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Summary of Week 3

African American doctor in the US shown holding a smartphone. We see a close up of his hands and that he is dressed in a doctor's gown and has a stethoscope around his neck.

This week’s course was devised with several aims in mind. The first was simply educational, giving you a summary of the many different ways in which smartphones and digital devices have been used by diverse populations around the world in the area of health and welfare. We have drawn attention to areas such as the use of visual components for expressing care, or mobile money for helping people deal with the expense of illness. We have taken a broad approach to health including more general fitness and wellbeing but also traditional and complementary medicine.

We have also tried to include a perspective both on how ordinary people, including many health workers such as nurses in an oncology clinic, adopt and adapt smartphones for health purposes. We have tried to consider the negative as well as positive consequences of using digital technologies in relation to health.

Inevitably, given the time when this course was composed, we have also reflected on the COVID-19 pandemic, which was the context for its composition. Overall, there is a dominant narrative to this week, which has been the importance of recognising what people do with the apps they are already comfortable with, rather than the established area of mHealth, with its emphasis on bespoke smartphone apps. This shift in orientation reflects a much wider ethos that we call ‘smart-from-below’.

As in the previous weeks, the course has focused mainly on a single, if quite extensive, anthropological research project. We would not pretend that our health and welfare interventions have been especially profound or consequential, and several of them may continue for some time to come before we can assess their contribution, but we felt it was important to discuss them because they indicate a potential for anthropology beyond our contribution to education.

Many academic anthropological projects concentrate on being critical of the status quo. In our project, we also wanted to concentrate on proactively making recommendations as to how something can be done better or more effectively than before. That also means sharing the responsibility of getting things wrong, giving poor advice and possibly thereby causing harm. This is why mostly, our suggestions are quite tentative and would only be scaled up in collaboration with the expertise of relevant medical professionals. If they have given you any insights that you can now employ in relation to your own health and welfare, then that would also be the kind of outcome that we aspire to.

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An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health

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