Diversity and Names: Designing for Belonging (by Karen Pennesi)


A few weeks ago, the BILD Research Group had a wonderful guest, Karen Pennesi to our bi-weekly meeting, where she talked to us about her fascinating research on names and identity. We are so thrilled to have her join our blog community. 


I came to Montreal for the second half of my sabbatical looking for a new way to approach my research on personal names and how power relations influence the formation and negotiation of identities through naming practices. (For more about the study of names, known as onomastics, read my interview for the Canadian Language Museum https://langmusecad.wordpress.com/2015/09/06/does-that-name-mean-anything-to-you/) Since 2012, I have been exploring the lived experience of linguistic and cultural diversity in Canada through anthropological case studies of names. I began by investigating the types of problems people have with their names, their emotional reactions and their strategic responses. For example, personal names which do not conform to Canadian norms in terms of their structure and sound become the source of a wide range of complaints by their bearers. These include frequent mispronunciations, misspellings, and administrative hassles when names are written incorrectly on documents, often with name components being removed or rearranged. Some participants in my research describe how their names provoke invasive or annoying questions which focus on difference and mark them as Other, such as “Where are you from?” (implication: you can’t be one of us with a name like that); “What does your name mean?” (implication: a name that means something legitimizes its strange, meaningless sound), and “Pennesi is an Italian name so do you speak Italian?” or “Kyung-Min Kim? Can you speak English?” (implication: linguistic competence is tied to linguistic origins of names).

Name-related troubles are not trivial. Names associated with particular ethnoracial, linguistic or religious identities can hinder immigrants’ integration in terms of securing higher level employment, finding housing, accessing services, making friends and developing a sense of belonging in Canadian society. Even people born in Canada but who have “ethnic” names report cases of discrimination based on assumed links between their names and the hierarchy of ethnoracial categories which influence social power. These are not individual experiences; two studies done in Canada demonstrated systematic hiring discrimination based on applicants’ names (Eid 2012; Oreopoulos and Dechief 2011).

While the economic consequences of discriminatory practices are real and significant, I am especially interested in how experiencing repeated name-related troubles in various aspects of social life influences how people see themselves and their place in society. (See related BILD blog posts by Rubina Khanam, Jennifer Burton, Sumanthra Govender). I want to know why some people change their names to “make it easier” on the English or French speaking majority, while others insist, “they can learn to say my name” (Pennesi in press). How is it that some people “get used to” the linguistic incompetence of those who don’t speak the language that gave them their names, while others feel violated every time someone “butchers” their name? The answers to these questions have to do with circumstances of immigration, with subjective experience, with culturally distinct naming traditions, with language systems and with social power structures.

In addition to difficulties people have with their own names, I have also been asking about problems people have with the names of others in work-related tasks and interactions. What do they do when they have to pronounce an unfamiliar name? How well do name fields in databases of clients or customers accommodate diverse names? How do people determine gender of unfamiliar names? What types of names are harder to remember? How do they interpret different kinds of name components? (Is that two last names, a middle name and a last name, a double first name and one last name?) What do they do when they want to be respectful but they recognize their own linguistic limitations?

In light of what I am learning from this research, I have begun to develop a set of guidelines for respectful and effective treatment of diverse names to be used in institutional and social contexts. The framework I am currently using is informed by the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The idea behind UDL is that more people will be successful learners if the educational environment is adequately designed. I am extending the idea of increasing inclusion and improving the learning experience beyond the classroom, to the larger social project of integrating immigrants with the more established population. Integration involves learning: newcomers learn new ways of doing things, new values, new languages; while longer-settled individuals learn alternative perspectives and how to live with linguistic and cultural diversity. For integration of newcomers to be successful, everyone has to learn to live together. This means that Canadian institutions need to design for diversity and variability in naming practices rather than trying to enforce standardization and a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead of helping immigrants “fit in”, like rounding off the corners of a square peg to match a round hole, we need to redesign the hole to allow for a variety of pegs to fit, perhaps changing the shape or using a flexible material that can be adjusted for different kinds of pegs.

peg and hole.png

UDL acknowledges that members of the host society represent different kinds of audiences which constrain how recent immigrants strategically design their names (Dechief 2015) and offers a useful framework for thinking about how these constraints can be made less rigid.

UDL Guidelines.jpgThe principles of UDL are to (1) provide multiple means of engagement, (2) provide multiple means of representation and (3) provide multiple means of action and expression. To get newcomers interested in learning (in schools, in society) and engaged in the community, we need to minimize distractions (e.g. hassles about their names) and threats (e.g. name-related discrimination). In terms of how names are represented, institutions and businesses can promote understanding across languages by ensuring that online forms, databases and documents allow various name structures, accents or diacritical marks, and even different writing systems. The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) has made an excellent start on the technical requirements of designing web-based forms and databases for “personal names around the world” (https://www.w3.org/International/questions/qa-personal-names). Names are an important form of identity expression so we need to find ways to accommodate different types of names in both institutional and social settings, including respecting name changes and the use of multiple names by one individual in different contexts.

UDL recognizes that cognition and emotion are related; that if people feel stressed, embarrassed, annoyed, unwanted or excluded, it is difficult to become engaged in focused thinking. Conversely, “simple affirmation of learners’ positive sense of self, of their value as individuals, and of the importance of their membership in a cultural tradition has repeatedly been shown to have positive effects on learning and on performance” (Meyer et al. 2014:58).  Getting someone’s name right is a simple affirmation of a positive sense of self. Since names are often involved in the beginnings of interactions (greetings, introductions, filling out registration forms, creating identity documents, roll call in class), how names are treated is crucial in establishing an optimal environment for subsequent learning and relationship-building. When diversity in naming is recognized and respected, barriers to belonging are removed and people get can on with their business.

One of the most important insights of the UDL model is that we don’t blame the students or point to individual disabilities if they are not performing well. Instead, we look at the curriculum and modify its design in order to improve outcomes for all. Given high immigration levels and increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in Canada’s population, it’s time to look at how we treat names and find ways to meet the technological and social challenges of including everyone.

Karen Pennesi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. If you are in Montreal and interested in participating in this research and sharing stories about your name, please contact Karen (pennesi@uwo.ca).

UWO Names Study on Facebook:


Faculty Profile


Canadian Society for the Study of Names / Société Canadienne d’Onomastique



Dechief, Diane

2015  “Designing Names: Requisite Identity Labour for Migrants’ Be(long)ing in Ontario,” PhD Thesis, University of Toronto.

Eid, Paul

2012  “Les inégalités ‘ethnoraciales’ dans l’accès à l’emploi à Montréal: le poids de la discrimination.” Recherches Sociographiques 53(2):415-450.

Meyer, Anne, David Rose, and David Gordon

2014  Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.

Oreopoulos, Philip, and Diane Dechief

2011  “Why do some employers prefer to interview Matthew, but not Samir?: New evidence from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.” Metropolis British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Diversity.

Pennesi, Karen

(in press) “’They can learn to say my name’: Redistributing Responsibility for Integrating Immigrants to Canada.” Anthropologica 58.























Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. Source: see image file

4 thoughts on “Diversity and Names: Designing for Belonging (by Karen Pennesi)

  1. I’m so thrilled to read about it because I can relate to it! Looking forward to reading more from Dr. Pennesi.


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