Date of Award

2009

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Faculty

Faculty of Education and Arts

First Advisor

Dr Lelia Green

Second Advisor

Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd

Third Advisor

Dr Panizza Allmark

Abstract

This research has been motivated primarily by a desire to extend and enrich existing research on women’s uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to manage relationships, and access and construct social support during their transitional midlife years. In doing so, this research addresses a gap in the literature on women’s consumption of such technologies. Since the late 1980s, when several landmark studies investigated women’s use of the telephone, there has been little systematic evaluation of the degree to which newer communication technologies have become integrated into women’s communication practices.

Another key feature of this research is an examination of how ‘midlife’, as a stage of life characterised by several common transitions, is experienced by a group of women. These life experiences are modified by the availability of social support and, significantly for this research, by the communication conduits through which this support circulates. Given that midlife involves physical and emotional changes that may impact on a woman’s sense of self, this period of transition can be a source of stress. Numerous studies have identified the critical role social support plays in helping individuals cope with stress. For women, social support is commonly manifested through female networks, maintained through faceto- face encounters, and increasingly through mediated communication channels. In a region as geographically isolated as Western Australia, where over 27% of the population were born overseas, the importance of communication technologies in facilitating access to dispersed social support networks is arguably even more critical.

The research procedure, drawing on a qualitative, interpretive methodological approach, involved 40 in-depth, one-on-one ethnographic interviews with women aged between 45 and 55. Initial findings indicated that while women are actively appropriating a range of online communication channels, there was a risk in limiting the research focus to women’s use of the Internet, in isolation from their broader communication practices. In particular, this research makes clear that one significant aspect of women’s uses of ICTs lies in how different communication channels meet the needs of women and their families at particular moments in their lives. At the midway mark in the lifecycle, many of the women interviewed are either consciously, or in some cases intuitively, employing particular communication channels to manage difficult or sensitive relationships; their choices often constrained by the communication needs and/or preferences of their aging parents and/or their own children.

Despite such constraints, this research provides strong evidence to suggest that midlife women are as adept at strategically appropriating multiple communication technologies to satisfy their own needs, as are many younger people. This is manifested in a variety of ways, from women’s use of email as a safe conduit through which to maintain tenuous links with difficult siblings; to their strategic employment of email, instant messaging and webcam to foster a richer sense of connection with young adult children living thousands of kilometres away; through to their appropriation of a mix of ‘old’ and new channels such as face-to-face communication, the landline telephone, text messaging and email, as tools to help them manage their hectic lifestyles and sustain relationships with family and friends. Women’s active appropriation of multiple communication channels is therefore critical to the ongoing maintenance of relationships and, by extension, the health and emotional wellbeing not only of the women themselves, but also their loved ones and friends

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