Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education

First Advisor's Name

Benjamin Baez

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

James Burns

Second Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Third Advisor's Name

Maria Lovett

Third Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Fourth Advisor's Name

Daniel Saunders

Fourth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member


activism, identity, race, gender, sexuality, class, organizing, social justice, higher education

Date of Defense



The purpose of this ethnography is to explore cultural context of college student activism, especially as it relates to identity. Much has been said about student activism in the higher education literature, but this literature has two major problems: first, it presupposes a pre-cursive existence of identity, and, second, it disconnects meaning-making from action. With regard to the first problem, activism scholars tend to take categories such as race, class, gender, and sexuality as given, thus reducing individuals to biological differences for the purposes of study. Instead of questioning how identities are created and constructed, such studies presuppose markers of identity as natural. The second problem relates to methodology. Many activism studies in higher education focus solely on interviews, which requires one to assume that meaning-making reflects and predicts actual practices, which is often not the case.

My ethnographic study explores how cultural assumptions about identity are actually put into practice. Through myriad data sources, including prolonged interviews with research participants, participant observations, autoethnographic story-telling, and materials from popular culture, collected over a ten month period, this ethnography uncovers activation as central to student activism. Activism entails a combination of “active” and “ism,” “and as suchactivism reflects a concern with the ways people are drawn out, moved, or, in other words, activated to political action through various identity understandings, engagements and interactions, and political relations.

Such activations can be understood through the prism of emotions. In particular, fear of oppression, commitments to a loved one, and outrage at injustice are emotions that particularly activate college students into political engagement when these students come from marginalized populations. But while emotions have the capacity to activate, emotions can also deactivate, as when anger subsumes one into possibly destructive behavior, or a bad break-up leads some to become less active. Emotions, therefore, can entice or inhibit student activism.

An ethnographic study of activism attends to cultural practices and what subtends them. One major implication of my ethnography for anyone working with college students and activists is the need to pay attention to the role of appeasement as it relates to activism. Activism is often a response to an injustice, and so it might be understood as a response to that which causes pain. Thus, the alleviation of pain might lead to appeasement and to a certain kind of happiness. Appeasement may obstruct negative emotions that lead to deactivation or to problematic forms of political engagement.





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