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Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Mobile Communications for Managing Obligations

Sat, August 11, 8:30 to 10:10am, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Floor: Level 4, 407


Both scholars and policymakers have heralded the emancipatory potential of mobile money and mobile communication services, which promise to “include” low-income and other marginalized populations in financial markets, particularly in developing countries. Yet many users of these new digital platforms employ their tools to take part in pre-existing relational networks that supply credit, gifts, and other financial support—economic relations which are predominant in much of the world (Demirguc-Kunt et al. 2015; Kusimba, Yang, and Chawla 2015). In this paper, I use original survey and interview data from Ghana to illustrate how digital financial services and communication platforms have affected users’ participation in informal economic networks—specifically, the interactional work that goes into obtaining money from others, as patrons, friends or family members. While economists emphasize the role of digital systems in making financial exchange more predictable, transparent, and efficient, I show how digital exchange tools (including both mobile money and chat services that integrate money-sharing capabilities) can actually complicate informal economic relations, particularly for those being asked for money. In particular, I argue that participants in informal exchange and assistance networks do not always value the transparency that digital tools provide, precisely because users often rely on ambiguity and obfuscation to effectively manage their relationships and resources in situations where redistributive norms are strong. I outline a typology of interactional strategies that Ghanaians use to navigate the requests that other make of them, showing how these strategies differ according to respondents’ socio-economic status, the type of request being made, and the type of technology employed.