Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


Identity Meaning-Making Among Polyamorous Students in Postsecondary Educational Contexts: A Constructivist Queer Theory Case Study

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Christina Lunceford (Advisor)

Third Advisor

Sarah Smith Rainey (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Kenneth Borland (Committee Member)


In this study, I centered the experiences of individuals who identify as polyamorous or ethically non-monogamous. My purpose was to explore how polyamorous students at one institution made meaning of their polyamorous identity and how they described the relationship between the postsecondary environment and their meaning-making.

The philosophical perspectives of constructivism and queer theory were blended to acknowledge the subjective experiences of the participants while also recognizing the systemic oppression surrounding identities like polyamory. Through these frameworks, I applied Baxter Magolda’s theory of self-authorship (2001) and Bronfenbrenner’s developmental ecology model (2005).

Using collective case study methodology, I recruited seven participants who each consented to participate in two open ended, semi-structured individual interviews. At the time of data collection, six of the seven participants were graduate students; one was an undergraduate student. I utilized journaling, memoing, epoche, bracketing, and holistic and embedded analysis throughout the study design, implementation, and data analysis.

Several themes emerged from the data, each with multiple subthemes. Primary themes included: misrepresentation/misconceptions stemming from heteronormative constructs in society; coming out which all participants had to constantly navigate, support including the lack thereof as well as some supportive individuals; and multiple dimensions of identity as participants shared that their meaning-making was related to other identities they also hold.

Five recommendations for policy and practice emerged from the findings. First, student affairs practitioners should consider polyamory when claiming to focus on inclusion and holistic identity development. Second, student affairs units should sponsor programming focused on polyamory and other family and relationship structures. Third, relevant academic units should include polyamory when discussing identities, relationships, and families. Fourth, universities need to include family composition, including polyamory, in non-discrimination policies. Finally, university administrators should revise family leave policies that are exclude non-normative family compositions, including poly families.

Seven implications emerged for future research. First, I recommend research on poly individuals who identified as heterosexual or with the BDSM/Kink community as they were not represented in this study. Also, research is needed to understand the experiences of many identities that were underrepresented in this study including disability, race, socioeconomic status, as well as undergraduate students. Second, I recommend investigating polyamorous graduate students who work at their institution as this overlap is a unique experience. Third, further information on what polyamorous students want from their campuses is needed as this study did not specifically focus on their recommendations. Fourth, researchers should explore whether or not postsecondary spaces are ideal for understanding minoritized student experiences. Fifth, I recommend longitudinal research to better understand self-authorship and polyamorous identity meaning-making. Sixth, additional research on adult development is needed, particularly focused on minoritized individuals who are above 25 years of age. Finally, research on utilizing third wave theories to better represent the experiences of those with minoritized identities and problematize the concept of identity development is recommended.