Sustaining and challenging group-based inequalities in everyday life : a meaning-centered approach
Lee, Naomi Parker.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Georgetown University, 2009.; Includes bibliographical references. An enduring aim of psychologists is to understand and explain regularities in human thoughts, feelings and actions. Since the founding of the discipline in the 19th century, two explanatory frameworks have co-existed, the causal scientific model and the normative scientific model. The causal model explains regularities by referring to cause-effect mechanisms, while the normative model explains regularities in terms of human action that is oriented to culturally normative ways of being. Central to a normative scientific explanation of patterned behavior is the recognition that people act in accordance with the meanings they give to phenomena; hence the way people ascribe meaning to phenomena become a central object of study. In this dissertation I adopt a normative scientific perspective to explore social inequalities, specifically economic inequalities. Most psychological research on this topic seeks the causes of social inequalities and neglects people's meaning-making activities and their orientation to normative systems. In two empirical studies I examine how people use language to give meaning to everyday practices in ways that negotiate power between economically unequal groups. The first study is based on field work in Caracas, Venezuela and uses the concepts of interpretative repertoires (Potter & Wetherell, 1987) and carriers (Moghaddam, 2002) and tools of discourse analysis to detail how a culturally-valued practice (beauty) becomes a site where the meaning of social class categories is contested such that debate about income inequalities is sidelined. The second study adopts Positioning Theory (Moghaddam, Harr©♭, & Lee, 2008) and examines how power is negotiated in interpersonal relationships between people of widely differing economic means (nannies and their employers in an affluent neighborhood in Washington, D.C.) through the storylines they invoke. These studies combine to show how the ways of distributing power that people take for granted as independently existing truths (in the form of conventional storylines or interpretative repertoires) are cultural phenomena that are sustained through the normative activities of intentional human actors. Acquiring this knowledge is a first step towards a more open and critical dialogue about how we want to deal with social and economic inequalities.
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