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Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric and Technical Communication (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Humanities

First Advisor

Patricia Sotirin


The goal of this inquiry is to reframe autoimmune arthritis self-representations as ritual communication in order to shift the ground for self-advocacy. I adopted a ritual view of communication to reframe self-representations as partaking in communicative rituals. One of the most influential models of ritual as a communicative process is James Carey’s (1989) work on the ways in which rituals produce and reproduce communal identities, commitments, and visions. Cultural rituals affirm the communal meanings and identities, social bonds, and prescriptive mandates of cultural belonging. The particular concern of this dissertation are the ways in which contemporary ritual communication may both advocate and reproduce oppressive representations of disability.

Autoimmune arthritis offers a particularly apt focus for a study of communicative rituals because representational politics are so explicitly contested. To combat stigma and false representation of the disease, there is a current push from advocates to distinguish among each of the 100 different forms of arthritis. This dissertation focuses on three online groups that are dedicated to changing social and cultural perceptions of autoimmune arthritis diseases. The stories and images presented in these groups are of shared experiences which attempt in various ways (though not always) to dismantle stigma, and to advocate and support other participants. Illness stories of individuals with autoimmune arthritis involve both identity and power; these stories are arguments about how those with autoimmune arthritis are subject to ritually produced oppressions but they also communally craft self-empowerment narratives that speak back to these oppressions.

Using a thematic approach or category-centered model of research (specifically, thematic coding analysis) to analyze narratives (Frank, 1995) and images (Garland-Thomson, 2002), the methodology for this research focuses on specific categorical topics across individual stories (e.g. discussions on medical treatments, physicians, parenting with a disability, intimacy issues). Further, the stories in this dissertation participate in larger socio-cultural narratives of self advocacy marked by the ritual reframing of what it means to be a good mother, notions of feeling valued and beautiful, and perceptions of bravery. Thus, individual self-representations must be understood as participating in a form of communal communication that has cultural power to advocate for and enact or resist change. Through my analyses, I offer evidence for this reframing of self-advocacy. Additionally, understanding disability self-advocacy as ritual communication makes a critical contribution to the social model of disability and a useful analytic strategy for studying disability advocacy.