Understanding Mobile Phone Impact on Livelihoods in Developing Countries: A New Research Framework


Duncombe, R. (2012). Understanding Mobile Phone Impact on Livelihoods in Developing Countries: A New Research Framework. Development Informatics Working Paper Series, No.48/2012. Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management. Retrieved March 20, 2012 from http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/idpm/research/publications/wp/di/di_wp48.htm

Work data:

ISBN: 978-1-905469-17-8

Type of work: Working Paper


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Mobile phones are diffusing rapidly in developing countries, but research conceptualisations have been lagging behind practice, particularly those that link mobile phones to livelihoods. This working paper seeks to fill this gap in two ways.

First, by means of a literature review that uses key livelihoods concepts as a template for analysis. It starts by analysing mobile phones according to how they impact upon assets – through facilitating asset substitution, enhancement, combination, exchange and forms of dis-embodiment. The analysis also incorporates an understanding of the intervening structures and processes that intermediate assets through passive diffusion and active innovation of mobile technologies. On this basis key roles for mobile phones are defined within livelihood strategies.

The second part of the paper revisits the livelihood framework and suggests a number of adaptations that: a) integrate a broader conception of capitals; b) emphasise underlying information processes within livelihoods analysis; c) interpret forms of intermediation; and d) delineate outputs, outcomes and impacts. Finally, the paper suggests areas of research concerning mobile phones and livelihoods where the revised framework can be applied.


Taken from Understanding mobiles and livelihoods.

The livelihoods approach suggests four potential impacts of mobiles on the assets that underpin all livelihoods:

  • Asset substitution: saving time and costs for journeys, but adding costs for mobile expenditure.
  • Asset enhancement: greater efficiency in use of other assets e.g. for agricultural production or relationship-building.
  • Asset disembodiment: the conversion of assets to digital form e.g. the codification of social contacts, or digitisation of money.
  • Asset exchange/combination: e.g. the exchange of airtime or m-cash.

The assets pentagon is made up by: natural capital, human capital, physical capital, financial capital and social capital.