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Social Researcher

February 01, 2010

The explosion of social media in recent years naturally drew the attention of Dr. Lana Marlow, an ASU assistant professor of communication and graduate adviser, who is turning her research focus to the trend in flux.

The social media issues she is exploring now differ greatly from her doctoral research at the University of Texas on how communication affects and changes the lives of women in prison.  She focused for many years on her dissertation subject, “Mothers in Prison, Women’s Autobiography, and Activism,” which resulted in a book on the subject published in 2009.

 “I’m turning the page and looking at some of the social media and interpersonal communications,” Marlow said, “and where we are going with that.  It’s not as depressing as the prison research, but it is important.”

Marlow said social networking affects everyday relationships that are maintained or end through social media sites cell-phone texting.

“I’m interested to see where that goes,” she said.  “Sometimes, people break up relationships by “defriending” each other on Facebook.  You don’t even have to do anything.  You don’t have to say ‘you’re not my friend.’  You just change your status or erase them from your page.”

Marlow said some people narrate their lives via social media like Facebook, Twitter or texting and she wonders what that leaves for them to talk about when they meet face to face.  Another social media area she is looking at is Internet access and how it affects student research.

“When I first started teaching, students would go to the library,” she said.  “It would take a long time for them to get their resources together and prepare their material.  Now, it doesn’t take them any time at all, so we have to set requirements for library resources.  They can use the library database, which is really just another mouse click, but we find they do a better job and have more reliable sources.”

The downside is that students don’t always process and retain material that is too easily obtained, she said, and the Internet also facilitates plagiarism, which has many pitfalls.

“People can tell when words aren’t yours,” Marlow said.  “You suddenly can’t pronounce them properly, and it’s embarrassing when you copy material that talks about the thesis research you did in your early 30s when you are really a 19-year-old student.  Situations like that are traumatic for them and for me.”

Marlow’s earlier research on women in prison was also traumatic for her as she found most of the women she studied were disempowered and didn’t have a say in their own lives.  Many came from abusive or drug-dependent relationships and found themselves in prison for crimes which wouldn’t land men in jail.

“Sometimes, we say boys will be boys,” Marlow said.  “If a woman is a mother and she breaks the law, she really gets the book thrown at her because the attitude is that since she is a mother, she should know better.”

What really drew Marlow’s interest, though, was that her own start in life was similar to many of the women she interviewed, who grew up with ill-equipped teenage parents or in neglectful situations.

“My parents luckily grew up, and I had many opportunities that may have been different had my young parents continued on their path together rather than separating so they could both grow up,” she said.  “I found that in a different set of circumstances without an opportunity for education or support, I or some of my family members may have ended up in that same situation. I also believe that the women I interviewed opened up because I was not just passing through or looking down on their experience and that I understood where they were coming from.”
Marlow studied personal autobiographies of mothers and their attempts to maintain dignity and closeness with their daughters.  Her study was attached to another study by Dr. Darlene Grant at the University of Texas on the relationship between mothers in prison and their daughters through a Girl Scouts program.

That study sought to find out if raising a mother’s self-esteem could, in turn, raise a daughter’s self-esteem, thereby cutting the vicious cycle of not standing up for themselves.  Marlow focused on the development of personal narratives in a silenced or coercive environment.
“It was illuminating and very depressing,” she said.  “They had regular Girl Scout meetings in Austin with the daughters of incarcerated moms and once a month, they would bring them to the women’s facility.  It is one of the few programs where their goal is saving the moms to save the girls.”

“They work on self-esteem issues, lifestyle issues, not necessarily for the moms but for the daughters, so they might do something different,” Marlow said.  “It was really moving and it will be a part of me forever.”

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