Technology Use and Social Connection: Mobile Phone Ownership, Device Sharing, and Social Ties in Malawi

Open Access
Furnas, Hannah Elizabeth
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 24, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Ashton Michael Verdery, Dissertation Advisor
  • Michelle Lynn Frisco, Committee Chair
  • Jennifer Lynne Van Hook, Committee Member
  • Glenn A Firebaugh, Committee Member
  • Carleen Frances Maitland, Outside Member
  • Jenny Trinitapoli, Special Member
  • Digital Divide
  • Malawi
  • Social Networks
  • Mobile Phones
  • Device Sharing
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Technology Use
  • Social Interactions
Scholars lack an understanding of how the digital divide – disparities in access to and use of technology – operates within developing nations. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), in particular, is experiencing enormous growth in access to and use of technology, although it is well documented that the region lags behind the rest of the world in mobile phone ownership and Internet use. Within SSA nations, the relationship between social ties, socioeconomic status, and the ownership and use of mobile phones lacks attention. In this dissertation, I investigate the digital divide in Malawi, a country in Southeastern Africa. I focus on mobile phones, given that mobile phones in Malawi are more common than other information and communication technologies and are the primary way people access the Internet. In the first paper, I leverage data from the CELL Project to look at the way tech inequality unfolds in women’s day-to-day life through social interactions. I draw on longitudinal data from the Tsogolo la Thanzi project in the second paper and I model the mobile phone ownership and use as a hierarchy. I assess a woman’s position in the hierarchy over time and the patterns of movement or stability she experiences. In the third paper, I leverage a follow-up dataset to assess the structure of the mobile phone hierarchy four years later and examine the relationship between network externality and mobile phone ownership and use. I find that (a) women who own mobile phones tend to have more dispersed interaction networks; (b) at the beginning stages of diffusion, women in Malawi experience stable non-use and unstable ownership and device sharing; (c) at later stages of diffusion, device sharing emerges as a way that women gain access to mobile phones and individuals with higher network externality are more likely to own or borrow a phone than to not use one; and (d) the experience of the digital divide is categorically different at different levels of the mobile phone hierarchy. My findings unearth shifting levels of technology access and the social and economic factors that predict them. Mobile phones are a powerful tool that connect individuals to people and ideas. Differentials in access and use of mobile phones not only stratify regions, nations, and communities, but also at the individual-level, the nature and level of mobile phone ownership and use is tied to one’s social context and social ties.