Chapter I. Methods

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The research design and methods for this dissertation have been greatly shaped by the Digital Edge Project; a three-year research project that examined young people’s new media and learning ecologies. As part of the research team led by S. Craig Watkins (Principal Investigator), I spent over a year conducting ethnographic fieldwork at Freeway High School, and two years analyzing the data we collected. Although there are several similarities and intersections between the Digital Edge Project and my dissertation, there are also important differences between the two, especially regarding the objectives, research questions, sample of participants, data analysis, and limitations. When describing the work of the Digital Edge, I will use the plural pronouns “we” and “us” to credit the work and findings of the research team I was part of. In contrast, when describing the specific research questions, findings, and analyses of this dissertation, as well as the case studies I personally conducted, I use personal pronouns to distinguish my work from the larger collective project.

Objectives and Research Questions

This dissertation is concerned with the problem of immigrant youth assimilation into the U.S. and the problem of digital inequalities. I examine these issues through a series of case studies about the mediated activities of five Latino/Hispanic immigrant youths, with working-class socioeconomic backgrounds, in three contexts: the family/home, an after-school program, and the multi-setting of social media networked spaces. My aims are:

  1. to understand the characteristics of the new media practices and skills that five Latino/Hispanic immigrant youths develop as they use digital tools;
  2. to investigate the assimilation process of five second- and 1.5-generation Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth in a context of networked communication, a hyper-mediated culture, and structural inequalities;
  3. to contribute to the theory of segmented assimilation by considering how immigrant youths’ new media practices shape the process of incorporation into a host country;
  4. to understand the complex evolution of digital inequalities and participation gaps.

While the first and fourth objectives intersect the aims of the Digital Edge project, particularly in its goals of studying diverse youths' engagement with new media, formal and informal learning, and unique media ecologies; the second and third objectives are unique to my dissertation and specifically relate to the problem of immigrant youth assimilation in the U.S. From these general objectives, I formulated a number of specific research questions and further refined them in the course of this dissertation project. My main questions are:

  1. What are the new media practices and skills working class Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth develop in the contexts of family/home, after-school, and social media networked spaces?
  2. How do new media practices and skills help Latino/Hispanic immigrant youths to navigate their assimilation process in the U.S.?

Answering the main and secondary questions I will try to untangle the complex interplay of digital inequalities and structural factors, and understand how it shapes immigrant youths' trajectories of assimilation. Moreover, these questions are intended to help me understand the agency of Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth exercised as they communicated and socialized using networked technologies in their everyday life. Specifically, their agency in the contexts of family/home, an after-school program, and social media networked spaces.

The Site

The Austin Metropolitan Area

The research from the Digital Edge project and this dissertation is located in the particular local context of the larger metropolitan area of Austin. Named the 11th biggest city in the U.S. in 2013 according to the Census Bureau population estimates, this area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Once provincial, known for its legislative and educational operations, in the last twenty-five years Austin has exploded as a major destination not only for immigrants from other countries, but also for Americans from all over the U.S. The "new immigration" has in particular increased the share of the Latino/Hispanic population. It went from 23% in 1990, to 31% in 2000, to 35% in 2010. According to a recent report, Austin is ranked as the 20th largest area of a Hispanic population in the country (Pew Hispanic Center 2013), with a population of 885,400, the city has become ethnically diverse. The Latino/Hispanic group has a share 35.1%, the white Anglos 48.7%, Blacks or African Americans 8.1%, and Asians 6.3% (Cohen et al., 2013).

Although the metropolitan area of Austin has a history of spatial segregation, that has been gradually changing. The eastern portion of the city, separated from downtown by Interstate I-35, is historically home to minority communities, a configuration established even before the highway’s completion in the early 1960s (Straubhaar et al., 2012). With recent development efforts, combined with the massive scale of the "new immigration" and the boom of the area as a technological and innovation hub, Austin has experienced a wave of gentrification that has displaced minority populations unevenly throughout the city. A look at a map of the Latino/Hispanic population in Austin shows that although this group is concentrated in three major zones (80% plus): lower east Austin, greater Dove Springs, and the St. Johns area, this population is also concentrated in several little pockets (60-80%) distributed unevenly across the metropolitan area (Robinson, 2011). It is precisely in an area that contains one of these growing Latino/Hispanic clusters, where Freeway High School is located. Specifically, this public school and its community are located on the north urban fringe of the city, in what used to be a middle class suburban area in the 1970s but has increasingly become inhabited by working class families in the past two decades.[1]

Freeway High School

Because of its minority-majority student population, its location at the margins of the city, the socioeconomic background of most of the students families, and its digital media after school programs and elective classes, Freeway High School offered us a unique opportunity for researching digital inequalities of the U.S. Moreover, given the size of the Latino/Hispanic student population (951), the school was also an appropriate site for investigating the problem of the assimilation of Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth and their new media practices.

Freeway High School (FHS) was a large-scale public school located at the edge of the city, near what could be considered the urban fringe. The school served a community that was racially and economically diverse. However, the majority of the population was minority (88.8%) and economically disadvantaged (61.7%). In 2011-2012, Hispanic/Latinos made up 47.5% of a total of 2,002 students, whites 11.2%, Asians 13.3%, and African-Americans 24.2%. (Texas Education Agency 2011-2012) Almost half of the students (45%) classify for the Free Lunch Program, and 11% are in the Reduced-Price Lunch Program (Propublica, 2013). According to the Texas Education Agency Academic Excellence Indicator System the school had an "academically acceptable" rating in the year 2010-2011. The school provided few educational programs like Advanced Placement (AP), gifted and talented programs, and advanced math and science classes. Furthermore, very few students were enrolled in AP classes (24%), and even less are in gifted/talented programs (6%) (Propublica, 2013).

The general climate of Freeway High School was one of a crowded and low performing school, with the majority of students in the regular curriculum track (83.7%), budget cuts, and pressure on teachers (to get students pass the tests). The school banned students' use of mobile and digital devices, and blocked social network sites inside computer labs and classrooms. However, the school also offers elective classes and after-school programs that focused on digital media production and embraced new forms of learning. The Digital Edge team centered its interactions and observations around four spaces that have digital media technology orientations: two elective classrooms (a video technology class and a video game design class) and two after-school programs. Two members of the research team spent a total of approximately 150 hours in each classroom and four members spent more than 70 hours in the after-school programs doing participant observation.

Digital Media Oriented After-School Programs

The Digital Edge research team observed two after-school programs on a weekly basis: the Digital Media Club (DMC) and the Cinematic Arts Project (CAP). While the DMC expanded through two classrooms/computer labs and was supervised by both Mr. Warren and Mr. Lopez (the teachers of the game design and video technology elective classes, respectively), the CAP was only supervised by Mr. Lopez and most of its activities happened in only one classroom. Both classrooms provided access to more than forty I-Mac desktop computers, midi keyboards, drawing tablets, and other media production gear. The I-Mac computers ran OS-X, were connected to the internet, and had several media production software applications such as I-Movie, Garage Band, Key Note, Adobe Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects), Final Cut Pro, and Celtix. The computers also have an integrated camera, a microphone, and headphones. Some participants of the Digital Edge study frequented these spaces in a regular or casual basis depending on the intensity and structure of each program.


  1. Data from the Census Bureau (2010) shows that Hispanic population in the Austin has spread from the traditional enclaves or barrios of the East Side and Dove Springs to all parts of the metropolitan area. Besides being a majority in much of East and Southeast Austin, they have become the majority in portions of North and South Austin (Toohey, 2014). Interestingly, the movement of working-class Latino/Hispanic families to the edges of the city in the past decades has coincided with what some scholars describe as the rise of suburban poverty in the U.S. That is, the growth of poverty and low-income families in major U.S. city’s suburbs during the 2000s (Kneebone & Berube, 2015).