Digital Kinship

Penni Fu
MSc in Digital Anthropology at UCL

Domestic daily practice in urban families has been increasingly infused with digital technology. Digital is powerful not only in its capacity to cross the geographic boundary but also in its potentiality for constructing locality and particularity. In my two-month research on one-child families whose children study in the same public school located in central Shanghai China, I investigate the process of objectification between the digital realm and families, and how it informs an understanding of kinship.
In many cases, interaction between parent and child is not necessarily through mediated communication but through negotiations regarding digital issues. For example, how a parent and child find ways to limit computer usage, as well as how parents organize domestic timing according to a child’s digital habit. Even in the case of mediated communication through mobile phones, it is still closely linked to off-the-screen domestic life, such as phone topping up, that objectifies the immediate connection between child and parent regardless of whether calls are made or not.
Not only is digital and family intertwined, but they are also in a dialectical process of making and shaping each other through daily digital practice. Firstly, families shape their own digital practice to culturally specific purposes and forms, which in turn represents the family. For example, phone topping-up is not merely a supply of credits, but a way of nurturing that is similar to how parents prepare food for their children. Secondly, digital practice objectified families by offering what Miller coined ‘expansive realization’ and ‘expansive potential’ (2001:10-14) [1]. These two terms respectively showcase digital practice as a means to enact an idealized form of family, or a never thought-of form that shows what a family can be. At one extreme, some observed evidence confirmed elements of the traditional model of Chinese kinship: decision of purchasing digital products is made by parent and child as a role sector upon the consideration of family as a unit with unanimous benefits. For instance, disciplining children’s computer usage fulfills parents’ roles of maintaining family harmony. These constitute an ideal parent-child relationship that echoes traditional values. On the other extreme, the ideal family is also juxtaposed with a heretofore unimagined form of family. For instance, through texting, parents do not have to be stern and feared as stereotypes governed by tradition, nor are children too shy to express care and love toward their parents. Such a two-way, emotionally expressive form of parent-child relations might not ever have been thought of before.
The paradox rises in this process: in order to close the ‘digital generation gap’ (Papert 1996) [2] and get closer to children, parents try to know more about digital media and devices by using them. On the other hand, parents need the ‘digital generation gap’ to differentiate the generations so that the less they know about it the more they can exert control over their children. As one of my informant’s mum said, the ‘one-child generation does not know beifen (seniority) because they don’t have siblings at home where they will follow rules together.’ Rather, one child can easily challenge the rules, and get parents to compromise in the end. The point here is not to stress the digital generation gap, as the generation gap exists anyway, but to reiterate that digital itself is the conflict as well as the conflict solver – that is to say, digital can create generational ideas while still standing as the promise toward removing the perceived gap in between.
What underlines the paradox seems to be the flexibility within kinship relations. However, such a flexible practiced kinship role is rather inflexible in that it is keyed in normative expectations about a particular kinship role (Miller 2007) [3]. But the expectation itself is subject to cultural and social transformation. The discrepancies between the practiced role and the normative kinship role can be understood as a process of transforming kinship relations, in which new boundary between kin and non-kin may emerge and forms of sociality may come about.
[1] Miller, D, and D. Slater. 2001. The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg
[2] Papert, S. 1996. The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap.
Atlanta: Longstreet Press.
[3] Miller, D. 2007. What is a Relationship? Ethnos 72: 535-54.