Framing Life as Work: Navigating Dependence and Autonomy in Independent Living

  • Adrianna Bagnall Munson


This paper offers an ethnographic account of the context of autonomy for participants at Moving Toward Independence in the Community (MTIC), an independent living program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the case at hand, staff interventions are planned around goals, frame that increases temporal distance between the staff and participants by locating the object of action in the future. Similarly, suggestions establish social distance between staff intervention and participant action by placing the responsibility to act on participants. Together, goals and suggestions make up a larger interpretive frame that I call lifework, a method of explaining action that recasts dependence as work toward future autonomy. Lifework is a neoliberal frame that recognizes obligation as a legitimate part of adult life, normalizes the force society exerts on individuals, and interprets this force in daily life as “work.” Other analyses of this neoliberal project highlight the work of institutions to remove people from dependency by changing their habits, practices, and frames of mind. This research often frames neoliberal projects of social control as a coercive force that subverts autonomy. This is not the case at MTIC, where I find that lifework is also an important symbolic mechanism for constructing autonomy. I show that autonomy is best understood as an ongoing and collaborative project to construct social and temporal distance around the individual. This project is both practical, preparing participants for action when they are alone, and ethical, a frame that is necessary for understanding autonomy amidst dependence.


Autonomy Carework Governance Disability Ethnography 



I am grateful for input on this paper from Gil Eyal, Debbie Becher, Diane Vaughan, Guillermina Altomonte, and my writing group, Pierre-Christian Fink and Kathleen Griesbach. The SKAT working group in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University also read an early draft of this paper and provided invaluable feedback. Three anonymous reviewers provided thoughtful feedback, which helped me hone the final argument you see here.

Funding Information

This study was funded by a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant (award #1802591) as well as a research grant from the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New YorkUSA

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