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Representational Politics and the Moral Economy of (Im)Mobility in the Developing World

  • Author(s): SALIM, ULLUMINAIR M
  • Advisor(s): Shim, Janet K
  • et al.

Background and Significance: The subject of human rights discourses and humanitarian intervention, limb disability and amputation are among the leading causes of disability in the developing world. From a comparative perspective, over 80% of the world’s amputees, yet only 2-5% have access to appropriate prosthetic and rehabilitative services. Aims: 1.) To investigate discursive constructions of (im)mobility and the value of prostheses from the perspective of humanitarian mobility workers and 2.) to examine representational politics and the moral economy of prosthetic limb supplementation in the developing world. Research Questions: This dissertation asks, “What are ways in which humanitarian workers conceive of mobility, and why are they invested in mobilizing amputees in the developing world? How do they create meaning, purpose, and value for themselves and potential donors?” Sample: Four U.S.-based humanitarian mobility organizations served as discursive sites for my study. Methods: From January 2016-2018, I pursued three strands of qualitative research: 1.) Twenty hours of ethnographic fieldwork at five humanitarian fundraising events, 2.) twenty-five hours of primary semi-structured qualitative interviews with sixteen U.S. mobility workers and board members from the four organizations of study, two informal interviews, and analysis of transcripts from four secondary interviews, and 3.) discourse analysis of one monograph, 60 blogs and social media posts, 20 photographs, and over three hours of promotional and documentary video footage. I analyzed all data using situational analysis. Findings: Study participants characterized mobilities as manifold, drawing upon their own experiences of immobility to mobilize others. Moreover, they confronted their privilege and criticized the social, cultural, and economic forces that generate and perpetuate immobility in the developing world; their initial tourist expeditions evolving into activist undertakings. Finally, they leveraged distinct representational strategies to appeal to an imagined, able-bodied, American donor public and garner funds to mobilize their work. Conclusions: This research offers a nuanced portrait of (im)mobility in the lives of humanitarian mobility workers, shifting the gaze from amputees in the developing world to the movements and emotional attachments of mobility workers themselves.

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