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Doing Multimodal Anthropology of Ageing with Smartphones

Cases from Italy and Japan
Shireen Walton and Laura Haapio-Kirk


In this paper we reflect upon our comparative ethnographic research on ageing, the life course and smartphones in Italy and Japan as part of a collaborative anthropological project The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA). Our discussion circles around a central epistemological and methodological quandary: how might anthropologists carry out and disseminate qualitative, digital-visual ethnographic research on smartphones with smartphones? We explore the potentials and implications wrought by collaborative multimodal approaches, including digital drawing and the affordances of smartphones as both an object of and a tool for study. We reflect on collaboration and ‘care-fullness' in studying ageing, care and the life course via smartphones and online/offline fieldwork. Our conclusions point to current and future possibilities of visual-digital and multimodal anthropology in studying these topics. We discuss how we might learn about people’s lives and experiences from how they, and we as researchers, engage with the multimodal environments we live and work in.

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We would like to thank the editors of this Special Issue, Jay Sokolovsky and Barbara Pieta, and the two anonymous reviewers, for their insightful feedback which helped to shape this paper. Our thanks to all of the research participants in Italy and Japan who generously shared their time in collaborating with us. We conducted this ethnography as part of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project and we thank the team for their comparative insights and comradery throughout the project. The ASSA project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 740472 SmartPhoneSmartAging). See more about the ASSA project on the website: and blog:

Introduction: Anthropology, Ageing and Smartphones: Visual, Digital and Multimodal Research Methods

  • 1 Povinelli 2012 as quoted in Pandean 2019:14.

1In learning about the everyday lives and experiences of older adults via digital technologies, the words of Elizabeth Povinelli (2012) come to the fore; in attuning to ‘the future already among us’.1 On the one hand, we take our methodological cue from the ways in which our older adult research participants in Japan and Italy, two of the world’s oldest populations, are living their everyday lives with smartphones and mobile phones. Concurrently, we too, as 21st century researchers in ‘the field’, may be inseparable from smartphones and their visual and digital affordances, as we re-orient our lives in and around the worlds of others. The intersection of these two fields – our older adult research participants, in two ageing societies, and ourselves as smartphone users in the ‘ethnographic encounter’ – provides the central framework for the present discussion. This paper is primarily a methodological discussion concerning our multimodal ethnographic research with older adults via smartphones. At the same time, we draw on substantive, analytical aspects of our research findings to illustrate how working in/with multimodal ways and forms was directly connected with the research topic. Linking methodology with epistemology in thinking about how we produce certain kinds of knowledge, is central, we argue, to the intentions and realisation of a critical multimodal ethnographic enquiry, of the kind we’ve sought to practise and develop through our research. Our research on ageing in Italy and Japan, joining a wealth of scholarship in the anthropology of ageing and the life course, sought to investigate the social categories and cultural contexts of age and ageing, distinct from ageing as the experience of frailty (Sokolovsky 2020a, 2020b). In our research this focus is paired with a concern for how smartphones affect the everyday lives of our older adult research participants in both contexts. This dual research focus meant attending to online digital environments (such as social media groups and apps) as a salient site of older adult sociality, and as a space wherein people today grow older.

2Concurrently, our training, research, and teaching in material visual and digital anthropology over the past decade has provided the scope and vision for carrying out research with smartphones as technological audio-visual/multisensorial things. These devices become objects that are part of the ordinary ‘stuff’ of everyday life (Miller 2010) with social lives (Appadurai 1986) and biographies (Kopytoff 1986). Our visual-digital ethnographic findings and outputs - from smartphone photographs to digital hand-drawn illustrations, shift constantly between online/offline (Horst and Miller 2012, Pink et al 2015) and blur boundaries and ‘stale distinctions’ between analogue and digital forms (Favero 2020:7). Our work also blurs distinctions between research method and research dissemination - with participatory visual material serving as a way to transform knowledge production (Maarel 2020). With this in mind, we continue to explore and conceptualise the ‘field’ in/for anthropology/ethnography (Cruz and Ardèvol 2017; Postill and Pink 2012; Walton 2017). Gubrium and Harper for example, in describing the design and use of digital exhibitions as part of qualitative online visual-digital research describe such approaches as a process, whereby ‘a group of participants work together to create a web-based interface where users may access a multimedia collection of visual, audio and text files’ (Gubrium and Harper 2013:173). Walton similarly describes the development of an online digital research exhibition as part of her previous work with Iranian photobloggers as a process whereby ‘participants help to shape the ethnographic process in an active and participatory manner’ (Walton 2017:160). This emphasis on process, in particular working together within multimedia environments, takes on particular significance when working with smartphones as generative of both the site and techniques of research.

3Scholarship in the field of visual digital culture continues to emphasise the ethical and epistemological value of attending to process as much as the ‘outcome’ of generating research data. Scholars have been steadily exploring the potentials of visual digital media in creative and practical ways in recent years, as seen in the development of mobile apps for ethnographic research. Favero and Theunissen’s (2018) mobile app, EthnoAlly for example, is an interface that shares interactive data between ethnographers and participants in real time. The app was envisioned and designed as a research tool for sensory, participatory and multimodal ethnographic research, opening up methodological potentials for collaboration and participation in and with the field. In this paper we argue that non-bespoke apps, such as messaging platforms, also offer multimodal opportunities for ethnographic enquiry and dissemination.

4Our methodological reflections on research with smartphones echo the call in contemporary material culture studies to turn back towards the object itself (Carroll, Walford, and Walton 2021), attending to what Coupaye calls the ‘actual functioning of the object itself’ (Coupaye 2020:50). As we shall illustrate through examples in this article, the socio-technological capacities and affordances of the smartphone in bringing people, things, and conversations to us, expands ethnographic approaches that are focused on seeking out people and things. Thinking through the methodological and epistemological stakes of where people and things come to us via the smartphone is a key interest in this paper. Reflecting on the subtle reversals, shifts, and jumps of methods of engagement that we experienced via our constant connectivity in the field brings us to multimodality as a contemporary approach in anthropology. A multimodal approach encompasses the multimedia ways in which we worked with smartphones and with our research participants, while acknowledging the mediated nature of contemporary life through digital devices. It also demonstrates how such devices facilitate research that centres the experiences of our older adult research participants as they themselves inhabit multiple modalities in everyday life (Prendergast and Garattini 2017).

  • 2 See Banks and Zeitlyn 2015, Cox, Irving and Wright 2016, Pink 2009

5In light of the above, our methodological discussion speaks to scholarship that has acknowledged a certain digital-visual ‘moment’ in ethnographic research (Favero 2018; Pink 2012; Walton 2015). We also chime with current writing on multimodality as an epistemological frame for using different media in anthropology. Our exploration with smartphones questions the implications and affordances of digital devices as multimodal tools for ethnography. This timely questioning recalls what Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón (2019), in setting out a vision of the multimodal in anthropology, term a ‘politics of invention’ for the discipline (Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón 2019:220). Building on a significant scholarship on visual and sensorial approaches in anthropology that moves away from the centrality of text2, Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón (2019:220) describe the multimodal as ‘multisensorial rather than text based, performative rather than representational, and inventive rather than descriptive.’ At the core of their concern with audio, visual, and platform media is an emphasis on the relationship between researcher and research participants, and the potential of multimodal approaches and multimedia to ‘generate relations’ and foster forms of collaboration. Thinking about what the multimodal can do then, as a ‘more public, more collaborative, more political’ anthropology (Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón 2019:221), and a kind of research that ‘matters’ not just in the academy but, crucially to people with whom we work (Miller and Haapio-Kirk 2020), frames our discussion below. We foreground our relationships with research participants as the central point from which all methodological techniques emanate. In sum, a range of theoretical, conceptual and methodological contributions regarding carrying out ethnography with smartphones (Archambault 2017; Horst and Miller 2006; Madianou 2014; Miller 2021; Miller et al. 2021) continue to inform and shape our approach to research on ageing and the life course.

6To situate our multimodal research with smartphones, we first set out the specificity of our comparative research topic concerning the changing experience of age in the age of the smartphone. We highlight how in our field site locations, the circulation of visual messages via smartphone became an important element of caring relations. This then leads us back around to the notion of invention and possibility, as wrought by our ethnographic research with smartphones.

7The paper is based on two ethnographic fieldwork projects. Between 2018-2019 as part of the ERC-funded Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project, we spent sixteen months living in communities in Italy and Japan, two of the world’s oldest populations. Walton carried out research in a mixed-income neighbourhood in North-east Milan that, since around 2016, has been popularly termed ‘NoLo’ (‘North of Loreto’). Haapio-Kirk worked in two field sites in Japan: the city centre of Kyoto and a rural town in Kochi Prefecture in the Southwest of the country which is facing extreme population ageing. This paper thus offers comparative analysis from two of the most ageing populations in the world, highlighting similarities and differences that dispel notions of homogeneity among older age cohorts. The comparison is particularly salient because of the dominance of visual digital communication in both sites, with an emphasis on illustrated messages in particular - images and memes in the Italian case and emoji and stickers in the Japanese case.

Visual-digital Communication and Method as Care

8Definitions of care in the anthropology of ageing and health are widespread and concern many different aspects of social relationships. Our theoretical handling of care in this article primarily relates to ‘virtual’ forms of attention and affect, mainly observed through smartphone communication practices. Building on the literature on ethics and aesthetics of care, we consider verbal and non-verbal communication as central to care activities, and communication and care as mutually constitutive (Arnold and Black 2018; Black 2018; Goodwin and Cekaite 2018). As Goldwin noticed, care is instantiated in interpersonal encounters through the social organization of diverse semiotic resources. The latter include not only bodily expression, phonology and morpho-syntax but also the built environment and materiality of media artifacts (Goodwin 2015). As we will go on to illustrate in our research in Japan and Italy, visual digital communication through the sharing of memes and stickers, and also the use of drawing and illustration as anthropological research method, can indeed facilitate, express and enact care. Later in the article we also discuss the particular kinds of emotional labour, or performance of ‘emotion work’ (Hochschild 1979) in carrying out ethnographic research with and on smartphone practices. Digital ethnography, we argue, is intertwined with an ethics of care, such as co-presence with and long-term emotional commitments to research participants. Such usage of the smartphone accords with how our participants are similarly engaged in emotion work through digital communication.

  • 3 Walton has written about digital and visual forms of care and communication during Covid-19 in Mila (...)

9Our handling of care in this article reflects the specific localities in which we worked. In Walton’s research in Italy for example, she came to learn how institutional definitions of care were narrated and played out in the neighbourhood of NoLo, the city of Milan, the region of Lombardy, and across the country. Chiming with Cristiana Giordano’s ethnographic research (2014) on care, migration, and the social, legal and political logics of recognition in contemporary Italy, Walton came to learn how care in Milan and the region of Lombardy was realised through a specific range of interactions between local city and regional institutions, non-governmental organisations and networks of volunteers. This complex network of social care makes up what has been termed the ‘Milan model’, reflecting the social history of the city of Milan as a centre of the civil and religious charity sectors and of a care industry comprised of public and private institutions (Bini and Gambazza 2019). Many institutions of social care and wellbeing are physically based in the neighbourhood, including Auser, a prominent nationwide NGO dedicated to ageing, and local NGOs that focus on social participation and social support within the neighbourhood and more broadly across the city. Women play notably prominent roles in care and social work across the neighbourhood, and women’s social and support groups play an important role in the local community. These factors, and this context helps to account for some of the affective communication practices subsequently seen during the lockdowns in Milan during Covid-19 in 2020, via WhatsApp and community-linked social media forms of communication3.

  • 4 Tanja Ahlin’s notion of ‘transnational care collectives’ from her work with Indian transnational fa (...)
  • 5 The full comic can be accessed via the ASSA website ‘discoveries’ section here: http://wwwdepts-liv (...)

10Many of the people Walton came to know during fieldwork in Milan had migrated to Italy from other countries (including Peru, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Egypt), at different moments in their life, and under varying circumstances. In such cases, smartphones could be at once a habitual feature of day-to-day life and communications in Milan, but also a transnational connection to their families and friends in their home countries, fostering what Mizuko Ito and Daisuke Okabe (2005) call ‘visual co-presence’ and recalling the notion of ‘transnational care collectives’ (Ahlin 2018)4 . In the following extract from a comic based on Walton’s research5, we see how the smartphone features prominently in the daily life of Heba, a woman in her 40s from Egypt. In this comic, the fictional character of Heba is inspired by the people that Walton worked with. Heba is living a busy life in Milan, raising her two children. She is connected to Egypt, where she was born and grew up, and where her ageing parents live, through her smartphone. Through various interactions she has with her family between Egypt and Italy throughout the day, she enacts her care both virtually and physically. As much as her physical environment that surrounds her in Milan, the smartphone is a place in which she ‘lives’, illustrating what we term in the ASSA project the ‘transportal home’ (Miller et al 2021:219-227). While carrying out her daily activities such as listening to Egyptian music and communicating with her family throughout her day, she is in constant contact with people at home. ‘Home’ is, in this sense, located simultaneously in the physical and digital domains, which are interwoven and integrated.

Figure 1. Comic based on Shireen Walton’s research in Milan, Italy

Figure 1. Comic based on Shireen Walton’s research in Milan, Italy

See the full comic here​ASSAZine

Scripted by Laura Haapio-Kirk and Murariu and illustrated by John Cei Douglas

11The ubiquity of the smartphone in popular discourse and in daily life for many of the people we worked with presents both opportunities and challenges for anthropological research. In Haapio-Kirk’s Japanese research many people had an ambivalent relationship with the device, and often upon discovering what her research was about, they would assume that she was researching negative effects of smartphone use. From radiation concerns, to smartphone addiction, to online bullying, the Japanese participants often initially assumed a negative appraisal of the device. When asking them directly about the smartphone they therefore would admit that it was ‘convenient’ but they felt that they might be spending too much time on it, and they tended to be dismissive and brief in their discussion of it. For research participants in Milan, too, the smartphone was an ambiguous object that many people felt guilty about using to the extent that they did, while others expressed concerns about privacy, surveillance, fake news, and online bullying. To approach the smartphone directly, rather than relying on discourses surrounding the device, both authors each conducted 25 smartphone-based elicitation interviews during which they asked participants to show them all of the apps on their phone. While these interviews were helpful to see the range of apps people had on their devices, in practice there turned out to only be a limited number of apps that people actually used. This kind of object-elicitation interview, based on the technique of photo elicitation (Collier and Collier 1986), presented moments to talk about a range of topics tangentially related to the smartphone rather than only focusing narrowly on the device in their hands.

12The smartphone emerged as a key tool during fieldwork, for both facilitating social connections with people and for conducting ethnography. We both found that it was in engaging with people via the smartphone, rather than the smartphone interviews themselves, that provided most insight into how the device figured into their lives. For example, in Haapio-Kirk research on stickers people were eager to swap LINE contact details upon meeting and over the course of fieldwork she acquired 111 LINE contacts and was a member of 21 group chats. This kind of engagement also applied to other social media and she was connected with similar numbers of people across Facebook and Instagram where she also followed local community accounts. Interacting with people on these platforms was integral for embedding herself in relationships of trust with individuals and within communities, and such online interactions continued once she left Japan. Similarly, in the case of Walton’s research, acquiring new WhatsApp and Facebook contacts, and joining a number of neighbourhood-linked WhatsApp groups, including a women’s multicultural choir group and a local sewing group, with 30+ members, became ways of staying connected with research participants in the field once she had left Italy. Both authors’ experiences of ‘carrying the field’ with them in these ways reflects the broader wisdom that existing notions of the traditional field site have been increasingly challenged amid globalisation, the development of nascent technologies for keeping connected, and multi-sited research (Gupta and Ferguson 1997). In the digital age, one in effect never necessarily altogether leaves ‘the field’, where these platforms have enabled valuable opportunities for continued connection and collaboration after the completion of fieldwork. This will be discussed in later sections of this paper in looking at the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how the authors kept in touch with research participants during this time.

13In Haapio-Kirk’s research, visual digital media such as emoji and stickers were an integral part of smartphone culture among older adults, often reported by participants as making conversations more personal and warmer. On the dominant messaging app called LINE, billions of emoji and stickers are sent back and forth every day. It was among older women in particular that Haapio-Kirk found these visual elements to be perceived positively, as a quick and easy way of expressing attention and care. Participants explained how stickers also mean one is less likely to make mistakes such as typos, which could significantly alter the way that a message is received. Many people would spend time polishing and crafting their textual messages so as to avoid potential misunderstandings as the tone of the message was very important to get right. As Kavedžija (2018) has argued, the form that communication takes in Japan, with attention to politeness and the correct way of doing things (chanto suru), rather than indicating a lack of intimacy, demonstrates the care that someone is showing to another person. In this way, stickers enable people to convey the right feeling of a message and were carefully chosen to be appropriate for the conversation and recipient, demonstrating how one’s digital public façade is entangled with the style of digital communication adopted. Particularly for older adults who may not be confident with using a small smartphone keyboard, and for whom crafting typo-free textual messages could take a significant amount of time, stickers and emoji were convenient and efficient markers of affectivity.

14This dominance of visual communication practices can alienate others who may be more comfortable with text-based communication. In the comic below, based on one of Haapio-Kirk’s participants, we meet Hiro-san, a man in his early 50s who finds the smartphone convenient, but also finds that his style of communication does not fit with what is expected of him when using the smartphone. Hiro-san prefers to write long messages, just as if he was writing an email as he is used to doing in his working life. However, increasingly this style of communication does not fit with the rapid and constant visual exchanges he is part of in groups on LINE. He also thinks the fact that people can see when one has read a message puts more social pressure on the individual to respond quickly. In response to this sense of pressure to participate in rapidly flowing visual communication, he develops a ‘tortoise’ persona who replies slowly, writing long messages without the use of stickers. When this participant explained his ‘tortoise’ persona to Haapio-Kirk, she immediately could see the visual potential of developing the story in a comic’s format. Haapio-Kirk sent some script ideas and reference images to John Cei Douglas, one of the artists we collaborated with to produce comics based on the ASSA findings, exploring the possibility of showing the character physically changing into a tortoise costume. The intention of this particular comic is to convey how people find ways to navigate difficulty and how smartphones can both facilitate connection and also be sites for disconnection for those who feel that they do not fit in with the emerging dominant modes of communication. Cei Douglas responded with rough pencil sketches of panels that build suspense by showing elements of the costume change sequentially, only revealing the full effect in the final panel. These sketches were then digitally redrawn and finally coloured and presented in various layouts. The comic format that artists John Cei Douglas and Alexander Hahn produced was designed to be distributed in print and online. Specifically, the square design of each ‘page’ was intended to suit the Instagram format, so that they could be shared from the ASSA project Instagram account. The intention was that these stories from research would not only reach a wider audience online than is typical with anthropological research. The comics have been collected into a downloadable zine, along with summaries of the key findings from the project, for use in teaching6.

Figure 2. Comic based on Laura Haapio-Kirk’s research in Japan.

Figure 2. Comic based on Laura Haapio-Kirk’s research in Japan.

See the full comic here:​ASSAZine

Scripted by Laura Haapio-Kirk and illustrated by John Cei Douglas.

15The importance of multimodal digital communication across multiple field sites in the ASSA project informed our approach to dissemination. Making comics that combine text and images echoed the multimodal digital literacy of our research participants with their memes and stickers. Working with artists Cei Douglas and Hahn made us pay attention to how to effectively and efficiently tell stories with images and words, seeking to emulate the emotive and aesthetic power of multimodal communication that our participants harnessed so well. The reasoning behind choosing comics as a form of dissemination also relates to our desire to engage the audience in the process of collaborative meaning making. As McCloud (1993) has argued, the narrative power of comics lies in engaging the imagination of the audience to make connections between panels and between image and text so that their vision is integral to what the comic comes to mean. The use of both visual elicitation techniques, as will be discussed towards the end of this paper, and visual forms of expression such as comics can invite the researcher, participant, and audience into a partnership that is much aligned with the collaborative premise of this paper.

Documenting Visual-digital Communication with Smartphones

16Documenting and analysing the rich digital visual lives of research participants requires being present and participating in the sorts of practices they engage in daily via the smartphone. Innovation in participatory ethnographic methods that exploit the potential of the smartphone as an auto-ethnographic tool was required for us to conduct our research. Our smartphones were our primary cameras and voice recorders in the field. There was seldom a day on which Haapio-Kirk did not photograph or video something, and it became a visual fieldwork diary to which she still often turns, in addition to written fieldnotes. The metadata such as location, date, and time, embedded in digital images made for highly searchable and useful records of the entirety of her fieldwork experience. During fieldwork, she often shared photos with her interlocutors of their outings together, turning the digital media they produced into valuable materials of social exchange. The smartphone was equally, if not more, integral to her remote fieldwork which continued once she had returned to the UK through continued video calls and messages.

17So, what can we learn from comparing two of the most ageing populations in the world, Japan and Italy respectively, about the multimodal possibilities presented by smartphones for researching the lives of older adults? Both countries are leaders in technology for older adults - so-called ‘gerontechnology’- yet it is the ubiquitous smartphone that our research discovered is becoming essential to practices of care. In particular, it is visual digital practices, including the smartphone-enabled circulation of images, that are becoming central to everyday expressions of care and affection, to which we now turn.

  • 7 Walton employs the term ‘force field’ as a conceptual term here to describe the social and affectiv (...)

18A significant development in smartphone-based communication in recent years is the rise of visual messaging including memes, GIFs (general interface format), emojis, and the sharing of photos. Elena, a participant in the Italian research, is visibly affectionate in her online social relations. She particularly enjoys communicating on WhatsApp via memes. ‘I send up to seven or eight memes a day, mostly to friends but also to particular family members who would understand them – one of my sisters, a cousin who lives abroad....’ The memes Elena finds and shares with friends and family express a mixture of humour, irony and satire, love and friendship, and spiritual content. Often it will be the same sets of individuals that she communicates with in this manner, as a regular way of keeping in touch. Memes are significant in the sense that they reflect Elena’s sociality and sense of humour, through which she expresses herself to friends in playful contemporary ways. Memes can be ways of ‘talking without talking’ (palare senza parlare) (Walton 2021:98). Such emotion-laden messages and the way online platforms have developed and provide environments for people’s communicative and emotional languages recall what Sara Ahmed calls ‘affective economies’ (Ahmed 2004) in describing how emotions, rather than being of the private self, are socially organised. Another research participant in NoLo explained how: ‘I send them [memes] because they make me feel happy. It makes me happy knowing I’m reaching out to people.’ Part of the appeal of sending memes is precisely for the kind of communication they afford. Though dialogical, memes do not necessarily incur reciprocal meme-based conversation, because they already fulfil the objective of holding other people within a certain ‘force field’7 (Walton 2021) of social contact and care in how they bring and/or hold people together through acts of sharing and receiving. Through these kinds of affective moral, ethical-aesthetic, and affective performances, people – at the desk at work, on the metro, at home in the evenings – reach out to one another, express care through humour and/or sentimentality, demonstrate that they matter to each other (Black 2018).

Figure 3. Meme circulated amongst friends in NoLo, Milan.

Figure 3. Meme circulated amongst friends in NoLo, Milan.

The text reads: ‘Good morning’

  • 8 One can report if one is against the use of this image by contacting the journal editors.

Source unknown. Screenshot by Shireen Walton8

19Visual forms of daily digital communication in the Japanese research mainly consisted of emoji and stickers, while memes and GIFs were not commonly observed among the older demographic, while being popular in Italy. Smartphone photography was another important element in communication in both sites, with families often sharing a constant stream of photos in family chat groups. Digital photography has been shown in daily life to be important for visual phatic communication, that is serving to maintain social connections but having limited content (Sinanan 2019; Villi 2012), and it is now possible to have entire conversations that do not require text or speech, relying solely on digital photography (Miller 2015). In Japan, Haapio-Kirk found that stickers and emoji were serving similar phatic purpose in conversations, but furthermore were becoming important as a tool for care at a distance between kin (Wang and Haapio-Kirk 2021). While smartphones are only starting to be used by those in their seventies and eighties in Japan, many of Haapio-Kirk’s middle-aged participants had given smartphones or tablets to their parents in order to maintain daily contact. They found that their parents often took to visual messaging very quickly, and it was a convenient way for both parents and their children to perform ‘emotion work’ (Hochschild 1979). As one women in her sixties in Kyoto said, ‘My father has a smartphone and he sends me messages all the time, so many of them! Because it is so easy to send messages he tells me what he is eating and what he is doing. Giving him a smartphone is a way that I can care for him when I am not physically there.’ The frequency and ease with which they could be in contact was seen to enhance the care this woman could provide at a distance.

20In a parallel way, the older generation tended to have a positive view towards stickers because of how they enabled a form of contact which was connected yet was not over-burdening their children. Comedic stickers featuring older characters were popular, aligning with work on emoji that shows how they can be a form of play (Stark and Crawford 2015). One woman in her eighties used a grandma character sticker regularly in her daily communication with her daughter, sometimes without any supplementary textual messages, such as when saying good morning or good night. Paying for personalised sticker sets, or for ones based on a favourite character, was a way that many participants extended their personal presence in digital communication.

  • 9 Sumimasen’ is generally used to express thanks to someone who is actively going out of their way t (...)

21Visual media such as emoji and stickers are used to both craft self-presentation through particular aesthetics and create an amiable ‘atmosphere’ to maintain relationships, as Sugiyama’s (2015) work among Japanese teenagers demonstrates. Many research participants in Japan explained that the appeal of stickers was that they allowed them to express feelings in a way that was expressive of their personalities. For example, people might have a particular fondness for a certain cartoon character, and would download the associated sticker set, which then became identifiable to their friends as being inherently associated with that person. As one woman in her sixties said, ‘Coco-chan is so her!’, referring to her friend’s use of stickers featuring a dog character called Coco-chan. LINE stickers can be personalised in various ways: participants sometimes paid for stickers that contained their name, or gave such sticker sets to friends as virtual gifts. Haapio-Kirk found that her participants carefully sought out sticker sets that they would use with certain friends, or to maintain particular relationships. For example, Maiko san, a woman in her late sixties from Kyoto, often needs to attend medical appointments at the hospital and relies on her brother to drive her there. The screenshots below show snapshots of their messages which often revolve around the organisation of these trips to the hospital. Maiko-san will typically remind her brother of the next appointment and will follow such messages with a bowing sheep sticker, used to express her gratitude for his help. In the screenshot on the right, Maiko-san uses the phrase ‘itsumo suimasen”, meaning ‘thank you for your continued support’.9 What is interesting is that she does not use the bowing sheep sticker when writing this phrase, thus we can infer that the sticker is doing the work of expressing this sentiment of humble thanks in a visual manner in the other screenshots. She feels that stickers are a convenient shorthand for efficiently communicating what would be cumbersome to type out in words. She often uses the dictate feature on her phone to write messages rather than the smartphone keyboard which she feels is too small and cumbersome. For Maiko-san, stickers are simply another way to express oneself in a more efficient way. She feels that this is why her brother also replies with often just one sticker. She knows he is a busy doctor and therefore his replies of stickers that communicate ‘roger that’, or ‘understood’ accord with his busy lifestyle. In this way, messaging through LINE allows for more efficient organisation of care and allows Maiko-san to continue to rely on her brother while communicating her sincere thanks and minimising the sense that she is become a burden on him.

Figure 4. LINE messages exchanged between Maiko-san and her brother.

Figure 4. LINE messages exchanged between Maiko-san and her brother.
  • 10 One can report if one is against the use of this image by contacting the journal editors.

Screenshots by an anonymous research participant10

22Stickers are particularly effective at communicating care among multiple generations, as shown by Ohashi, Kato, and Hjorth (2017), who followed 12 families over three years to see how social media was deployed intergenerationally. They argue that visual communication through LINE stickers and emoji has become integral to kinship in Japan. By facilitating intimate co-presence such digital media enables care at a distance, particularly among mothers and daughters (Ohashi, Kato, and Hjorth 2017). We now draw on our findings on the importance of visual digital communication in the lives of our participants, to build an argument for multimodal ethnography of care through smartphones.

Visual-digital and Multimodal Ethnography: Care-full Research with Smartphones

Figure 5. Watching an online cooking tutorial on the smartphone in Milan, Italy

Figure 5. Watching an online cooking tutorial on the smartphone in Milan, Italy

Photo by Shireen Walton

23The above sections of the article so far have illustrated some of the ways that the smartphone is taken up by people in our research settings; the place of the object in their daily lives, where expressions of care and social connection are prominent findings. What this leads back to then, is the question of methods and ethics of engagement on the part of the researcher, and how we can come to be present with our research participants in the kinds of ways that they communicate with each other, while also making use of the care-full and creative potentials of the smartphone for visual explorations with our research participants. Our conceptual description of care-full here, aims to emphasise the ways that our research participants’ visual-digital communication practices were often instantiations of care, again recalling the argument that care can is enacted through communicative acts (Arnold and Black 2018; Black 2018; Goodwin 2015; Goodwin and Cekaite 2018). Taking our cue from these communication practices, we in turn became part of these communication cycles of care; sending messages, memes and responding to research participants who had come to matter to us, during fieldwork and beyond. In this way, ethnographic data emerges and is co-created with participants and audiences in creative contexts of engagement where the overarching approach is open-ended, speculative, exploratory, and rooted in storytelling. The culmination of both of these discussions will lead to our conclusions about how we might work with smartphones for thinking through what Anand Pandian (2019) calls a ‘possible anthropology’ of togetherness in ‘uneasy times’. Taking possibility as a central framework helps us to think more than ever with the world at hand, and from the perspectives, expressions, and experiences of the people with whom we work.

24At this point in our discussion, we will diverge with two examples from our respective fieldwork; Walton will consider the phone as material object, showing how we might place the smartphone within a framework of material culture and multimodal anthropology, as a practice of enquiry that opens up ways of thinking and learning with things and what they teach us about the world at hand and the worlds people inhabit, offline and online. Haapio-Kirk will discuss her use of drawing and comics-based research methods as a visual ethnographic tool for learning about smartphones with research participants in Japan.

Multimodal Ethnography with Smartphones

  • 11 On carrying out digital ethnography in the urban and online context, see especially the discussion (...)

25Through the smartphone, and particularly social media, the authors were able to be present over many months of research (and continue to be connected) with research participants and friends, both offline and online, in various social contexts, languages and ‘affective economies’ (Ahmed 2004) across the distributed neighbourhood field sites in Italy and Japan. Often for Walton this engagement would involve receiving and reciprocating affective messages such as good morning or good night memes and messages from friends and group members in, for example, a women’s choir group she had joined as part of her daily life living in the neighbourhood. For Haapio-Kirk it was common to exchange goodnight stickers with her participants, especially if she had spent the day with them. These messages would often follow an exchange of digital photographs that had been taken during the day. In the exchange of digital visual media they were able to prolong their affective encounter beyond physical proximity. In material culture terms, the smartphone formed both an object of study (what was being explored) and contained within it multiple site(s) of study. For both authors taking the lead from Marcus’s tracking strategy of ‘following the thing’, (Marcus 1995), the smartphone took them where they needed to go, drawing them into the research through communication with the people they came to know. This engagement included offline in the neighbourhood and communities, and online to WhatsApp and LINE conversations, Google Maps, bespoke apps, and photo libraries. Time spent in our living spaces was a significant part of how we engaged in digital ethnography – both sited in place and virtually augmented through, for instance, being seen online and responding to messages on WhatsApp and LINE11.

26Ethnography relies on intimacy. This research method therefore requires that one engages with care and responsibility when meeting people who become research participants and friends. The intimacy that is established through research relationships often leads to a reciprocal learning about each other’s lives. The smartphone, for both authors, was central to how intimacy in these field relationships was fostered. The exchange of personal direct messages and participation in group chats were a natural ‘next step’ to meeting people offline and joining offline activities groups. Relatedly, when and how one leaves the field (or is removed over time) is another point for careful critical reflection. During the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020 onwards, Walton and Haapio-Kirk remained part of a number of messaging groups, where ideas of togetherness and inclusivity became more valuable than ever at a very uneasy time. Walton witnessed how the care that existed in these groups not only was maintained but amplified under the heightened circumstances, including more frequent messaging, meme-sharing, messages and images celebrating hope, as well as misinformation concerning what the virus is, and how ostensibly best to combat it. Haapio-Kirk saw how LINE groups became sites for engaging in practices of care – for example by sharing information and encouragement. On one chat group, a woman in her sixties from rural Tosa-cho shared photos of facemasks she had made for her grandchildren, while others shared information about local coronavirus updates.

27Smartphones link digital and visual practices to relationships, information and connectivity, and in turn, these practices affect how people experience and work through the predicaments and in many cases contradictions of their lives. Anthropologist Jarrett Zigon (2010) employs the term ‘moral assemblages’ to describe many of the contradictory conditions in which human beings live their lives. Normative notions of what a good life should be, he argues, are often in conflict with one another, as well as with the practices of people’s lives. For Walton, across the NoLo neighbourhood, moral frameworks, ethical notions and belief systems, from a range of sources, overlap with and shape everyday life and experiences – and how life is made meaningful – through narrative and practice. This included the role of religion and morality in individuals’ lives, and also pointed to the theme of contradiction and crisis as part of the life course and of experiences of ageing. Amid the various contradictions and crises of life, the smartphone becomes something and somewhere that people may go to and be in, particularly in midlife, when life’s complexities are contained and perhaps confronted. In the case of one couple in their sixties from Walton’s research, we see a poignant example of contradiction being played out in midlife in a family context and how the smartphone becomes the tool to care, visually. Gloria works full-time and is married. She is a devout practicing Catholic and attends Mass every Sunday. When her husband took up a job in another country, he gave Gloria her first smartphone. The smartphone is a companion to Gloria in her daily life, present with her at the dinner table in her apartment, beside her at night, and on her desk at work. The smartphone, while being the container of a broader social universe, came to represent her husband’s presence in his physical absence, not only because it enables the couple to communicate, but also as a gift he had bought and given to her to signify their remaining connected. Among the photos she likes to take and share are pictures of her husband at tourist spots around Italy or on a weekend break the couple had taken together. The images reflect both presence and absence, feelings that the smartphone itself captures and is a kind of repository of such emotions. As life plays out for this couple and others, the smartphone as a container of social universes, including loved ones, family and friends, forms a ‘constant companion’ (Walton 2021) in daily life.

  • 12 For further discussion on the theme of surveillance and tracking from across the ASSA field sites, (...)

28The smartphone occupies a prominent place in the lives of older adults in both our field sites in Japan and Italy. Though it brings no simple solutions or moral resolution to life’s complexities, through the research we came to learn how the smartphone is a central feature in many quandaries experienced throughout the life course. For example, the smartphone and social media play prominent roles in how couples and families keep connected when geographically separated, by allowing them to maintain a certain intimacy. In such a role the smartphone can be understood as a kind of life companion, providing both a way to pass the time and a place and space to inhabit. In this sense, the smartphone might be posited as what Walton has elsewhere termed a ‘place-object’ (Walton 2020) in how it connects with and co-creates place and space. If, as suggested, the smartphone is centre stage in many of these ethical entanglements (because it is an object and a space and place for the self), then the smartphone as place-object may also be seen as a contemporary ‘existential object’ (Walton 2021:157-158), in how it forms an intimate link with the self and with narrative, that, as many research participants would say, ‘accompanies’ them throughout their daily life. This aspect of daily accompanying highlights the significance and scale of data tracking in the era of the smartphone, in which the other side of constant connectivity is constant surveillance (Zuboff 2020)12.

29The processes by which our research participants engage with their smartphones, are matched and modulated in our own practices as researchers who are similarly ‘attaccato’ (‘attached’ in Italian) to our phones in the field – or, as we are suggesting here, where the phone is in fact a variant of the field itself. One of the key challenges of engaging in this kind of work is the notion that one is invariably, in danah boyd’s (2012) words, ‘participating in the always-on lifestyle’, or specifically in the case of our research with smartphones and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, the always online ethnography. Here, and amid the already blurred boundaries of research participants and friends, the added layer of intimacy of ‘containing’ the field and series of field connections, or rather what Ahlin and Li (2019:1) have term ‘field-events’, describing the move from thinking about a single field-site to a ‘collection of “field events” co-created by ethnographers, their study participants, and ICTs’, in one’s personal phone raises a number of ethical considerations from data protection to personal boundaries. Concerning the latter, and reflecting on this during and after our research period had ended, we find it important to highlight relationship boundaries, time boundaries, and boundaries concerning one’s availability. Such boundaries are easy to become swept up in amid the daily intensities of daily life during the research period, wherein the smartphone plays a prominent role in negotiating closeness and distance in communications and relationships.

Drawing as Research Method in Smartphone Anthropology

30In this section we will focus on Haapio-kirk’s exploration of drawing as one methodological approach to studying the ways in which the smartphone has become a fieldsite in itself, within which people navigate their relationships and care responsibilities. Drawing was part of the early ethnographer’s toolkit, from sketches of material culture to kinship diagrams, and is now making a comeback in the guise of a recent ‘graphic narrative turn’ in anthropology (Dix and Kaur 2019). Participatory drawing as a research method has been most employed in the study of children, however digital visual methods such as photography and video have been far more widely appropriated (Literat 2013). Here we show how engaging older participants in both analogue sketching and in collaborative narrative graphics with digital screenshots, facilitates analysis of the place of the smartphone in people’s lives and its affects.

31As already outlined, the smartphone has become a space in which people negotiate closeness and distance in relationships of care, with many of our middle-aged participants equipping their parents with smartphones in order to improve the frequency and ease with which they can communicate with each other. However, it is not only care for ageing parents that the smartphone is now integral to, but also care for oneself and one’s peers. One of the greatest stressors for Haapio-Kirk’s middle-aged research participants was the responsibility of caring for elderly parents. “It’s really hard and sad to see your own mother and father deteriorate, especially if they get dementia. It’s like a tunnel without an ending” explained Keiko-san, a 62-year-old woman from Kyoto. Keiko-san returned to work at a catering company after her children left home, but is now balancing part-time work with caring for her mother who lives with her in Kyoto. She knows that her mother would not like to live in a care home, and she wants to continue looking after her for as long as possible. The type of care required for elderly parents with dementia is not the same kind of care which is emotionally rewarding, as Keiko explains is the case when caring for children, but it is emotionally tiring labour which has an unknowable duration. The responsibility of care typically falls on the eldest child (or their wife), which Keiko bears without complaint. She feels that sharing the emotional burden of care with family members would only make the situation worse. The support of friends was therefore crucial, providing an emotional outlet. Haapio-Kirk found that all-female friendship groups among older research participants were often developed in mother’s groups, work places, or hobby groups, and continued for decades even after the original shared activity had long ceased. Haapio-Kirk observed several friendship circles, participating in girl’s night (joshikai) dinners and lunches. But it was through the LINE messaging that these busy women maintained contact with each other on a regular basis.

32Female to female peer support fulfils a need for empathy and emotional support, which was felt to be sometimes lacking from husbands. Women in particular stressed the importance of staying connected through their smartphone to a support network of friends. However, the smartphone was typically seen as a tool for keeping offline friendships going, and for organising offline meetups, rather than having friendships which were purely online. For one of their lunch meet-ups, Haapio-Kirk asked one group of friends if they could represent their relationship with their phone in a sketch. Most of the women drew a similar image of themselves holding their smartphone with both hands, in a seated position, with all of their attention focused on the device. This prompted a discussion about how they dedicated time when they were at home to sitting with their smartphone and replying to messages, which they felt they could not do properly on the go if they wanted to respond thoughtfully to their friends’ messages. Without the drawing exercise, it is unlikely that this embodied understanding of their smartphone usage would have emerged. Haapio-Kirk found that the method of drawing elicitation was beneficial because by asking participants to produce their drawing before the meeting, it allowed them to ground themselves in the topic that was to be under discussion, giving them a chance for reflection (Gauntlett 2007). It meant that they had already spent time considering their relationship to their smartphone individually before meeting with friends which Haapio-Kirk felt resulted in a rich discussion about a device that typically in conversation many people dismissed as being ‘convenient’ and little more. Asking the research participants to draw their relationship to the smartphone made them think about the device in a relational way, in terms of how it connects them to others, and how they use it to relate to the world. The use of drawing allowed the participants to tap into feelings and behaviour that are hard to articulate in words. For example, the intention behind their bodily positions such as their seated position and intent gaze at the smartphone was revealed in their drawings, adding an important corporeal dimension to the discussions that followed. These women were shy at first about showing their drawings as they felt that they lacked artistic skill, but it was not the final drawing which was the goal of the exercise, rather, the time that they had spent producing it and thinking about what they wanted to convey in a visual way which was important. In foregrounding visual participatory methods in the study of digital practices, Haapio-Kirk’s research seeks to highlight subjectivities and emotion through the co-construction of knowledge.

33The image below (figure 7) was strikingly different from the images described in the previous paragraph and points towards another value of using drawing elicitation in the investigation of the smartphone. Produced by Hiromi-san, aged 60, her drawing shows her at the centre holding her smartphone like in her friends’ images, yet here she shows herself surrounded by the range of ways she is emotionally affected by the smartphone in her daily life. Hiromi-san has been undergoing chemotherapy for the past six months. She explained:

Especially while I have been sick, the smartphone has become very important to me. It is my connection to the outside world. The days following chemotherapy my body feels drained and I cannot leave the house. During that time if I receive a LINE message or sticker from my friend I feel uplifted. But I can also feel sad and disappointed if I hear from my daughter that she is having relationship problems. When I am at the hospital having chemotherapy I watch films on Netflix and they often make me feel emotional. I also sometimes read surprising news stories. My smartphone makes me feel all of these things!“ Hiromi Sasaki, January 2019.

34During this time of illness and potential loneliness, the smartphone offers an escape from her present situation to the world beyond. In later life, when physical mobility may become restricted, communicating via LINE becomes a social lifeline.

Figure 7. The range of feelings that Hiromi-san experiences while using her smartphone, as illustrated by her.

Figure 7. The range of feelings that Hiromi-san experiences while using her smartphone, as illustrated by her.

The text reads: ‘The smartphone connects me to the outside world. So, the smartphone has become a part of my daily life’.

Drawing by Hiromi Sasaki.

35What is particularly striking about Hiromi-san’s drawing is the visual tropes of manga that it employs in communicating the emotions that she is feeling. Among Haapio-Kirk’s middle-aged research participants, many people shared a familiarity with manga, having grown up reading it, and manga suffuses many forms of contemporary culture, including LINE stickers. The expressive lines coming out of the top of the head to indicate anger, or an exclamation mark to indicate surprise are commonly used forms of visual expression that would be quickly understood by everyone who is familiar with manga. It is this shared visual language that perhaps makes LINE stickers so popular as a mode of expression in Japan. Line sticker sets often follow a predictable format, with one sticker that will show a character bowing for thanks, another that will likely feature a coffee cup or something to indicate relaxation, often accompanied by the phrase ‘otsukaresamadesu’ which roughly translates as “thank you for your work”. They form a visual vocabulary, often relaying highly embodied forms of communication through the posture and expression of a character, which is immediately understood, and often requires no further textual messaging embellishment. In drawing emotions as manga-style facial expressions, it is almost as if Hiromi-san has created her own sticker set to convey the range of feelings she experiences through and with her smartphone. The drawing exercise and resulting images indicate that not only are words important for defining a vocabulary of emotion, but so too are images, and we must pay them due recognition in an era of digital visual communication.

36Precisely because of the importance of visual modes of relating to the world and the prominence of manga as a cultural medium among this demographic in Japan, Haapio-Kirk decided to employ comics-based research methods as a way to further explore various topics once she had returned from the field. Using a method that relied on the smartphone, combining screenshots, messaging and video calling via LINE, Haapio-Kirk engaged one of her participants, Maiko-san, in co-scripting a comic that narrates her experiences of the smartphone (figures 8-11). Presenting a graphic narrative back to Maiko-san in a form that she could quickly engage with enhanced the collaborative and participatory nature of this exercise and provided further insights regarding her thoughts and feelings which did not come through in a prior interview with her about her smartphone. Such experiments with collaborative multimodal methodology can foster reflexivity and sense-making, as in the work of Pino whose research participants produced film and photography to illuminate their experiences of living with HIV (Pino 2018). Especially with participants whose lives are often (mis)represented as homogenous, as is often the case with older adults, engaging people in the production of images can be a way to challenge dominant visual narratives, and lead to new forms of knowing. Maarel, in her work with refugees in Italy, engages with the visual essay for precisely this purpose, ‘to be able to see anew, in order to think anew’ (Maarel 2020:12). Maiko-san provided 16 screenshots of her smartphone usage throughout the day which formed a visual elicitation device during subsequent interviews. Some of the elements of the screenshots were then interwoven with the visual narrative, such as the time stamps in some frames, the dominant apps used, and also examples of visual messaging. The use of screenshots enabled Maiko-san to provide visual material without any associated pressure of having to display artistic skill in drawing or photography, they instead served as a record of her multimodal expertise in digital communication. The experience of producing comics with artists Cei Douglas and Hahn informed how Haapio-kirk sought to visually express the narrative of Maiko-san’s story, letting the images do the work, rather than over-explaining through text. However, collaborating with Maiko-san differed from the collaboration with the comics artists in that she was able to provide specific visual details about when and where she used her device, giving insight into her own understanding of her emplaced and embodied smartphone usage.

37The medium of co-created ethnographic comics is well suited to research focused on the capacities of visual digital communication. By foregrounding visual forms such as stickers and digital photos and being able to represent these within a narrative, enables a kind of storytelling that acknowledges the role that the visual plays in people’s relationships and experiences, in addition to the other senses. Producing an ethnographic vignette in a comics format forced Haapio-Kirk to ask Maiko-san about things such as where she was physically located when using her devices, and what she was thinking at that moment. Ethnography has traditionally prioritised the ethnographers’ vision and hearing (Hockey and Forsey 2012), while relegating the other senses and neglecting an integrated corporeal sense of being in the world. The work of sensory anthropologists challenges us as ethnographers to go beyond the remit of sight and sound. We suggest that co-created comics are one way of conducting multimodal research that enables both research into and dissemination of people’s embodied realities. The resulting comic situates the smartphone user within their environment, while simultaneously allowing access to interior monologues. In showing how they react to sound, to the presence of the smartphone more generally as an object, and to messages on screen, we gain a sense of the user as enmeshed in multiple relationships, navigating the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real world’ as intertwined and inseparable realities.

38This creative visual process puts the research participant’s experiences and ideas at the centre of meaning making. In this manner it opens up possibilities for a more egalitarian relationship between researcher and participant with the resulting visual narrative a direct result of their collaboration. In the co-creation of dissemination materials, Haapio-Kirk’s intention is to enable participants to determine the framing of their experiences in personalised ways (Literat 2013). Taking inspiration from the proliferation of visual communication among Haapio-Kirk’s interlocutors, the production of a graphic narrative as a form of multimodal collaboration was a logical step, meeting them via a medium in which they were already familiar.

Figure 8 Comic: Maiko-san's day – page one

Figure 8 Comic: Maiko-san's day – page one

Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..

Figure 9. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page two

Figure 9. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page two

Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..

Figure 10. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page three

Figure 10. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page three

Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..

Figure 11. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page four

Figure 11. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page four

Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..

39While dependency on the smartphone provoked feelings of concern and ambivalence about how much time Haapio-Kirk’s participants spent on the device, it was clear that this was an object they always wanted close to them. Their proximity to their smartphone was related to their proximity to things and relationships that were important in their life, as shown above in the comic about Maiko-san. The comic shows Maiko-san embedded in a network of relationships of care. There is care between the ikebana teacher and Maiko-san, care from commercial sources (the bento delivery service), and care that Maiko-san is showing to her friends by sending them messages, songs, and photos. We see how care is embodied in the way that Maiko-san and her teacher bow to each other when Maiko-san departs, which is then mirrored in the body language of stickers. There is also the care that Maiko-san is performing for her health, aided by checking her step counter which motivates her to walk more the next day. The images brought to her by the smartphone enables Maiko-san to be embedded in these practices of care which cannot be classified as ‘online’ or ‘offline’ but are instead shown here to be physically and digitally located simultaneously. We see how, despite living alone, Maiko-san is close to others, with affective embodied gestures communicated through visual messaging.

Conclusion: Care-full Research with Smartphones and Ageing: Towards a Transforming Anthropology

40In this paper we have sought to illustrate how being led by our research participants and their smartphones as socio-technical objects reflects the broader work of contemporary anthropology in engaging with the world not just ‘as is’, but rather, as it is transforming. As our research with the ASSA project shows more broadly, the smartphone has transformed people’s lives in a multitude of ways in diverse contexts around the world. Individuals are transforming the smartphone through their own practices, their data, and their moral and ethical relationships to it. Within this complex web of practices, our visual and multimodal ethnographic research tunes into contemporary approaches in the discipline that foreground care, ethics and responsibility as we engage with contemporary research topics and methods. In emphasising the need to engage with the changing world through both our methods and our topics of study, our positioning here chimes with current writing on creative methods in the discipline in seeing the task of anthropology as ‘less the study of culture as an object of understanding, than the culture or cultivation of humanity as a method of change’ (Pandian 2019:11).

41In linking methodological development with socio-technological change, the paper has built on Pink’s (2011:211) earlier proposition that visual anthropologists may use collaborative methods, interactive hypermedia and the internet to ‘produce ethically responsible texts that engage with the corporeality of vision, have activist ambitions and might bridge the gap between written and visual academic anthropology’. Moreover, multimodality, we contend with Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón (2019), provides an important development along these lines, in imagining a developing visual-digital framework of the present as well as for the future. It also possesses particular relevance, as we have suggested in this article, to the study of ageing and the life course by engaging with the lives and practices of older adults through their/our smartphones. The framework of the multimodal advances the move beyond engagement with the digital or with the visual as content or platform to analyse, and beyond the centrality of text and/or speech in research. Specifically, it helps us grasp the highly fluid and mobile inter-mingling of image, sound, text, drawing, as all part of the inventive methods that our research participants - older adults in Japan and Italy - use to communicate, express, and live their lives, shifting constantly between online and offline modes and mediums.

42In reflecting on our experience using smartphones in the study of smartphones and ageing, we see multimedia – and multimodality – as an invitation to be carefully creative in our research with older adults, while attending to the epistemological possibilities and ethical implications of such methodological metamorphoses. In seeking to understand how later stages of life have changed with the adoption of multimodal visual and digital communication, we continue to follow our research participants’ lead as we embark on projects that disrupt and unsettle us as we adopt the very tools people use in daily life as a medium for research. In the bigger project of digital anthropology of seeking to understand how humanity is adopting to and transforming alongside rapidly advancing digital technologies (Horst and Miller 2012), we are faced with the timely methodological opportunity of meeting our interlocutors where they are spending increasing amounts of their time, including during challenging circumstances as seen with the Covid-19 pandemic. In so doing, we may continue to think through the unfolding, and sometimes uneasy relationships between people and technologies, as we collectively envision together with our peers in this Special Issue and beyond, a present and future visual and digital anthropology of ageing and the life course.

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ASSA - Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing: (accessed June 27, 2023).

ASSA - Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog: (accessed June 27, 2023).

ASSA ‘Discoveries Comics’: (accessed June 27, 2023).

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1 Povinelli 2012 as quoted in Pandean 2019:14.

2 See Banks and Zeitlyn 2015, Cox, Irving and Wright 2016, Pink 2009

3 Walton has written about digital and visual forms of care and communication during Covid-19 in Milan, as experienced vicariously via WhatsApp as part of an ASSA project blog post, accessible here: (accessed November 30, 2021).

4 Tanja Ahlin’s notion of ‘transnational care collectives’ from her work with Indian transnational families describes how Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) allow family members to enact care for one another while individuals care for themselves too. The idea builds on a broader concept of the ‘care collective’ which describes how people, things and technologies coalesce together with the aim of enacting care (see Mol, Moser, and Pols 2010).

5 The full comic can be accessed via the ASSA website ‘discoveries’ section here:

6 The ASSA ‘Discoveries Comics’ are available here:

7 Walton employs the term ‘force field’ as a conceptual term here to describe the social and affective ways in which people are brought together in a kind of ‘energy bubble’ of care and contact, creating a shared sense of being together.

8 One can report if one is against the use of this image by contacting the journal editors.

9 Sumimasen’ is generally used to express thanks to someone who is actively going out of their way to help you. It is more humble and polite than thank you (arigatou gozaimas), and acknowledges the work of someone else. Here Maiko-san uses the slightly less formal ‘suimasen’ but it still has the same connotation of being very grateful.

10 One can report if one is against the use of this image by contacting the journal editors.

11 On carrying out digital ethnography in the urban and online context, see especially the discussion in Walton 2021.

12 For further discussion on the theme of surveillance and tracking from across the ASSA field sites, see Miller et al 2021, chapter 9.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Comic based on Shireen Walton’s research in Milan, Italy
Caption See the full comic here​ASSAZine
Credits Scripted by Laura Haapio-Kirk and Murariu and illustrated by John Cei Douglas
File image/png, 806k
Title Figure 2. Comic based on Laura Haapio-Kirk’s research in Japan.
Caption See the full comic here:​ASSAZine
Credits Scripted by Laura Haapio-Kirk and illustrated by John Cei Douglas.
File image/png, 1.2M
Title Figure 3. Meme circulated amongst friends in NoLo, Milan.
Caption The text reads: ‘Good morning’
Credits Source unknown. Screenshot by Shireen Walton8
File image/png, 876k
Title Figure 4. LINE messages exchanged between Maiko-san and her brother.
Credits Screenshots by an anonymous research participant10
File image/jpeg, 52k
Title Figure 5. Watching an online cooking tutorial on the smartphone in Milan, Italy
Credits Photo by Shireen Walton
File image/png, 912k
Title Figure 7. The range of feelings that Hiromi-san experiences while using her smartphone, as illustrated by her.
Caption The text reads: ‘The smartphone connects me to the outside world. So, the smartphone has become a part of my daily life’.
Credits Drawing by Hiromi Sasaki.
File image/jpeg, 88k
Title Figure 8 Comic: Maiko-san's day – page one
Credits Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..
File image/jpeg, 871k
Title Figure 9. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page two
Credits Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..
File image/jpeg, 730k
Title Figure 10. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page three
Credits Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..
File image/jpeg, 726k
Title Figure 11. Comic: Maiko-san's day – page four
Credits Laura Haapio-Kirk based on an anonymous research participant's screenshot diary, referred to in the text under the pseudonym ‘Maiko-san’..
File image/jpeg, 724k
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Electronic reference

Shireen Walton and Laura Haapio-Kirk, Doing Multimodal Anthropology of Ageing with SmartphonesAnthrovision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 01 December 2023, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Shireen Walton

University College London, Department of Anthropology

Shireen Walton is a Lecturer in Digital Anthropology at University College London. Her research is in the field of visual and digital cultures with an interest in migration and mobilities. Her doctoral research (2012-2015) at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford, explored popular digital photography in/of Iran, while her more recent work in Italy (2017-2020) based at UCL Anthropology culminated in her 2021 monograph, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond published with UCL Press, and in Italian with Ledizioni as Smart Ageing a Milano (e altrove): Soggettività e socialità nei contesti digitali urbani italiani.

Laura Haapio-Kirk

University of Oxford, Christ Church

Laura Haapio-Kirk is a Junior Research Fellow in Anthropology at Christ Church, the University of Oxford. Her current project, Feeling at Home in a Digital World, is an ethnography of how digital and physical domestic spaces interact as older adults craft spaces of wellbeing. She is currently writing and illustrating her first monograph about her doctoral research, titled Ageing with Smartphones in Japan.

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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