Page 99 of my thesis is so short I can quote it here in its entirety. Here it goes:
My mother never told me
Love is a bottle of mango pickles
She used to put in my cotton bag
Every time I leave my home town
Her season of mangoes ended
And never returned”
When I first read this, I thought well, this is certainly not representative of my thesis. After all, I didn’t spend the last several years analysing poetry to get a PhD in Indian literature. Rather, my study is about how care is ‘done’ in Indian transnational families. Specifically, I look at how nurses from Kerala, South India, who migrate abroad for work, take care of their aging parents who remain in India. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork by visiting Kerala and Oman as one of the nurses’ destination countries, and elsewhere via information and communication technologies (ICTs). I draw on material semiotics approach from Science and Technology Studies (STS) to analyse my data. According to this approach, ‘care’ is understood as something that people do within specific practices. Importantly, care includes not only people, but also non-human actors – in my case, everyday ICTs like mobile phones and webcams. However, these technologies are not only passive tools that people use for their own purposes; instead, they actively shape what care comes to mean and how it should be done to be considered good.
In my thesis, I show how adult children abroad, their parents in India, and various ICTs establish what I call transnational care collectives. The dynamic of these collectives (that is, which family members and which technologies are involved and how) depends on each family. Besides sending remittances to the parents, the main care practice within transnational care collectives is calling. But for this care to be considered good, some conditions have to be fulfilled: the calling needs to be frequent, too. Different devices shape frequent calling as a care practice differently: on the phone, people share everydayness by sharing the details of their everyday lives, while on the webcam, they can spend time together, sometimes by being silent. ICTs thus change what ‘good care’ comes to mean, but they further also influence how gender and kinship become enacted in new ways.
The care practices I describe are radically different from elder care that is normally considered good in India, such as living together and sharing food, practices which demand physical proximity. ICTs help to bridge geographic distance in some ways, but not in others; they may even bring about challenging situations and conflicting emotions. I felt my thesis didn’t quite do justice to the depth of experiences of the people I encountered in my fieldwork. By way of mitigating this, I added a poem as an introduction to each thesis chapter.
I now realize that no other page in my thesis could represent its core better than page 99.
Tanja Ahlin. 2020. Care through Digital Connections: Enacting Elder Care Through Everyday Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Indian Transnational Families. University of Amsterdam, Phd.