HTS Doctoral Dissertation Defense-Sybrina Atwaters

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The School of History, Technology and Society presents PhD Candidate in Sociology Sybrina Atwaters.

Title: Redefining the Sacred in 3D Virtual Worlds: Exploratory Analysis of Innovation and Knowledge Production through Religious Expression


Dr. Willie Pearson (Advisor) School of History, Technology and Society, Georgia Tech

Dr. Mary Hess, Professor, Education Leadership, Luther Seminary

Dr. Mary McDonald, Professor, School of History, Technology and Society, Georgia Tech

Dr. Celia Pearce, Associate Professor, Northeastern University and Literature, Media and Communication, Georgia Tech

Dr. Steve Usselman, Professor, School of History, Technology and Society, Georgia Tech


For a good portion of the historical record institutions have served as the conduit for collective work and the production of cultural and physical products. The combination of personal computing devices and mass Internet access, however, caused sociologists to conclude that human society was on the brink of a new revolution, the electronic revolution (Pool, 1990).  Castells (2000) grappled with the social implications of global and massive Internet access, arguing that the new communication system has created a “network society”—a society that communicates, interacts, and exchanges through words, sounds, and images transmitted digitally over the Internet. Today, several scholars (Castells, 2000, 2004; Ammerman, 2003; Von Hippel, 2005; Swidler, 2002; Hess, 2007; Shirky, 2009; Jenkins et. al., 2009) contend that society is moving towards a participatory culture where users have open access to Internet-base technologies in which they are empowered to create, customize, and freely share information or products, as opposed to solely relying on institutions to act on their behalf. The electronic revolution, the network society and the participatory culture it facilitates helped create pathways and literacy necessary for user-centered innovation. Scholars have examined open user-centered innovation in terms of the egalitarian potential of open access to scientific knowledge (Tilly, 2007); the power implications of open source software networks (Berdou, 2011; Johnston, 2008), and open educational/library networks (Pemberton & Fritzler, 2008; Stienkuehler & Chime, 2006). Rarely, has religion surfaced as the nucleus of study regarding open user-centered innovation, although religion has had a continuous presence in these user-centered virtual spaces (Rheingold, 2000; Brasher, 2004).

This dissertation contributes to conversations regarding the impact of open user centered innovation on cultural production by focusing on the construction and production of religious products within one large-scale open user-centered technological environment, 3D virtual worlds. Particularly, this study examines how virtual world users construct (non-gaming) religious communities and practices and how the technology impacts the forms of religious expression these users create. Due to its existing religious sector and affordances for user-created content, Second Life (SL) was chosen as the context of study for this dissertation project. Building upon Von-Hippel’s (2005) user-centered innovation theory, construction and production within three different user-centered religious communities in SL were explored. Using a comparative ethnographic approach, involving participant observations, interviews and hyper-media techniques over a 14-month period, the social construction of customized religious products amidst technical, social, and economic virtual/non-virtual structures were analyzed.

Exploratory findings demonstrate that the democratizing of cultural innovation, that is the construction of heterogeneous cultural religious products by the everyday user, is a matter of patterned relational pathways. The greater possible patterned pathways the higher potential for democratized cultural innovation, an increasing number of users developing new ways of doing religion. The fewer patterned pathways the less the potential for democratize cultural innovation and the greater potential for reproducing within the virtual realm the same cultural frames that define the current social order in the non-virtual realm.


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    LaDonna Bowen
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    Fletcher Moore
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