Below is an extended abstract from my PhD thesis, completed at the LSRI, University of Nottingham in May 2011. I focussed on students experiences of disability in social networks, in and around higher education. I wanted to understand how and where dis/ability difference occurs in interaction. If you are interested in finding out more about this research, please get in touch with me directly via selewthwaite @ gmail.com
For many young people social networks such as Facebook are an essential part of their student experience. Other web-based, interactive services like Wikipedia and YouTube are also an important facet of everyday student life. New technologies have always been scrutinized for their capacity to support education and, as social technologies become more pervasive, universities are under increasing pressure to appropriate them for teaching and learning. However, the educational impact of applying these Web 2.0 technologies is uncertain.
Using a Foucauldian perspective, my qualitative study explores the networked experiences of disabled students to examine how dis/ability difference is ascribed and negotiated within social networks. Data comprises 34 internet-enabled interviews with 18 participants from three English universities. Interviews incorporate the internet to expand opportunities for discussion, observation and analysis. Mobile broadband, a remote desktop viewer and screen capture have been flexibly applied together to ensure an accessible interview situation and recognise students’ preferences and circumstances. Data is analysed using discourse analysis, with an attention to context framed by activity theory.
Disabled students’ networked experiences are found to be complex and diverse. For a proportion, the network shifts the boundaries of disability, creating non-disabled subjectivities. For these students, the network represents the opportunity to mobilise new ways of being, building social capital and mitigating impairment.
Other participants experience the network as punitive and disabling. Disability is socio-technically ascribed by the social networking site and the networked public. Each inducts norms that constitute disability as a visible, deviant and deficit identity. In the highly normative conditions of the network, where every action is open to scrutiny, impairment is subjected to an unequal gaze that produces disabled subjectivities. For some students with unseen impairments, a social experience of disability is inducted for the first time.
As a result, students deploy diverse strategies to retain control and resist deviant status. Self-surveillance, self-discipline and self-advocacy are evoked, each involving numerous social, cognitive and technological tactics for self-determination, including disconnection. I conclude that networks function both as Technologies of the Self and as Technologies of Power. For some disabled students, the network supports ‘normal’ status. For others, it must be resisted as a form of social domination.
Importantly, in each instance, the network propels students towards disciplinary techniques that mask diversity, rendering disability and the possibility of disability invisible. Consequently, disability is both produced and suppressed by the network.