Theses Doctoral

Working on Life: Autonomy and Dependence for People with Intellectual Disability

Munson, Adrianna

Traditional conceptions of autonomy, which highlight the separation of the individual from the social forces around them, contradict a core assumption of sociological thought: that the individual is embedded in society. What then are we to make of autonomy’s cultural power to structure a person’s relationships and commitments? Moreover, how do people maintain autonomous social identities despite the dependencies that structure modern life? I explore these questions through ethnographic inquiry of the daily negotiation of carework and autonomy at an independent living community for adults with intellectual disability. I find that autonomous social identity emerges when autonomous actions are socially and temporally distanced from the actions of others. By framing dependence as a momentary state on the way to a more autonomous future, staff attribute autonomy to participants based on their progress toward future goals. The result is paradoxical. When daily productivity becomes the most salient indicator of autonomy, participants are obligated to be autonomous as a condition for their status as adults. I argue that this obligation to autonomy is a basic mechanism through which social institutions, like adulthood, induce self-governance as a mechanism of social control.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2026-09-03.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Eyal, Gil
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 8, 2021