Voice rules: New media and family in peri-urban India

Written by  Shriram Venkatraman and Nimmi Rangaswamy

Understanding and evaluating kinship is the basis of social anthropology; and filial relationships are central to the study of kinship. Studying and analysing the complex communicative interactions in filial relationships in everyday life is a fertile area for anthropologists who study these interactions through an extensive immersive in-depth process called ethnography. New media enters this arena of kinship, catalysing and transforming communication processes, patterns and channels. This essay looks at this changing landscape of interpersonal communication among filial kinship, offering a rich tableau of social change and continuity.


A lot has been said about new media’s impact on and modification of communication, perception and interaction in any relationship, be it filial, friendship or even romance. Madianou and Miller’s (2012) work on migration and new media use among Filipina migrant workers separated from their children and Andersson’s (2011) study of email and Skype communication in the Indian city of Kolkata are significant in highlighting the impact of new communication media on filial relationships. However, studying this in a peri-urban area in India poses unique challenges. The dynamic and transitive nature of the setting itself acts as a variable that needs special consideration and evaluation. The study mentioned in this article is being conducted in such an area right next to the southern edge of the metropolis of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The field site,Panchagrami, rapidly transitioning from its rural roots to a dynamic peri-urban site, offers excellent scope for studying the rural-urban continuum. Housing varied socio-economic groups, it offers a spectrum of access and cost with respect to new media -- from owning multiple communicative media devices to owning none. At this point this study consciously makes a directional departure from issues of access and cost to study the impact of communicative media on the lives of people who own and make choices about multimedia use for specific reasons. Taking inspiration from Madianou and Miller’s (2012) concept of polymedia, our study looks at the impact of new communicative media in filial relationships. This article offers a descriptive view of typical communication patterns within families using multiple new media devices.

A preliminary survey conducted at Panchagrami pointed to the significant role of the mobile phone within the family. Further research through in-depth interviews and participant observation revealed mobile phones to be the major networking tool for intra- family communication. It had surpassed and in some cases even replaced the landline phone. Though mobile phones offered voice and text communications, the perception of its use only for voice was clearly visible in families with elderly members. Further, even amidst a host of communicative media including the internet and a plethora of social networking sites, communication within a family normally seemed to happen only through Voice. Parents, very specifically mothers, seemed to prefer hearing the voice of their children rather than receiving a text from them. The members of a family communicate with each other by calling and not by texting. Young men and women in Panchagrami tend to talk to their parents by calling and not by messaging. Generally, hierarchy and age played an important role in the choice of media while in some cases, education and literacy skills impacted choice of one media over another. This article strives to provide a glimpse into the everyday communication (all through new media) in a set of family settings of varied socio-economic stratas in Panchagrami. The study revealed that when it came to parents communicating with their children, the socio-economic status of the family did not matter and voice communication was always preferred to text.

The family communication system in Panchagrami

At Panchagrami, a typical nuclear family from a lower socio-economic background comprises a couple and children (normally two – son(s) or daughter(s)). A typical family normally has access to at least three cellphones – a phone for each of them, except for the daughter. The cellphone owned by the mother will mostly be treated as a landline (as though collectively owned by the entire family) and becomes a shared object. The mother is normally a homemaker (though she might end up helping her husband with agriculture in certain cases a few months of the year). The daughter is not normally given a mobile phone until she starts attending college or work or even until she gets married, as several instances at Panchagrami showed that marriage bestows upon the woman the status where she may own and use a cellphone, while younger men in such families don’t have restrictions placed on them. However, in a typical family, communication normally takes place between the father, mother and the son over a cellphone and the daughter normally tends to use the mobile phone owned by the mother to communicate with the rest of the family. Mobile phones thus become shared devices among the women in the family, especially if there are unmarried girls in addition to the homemaker.

While access to mobile phones of various kinds is popular, people’s access to education plays a significant role in determining the usage of a cellphone, for example sending an SMS is dependent on the level of education or literacy a person has. Older parents normally do not text due to a dearth of literacy skills. Their use of the mobile phone is mostly restricted to voice calls and for them the mobile phone is just a replacement for landlines. This is best seen in the case of Ravi’s mother, who makes sure that Ravi talks to her and does not message her.

Don’t message, talk!

Ravi, a 25-year-old graduate, works as a data entry operator in a medical information processing office. His office is close to Panchagrami. He has a married sister who lives in Chennai. His father is a farmer and freelance plumber. Ravi’s mother is a homemaker. Given that it’s only the three of them at home now, each of them has a mobile phone and is ‘perpetually’ connected to each other. They don’t have a landline at home. However, until his sister got married she used her mother’s mobile phone. Now, his sister owns one and uses it to get in touch with her mom, husband, in-laws and friends. Ravi’s parents own feature phones, while Ravi owns a Samsung Galaxy core smartphone. He upgraded his parents’ phones (from an old to a new feature phone) early last year.

On a typical workday, Ravi carries lunch prepared at home to his office; however, if lunch is not ready when Ravi starts work at 8 am, he usually calls his mother around 11:30 to let her know if he will come home for lunch. Ravi normally has a brief chat with her for not more than 2 to 5 minutes, usually exchanging his plan for the afternoon. It extends to 5 minutes only if she wants him to run an errand. The understanding is that if he doesn’t call, she won’t prepare lunch for him. There was an instance when due to his busy schedule at office, Ravi wasn’t able to call her but texted her to let her know of his arrival for lunch that afternoon. When he went home, he found that she hadn’t prepared anything for him. She had missed his SMS; she told Ravi that he had not informed her of his arrival. To prove that he had, he took her cellphone to show her the message. That was when Ravi discovered that his mom never read SMSes, specifically if they were in English. He was surprised to know that she couldn’t read English. He had assumed she could because when he had messaged her while his sister lived at home he had received a reply. That is when he realised that it was his sister who was messaging back and not his mother. Since that day, he tried teaching his mom to text in Tamil, but to no avail. She told Ravi “… if you can’t call me for even 30 seconds during work, the work isn’t worth it...” Thereafter Ravi makes it a point to communicate with her by voice and never by text. He says that though she can learn messaging in Tamil, she just doesn’t want to. His sister, possibly with more hindsight, always calls her mom, though Ravi and his sister have a message booster that can send out 3,000 SMSes per month to any number for free. In any case Ravi says it’s a wasteful privilege to use it with his mom! However, now the mother and son seem to have worked out a way to communicate if Ravi is busy and can’t make a voice call from work. If he gives her a missed call at around 11:30 am and the phone rings twice, it is coded as ‘home for lunch’ and if there is no call, it’s ‘won’t be home for lunch’. His father doesn’t face this issue with his mother because he tends to call her every time. Ravi feels that for his mother mobile phones have just replaced landlines and she tends to view mobile phones exactly as she viewed a landline – not as an interactive device that has other features. He never calls his father from work as he knows that his father might also be working either in the field or plumbing a water pipe and reaching him might be difficult. His father can read SMS and he tends to message his dad. However, as he can read only Tamil, Ravi messages him in Tamil, most being very short ones which normally are meant to pass on information rather than start a conversation. For example one of his SMSes to his dad read: “அரிசி வாங்கியாச்சு”, which means ‘I have bought rice’. His dad rarely replies, but Ravi knows that he reads his messages, but quickly adds “I really doubt if he knows how to send an SMS, I know that he knows how to read, but typing, I really doubt…..though he doesn’t acknowledge it”. He calls his dad on his mobile phone very rarely. However, he is certain that his mother will convey or even broadcast his messages to the entire family. He says, “My mom is a telephone exchange and so I just call her to let everyone else know”. Though he tends to restrict conversations with his sister when he is at work, he messages her now and then. However, most messages that he has sent her are normally forwards and jokes (though he makes certain that he does not send her sexually explicit jokes). He normally calls her over the phone only on weekends and rarely after work, but he says, “My sister calls my mom several times a day and my dad at least once a day… they have to hear her voice at least once a day, else my mom won’t sleep …. A complete family chat over the mobile phone happens only on weekends.”

While the above case study clearly illustrates the need for voice communication when there is a lack of literacy skills, this might not sum up entirely the reasons for the choice of one medium over the other. Filial relationships come with a lot of emotional bonding, and the constant need to ensure the well-being of their children and specifically that of a girl-child takes precedence over all others as is visible in the case of Shobana’s parents.

Two cellphones – one for the parents

Shobana is a 22-year-old final year undergraduate student, and owns a Nokia smartphone that her uncle gifted her on her 21st birthday. Until then she owned a feature Nokia phone. Now she uses both, one specifically for her family and the other for her friends, though both have prepaid plans. Her smartphone is exclusively for friends with whom she texts a lot and is usually on Facebook/Whats App chat. The feature Nokia is used for her parents. Being the only daughter and only child, she says, “is nice in a way…. but it has its own pressures”. She recounts an incident when she was late coming home from college and had messaged her mother to let her know that. Her mom “frantically” started calling her, but she missed two of her mother’s calls. “My mom,” she says, “created a big drama at home and my dad played along.” For her mother, it was extremely important that Shobana call her and let her know that she will be late as she wanted to know if Shobana was safe. Her mother believes she knows Shobana so well that even the slightest change in her voice can convey what she is going through at that moment in time. Shobana is hence obliged to call her mom. However, calling over the phone doesn’t deter her from sending messages to her mother, but most messages seem to be forwards and jokes, which her mom forwards to her own network of friends and relatives. She does this with her dad too, but knows that he doesn’t forward them. Being the only child, her safety is very important to her family. She feels that her mother and father have become ‘very touchy’ especially after the ‘Delhi rape’ and similar incidents. She says, “I am sure they wouldn’t bother so much if I was a boy”. Why doesn’t she use the same phone for her friends and family? Because her parents become irritable when their call doesn’t go through to Shobana directly and is kept waiting. Shobana’s mom says, “My daughter has this tendency to talk to her friends for hours on end and we just don’t get through to her when we need her.” The feature phone is a hotline only to her mom and dad. This phone doesn’t have any data (internet) plan, while her smartphone has a 3G internet data pack added on. Her mom and dad communicate through SMS at times, but only when it comes to Shobana they seem very particular that the communication has to be voice call. However, they are fine with her forwarding socially relevant messages or jokes to their phones. Shobana‘s parents tolerate general communicative exchanges through messages; however, specific communication can and has to only happen through voice.

The above case clearly illustrates the need for voice communication over text by parents for ensuring the well-being of their child. But does family hierarchy and respect for certain modes of communication over others play a role in the choice of media? Is communication of certain news over a certain media within a family considered disrespectful? The case of Raghavan spells out expectations in this direction

The diligent planner

Raghavan, 65-year-old retired head of training and development at a major pharmaceutical company, has invested in a posh two-bedroom apartment in Panchagrami. He lives with his wife, who is a well-trained Montessori schoolteacher and a specialist in Tanjore painting. One of their sons lives in Bangalore and works for an IT company, while the other lives in Connecticut, USA. Raghavan and his wife own two i-pads and two Samsung tablets along with a Blackberry (Mr Raghavan) and Samsung (Mrs Raghavan) smartphones. Other than this they have two landline phones. They have a post-paid connection with a well-known telecom company and have a CUG (Closed User Group), where calls within this group are free. Their son and daughter-in-law (DIL), who live in Bangalore, are in this group. They tend to chat with their son and DIL over the phone on weekdays and normally tend to catch up with them over video-Skype from their tablets over the weekends so as to interact with their grand-daughters too. Other than this Mr Raghavan also owns a VOIP telecom service called Magic Jack, where calls to the US are free of cost and one is given a US number in India (This is more like a landline, but only connected through the internet). Once a month, the entire family (US, Bangalore and Chennai) gets together for at least an hour, so they can interact in an audio-visual setting. However, before getting on Skype over the weekends, Mr Raghavan tends to follow a minor yet ritualised procedure.

Step 1: Send an email to both his sons asking if they are free on a particular weekend.

Step 2: Call them individually before the call to confirm.

Step 3: Call them over the phone once again, if at all they have not turned up within a certain time.

Step 4: If at all financial matters are discussed over Skype, then send a follow-up note on the discussion.

His wife says that he tends to formalise discussions and loves setting up these kinds of calls. She adds, “He is disappointed to see our grandkids using cellphones…they are just 9 and 10… so whenever he calls them he does it over the home number and not their cellphones… but I call them on their cell.” Being pretty vocal in his thoughts and actions, his grandkids now know that if they have to talk to their granddad the only way is to call him over the landline or Skype. He insists his grandkids cannot call him on the cell. Before he calls up his son in Bangalore asking if he can get him on Skype over a weekend, he makes sure that his son’s in-laws are not in the house at the time. If they are present, Mr Raghavan tends to call his grandkids only over the phone and talk to them and ends his conversation quickly. He does not send or receive SMSes to/from his family. He abhors it and says, “If one is alive, why not hear their voice rather than see them mute?” Mr Raghavan was on Facebook until very recently and got out of it because he felt that youngsters were not respecting elders after Facebook’s entry into their lives. A few incidents seemed to have irked him. First was his niece who invited him to her son’s first birthday party over Facebook and not on phone, while the second seemed to be his nephew who let him know of the birth of his son by posting a picture on Facebook and not by calling him. He recounted some of these scenarios and suggested that youngsters should adopt a more sensitive and sensible mode of communication while communicating life events to elders. He seemed to think that Facebook is a mass media device rather than a personal communication device. He says, “If they want to let their network know something, irrespective of whoever is in it, they just say it on Facebook. It’s like a personal mass media, like a radio. Where is the respect for elders in this? We used to call our relatives to tell them some event like this (referring to his nephew). Am I the same as some acquaintance he has on Facebook?” His wife though expresses a slightly different sentiment and feels that calling over the phone can only happen with immediate family and expectations and closeness have changed from generation to generation. She feels that Mr Raghavan’s expectations might not suit the current generation. However, Mr Raghavan makes it clear that “if my people need to communicate with me, then I tell them, call me! I am still alive.” But with the rest of the world he isn’t so particular about the mode of communication. In fact, his wife tells me that he forwards jokes and socially relevant messages to a number of his friends and acquaintances over SMS or email or even Facebook (when he was on it). But, with family, it’s strictly voice.

It seems pretty clear that there exists a trend in the way Mr Raghavan chooses to communicate with his family. Whatever be the platform -- the internet, VOIP or a mobile phone, it’s always the voice function that takes precedence when it comes to communication within the family.

Parent-child communication in Panchagrami

Based on the case studies discussed above, it is clear that in Panchagrami, communication within a close family unit normally is through a mobile phone using two of its very basic features – Voice and/or SMS and specifically through voice rather than texts when it comes to detailed communication with parents. Little or no communication is routed through a social networking site and/or the internet. They play little or no role in fostering a communicative channel between children and parents who live with each other and take on a role only when it comes to communicating with immediate family members who have migrated for education or work. It also becomes clear that the higher the age, the higher the use of voice. Though education does seem to matter with certain groups, it recedes into the background when pitted against norms such as hierarchy and respect for elders. While aspects such as specificity and directness of communication matters, generic behaviour such as forwards and jokes are a welcome communicative medium within the family because they are perceived as indirect channels of communication. The closer the relationship the greater the use of voice, usually pre-planned via the texting channel, to optimise a mutually beneficial time-span for family interactions, more so if the family is separated by countries and continents

The expectation of voice or text is gendered and plays out differently for young men and women. Finally, in intimately networked circles, especially the immediate family, social networking sites are a broadcasting medium to the rest of the world while cellphones and specifically voice is for conversational intimacy with family.

Shriram Venkatraman is a PhD scholar, Department of Anthropology, University College London.

Nimmi Rangaswamy is Adjunct Professor, Department of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad


Andersson, K B (2011). ‘Kolkata Intellectuals and Bengali Modernity’, PhD thesis in social anthropology, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, PO Box 700. 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

Madianou, M, & Miller, D (2012). Migration and New Media, Routledge

www.netpehchaan.in, January 2014

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