Communication Studies, Department of



A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Interdepartmental Area of Communication Studies (Women‘s & Gender Studies), Under the Supervision of Professor Ronald Lee. Lincoln, Nebraska: July, 2010
Copyright 2010 Kittie E. Grace


The internet is fast becoming a means for people to obtain information, creating a unique forum for the intersection of the public, technical, and private spheres. To ground my research theoretically, I used Jürgen Habermas’s sphere theory. Habermas (1987) explains that the technical sphere colonizes the private sphere, which decreases democratic potential. In particular, the internet is a place for altering technical colonization of the private and public spheres.

My research focuses on women’s health because it is a particularly useful case study for examining sphere tensions. Historically, the biomedical health establishment has been a powerful agent of colonization, resulting in detrimental effects for women and their health. The purpose of this study is to examine how the internet encourages expert and female patient deliberation, which empowers women to challenge the experts and, thus, make conversations between the private/technical spheres more democratic.

I used PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) as a case to observe the changing sphere boundaries by studying the discourse that took place on multiple patient and doctor websites over a four-year period. Through my research, I found that the PCOS women challenge the biomedical model by appropriating medical language. By understanding the medical talk, the women are able to feel confident when discussing their health conditions with the doctor and with each other. The PCOS women also become lay-experts who have personal and medical experience with PCOS, reducing private sphere colonization. This case study exemplifies how female empowerment can influence expert culture, challenging our conventional understanding of democracy.