A cross-cultural comparison of perceptions and uses of mobile telephony

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Scott W. Campbell

Assistant Professor and Pohs Fellow of Telecommunications

Department of Communication Studies

University of Michigan

3020D Frieze Building
105 South State St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285
Phone: (734) 764-8106

Email: swcamp@umich.edu

Key words: mobile telephony, mobile communication, mobile phone, cell phone, Apparatgeist

Please note: For copyright purposes, this is a previous version of the manuscript. An updated version is forthcoming in New Media & Society.



Drawing from the theoretical orientation of Apparatgeist (Katz and Aakhus, 2002), this study explored cultural similarities and differences in perceptions and uses of mobile telephony. A sample of college students from Japan, Sweden, Taiwan, Hawaii, and the U.S. Mainland were surveyed to assess (1) perceptions of the mobile phone as fashion, (2) attitudes about mobile phone use in public settings, (3) use of the mobile phone for safety/security, (4) use of the mobile phone for instrumental purposes, and (5) use of the mobile phone for expressive purposes. Results indicate some differences and several similarities among the cultural groupings and help lay the groundwork for future research and theory building.

The speed and magnitude of mobile phone adoption is a recent worldwide phenomenon akin to that of the television in the middle 20th century and the Internet in the late 20th century (Katz and Aakhus, 2002; Rice and Katz, 2003). Prior to 1990, the mobile phone was a rare and expensive technology with an adoption level too low for the charts to even register. During the 1990s mobile phone adoption exploded, and subscriptions reached a half billion around the globe (International Telecommunication Union, 2002). By the end of 2003 mobile phone subscriptions reached 1.3 billion worldwide. In fact, those who do not use a mobile phone are now in the minority in many countries (International Telecommunication Union, 2004). Although the explosive growth of this technology is remarkable and the social implications are myriad, the amount of social science research in this area is relatively small when compared to other pervasive communication technologies, such as the Internet (Rice and Katz, 2003).

The good news is that mobile communication research is on the rise, and researchers from all over the globe are making valuable contributions to our understanding of the social implications (see for example, Fortunati, Katz and Riccini, 2003; Katz, 2003; Katz and Aakhus, 2002; Ling, 2004). The global impact of its adoption and use and the international composition of researchers in this area have drawn attention to trends in the ways people think about and use mobile telephony in various cultures. For example, Katz and Aakhus identified similarities in communication habits associated with mobile phone use in Finland, Israel, Italy, Korea, the United States, France, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. The authors explained, ‘despite the great variations in cultures – from teen dating to family arrangements and from economic based to social hierarchies – the use and folk understanding of the mobile phone seem to be pressing toward conformity and uniformity’ (2002: 313-14). While there are prominent similarities, the literature also reveals some interesting differences and distinctive cultural characteristics that influence the adoption and use of this growing technology.

The purpose of this article is to further explore cultural similarities and differences associated with mobile telephony by presenting findings from a cross-cultural comparison of perceptions and uses of the technology. A sample of college students from Japan, Sweden, Taiwan, Hawaii, and the U.S. Mainland were surveyed about their perceptions and uses of mobile telephony in order to assess similarities and differences among these members of the distinct cultural groupings. As Mante and Heres explained, ‘attitudes to and positioning of technology is driven by social location … of individuals and families’ (2003: 129). This study aims to contribute to our understanding of the ‘social location’ of mobile telephony while adding to the budding body of literature in this area.

Theoretical Grounding

This study is rooted in the theoretical orientation of Apparatgeist (Katz and Aakhus, 2002). As noted above, Katz and Aakhus identified several cross-cultural trends in the adoption, use, and conceptualization of mobile telephony. These trends have emerged in many social contexts, including participation in social networks, changes in traditional communication habits to accommodate mobile communication, competent mobile communication, and unanticipated behaviors resulting from mobile communication. In an effort to explain these patterns and those associated with other personal communication technologies (PCTs), Katz and Aakhus advanced the concept of Apparatgeist, which refers to ‘the spirit of the machine that influences both the designs of the technology as well as the initial and subsequent significance accorded them by users, non-users and anti-users’ (2002: 305).

Apparatgeist draws attention to both the meanings people construct for technologies and their social consequences. Katz and Aakhus advocated balanced consideration of the social and technological forces that shape perceptions and uses of PCTs by identifying a number of factors from each of these arenas. For example, values and norms are social factors that help guide the ways people use mobile phones. In addition, technological aspects such as handset size and design also factor into how people think about and use the technology (see Katz and Aakhus, 2002: 311 for an expanded list of social and technological considerations identified in their explication of Apparatgeist). Katz and Aakhus argued that these factors and others like them are important ingredients in the ‘spirit’ that results in consistent perceptions and uses of PCTs in disparate cultures. The notion that technology embodies a spirit may appear technologically deterministic on the surface. However, Katz and Aakhus recognized and avoided the pitfalls of determinism by likening the influence of media attributes to a cafeteria menu. They explained,

[Apparatgeist] is not a term that requires technological determinism. In fact, we argue that technology does not determine what an individual can do; rather, it serves as a constraint upon possibilities. Much as a cafeteria menu will not offer infinite meal choices, but rather presents a finite selection of meal choices, so too historically bound technology offers us a flexible menu of extensive, but not infinite, choices (2002: 307).

According to Katz and Aakhus, Apparatgeist is fueled by the socio-logic of ‘perpetual contact,’ which is rooted in an innate human desire for social connection, even to share one’s mind with another (Peters, 1999). The authors reasoned that mobile phones provide the means for perpetual contact, and therefore people tend to conceptualize the technology in coherent ways. They argued, ‘it seems that certain conceptual perspectives arise in people’s minds as a result of their interaction with technologies, and these are remarkably consistent across cultures. If this is indeed the case, future research should continue to detect this phenomenon’ (2002: 316-17). Drawing from this line of reasoning, the aim of the present study was to test whether select perceptions and uses of mobile phones are consistent among a sample of participants with very different cultural backgrounds.

Cultural Studies of Mobile Communication Practices

Cultural characteristics play an important role in how people make sense of their social reality (see for example, Hall, 1959; Geertz, 1983). Mobile telephony is no exception to this axiom. Although there are notable similarities in the dissemination and appropriation of the mobile phone in various countries, the ensuing literature demonstrates that distinctive cultural characteristics play into its rate of adoption and how people use the technology.

Finland is an appropriate starting point for this review of literature. Despite their reputation for silence, the Finns are renowned for embracing the mobile phone. In fact, at the turn of the millennium Finland had the highest per capita mobile phone adoption rate in the world (Puro, 2002). This high rate of penetration was influenced by the presence of Nokia, a leader in the telecommunications industry. Puro explained, ‘Every child in Finland learns that there is one name, Nokia, that is somehow very special in Finnish life. It is something monumental and important and affects everyone in Finland’ (2002: 28). The Finns even use the word ‘nokialization’ to describe this phenomenon.

Israel is also among the world’s leaders for mobile phone use. Unlike the Finns, Israelis are known for their propensity for talk, and Schejter and Cohen (2002) attributed the unprecedented growth of mobile phone ownership in Israel to this distinctive characteristic of Israeli culture. Schejter and Cohen argued that mobile phones are particularly appealing to Israelis because of ‘their need to be connected, their need to chatter and their basic audacious (chutzpadic) temperament’ (2002: 38).

Like Nokia’s presence in Finland and Israel’s tradition for talk, cultural characteristics also help explain the rapid penetration of the mobile phone in South Korea (Kim, 2002). Mobile communication providers are among the top national advertisers in Korea, which allowed the mobile phone to be a familiar technology when it entered the Korean marketplace. Secondly, Korea suffers from a lack of telephone lines, and the mobile phone helps alleviate this problem. Thirdly, when it was introduced, the mobile phone made a positive social impression on Korean society. Early adopters tended to be wealthy business people, so the mobile phone was a symbol of success. Finally, the mobile phone suits the Korean custom of informal gatherings on very short notice (Kim, 2002).

The Netherlands is also a country with an exceptionally high diffusion rate for the mobile phone and other communication technologies (Mante and Heres, 2003). The Dutch have come to regard the mobile phone as a necessity. One explanation for this may be that Dutch citizens are progressively becoming ‘technologically smart’ (Beckers, Mante and Schmidt, 2003). That is, Dutch citizens tend to have low levels of anxiety regarding the use of digital technology. This phenomenon may be due to the education system in the Netherlands, which is on the rise, as is the proliferation of technology in Dutch classrooms (Beckers et al., 2003).

Socio-economic and political forces also influence the adoption and use of mobile telephony. Vershinskaya (2003) discussed how profound social and economic changes in Russian society have resulted in an ICT revolution in the mid 1990s. From the 1960s to the 1980s Russia was perceived as lagging in the sphere of information technology. Gorbachev’s restructuring, democratization, and openness in the late 1980s and early 1990s opened the door for dissemination of ICTs, such as the Internet and the mobile phone.

Not surprisingly, the collapse of the former Soviet Union has also affected the technological landscape of other nations. One of its former satellites, Bulgaria, has only a recent history of economic, cultural, and technological autonomy. At the beginning of the millennium, owning a mobile phone was not a priority for many Bulgarians who had more serious concerns and were struggling just to survive in the relatively poor country (Varbanov, 2002). However, mobile phone adoption has been growing and is expected to explode in the upcoming years. Varbanov (2002) explained that because of the cultural and economic landscape of Bulgaria, the mobile phone has become an important symbol of the future for this developing nation.

Like Russia and Bulgaria, China has also undergone profound political and economic changes in the late 20th century that have fostered mobile phone adoption and use (Yu and Tng, 2003). Increased privatization of the marketplace has given rise to an increase in personal space and personal choice. In addition, the Chinese have a tradition of developing guanxiwang or personal networks. In the past the Chinese have relied on these networks to secure goods and protection. In the new market economy, personal networks help the Chinese navigate social and economic changes. Fueled by privatization and the building of guanxiwang, ‘The mobile phone as an artifact of daily living has taken on a set of connotations that are specific to the larger socioeconomic processes occurring in China’ (Yu and Tng, 2003: 192).

The insights above illustrate the effects of social climate on mobile phone adoption through the eyes of researchers peering into particular cultures. There are also a number of studies comparing perceptions and uses of mobile phones cross-culturally. For example, Oksman and Rautiainen (2003) observed similarities in the ways teenagers in Finland and other Nordic countries use mobile phones to develop and maintain social networks, resulting in their own communications culture. Katz and Aakhus (2002) drew similar connections between the ways Finnish and Norwegian youth integrate the mobile phone into their daily lives.

In a comparison of a sample of Chinese and American mobile phone users, Caporael and Xie (2003) found that Chinese participants regarded mobile phone calls from employers as acceptable during non-work hours. In contrast, the Americans found work-related calls during these times to be largely unacceptable and tended to screen these calls. Additionally, the Chinese participants tended to turn their mobile phones off only during sleep, while the Americans turned theirs off at various times, such as while not calling out or while charging the batteries. Caporael and Xie (2003) also reported cultural similarities. Most notably, both the Chinese and the American participants silenced their mobile phones in certain public settings, such as theaters, concert halls, churches, and some meetings.

In a comparison of Western European countries, Fortunati (2002) found significant differences in the degree to which the mobile phone was viewed as means for facilitating social relationships. Italians reported the highest scores for this attitude, followed by the French, the British, the Spanish, and the Germans respectively. Fortunati also reported that, compared to other Western European countries, Italians, along with the French, tended to adopt the mobile phone more for personal reasons rather than work-related reasons. In another study of the same countries, Hadden (1998) reported similarities in mobile phone use. In all of these Western European countries, mobile phone users were least likely to have their handsets on while attending a public event such as a show or a play and most likely to have them on while traveling in the car.

Mante (2002) found both similarities and differences in a comparison between the Netherlands and the United States. Participants from both countries were increasingly more mobile and relied on their communication devices to support this increased mobility. Another similarity is that both the Dutch and the American participants were sensitive to the intrusion of the mobile phone in public settings and wanted to talk on the mobile phone only during convenient times. However, the Americans reported a stronger sense of responsibility for being reachable to their colleagues and friends, while the Dutch reported a greater need for personal choice in the matter. Similarly, Dutch participants were less willing to let their work lives interfere with their personal lives. Mante (2002) concluded that although there were noticeable differences between the Dutch and the Americans, they were not as pronounced as expected.

In a cross-cultural comparison of perceptions of various portable technologies, Katz, Aakhus, Kim and Turner (2003) found that Koreans viewed the mobile phone as more expensive, more stylish, and more of a necessity than did participants from the United States. However, like Mante (2002), Katz et al. were more impressed by the similarities than differences in their comparison. Overall, attitudes toward mobile phone characteristics tended to cluster for participants from Korea, the United States, Namibia, and Norway. According to Katz et al. (2003), these findings may indicate an international mobile phone culture and/or universals or near-universals in the perceived role of communication in our lives.

The literature reveals some interesting similarities and differences in the adoption, use, and conceptualization of mobile phones in numerous countries. Various types of cultural characteristics are associated with the mobile communication practices in these countries, ranging from psychological/relational tendencies to socio-economic and political conditions. It is important to point out that the specific reasons (be they social-psychological or sociological in nature) for cultural similarities and differences are beyond the scope of this study, and that the aim here is restricted to providing a descriptive, exploratory, cross-cultural comparison of perceptions and uses of mobile telephony to help establish groundwork for future research and theory building. Accordingly, the following research question is advanced to guide this investigation:

RQ1: To what extent do perceptions and uses of the mobile phone differ among a sample of mobile phone users from Japan, Taiwan, Sweden, the U.S. Mainland, and Hawaii?

The perceptions and uses selected for examination in this study are rooted in the following themes from the literature on mobile telephony: (1) perceptions of the mobile phone as fashion, (2) attitudes about mobile phone use in public settings, (3) use of the mobile phone for safety/security, (4) use of the mobile phone for instrumental purposes, and (5) use of the mobile phone for expressive purposes.

The first theme refers to the extent to which one considers his/her mobile phone an article of personal display or fashion. Because it is worn on the body, many users regard the technology as an extension of their physical selves (Gant and Kiesler, 2001; Hulme and Peters, 2001) and characteristically fashionable (Katz et al., 2003). For this reason, the style of a mobile phone is a primary influencing factor in brand selection for some users of the technology (Lobet-Maris, 2003). Numerous studies show that adolescents are particularly conscious of handset styles and tend to view the mobile phone as a symbolic artifact of personal display (Alexander, 2000; Green, 2003; Ling, 2003; Ling, 2004; Lobet-Maris, 2003; Skog, 2002).

Another theme from the literature pertains to attitudes about mobile phone use in public settings. Users who speak on their mobile phones in public often do so at the expense of others around them. Bystanders are unwittingly cast into the role of spectator when mobile phone users talk too loudly while around others (Fortunati, 2003). Some are curious about what is being said (Paragas, 2003) and even treat it as a ‘linguistic treasure hunt’ (Fortunati, 2003: 11). However, others have voiced complaints about being forced into eavesdropping (Ling, 1996). This problem stems from the conflicting nature of private and public space, resulting in ambiguous norms for mobile phone use in public (Love and Kewely, 2003; Gant and Kiesler, 2001; Palen, Salzman and Youngs, 2001). However, individuals are making efforts toward developing norms by explicitly discussing appropriate and inappropriate mobile phone use (Campbell and Russo, 2003; Ling, 2004; Ling and Yttri, 1999, 2002). In addition, there are some noticeable trends in where mobile phone users tend to silence their handsets or turn them off. Mobile phone users frequently leave their handsets off in certain public settings such as theaters, concert halls, churches, and some meetings (Caporeal and Xie, 2003; Haddon, 1998). Movie theaters and classrooms are perceived as particularly inappropriate locations for mobile phone use (Campbell and Russo, 2003; Campbell, 2004), while public sidewalks, grocery stores, and buses appear to be more suitable settings (Campbell, 2004). There is also evidence that certain behaviors during mobile phone use in public help mitigate the social intrusion, especially speaking quietly and keeping conversations brief (Campbell, 2004). The present study explores the extent to which one’s cultural background plays a role in tolerance for mobile phone use in public settings.

The remaining variables examined in this study reflect primary uses of mobile telephony. Ling and Yttri (1999, 2002) identified three primary uses: safety/security, microcoordination, and hypercoordination. Safety/security refers to mobile phone use for emergencies and general security; microcoordination refers to mobile phone use for instrumental purposes; and hypercoordination refers to mobile phone use for these reasons as well as expressive purposes. Studies illustrate that mobile phone use for expressive purposes can demonstrate and reinforce social networks (see for example, Johnsen, 2003; Licoppe, 2003; Plant, 2001; Taylor and Harper, 2001), and the way one uses the mobile phone is at least partially influenced at the micro level through interaction in personal communication networks (Campbell and Russo, 2003). This study explores whether mobile phone use is shaped at the larger cultural level as well.

Age, Gender, and Mobile Communication Practices

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