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New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion

Author: Rich Ling
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: Kathrin Kissau

In New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion, Rich Ling examines how mobile phones strengthen social bonds. In this well written and highly entertaining book, he argues that mobile communication can contribute to social cohesion, especially of small groups, through its potential for ritual interaction. With a multitude of examples, Ling illustrates how mobile phones have become part of our daily lives, expanding the flow of interaction beyond face-to-face communication. Content itself hereby appears to be secondary; it is the simplification and increase of ritual contacts that act as a catalyst for social bonding.

The reader is introduced to the topic of the book by vivid narratives of Ling's personal experiences ("The Plumber's Entrance"). In the next chapters, Ling traces the intellectual history of social cohesion (what holds society together?) and discusses the contribution of rituals to providing solidarity. Thereafter, he applies this theoretical framework to mobile communication and collects evidence from other researches that support his considerations.

His line of argument draws on the sociological theories of Emile Durkheim, Erving Goffman, and Randall Collins and their reflections on ritual interaction and social cohesion. Ling begins by tracing Durkheim's argument that ritual is a social construction that has the ability to provide cohesion (43). Referring to Goffman, Ling then transfers the concept of ritual to everyday situations (58) and argues that, contrary to Collins' assumption, the effect of social cohesion can also be achieved in a mediated sphere and co-presence is not necessarily a precondition (77). Thereby, he manages to smoothly apply traditional sociological theory to present day technological developments illustrating how the former -- with minor adaptations -- remain valid in new settings. Contrary to some tendencies in research, this approach demonstrates that though technologies might have supervened or changed the underlying behavior patterns remain.

Thus, Ling develops the main argument of the book that mobile communication enforces social cohesion of small groups through its potential for ritual interaction. Assuming that bonding is a question of trust and reciprocity which can be brought about by rituals, he argues that the use of the mobile phone is nowadays part of the ritual of small-scale interaction. SMS and mobile phone conversations allow people to dissolve differences and bond, develop a mutual understanding of a situation, and thus a feeling of solidarity. He supports this assumption by addressing various forms of mediated ritual interaction such as pre-configured greetings, the negotiation of romantic involvements, humor, and gossip.

The evidence Ling refers to is mostly derived from his personal observations and interviews, as well as from a number of studies conducted by researchers around the world. Though vivid and entertaining it is striking that most of these examples are drawn from single incidents with adolescents and young adults. This raises the question of whether the described ritualistic use of the mobile phone and its effects are assignable to other generations as well, as communication behavior in adult life and youth differ. His observations lead Ling to conclude that the cohesive effect is mainly true for close social ties (family and friends). However, the reader learns less about the consequences of mobile communication for weaker social ties and is left to wonder if the stated limitation of the cohesive effect might be a function of the specific sample and their usage patterns.

Ling also touches upon alternative effects of mobile communication. Though he credits the mobile phone with the ability to build new bridges, he concedes that individualization remains to be the prevailing antagonistic trend. He also mentions that rituals can fail and not lead to social cohesion. Further, and foremost, he notes that the mobile phone might have a negative effect on the co-present situation. Specifically, he states that the "device does not always fit into the flow of co-present interaction" (175) and it is necessary to "juggle between the sensibilities of our two audiences" (65). Though Ling resumes that this might result in drawing attention away from the face-to-face situation, it would have been interesting to have followed up on this effect of mobile phone conversations on co-present rituals and bonding. For example, how does being interrupted by the buzzing of the phone, the parallel viewing of or replying to SMS or the forced eavesdropping on half a conversation impinge on ritualistic face-to-face behavior? Obviously, the effect of mobile communication on social cohesion can not only be analyzed from the perspective of the caller and the called but also from that of the co-present individual. In this context, the relevance of the setting of mobile communication might also be worth an investigation as this is plainly a central difference to conversations via landlines, where the location of the communication partners is known and its possible influence on the communication behavior can be acknowledged.

Another interesting aspect that is addressed by Ling regarding the use of the mobile phone is the difference between SMS and verbal conversations. Specific rituals for both modes seem to have developed that result in a situation-related preference of one mode. Teenagers, for example, apparently prefer using SMS for the transmission of uncomfortable news as well as for the initial contact when flirting, as the reaction of the recipient is not as immediate. Future analyses might delve further into the two modes' diverse communication rituals. Generally, Ling convincingly presents evidence that social cohesion can be obtained with the support of mobile communication, but it remains somewhat unclear whether or not this is at the expense of looser social ties or of co-present contacts.

Kathrin Kissau:
Kathrin Kissau is a senior researcher at the Swiss Foundation for Research in Social Sciences at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Her research interests include the impact of ICT on social cohesion as well as on political participation and representation.  <kathrin.kissau@fors.unil.ch>

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