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.


Language ideologies, profiling and discrimination

As a biracial, 2nd generation American growing up in an urban setting, I was raised in a multilingual home and grew comfortable speaking Hungarian with one grandma, Spanish with another, and a mix with my own parents.  But outside of the home, I noticed some people weren’t as understanding about my lifestyle and upbringing.  I noticed people had things to say about immigrants — and not very nice ones.  I was told my parents had an accent.  Huh?  The older I got, the more hateful I understood the rhetoric to be.  Racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, ignorant, plain and simple. And it wasn’t just people I knew, it was coming from all angles — politicians, journalists, and other powerful, important figures that people listened to.   These people had the power to determine policy and impact my life and everyone around me.

Thankfully I had the opportunity to get my BA in hegemony studies.  Not really, but that’s what it felt like.  Actually I studied linguistic anthropology, and there I thrived on any reading materials I could get my hands on to get beyond the everyday ideologies about language, immigrants — and get the “real deal” from people who knew their stuff.  My roles models became people like Foucault, Duranti, and my own advisor Dr. Pagliai, who studied racist ideologies from a linguistic anthropological framework — and get this, she got paid to do it!

Here are some of the readings/articles/books that I loved then as much as I do now, my go-to reading list for anyone interested in the prevalent, yet unexamined beliefs about languages, dialects, and their speakers.  If you think other people have an accent, but you don’t or that you can “tell” someone’s race or ethnicity by the sound of their voice, then this is for you.

1)  Lippi-Green, Rosina.  1997.  English with An Accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

What I love so much about this book is that it shows that you don’t need a PhD to understand linguistic insights.  English with an Accent is a highly accessible reader that, for starters, topples down the most common myths about language.  What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?  Is Ebonics bad English?  Is there such a thing as bad English?  She provides readers with the tools to understand language and variation, and the ability to distinguish between language ideologies (beliefs about language) from data-driven, empirically-proven, insights on language from the people who’ve been doing this for a living.  Through various case studies, she also provides compelling demonstrations of how institutions capitalize on linguistic ideologies (via “language subordination”) to create and perpetuate inequalities and prejudice in various social arenas (public schools, children’s movies, employment).  A must-read for educators, parents, policy makers and the public at large, IMHO.

2)  Urciuoli, Bonnie.  1996.  Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican experiences of language, race, and class.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Despite being an older publication, the insights Urciuoli provides in this book remain relevant today and extremely helpful as a guide in understanding how immigrant communities are racialized/otherized/marked through a complex conflation of language, class, and race.  Taking an ethnographic approach, she explains how Nuyoricans are stigmatized seemingly on the basis of their linguistic makeup (unabashed codeswitching, Latino English dialect, etc), but covertly on the basis of cultural constructions of race and class — what Urciuoli calls “race-marking mapped onto language behavior.”  In this longitudinal study she shows how a stigmatized identity results in a “glass ceiling” of sorts, whereby New York Puerto Ricans are routinely and systematically denied access to positions of power in society.  A must-read for Newt Gingriches everywhere.

3)  Baugh, John.  2006.  Linguistic profiling.  Black Linguistics: Language, society and politics in Africa and the Americas, ed. by Sinfree Makoni, 155-168.

Like racial profiling (alive and well in legislation like Arizona’s SB1070 despite civil rights laws that clearly denounce the practice), linguistic profiling refers to the practice of judging speakers identity, competence, intellect (and on) based on features of their spoken language.  A ubiquitous phenomenon in the life of a public school kid in DC, “you sound White,” “stop talking Black” could be heard through the halls and packed a heavy socio-politico-ideological punch with every utterance.  John Baugh’s study, beyond being an interesting research project on a hot-button issue, has been invaluable in “real-world” applications: namely, fair housing advocacy work that works to eliminate civil rights discrimination and civil rights enforcement and compliance more generally.  While admitting (albeit reluctantly) that linguistic profiling might be a natural human inclination based on its prevalence throughout antiquity, he argues that people can and should be more mindful about their own prejudices and stereotypes, and to strive toward higher tolerance of speakers with backgrounds different than their own.