Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


The Language Hoax

By John H. McWhorter

The Language Hoax "argues that that all humans process life the same way, regardless of their language."

New from Cambridge University Press!


Language and Development in Africa

By H. Ekkehard Wolff

Language and Development in Africa "discusses the resourcefulness of languages, both local and global, in view of the ongoing transformation of African societies as much as for economic development.. "

The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported primarily by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2016 Fund Drive.

Review of  Discourse and Identity

Reviewer: Cornelia Gerhardt
Book Title: Discourse and Identity
Book Author: Anna De Fina Deborah Schiffrin Michael Bamberg
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 18.1618

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting
EDITOR(S): De Fina, Anna ; Schiffrin, Deborah ; Bamberg, Michael
TITLE: Discourse and Identity
SERIES: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 23
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2006

Cornelia Gerhardt, Anglistik, Saarland University

The book under review, ''Discourse and Identity'', henceforth DaI, edited by
Anna De Fina, Deborah Schiffrin, and Michael Bamberg, is volume 23 in the
series ''Studies in interactional sociolinguistics.'' It consists of a
general introduction, introductions to the four parts of the book, and 15
papers. The 462 closely printed pages further comprise a table of contents,
a list of contributors, 26 pages of references with around 480 references,
and an 11-page index with around 440 main entries and many subcategories.

The edited volume is concerned with the ''role of linguistic processes and
strategies in the creation, negotiation and establishment of identities.''
(p. 1) In their general introduction, the authors present various
approaches to identity; both generally accepted and hotly debated ones.
They start with 'social constructionism' stating that identity is not fixed
and monolithic, but multiple and based on practices. 'Categorization and
membership definition,' another widely accepted approach, is concerned with
the description of acts with which we make claims about including or
excluding ourselves and others. The 'anti-essentialist vision of the
'self'' allows people to perform identities. One is not 'naturally' part of
a certain group. The fourth and final generally accepted notion is that
'indexicality' is vital in the relation between discourse and identity. On
the one hand, it personalizes language in that it ties a speaker to his/her
utterance. On the other hand, it connects language to the world out there,
i.e. the extra-linguistic context. The section ends by retracing the
conflicting positions of conversation analysts (CA) on the one extreme of
the spectrum, and critical discourse analysis (CDA) on the other, regarding
the role of contextual information in analysing discourse. CA maintains
that categories must be oriented to by the participants in the talk,
whereas CDA advocates the inclusion of social realities and power
differences. Next in the general introduction, the authors turn to a
description of ''overarching themes, underlying constructs and persistent
questions'' (p. 6) and link them to the following 15 papers. The first,
'positioning,' is concerned with how people position themselves in
discourse, and how Discourse, on the other hand, positions people (Bamberg
2005). 'Interaction order' is concerned with the notions of 'footing' and
'face' (Goffman 1967a, 1981). Next, 'multivocality' (Bakhtin 1986) and
'intertextuality' (Kristeva 1980) are treated since ''all texts are made up
of prior texts that we draw upon in new ways.'' (p. 11, from Tannen 1989)
The final overarching theme the editors present is 'indexing local and
global identities,' i.e. the relationship between the self at a given
moment, and broader categories or ideologies. The introduction ends with an
overview of DaI.


The volume consists of four parts, each of which forms the umbrella for 3 –
5 papers. Each part is headed by an introduction which lists the
commonalities of the following papers and summarizes them.

Part I. ''Overview: Theory, method and analysis'' consists of papers with a
broader (and sometimes critical) view on the issues presented in DaI.

1. ''Narrative and identity: the double arrow of time'' by Elliott G. Mishler
Mishler criticises the use of a 'clock/chronological model of time' in
narratives (Labov, Waletzky 1967) and argues for a 'narrative/experiential'
one in the wake of Ricœur (1980).
He shows how narratives are constructed with a ''sense of an ending,'' (p.
34) i.e. we can only understand the function of e.g. a beginning, or decide
what we choose as the beginning, when we know what the story will lead to.
Hence, in order to tell the stories of their lives, people must 're-story'
or 're-emplot' their past experiences, since ''[t]he past is not set in
stone, but the meaning of events and experiences is constantly being
reframed within the contexts of our current and ongoing lives.'' (p. 36)

2. ''Footing, positioning, voice. Are we talking about the same things?'' by
Branca Telles Ribeiro
Ribeiro argues for distinguishing the closely related concepts 'footing',
'positioning' and 'voice' (Bakhtin 1981) in analyses of identity work in
talk. She illustrates these different notions with the help of an example:
a phone call between two brothers about the failing health of their mother.
Footings ''refer to the very micro-interactional shifts, which would
ultimately constitute positionings.'' (p. 74) Hence, a change in footing
such as a pronoun shift does not necessarily entail a re-positioning,
positioning being more strategic and intentional. Voice, finally, can
either highlight a lack of participation, in that someone may simply not
have a voice, or foreground the participants' emotions.

3. ''Small and large identities in narrative (inter)-action'' by Alexandra
The author traces the workings of large i.e. exogeneous, extra-situational
identities by analysing the participation roles of narratives. Based on a
qualitative reading of conversations between young Greek women who are
close friends, she offers a quantitative analysis of different
contributions ('initiation', 'plot contribution,' 'ratification,' and
'evaluation') of 50 jointly told stories. Depending on their part in these
different kinds of contributions, the participants project different roles
such as ''advice-giver vs. advice-seeker and expert vs. novice.'' (p. 96)
Hence, the internal hierarchy of the group of friends becomes visible in
their story-telling co-construction.

4. ''From linguistic reference to social reality'' by Deborah Schiffin
Schiffrin differentiates between reference in the textual world (noun
phrases and pronouns) and the social world (the people they refer to),
which, at the same time, have an influence on the local identities in the
interactional world. After discussing the work of Goffman, she presents
linguistic approaches to reference, saying in summary that it is a ''a
multifaceted process in which a speaker uses a referring term that is
intended to be interpreted by another person within an emergent textual
world constructed during an ongoing interaction...'' (p. 114) The analysis
of a repair sequence in an interview illustrates how the referring
expressions and other linguistic resources used play multiple roles in
identity construction.

Part II. ''Private and public identities: constructing who we are''
After these articles with a more theoretical focus, the papers in the
following part give more prominence to the analysis of data. They are
concerned with the discursive construction of identities (through
categorization devices, narratives, and positioning, in interaction and in
relation to ideologies) in different contexts.

5. ''Identity a la carte: you are what you eat'' by Robin Tolmach Lakoff
Lakoff starts off by differentiating between major identities such as
gender or race, and minor identities which pertain to e.g. music, dress, or
food preferences. She presents different styles of menus and recipes from
different places and from different times, linking them to their
ideological and socio-cultural context. She analyses their implications in
terms of the identities of the readers (e.g. 'a true appreciator' of
ecologically sound locally produced modern 'world cuisine'). She shows how
these '''minor identities' like culinary preferences and sophistication
contribute significantly to our sense of ourselves: who we are, how
competent we are, who our friends are or should be, whom we admire or
disdain.'' (p. 165)

6. ''Workplace narratives, professional identity and relational practice'' by
Janet Holmes
Holmes shows how staff members construct their personal and group social
identities in New Zealand workplaces (e.g. tough manager, or sensitive,
caring co-worker) with the help of stories. Companies represent
'communities of practice' (Wenger 1998) with their own interactional
practices. Even though workplace narratives are content-wise not connected
to the business at hand, they represent the 'relational practice' of
'creating team' (Fletcher 1999). Hence, they are ultimately helpful in
obtaining the objectives of the company. ''Workplace anecdotes provide a
means of doing one's professional identity, while simultaneously doing
gender, workplace culture, and personal identity.'' (p. 186)

7. ''Identity and personal/institutional relations: people and tragedy in a
health insurance customer service'' by Liliana Cabral Bastos and Maria do
Carmo Leite de Oliveira
The authors study letters of complaint to a health insurance provider and
their responses. In a nutshell, for the clients, health (just like
security, justice and self-esteem) is a basic need, whereas, for the health
insurance provider, it is a utility. The correspondence mirrors these
different conceptions: in the letters of complaint, the customers portray
themselves as responsible fathers or rationale professionals e.g. with the
help of replays (Goffman 1974) appealing to the solidarity of another
person. The company, on the other hand, answers as an impersonal body which
treats the costumer fairly according to the rules spelled out in the

8. ''The discursive construction of teacher identities in a research
interview'' by Greer C. Johnson
This paper shows how a teacher and an interviewer work together to
co-construct the identities 'good research participant' and 'good teacher'
for the interviewee. At the outset of the interview, it is the researcher
who positions the teacher e.g. by differentiating between her and other
teachers. Even though they all fall under the same membership
categorization device (Sacks, 1995), a line is drawn to construct these
critical reflexive identities for the teacher being interviewed. The
teacher accepts these identities assigned to her and after a more reflexive
discourse focussing on dilemmas she is facing, she moves on to present a
more agentive, positive picture of herself as a 'good practitioner'.

9. ''Becoming a mother after DES: intensive mothering in spite of it all'' by
Susan E. Bell
The ideology of 'intensive mothering' demands that biological mothers ''take
almost exclusive responsibility for taking care of children.'' (p. 233) The
interviewee (IE) in the data which form the basis of the analysis is a
mother who gave birth to a handicapped child. The reason lay in the IE's
mother taking the oestrogen DES, while being pregnant with her. The author
shows how the IE and the author herself engage in and resist these
discourses of mothering. Bell differentiates between the time told (1970s),
the time of the interview (1980s), and the time of her writing the paper
(2003) and links them to the discourses of 'femininity' and 'motherhood'
dominant at these different times.

Part III. ''The gendered self: becoming and being a man
The part on gender is concerned with the enactment of masculinity in local
contexts. All papers draw on narratives.

10. ''Hegemonic identity-making in narrative'' by Scott F. Kiesling
Drawing on two narratives by white, middle class fraternity members,
Kiesling depicts how Discourses, i.e. shared cultural knowledge, are being
drawn on and thus simultaneously recreated. As a connector between global
societal Discourses and the local stance-taking in narratives, the author
proposes cultural models, ''richly organized norm[s]'' (p. 263) which are
more specific than the first, and more general than the latter. In the
following meticulous analysis, Kiesling shows how e.g. by using features of
AAVE these white students recreate Discourses of masculinity and race and
how their linguistic behaviour is only accountable for in the larger
societal context.

11. ''On being white, heterosexual and male in a Brazilian school: multiple
positionings in oral narratives'' by Luiz Paulo Moita-Lopes
Moita-Lopes argues that by defining hegemonic masculinity and whiteness,
the Brazilian pupils in his study position themselves against the other,
i.e. blackness, homosexuality, and femininity. ''The SIDs [social
identities] which... are in a position of hegemony constitute the center,
which defines the margins or otherness.'' (p. 290) Turning the tables, the
author approaches the issues race, sexuality and gender by describing the
unmarked. In one narrative, for example, there is a vivid portrayal of the
father (including his voice i.e. direct quotations) as the protector of the
women of the family whereas the sister, a ''crucial element in the story''
(p. 301), is not quoted directly.

12. ''Urban fathers positioning themselves through narrative: an approach to
narrative self-construction'' by Stanton Wortham and Vivian Gadsden
In this paper, the authors differentiate between ''four layers of narrative
positioning'' (p. 319), namely reference to past events, 'voicing', which
links the people in the story to social types, evaluation, and interactions
within the narrative situation. These are illustrated with the help of
Robert, a young urban African-American who became a father as a teenager.
He portrays himself as having coped with these past challenges leading a
stable life with the mother of his child. Robert voices himself as 'decent'
in contrast to e.g. his biological father who is portrayed as 'street'.
With his negative evaluation of 'street', he positions himself as different
from his irresponsible father.

Part IV. ''The in-between self: negotiating person and place''
Offering short summaries of the following articles, the editors point out
their communalities: the papers are all concerned with life stories ''by
people who have gone through fundamental and, in certain cases, deeply
traumatic changes in their life.'' (p.345) Another unifying feature is a
stress on the interplay between social categories and individual expression.

13. ''Group identity, narrative and self-representations'' by Anna De Fina
Based on stories from Hispanics in the US, the author stresses that
identity is both connected to ideologies and locally negotiated. Hence, the
meaning of schemata such as 'Hispanic' is neither '''manifest' only within
the interaction at hand'' (p. 355) nor is it only applied to new situations.
Instead, the article describes how these categories are (re-)defined and
negotiated in the stories of the migrants and how the stances taken by the
narrators position them towards these categories. The stories show that, on
the one hand, the Mexicans accept being 'Hispanic', on the other hand, they
''are aware of the stereotypical and discriminating nature of the category''
(p. 374) and distance themselves.

14. ''Performing self, family and community in Moroccan narratives of
migration and settlement'' by Mike Baynham
Two distinctive genres in the life stories of Moroccans who settled in
London in the 1960/70s, namely ''performed oral narrative and generic
narrative ... imply different speaking positions with associated
assumptions of identity, entitlement and rights to speak.'' (p. 377) In the
generic narrative, marked e.g. by the general present (e.g. ''works,''
''sends'') and generalised actors (e.g. ''the head of the family''), typicality
is emphasised. By telling these canonical tales, the narrators claim the
right to speak for their community. Tracing the lives of the Moroccans
starting with their decision to migrate, the author presents performance
features of these narratives of identity.

15. ''Making it personal: shared meanings in the narratives of Holocaust
survivors'' by Brian Schiff and Chaim Noy
The data consist of the life story of a holocaust survivor from the
Bukovinia. The authors show how she skilfully interprets and communicates
the 'balagan' (~'chaos') of the persecution of Jews with the invocation of
the Treblinka guard Demjanjuk. Although she never met this so-called 'Ivan
the terrible' during her sufferings, she uses this shared meaning to oppose
her story to the canonical survivor narrative, thus also equating her
suffering symbolised by balagan / Demjanjuk / civilians / Ukrainians in her
analogy to Auschwitz / order / Eichmann / military / Germans. By turning
her perpetrators into 'Demjanjuk'im' (pl.), she reinterprets her past and
makes it understandable for her interviewers.


The relation of discourse and identity has become an important issue in the
humanities since the twentieth century. For this reason, this volume
uniting some of the leading scholars within this field is a welcome
contribution to the ongoing debate. The general introduction (p. 1-23) is
highly informative and helps pave the way to the individual papers.
Different authors (re)formulating similar, but sometimes finally differing
interpretations or definitions of such notions as 'positioning', 'voice',
'stance', 'footing', and, obviously, 'identity' and 'D- or discourse' makes
this volume an interesting read. Articles seem to enter into a lively
debate with each other, as in different treatments of the relation between
'voice' and 'positioning' (e.g. sub-category in chapter 12 vs. different
concepts in chapter 14) or when ''streetwiseness'' is portrayed as a sign of
expertise (chapter 3) or irresponsibility (chapter 12). Hence, it is also
the wealth of different contexts which are described in this book that make
this volume so interesting. Covering an array of different languages,
genres, countries, times, people, spoken and written discourse, and
subjects from the allegedly trivial such as 'food' to gender, race,
migration and the holocaust, the workings of 'Discourse and identity', the
intricate nature of the two, come alive as one reads through these
different accounts.

The language in the volume is generally accessible, even for non-native
speakers. However, some of the formulations are hard to digest, e.g. ''A
differentiation of self based on production format, and coordination with
recipient responses, emerged through the sequential production of a
baseline of intersubjectivity vis-à-vis a reference'' (p. 127).
Nevertheless, mostly the authors convey their ideas in a clear,
straightforward manner.

The decision to ''number'' the lines of the transcript with the help of the
letters of the alphabet in brackets is not a fortunate one. There are only
26 letters in the alphabet, whereas numbers allow infinite continuation (I
realize that in terms of total signs, really, there are only 10 numbers,
but we are used to them being chained together to represent higher
quantities). So some authors have to triple the letters as in (aaa). The
chronological order of the turns becomes hard to grasp, especially when
transcriptions are accompanied by translations and both do not simply alter
line by line (e.g. p. 94).
Furthermore, in the analyses, obviously, the text itself consists of
letters. Hence, it makes for much easier reading when the references to
lines clearly stand out as numbers. Also, it is not rare for three brackets
to co-occur in this system, which makes it hard for readers to locate the
appropriate counterpart: ''Ceil's identification of the area begins at one
street ('This is Washington Avenue' (line (a))) that is evaluated ('Now
here's a great section' (line (b))) as they are approaching its
intersection 'Over at Ninth Street' (line (c)).'' (p.118, instead of being
surrounded by single quotation marks, the examples are in italics in the
book, which I cannot reproduce here.)

Two small remarks on individual papers: Ribeiro does not give the line
numbers of the transcription in her analysis. This makes it harder to trace
her argumentation in the data.
Finally, in my opinion, Baynham and Ribeiro should have restrained their
use of footnotes and put important quotations/references into the main text.

Nevertheless, these are minor points. DaI unites some of the finest
scholars interested in the connection between discourse and identity,
coming from different disciplines (especially linguistics and psychology).
Hence, the volume offers an overview of the state of the art. It is
informative and thought provoking for scholars working in the same domain.
Because of the detailed and clear introduction(s), it can also be used as a
first orientation by those new to the field.


Bakhtin, M. 1981. [1935] The dialogic imagination. Austin: University of
Texas Press.

---. 1986. Speech genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas

Bamberg, M. 2005. ''Encyclopedia entry on 'Positioning'''. In D. Hermann, M.
Jahn and M.L. Ryan (eds.) The Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory.
New York: Routledge, 445-446.

Fletcher, J. 1999. Disappearing acts: gender, power and relational practice
at work. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goffman, E. 1967. Interaction ritual: essays on face-to-face behaviour. New
York: Pantheon.

---. 1974. Frame analysis. New York: Harper and Row.

---. 1981. Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kristeva, J. 1980. Desire in language: a semiotic approach to literature
and art. New York: Columbia University Press.

Labov, W. and J. Waletzky. 1967. ''Narrative analysis: oral versions of
personal experience''. In J. Helm. (ed.) Essays on the verbal and visual
arts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 12-44.

Ricœur, P. 1980. Narrative time. Critical inquiry, 7(1): 169-190.

Sacks, H. 1995. Lectures on conversation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tannen, D. 1989. Talking voices: repetition, dialogue and imagery in
conversational discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Cornelia Gerhardt works as an instructor in English linguistics at the
Anglistik of Saarland University, Germany. She is currently writing her
Ph.D. thesis on the appropriation of media discourse, i.e. her data consist
of conversations by TV viewers. Her interests include interactional
sociolinguistics, spoken language, media discourse, and 'footballese'.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521834023
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 474
Prices: U.S. $ 90.00
U.K. £ 55.00

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521541913
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 474
Prices: U.S. $ 37.99
U.K. £ 24.99