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Review of  Identity in Narrative

Reviewer: Louisa Willoughby
Book Title: Identity in Narrative
Book Author: Anna De Fina
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 15.1234

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Date: Tue, 13 Apr 2004 22:56:09 +1000
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

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

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 understood.

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 together.

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

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 transformation.

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.