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Disability organising in Russia: legitimacy, resistance, and their limits

Mullins, Philippa (2021) Disability organising in Russia: legitimacy, resistance, and their limits. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004480


This thesis investigates Russian civil society organising around disability. It seeks to demonstrate the construction of legitimacy through depoliticization, and its opportunities and threats for disability organising. It proposes an analytical framework of resistance which foregrounds actors’ intent and meaning-making to identify resistance which strategically aims to evade perception. Civil society research has characterised the Russian state as relating to civil society in two broad ways: (1) encouraging its action as a partner of state which responds to legitimised social welfare needs and (2) restricting action which it perceives as politically threatening. Within this research, disability organising has largely been naturalised as belonging to the first category. However, just as the categories of legitimised and delegitimised civil society are more fluid than the above binary might suggest, understandings of disability organising as legitimate are also contingent. This raises questions about how disability civil society organisations (CSOs) enact, negotiate, and instrumentalise legitimacy, and how the category of legitimacy interacts with constructions of disability. I explore these questions through four empirical chapters, based on interviews with actors involved in disability organising. The first chapter asks how people organising around disability perceive their environment and how this influences action. Their perceptions of risk result in strategic management of action to appear compliant. They link compliance to depoliticised social action. In the second chapter, I ask why this works in relationship to disability organising. I demonstrate how disability, and thus disability organizing, have been naturalized as apolitical via association with the private sphere, medical expertise, charity, vulnerability, and dependence. I show that assumptions of vulnerability are instrumentalized by some actors to resist; organizing from within the disability sphere manages the risk of sanction by benefitting from the sphere’s assumed depoliticization. In the third chapter, I explore the everyday, ambiguous forms that resistance takes so as not to trouble apparent compliance. While some actors strategically avoid identification by the state of their action as contentious, research does not need to reach the same conclusions. Rather, I argue for the need to extend the forms of action which we recognise as resistance under these conditions. In the final empirical chapter, I look to how normatively politicized LGBTQ+ identities interact with normatively depoliticized disability identities. I demonstrate that legitimization as a civil society actor is contingent on perpetuating the misrecognition of disabled people as non-agentic, passive, and desexualized. I thus demonstrate how apparent compliance structures unequal recognition and exclusions. Analyzing how LGBTQ+ disabled actors negotiate this through strategies of fluid identity management and community building extends our understandings of resistance. Through the thesis, I unite civil society and disability literatures to make three main contributions. First, I challenge the notion that enacted compliance is forced or passive; it is rather highly strategic. Second, I demonstrate that apparently social action cannot be understood as non-resistant and apolitical. In doing so, I highlight actors’ instrumentalization of assumed vulnerability as a resistant strategy and uncover a range of forms of resistance which aim to evade dominant perceptions. Finally, I show how enacted compliance both functions as strategy and struggles to address existing power relationships. These findings call for research which recognises and values a wider range of resistance, and for organizing which is reflexive about and responsive to how its strategies may replicate exclusions.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2021 Philippa Mullins
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Sets: Departments > Social Policy
Supervisor: Ishkanian, Armine and Burchardt, Tania

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