Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

click on ISBN to order book through Indigo

James Katz.
Connections: Social and Cultural Studies of the Telephone in American Life.
New Brunswick (USA) and London: Transaction Publishers, 1999. 364 pp. $52.00 cloth (1560003944)

No technology is more ubiquitous than the telephone, and none less examined. Rutgers communications scholar James Katz introduces his book with this observation, though recognizing that it applies less to studies of the social history of the phone than to its contemporary social use and users. Thus, the phone has been overshadowed by social research on the more glamorous technologies, notably the Internet. Yet, cell phone and pager ownership increases rapidly ( so rapidly that in some countries like Finland pubic phone booths are being removed ); phone companies offer a host of add- on services; and our right to privacy is constantly invaded by unwanted phone intruders. Such are the grist for Katz’s mill.

Katz offers here a series of eleven chapters, most previously published and some co-authored, which empirically analyze critical social questions pertaining to wireless phone communications, and to organizational change in the U.S. telephone business. The greatest strength of the book lies in the fact that most of these questions have never before been seriously asked. Thus, the first of the book’s four sections focuses primary on cell phone ownership and use, and public attitudes towards voice mail and phone answering services. The second section examines a variety of ethical issues surrounding privacy and caller I.D., provides empirical analyses of unlisted subscribers, and explores the extent of obscene phone calls as well as the socio-economic and racial characteristics of their recipients. Section three is devoted to studies of demand for U.S. phone services and to local phone markets. Finally, Katz reaffirms a powerful anti-determinist stance by providing numerous illustrations of how people may creatively use phone technologies in ways never foreseen by their developers.

Overall, Connections provides a fine blend of the empirical and speculative, in which a central focus on both interpersonal and organizational relations points the way to important social policy issues. For example, who uses cell phones and beepers, why are they used, and what are the complex social ramifications of that use? Again, are some feminists correct in treating obscene phone calls as a technological symptom of male dominance? And is Caller I.D., as some scholars argue, an invasion of personal privacy? Such questions permeate the book, and the answers, within the American context, move between the expected and the surprising. As a case in point, Katz’s research indicates that the great majority of American women have at some time received an obscene call, but that, like rape victims, the receivers are disproportionately unmarried, Afro-American and under 65 years old. However, since American males are also quite likely to receive such calls, the majority from other men, but also about one-third from women, the “ male dominance” viewpoint is brought into question. Clearly, there is also some link between obscene calls and unlisted phone numbers, but whereas unlisted subscribers are typically thought of as relatively well-off people trying to maintain their privacy, in actuality Katz finds the typical unlisted subscriber is likely to be relatively low-income, have a limited education, be a single woman and be black. Therefore, amongst other matters, the data on both obscene calls and unlisted numbers point to the threatening and unstable social environments which often confront racial minorities in the United States. By contrast, cell phone ownership tends to be linked to higher income status, though the technology is no longer “ a male power tool” since gender differences in ownership are apparently negligible. But, once again, race and ethnicity step in, with Hispanics and blacks much more likely than whites to be cell phone users.

Typical of this book is the plethora of tentative explanations offered to explain the empirical findings. For example, heavy utilisation of cell phones by minorities lends itself to two plausible alternative explanations first, that low status people tend to acquire relatively affordable high status technologies; secondly, that these groups are more outgoing and connected.. Katz offers these alternatives for consideration, and welcomes prospects for further research.
However, this also typifies Katz’s stance as the detached observer, offering suggestions, but more rarely – except in the case of Caller I.D. – taking a stand. For example, his fascinating account of change in the U.S. telephone business points to a half million staff cuts between 1992-94, but this grim statistic just forms a background to an analysis of failures and successes in implementing cultural change in organizations (for which read streamlining and downsizing); and also to speculations on the prospects for European telephone companies with entrenched employee rights who wish to follow U.S. “aggressive methods” of instilling a new corporate culture in order to compete. No criticisms are offered of these “aggressive methods” and their outcomes, despite the fascinating examples of the human problems faced when introducing new corporate agendas. However, for the sociologist used to reading studies which take powerful moral positions, the absence of them here is almost disturbing.

This is not a criticism of the book per se , but rather a comment on Katz’s approach to his research data. But, naturally, the collection does have some limitations. First, the central focus is avowedly American, so although relevant research findings drawn from other countries are included, there is hardly a nod at comparative analysis. Secondly, like most anthologies of previously published work, not all of the chapters are equally appealing to a Canadian ( or perhaps even American ) academic audience. In particular, those dealing with consumer behaviour in telephone markets appear to have been written primarily for policy makers within the industry itself. Third, the book contains a chapter of 61 pages weighing various arguments surrounding privacy and Caller I.D. This is a hot legal and ethical issue in the United States, and Katz, having observed that privacy is “a cherished [ American] value,” proceeds to weigh the arguments to the point of reader exhaustion in order to back his pro-I.D. position. The issue is certainly an important one, but there is a certain irony that it is deemed worthy of so much attention when, in the workplace, U.S. employees’ privacy is often violated by video-cameras, E-mail checking and even genetic testing. They would undoubtedly benefit from receiving those European employee rights which are currently under siege from American corporate agendas.

I am likely to use this book for my advanced course in telecommunications policy, because it offers so much that is not available elsewhere. Also, its strong anti-technological determinist stance is refreshing, particularly in the concluding chapter which offers many examples of how people have adapted communications technologies to their own, often quirky, needs. My favourite example of the sudden disappearance in 1996 of 25 percent of Borneo’s public pay phones. The cause was the theft, and adaptation, of the handsets by local fishermen to emit a high pitched sound which attracted fish. In the face of technology, human ingenuity know no bounds.

Robert Pike
Sociology, Queen’s University
March-April 2000
© CJS Online