Exploring the emergence and disappearance of transableism on transabled.org: Digital ethnography of a transient mental illness
Date: 17 May 2021
University of Exeter
Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology
Transableism is an historical condition that originated in an online community named transabled.org, existing between 1996 and 2013. Transableism manifested as the desire to be disabled, arising out of a felt sense of incongruence between one’s inner sense of identity as disabled, and one’s bodily reality as abled. During its existence, ...
Transableism is an historical condition that originated in an online community named transabled.org, existing between 1996 and 2013. Transableism manifested as the desire to be disabled, arising out of a felt sense of incongruence between one’s inner sense of identity as disabled, and one’s bodily reality as abled. During its existence, transableism attracted clinical attention and was proposed for entry into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) under the descriptor Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). However, despite its growing visibility, in 2012 BIID failed to enter the DSM and the online transabled community disappeared. The aim of this thesis is to explore transableism’s rapid emergence and subsequent failure to achieve formal medical recognition. The key questions underpinning this thesis are (1) why did transableism emerge and (2) why did it disappear? Taking a qualitative approach, this thesis uses digital ethnography to analyse all content posted to transabled.org in its active years. The originality of this thesis lies in the way it uses the theoretical lens of an ecological niche of ‘transient mental illness’ (Hacking, 1998) to examine the historical, cultural and social factors which informed transableism, opening up a new, never before explored perspective. Use of the ecological niche of transient mental illness model provides a nuanced and holistic answer to the questions which underpin this thesis. I argue that transableism emerged because it reflected and expressed broader cultural understandings and tensions surrounding authentic versus inauthentic disability. Its emergence was also facilitated by a centralised model of community leadership which, for a time, successfully fostered a coherent group identity and enlisted the interests of clinicians. On the other hand, transableism disappeared because BIID failed to conform to an accepted authenticity politics of disabled identity and was policed accordingly. In addition, although the centralised model of community leadership initially facilitated transableism, towards the later years, this model collapsed, leading to conflict, community attrition and moderator burn out. Overall, this thesis makes 6 original contributions to knowledge by advancing understandings within (1) extant transableism scholarship, (2) broader medical sociological literatures, (3) the disability studies literature, (4) scholarship that explores claims to authentic identities, and the limits of such claims, (5) the literature on leadership and moderation practices within online communities and (6) the health advocacy community literature.
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