LINGUIST List 15.1234

Sat Apr 17 2004

Review: Discourse Analysis: De Fina Anna (2003)

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  1. Louisa Willoughby, Identity in Narrative: A study of immigrant discourse

Message 1: Identity in Narrative: A study of immigrant discourse

Date: Sat, 17 Apr 2004 00:14:25 -0400 (EDT)
From: Louisa Willoughby <>
Subject: Identity in Narrative: A study of immigrant discourse

AUTHOR: De Fina, Anna 
TITLE: Identity in Narrative 
SUBTITLE: A study of immigrant discourse 
SERIES: Studies in Narrative 3 
YEAR: 2003 
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins 
Announced at

Louisa Willoughby, Language and Society Centre, Monash University


De Fina's book brings together research on narrative discourse and
ethnic identity construction in ways that provide important insights
to both fields. De Fina bases her analysis on narratives of the
boarder crossing experience and other tales of daily life told by 14
Mexican immigrants to the United States. She explores the
presentation, construction and negotiation of identities, and in
particular ethnic identities, in these texts. The book is divided into
six chapters (discussed below), and a short introduction and
conclusion. A striking feature of the book is its ability to engage
audiences from different backgrounds -- although primarily aimed at
readers interested in the construction and analysis of narrative
texts, it provides two chapters (5 and 6) of great interest to those
interested in (self and other) ethnic labelling practices and
stereotyping, and an informative overview of undocumented Mexican
migration to the US suitable for a lay audience.


Chapter one ''Identity in narrative: A discourse approach'' provides
the theoretical basis for De Fina's analysis and elaborates on her
precise area of interest for this study. It begins with a definition
of narratives as texts which ''recount events in a sequential order''
(p 11) and ''have a point'' (p 13) and goes on to explore the role
narratives play in the identity construction process. The notion of
identity as a construct - ''shaped [by] and at the same time shaping
collective social and discursive practices'' (p 18) -- is outlined as
central to De Fina's approach with an ensuing discussion as to ways in
which the relationship between narrative and identity can be
characterized. From this De Fina chooses to focus her study on the
expression of group membership in narrative, through examining how
social roles and community memberships are ascribed and negotiated in
narratives. While not the primary focus of the study she also seeks to
explore the extent to which narrator's use of linguistic or rhetorical
resources mark them as members of specific communities. The chapter
closes with a brief discussion of local and global context,
essentially stressing that while interpersonal dynamics between
interviewer and narrator most certainly play a role in shaping the way
narratives are told, narratives must also be interpreted in term of
wider societal values, norms and stereotypes in order to be fully

Chapter two ''The Social Phenomenon: Mexican migration to the U.S.''
outlines the context of De Fina's research by first giving a short
history of undocumented Mexican migration to the US and estimates of
current numbers. She then introduces the subjects of her study: 14
Mexican immigrants (comprising 4 households) living in Maryland, who
had lived in the US for between 7 months and 8 years. After a short
discussion of their motivation for migrating and experiences in the US
(and particularly the effect of anti-immigration rhetoric in the US
press), she concludes the chapter with a thorough discussion of her
methodology and data selection; focusing on how she established
contact with participants and the nature of the interview environment
and ending with a overview of the data and transcription technique
selected for analysis.

Chapter three ''Identity as Social orientation: Pronominal Choice''
focuses on how narrators ''present themselves in relation to others in
stories of personal experience'' (p 51) -- essentially whether
speakers relate their experiences in terms of 'I' or 'we' or a
combination of both. De Fina begins the chapter with a discussion of
the role of pronoun choice in expressing distance from or solidarity
with others, and the degree to which it reflects a speaker's
orientation towards individual or collectivist based cultures. She
then introduces the Spanish pronoun system and gives examples of
stories told using 'I' 'we' or 'mixed' pronouns and analyses the
clause types in which these pronouns occur. Since 60% of her stories
of (individual) personal experience were related either using 'we' or
'mixed' pronouns, and displayed a tendency to totally assimilate the
individual into the group in 'we' stories, De Fina concludes that this
narrative style ''reflects a social conception of the individual,
where the individual views himself as surrounded by others, and
his/her experiences as shared or potentially significant to others as
well'' (p 90). She sees this situation as having its origins in both
the cultural conventions of Mexican society and the specific
circumstances of migration -- as the formative nature of migration
often galvanizes relationships between individuals who migrate

Chapter four ''Identity as Agency: Dialogue and action in narrative''
focuses on stories of crossing the US and Mexican boarder and examines
reported speech in narratives to discern the degree of initiative
narrators attribute to themselves and others. Following Bakhtin
(1981), De Fina argues that all reported speech involves a degree of
transformation and (conscious or unconscious) manipulation by the
narrator, and thus the way in which speech is reported often says much
about the relationship between interlocutors (hostile, friendly etc).
Further, the very fact that a certain dialogue is reported at all is
seen as marking it as a particularly dramatic or salient event. De
Fina chooses to analyze reported speech in stories about crossing the
US Mexican boarder (termed 'chronicles') for two main reasons: firstly
because reported speech occurs frequently in these narratives and more
importantly, because it can tell us much about the immigrants sense of
agency and social allegiance within the narrative. Not surprisingly,
given their importance in the immigration process, the most vividly
recounted reported speech comes from Police and 'coyotes' (people
smugglers), with immigrants stressing the authorities' role as
gatekeepers. Within these presentations, narrators vary between
presentations which emphasize their own powerlessness in these
situations, and those where they show themselves to be competent
actors able to answer difficult questions and thus outsmart these
authority figures. The most frequent type of reported speech in the
chronicles is speech attributed to groups of migrants as a collective,
which De Fina sees as reflecting the strong orientation toward the
group, rather than the individual of these migrants. Groups frequently
request help and discuss plans of action; acts which again emphasise
the stress on collectivity that De Fina sees as a defining trait of
the immigrant social world.

Chapter five ''Identity as categorization: identification strategies''
discusses the use of categories for self and other description and the
types of actions, values and norms associated with these categories.
Following Tajfel (1981) De Fina sees identifying oneself as a member
of various social groups and categories as lying at the heart of
identity construction, and seeks to explore ''what kinds of categories
are used for self and other description'' (p 139)and the values and
norms associated with those categories. Analysis of the narratives
shows ethnic identity is the only identity category generalized in the
corpus. Extrapolating from Grices' (1975) Cooperative Principle and
related Conversational Maxims, De Fina argues that descriptions of
ethnicity included in stories must be salient, (otherwise they would
be omitted) and attempts to unpack the meanings behind such
mentions. She finds that ethnic identity is most often mentioned as a
way of generalizing about oneself or others -- in other words,
narratives where ethnic identity is mentioned tend to convey messages
such as 'American think Hispanics are ignorant' or 'Hispanics who come
to the US lose their moral values'. Another common context for ethnic
mentions is cases where this is relevant to the 'plot' of the story --
such as relating difficulties in communicating with people from
different language backgrounds. In some cases, however, it is
difficult to explain the relevance of ethnic mentions to the
story. While attempting to find some meaning behind individual
examples, De Fina ultimately concludes that these 'irrelevant
mentions' can be attributed to the general salience of ethnicity in US
society, and to the fact that the interview context made the narrators
hyper-conscious of issues of ethnicity.

Chapter six ''Identity as social representation: Negotiating
affiliations'' focuses on the development of Hispanic identities in
both the narratives of personal experience and the boarder crossing
chronicles. It begins with a somewhat belated discussion of
definitions of ethnicity before moving on to discuss the different
applications of the term 'Hispanic' in the two types of
narratives. For the chronicles, De Fina finds that ethnicity is
discusses primarily in binary (and oppositional) terms, with 18 out of
26 mentions referring to characters as either Hispanics or white
Americans. Not surprisingly, given the context, Hispanic characters
are usually presented as offering help or guidance, while American
characters are unsympathetic and usually authority figures. The
stories of personal experience within the US show a much more textured
analysis of the ethnic situation, with over 20 different ethnic terms
used in these stories. While 'Hispanic' solidarity still plays a role
in these stories, narrators begin to acknowledge that not all
Hispanics support each other, and feelings of 'pan-ethnic' solidarity
appear to be weaker. This is reflected in the fact that the term
'Hispanic' is used less in these stories than in the chronicles, with
narrators in stories of personal experience preferring to identify
their Central Americans characters by their nationality. Essentially,
life in the United States seems to make Mexicans more aware of both
the similarities and differences between themselves, other Hispanics,
and other Americans and their ethnic labeling practices reflect this


Overall, the book provides valuable insights into both the structure
of immigrant narratives, and what these narratives can tell us about
immigrant identity. As well as providing detailed analysis of her own
corpus, De Fina surveys recent literature on narrative structure and
identity construction; ensuring both that her own work is
well-grounded in theory, and that the book serves as a useful overview
of the state of the art. I did however feel that the weighting of
chapters 3 and 4 was somewhat skewed towards the precise description
of immigrant narratives (such as 'the percentage of evaluative clauses
with I as an explicit vs implicit subject') at the expense of detailed
analysis of the meaning behind this. Of course detailed description is
a necessary part of narrative analysis, but at times it was difficult
to see how these precise details were relevant to De Fina's main
argument. Chapters 5 and 6 seemed to have a much better balance in
this respect, although it struck me as odd that De Fina included her
excursus on the formation of Hispanic identity among immigrants in
chapter 5 when this was the central theme of chapter 6. A highlight of
the book for me was De Fina's excellent and thought-provoking analysis
of the use of and social meanings behind Hispanic identity, although
it was slightly disappointing that she did not attempt to link her
work in this area to other studies of the development of 'pan-Ethnic'
identities, (such as Espiritu and Tuan on Asian-Americans).

Notwithstanding these few criticisms, ''Identity in Narrative''
provides a unique view of the identity construction process as shown
at a lexical, textual and interactional level. Covering so much
information, it is unsurprisingly a dense read, but one bound to be
worthwhile for those interested in the complex relationship between
our stories and our identities.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. (Trans. M. Holquist
and C. Emerson). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Espiritu, Yen Le. 1992. Asian American Panethnicity: bridging
institutions and identities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Grice, H. Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Syntax and Semantics
3: Speech Acts. Ed Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan. New York: Academic
Press, pp 41-58.

Tajfel, Henri. 1981. Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in
Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tuan, Mia. 1998. Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian
experience today. New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers University Press.


Louisa Willoughby is a PhD student with the Language and Society at
Monash University, Clayton. Her doctoral research focuses on the
relationship between language and cultural maintenance and identity
construction among the teenage children of immigrants to Australia;
though she is interested in all aspects of the interaction between
language use and identity construction.
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