Transnational Families Caring and Learning through ICTs - Sondra Cuban


Here is Alice, a care worker in her car in England surrounded by family from all over the world, even though you can’t see them. Her car, looking like a mobile office, sounded like a disco with different rings and vibrations as family called from abroad on the phone in the car door to ask favours and chat in tune with colleagues and supervisors who called and texted her on the phone in her hand to switch routes. When I drove around with her for a year to understand her paid care for the elderly, I discovered her unpaid care for family overseas. As a self-sufficient, bring-your-own-device migrant Alice was part of (excuse the jargon here) SoLoMo (social, local, and mobile) cultures bundling her ICTs.

A participant in an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-based study that I conducted from 2007-2010, Alice is representative of the other 59 migrant care workers I talked to about their lives, networks, social support systems, and uses of digital technologies.

What I mean by ICTs are audiovisual with telephone and computer networks. ICTs are interactive, including internet-based services like Facebooking (or the like, such as in Poland), Yahoo messaging (popular in the Philippines), skyping (world over) as well as mobile telephonies that can include the above and texting, flashing, apping, and voice messaging.

As a footnote,  I’m not focusing on ICT platforms, functions or features or devices, like hand-helds  or wearable computers — as cool as the iwatch sounds with its one- and- a-half inch display, I’m a device and platform-agnostic and as Virginia Eubanks said: “I have bad news and good news. The “Bad news: Twitter didn’t start the Egyptian Revolution. Good news: The people did.”

I’m also not focusing on technology diffusion/adoption or the benefits of hi-tech for families or even access and distribution— Eubanks spotlights a digital dead end  (2012), discussing the distribution trick. Migrant workers and their away-families are often in the forefront of adoption out of necessity.

Last but not least I am not talking about instructional design for educational technology or even  MOOCS or edupunk to resist this–there is lots of research on this from Yrjo Engstrom (2011) who wants mobile learning to be like flash mobs or Anya Kamenetz focusing on DIY Universities (2011).


I am talking about usage, connecting it to mobilities, affect and social presence in socio-historical and political contexts. Back to the participants. Their stories of using these social technologies are profiled in a book I wrote this year called, Deskilling Migrant Women in the Global Care Industry (Palgrave Macmillan) .

The participants in my study were using ICTs within their transnational families for exchanging information, learning and caring - everyday things. And these ICTs were layered and bundled for different purposes. One participant in my study, Tina, spoke with her depressed mother in Zambia on the phone for the immediate emotional effects of voice to gauge her moods and help her and she emailed her brother in Canada for information about business issues.

Looking closely at these migrant workers and their away-families enabled me to get a dynamic view of ICT usage across households and borders through embedding mobilities within care and learning. These are all intertwined when it comes to transnational families.

Although Alice was downwardly mobile in England, functioning as a frontline care worker not an occupational therapist educator as she was in the Philippines, she was a go-to cosmopolitan with her high digital literacy skills and access to technologies–using multiple media sources. Although few participants had smart phones— by the way that’s just branding— they used old and new technologies smartly, what I mean by this is that they were sharing, repairing and optimizing all aspects of their technologies—and they were used on the move to communicate with family abroad. 

These families include fictive kin, partners, and other mothers, not just biological-based members. I relied on their views of family. Transnational families can be considered ‘familyhood’ across the miles (Bryceson & Vuolera, 2002). They are also considered part of, ‘transnational motherhood’  (Hondagnu-Sotelo & Avila, 2001), or the newer, ‘transnational fatherhood’ (Carling, Menjivar, and Schmalzbauer, 2012)  and ‘transnational parenthood’ (Carling, Menjivar & Schmalzbauer, 2012). ‘Global householding’ (Hoang & Yeoh, 2012) is the latest term, emphasizing survival strategies of families with at least one member working in an advanced economy remitting. These families have ‘distributed homes’ (Williams, Anderson, & Dourish, 2008).

Transnational families have geographical locations but are not fixed in one place, as here or there because they often move and experience a blurring of boundaries in establishing a social and intimate presence with their loved ones. Parents often say, ‘I’m here but I’m there’ (Hondagnu-Sotelo & Avila, 2001). They experience this as a ‘tug-o-where’ as Judith Enriquez (2011) highlights due to the conflicts in establishing intimacy and in emotionally managing relations from far away. Location is problematic with ICTs.

It has been referred to as, ‘absent presence’ (Gergen, 2002) or what Palackal et al (2011) call ‘virtual co-presence’ or even, ‘co-presence by proxy’ (Baldassar, 2008). ICTs enable mediated interactions. Considered to be inferior to the gold standard of in-person presence or what is called, ‘pure relationships’ (Mirca & Madiniaou, 2012) with its moralistic narrative, there are many facets and these two domains often blur.

ICTs within transnational families, then, were not about ‘care drain’ (i.e., the ‘Euro-orphan’ phenomenon dubbed in the media of Polish migrant workers in the UK ‘abandoning’ their children in Poland, communicating every so often). They are not even a ‘care gain’ (i.e., mobile phone company ads showing fathers and sons expressing sentiments they normally wouldn’t). They are closer to  ‘blessings and burdens’ (Horst, 2006) that create ‘contradictory mobilities’ (Madinaou & Miller, 2012).

  • CTs were not just the glue of transnationalism (Vertovec, 2004) but spurred greater movement of families as they astronauted about to help one another and were often sponsored. They were constantly on the move and lived ‘betwixt and between’ two or more worlds at once (Grillo, 2007). The ICTs, segueing from ‘holding environments’ acted as virtual homes that buffered the transitions and enabled connections, not ruling out power issues that are pervasive in proximate families.
  • Time’s place in care was important as Joan Tronto (2003) found—the ICTs, through time, text, and talk were key to sustaining relations at a distance.  But to do this background awareness of each other’s material worlds were necessary—this contributed to caring about family and caring for family But this caring for was infused with power and could be seen as both micromanagement and emotional labour.
  • The ICTs involved new ‘emotional grammars’ (Nussbaum, 2001) or ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild, 1983) that recognized nuanced emotions and managed virtual intimacies to recreate a sense of ‘home’ — some emotions were performed while others were suppressed. This meant family from afar building on shared words, new vocabularies and interaction styles. These new registers and words for affection and gratitude as well as anger and pressure—helped to manage transnational relations and changing sense of selves and establish empathy. But alienation could result if the interactions led to social divisions or were delayed, misunderstood or premature as with drunk calling/texting and emailing (Hollenbaugh & Ferris, 2012).
  • Their learnings were not about expanding networks to achieve more social or human capital so much as for closure among partners to achieve deeper and denser ties. But they weren’t just ‘telecocooning’ (Habuchi, 2005) . Operating as types of  ‘mobile learning communities’ (Danaher, et al 2009), they amplified socio-cognitive exchanges such as learning new languages, or how to code-switch for example, from American English to a regional British dialect, back to Taglish to Tagalog or as with digital literacies, using acronyms as words, LOL and OMG (or my favourite, TTFN–ta ta for now), learning how to change c’s to k’s or numbers for prepositions like F2F for face to face (this term carries less weight now considering the audiovisual communication). These diasporic family systems were learning about each other’s everyday worlds in a ways that were familiar and in doing so, were expressing their language rights and sense of inclusion since they were often marginalized, albeit other co-ethnics, in their local communities.

Here I have highlighted the resilient and creative ways transnational families adapt to being in different time zones and places, sustaining their relationships across borders in spite of their long and difficult work schedules. If you are in a transnational family, does any of this ring a bell?


Note - This is an edited version of a longer post on Sondra Cuban's blog, republished with Sondra's permission.