This is the second of three blog posts by PhD candidates in youth sociology who were selected to present their research to a panel as part of a Postgraduate Workshop on the 29th November, following the TASA Annual Conference. This workshop was supported by funding from TASA.
By Benjamin Hanckel
PhD Candidate, University of Technology, Sydney
In October 2014 Singapore’s highest court upheld colonial law 377(a) . The law is part of the penal code that criminalises sex between men. Similar legislation remains in other parts of Asia, such as Bhutan, Brunei, Malaysia, India and Indonesia, where engaging in same-sex activity can lead to imprisonment, being publicly whipped or being fined. These legal provisions exist because of prevailing stigmas and discrimination against non-heteronormative practices throughout Asia.
For LGBT* young people living in these spaces, such marginalising forces create barriers that prevents them accessing crucial information, care and support, which has consequences for their mental health and wellbeing.
In this blog post I focus on my PhD research, which is examining the role of new technologies for LGBT youth living within such contexts. I begin by considering the current field of research and, within this context, discuss my PhD study. I then share some preliminary findings of my work that were presented at the TASA Youth Postgraduate Day in November 2014, and consider some possible directions for this research based on the feedback from the panellists.
The Impact of New Technologies
The internet affords LGBT young people who have access to new technologies opportunities to explore and form identity, obtain support and get access to important (sub)cultural knowledge (Hanckel and Morris, 2014; Hillier et al., 2012; Paradis, Forthcoming). These online spaces generate both new forms of social capital between young people and gives them opportunities to engage in forms of political activism in on/offline spaces (Hanckel and Morris, 2014; Wood, 2014). The perceived anonymity, as well as the opportunities for (eventual) face-to-face interaction remains important for young people (Hillier et al., 2010; Robinson et al., 2014) as they negotiate the complex terrain of self-making across both online and offline spaces.
So what is missing?
To date this research, whilst important, has focused largely on the global north and focused only on the experience/s of users. What is missing is a more holistic approach that examines how these ICT-based resources are engineered and deployed, as well as the impacts they have on a range of stakeholders utilising these site/s. Greater attention also needs to be paid to how transnational subjects enter and participate in these spaces, whom have, in many cases remained invisible in previous research.
My PhD study is attempting to respond to some of these concerns through examining one transnational ICT-based resource within Asia that targets non-heterosexual young people. My approach includes an examination of the production, distribution and consumption (or prosumption!) of content. I am interested in how site/s are created and engineered for queer subjects, as well as the consequences for those impacted by these projects. My focus is on one web-application (‘web-app’) that targets young people across 8 countries in Asia (see picture below for the areas that the web-app is targeting).
Source: Education Services Australia Ltd
My approach draws on Amartya Sen’s (1999) Capability Approach, Bourdieu’s (1977) work (his concepts of habitus and forms of capital), as well as drawing on recent work from non-representational theorists (For instance see: Thrift, 2008).
Using this framing, my work considers how affect is constructed and experienced, and how capital and capabilities are deployed in such ICT-based community development programs. By affect I am referring here to the response that takes place in the embodied habitus due to the interaction with technological object/s within particular context/s.
As Baym (2006) has argued, studying the internet necessarily involves taking into consideration the ‘…interconnections between the internet and the life world in which it is situated’ (82). Thus, to capture the nuances of both the development of the site and its impact my study uses a mixed-methods approach. My study incorporates interviews with stakeholders involved in the production and consumption of the site; document analysis of programmatic documents; an online content analysis; Google Analytics data; and user’s trajectories, which I am tracking through the ICT-based resource online (where ethics permission has been obtained).
So what have I found so far?
My focus to date has been on the how this web-app has been constructed. One concern raised by the panel at the TASA conference was that my presentation covered many areas, so for the sake of brevity, I am focusing on two major themes, which I am pursuing following their feedback.
Engineering ‘safe(r) space:’ Considering discourses of Marginality and Risk
The ICT-based resource is designed to be a secure ‘safe(r) space’ for young people who access it. The emphasis placed on ‘safety’ and ‘trust’ is fundamental as it is a response to both the pervasive stigmas that young people live with, as well as the broader real concerns about risk, related to online surveillance. Such concerns are currently being negotiated in other queer spaces, including online hook-up apps, such as Grindr , where entrapment by authorities and violent crimes have taken place.
This emphasis on safety, represents an engagement in the symbolic production of a ‘trustworthy’ and ‘supportive’ space. Decisions made at both the back-end of the site (such as through development decisions about the storage of data and the chosen URL) to front end decisions are designed to alleviate concerns of the user and create the affect of safety. For instance the site is referred to publicly as a ‘web-app,’ which as one staff member pointed out, ‘implies a stand-alone app on an individuals phone’ and gives the user the impression ‘of being in control of privacy.’ This sense of privacy is most evident through the ‘Concerned About Privacy’ link, which appears in the top left hand corner of the web-app homepage (below), linking the user to more information about how the space takes privacy seriously, and undertakes measures to secure data.
The creation of the affect of safety is crucial for bringing the queer subject into the web-app. Through the symbolic production of markers of safety, such as the link shown above, queer subjects can enter the space, feeling safe to then login and participate in the program. In doing so it opens up the space for the deployment of capabilities or capital that can be accessed by queer young people.
The deployment of capabilities here refers to both (sub)cultural capital (or knowledge) and social capital. Importantly this capital obtained or accessed on the platform is engineered to ‘bleed’ into the existing on/offline spaces that LGBT young people inhabit. That is, the space is constructed in such a way that young people can gain information and connect with other users, which then translates into further feelings of support and reassurance, as well as connecting them to online and physical – bricks and mortar – resources, such as health, legal, and social services. In doing so the ICT-based resource engineers an affect of safety to provide young people with resources to make decisions about how they ‘come out to family and friends,’ how to ‘access support services’ and to engage in ‘forms of political activism’. In doing so the web-app is developed to participate in youth experiences across on/offline spaces.
TASA Panel Feedback
The panel provided me with some interesting theoretical concerns to consider, particularly in relation to Bourdieu’s work. Furthermore the panel asked me to consider how I was using affect with Bourdieu’s work, and to consider how affect travels within, and beyond online spaces – something I am following up in interviews with users.
The panel also asked about the scope of my project, and how I capture the different nuances of access, and structural barriers that are present within different physical places that the web-app is targeting. This is a question I am working through, and brings up interesting concerns about both the breadth and depth of my analysis, as well as how I discuss the transnational nature of the web-app in this study.
I would like to thank the TASA Youth Thematic group. This was an exciting opportunity to present some of my work, and some preliminary findings. Thanks also to the panel and my supervisor, A/Prof Alan Morris for the advice, and support in the construction of my thesis.
*’LGBT’ here is used an inclusive term to include young people who identify with a same-sex identity and/or desire and also includes those who identify with or may be questioning a gender identity other than their biological sex and/or assigned gender.
Baym, N., 2006. Finding the Quality in Qualitative Research, in: Silver, D., Massanari, A. (Eds.), Critical Cyberculture Studies. New York University Press, New York, pp. 79–87.
Bourdieu, P., 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1St Edition edition. ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.; New York.
Hanckel, B., Morris, A., 2014. Finding community and contesting heteronormativity: queer young people’s engagement in an Australian online community. Journal of Youth Studies 17, 872–886. doi:10.1080/13676261.2013.878792
Hillier, L., Jones, T., Monagle, M., Overton, N., Gahan, L., Blackman, J., Mitchell, A., La Trobe University. Australian Research Centre in Sex, H. and S., 2010. Writing themselves in 3 : The third national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people.
Hillier, L., Mitchell, K.J., Ybarra, M.L., 2012. The Internet As a Safety Net: Findings From a Series of Online Focus Groups With LGB and Non-LGB Young People in the United States. Journal of LGBT Youth 9, 225–246. doi:10.1080/19361653.2012.684642
Paradis, E., Forthcoming. Searching for Self and Society: Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Online, in: Wilson, A., Bloomfield, V. (Eds.), Voices of LGBTQ Students and Teachers: Changing the Culture of Schooling. Paradigm Publishers.
Robinson, K., Bansel, P., Denson, N., Ovenden, G., Davies, C., 2014. Growing Up Queer: Issues Facing Young Australians Who Are Gender Variant and Sexuality Diverse. Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Melbourne.
Sen, A., 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press.
Thrift, N.J., 2008. Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY.
Wood, S., 2014. Digital Battlegrounds: the growing struggle to contest LGBT online spaces [WWW Document]. Participation, Power and Social Change. URL http://participationpower.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/digital-battlegrounds-the-growing-struggle-to-contest-lgbt-online-spaces/ (accessed 12.14.14).