Deconstructing the Politics of Identity and Representation in Cyberspace: Implications for Online Education

Deconstructing the Politics of Identity and Representation in Cyberspace: Implications for Online Education

Mustafa Yunus Eryaman (Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Turkey)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-046-4.ch022

Abstract

The term cyberspace has come to represent the virtual space in which people surf the Web, send and receive email, chat with strangers, or instant message their friends. As people’s lives become increasingly entangled with these technologies, understanding how gender, sexual, and racial identities are negotiated in online spaces becomes important to understanding the Internet as a social and political space. To uncover how individuals make sense of race, class, sexual, and gender identities in cyberspace, this chapter explores how they construct and reproduce cyberspace as a social and political realm. Specifically, drawing on Habermas’ theory of ideal speech situation (1988) and Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia (1973, 1984), the analysis deconstructs how race, class, and gender are performed in cyberspace and how corresponding inequalities are created and upheld in this space. It also explores the ways in which online education might help individuals to actively disrupt social, racial, and gender inequalities in both their online and offline communities.
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Introduction

Once believed to be the great equalizer—a space in which racial, gender, and other social inequalities would be replaced by a discourse of democracy and freedom for all (Rheingold, 1993)—the Internet has instead become both a novel medium and a new site through which various social inequalities are produced, reproduced, and upheld. Hence, understanding the ways in which racial, ethnic, gender, age, and sexual identities are taken up on line is central to understanding how individuals make sense of self and community.

First, no object, event, or social identity exists prior to social interaction; rather, meaning is created and reproduced through interaction and interpretation. Thus, the meanings of social identities, such as “Black,” “White,” “boy,” “girl,” are all created interactionally and under constant negotiation. For instance, West and Zimmerman (1987), in their pivotal article “Doing Gender,” argued that rather than being assigned or achieved, gender is constantly performed, interpreted, and accomplished. Thus, they suggested, “doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine natures” (p. 126).

Extending this theoretical argument, racial, age, class, and sexual identities can be seen as similarly accomplished. Given the inherently constructed nature of computer mediated communication, such online identities can probably be best understood within a framework of performativity theory because “as [users] participate, they become authors not only of text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction” (Turkle, 1995, p. 12). Therefore, the ways in which individuals actively “do” gender, race, and class within these virtual spaces both challenge and reinforce sociological notions of these identities.

This chapter therefore analyzes individual construction and reproduction of cyberspace as a social and political realm in order to identify how people make sense of race, class, sexual, and gender identities. Understanding this latter is central to understanding how individuals make sense of self and community while spending increasing amounts of time in virtual worlds. As a conceptual framework in which to analyze the performance of these identities in cyberspace and deconstruct the creation and performance of their corresponding inequalities, it draws on Jurgen Habermas’ (1988) theory of the ideal speech situation and Michael Bakhtin’s (1973, 1984) notion of heteroglossia. Finally, it explores the emancipatory potential of online education and how such education might help individuals to actively disrupt social, racial, and gender inequalities in both their online and offline communities.

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