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Review of  The Language of Belonging

Reviewer: Marisol del-Teso-Craviotto
Book Title: The Language of Belonging
Book Author: Ulrike Hanna Hanna Dariusz Galasiński
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 18.702

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AUTHORS: Meinhof, Ulrike Hann; Galasiński, Dariusz
TITLE: The Language of Belonging
SERIES: Language and Globalisation
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2005

Marisol del-Teso-Craviotto, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Miami


The purpose of the book is to examine the role of language in the formation
of cultural identities. Specifically, it looks into how people mark their
forms of belonging through ways of speaking and narrations of the self.
Using ethnographic and discourse analytic methodologies, the authors
examine the discourses of three generations who lived in areas that have
undergone profound changes in their social, political, and geographical
make-up since 1945. One case study centers on the German-Polish border,
where the old German city of Guben was divided into two separate cities
after World War II, the German Guben and the Polish Gubin. The other case
study is based on the once socially and culturally integrated cities of
Tiefengrün and Hirschberg, which after World War II became part of West and
East Germany, respectively. By comparing three generations from these two
communities, the authors aim at discovering discursive ways in which their
members perceive and construct their identities in relation to both the
local context, and social, cultural, political, and geographical structures.

Chapter 1: Setting the Context

This introductory chapter offers an overview of the book and gives a brief
description of the social and geographical context of the communities under
study. The chapter also discusses the notion of identity, and frames the
goals and results of the study within the context of cultural and
linguistic studies of identity.

The authors review essentialist and non-essentialist approaches to the
study of identity, and reject the former both in theoretical terms and in
light of the results of their own research. As will be seen in detail in
the rest of the chapters, their analysis supports the conceptualization of
identity as a context-bound, discursive, and never-ending process in which
social actors negotiate what it means to be, for instance, Polish, German,
young, or part of a local community. They emphasize, however, that despite
the dynamic nature of identity, the conversations with the participants and
the narratives that emerged during the interviews show that local
discourses of identity are mediated by socially shared metanarratives
provided by the nation, society, and diverse social groups, and are
expressed through a variety of linguistic resources that they call ''grammar
of identity''. They warn, however, ''that one cannot speak of linguistic
resources which can be universally seen as constructive of identity'' (p. 12).

Chapter 2: The Language of Belonging

This chapter explores the micro-level features of discourse that are
involved in the ''language of belonging''. Before proceeding to the analysis
of examples from the German-Polish border, the authors criticize the study
of identity when it is based on a list of categories and linguistic
phenomena that have been established beforehand. They offer instead an
analysis that makes no a priori assumptions and focuses instead in the
context-bound nature of both content categories and linguistic resources.
They also avoid looking at the linguistic features in terms of uniqueness
or sameness, and argue for framing the construction of identity through the
metaphor of belonging.

From conversations with people from Guben and Gubin, Meinhof and Galasiński
observed that participants were constructing their identities around four
categories: time, place, social relations, and social encounters. These
categories were not exclusive to this context nor the only ones relevant
for the participants, but they emerged as especially salient. The analysis
of the construction of Polishness and Germanness suggests that while Polish
informants' interactions mostly showed a negative construction of identity,
i.e., a ''not belonging'' based on the existence of the Germans as an
outgroup, German texts were less uniform and showed generational
similarities that, in some cases, did not build their identity on the
notion of Germanness but on other local or regional allegiances.

Chapter 3: The Grammar of Identity

This is the last chapter that discusses the theoretical considerations of
identity, drawing also on data from the German-Polish border. The authors
endorse the anti-essentialist position that identities are constructed in
the local context of interaction, and argue that this local context
provides a repertoire of identity positions that are dependent upon, and
more or less likely to appear, with certain discursive practices of the
community. This constitutes a ''grammar of identity'', i.e., ''socially
available linguistic resources which, in a given context, can be
constructive of identity positions'' (p. 65). These linguistic resources are
found mostly at the lexico-grammatical level and are part of public
discourses such as the media, literacy materials, or oral tradition, which
are mediated at the local level. Their main argument is that certain
linguistic resources make some identities more likely to arise than others,
as shown in the interviews from the Polish Gubin. Here, the discourse of
communist propaganda still constrains the construction of certain subject
positions, especially when talking about the communist era in Poland, and
even if the identities constructed are anti-communist. As Meinhof and
Galasiński argue, however, this does not mean that identities are totally
constrained or determined by these public resources, since there is also
the possibility of challenging the positions favored by the communist

Chapter 4: Stories of Belonging and Identification

This chapter moves from the micro-analytic perspective of previous chapters
to analyze the structure of the narratives offered by the informants in the
conversations, focusing on the interviews from the former border between
East and West Germany. The authors argue that in the process of talking
about the past, informants ''peopled'' their past and engaged in a
re-counting of their own selves that involved a mixture of private and
public events, identifying social actors and groups, and expressing
feelings of belonging or not belonging towards those social actors, thus
creating identity. These narratives, whether single or dually authored, are
in no way coherent but they do offer a sense of cohesion for those who are
engaging in storytelling.

The authors found cross-generational differences. The middle-generation
informants often engaged in narratives that showed a negotiation of the
informants' subjective geography -- in contrast with the official
geography. In co-authored narratives, the researchers often found
contradictions in the informants' positions, even when they were engaged in
the same narration and they overtly agreed with each other, which clearly
pointed out the difference between implicit and explicit discourses of
identification. This generation also engaged in argumentative narratives
(those whose chronological order is disrupted by processes of
fore-shadowing and back-shadowing), which often consisted in defending
themselves against the critiques of discursively absent interlocutors.

In contrast with the middle-generation's narratives, the old generation
engages in prototypical storytelling, with a chronological sequence of
events, the narrator as protagonist, a plot leading to a climax or
anti-climax, and an evaluative final comment. In these stories the past is
recounted as a series of events rather than as an emotional description,
and the story's actors are not necessarily represented as members of the
in- or out-group, but as individuals that make the story move on.

Chapter 5: Photography and the Discourses of Memory and Identification

This chapter examines the role of pictures in the collection of
ethnographic and discourse analytic data. They chose pictures from three
periods (before the start of World War II in 1939, between 1945 and 1989,
and after the Berlin fall in 1989). These photographs were chosen to index
places in the respective towns and villages which could be easily
recognized, to index a time span significant for all three generations, and
to index certain key aspects of the socio-cultural context. Meinhof and
Galasiński remark on the advantages of using pictures over the typical
sociolinguistic interview, since relying on a visual stimulus avoids the
interference of the researchers and limits the influence that their
linguistic choices may have on the informants' responses.

The authors also discuss the advantages of using pictures in terms of the
kind of narratives and identity construction that takes place when
examining them. First, descriptions of the time and place of the pictures
do not necessarily trigger descriptions of ''true'' spaces or time periods,
since informants sometimes seemed to mis-recognize or even refuse to
recognize some of the pictures. This type of subjective response to a
supposedly objective image is especially valuable in the study of identity,
because in the process of identification of time and space, participants
situate themselves as part of, or excluded from, certain time and place
coordinates, positioning themselves as belonging to certain groups but not
others. Second, photographs trigger narratives of past events in which
informants yield past experiences from the perspective of the present day.
The stories do not necessarily stay within the confines of the picture but
wander in time and space as they make memory connections. In fact, the same
pictures can trigger conflictual perspectives, most dramatically seen
across generations.

Chapter 6: The Voices of Neighbourhood

This chapter examines Polish narratives of neighborhood to show how
positive and negative accounts of the ''Other'' can coexist in the same story
without apparent contradictions. Despite abundant evidence that Germans in
general, and Germans from Guben in particular, are constructed as a threat
in the Polish narratives, the authors choose to focus on positive accounts
of encounters with Germans. From their analysis of narratives across
generations, the authors conclude that stories of personal encounters with
Germans have two voices: a narrative, positive voice, which remarks on the
how nice Germans can be, and a metanarrative, negative voice that frames
that niceness as a surprise, something that stands out from the more
general belief about Germans as the enemy. The metanarrative appears in the
stories implicitly, but in other cases, it can also be explicitly
challenged. Meinhof and Galasiński argue these two apparently competing
discourses are historical products that affect the identity formation of
the self. Thus, while the narrative voice is based on personal experiences
of neighborhood, the metanarrative voice is the voice of the nation, i.e.,
the public discourse that dominated the decades that followed World War II,
and that had no competing public discourse.

They finish the chapter with a hopeful note, presenting the narrative of a
Polish woman of the youngest generation, who does not frame her positive
narrative of an encounter with Germans within a negative metanarrative.
They argue that this shows the importance of personal experiences to
override the ''grammar of identity'' that may be imposed on people throughout
the years.

Chapter 7: Frames of Belonging: Crossing Local, National and Transnational

This chapter reflects on the apparent contradiction that surfaced during
the interviews with people from the German/Polish border regarding the
European identity. While the European identity hardly ever surfaced in the
narratives triggered by the pictures, it was a significant category in the
final, direct question of the interviews about self-identification,
although what ''European'' meant in each case was quite variable. In some
cases, the European identity was part of a multi-layered account of
identity, a ''Russian doll'' type of interpretation of the self where local,
regional, national, and transnational identities are seeing as nested in
each other, as different layers. In contrast, other narratives constructed
certain identity categories as incompatible or in conflict with other

In the Polish narratives, for instance, the main identification was with
the nation. Local and regional allegiances were hardly ever invoked, and
the European identity was filtered through that of Polishness: the European
Union consists of nations dominated by Germany, which is the ''other'' that
surfaces overwhelmingly in the narratives. There is no sense in the Polish
narratives of the European Union as an entity that may go beyond national
boundaries, or that encompasses all of its people. In contrast, the German
narratives from across the border are less uniform, showing different
degrees of identification with the local, regional, and national categories.

The most important conclusion of this chapter is the contrast between the
identities invoked in narratives prompted by pictures and those prompted by
direct questioning. The fact that a European identity was mostly
circumscribed to the latter shows that any studies that intend to tap into
questions of identity cannot simply remain at the level of consciously
expressed attitudes. Identities are constructed in discourse, and
therefore, indirect methodologies such as the one used here are the most
suitable to discover those attitudes that do not typically surface in
questionnaires or more direct questioning, but are nevertheless important
for the construction of the self.


This book will be of much value not only to linguists working on discourse
analysis, but also to political scientists or social psychologists, or in
general, anyone interested in the study of identity. The authors favor a
context-bound and local understanding of identity that they illustrate with
numerous examples that are also available in their original Polish or
German transcriptions. One of the main contributions of this book is its
methodology, although its discussion could have been more useful toward the
beginning of the book, instead of in Chapter 5. Meinhof and Galasiński
argue convincingly that adopting the view that identity is fluid and
multi-layered must come hand in hand with a methodology that allows the
researcher to understand precisely that fluidity and context-bound nature
of identity. Direct questioning shows only part of the identities that are
relevant for individuals, and responses usually stay at the more or less
conscious level of personal identification with a number of social groups.
More indirect methods, such as the use of photographs as triggers for the
conversation, show a very different spectrum of identities and
identifications than those likely to arise in direct questioning, as
vividly illustrated in the excerpts of this book. This method has the
additional advantage of minimizing the leading role of the researcher, but
does not suppress it altogether, as is sometimes the case in some of the
excerpts that are included in the book. In some of the examples (e.g., in
the conversation on p. 92), the informants' positioning seems to respond to
the researcher's prompting rather than to their own perspective. While this
type of interference is unavoidable when engaging in conversations with
informants, it is clear that the use of pictures reduces these problems

Another especially important aspect of Meinhof and Galasiński's research is
exemplified in Chapter 3, where they discuss the grammar of identity. The
authors' analysis of identity as the product of both local and larger
social forces illustrates the complex ways in which agency and ideological
imposition interact in the creation of identity, a complexity that is
sometimes downplayed in an attempt to fight essentialist interpretations of
identity. The data presented in this and other chapters are crucial
reminders that we should not over-emphasize the freedom and instability
that takes place in the creation of identity.

The reader may have expected a more detailed discussion of the theoretical
underpinnings of the research. In the discussion of the concept of
identity, for instance, the authors engage in the
essentialist/non-essentialist debate, which already has a rich tradition in
linguistic anthropology and discourse analysis, but offer a somewhat
limited view of the issues involved in this more or less arbitrary
opposition between both positions. The reader interested in the study of
identity may want to consult some additional bibliography such as Bucholtz
and Hall (2005), Woodward (1997), or Worchel (1998), which represent just a
few of the approaches that may be relevant for the discursive study of
identity. This limited account of non-essentialist approaches to the study
of identity also weakens some of their theoretical claims. Readers may have
benefited, for instance, from a more thorough description of the advantages
of adopting the metaphor of belonging in detriment of concepts more widely
used in the literature such as sameness and uniqueness.

Finally, a minor comment on the book is the need for a more careful
editing, since there are numerous contradictions in the labeling of the
informants, who appear with different initials in the examples and in the
text, or who are sometimes identified by their whole names instead of using
the initials that protect their anonymity.


Bucholtz, Mary, and Hall, Kira. (2005). Language and Identity. In A.
Duranti (ed.). A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. Malden,
Massachusetts: Blackwell. pp. 369-394.

Woodward, Kathryn, ed. (1997) Identity and Difference. London: Sage

Worchel, Stephen, Morales, J. Francisco, Páez, Darío, and Deschamps,
Jean-Claude, eds. (1998). Social Identity. London: Sage Publications.

Marisol del-Teso-Craviotto graduated with honors from the University of
Valencia (Spain), where she received her B.A. in English and German
Philology. She then did an M.A. in Linguistics and Composition at
Northwestern State University of Louisiana, where she also graduated with
honors. In 2004, she received her Ph.D. in Linguistics and completed a
graduate minor in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Cornell
University. She is currently an assistant professor of linguistics in the
Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Miami University. She has done
extensive research in the area of language and gender, with a focus on
their ideological implications in the media. She has published several
articles on the ideology of women's magazines, and on the construction of
gender and sexuality in Internet chat rooms. Her present research focuses
on the discursive negotiation of identity among Latin American immigrants
in Spain.

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