In China, the phenomena of globalization, urbanization, migration, and marketization have radically altered many people’s way of being and understanding themselves in the world. At the same time, the extensive diffusion of mobile telephony worldwide has ushered in new modes of individual and collective identity, sociality, and agency. (177)
In Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones (2013), Cara Wallis analyzes the relationship of rural/urban divides, mobile phones, and young Chinese female migrant workers through a feminist ethnographic approach. Rather than presenting an either/or argument, Wallis acknowledges a more complex tension of subjugation and empowerment through technology for migrant women, a marginalized group in urban China.
Young adult Chinese migrant workers, like many Chinese brand-conscious youth, crave a modern image to blend into their new urban lifestyle. Access to cell phones are important to keep in touch with their friends and family, but also, one’s presentation is connected to their economic and social status. Mobile phones are a way to document their rural to urban transition and experience the city around them.
Wallis asks how mobile phones are constitutive of young migrant women’s subjectivity. In doing so, she explores the socio-historical context of the post-Mao era in China, which holds a close tie to periods of strong rural/urban divides and the Chinese “consumer revolution.” The book argues: “The mobile phone is a technology of the self that is articulated to self-shaping as well as disciplines and exclusions.” In other words, cell phones give women particular types of agency, like the choice to find a romantic partner outside of the purview of parents and to be an active consumer, but also make these women more susceptible to surveillance through their mobile phone. Despite gaining access to newer technology in urban spaces, women migrant workers maintain a subordinate position in the workforce. Employers have access to surveil their employees and, at the same time, cell phones can be used as a tool of resistance.
Wallis is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M. Her Spring 2017 graduate seminar is cross-listed in Women’s and Gender Studies and the Department of Communication. For more information on COMM 643 Communication and Gender click here.