Mobile phones and social identity

Rich Ling’s research in Norway between 1997 and 2000 revealed the rise of mobile phones as symbols of identity among teenagers. Initially deemed vulgar and tied to yuppie culture, by 2000 nearly all teenagers owned them, with the model and manner of display reflecting individual and group identity. Ling’s findings suggest that phone choice and presentation is influenced by peer group pressures and are valuable for studying postmodern theories of identity.

Rich Ling conducted interview research on the meaning of mobile phone use among teenagers in Norway (Ling, 2000). (1)

Ling conducted interviews in 1997 and 1999-2000 to uncover attitudes to mobile phones as a fashion item. In 1997 hardly anyone owned a mobile phone, but by 2000 nearly everyone owned them. This is an interesting study showing how this change impacted the relationship between mobile phones and identity.  

Ling saw mobile phone use as a source of group and individual identity. Mobile phones can be used to express both group membership and individual uniqueness. 

Mobile phones are not just a functional device. They are also part of an individual’s personality kit, one of the tools they use to express their identity to others. Among teenagers, the ownership and display of mobile phones is an important part of their lifestyle. 

Mobile Phones, Fashion and identity 

Ling argues fashion is a way individuals communicate intention or status to others. Material objects such as phones help the individual to express group identities, such as those related to class or ethnicity. 

Teenagers in particular are of an age where they need to establish a group identity. But they simultaneously need to collaborate with peers to include themselves in a group and exclude others. 

Fashion is the main way this is achieved, and mobile phones are part of this. However the problem with fashion is that it is always changing. To successfully negotiate group membership, you have to get in on a fashion as it rises in popularity and then out before it declines. 

In terms of mobile phones, you thus need the right mobile at the right time. Some groups subvert this by being anti-fashion, but there is still no escaping it! 

Changing  mobile phone fashions and identity

In 1997 in Norway most teenagers had pagers. At that time mobile phones were associated with yuppie culture and so were not necessarily cool. Those who owned mobile phones and constantly displayed them were seen as vulgar. 

Some teenagers who owned Nokias (a popular phone at that time) and displayed them ostentatiously saw themselves as cool, and as having status. However most others saw them as pretentious, pompous and vulgar. 

By 2000 mobiles were owned by most teenagers and simply owning or not owning one was not a significant source of identity any more. 

By 2000, the age, price and style of mobile phones had become more important as a signifier of identity. 

Having a mobile was no longer thought of as snobby. In just three years since 1997 having an old ‘brick phone’ was seen as embarrassing. Just having one of these marked you as someone who didn’t fit in. 

picture of a Motorola brick phone
The Brick Phone: already unfashionable by 2000!

The way a mobile was displayed was a source of identity. For example, carrying it around on your belt was seen as silly. 


Ling’s work can be used to criticise postmodern theories of identity. With mobile phones, individuals are not entirely free to choose which ones they use, or how they display them. At least not if they wish to fit in with certain peer groups. 

Peer groups exercise considerable power over the choice of phones individuals make. 

Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This post is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module. This module is an option in the first year of the AQA’s A-level sociology specification.

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(1) Ling, R (2000) “We will be reached”: The use of mobile telephony among Norwegian youth.

(2) Brick Phone image source:

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