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Undergraduate Conducts Field Research on Effects of Mobile Technology on East Africa

By Tara Laskowski

Emily Mann is an undergraduate student at Mason—and yet if you sat down with her to talk about her mobile technology research in Tanzania, you might think she was already a tenured professor.

An anthropology major and psychology minor and a student in the Honors College, Mann carries herself with great poise and confidence—for good reason. She has her fieldwork under her belt and takes her research very seriously.

Last summer with the help of a Research Experience for Undergraduates grant from the National Science Foundation and funding through the Office for Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) at Mason, Mann spent six weeks in Tanzania studying the way that mobile technology is being used in a rural village and how it is tied to national development.

Anthropology major Emily Mann learned Swahili so she could better conduct interviews for her research in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Emily Mann.

Anthropology major Emily Mann learned Swahili so she could better conduct interviews for her research in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Emily Mann.

“There are students that you enjoy working with, and then there are students who basically feel like colleagues. And then there is Emily, who feels not only like a colleague, but one whose character, motivation, and unrelenting inquisitiveness you find yourself emulating because you think it will make you a sharper intellectual,” says Mason anthropology professor Jeffrey Mantz, Mann’s faculty advisor for the OSCAR project. “I stopped thinking of her as a student pretty early on, just because I felt I probably had more to learn from her than she did from me.”

Mann has been studying the influence of digital technology in East Africa. She learned Swahili in order to conduct interviews with Tanzanians and has observed daily life and culture.

In a country where most people survive on just one dollar a day, cell phone use is thriving, Mann says. “Fifty-two percent of Tanzanians own a cell phone despite living in a poor country,” she says.  “I wanted to see how that was changing their culture—were businesses growing? Were women gaining more freedom?”

Anthropology major Emily Mann recently traveled to Spain to present her mobile technology research. Photo courtesy of Emily Mann.

Anthropology major Emily Mann recently traveled to Spain to present her mobile technology research. Photo courtesy of Emily Mann.

This was not the first time Mann had been to Tanzania. During her sophomore year in fall 2010, Mann taught English there for three months through a nonprofit organization, Godparents for Tanzania, founded by her pastor, Dwayne Westermann.

“It was certainly a learning experience. Like any volunteer opportunity you hope to help, . . .  instead you find you end up learning more and taking away more than you give,” she says.

Her experience teaching convinced her she wanted to go back and do further work in Tanzania.

During her most recent fieldwork, Mann spent a lot of time discovering the way that people used cell phones and what they meant. Tanzanians buy prepaid minutes to use their phones, and they have access to mobile banking, text-based health information and disease prevention, and mobile apps that help prevent crime and violence.

Mann presented her research this month at the International Technology, Education, and Development Conference in Valencia, Spain. As one of the only students presenting a poster on her research, Mann had a great opportunity to network with professionals and academics from a wide variety of disciplines.

Mann says she has seen an interesting intersection of modernity and tradition in East Africa.

“Many of the poorest people in Tanzania use their cell phones for traditional kinship reasons—to keep in touch with their families who may be far away,” she says, adding that often this use of mobile phones is frowned on by the more educated in Tanzania. “Some people think this is making the poor people poorer because they are putting all their money into cell phone vouchers. But the poor people think it’s important because they can talk to their family.”

Mann hopes to expose the more complex situations surrounding mobile technology and development in Tanzania and challenge the enthusiastic Western claims of “lighting up the dark continent” with mobile technology. “She is asking original questions about the meanings of technological innovation in a frontier research setting; it’s the kind of work that could potentially transform the sorts of research questions we pose,” says Mantz.

“My fieldwork demonstrates that rural Tanzania is neither being destroyed nor saved by mobile technology,” Mann says. “Rather, the village is saturated with skepticism, helplessness, and discourses of maendeleo [Swahili for progress or development]. Only by addressing the complex process of cultural appropriation can mobile technology’s potential be realized in Tanzania.”

After graduation, Mann hopes to work with an aid organization that encourages international development in East Africa and to one day go to graduate school for anthropology.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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