Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology (PhD)
Moral Narratives, Emotions, and Beliefs in the Campus Free Speech Debate
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Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.
Freedom of speech has long been considered an essential value in democracies. However, its boundaries concerning hate speech continue to be contested across many social and political spheres, including governments, social media, and university campuses. Despite the potential of examining the social psychological dynamics of this debate for advancing theory on meaning-making, polarization, emotions, and social status, empirical research in this area is scarce. This dissertation aims to address this gap by examining first-hand perspectives and media frames on the free speech and hate speech debate using digital, archival, and interview data from an online forum and four university campuses. The first empirical chapter focuses on the moral discourse of individuals within an online free speech community. I analyze 418 discussion posts on the r/FreeSpeech subreddit using a digital ethnographic approach and find that most users understand free speech in an absolutist sense but differ in their justifications for why hate speech should be allowed. The study highlights the variation in free speech discourse within online spaces. The second empirical chapter explores campus culture and students’ meaning-making processes toward speech on campus at four large public universities in the U.S. and Canada. The chapter, which draws on data from 150 student newspaper articles and 55 semi-structured interviews with students, finds the culture on each of the four campuses to be polarized around free speech issues. However, interview participants express complex and sometimes conflicting meaning-making processes, particularly around the concept of “harm,” theories about speech and how it spreads, and the roles and responsibilities of universities in society. Overall, these findings challenge the assumption that the campus free speech debate is neatly divided along ideological or moral lines. The third empirical chapter investigates how social status shapes university students’ experiences of campus speech. I draw on the same interview data and find that lower-status students express a high degree of fear and anxiety about expressing themselves openly on a range of politicized topics, including free speech itself. This self-censorship negatively impacts lower-status students’ educational experiences, sense of belonging, and professional aspirations.
Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.
Current depictions of transness are one-dimensional, flat, and lacking nuance. In particular, narratives about suffering and suicide pervade media representations and mainstream discussions about transgender people. How do trans youth feel when they are exposed to suffering narratives? What alternatives does this dominant narrative conceal? In this study, I center the voices of 16 transgender youth between the ages of 18 and 30 through one-on-one interviews to demonstrate that constant, repetitive, one-dimensional stories of risk, suicide, and suffering have detrimental effects. My results show how narratives that emphasize suffering can impede identity formation, erase humanity, conceal joy, and limit hope about youth’s futures. These findings suggest that foreclosing all dialogue about suicide is not the answer. Rather, changing the nature of discussions about suicide and risk and implementing new policies about how, when, and where this information is shared can improve the safety and well-being of transgender youth.
Black students attending Canadian universities face a number of unique challenges and stressors that shape their experiences and mental health outcomes on campus. Utilizing 12 in-depth interviews with Black students at a large, metropolitan university in Western Canada, my findings show that Black students navigate instances of everyday racism on campus and in the classroom. Consequently, Black students experience negative mental health effects, forms of alienation, and social isolation. In response, these students adopt various coping mechanisms, such as modifying their behaviour to avoid discrimination and minimizing the importance of distressing interactions to negate feelings of anxiety and depression. More broadly, I illuminate the heterogeneity of Black student experience on campus, problematize current models of campus racial climate and outline culturally responsive equity and diversity initiatives that universities can implement in Black student populations.
In this thesis, I investigate the assumption made by identity development theorist that individuals intentionally construct and maintain a culturally valued self as they consider identity relevant goals and beliefs. Though this logic makes sense for positive identities—doctor, parent, or scientist—it becomes questionable when applied to construction of negative, or stigmatized, identities, such as that of a drinker. By interviewing 16 members of a metropolitan recovery community, I focus on how marginalized identities of alcohol misuse form absent of goal-based intention. In doing so, I show how stress processes and negative messaging from guardians, peers, and community members produce persistent painful emotions that contribute to psychological distress, hinder positive identity formation, and steer individuals toward spaces of consumption. Through each lost socially valued role, the drinker identity becomes more salient, achieving more importance in daily life and becoming central to individuals’ lives. More broadly, I advance current theoretical assumptions that dominated intervention strategies and recovery policy for decades.