On identity construction and (applications to) politics

The idea that identities are constructed is one that has jived so well with me that it’s no wonder it’s followed me since my undergraduate studies at Oberlin.  At Georgetown, considering it’s a linguistics program, we’ve been taught that a lot of what is understood more broadly as “identity construction” really happens through language.  It’s co-constructed, emergent in interaction, expressed through narrative, in what we say as much as what we don’t.  You yourself probably made an identity claim of some kind or another at least once in the past hour!

But thiisn’t just a moment of intellectual a-ha-ness: understanding identity construction is a rather useful skill to have in every day life.  Especially in politics.  Here are some readings I’ve found particularly useful in research on political discourse, minority relations in/with government, and intersections with law in the free vs. hate speech debate, and how I’ve engaged with them:

1) van Langenhove, Luk & Rom Harré.  1999.  Introducing Positioning Theory.  Harré R & van Langenhove (eds), Positioning Theory: Moral Contexts of Intentional Action, pp 14-31, Oxford: Blackwell.

Positioning theory is a useful heuristic for understanding identity construction through the lens of narrative.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it’s really based on 3 interrelated concepts: positions, storylines, and speech acts.  So the idea is that the positions we inhabit as social beings influences/are influenced by the storylines we follow in a conversation or the speech acts associated with them.  An easy example from institutional discourse: You can tell a lot about who “has power” in a conversation by speech acts, i.e.  you’ll find the “agenda setter” has special privileges to ask questions, initiate new topics, where other participants could be censured for talking out of turn.  This is certainly true when the “agenda setter” is in the setting (say City Hall) where his/her position is ratified, but what happens when that person if caught off guard, or in a non-traditional setting?  See here to read more about how a politician negotiates his position as “man of the people” vs. “public enemy #1” in an impromptu encounter with protesters.

2) du Bois, John W. 2007.  The stance triangle. Robert Englebretson (ed), Stancetaking in discourse: Subjectivity, evaluation, interaction. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Stance is a very similar approach to positioning theory, also widely used in sociolinguistics, but has the further advantage of addressing how our evaluation of something affects our positioning and alignment (with respect to) someone/thing.  This is especially helpful in studying any sort of conflict talk, where people are playing a game of verbal chess with each other.  I have found both stance and positioning theory usefully applied to political discourse, like in policy situations where politicians are dealing with underserved, minority populations (i.e. LEP/NEP, immigrants, homeless, social service recipients).  For example, they might take heat from social service advocates for cutting those parts of the budget, but might save face by claiming to represent “all residents” as opposed to “the rich.”

3) Chiang, S.Y.  2010.  ‘Well, I’m a lot of things, but I’m sure not a bigot’: positive self-presentation in confrontational discourse on racism. Discourse & Society, 21(3), 273-294.

It should be clear by now that the relationship between identity work and politics is a consequential one.  One’s image is not the same as one’s public record, so politicians expend a lot of resources crafting their public appearance.  Despite this, some matters still remain in the court of popular opinion, so to speak.  Chiang (2010) is a great resource on the topic of racist discourse as it intersects with the ideological free vs. hate speech debate.  This and other research in linguistics demonstrate how the Other is constructed in public discourse and the media and for what purpose.  See here for my own research on this topic.


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