Citizenship Capabilities and Instant Messaging in Western Kenya: an Intersectional Approach

Colom Miras, Anna (2023). Citizenship Capabilities and Instant Messaging in Western Kenya: an Intersectional Approach. PhD thesis The Open University.



This doctoral research project contributes to understanding the role of WhatsApp—the most used social media platform in Kenya—in citizen engagement processes. Paying particular attention to inequalities, power dynamics, and the need to account for the postcolonial context of Kenya, the project develops a theoretical framework that combines the Capability Approach (CA) and critical citizenship studies to conceptualise citizen engagement as relational and multi-layered citizenship. It draws on the theory of affordances to understand WhatsApp as an artefact and uses intersectional feminism alongside the CA to study the interaction between WhatsApp and the citizenship capabilities. The project’s methodology follows a situated knowledges approach that focuses on discourse and a digital ethnography that encompasses multiple methods across offline and online spaces. Based on research with young people in the county of Busia, this thesis first identifies a set of citizenship capabilities including mattering, belonging and respect, in addition to what may be considered more obvious citizenship capabilities such as participating in decision-making or exercising rights. Second, in addition to processes that serve as conversion factors that help to ‘activate’ citizenship, the research also highlights the role of performative citizenship practices as conversion processes in themselves. Third, the study identifies a set of WhatsApp affordances which interact with these conversion processes and can help to activate or enact citizenship. These affordances emphasise WhatsApp’s social, discursive and agentic possibilities among private and relevant groups of people, helping to build and perform citizenship as an inwards and intimate process before enacting it in the public sphere. Finally, the thesis argues that the meanings attached to the capabilities as well as the conversion factors vary depending on where people are situated across axes of oppression. So do WhatsApp’s affordances. Relying on instant messaging’s affordances without taking these inequalities into account can further exclude people from valued capabilities.

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