Posts tagged ‘Inequality’

The Problem of Representation

By js, 7 September, 2008, No Comment

In the blog of Tomas Summers Sandoval ( he says:

Both the cases of Obama and Palin are illuminated by the study of the past.  In particular, my thoughts turn to the legendary Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.  She ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972–a woman and an African American and a true progressive–and, yet, has received far too little mention this past year.  In her 1970 autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote:

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black, and a woman proves, I would think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”

Chisholm, never one to let her status as a Black woman be used for the purposes of absolution for a national record of historic oppression, carefully avoided the very common place and common sense analysis of her achievements at the time.  Most saw her “historic” career as proof of her individual success, as well as evidence that the system of the past was changing, however slowly.  But Chisholm doesn’t make her election about herself, she makes it about the system at large.  She diffuses the significance of representation, saying instead that the odd interest in it only serves to highlight the continuing inequalities and inequities in society at large.

Shirley Chisholm knew the historic record of racial and gender oppression was not about representation, about whether or not women and people of color were “allowed” to attain visibility.  In other words, the lack of women or persons of color in nationally-elected offices was not the problem.  It was a symptom of the problem.  The problem was always a larger collection of institutionalized beliefs which held that both women and nonwhites were inferior.  These beliefs–once situated as the rationale of a political system–become the “common sense” of how it operates.  Of course there are no women or Black presidents.  Of course all presidents are white males.

In a way, if racism and sexism were just about representation, neither would be a real problem today.  The solution to each would be clear, achievable, and easy to measure.  If both were just about peoples’ belief systems, we’d be fine, too. But sexism and racism are not that simple.  Both have much more to do with power and how it is allocated.  For example, the widespread belief in Black inferiority would have done nothing than strain interpersonal relations if it had not become institutionalized into our systems of power.  Once it had, it served as the rationale for distributing economic and political advantage.  In the 20th century, then, you have government bodies like the FHA giving out low cost loans to whites only, creating them into a legally protected, property-owning class, while Blacks and other nonwhites had to coninue to find alternate means of achieving that part of the “American Dream.”

Representation is but a symptom of those systems of power.  To make another analogy, you can cure a symptom without curing the cold.

These are seemingly simple differences of analysis but they carry heavy implications.  The election of Barack Obama or Sarah Palin into the executive branch of this nation’s government will be something that has never happened before.  It will carry with it an important set of consequences, helping to slowly dismantle and rebuild people’s expectations of leadership.  But, that is not change in and of itself.  Real change is rarely so easy and free of struggle.

Meaningful change in a society historically obsessed with disempowering people of color and women will be the (re)formation of egalitarian and equitable systems of power.  When we can produce equal measures of opportunity and success in this nation, then something really historic has occurred.

Of course, you don’t have to be a woman or a person of color to do that.

This is the phrase which really caught my attention

Representation is but a symptom of those systems of power.  To make another analogy, you can cure a symptom without curing the cold.

So is my focus on representation and what people who DO have access to technology do with that technology misguided. Should I be focusing on the issue of access to technology feeds into the inequality in this country. BUT it seems to me that this discussion has already happened. It has already been broached by Cindy Selfe and others who discuss the digital divide.

So if I want to focus on how that discussion of the digital divide focuses us too much on the materiality of the problem which as Sandoval argues is easy to solve and not on the unequal nature of the frameworks involving technology. For example,

  • the fact that technology is a money making enterprise really restricts who can have access; it costs money to own a computer, it costs money to get internet access, it costs money to get a phone and to get phone service
  • the skills of being computer literate and computer savvy cannot be gained without the use of the tool
  • it is like teaching literacy to students without letting them have books
  • therefore, the tool has to be provided to everyone and not only those who have the money to purchase it

So I can focus my discussion on how digital literacy is like all other literacies which are tied to economics and tied to a “white” and priviledged identity

Reactions to Massey

By js, 5 August, 2008, No Comment

I have finished reading my first complete book. Now I have to write my notes. I have chapter 1.

I will continue thinking about the book especially as I write my notes. One thing which disconcerted me, but which may be a function of the discipline out of which this book comes, is the focus on the problem and no discussion of the solutions. I guess that is what the rest of us are for.

I now feel I am at a loss. The information and compilation of data that he presents is so overwhelming. Futhermore, it seems to me that the book is not strong enough in tone denouncing those who are most responsible and with the most power to change things. Of course, that is probably the idealist in me speaking.

I have also read the essay published in the Harvard magazine and have ordered the book that focuses on inequality and education. I think that one may have at least one chapter in which possible solutions are discussed.

The main question that I now have is: how does technical communication help create stratification? I will continue pondering that question as I write my notes.

Now what do I think about the competence and warmth categories. The way that he discusses them make sense to me although I do think that how those categories are defined exactly are culturally determined. He seems to be operating on the tenet that stratification is caused by how we apply those categories but how we define the categories depends on culture, too, so I expect that there are more layers that need to be unraveled.

Also, I was thinking of what a friend said about Mexicanos being against Mexicanos and it fits exactly with the concept of emulation and adaptation which Massey discusses. In order to get ahead and be part of the in-group, some Mexicanos choose to disassociate from other Mexicanos and copy the behavior of the control group which includes exploitation and opportunity hoarding. This behavior seems to be very individualistic, but again it is more complex and what Massey argues seems to suggest that it is more a reorganization and balancing of who is in the in-group.

Now how does the postmodern idea of the shift away from the voice of a single-authority affect these ideas? Does it mean that we see the decentering of authority only in rhetoric but not in the actual material conditions? Or has the discourse not caught up with the material conditions yet and will eventually? When will it happen? What can each one of us do? or will it take a catastrophic series of events like war and depression which affects all our society for our society to become more egalitarian?


Should we all move to Finland? :-)

Technical Communication and Inequality

By js, 31 July, 2008, No Comment

Reading Massey and Gaudin about inequality really makes me think about how my own work either contributes to or helps to fight inequality.

This reading has made me look at my research questions and I’m wondering if I’m looking at the wrong thing.

According to the theory that I am testing, people of color have different cultural capital which they value. At least a couple of the types, navigational and community capital are not exclusive to people of color. In fact, Massey argues that people in power have been very successful in using their navigational capital and their connections in the community for advancement.

By looking at what the inequality literature is arguing, people are just adapting to their contexts in different ways. So how people use their navigational capital is going to be much different if they are not in power. So those in power, namely white people in the US, will navigate institutions in ways that will benefit them and those institutions are designed for just such use. On the other hand, those who are disenfranchised will not be able to navigate the institutions in the same way. Their methods will have to be different. But that does not mean that only POC have navigational capital, but the ways in which this capital comes to be and how it is utilized is different. Massey makes the same argument about how poor people, usually POC, react to violence around them; they will become violent in response to violence, more distrusting, and less willing to get involved. Whereas white people deal with violence by moving away from the places with such dangers. So both have to deal with the reality but they do so in different ways because of the context in which they find themselves.

This reading has lead me to different research questions:

Does technical communication contribute to inequality? If so, how?

I know this particular question is too broad but that will be the guiding question as I seek to focus it even further.

How does assessment contribute to inequality?
How does the structure of online learning contribute to inequality?
How does design of online spaces either contribute to or help fight inequality?
How does change in literacy requirements to include digital literacy contribute to inequality?

This particular question has been at the center of much of my thinking but I have not been able to articulate it. I have noticed in TC a lack of discussion about race; how does this lead to inequality. For example, even in usability there have been those who say that race does not matter; how does that contribute to inequality? Perhaps race itself is not central to qeustions of usability but what is central are those realities/inequalities which people have to deal which are connected to race.

Even when I was thinking of participatory design, I was thinking about inequality. In fact, participatory design seeks to level out the field by giving everyone involved in a project an equal say in the design of the project. The question would be if the ultimate outcome of participatory design also redistributes the benefits derived from the participatory project back to everyone.

Where has participatory design been implemented? What have the short term results been? What have the long-terms results been? Do the long-term benefits of participatory projects get distributed among all participants?

When I think about how literacy is being redefined to include digital literacy, I wonder how those people who do not have access to the technology will gain access to that literacy. Even as schools bring in technology to schools, students use the computers in passive way rather than in an active, critical activities which will help build their digital literacy. Schools have substituted programming classes with classes which teach students how to use specific office tools. The approach to the classes themselves provide students with significant messages about what they are capable of doing with the technology they learn.

As I moved to the discussion of race in online spaces, I was interested in looking at the way in which the online spaces are designed give unequal opportunity for POC to control their identity. The design itself assumes a white user unless someone has the audacity to actually articulate their identity in direct ways, but unless someone has the knowledge and experience in doing this, they may not know that it is an option.

Reading about inequality

By js, 31 July, 2008, No Comment

Reading Massey and Gaudin about inequality really makes me think about how my own work either contributes to or helps to fight inequality.

Unequal America

By js, 31 July, 2008, No Comment