Hurling together with technology: appropriation of the mobile phone in the everyday life of an Irish community group
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This thesis examines how a new media technology becomes entrenched into the fabric of society – in particular how the mobile phone was incorporated into the existing communications landscape of a local voluntary community group: an Irish sports club. In the past, face-to-face interaction formed the basis of all social relations and strong local collectives were seen to provide a positive and supportive social environment, generating strong social capital. Today’s mediated communication enables the ‘networked individual’ who can choose when, where and with whom they share their lives. This has implications for the persistence and strength of local associations. Writers like Putnam (2000) have expressed concerns about the attenuation of local communities. However, others propose that communications technologies can provide new additional ways for individuals to link with each other in a ‘glocalised’ society (Hampton and Wellman, 2003) and this has the potential to overcome some of the limitations of the communicators not being in the same physical space. This thesis critically examines the applicability of these partly competing theses in the period in which mobile telephony became widely embedded in Irish society. Through 21 detailed interviews and a survey of 57 players, administrators and supporters, the study examines the choices made by club members in adopting and using the mobile phone. It further explores the changes they have made in their communication patterns and considers the implications of these for the cohesion and persistence of the community group as an entity and also the social capital it engenders. The study draws upon existing theories of human-technology interaction, in particular the Social Shaping of Technology perspective (Williams and Edge, 1996), to examine how club members weave their phone use into their everyday practices. Silverstone and Haddon’s (1996) Domestication approach, with its steps of appropriation, objectification and incorporation provide the detailed framework in mapping out this process. The study findings reveal that community members have all adopted the mobile phone and are heavy users of both text and voice calls. Membership of the sports club has eased the adoption process by providing examples of the artefact in use and a supporting environment when problems arise. Although use is now universal and intensive, there was a differential appropriation of the phone, with male club members being the first purchasers and females often being brought into the circle of users through a gifted or handed-down model. Users have devised strategies to manage their multiple overlapping sets of social relationship. They report that their use of technology has enabled a widening of their social circle while also bringing it closer, literally at the touch of a button. Contrary to the expectations of those analysts and policymakers who have foreseen technology causing local engagement to diminish, the clubs in my study have endured and are thriving; the social capital of their members is still strong and growing. This informs a critical reappraisal of such theories of community attenuation and the policies they have engendered.