The trouble with labels: What is identity anyway? (By Dr. Alison Crump)

Categories and labels are troublesome. They create boundaries and borders, and mark who is in, who is out, who is allowed in, who is not. Yet, the persnickety conundrum we face, as BILD scholars, is how to talk about the things we talk about (e.g., identity), without imposing misrepresentative categories and labels on the individuals we engage with and the experiences they are sharing and co-constructing with us. We can’t do away with labels and categories – they are convenient and allow us the efficiency of communicating a message to others on the basis of a shared understanding of where boundaries lie. Of course, if our intended meaning is not shared, we have to be very explicit about what we are talking about. We need to think carefully about what it means to ascribe a label to others and how this could reproduce essentializing ideologies.

Here’s an example that illustrates that even with careful and explicit definitions and frameworks for terms and concepts, there is room for oversight, for the invisible workings of power (i.e., ideology) to influence our thinking and writing. I did my doctoral work with young children, who I collectively referred to as Japanese-Canadian. This was a label of convenience, and one that I thought could generally describe children who have one Japanese and one Canadian parent. Another interpretation, however, is that they are children with two Japanese parents, and are growing up in Canada. Yet for two of the children, who are siblings, neither of these interpretations hold true. Their father is British (White Anglophone) and their mother is Japanese, born and raised in Japan. Both parents moved to Montreal as adults. So, Japanese-Canadian is only true for these children in the sense that one parent is Japanese and one parent is not Japanese and they all live in Canada. And here lies another issue with the label: The racial identity of the fathers is unstated, yet the assumption is that they are White. It was not until the very end of my doctoral degree, in the dry run for my oral defence, that someone[1] pointed out that I described the mothers using a term that carries racial/ ethnic and linguistic meanings (Japanese), but did not do the same for the fathers, who I simply referred to as Anglophone. How ironic that I did not notice this (nor did my readers), given the critical race lens that informed my work. By using “Japanese-Canadian” to refer to the children, without uncovering the assumptions carried by each side of the hyphenated label, I was perpetuating the invisibility and unspoken normativity of Whiteness.

Since we can’t do away with categories and labels, and I don’t even think it’s enough to simply say they are troublesome, I think we need to seek out and open up spaces for dialogue in which we can examine points of tension and uncover assumptions. This blog is one such space. And I’d like to use this space as a platform for continuing a conversation that got cut short at our last bi-weekly meeting. Near the end of the meeting, we fell into a rich discussion about the appropriateness of various theoretical perspectives on identity for critical sociolinguistic research.

Here’s a brief summary (infused with some things that weren’t said): There are many theories and perspectives on identity, but the one that has captured the minds and imaginations of language researchers recently is poststructuralism. The poststructuralist wave that has washed over critical language studies has led us to the performative and dialogical end of the identity spectrum. But, as with most pendulum swings, it is entirely feasible that we’ve gone too far (see, for example, Pennycook & Otsuji, 2015). Instead of eschewing anything but poststructuralist views, perhaps we need to look beyond and consider some of the tensions between poststructuralist views and, for instance, the more innatist/developmental views on identity that come out of psychology (this was Mehdi’s line of questioning, so I leave it to him to elaborate). Looking elsewhere is nothing new. One example that comes to mind is Holland, Lachiocotte, Skinner, and Cain’s (1998) seminal book “Identity and agency in cultural worlds”, in which they drew on quite often opposing perspectives (culturalist, psychological, constructivist, and dialogic), and articulated an understanding of identity as both socially and dialogically produced (Bakhtin) and developmental (Vygotsky). The authors show us that looking elsewhere, looking beyond, is a good practice, one that pushes us to question disciplinary trends and norms.

So, just as the identity conversation in the last BILD meeting was starting to get really exciting, our hour was up and we all had to return to the other things we do. This is where you come in, BILDers and lurkers alike. You could post a comment. I would reply. (I’m really very friendly).

[1] It was my fellow BILDer, Apple (who readers may know as Kathleen). Thank you, Apple!


4 thoughts on “The trouble with labels: What is identity anyway? (By Dr. Alison Crump)

  1. Hi Alison!

    ‘What is identity anyway?’ is an excellent question for me to grapple with today, particularly as I embark on a day of data collection. In my work with young adults in Hong Kong, identity-prescribing terms like “EMs” (ethnic minorities), “NC” (non-Chinese), and Hong Kong-people are used to describe my participants. Sometimes they use these terms to describe themselves. Sometimes they are called these things by others, myself included.

    How might these identifiers shape these young people’s identities (which I’m defining here as ‘sense of self’)? And then, how much do I need to rely on these terms when describing the project to other people (particularly policy makers)? If social action and systemic change is the ultimate goal here, how much do I need to rely on these terms to make the kind of change that we want to see (toward just and inclusive education for all Hong Kong people). I am still thinking about the ways in which these terms shape the way I understand my participants, and am working with them to think about the ways in which these terms shape the way they see themselves.

    One thing I continue to wonder about after reading your piece is: how might we actively prevent “reproduc[ing] essentializing ideologies” in our own work? If we move beyond the academy, and into communities, how might we keep these essentializing ideologies in check? Hmm…

    Thank you for this incredibly reflexive piece!




  2. Hi Casey,

    Thanks for your comment. The question you raise at the end (how to keep essentializing ideologies in check) is one we should continue to discuss (including with our research participants). I wonder how your conversations with policymakers might touch on this issue… There is also a degree of self-reflexivity needed, and, as I discovered, great colleagues who can point out our blind own spots.



  3. Hi Alison,

    Thanks for this great post. As you mentioned, many researchers interested in language and identity are strongly influenced by social theories and in particular poststructuralism, distancing themselves from structuralists’ perspectives. This is because the world is becoming even more complex and superdiverse. The ontology in social sciences now pivots around the digital world–– a world with iphones, ipods, and so on, with an emphasis on individuals, their stories and their identities. However, as you truly mentioned, it is always possible that like “pendulum swings..[they] have gone too far.”

    In his wonderful book, Second Language Identities, David Block (2009) touches upon this “pendulum swing.” Block cites Bendle (2002) who argues that sociologists can also consider psychoanalytical theory in their analyses, and that “an adequate response requires that critical and uncompromising analysis be conducted at the interface of sociology with the key underlying models of identity derived from constructionism, psychoanalysis and psychology” (p. 17). Block, however, argues that it might not be easy to take the psychological theories on board when doing social and sociolinguistic research, as it requires that the researcher be well-versed in both fields– something that does not happen often! I think, however, the problem arises when psychological factors and personality traits are overlooked. I mean, many social theorists regard the world as complex, but may not give enough attention to a complex human being (a conflict between self and society; self and structure).

    One study I can mention that takes psychology into account in a research on identity is Cervatiuc (2009), Identity, Good Language Learning, and Adult Immigrants in Canada. She argues that what worked for her participants to become good language learners was, in fact, associated with the psychological factors such as self-motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-construction of identity, self-perception, and so on. We might need an updated theory or framework that explains how this ‘self’ (with an Freudian emphasis!) can function in today’s complex world. The field of social psychology might be a good place to start…


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