Kellogg PhD Fellow Ivoline Budji Kefen (anthropology) spent from July 2022 through October 2023 in Virginia and Maryland on a Kellogg Institute Graduate Research Grant to conduct research for her project, “Connection, Identity, and Agency in (Displaced/Migrant) Women’s Communicative Engagements: The Case of Anglophone Cameroonian Women in Virginia and Maryland (USA) and Beyond. ” Upon her return, she sent the following summary of her work.
From July 2022 to October 2023, I researched the often-underrated communicative practices of women by focusing on Anglophone (English-speaking) Cameroonian female voluntary migrants and asylees/ asylum-seekers in Virginia and Maryland (USA), and those they maintained potent links with beyond these states and especially in Cameroon. My research question was: how do (forced and voluntary migrant) women manage new communication technologies especially new/social media and how do these technologies affect their roles, identities, and relationships within landscapes of migration and/or armed conflict? To effectively address the study’s interwoven and multilayered nature, I adopted a mixed methods approach: (online) ethnography, multimodal social semiotics, and social network analysis. Through these methods, I examined the connection between the women’s communicative behaviors/ practices and their social networks or relationships; analyzed how their online communication informed and was informed by wider sociocultural, spatial, and temporal realities; and investigated how this online communication interacted with wider offline processes to affect their identities and roles, as well as their sociopolitical lives especially regarding armed conflict in Cameroon (known as the Anglophone Crisis). I analyzed the data collected qualitatively and quantitatively using thematic, schema, and social network analyses, statistics, and multimodal social semiotics.
The most prominent finding was what I term ‘strategic (in)visibility’. This term describes how the women agentively choose when and how to become visible or invisible as they navigate the politics of the everyday and pursue their sociopolitical and other aims. Strategic (in)visibility is amplified by the ability of new communication technologies to concurrently reveal/ expose and conceal/ hide their users. Thus, to navigate the private and public spheres, the women utilize the affordances (i.e., possible uses or usable features) of these technologies especially new/social media to heighten their visibility (e.g., when making their voices heard and using their bodies on online platforms like Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, or Twitter), or heighten their invisibility (e.g., posting anonymously, with a different name, or as part of the crowd on Facebook, or sharing opinions mostly in ‘hidden’, private, or trusted forums like networks of kith/ kin on WhatsApp and Zoom). In these ways, the women enhance their autonomy and agency in their daily lives and organize themselves into politically aware and active communities at grassroots/ local, civil society, and wider levels, and within ‘safe spaces’ offered by these media. These communities sometimes transform to social movements, providing avenues for the women to contribute as agentive stakeholders to political processes (especially regarding the Anglophone Crisis) in ways that cannot be overlooked as has historically been the case in global discourses of conflict and peace.
A second major finding is the abundance of media plurality, where media choice is often dependent on participants’ wider realities and networks. The tendency is to choose media based on realities that are sociocultural (e.g., beliefs regarding age leading to choosing phone calls over WhatsApp texts to show respect), spatial (e.g., using new/social media more in the USA than Cameroon due to cost/ fear/ accessibility), and/or temporal (e.g., accessing more media the longer one stays in the USA due to growth in media knowledge/ availability, and economic viability over time). Likewise, media choice is mostly based on network ties (e.g., strong kith/ kin ties go more with WhatsApp, weaker ties like acquaintances more with Facebook, formal ties more with phone calls and email, and informal ties more with various new/social media depending on the need). Also, while more media platforms are used vis-à-vis labor and community-building in the USA, WhatsApp is preferred for transnational relationships especially with those in Cameroon (mostly because it is cheap, easy to use, and frequently accessed by communicators in both spaces). By facilitating the building, managing, and/or dissolving of the women’s social and transnational networks, these communicative practices enhance the women’s influence within their destination communities, and extend this influence upon their origin and other spaces, further revealing valuable insights about the complex interactions between the global and local in today’s hyper-interconnected world.
A third finding is the women (re-)crafting identities and roles in online and offline spaces as they adapt within the USA and participate socioeconomically and politically in activities in Cameroon, e.g., launching or contributing to GoFundMe links on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook, and organizing in-person fundraising events (their flyers are circulated via new/social media) to raise funds to assist internally displaced women and girls and/or separatist fighters. Thus, the women deploy identities, often simultaneously, as content users/ creators/ distributors, or victims/ activists/ perpetrators/ negotiators, among others, and access more public spaces, furthermore (re-)shaping and keeping individual and collective memory alive. Nevertheless, they also exhibit socioculturally expected roles like centering more peaceful paths regarding the Anglophone Crisis, and practicing their traditional roles of mothering, here aided by new/social media, e.g., accessing and monitoring their children’s activities on platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. Notwithstanding, the women’s media use, coupled with socioeconomic power that comes with migration, contribute to them taking charge of their own lives and futures, and engaging with their identities and/or roles as these shift from being traditionally restricted to the private sphere, towards more decision-making and other roles within the public sphere.
Ultimately, the findings illustrate the women being just as involved in issues linked to media/ communication, armed conflict, and migration/ transnationalism, as men, albeit often differently, and increasingly through new/social media. Their mostly hidden/ quiet activism in daily interaction repeatedly comes across as a deliberate tactic to achieve their aims in ‘safe’, familiar spaces, where they draw from available resources to challenge the status quo and effect change. Insights from their thoughts, experiences, and actions thus address the urgent question of armed conflict and displacement/ migration in today’s world of advanced communication technology. Consequently, ventures for peace, stability, and tolerance, can draw from how the women ensure societal cohesion and continuity at the level of the everyday where violence takes root, and so unequivocally include and center their voices at all levels of peace and development interventions.
Immediate next steps regarding my research include completing a dissertation monograph, finalizing the generation of audiovisual outputs (awareness videos, montages, and a documentary), presenting at conferences (e.g., the African Studies Association annual meeting in November 2023), and submitting papers/ articles to peer-reviewed journals for publication. More long-term plans include: i.) continuing my research by focusing more holistically on the ways women collaborate across physical and virtual spaces to enhance their wellbeing (and by extension, society’s) and access/ participation in all spheres of life; and ii.) applying the skills and knowledge gained during the current research to more practical involvements in migration and conflict and peace issues/ studies, e.g., designing and/or working on multidisciplinary projects to facilitate migrants adaptation to – and healthy intercultural/ interracial interaction within – destination communities, and on interventions geared towards building long-lasting peace and development especially including society’s more vulnerable members.