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Dissertation Research

The Real Virtual World:
Techno-mediated Relationships in the Lives of College Students

Download Alecea Standlee's The Real Virtual World:Techno-mediated Relationships in the Lives of College Students PhD DissertationThe Real Virtual World:Techno-mediated Relationships in the Lives of College Students
Ph.D. Dissertation Defended April 17, 2012
Department of Sociology, Syracuse University
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Dissertation Committee

Dr. Jackie Orr (Chair), Dr. Marjorie DeVault, Dr. Prema Kurien, Dr. Margaret Usdansky, Dr. Murali Venkatesh.

Abstract

My dissertation examines the way in which techno-mediated communication technologies, such as social media, text messaging, and virtual communities are used to negotiate, establish and maintain interpersonal relationships among undergraduate college students. Using in-depth interview and online participant observation, I explore the relationship between technological communication and social behavior, interpersonal relationships and social networks.

I focus on three broad questions:

  1. How do developments and structures of technological communication allow for the emergence of new social expectations and behaviors in the realm of connectivity and social interaction?
  2. How do individuals experience social pressures for connectivity and how do such pressures shape relationships?
  3. How is technology implicated in the way in which participants experience intimacy, relationships and individual identity?

My findings suggest that there is a strong connection between the corporatizing discourse of rational labor practice that defines speed and efficiency as inherently valuable and the increased use of technology to provide a faster and more efficient form of interpersonal communication among participants. One unexpected consequence of this development has been the normalized hyper-connection between the students I studied. The incorporation of technological devices, such as smartphones, into interpersonal relationships combined with the high social value of speed is connected with the increased expectations about frequency of contact within friendships and sexual relationships. This desire for immediate contact, as well as increasing availability of information about potential relationship partners, contributes to a transformation of the experience of intimacy among participants.

The Project

My dissertation research at Syracuse University, funded in part by a Roscoe Martin Foundation Grant, examines the way in which techno-mediated communication technologies, such as social media, text messaging, and virtual communities are used to negotiate, establish and maintain interpersonal relationships among undergraduate college students. It cannot be overstated how profusely technology is integrated into the relationships and day-to-day lives of these individuals and it is important to understand how such integration is impacting their social worlds. With its study of an emerging field, my research serves to contribute to the foundational sociological areas of sociology of technology, social networks, socialization and social change.

This work provides insight into how technological communication works to expand social networks and enhance social capital, thus impacting stratification among college students. Participants for hour-long interviews were recruited through class announcements and using snowball techniques. The students were selectively sampled to include voices from a cross section of race, class, gender, sexualities, years in school and majors. I supplemented this data using online participant observation, in which I followed 7 undergraduate students over the course of 4 months on Facebook. Additionally, I use postings and fieldnotes to establish a context for the research environment.

This research is situated within the literatures on the role and impact of the Internet and related technological communication practices on social behavior and "everyday" life. Broadly speaking the focus of such work has traditionally been on the development of online norms as being separate from offline behavior. To date, limited consideration has been paid to the relationship between online and offline behavior in understanding the overall individual and their interpersonal connections. Additionally, this project is situated within work on intimacy and the micro-sociology of interpersonal relationships. This existing body of extensive research discusses the meanings and expectations of intimacy as it relates to relationships, but in regards to technology it has been limited primarily to online only relationships. I intend for my work to contribute to the more specific literatures on the interpersonal relationships and social practices of college students. While technology has been addressed in this body of work, the emergent nature of technological innovation means that research must be ongoing.

The widespread use of communication technologies among college students and increasingly the general population means that the implications of this work are important to a variety of groups both within sociology, and beyond. My findings are significant to sociologists interested in the changing expectations and norms in the areas of interpersonal relationship behavior, identity formation and the persistence of social stratification via social networks. Those interested in social inequality and the role of social capital in resisting marginalization may also find this work useful. Broadly, this form of public sociology could lead to an improved understanding of the connection between on and offline relationships, social networks and the deployment of social capital among different populations.

astandlee@concord.edu • Concord University • (304) 384-6054