What is it about?

Why would adult children who live abroad call their elderly parents every day? When I was in Kerala, South India, doing my ethnographic fieldwork on aging and information and communication technologies (ICTs) in transnational families of nurses, I found that migrating children called their parents daily. One person even told that me he called his mother 15 or 20 times a day! In this article, I analyze such frequent calling in terms of care. I use material semiotics, an approach originating from science and technology studies, to understand care as a relational practice between people and non-human entities, in this case everyday ICTs such as mobile phones and webcams. I explore frequent calling as one aspect of transnational care collectives which include parents, their children, other people and ICTs that all work together to enact care. I argue that when family members are scattered around the world, frequent calling becomes a way to enact “good care” at a distance.

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Why is it important?

This article shows how the norms of informal care are transformed when family members use phones and webcams to practice care at a distance. When care practices that require physical proximity, such as preparing food and sharing residence, are not possible, good care becomes about frequent calling. As different types of digital technologies have different affordances, they actively shape the norms of care in different ways.


I thoroughly enjoyed writing this article, especially as it allowed me to look in depth into family phone and webcam calling. Drawing on material semiotics was illuminating as it made it possible to analyze frequent calling as a care practice. This approach helped me to elaborate on how "small talk" on the phone is not about unimportant details of everyday life. Instead, I could show that these "mundane details" are the most important for people in order to share the "everydayness" with their relatives even when they are physically apart.

Tanja Ahlin
University of Amsterdam

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Frequent Callers: “Good Care” with ICTs in Indian Transnational Families, Medical Anthropology, November 2018, Taylor & Francis, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2018.1532424.
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