchange activities concerns the need to conceptualise mobile media and agency by researching people’s everyday negotiation of the contradictory development of commercial mobile media infrastructures in relation to regimes of state control in Southeast Asia. 

Our research partnership consists of anthropologists and media researchers with long-term ethnographic research experience working with individuals and groups across mainland Southeast Asia in: Myanmar, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Thailand, and in the porous borderlands that define the relations between these nations. As ethnographers we share a concern to understand the diverse ways people appropriate media technologies and negotiate media environments. Following de Certeau (1988) our interest in everyday practices sensitises us to the tactics adopted by people as they negotiate infrastructures shaped by powerful strategic interests (national and transnational capital and the state). Reflecting the contradictory and tension-ridden path by which the digital media landscape is developing in the region our project engages in dialogue between four emergent dimensions of everyday mobile media practice: 

  • practices in which mobile media enable or impede coordination at a distance for civic/political or economic purposes
  • practices that negotiate the national symbolic markers and/or linguistic biases of mobile technologies and infrastructures, where service providers are operating across national and linguistic borders
  • practices that negotiate state control regimes, real or imagined, through a plurality of tactics such as platform-switching, evasion, circumvention and piracy
  • practices that use mobile media for visual documentation, image circulation and archiving of everyday life

Over the last five years mobile telecommunications services have expanded rapidly if unevenly across the region. Whilst Thailand and Vietnam have long had among the world’s highest per capita rates of mobile phone subscription, the more or less extensive liberalization of mobile telecommunication infrastructure in both Lao PDR and Myanmar has led to steep increases in mobile adoption in the last two to three years. Notwithstanding continuing socio-spatial inequalities of access to mobile services, for the majority of the population in Thailand, Vietnam, Lao PDR and Myanmar a mobile phone has become an intrinsic part of everyday life. The infrastructures of mobile telecommunications are also undergoing rapid transformation with the recent introduction of third generation and anticipated rollout of fourth generation mobile broadband networks. Industry forecasts predict that mobile broadband adoption will continue to grow rapidly, driven by the market in affordable internet-enabled handsets and subscription packages targeting lower income users previously excluded from the market.

In tension with the liberalization of national telecommunications markets is another regional trend: states in the region have sought to harness the economic promise of digital connectivity whilst simultaneously conducting mass surveillance and exercising stringent political control over the way in which their citizens use these communication infrastructures. Whilst there is no shortage of optimistic market analysis of the broader trends of digital connectivity in Southeast Asia there is a relative lack of scholarship on the highly diverse everyday practices of mobile media use emerging in the region (Qiu 2010). This knowledge gap persists despite a growing body of research that has emphasized the locally contingent, culturally specific nature of mobile use (Ito 2005; Hjorth 2009; Miller & Horst 2006). Our project intends to address this deficit by creating a network with research capacities, skills and experience able to address people’s everyday negotiation of the paradoxical mode of digital connectivity now unfolding in Southeast Asia.