The world – Africa included – is in the middle of a digital revolution. 


- This project aims to give a significant contribution to explaining to what extent and in what ways processes of change in sub-Saharan Africa are affected by new media.





Our study on new media practices in Africa and their relation to processes of change on the continent starts from two empirical facts:

  • Africa has experienced a relatively consistent economic growth, suggesting that broader social transformations are unfolding.
  • the continent is in the middle of a media revolution.

- It is more than likely that there is a causal relationship between the two, but to this day there is very little
knowledge as to how they are linked. 


New media is rapidly spreading in Africa. The web is becoming increasingly more individualised, dialogical and commercialised: We observe a mushrooming of social media applied on user-friendly and mobile platforms.We witness a change to a situation in which interactive ICT become an ingrained part of most people’s lives:

Communication between close and distant others related to economic concerns, information gathering, community matters, global networking, politics, identity, etc, all increasingly involve digital mediation.
Over the course of three years, this project shall do pioneering and innovative research of internationally leading scientific quality on the social effects of the rapid spread of new media in Africa.

By taking Botswana, South Africa, DR Congo and Zambia as countries of departure for extended case methodology, using comparison as an analytical tool, make use of solid methodological triangulation, including surveys and participant observation over long periods of time in several localities - and with practice theory as an analytical foundation - the aim is to generate knowledge that is useful for understanding the social and economic developments that Africa is currently going through.  


Research design 

 The research is based on two analytical pillars; it is practice-oriented and comparative. Media's social significance requires it to be linked to people's everyday concerns and while change is seen as processual and shall be explained by way of social mechanisms. The project's strategy is to base research on triangulated methodology aiming to gain ethnographic insights into how media is linked to social practice. However, as the project aims at generalizable knowledge, the design is a 'slanted comparison':

Media’s social significance requires it to be linked to people’s everyday concerns

Two sites in Botswana represents the major case while field sites in South Africa, DR Congo and Zambia serve as supplementary cases. This shall provide the basis for systematic comparisons along several lines; between urban and rural settings, different socio-economic and social environments, and
 as all sites have been studied by the researcher previously - over time, as change.


Operationalization and methods

The project will focus on qualitative in-the-field-methods complemented with surveys, documents and secondary scientific data. 

Fieldwork is not in itself a method but designates various in situ-methodologies that capture people’s practices: the researchers shall make use of participant observation, dialogical interviews, and will record special events, etc. (Werner & Bernard 1994, DeWalt et al 2002). The strength in doing classical fieldwork is the thorough, all-encompassing synchronic impression one gets by the wide but intense gaze (Ellen 1984).

Fieldwork is much about being there, it requires time and an open approach so as to be able to take in the unexpected, to exploit the opportunities that always come if you hang around.

One disadvantage is the lack of diachrony – the fieldwork invites us to consider sociality as integrated, local and stable. However, this bias can be countered by restudies that are designed in such ways that they can say sensible things about continuities, changes and ruptures (cf. Colson 1984). This issue is especially important because of the ‘temporal comparison’ that lies in the project’s design; the impact of new media implies a ‘before and after’-logic, which requires some kind of diachronic gaze. The fact that researchers in all sites have done previous fieldwork at these locations is of major importance. Such ‘multi-temporal’ fieldwork (Howell & Talle 2012) is invaluable as a means for saying something meaningful about impact and change. Another potential risk of relying solely on fieldwork is the specificity of the data. However, as it is pointed out the very core of the design is meant to neutralise this weakness; the multi-sited quality of the project is well suited both for studying mobile populations and large, heterogeneous sites (Dresch 2000).

       Fieldwork is much about being there, it requires time and an open approach so as to be able to take in the unexpected, to exploit the opportunities that always come if you hang around. However, recording information is important and the researchers will make use of all available new media to record (recording interviews, filming walk-alongs (Pink 2007), photographing) and self-record (giving video cameras for people to make their own films, harvesting virtual data and similar procedures). An integral part of fieldwork is to record public discourses (off- and online) that are relevant to the people studied as well as how they interpret and make use of them (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1983).

We study practice, not some ideal system
— Latour 1996, Larkin 2004

       Media are also material; new media involve advanced, complicated technologies; phone lines, phones, sim-cards, cables, service, etc, which again require personnel –from big companies as well as local entrepreneurs. This must be taken into account in the analysis: They provide the infrastructure which is invisible if it works perfect but becomes conspicuously visible when things do not. Thus, the ways these systems of communication works in real life is a matter of great attention; we study practice, not some ideal system (Latour 1996, Larkin 2004).

Everything that takes place on the net is always affected by and has effect, in some way, on everyday life.

       Lastly, in this age of digital media we will also enter integrate virtual ethnographies (cf. Boellstorff 2008). It is vital to actually be in contact with informants online – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SMS, YouTube, etc. will be crucial data sources; information about what genres that are used, who talks to whom about what, etc. will be gathered and analyzed.

However, to us virtual ethnography will always be in some way linked to off-line life; everything that takes place on the net is always affected by and has effect, in some way, on everyday life and hence the study of virtual practice will have to be an integral part of larger fields of practice (cf. Miller & Slater 2000).

       In addition to own field work data the researchers will make use of and share secondary data, not the least statistical data (e.g. CSOs).


Site-specific operationalization and methodology 

The fieldwork in Botswana will cover Research Questions s 1-7, and is well suited to shed light on long–term changes (especially in relation to gender , household dynamics , local politics  and religion/health (– cf. Helle-Valle 1996). Prinsipal Invistigator Jo Helle-Valle and professor Ardis Storm-Mathisen will spend ca 6 months doing fieldwork in two sites: a Kweneng village and the capital Gabarone. Field work will include all the strategies mention above, and also encompass two surveys. One will be modelled after an extensive survey conducted in the rural Kgalagdi village in 1990 (cf. Helle-Valle 1996), but with added questions on consumption of new media. The other survey will build on the first but be adjusted to urban conditions in . The latter is designed in a way that maximizes comparativity with the rural survey. The fieldwork will undoubtedly reveal links between the rural and urban sites, thus mobility and networks – and how they are upheld by digital media (phones, FB, etc) – will be an important part of the research. The research done in Botswana will also serve as a reference case to which data from the other research sites will be compared.

How do Zambians imagine the role of new media in processes of economic and social change

The Lusaka, Zambia fieldwork puts a particular focus on the promise and imagined potential of new media in processes and ideologies of economic development . Starting from Zambia’s official self-representation as a middle-income country boasting significant economic growth as well as the growing emergence of a new middle class, the project examines how new media practices relate to changing imaginaries of development and evolving class relations (cf. Ferguson 1999, Potts 2009, Willems 2012).

How do Zambians imagine the role of new media in processes of economic and social change, and to what extent do new media offer new spaces for reflection and dialogue on these processes in their own right? What sort of ideologies and discourses are mediated via new media platforms and through their uses, and to what extent do these sites and practices produce new subjectivities and inequalities?

As part of the Zambia case study, Wendy Willems and a MA student, will carry out semi-structured interviews with Zambians from different class backgrounds in two sites in Lusaka: the upmarket Arcades Shopping Mall and the large, informal Soweto Market. Furthermore, the project will carry out a discourse analysis of messages posted by new media users on social network sites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) and ICT policy documents produced by a range of stakeholders, including government departments, mobile phone companies and NGOs.


The Kinshasa study will deal with three topics on social media (“the urban” ; “gendered engagements with social media” ; and “mediations with diasporas”) by looking into

(i) the interaction between social media and urban infrastructures (in Larkin’s sense), thus asking how social media (in their materialities and possibilities of producing new constituencies) relate to the emergence of new publics and experiences of “the urban”;
 (ii) social media, romanticism and sexualities, focusing on courting practices through social media, and how sexual relationships are managed ;
(iii) uses of social media to connect with diasporas. What concerns and interests are handled with the use of new media by Kinois and their diasporic networks? And how is the image of “Kinshasa” constructed via these social media?

The data will be gathered by Katrien Pype and a Congolese MA student through participant-observation among the users of social media; interviews with the users, grassroots leaders and figures of authority, and professionals within the sectors of cellular mobile communication (e.g. mobile network operators and IT professionals) (Pype 2012).


The South Africa fieldwork will be carried out by Post Doc Fellow, yet to be appointed. The PD will be chosen on the basis of a project proposal and hence the specificities of this research are not yet known. However, the study shall include field work on themes that accord with the overall design of the project. It will revolve around the concerns of media practices (RQ1) and preferably give precedence to health and religion (RQ6) (if possible and relevant to include also other RQs). Prior work by the Comaroffs (e.g. 1985, 2003, 2009) and Helle-Valle (1996), as well as cooperating with researchers at UCT in the Visiting Fellow period, will constitute important intellectual inspiration.



       Together, these themes, methodologies, sites and researchers constitute a powerful, multifaceted form of triangulation (Denzin 1989). For instance, using fieldwork experience to design the survey, as well as the survey data to aid the designing and analysis of the fieldwork both methodologies are strengthened. Thematic triangulation involves comparing media-impact on various types of practices in the same locality while site-triangulation involves comparing similar practices in different localities. Such techniques are valuable – in fact necessary – for handling such complex and heterogeneous realities within this project’s academic ambitions.

The sites, research questions and themes has a common core – situated media uses – but focus on partly different areas of practice. This combination shall provide the fertile ground on which comparative analyses of different social mechanisms operate in different settings. It is not a question of comparing country to country but to look into how different social, political and economic conditions affect media uses in different ways. Moreover, systematic comparison of ‘then and now’, based on previous data from the respective sites, change as another comparative dimension (time). Last, the urban-rural comparison will be an additional comparative dimension done by the team in Botswana and South Africa. The different types of comparison will be crucial as a tool for detecting and formulating the different mechanisms that are in operation in different sites and circumstances.

       To cooperate in analyses and writing across the research questions, themes, cases and regions,  the analytical collaboration and dissemination is to be organised and involve all researchers through online communication, work-shops and conference participation.                      


Academic ambitions

This project aims to give a significant contribution to explaining to what extent and in what ways processes of change in sub-Saharan Africa are affected by new media

The project academic ambition is:


- to produce new and useful facts about media-related practices linked to central concerns such as economy, gender, politics, health and education;

- to develop an advanced methodological tool-kit, based on triangulation, comparison and researcher-cooperation, which can be used by similar projects to maximize knowledge about new media and increase the social significance of the findings; and

- to generate bold and novel theoretical developments based on radical practice theory.