Monday, October 12, 2009

Research Brainstorming

As a first year graduate student, pursuing my masters in anthropology, I'm being forced to examine the type of research I would like to carry out for my thesis.

Likewise, I'm planning on pursuing a doctorate after receiving my masters and I would like to begin research in areas that I can continue focusing on during my doctoral research.

What would it look like to study the effects of social media on a specific, marginalized group (within Atlanta) from an anthropological perspective? Specifically, I'm interested in examining the use of social networks within Hispanic female immigrants (between the ages of 18-25) and its affects on the negotiation of their identity between two cultures. Furthermore, how has this access to knowledge and platform for discussion affected their ability to have a voice in society and whether or not it has empowered them as women and immigrants (both traditionally marginalized groups in American society.

Wikipedia defines social media as “media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques” (Wikipedia, p. 1). The article on social media on Wikipedia says that it supports humans' needs for social interaction through web-based technologies. Social media users are transformed into content producers (instead of content consumers) and, in doing so, the democratization of knowledge and information is supported. Broadcast media monologues (one to many) are transformed into into social media dialogues (many to many). Other terms for social media (also known as social networks) include user-generated content or consumer-generated media (Wikipedia, p. 1).

One of the driving theorists behind my motivation to study this topic is Michael Foucault and his work, Power as Knowledge. Foucault examines the idea that power is inherent and with the capacity for power, comes the capacity for knowledge and influence. In society, the implementation of power comes from the elite and engulfs the masses. The power of the Center appears to be naturalized because of its own self-enforcing nature and the majority of the masses don't question the power of the center. Foucault points out that there is a capacity for power within each individual and other units which fall outside of the center (Foucault, p. 465-471). Examination of Foucault's theory has lead me to realize that the power for knowledge and change is inherent in all individuals, and, therefore, within all social groups. If marginalized groups (in this case, Hispanic female immigrants) have believed that they lack power (or even the capacity for power), how has their involvement in social media affected this view? Social networks allow any individual (regardless of gender, class or ethnicity) the ability to create their own space within a virtual society and voice their opinion. If this opinion is a form of power, these networks could be the platforms that allow them to realize their capacity for power and to question the decentralization of power present in the Center.

In Can the Subaltern Speak?, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak defines subaltern as that which is beneath (cultures that are outside or lower than the current power structure) (Spivak, p. 531). In relation to my possible research topic, Hispanic immigrant women definitely fall into Spivak's category of subaltern. He directly addresses the inability of women and people from third world countries to speak for themselves because of their subordination by the leaders in western culture. The voices of these groups haven't been acknowledged; even if others have attempted to speak on their behalf, it's not the actual voices of these groups. Intellectuals who attempt to speak on behalf of the subaltern may not get it right; the subaltern needs to be able to voice their own opinions. He questions who has the power to define. Credit needs to be given to multiple groups of people within one society, the dominant group should not speak for all people within society (Spivak, p.531-535). Spivak's ideas illuminate to the fact that Hispanic immigrant women need the opportunities to be able to contribute their own voices to the discussions of society. They need to be able to define themselves in their own language and no be forced into a definition that has been given to them by the dominant groups of society. In relation to social media, Hispanic women are able to own their own space, which they themselves control, and are able to define themselves in the way in which they want to be perceived. Similarly, in this arena, their voices are on a level playing field with other individuals within these networks. They may enter into discourses on multiple topics through a medium in which they won't be silenced.

While the group that I'm interested in focusing on are immigrants, they are also women. Not only am I interested in examining how these women deal with their "Otherness" within American culture through social media, I want to learn how social networks have affected their identities as females within a culture that has been dominated by males in the past. In Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, she discusses the need for women to be able to write and think on their own. In order to identify with their essential selves, women need to be given the opportunity to express their own ideas. Woolf asks, what is needed in order for women to be able to do this? She answers by saying that women must be liberated from their dependancy on men in order to write and think on their own. Women need their own space (a room of their own) to develop and produce their own ideas. When women aren't expected to act in particular roles (which have been assigned to them by men, not chosen by themselves), then they can be liberated to express themselves (Woolf, p. 257-258). Although Woolf was writing in 1929, her ideas are very applicable to our day and age. Hypothetically, it appears to me that social media may be the very space that this group of women need to express their own ideas and possibly begin to liberate themselves, not only from men, but from the dominating society as a whole.

In studying the effects of the use of social media by young Hispanic immigrant women, I believe that these women may finally have the opportunity to use a medium of communication that cannot be denied to them. Social networks allow them to express their own ideas and opinions in their own language. They don't have to conform to other's definitions of them or to the hierarchy of language used by the elite. The use of social networks may be the very tool they need to create their own space and freely express and explore their own identities, which may lead to the realization of self-empowerment of subordinated groups around the world through this medium.
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