Cell Phones as a Tool for Political Participation?

Last summer, the Center for African Development conducted a small pilot project to test the effect of cell phone use on a number of outcomes for women in Tanzania. This year, as we conduct a larger experiment, the timing coincides with Tanzania’s presidential and parliamentary elections in October. (I’ll post more about women’s issues and the upcoming election in the next post.) So we thought that it would be interesting to test the effect of cell phone use on political engagement.

So what exactly do we mean by “political participation”? Simply put, political engagement refers to “all actions directed toward influencing governmental decisions and political outcomes.” [1] That means that voting, protesting, or signing a petition are all forms of political participation.

We’re concerned with this effect for a number of reasons. For one, there are studies out there on ICTs and women, and other studies that deal with women and political participation, but nothing to connect these two bodies of literature. One author writes, “Despite the rapid adoption of information and communications technologies (ICTs) for political use, little research exists that examines the way women access . . . mobile phones . . . and other new technologies specifically for political engagement.” [2] Aside from the academic reason, we believe that if women are more connected to the political process, their needs will be better represented by government. Given that some programs exist to provide mobile phones to women in developing countries, it’s important that we know what the effects of these programs are.

Professor Roessler asked us to think through how a cell phone might change someone’s engagement in the political process. We came up with a theory and a number of hypotheses.

Basically, we believe that owning a mobile phone will increase political participation in two ways. First, a phone makes it easier to send and receive information, and therefore, it becomes easier to participate in the political process. For instance, if you had to walk to your senator’s office to share your opinion with him or her, you probably wouldn’t do it. If you had a cell phone, you could simply call your senator. Also, if you have a cell phone, you’re more likely to obtain information that piques your interest in politics, which may lead to political engagement.

The second way we believe that owning a cell phone would make someone more likely to be politically engaged is that cell phones give people an opportunity to act on the information and resources that they have in order to achieve what they want; that is to say, a cell phone is empowering. In the context of politics, we speak of political efficacy. If someone feels that they have political efficacy, they are more likely to get involved.

Our theory is a bit more complicated than that, but what I’ve provided is just a basic summary. Based on this theory, we expect that women in the treatment group (the ones who receive phones) will report higher access to a mobile phone, be more likely to participate in politics, and be more likely to show interest in politics.

How does this relate specifically to women? It’s important to note that we believe our theory applies to men as well. But all over the world, we see that women are less politically engaged than men, and also report lower levels of access to cell phones. Might these two gender gaps be related? Perhaps our results will offer some insights.

Works Cited:

[1] Joakim Ekman and Erik Amna, “Political Participation and Civic Engagement: Towards a New Typology,” Human Affairs 22 (2012): 289.

[2] Susan Markham, “Women as Agents of Change: Having Voice in Society and Influencing Policy” (Women’s Voice, Agency, & Participation Research Series 2013, no. 5, World Bank), 16.


  1. tctreakle says:

    Does this include or exclude non-smart cell phones? For I believe that having an iPhone or other smart phone would highly increase the political efficacy and participation for several reasons. First of all, the easy internet access allows for access to online sources of political participation. This could be through email, online petitions, or just keeping up with news using apps on your phone. Another reason a smart phone would increase political participation would be access to social media. A lot of political information these days gets thrown around on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, where stories and policies can be shared.

  2. It’s an interesting theory that sparked a lot of questions in my mind, such as: How can women use their cell phones to obtain information? Do their cell phones have Internet access? How much does Internet access cost? Is the senator’s number published anywhere? How does political engagement via cell phone compare to other methods of disseminating information like banner on street, radio broadcast, newspaper, word of mouth? I keep thinking about how when there are protests in a specific part of the capital city in Haiti, all my friends know about it before I do. And they’re not finding out from their cell phones.

  3. sarahfredrick says:

    You write here two hypotheses: that a phone makes it easier to send and receive info, making it easier to participate in the political process, and that cell phones give people the opportunity to act on the info they have. I’m curious to know what research there has been done in the U.S. about this, and if these hypotheses prove true today in the age where cell phones are almost ubiquitous and nearly every child will have one growing up. If the cellphone in the U.S. becomes such a common occurrence, will it still be used as a tool of empowerment?