Date of Award

Summer 8-19-2022

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Liliana Herakova

Second Committee Member

Bridie McGreavy

Third Committee Member

Judith Rosenbaum-Andre

Additional Committee Members

Michael Socolow


American politics have seen growing polarization in the past few years (Serrano-Contreras et al., 2020; Wojcieszak & Warner, 2020). Polarization is generally defined as “the distance between opposing political views” (Serrano-Contreras et al., 2020, p. 65). With focus on college students, this thesis considers ways to bridge the political divide in the United States and to promote generative engagement with differences across the political spectrum. The specific research questions this study explored were: 1) How do Ethics of Care principles and practices appear in and impact conversations on politically-charged topics among college students? and 2) How does participating in a dialogue on politically-charged topics impact affective polarization among college students identifying with each of the two major U.S. parties?

The project was informed by Social Identity Theory, Intergroup Communication Theory, and the Feminist Ethics of Care to explore effective approaches to communicate and create connection with people with divergent perspectives. Twenty-four students completed a screening survey to help compose four focus groups with a total of 15 participants, all identifying white and between the ages of 18-44. The focus groups simulated an intergroup interaction by involving students identifying as either Democrat or Republican. Data were analyzed using a grounded theory approach with the above listed frameworks providing sensitizing concepts.

Findings suggest that with regards to the first research question, participants had a desire to practice Ethics of Care and named intergroup communication strategies that would help achieve that, such as practicing listening to the other, finding connection on other topics, and imagining the other’s perspective. Such suggestions notwithstanding, participants were either unwilling or did not know how to effectively engage in an intergroup discussion during the 1-hour focus group session. Moreover, cross-party interactions in this study involving white identifying students at a white serving institution were characterized by a white and western norm of fear and avoidance of conflict (Rudick & Golsan, 2018). In response to the second research question, even just connecting with those from the opposing party about the shared goal of reducing political polarization seemed to slightly increase feelings of warmth and closeness toward the opposing party. Participants surfaced an operational definition of affective polarization and provided their own analysis of social factors that may be contributing to it, most specifically, biased media and argumentative culture.

These findings have implications for educational settings to be more intentional about creating opportunities for political intergroup communication. Providing students with the tools of Ethics of Care may have lasting impacts on institutional structures and personal relationships. To achieve these learning spaces, educators will need additional training to understand how to teach and model care in their classrooms. These trainings should also include media literacy for both instructors and curriculum for students in the classroom to help alleviate the effect of inaccurate and antagonistic sources that subvert care and reject openness and understanding of differing views (Au et al., 2021; Iyengar et al., 2019).