Theses Doctoral

How Do Youth Imagine a Healthy Life? Understanding Health Through Postmodernism and Critical Race Feminist Theory

Amoako-Parks, Clare

Enormous racial wealth and health disparities persist throughout the United States. There is evidence that health outcomes are a result of historical and contemporary forms of institutional racism (e.g., Roberts, 2012), but they are often framed as a result of individual behaviors in mainstream discourse (Fitzpatrick & Tinning, 2014b). Health education is one tool that can play a role in alleviating health disparities among adolescents, but traditional health and educational research tends to frame entire groups of young people as a monolith, categorized by their racial background, their family’s income, and/or their sexual orientation. This framing positions youth who are placed in these categories as “at-risk,” further pathologizing marginalized groups instead of attending to the role of the social structures that have created these disparities.

Combining postmodern tenets and critical race feminist theory (Evans-Winters & Esposito, 2010), this study employed a culture-centered approach (Dutta, 2007, 2010) to disrupt this framework by presenting the socio-historical context of health inequities, and by exploring the voices of youth who happen to belong to communities that are typically pathologized in the literature (Dagkas, 2014). I conducted one-on-one interviews with 24 individuals who attend or attended public schools in New York City, and 2 students who attended parochial schools, in order to understand how individuals imagine health in the context of our social categorizations.

Student-participants in this study shared stories with common themes, including the performativity of health (Webb & Quennerstedt, 2010), low school investment in health education, discourses of fear, risk, and shame in health class, and desires for openness and honesty from caring adults. Student-participants also shared unique or uncommon responses, including their ideas about health as an internal process, and the barriers that American cultural norms place on both individual and collective well-being. Additionally, some contradictions arose in the interview texts: between the importance of reaching out to community and focusing on oneself, and between students’ desires for structural versus individual changes in their imagination for a healthy life. This study showed how challenging deficit lenses and consulting youth about their understandings and imaginations can shape health education research, policy, and programming.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Health and Behavior Studies
Thesis Advisors
Basch, Charles E.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
February 21, 2020