Skip to main content

Fátima Espinoza Vásquez

Assistant Professor

Fátima Espinoza Vásquez, assistant professor in the School of Information Science, studies the intersections of social justice, activism, crisis studies and information and communications technology (ICTs). Espinoza Vásquez examines how marginalized communities recalibrate ICTs in the midst or aftermath of crises—like resistance movements, natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. She applies a critical and decolonial perspective and participatory approach to her research, placing the epistemological contributions of marginalized communities as a prime rather than auxiliary component of research.

Steadfast social justice advocates will confess that the justice pursuit is a ceaseless endeavor. Espinoza Vásquez similarly reveals the weaving of social justice into her research practice, stating “It [has been] a long path to be where I am and there’s a lot more to do.” Her early job duties in web design and advertising with the United States Embassy in Honduras satisfied her “interest in the creative side of communication.” Even then, social justice stirred her research consciousness. International monetary aid to the country reinforced dependency, she believed, and instead envisioned long-term institutional changes that could lead to citizen autonomy. At the same time she became increasingly fascinated by the budding digital infrastructure called The Internet. To merge interests in communication, social justice and technology she pursued a doctorate in information science and technology.

Espinoza Vásquez’s dissertation on the role of ICTs in the 2009 Honduran coup enlightened her to the mechanics of social justice movements. Concerned about surveillance on corporate-run institutional platforms, especially in the midst of a resistance movement, activists “repurposed and re-appropriated technologies.” She would later witness another demonstration of the resiliency of activist networks—in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. When government relief lagged, civil society organizations used combinations of technologies to assemble and deliver aid to severely-affected regions on the island. “It’s important to recognize [the role of such organizations] in crisis recovery,” she notes. “They are not just waiting for help, they have agency and valuable situated knowledge.” ICTs exemplified the citizen autonomy she believed in from years prior, when contemplating more sustainable infrastructures for aid in Honduras.

Her dissertation inspired a transition from observant to participatory research—a methodology that “is extremely challenging,” she divulges. “Participatory approaches challenge the hierarchies of knowledge that we have. Researchers are seen as the only authority in knowledge, [but] the participatory approach asks where is knowledge and where does it come from?” The challenges are worthwhile. The participatory approach codifies social justice into the research process: “When you let the community guide your research you are acknowledging there is value in that community that you are trying to visualize. The importance of this type of methodology is that we are lifting those voices and hopefully learning from people instead of telling them what to do.”

Espinoza Vásquez also examines the use of ICTs in resistance stateside, like the collaborative study on the online social movement Rogue Twitter—the slew of accounts that emerged following the election of President Donald Trump that proclaimed to correct falsehoods disseminated by his administration. Another collaborative study examined the ability of Twitter bots to influence political discussion regarding the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

Her research constitutes a framework she terms “alternative sociotechnical infrastructures,” a layered construct that not only considers the physical functions of technologies, but also institutions, and the people who use and negotiate meaning about them. One application of this framework is the study-in-progress to develop an alternative communication infrastructure for the Latinx community, inspired by the documented information deficit in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Espinoza Vásquez has received numerous university-wide grants and awards since joining University of Kentucky in 2017, including the Igniting Research Collaborations grant in which she collaborates with Gia Mudd-Martin from the College of Nursing. Recently, in 2021, she served as a mentor to the Lyman T. Johnson Postdoctoral Fellowship Award—named in honor of the University of Kentucky’s first African American student. Espinoza Vásquez’s mentee and award recipient, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz, J.D., Ph.D., earned a doctorate degree in social justice education and has research interests in participatory action research; decolonial feminist and antiracist pedagogies; popular and social movements in the Americas; and Black, Indigenous, and Latina/Latin American feminisms.

Connect with CI