VIRTUAL AND URBAN INTIMACIES: YOUTH, DESIRES, AND MEDIATED RELATIONSHIPS IN AN EGYPTIAN CITY

Green, S. (Supervisor), Jessica Winegar (Opponent), Farha Ghannam (Pre-examiner), Samuli Schielke (Pre-examiner)

Activity: Examination typesSupervisor or co-supervisor of doctoral thesis

Description

Defence of PhD thesis. Abstract: Through a focus on the usage of smartphones and other digital communication tools, this research examines technologically-mediated navigation of desires for love and marriage in post-2011 Egypt. Based on long-term ethnography, the thesis analyses how university students and graduates managed their intimate relationships and marital futures both online and within city gathering places in Alexandria, Egypt’s second biggest city. Focusing on youth and new technologies, it explores aspirations for, and negotiations with, modernity, particularly in relation to emotional expectations and gender roles in intimate relationships but also in relation to class-specific ideas of ‘modern’ urban life. The thesis extends existing anthropological accounts of Egypt that explore intimacy, desiring selves, and ‘modern’ aspirations among the middle classes.
In particular, the thesis describes how a shift from shared computers at home to smartphones, which provides more private and mobile communication for young people, has had two significant effects. First, it has enabled secret romances and autonomous searches for a spouse; yet at the same time, it has also resulted in new forms of surveillance and control within social media. With regard to the shaping of the self, digital communication platforms appear to be a versatile instrument: On the one hand, young middle class Alexandrians often used Facebook for reinforcing the ties of kinship and for performing as connected, family-oriented people. On the other hand, they also often appropriated private digital communication channels and young people’s social spaces in the city in ways that helped them perform more individualistic interests and give a sense of individual agency, including showing at least temporary indifference towards dominant gender and age expectations, and to escape what they imagined to be the public moral gaze. By using various communication tools, such as Facebook Messenger, the young middle class Egyptians who participated in my research engaged themselves in flirtation and romance, sometimes extending beyond what they understood to be the limits set by norms of religion and ethnicity, as well as the barriers created by physical distance. When analysing how these young people used social media to debate and manage marital expectations, I argue that the sarcastic and mischievous aspects of the compliant online and offline performances of young women should not be ignored. Otherwise their mastery of playful testing of gender norms remains unnoticed.
The research was based on both online and ethnographic research in Alexandria. I conducted nearly ten months of ethnographic fieldwork among young people mostly in the coastal city of Alexandria between the years of 2011 and 2014. The research was at times cut short because of the unstable political situation in Egypt at the time, particularly in 2013. In addition to ethnographic work, which involved participating in people’s everyday lives, I interviewed young Alexandrians and their mothers as well as some experts on youth issues. I also conducted online ethnography throughout the research project from 2011 to 2018, focusing mainly on Facebook and some blogs.
Overall, the ethnography provided me with insights into the ways ICTs can be used as navigation tools for agency and turned into intimate technologies in the hands of young people. Perhaps most importantly, my focus on intimacy and the techniques these young Alexandrians developed to explore that aspect of their lives online, reveals a complex blurring of boundaries between public and private within a social context in which these young people were aware that they were supposed to strongly maintain such boundaries, yet in a digital context in which the most intimate moments can be shared with large audiences (even anyone with access to the Internet) at the push of a button. The thesis explores how these young people work towards navigating this relatively new, and at times quite socially dangerous, social space, and how they work towards maintaining a separation between that digital space and their offline social world, or at least the parts of it that they imagined must be kept separate.
Period14 Sep 2019
Examinee
Examination held atUniversity of Helsinki
Degree of RecognitionInternational