The Media in Long Distance Relationships

Danny Miller, Anthropology, UCL

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This is an announcement about the beginning of a research programme rather than any results. It is one of two new research projects that I will be working on over the next several years. The project is a collaboration with Mirca Madianou who teaches on media studies and sociology at Cambridge University, and it is funded by the ESRC. Our concern is with the impact of new media on the ability of people, migrants, in particular, to maintain long distance relationships. The two main groups being studied are Filipino and Caribbean migrants. We will be working largely with migrants in London and in Cambridge. Migrants from the Philippines to the UK tend to work in the National Health Service and are often here for a decade and more. Much of the concern has been with mothers separated from their children who remain in the Philippines. At one level one might think that new media such as internet and the mobile phone simply help parents to reconnect and re-establish these relationships with their children. But initial research by anthropologists such as Pertierra, Pingol and Parennas reveal a much more complex picture, and it is possible that if anything new media have negative rather than positive effects. We are also investigating other relationships such as between friends and couples.
The second research group will be people from the Caribbean and especially Trinidad and Guyana. The first wave of migrants from Trinidad were mainly working class, though more recent migrants tend to be professionals such as lawyers, accountants and doctors. In many cases they see themselves as permanent settlers though with families who are as likely to be in the US and Canada as in Trinidad. One original aspect of our research is we will be spending some time during 2008 in both the Philippines and the Caribbean looking at the other end of these same relationships. One of the aspects of this work that should be of interest to material culture studies, comes from the range of media currently available. It is already clear that different people prefer particular media such as skype, facebook, mobile phone, landlines, chat, friendster or email, either in general or for particular groups of correspondents. If time allows we would also like to work with a third group of informants, who would be uncategorised in terms of origin, but where we would hope to look in, if anything, even more detail at the specifics of how these relationships operate today. This is a different topic from most studies of migrants, but our argument is that it is the sustaining and form of relationships that is often of rather more significance to the migrants themselves than many of the more common topics of research. Obviously we would love to hear from anyone else interested in similar research.

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3 Responses to The Media in Long Distance Relationships

  1. vicky van der Wildt, Ma (ANTH) Material and Visual culture October 7, 2007 at 12:09 pm #

    A new exhibition has just been launched called “London is the place for me”.
    The key themes of the exhibition focus on the sense of place and the home.
    These are explored through the first generation of Carribean immigrants (the Windrush generation) as well as the many other different diasporic communities residing in Britain today. A link between the older and contemporary arrivals is made through the exploration of international call centres, which in the mid 20th century were not nearly as accesible as the present day, where they are now often central to the sustaining of long distance relationships.
    Although Miller’s research programme will focus on ‘the other end of these same relationships’ as well as the range of media obtainable and used to sustain these, this exhibition does not.
    “London is the place for me” does however focus on issues such as the change of circumstances for todays immigrants and the interplay between emotional closeness and physical distance as manifested by the caller’s body language, where thus the play between the body and communication become key elements in our understanding of belonging. Another concept explored is that of ‘home’ as a site continually under construction.
    The ‘art’ that makes this exhibition I don’t particularly find great (though that is just my own humble opinion), but the concepts behind it raises interesting questions about the notion of the home, the sense of belonging and the role of the media, which may, or may not, aid in these.
    “London is the place for me” is held at Rivington Place, Shoreditch, EC2
    It runs from 5 October to 24 November.
    For more details check out:

  2. Kat Cagat, MA Material and Visual Culture, UCL October 7, 2007 at 5:58 pm #

    My family emigrated from Philippines to the United States 16 years ago, and as a result of this relocation, both my parents have left some of their immediate family behind. At the time that we left Philippines new media such as mobile phones, email and Skype were rare or nonexistent; at the very least they were inaccessible. Perhaps, the most common mode of immediate communication was through long distance phone calls, which were expensive. As a result, the most preferred way to connect with relatives in Philippines was through letters. However, this had two major disadvantages: firstly, there was a huge delay in the time that people received each other’s letters, and secondly, letters were exchanged infrequently.
    Now with the advent of various new media, communications between immigrants have become more instant, and most importantly economic. My father uses a mobile phone to frequently contact my grandmother, my uncle, and some of his cousins. My mother uses a mobile phone to contact some of her immediately family as well. In so far, there have been no complaints about this mode of communication negatively affecting any of their relationships. Although I am fully aware that different relationships have different dynamics, particularly ones mentioned by Miller (e.g. friends or couples). Also, I’m aware that I’m only seeing one end of this correspondence.
    Miller also mentioned that, “initial research by anthropologists such as Pertierra, Pingol and Parennas reveal a much more complex picture, and it is possible that if anything new media have negative rather than positive effects,” and I am curious to read more about this research in the future, because it challenges my own expectations and experiences. One aspect of this research that also interests me is the time that will be spent in both Philippines and the Caribbean, “looking at the other end.” Likewise, I’m wondering about the difference in the way new media affects the relationships between teenagers and their absent parent, compared to young children (primary school age) and their absent parent.

  3. Wenyuan Xin, MA Material & Visual Culture October 13, 2007 at 5:03 pm #

    Maybe its a little far away from this project, but I have some ideas about what Miller mentioned, ‘initial research by anthropologists such as Pertierra, Pingol and Parennas reveal a much more complex picture, and it is possible that if anything new media have negative rather than positive effects.’
    When human enter the digital age, everyone seems to have become the master of the world. For example, they can set any regulations or rules as they like in the virtual communities, or they can rebuild self-images as what they expect. The geeky guy might be charming and humorous on the internet. In this case, people are more likely to indulge themselves in the virtual world in the pursuit of the ideal personal identity (I dont know if the word of ‘personal identity’ is appropriate here) which they are eager to but unable to achieve in the real world. As a result, in China maybe also the same in other countries, on the one hand, young people try to get rid of loneliness through gaining blood of information from internet; on the other hand, the dependence on the virtual world makes people more seperate from the groups or communities and thus exacerbates the loneliness. According to the survey in Asian countries, mainly in China, Japan and Korea, more and more young people feel more uncomfortable to deal with the reality than virtuality. Even worse, many young people tend to release their emotions in the form of blog or virtual community rather than talk with families and friends face to face. From this perspective, the new media has already entangled with social issues instead of the pure technology issue.

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