Consistent with its view of language as universal, abstract systems, the more traditional «linguistics applied» approach to the study of language use views individual language users as stable, coherent, internally uniform beings in whose heads the systems reside. Because of their universal nature, the systems themselves are considered self-contained, independent entities, extractable from individual minds. That is, while language systems reside in individual minds, they have a separate existence and thus remain detached from their users.
Although individuals play no role in shaping their systems, they can use them as they wish in their expression of personal meaning since the more traditional view considers individuals to be agents of free will, and thus, autonomous decision-makers. Moreover, since this view considers all individual action to be driven by internally motivated states, individual language use is seen as involving a high degree of unpredictability and creativity in both form and message as individuals strive to make personal connections to their surrounding contexts. As for the notion of identity, a «linguistics applied» perspective views it as a set of essential characteristics unique to individuals, independent of language, and unchanging across contexts. Language users can display their identities, but they cannot affect them in any way. Language use and identity are conceptualized rather differently in a sociocultural perspective on human action. Here, identity is not seen as singular, fixed, and intrinsic to the individual. Rather, it is viewed as socially constituted, a reflexive, dynamic product of the social, historical and political contexts of an individual’s lived experiences. This view has helped to set innovative directions for research in applied linguistics. The purpose of this article is to lay out some of the more significant assumptions embodied in contemporary understandings of identity and its connection to culture and language use. Included is a discussion of some of the routes current research on language, culture and identity is taking.
When we use language, we do so as individuals with social histories. Our histories are defined in part by our membership in a range of social groups into which we are born such as gender, social class, religion and race. For example, we are born as female or male and into a distinct income level that defines us as poor, middle class or well-to-do. Likewise, we may be born as Christians, Jews, Muslims or with some other religious affiliation, and thus take on individual identities ascribed to us by our particular religious association. Even the geographical region in which we are born provides us with a particular group membership and upon our birth we assume specific identities such as, for example, Italian, Chinese, Canadian, or South African, and so on. Within national boundaries, we are defined by membership in regional groups, and we take on identities such as, for example, northerners or southerners.
In addition to the assorted group memberships we acquire by virtue of our birth, we appropriate a second layer of group memberships developed through our involvement in the various activities of the social institutions that comprise our communities, such as school, church, family and the workplace. These institutions give shape to the kinds of groups to which we have access and to the role-relationships we can establish with others. When we approach activities associated with the family, for example, we take on roles as parents, children, siblings or cousins and through these roles fashion particular relationships with others such as mother and daughter, brother and sister, and husband and wife. Likewise, in our workplace, we assume roles as supervisors, managers, subordinates or colleagues. These roles afford us access to particular activities and to particular role-defined relationships. As company executives, for example, we have access to and can participate in board meetings, business deals and job interviews that are closed to other company employees, and thus are able to establish role relationships that are unique to these positions. Our various group memberships, along with the values, beliefs and attitudes associated with them, are significant to the development of our social identities in that they define in part the kinds of communicative activities and the particular linguistic resources for realizing them to which we have access. That is to say, as with the linguistic resources we use in our activities, our various social identities are not simply labels that we fill with our own intentions. Rather, they embody particular histories that have been developed over time by other group members enacting similar roles. In their histories of enactments, these identities become associated with particular sets of linguistic actions for realizing the activities, and with attitudes and beliefs about them.
Social identity encompasses participant roles, positions, relationships, reputations, and other dimensions of social personae, which are conventionally linked to epistemic and affective stances. Ochs [1996: 424]
The sociocultural activities constituting the public world of a white male born into a working-class family in a rural area in northeastern United States, for example, will present different opportunities for group identification and language use from those constituting the community of a white male born into an affluent family residing in the same geographical region. Likewise, the kinds of identity enactments afforded to middle-class women in one region of the world, for example, China, will be quite different from those available to women of a similar socioeconomic class in other geographical regions of the world such as Italy or Russia [Cameron, 2005].
The historically grounded, socially constituted knowledge, skills, beliefs and attitudes comprising our various social identities — predisposing us to act, think and feel in particular ways and to perceive the involvement of others in certain ways — constitute what social theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls our habitus [Bourdieu, 1977]. We approach our activities with the perceptions and evaluations we have come to associate with both our ascribed and appropriated social identities and those of our interlocutors, and we use them to make sense of each other’s involvement in our encounters. That is to say, when we come together in a communicative event we perceive ourselves and others in the manner in which we have been socialized. We carry expectations, built up over time through socialization into our own social groups, about what we can and cannot do as members of our various groups. We hold similar expectations about what others are likely to do and not do as members of their particular groups. The linguistic resources we use to communicate, and our interpretations of those used by others, are shaped by these mutually held perceptions. In short, who we are, who we think others are, and who others think we are, mediate in important ways our individual uses and evaluations of our linguistic actions in any communicative encounter.
Even though we each have multiple, intersecting social identities, it is not the case that all of our identities are always relevant. As with the meanings of our linguistic resources, their relevance is dynamic and responsive to contextual conditions. In other words, while we approach our communicative encounters as constellations of various identities, the particular identity or set of identities that becomes significant depends on the activity itself, our goals, and the identities of the other participants. Let us assume, for example, that we are travelling abroad as tourists. In our interactions with others from different geographical regions it is likely that our national identity will be more relevant than, say, our gender or social class. Thus, we are likely to interact with each other as, for example, Americans, Spaniards, Australians or Italians. On the other hand, if we were to interact with these same individuals in schooling events such as parent–teacher conferences, we are likely to find that certain social roles take on more relevance than our nationalities, and we will interact with each other as parents, teachers or school administrators. Likewise, in workplace events, we are likely to orient to each other’s professional identity, and interact as, for example, employers, colleagues or clients, rather than as parents and teachers, or Americans and Canadians.
How we enact any particular identity is also responsive to contextual conditions. Philipsen’s (1992) study of the ways in which a group of men enacted their identities as ‘men’ in a town he called Teamsterville is a compelling illustration of the fluid, contextual nature of identity. According to Philipsen, when the relationships between the men of Teamsterville were symmetrical in terms of age, ethnicity or occupational status, the men considered it highly appropriate to engage in a good deal of talk with each other. However, when they considered the relationship to be asymmetrical, that is, when the event included men of different ages, ethnic groups or occupations, little talk was expected. To do otherwise was considered inappropriate.
It is important to remember that our perceptions and evaluations of our own and each other’s identities are tied to the groups and communities of which we are members. Expectations for what we, in our role as parent, can say to a child, for example, are shaped by what our social groups consider acceptable and appropriate parental actions. Some groups, for example, do not consider it appropriate for a parent to tell a child how to do something.
Instead, the child is expected to observe and then take action [Heath, 1983]. Other groups consider it important to discuss the task with the child before the child is allowed to attempt it [Harkness et al., 1992]. Our linguistic resources then can perform an action in a communicative event only to the extent to which their expected meanings are shared among the participants.
Given the diversity of group memberships we hold, we can expect our linguistic actions and the values attached to them to be equally varied.
As we have discussed in this article, a sociocultural perspective on identity and language use is based on several key premises. One of the more significant premises replaces the traditional understanding of language users as unitary, unique and internally motivated individuals with a view of language users as social actors whose identities are multiple, varied and emergent from their everyday lived experiences. Through involvement in their sociocultural significant activities, individuals take on or inhabit particular social identities, and use their understandings of their social roles and relationships to others to mediate their involvement and the involvement of others in their practices. These identities are not stable or held constant across contexts, but rather are emergent, locally situated and at the same time historically constituted, and thus are «precarious, contradictory and in process, constantly being reconstituted in discourse each time we think or speak» [Weedon, 1997: 32].
In the contexts of our experience we use language not as solitary, isolated individuals giving voice to personal intentions. Rather, we «take up a position in a social field in which all positions are moving and defined relative to one another» [Hanks, 1996: 201]. Social action becomes a site of dialogue, in some cases of consensus, in others of struggle where, in choosing among the various linguistic resources available (and not so available) to us in our roles, we attempt to mould them for our own purposes, and thereby become authors of those moments.
Finally, this view recognizes that culture does not exist apart from language or apart from us, as language users. It sees culture, instead, as reflexive, made and remade in our language games, our lived experiences, and «exist [ing] through routinized action that includes the material (and physical) conditions as well as the social actors’ experience in using their bodies while moving through a familiar space» [Duranti, 1997: 45]. On this view, no use of language, no individual language user, is considered to be «culture-free».
Rather, in our every communicative encounter we are always at the same time carriers and agents of culture.
On the dialogic relationship between language, culture and identity. In this view as well, while language is a socio-historical product, language is also an instrument for forming and transforming social order. Interlocutors actively use language as a semiotic tool [Vygotsky, 1978] to either reproduce social forms and meanings or produce novel ones. In reproducing historically accomplished structures, interlocutors may use conventional forms in conventional ways to constitute the local social situation. For example, they may use a conventional form in a conventional way to call into play a particular gender identity. In other cases, interlocutors may bring novel forms to this end or use existing forms in innovative ways. In both cases, interlocutors wield language to (re)constitute their interlocutory environment. Every social interaction in this sense has the potential for both cultural persistence and change, and past and future are manifest in the interactional present. Ochs [1996: 416]
Such a view of language, culture and identity leads to concerns with articulating «the relationship between the structures of society and culture on the one hand and the nature of human action on the other» [Ortner, 1989: 11]; a central focus of research becomes the identification of ways we as individuals use the cues available to us in our communicative encounters in the (re)constitution of our social identities and those of others.
- Block D. (2007) Second Language Identities, London: Continuum. Drawing on a wide range of social theory, the author provides a comprehensive, insightful overview of research on second language identities in three learning contexts: adult migration, foreign-language classrooms and study-abroad programms.
- Buhrig K. and Thije J. (2006) Beyond Misunderstanding: Linguistic Analyses of Intercultural Communication, Amsterdam: John Benjamins. The twelve chapters in this volume examine intercultural communication in a variety of settings and from a variety of theoretical frameworks to demonstrate how individuals draw on a range of linguistic resources to construct mutual understandings in their interactions.
- De Fina A., Schiffrin D. and Bamberg M. (eds) (2006) Discourse and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The studies in this volume explore the dynamic relationship between identity and social context. Using a variety of methods to investigate numerous settings including the workplace, medical interviews and education, across different communities, the studies demonstrate in revealing ways how our social practices help to shape our identities.
- Hall C., Slembrouck S. and Sarangi S. (2006) Language Practice in Social Work: Categorisation and Accountability in Child Welfare, London: Routledge. This book examines the language practices of social workers, their clients and other professionals to uncover ways in which the doing of social work is managed. It includes the study of such key practices as interviews, case conferences and home visits. Its purpose is to increase the profession’s awareness of how language is used to create and sustain professional contexts of interaction, identities and relationships so that they may better serve their clients.
- Maybin J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge and Identity, London: Palgrave Macmillan. Drawing on ethnographic data from inside and outside of the classroom, the author examines in great detail the various strategies used by young children, ages 10 –12, to construct their knowledge and identities in their encounters with each other.