Kristen Cole

Kristen Cole

Associate Professor
Department of Communication Studies


Critical health communication, rhetoric, critical/cultural studies, disability studies, feminist studies, queer studies, autoethnography, social justice

Current Research Activities

There are two primary questions that guide my current research. The first question is: How do individuals and communities negotiate the meaning of health and illness in the face of cultural and systemic constraints? This question is interested in uncovering the circumstances that enable and constrain the potential for people to communicate and take action in their everyday lives. The second question is: How do assumptions about what counts as communication construct and reflect knowledge about who counts as human, and vice versa? This question stives to disrupt dominant paradigms of thought generated through communication in order to expand possibilities for a livable life. 


Research Connections to Current Events

My RSCA work informs two particular issues that are happening in the world: health inequality and social injustice. Due to the ongoing complexities of the COVID-19 global pandemic, investigating the conditions that enable and constrain communication and action in contexts of health and illness has become an even more pressing pursuit. Issues such as how COVID regulations and interventions are communicated, how illness is disclosed, and who is categorized as vulnerable or essential are central to determining how people manage illness and to what extent they have access to healthcare. As such, they are significant considerations when attempting to understand how health inequalities emerge and persist. Similarly, with the heightening visibility of social injustices in the US, disrupting exclusionary assumptions about personhood is imperative for social justice. This means uncovering patterns of thinking that enable systems of power to dominate and marginalize people. 


Personal Connections to Research

There are two particular personal circumstances that influenced my pursuits in the aforementioned RSCA areas. The personal circumstance that influenced my research with regards to agency in health contexts was being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Having to navigate the complexities of the US healthcare system on an almost daily basis has really opened my eyes to the interpersonal and institutional barriers that marginalized persons encounter when dealing with acute, chronic, or emergency healthcare needs. For this reason, I am committed to writing and listening to health and illness narratives in order to advocate for health justice. What influenced my research with regards to communicative practices of (de)humanization was my experience working as an instructional assistant at an adult school in Bakersfield, CA. After high school, I took at part-time job working in ELL (English Language Learner) classrooms where one of my roles was helping students prepare for the language portion of their U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Naturalization Test. During this time, I realized that the questions on this exam have almost nothing to do with preparing people to become participating members in the political communities that comprise the nation-state. Rather, they are about including/excluding people from particular rights and privileges based on their ability to comprehend terms that signify a police state (e.g., questions that ask about the definition of an “illicit drug” or what it means to be “incarcerated”). This is when I realized the power of language in determining the parameters of personhood, in the context of citizenship but also in all matters of legal, political, and social sanctioning.