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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The sociolinguist’s toolkit: Some definitions

Here are some of the must-know definitions in my sociolinguistic “toolkit.”

[Note: This list is incomplete and will undoubtedly expand over time, but for now]:

1. sociolinguistics

2. culture
Culture is a loaded word with many definitions depending on the context in which it is used (in popular reference, depending on the discipline, and so on).  I like Riley’s (2007) definition of culture as “social knowledge.”  For example, even two people born on the same day on the same street will have different cultural compositions because of the diversity of their experiences in comparison with one another, the layers of their socialization and their differential access to knowledge.  In other words, Riley says that each person lunches from a “vast smorgasbord” and the product of their individual trays is analogous to their “culture.”  This idea is in opposition to common ideologies about culture as one’s nationality, ethnicity, or something we “have” or “don’t have.”  However, the insidious use of culture to promote a divisive or discriminatory agenda is still very much at play in public discourse.

3. community of practice (CoP)
In the same way the definition of culture above complicates the notion that culture is something we “have,” the idea of community of practice focuses on how common practices hold social groups together, not social constructs like gender, ethnicity, or nationality.  The latter are what Anderson refers to as “imagined communities” – social constructs that are ideologically motivated, especially for nationalistic purposes.  Looking at groups from the CoP approach illuminates that social groups are held together, so to speak, by shared knowledge and practices.  Language is an important dimension of any community of practice.   Think for example of attending a gathering of people practicing a religion other than your own.  Being a participant observer in that situation, you will see that people will all seem to know a particular prayer by memory, when to sit or stand, and how to behave more generally.  As you engage in the practice(s) of that community, over time it will become so familiar almost as if it’s second nature to you… this is what Bordieu meant by habitus, Scollon&Scollon by historical body or embodiment of practice.

4. narrative
Revived by social psychologists in the 70s and 80s, linguistics began to look at narrative as a specialized speech event with a lot of discursive power, a genre of its own and a force to be reckoned with.  Whether it’s looking at narrative as sites of identity construction on the individual (Schiffrin, de Fina) or institutional level (Linde), fodder for a nexus analysis / “activist sociolinguistic” approach to understanding human behavior (Scollon and Scollon, Rodney), socialization in literacy practices (Shirley Brice Heath), or narrative in multimodal or computer-mediated settings, narrative is an endless field of study as you can find them any number of places in daily life.

5. pragmatics (speech acts / speech act theory)

6. role theory –> positioning –> stance / (identity construction)
Who we are (or consider ourselves to be) has implications for how we present ourselves, how others orient to us, and is constantly changing and shaping talk-in-interaction.  Positioning, derived from the work of Harre and Davies (1991) in social/discursive psychology,  is a theoretical and analytic framework sociolinguists use to better understand identity construction in emergent interaction. As it was originally intended more for narrative, positioning theory is comprised of a “mutually-determining triad” of positions, storylines and speech acts.  [See here for my latest application of positioning theory to conflict talk in political discourse].  So for example, as an immigration advocacy organization (position) faced with unexpected racist/xenophobic commentary from an elected official, you might take a particular storyline (i.e. “immigrants want the same thing as anyone else, the American Dream”) and demand an apology (speech act).  This actually happened recently in DC, see here.

Stance, as outlined by du Bois (2007) is a more recent adaptation of positioning theory which has the advantage of bringing together various types of “positions” one can take in an interaction, including affective, propositional, and interactional.  It also relies on a 3-part process, which says that “I evaluate something, and thereby position myself, and thereby align (with respect to) you” (ibid).  Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but are both ripe for understanding how identity is emergent in interaction and not a static thing.

In the working world, having this knowledge facilitates an approach to identity that is fluid and considerate of people’s self identification, not a priori assumptions about membership in macro social categories.  As a mixed race person myself, I know all too well the frustration that goes with being forced to check one box only!

7. discourse analysis

8.  framing / footing
Framing refers to our structures of expectations in interaction.  In other words, it’s what guides us to the appropriate interpretation of “what’s going on” in everyday conversation.  These expectations are culturally-guided, in the sense that they are based on our own experiences and social knowledge.  Even monkeys at play, for example, need to be able to tell the difference between a play bite or a serious attack.  We as humans identify frames using linguistic and paralinguistic cues.  A more recent example in political discourse is Rush Limbaugh’s radio commentary on Sandra Fluke’s testimony advocating for insurance companies and employers to cover contraception.  Progressives interpret his commentary in the frame of hate speech, whereas Limbaugh himself says it should be interpreted in the frame of comedy or sarcasm.

9. geosemiotics –> visual semiotics

10. intercultural (or interdiscourse) communication
The history of cross-cultural communication as an object of scholarly attention began around WWII when the US government realized that it would behoove them to know how to communicate in other languages, if only to gather intelligence on the “enemy.”  It was revived again in the 80s in a business-driven approach to address communication “problems” in a globalizing corporate world.  Scollon would say that these two aforementioned approaches were problematic, in the basic sense that they got the “problem” wrong.  Earlier work approached “cultural” or “language” differences as the end all be all to improving communication across “difference,” often focusing on conflict and miscommunication.  Misunderstanding between people was often described as “cultural” or “linguistic.”  [Note: the Peace Corps continues this approach as it heralds early CCC scholar Edward T. Hall, see my short blog post on this topic here].

To this end, Scollon says “Cultures do not communicate, people do.”  His approach, intercultural or interdiscourse communication departs radically from a priori assumptions about what “culture” is and focuses instead on discourse systems, actions, and practices.  These 3 things vary from individual to individual.  Scollon’s critical approach to language, communication, and social action in the intercultural context shows us that 1) most approaches to CCC are misinformed because 2) “miscommunication” doesn’t actually stem from culture or language, and that 3) looking at actions and practices of social actors is the only way to understand what’s really going on.  Furthermore, his push for an activist sociolinguistics couldn’t jive better with what I envision for the field.

11. nexus and mediated discourse analysis

12. ethnography of speaking/communication/action

13. critical discourse analysis
While discourse analysis is interested in “small d” discourse, CDA is all about the “big D” discourses: how language (re)produces and maintains larger discourses of racism, ideology, and power.