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Digital Asymmetries in Transnational Communication: Expectation, Autonomy and Gender Positioning in the Household

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Digital Asymmetries in Transnational Communication: Expectation, Autonomy and Gender Positioning in the Household

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In contemporary society, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are widely cherished for helping transnational households preserve a coherent sense of familyhood despite geographical separation. Despite ICTs having positive benefits for the maintenance of long-distance intimacies, digital asymmetries characterized by gaps in routines, emotional experiences and outcomes of ICT use can also emerge between family members of different structural, social and geographical conditions. Drawing on an innovative 'content-context diary' cum participant observation, this article investigates the multi-dimensional digital asymmetries emerging from the transnational communication of Chinese 'study mothers' in Singapore. Using the data visualization and analysis tool 'ecomap', the findings uncover that study mothers were largely beleaguered by expectation asymmetry and autonomy asymmetry, arising from different expectations to and control over daily transnational communication with their family members. The study mothers were disadvantaged by their relatively isolated life situations in the host society and accentuated gender hierarchies in the household.
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FULL-LENGTH RESEARCH ARTICLE
Digital Asymmetries in Transnational
Communication: Expectation, Autonomy and
Gender Positioning in the Household
Yang Wang
1
& Sun Sun Lim
2
1
Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design, 487372 Singapore
2
Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Singapore University of Technology and Design, 487372 Singapore
In contemporary society, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are widely cherished
for helping transnational households preserve a coherent sense of familyhood despite geographical sep-
aration. Despite ICTs having positive bene®ts for the maintenance of long-distance intimacies, digital
asymmetries characterized by gaps in routines, emotional experiences, and outcomes of ICT use can
also emerge between family members of different structural, social, and geographical conditions.
Drawing on an innovative contentcontext diary-cum-participant observation, this article investi-
gates the multi-dimensional digital asymmetries emerging from the transnational communication of
Chinese study mothersin Singapore. Using the data visualization and analysis tool ecomap,the
®ndings uncover that study mothers were largely beleaguered by expectation asymmetry and auton-
omy asymmetry, arising from different expectations to and control over daily transnational commu-
nication with their family members. The study mothers were disadvantaged by their relatively isolated
life situations in the host society and accentuated gender hierarchies in the household.
Keywords: Digital Asymmetry, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Transnational
Communication, Gender, Participant Observation, Ecomap, Chinese Migrant Mothers
doi:10.1093/jcmc/zmaa012
The increasing accessibility, affordability and functionality of information and communication tech-
nologies (ICTs) have emancipated people from temporal and spatial constraints, and enabled a life-
style of perpetual connectivitywhere the boundaries between absence and presence, near and far,
and private and public, are blurred (Katz & Aakhus, 2002;Turkle, 2011). Versatile, efficient, and rich
with affordances, ICTs such as smartphones, tablets, and portable laptops have found their way into
our lives, perceived at once to be both revolutionary and taken-for-granted (Ling, 2012).
Indispensable in mediated communication, and laden with affordances enabling users to convey cues
Corresponding author: Yang Wang; e-mail: yang.iris.wang@gmail.com, yang_wang@sutd.edu.sg
Editorial Record: First manuscript received on 23 June 2019; Revisions received on 23 November 2019; Accepted by Lee
Humphreys on 30 January 2020; Final manuscript received on 3 February 2020
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 00 (2020) 117
#The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of International Communication Association. This is an Open Access ar-
ticle distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits
unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
1
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
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and views ranging from the barest minimum to the full onslaught of aural and visual expressions,
ICTs have become a veritable sociotechnical phenomenon. The panoply of communicative platforms,
modes, languages, and codes offered and powered by ICTs have firmly entrenched them in the com-
municative arsenal that people use to make social connections, both direct and mediated.
For international migrants and their remote family members, in particular, ICTs are venerated as
the social glue of transnationalism(Vertovec, 2004) which allows them to remain involved in each
others daily life routines and perform familial responsibilities regularly, even from afar (Baldassar,
2016;Madianou & Miller, 2011;Wilding, 2006).
Despite ICTs strengthening long-distance intimacy, mediated communication is not equally liber-
ating for every family member (Horst, 2006;Parre~
nas, 2005). Digital asymmetries, characterized by
gaps in routines, emotional experiences as well as outcomes of ICT use (Lim, 2016), can and do
emerge between transnational family members of different structural, social and geographical condi-
tions (Ben
õtez, 2012;Clark, 2012;Madianou, 2014). In the home, digital asymmetries can exist along
multiple axes, including access, competency and power asymmetry (Lim, 2016). In transnational
households, many such asymmetries tend to become accentuated due to the distinct life rhythms of
family members after long-term physical separation.
To shed light on the asymmetrical relationships underlying mediated communication within
transnational households, we mounted an in-depth investigation into digital asymmetries experienced
by a group of Chinese migrant mothers, with special focus on asymmetries that become more pro-
nounced after the transnational split of the household. Engaging with extant literature on transna-
tional communication, digital and gender inequalities vis-
a-vis ICTs, we seek to deepen
understanding of the power relations and emotional hierarchies in transnational households and their
impact on experiences and outcomes of mediated communication. In particular, the study provides
novel insights into how gender positioning could shape ICT use and transnational communication in
nuanced ways beyond simply gender differences and traditional household labor division.
The Chinese migrant mothers being studied are study mothers(妈妈/peidu mama) who
accompany their school-going children to pursue a primary or secondary education in Singapore
(Huang & Yeoh, 2005,2011;Wang & Lim, 2017). Becoming de facto single mothersafter transna-
tional relocation, these mothers rely heavily on ICTs to reconstitute transnational family intimacies
(Wang & Lim, 2017).
Chinese study mothers(Peidu mama) in Singapore
Peidu mama (妈妈)or study mothersoriginate from the burgeoning family arrangement of
education migrationamong middle- and upper-middle-class households across East Asia. In typical
households undertaking education migration, mothers uproot and resettle along with their children
who receive education in more developed, English-speaking countries, while fathers remain in the
home country to continue working and provide financial support (Huang & Yeoh, 2005;Lee, 2010;
Waters, 2002). Compared to the fathers who retain their existing jobs and social relationships, peidu
mama tend to pay a higher price for the migratory journey as they disrupt their lives and sacrifice
their own career aspirations, social lives and marital intimacy to care for their children (Chee, 2003;
Huang & Yeoh, 2005;Jeong, You, & Kwon, 2014). This emerging trend is witnessed across Asia, in-
cluding astronaut familiesfrom Hong Kong and Taiwan (e.g., Chee, 2003;Waters, 2002), kirogi
familiesfrom South Korea (e.g., Jeong et al., 2014;Lee, 2010), and peidu familiesfrom Mainland
China (e.g., Huang & Yeoh, 2005,2011;Wang & Lim, 2017).
Digital Asymmetries in Transnational Communication Y. Wang & S. S. Lim
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Studies have revealed that the international education imperative is deeply rooted in middle-class
aspirations of reproducing their relatively privileged social status and maintaining upward mobility
(Waters, 2006). With Asia experiencing heightened globalization, cosmopolitanacademic creden-
tials and strong English language skills leading to enhanced cultural capital derived from overseas ed-
ucation are seen as sound guarantees of such class reproduction (Huang & Yeoh 2005;Waters 2006).
Therefore, overseas education of adolescent children has become the top priority of growing numbers
of middle-class Asian families, meriting painstaking journeys to unfamiliar foreign lands and transna-
tional split of households (Chee 2003;Huang & Yeoh, 2005). In the Chinese context, the long-
standing tradition of heavy parental investment and the one-child policycombine to place the child
as only hopeof the family, further accentuating the education imperative (Fong, 2004;Huang &
Yeoh, 2005). Chinese mothers, who have historically been socialized to have stronger affective con-
nections with their children and shoulder more nurturing responsibilities than fathers (Chee 2003;
Zang, 2003), are expected to devote every effort to supporting childrens overseas education, foregoing
their own career prospects and emotional wellbeing (Chee, 2003;Huang & Yeoh, 2005,2011).
Singapore is one of the most popular destinations for Chinese peidu families due to its cultural
proximity to Chinese society, bilingual education system (English with Mandarin/Malay/Tamil), in-
centive schemes for foreign students and their care-givers and relative affordability (Huang & Yeoh
2005,2011). The first wave of peidu mama arrived in Singapore around 2000 after the Singapore gov-
ernment started to issue a special type of long-term social visit pass to Mother or Grandmother of a
child or grandchild studying in Singapore on a Students Pass(see the website of Singapore
Immigration & Checkpoint Authority). This gendered immigration policy confirms the dependent
status of study mothers in Singapore, and determines that their connection with the host society ter-
minates immediately if their children quit the overseas education or enter college. Compared to busi-
ness or skilled immigrants who enter the destination country as citizens or potential citizens, study
mothers remain as transient sojourners(Huang & Yeoh, 2005) whose privileges and opportunities
for career, further education, investment and so on are highly restricted (Huang & Yeoh, 2005,2011).
Most peidu mama are well educated and had formal employment in China, yet gave up their pre-
vious occupations to become full-time mothers or take on unstable jobs after relocation (Huang &
Yeoh, 2005,2011;Wang & Lim, 2017). In particular, the high tuition fees and living expenses in
Singapore drive some mothers hailing from lower-middle-class families to seek local employment so
as to make ends meet. However, barriers such as poor English proficiency, unrecognized foreign cre-
dentials and restrictive immigration policies necessitated that they take on menialjobs as cleaners,
waitresses, and masseuses (Huang & Yeoh, 2005). For these relatively well-educated women, exclusion
from the professional job market often resulted in poor self-esteem and financial dependence on their
husbands, thereby leading to the renegotiation of family relationships and reinforcement of tradi-
tional gender labor division in the household (Chee, 2003;Huang & Yeoh, 2005;Waters, 2002).
Digital asymmetries in transnational households
For transnational households, ICT-mediated communication enable information, emotions, and care
to transcend geographical and temporal boundaries, thus allowing physically split households to keep
affective family bonds alive (Horst, 2006;Vertovec, 2004;Wilding, 2006), stay updated on one anoth-
ers emotional wellbeing and provide help when necessary (Baldassar, 2016;Madianou & Miller,
2011;Uy-Tioco, 2007;Wilding, 2006). With the prevalence of smart ICT devices and the proliferation
of digital applications, transnational families are increasingly enveloped by poly-media(Madianou
Y. Wang & S. S. Lim Digital Asymmetries in Transnational Communication
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& Miller, 2012) and strategically employ a constellation of ICTs to meet different communication
needs and manage relationships (Madianou, 2014;Madianou & Miller, 2012;Wilding, 2006).
Despite hallowed expectations about ICTs sustaining long-distance intimacy, they can also intro-
duce digital inequalities between family members in terms of differential access and potential gains
(Courtois & Verdegem, 2016;Dimaggio & Hargittai, 2001). Whereas digital dividedescribes a gap
between ICT havesand have-nots,digital inequality encompasses multi-layered disparities in digi-
tal skills, support, autonomy and uses (Dimaggio & Hargittai, 2001;Hargittai, 2002;Hargittai &
Walejko, 2008;Pearce & Rice, 2013;Reisdorf & Groselj, 2017;van Deursen & van Dijk, 2014). Whilst
these digital inequalities typically occur between individuals of different socio-economic profiles, they
can also emerge within the home with inequalities emerging between members of the same family
(Clark, 2012;Lim, 2016).
Lim (2016) proposes the notion of asymmetryto describe inequitable mediated relationships
between family members, explicating a typology of asymmetries including: (a) access asymmetrydif-
ferent connectivity levels due to gaps in availability of ICTs which are typical among transnational
families; (b) competency asymmetrydeficit of technical skills to exploit ICT affordances; (c) power
asymmetrycontrolling and imposing conditions on ICT use of/by other family members; (d) expec-
tation asymmetrydisparity in expectations of mutual contactability and responsiveness in mediated
communication; and (e) value asymmetryconflicting attitudes towards ICTs and their utility.
In transnational households, digital asymmetries tend to sharpen as previously hidden dimen-
sions may come to the fore and new dimensions may emerge after a long period of physical separa-
tion (Ben
õtez, 2012;Parre~
nas, 2005). Previous studies have scrutinized access asymmetries between
migrants and their left-behind family, usually with the former enjoying superior connectivity and
higher quality of mediated communication than the latter (e.g., Cabalquinto, 2018;Madianou, 2014;
Parre~
nas, 2005). Competency asymmetries were also widely noted within transnational families where
adolescents and young adults possess stronger digital skills than their elders (e.g., Katz, 2010;Tripp &
Herr-Stephenson, 2009). Power asymmetries also manifested themselves in surveillance and demon-
strations of authority via remittances (e.g., Cabanes & Acedera, 2012;Hannaford, 2015;Madianou,
2014;Mckay, 2007;Parre~
nas, 2005). In particular, unidirectional surveillance via ICTs was frequently
witnessed between physically separate husbands and wives, with those who migrate as breadwinners
exploiting this power asymmetry (e.g., Cabanes & Acedera, 2012;Hannaford, 2015).
Although previous research has provided considerable insights into such asymmetries, the focus
has mainly been on the objective existence of salient disparities in ICT access, skills, practices and
power relations. Digital asymmetries that derive from subjective perceptions of family members in re-
lation to unequal mediated relationships, information sharing and emotion flows, such as expectation
asymmetry and value asymmetry, have been less closely investigated. The present study seeks to fill
this gap by delving into the perceptual and emotional asymmetries that emerge or become accentu-
ated only after the physical separation of the household. In addition, the study also explores the socio-
cultural and contextual reasons behind these asymmetries and emotional negotiations of study moth-
ers as they cope with negative transnational communication experiences.
Gender, household ICT use and positionality
In investigating study mothers, gender is an inescapable issue as theirs is a distinctly gendered family
arrangement. Gender inequality is inherent in the tacit consensus that mothers should assume greater
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responsibility than fathers in nurturing their children and must prioritize their childrens education
over their careers should the two come into conflict.
Previous studies have identified various gender asymmetries in household ICT adoption. For in-
stance, women often have less access and weaker ICT skills than men, although this gap is narrowing
among urban families (e.g., Fortunati, 2002;Ling & Haddon, 2003). As for purposes and practices of
ICT use, women tend to engage intensively in maintaining family ties and juggling workfamily ten-
sions, while men actively seek recreation and coordinate extra-domestic life (e.g., Clark, 2012;Ling &
Haddon, 2003;Wajcman, Bittman, & Brown, 2008). Gender differences also exists in expectations
around mediated communication, with women expecting faster responses to media messages and
reacting more strongly when their partners fail to reply on time (e.g., Su, 2015). While these studies
have shed considerable light on the differences gender brings to uses of mediated communication,
more attention must be paid to nuanced socio-cultural and contextual factors underlying gender
differences.
To understand digital asymmetries in relation to the gendered life experiences of study mothers,
we draw on the theory of positionality (Alcoff, 2006) which regards gender as an interpretive horizon
from which people understand, engage in and make sense of various contexts of their everyday life. A
horizon refers to the range of substantive vision available to a specific individual from his/her ascribed
social position from which one gains access to certain layers of reality and resources, which determine
who (s)he is, how (s)he experiences the world, as well as how (s)he is recognized by others. In a strati-
fied society, people of different positionality are assumed to possess varying levels of priority and au-
tonomy in making life choices, such as career paths, political and religious dispositions, family, and
community relationships, etc. For women, gender positioning provides not only a social and moral
baseline for calibrating social interactions and negotiating social roles, but also determines how they
are treated by others. As exemplified by Alcoff (2006) with her own gender experiences, her white
middle-class lesbian identity positions her in a superordinate status relative to African Americans in
her town, but also marginalizes and vilifies her in a mainstream heteronormative culture such that
she cannot even retain custody of her children.
Research method
We employed a contentcontext diary-cum-participant observation to study 40 peidu mama in
Singapore between April 2016 and August 2017. Participants were recruited through a combination
of convenience sampling and snowball sampling. Specifically, the initial batch of participants were
approached through local networks of Author A and sending recruitment advertisements in Chinese
instant messaging application QQ to chat groups of Chinese parents in Singapore. Subsequent partici-
pants were approached via snowballing from earlier waves and selected to achieve diversity in demo-
graphic traits (e.g., age of child, years of relocation, etc.).
At the time of the research, participants were aged 2850, with an average age of 42. These moth-
ers were relatively well educated, where more than three-quarters (31 out of 40) had college degrees
or higher qualifications. 30 of the 40 participants had had full-time employment in China, working as
civil servants, teachers, entrepreneurs, HR professionals, accountants, etc. After resettlement in
Singapore, only 18 participants had (or once had) local employment, the overwhelming majority (15
out of 18) working in part-time jobs as Chinese tuition teachers and cleaners. Their children were
aged six to 20 and studying in primary through to high school, junior college, and institutes of techni-
cal education (ITE). Hailing from middle-class families, all the participants and their husbands have
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full access to basic ICTs (e.g., smartphones, tablet computers, laptops) and the Internet. In Singapore,
the participants deployed a wide constellation of ICT platforms to meet various everyday needs of
communication, information searching, childrens education, entertainment, etc. They relied heavily
on ICT-mediated communication to sustain intimate ties with family and friends back home, while
forging new social networks, especially with other peidu mama, to garner emotional support in the
host country.
During fieldwork, each participant was shadowed for two full days by Author Aone weekday
and one weekend dayfor six to 12 hours. The observations were conducted in various everyday set-
tings such as their homes, workplaces, shopping malls and childrens playgrounds. Participants were
requested to go about their lives as they usually do, while Author A observed their daily mediated
communication routines and interacted with them when necessary. With the participantsconsent,
Author A also took photos or screenshots of media contents on their ICT devices and/or notes of
these contents. After completing the two-day observation, each participant was given S$150 shopping
vouchers as a token of appreciation. The research protocol was approved by the National University
of Singapore Institutional Review Board (IRB).
A researcher-administered contentcontext diarywas employed to record both content- and
context-related aspects of participantsmediated communication. Content-related aspects included
correspondents and platforms of communication, details of the content exchanged, modes of expres-
sion, etc., while context-related aspects encompassed temporal and spatial settings of ICT use, partic-
ipantsattitudes and emotions, special behavior, and the sentiments and intents of mediated
communication. In communication research, diary recordings have been widely used to record peo-
ples ICT use routines (e.g., Lim & Pham, 2016;Ling & Haddon, 2003), mostly adopting the diary as
participantsself-reports which may strip ICT use behaviors of their contextual meanings and omit
nuanced information due to memory bias or poor recall. Unlike participant-administered diaries,
real-time diaries kept by the researcher during immersive observation allowed live,accurate captur-
ing of contextual details, which helped to identify nuanced asymmetries and emotional negotiations
in the participants mediated communication.
Semi-structured and informal interviews were also incorporated into the observation to gather
background information and elicit participantssubjective opinions. For each participant, two semi-
structured interviews were conducted, one before or on the first day of observation and the other on
or after the second day of observation. Interview questions covered various aspects of participantsev-
eryday lives and ICT use, including their demographic and socio-cultural backgrounds, devices and
applications used, mediated communication routines with family members, perceived asymmetries
and tensions arising from transnational communication, etc. Informal probing interviewsoccurred
when special or complex issues emerged during observation (e.g., a flash of anger after receiving a
message), with the purpose of drawing out participantssubjective explanations of these issues. As a
native Chinese speaker, Author A conducted all the interviews and observations in Chinese. With the
participantsconsent, all interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed in Chinese for analysis.
The qualitative data collected from participant observation was analyzed by Author A through
thematic coding (Boyatzia, 1998) with NVivo. Digital materials involved in the coding spanned a vari-
ety of forms, including text-based data of contentcontext diary entries, interview transcripts and field
notes, and photographic data such as screenshots of participantsmediated interactions. The coding
process was conducted in Chinese, with significant codes and quotes translated verbatim into English.
Another data analysis method used was the ecomaptechnique which visually represents family
life vis-
a-vis its relationships, social networks and exchange of support with external systems
(Hartman, 1995;Ray & Street, 2005; See Figure 1 for an example). Originally developed as a graphic
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assessment tool, the ecomap helps practitioners and researchers to identify tensions, conflicts, chal-
lenges and gaps in social networks that impair family functioning, to which families and individuals
themselves may be oblivious.
We developed a prototype ecomap to chart the mediated communication routines of participants
with their full range of contacts. The adapted model—“communication ecomap”—provides a com-
prehensive and pithy insight into the kinds of ICTs adopted by participants, how they are used, for
what purposes, and with what implications for their relationship management (see Figure 2 for an ex-
ample). It also helps to delineate flow of information, emotions and power relations in the process of
mediated communication, thereby highlighting potential digital asymmetries. The communication
ecomap echoes the application of mental maps in portraying migrantslife experiences and social
relationships (e.g., Gould & White, 1974;Hepp, 2008), thus serving as a suitable model to study rela-
tionships and resource flows within families.
A communication ecomap was drafted in hard copy for every participant during or after field-
work, where the participant is represented by a circle at the center. Her husband and child
(ren) are presented as circles on the right, while other contacts as rectangles on the left. Lines of
different forms, colors, thickness and directions are drawn between nodes to indicate varying
strengths of relationships and flows of information, emotions, and power in transnational
communication.
Figure 1 An example of an ecomap (drawn according to Hartman, 1995).
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Data Availability
The data that support the findings of this study is available from the corresponding author, upon rea-
sonable request and subject to conditions imposed by institutional ethical approval.
Findings
As the participants were middle class and relatively well educated, digital asymmetries mostly arose
from implicit socio-cultural inequalities rather than practical constraints of accessibility, affordability
and technological competencies (see also Madianou & Miller, 2012). Indeed, we found expectation
asymmetry and autonomy asymmetry especially salient as these migrant mothers were disadvantaged
by tacit gender inequalities as well elaborate below.
Expectation asymmetry: Contactability, responsiveness and emotional investments
Expectation asymmetry is characterized by an asymmetrical flow of information and emotions in me-
diated communication, where one party demonstrates distinctly less contactability, responsiveness
and emotional investment in mediated communication. While Lim (2016) describes expectation
asymmetry in relation to different contactability between parents and children, in this study we
Figure 2 An example of a communication ecomap.
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expand the scope to encompass asymmetrical expectations to emotional disclosure and flow of care
via ICTs. In other words, expectation asymmetry not only encompasses getting in touch,but
extends to the quality of communication and perceived degree of intimacy.
Expectation asymmetry was most frequently noted between our participants and their left-behind
husbands, with these mothers feeling the weight of the asymmetry. Many participants reported taking
the initiative to contact their husbands and invested considerable affective labor in these conversa-
tions, while their husbands often displayed a perfunctory attitude and would on occasion ignore their
messages entirely. Ms Yue (for confidentiality, all participantsnames are pseudonyms), a 39-year-old
mother of two boys, complained about her husbands indifference to her. In her communication eco-
map (Figure 3), the green and orange lines between her and her husband show that information flows
strongly from her to her husband, while the reverse flow is substantially weaker and increasingly
wanes over time. Ms Yue lamented that she often found herself performing a soliloquy(,
chang dujiaoxi) where she extensively shared her life experiences and feelings with her husband, while
he only had curt and cold responses. For example, she once sent him dozens of messages on instant
messaging app WeChat early one morning after seeing the doctor, to update him about her poor state
of health. However, he did not reply until the evening and only asked briefly what did the doctor
say,without offering any modicum of care and emotional support.
Although women have long been viewed to involve more intensively in family communication
and expect faster responses to communication than their male partners (Clark, 2012;Ling & Haddon,
2003; Su, 2015), Ms Yues expectation asymmetry was not due to her gendered position in the
Figure 3 Ms Yues communication ecomap.
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household but shaped only after transnational relocation. As a professional woman with a masters
degree, she was a manager in a pharmaceutical company before heading to Singapore. Back in China,
she and her husband were both very preoccupied with work and thus occasionally missed each others
phone calls or failed to respond to each others messages on time. In this sense, they managed to forge
a fairly equitable relationship of mutual low contactabilitywhich did not trigger asymmetrical expe-
riences on either side. After relocation, Ms Yues transition into a full-time mother and part-time di-
rect seller who spent most of her time at home led to a slower pace of life. When she focused her
energies on family communication, her husband maintained his hectic work schedule, thereby leading
to a stark mismatch in their mediated communication rhythms.
Ms Xia, 47, mother of a 14-year-old daughter, was similarly disappointed in her left-behind hus-
band. Unlike Ms Yues husband who was unwilling to provide prompt responses to media messages,
Ms Xias husband maintained a high degree of contactability and sometimes initiated the conversa-
tions. However, he paid exclusive attention to pragmatic issues such as the childrens education and
money transfers, while almost never sparing time for expressing concern or exchanging emotional
experiences. In contrast, Ms Xia tended to display more concern for his health and wellbeing, which
he often dismissed as useless and time-consuming(see Figure 4 for the diary excerpt of a typi-
cal scenario).
Such subtle asymmetries were also triggered by transnational migration and evolved over time.
As Ms Xia recounted, when she and her daughter first moved to Singapore, her husband was quite ac-
tive in checking on her wellbeing. Relinquishing her high-status occupation as an engineer in a
manufacturing company, Ms Xia experienced a painful process of self-adjustment before eventually
adapting to her new role as a full-time mother. During this period, she relied heavily on mediated
communication with her husband for emotional support. However, since her husband could not em-
pathize with the struggles of being a study mother, he gradually become impatient at her frequent dis-
play of negative emotions and regarded her as too fragile.Over time, Ms Xia also started to accept
the efficient and task-oriented mode of information exchange preferred by her husband to avoid the
emotional pain arising from sharp expectation asymmetries.
Figure 4 Diary excerpt of Ms Xias mediated communication with her husband.
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Expectation asymmetry also occurred between study mothers and their children, where mothers
were again on the disadvantaged side. Resonating with previous studies, adolescent children of many
study mothers regarded mediated communication with parents as burdensome, and therefore en-
gaged in minor rebellionsto avoid or minimize the likelihood of parental contact (e.g., Clark, 2012;
Ling & Yttri, 2006). During our fieldwork, many participants lamented that it was always they rather
than their children who initiated mediated conversations and invested more emotions and care in
these dialogues. In contrast, their children often replied in a cursory and testy manner, resorting
sometimes to excuses to avoid responding, such as claiming their phone battery was dead, preoccupa-
tion with school obligations, etc. Such expectation asymmetries already existed previously but became
especially pronounced after overseas resettlement as these mothers tended to invest more time and
energy in their children when not distracted by work and other family matters.
Autonomy asymmetry: Rule-making, space-time priority and hierarchy of ICT use
Autonomy asymmetry refers to differences in the extent to which one can freely decide when, where
and how s/he can use ICTs. It reflects tacit power relations and hierarchies in the household, consti-
tuting a variant of power asymmetry.Compared with power asymmetry which emphasizes ones
ability to imposing conditions on the ICT adoption and use of other family members (Lim, 2016), au-
tonomy asymmetry concentrates on ones liberty to determine ones ICT use routines without any
perceived constraints or inhibitions.
For our participants, the most apparent autonomy asymmetry occurred between them and their
children, with children having limited control over their own ICT use due to their mothersclose su-
pervision. Resonating with previous research on parental mediation of childrens online activities, our
participants employed a range of approaches to monitor and regulate their childrens use of ICTs, in-
cluding setting space-time restrictions, reviewing digital footprints, co-viewing media content, etc.
(see also Haddon, 2012;Livingstone, 2007;Livingstone & Helsper, 2008).
Nevertheless, having authority to regulate childrens mediated activities did not guarantee study
mothers themselves the greatest autonomy of ICT use in the household. Instead, many of them identi-
fied themselves as the least prioritized people whose ICT use routines were highly dependent on the
space-time arrangements of other family members. For the aforementioned Ms Yue for example, the
blue lines in her communication ecomap (Figure 3) indicates that both she and her sons were subject
to autonomy asymmetries, but in different forms and opposite directions. Admittedly, she had an
overwhelming advantage over her sons in deciding what ICTs could be used at home and how.
However, her own ICT use routines were highly constrained. In particular, she deliberately eschewed
entertainment on ICTs in the presence of her sons in case she interrupted their schoolwork or
tempted them to use their devices. During the observation, she was found to wear earphones when-
ever she watched videos, even when in a different room from her children. On the contrary, her sons
could play the iPad at full volume even when she was sleeping or learning English, as long as they did
not exceed the maximum daily screen-time limit prescribed by her.
Such autonomy asymmetry already had its kernel before the households transnational split but
developed into a visible asymmetry after resettlement. The childrens education was always the family
priority so even before relocation, both Ms Yue and her husband tried their best to minimize recrea-
tional ICT use in front of their children to serve as positive role models. They had lived in a large
apartment where each family member had their own private space, so she could engage in mediated
activities anytime without concerns about distracting her children. After relocation however, she
shared a bedroom with her sons, straining her ability to hidewhen she sought leisure time on ICTs.
Y. Wang & S. S. Lim Digital Asymmetries in Transnational Communication
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 00 (2020) 117 11
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Similar asymmetries in space-time autonomy also existed between participants and their hus-
bands, where the women enjoyed significantly less autonomy in their transnational communication
routines. Specifically, since many of the husbands had intensive workloads and unpredictable sched-
ules, it was taken for granted that they should determine the appropriate time and duration of medi-
ated communication, even though the mothers were also stretched with domestic chores and child-
minding. For example, Ms Feng, 40, a full-time study mother with a 13-year-old daughter, explained
the trials of coordinating timings for a phone call with her husband (see the diary excerpt in
Figure 5). In the evening, she sent her husband a smile emoji on WeChat as usual, indicating that she
and her daughter had finished dinner and were ready to chat. She then proceeded with her housework
while waiting for her husband to finish work and call them via landline phone or WeChat.
As such, when and how the mediated communication could happen largely hinged on her
husbands work schedule, while she had to keep pace with his life rhythm and would unfailingly be
on stand byfor his call. Ms Feng explained that whenever she had any information to share with
her husband, she would make a mental note and do so at the propertime rather than calling him
spontaneously to avoid disrupting his work schedules. In contrast, when her husband wanted to talk
to her, he would call her right away, and she felt obliged to reply immediately for fear of worrying
him. Behind this obvious asymmetry was the default assumption that Ms Feng, being the full-time
mother, should always be contactable at the drop of a hat, while her husband, as the breadwinner de-
served the priority of picking the most convenient time for communication because he obviously had
more important tasks.Like most of the other asymmetries described previously, such autonomy
asymmetry also emerged after Ms Fengs transition from professional woman to a full-time mother
post-relocation.
Behind digital asymmetries: Isolated domestic life and gender positioning in the household
While the afore-mentioned expectation and autonomy asymmetries gradually emerged and evolved
after the households transnational separation, they were often highly nuanced and remained incon-
spicuous even or especially to the participants themselves. Our findings suggest that these mothers
are so deeply entrenched in their gender positioning within the home that they became their unques-
tioned, taken-for-granted life arrangements. For our participants, gender positioning and inequalities
Figure 5 Diary excerpt of Ms Fengs use of a laptop and iPad.
Digital Asymmetries in Transnational Communication Y. Wang & S. S. Lim
12 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 00 (2020) 117
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constrained their life choices and experiences even before they became study mothers when they
rather than their husbandswere compelled to sacrifice their careers for their childrens education.
After relocation, their social role ineluctably led them to be labeled as de facto single mothers,
financially-dependent women, foreigners with precarious residential status, etc. These influenced their
inferior self-positioning in the family and in society, and exacerbated the gendered gaze and expecta-
tions of others, thus silencing them in the face of digital asymmetries.
Indeed, it was their isolated life situation in the host society that contributed most to solidifying
their disadvantaged positions. Our participantslimited English proficiency, lack of internationally-
recognized credentials and Singapores conservative immigration policies foreclosed attractive em-
ployment opportunities, relegating them to the ranks of full-time, unemployed mothers or holding
only part-time jobs. As a result, the daily routines of many participants were dominated by trivial and
time-consuming domestic chores, such as cooking, laundry and room cleaning, and mundane coordi-
nation of family affairs. Nevertheless, their efforts in running the family logistics and bonding family
ties were trivialized and diminished by themselves and their family, leading to them being perceived
as idlerswho enjoyed luxurious space-time flexibilities but with nothing important to do.
Therefore, in mediated communication, there was the unspoken assumption that these mothers
should always submit to the preferences of other family members with weightierresponsibilities,
while their own needs were deemed secondary or inconsequential. As shown in the aforementioned
case of Ms Feng, her husband was only concerned about whether her daughter was available when he
initiated a mediated conversation, while Ms Feng was presumed to be always available.
Further aggravating the isolated experiences of study mothers is the severe paucity and homoge-
neity of their support networks. After relocation, they became alienated from a large proportion of
their left-behind friends in China due to the vast geographical distances and disparate life rhythms.
At the same time, their new networks in local communities were highly limited by language barriers
and cultural differences. Even participants who reported healthy social networks in Singapore were
largely constrained to the circumscribed social circles of co-national friends, with some even relying
exclusively on small groups of fellow study mothers for daily socializing and emotional exchange.
These culturally homogeneous social networks amplified the repetitious flow of information, skills
and support, whichlacking much needed diversityfurther marginalized them in the host society
and anchored them at inferior positions in their households.
Whilst similar digital asymmetries are widely experienced by women who are full-time homemakers,
they are particularly painful for study mothers as many of them were suddenly thrust into isolated domes-
tic lives without sufficient mental preparation for this major renegotiation of family relationships. For
these well-educated women, exclusion from the professional job market, abrupt loss of financial depen-
dence, and palpable decline of life quality often resulted in severe sense of insecurity and self-doubt. They
were thus particularly needy for emotional support via mediated communication with family and felt eas-
ily disheartened when perceiving neglect by their loved ones. In the case of Ms Yue, for instance, she be-
came vulnerable to expectation asymmetry only after she started to invest significantly more time and
emotions in mediated communication than before, to a degree that her husband failed to match.
Discussion and conclusion
Unlike many other transnational households that tend to suffer from access asymmetry in the avail-
ability of ICT infrastructures (Lim, 2016;Parre~
nas, 2005), the study mothers experienced asymmetri-
cal flows of information, emotions, and power relations in mediated interactions with their families.
Y. Wang & S. S. Lim Digital Asymmetries in Transnational Communication
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 00 (2020) 117 13
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Drawing on positionality theory (Alcoff, 2006), we posit that these womens gendered identity as
study motherscreated a unique horizon of resources and autonomy which both empowered and
disempowered them. On the one hand, originating from middle-class families, they were never
trapped by asymmetries of ICT access that hobbled migrants from less-well-off backgrounds, such as
refugees and foreign domestic workers (e.g., Cabalquinto, 2018;Parre~
nas, 2005;Wilding, 2006). Being
relatively well-educated professionals before relocation, they rarely experienced discernible gaps in
digital skills with their husbands (e.g., Kang, 2012). While competency asymmetries did exist between
these mothers and their children, as seen in previous studies on bottom-up transmission(Correa,
2014) and media brokering(Katz, 2010), these asymmetries were not affected by gender positioning
and transnational separation of the family. Given their relative educational and professional parity
with their husbands, these mothers also did not fall victim to palpable power asymmetries such as
unidirectional digital surveillance (e.g., Cabanes & Acedera, 2012;Hannaford, 2015).
However, their gender identity as study mothers did limit them to the exclusive social role of moth-
erhood and considerably confined their agency. Bereft of employment after migration, these mothers
were suddenly thrust into an isolated life situation which denied them autonomy and reduced them to
secondary members of the family. In this context, they ended up disadvantaged by digital asymmetries,
which stands in contrast to female migrants who venture overseas for work opportunities and thereby
have a louder voice in the household (e.g., Madianou, 2014;Parre~
nas, 2005). Moreover, as de facto
single mothersholding unstable residential status, the study mothers were highly marginalized in the
host society, which constrained their opportunities of accessing heterogeneous social resources outside
the domestic sphere and further accentuated traditional gender labor divisions in the household.
These findings suggest that while gender assumes a significant role in shaping mediated commu-
nication experiences of study mothers, its impact is neither straightforward nor persistent, but medi-
ated by and suffusing everyday life situations. Gender subjugates women to certain social expectations
and obligations that necessarily introduce asymmetrical relationships in the maintenance of family
communication. In mediated communication, gender identities and gender roles prescribe tacit moral
codes about what kinds of ICT use routines are (not) appropriate for a woman as well as what out-
comes she should (not) expect from mediated relationships, which renders her submitting to and
even internalizing digital asymmetries over time. For instance, expectation asymmetries between
study mothers and their left-behind husbands developed out of their gendered choice of becoming a
study mother. As in the case of Ms Yue and Ms Xia, these mothers only felt the burning desire of
emotional support from their husbands after the transition from busy professional to full-time moth-
ers living an isolated domestic life in the unfamiliar foreign land.
This study integrates and contributes to literature on transnational communication, digital
inequalities as well as gender in ICT use through an in-depth investigation into digital asymmetries
emerging in transnational family communication of study mothers as well as the role of gender posi-
tioning in shaping asymmetrical experiences. Findings from this study can provide references for un-
derstanding mediated communication experiences of other types of transnational households. For
example, similar expectation asymmetry and autonomy asymmetry can also evolve between female
foreign workers and their left-behind family members, while these female workers may take entirely
different positioning within the asymmetries as compared to study mothers.
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In the heated debates over identity politics, few theorists have looked carefully at the conceptualizations of identity assumed by all sides. Drawing on both philosophical sources as well as theories and empirical studies in the social sciences, this book makes a strong case that identities are not like special interests, nor are they doomed to oppositional politics, nor do they inevitably lead to conformism, essentialism, or reductive approaches to judging others. Identities are historical formations and their political implications are open to interpretation. But identities such as race and gender also have a powerful visual and material aspect that eliminativists and social constructionists often underestimate. This book analyses the political and philosophical worries about identity and argues that these worries are neither supported by the empirical data nor grounded in realistic understandings of what identities are. The book develops a more realistic characterization of identity in general through combining phenomenological approaches to embodiment with hermeneutic concepts of the interpretive horizon. Besides addressing the general contours of social identity, the book develops an account of the material infrastructure of gendered identity, compares and contrasts gender identities with racialized ones, and explores the experiential aspects of racial subjectivity for both whites and non-whites. In several chapters the book looks specifically at Latino identity as well, including its relationship to concepts of race, the specific forms of anti-Latino racism, and the politics of mestizo or hybrid identity.