LINGUIST List 32.1476

Wed Apr 28 2021

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Greenbank (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 04-Nov-2020
From: Christos Sagredos <>
Subject: Discursive Navigation of Employable Identities in the Narratives of Former Refugees
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Emily Greenbank
TITLE: Discursive Navigation of Employable Identities in the Narratives of Former Refugees
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Narrative 27
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Christos Sagredos, King's College London


The “Discursive Navigation of Employable Identities in the Narratives of Former Refugees” by Emily Greenbank aims at exploring how former refugees negotiate employability and make sense of the various challenges undermining their efforts to gain access to the labour market of New Zealand. The book consists of eleven chapters, five of which (Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) cover a thorough, moment-by-moment micro-analysis of ethnographic interviews with five former refugees as well as data from authentic workplace interactions. Drawing on interactional sociolinguistics, linguistic ethnography, the narrative analytic concept of positioning and Bourdieu’s theorisation of cultural and social capital, Greenbank walks the reader on the complex discursive processes shaping former refugees’ identity work vis-à-vis employability.

Chapter 1 begins with the author’s personal motivations (e.g. previous experience as a volunteer at a local refugee resettlement agency) and a definitional disentanglement of basic concepts like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘refugee’ and ‘former refugee’, with the latter denoting that refugeehood ends upon arrival and permanent residence in the country of resettlement. Amongst the many challenges that former refugees are confronted with during resettlement into their new countries of residence (e.g. discrimination and othering), Greenbank focuses on employment challenges, from the perspective of an employable identity as negotiated and co-constructed in discourse. In this respect, Greenbank conceptualises employability in terms of an interactionally achieved and context-dependent employable identity; that is, far from essentialising and individualistic accounts of interpreting and assessing employability in terms of a list of pre-discursive attributes or skills (e.g. confidence or adaptability) assumed to be “exhibited, approved, and ticked off a list” (p. 8). Rather, Greenbank highlights the relational and co-constructed nature (e.g. between job seekers and employers, colleagues) of the performance of employable skills and attributes (e.g. adaptability, teamwork), subscribing to a view of employable identity as discursively emerging in and through semiotic choices of positioning of self and others, and the ways these positionings are (re)affirmed, or rejected by interlocutors. In light of this, Chapter 1 finishes with the preliminary and overarching research goal of the book, i.e. to explore how refugee-background jobseekers and employees enact employable identities in discourse, and an overview of the book.

Chapter 2 lays out the theoretical underpinnings of this book, delineating an approach to identity in anti-positive and anti-essentialist terms as a discursively situated and intersubjective phenomenon that exhibits and is defined by fluidity, multiplicity, dynamicity, agency and structure. Adopting an interactional sociolinguistic perspective, Greenbank draws on social constructionism and Bucholtz and Hall’s (2005) principles of identity formation processes (i.e. emergence, positionality, indexicality, relationality and partialness), and goes on to present narrative as the prime site for identity analysis. The chapter also draws on Bourdieu’s (1986) theorisation of capital to present employability as a “field” where former refugees’ cultural and social capital are judged against benchmarks of field-specific “rules” and of a field’s symbolic capital, i.e. forms of capital that are assigned with value and legitimised as indicators of employability on the basis of ideologies – often defined by those possessing power in a field. From this perspective, the author points to issues of power inequality vis-à-vis employability highlighting that former refugees’ embodied and institutional cultural capital (e.g. linguistic proficiency, academic degrees) may lose its value in the host society, and their social capital (e.g. membership in social networks) may be non-existent and difficult to regenerate. Former refugees’ making sense of self and identity work are also discussed in relation to capital-D-discourses (Gee 2015) circulating at a macro-level context, such as Discourses of Refugeehood (i.e. dominant narratives of what it means to be a refugee) and Discourses of Gratitude (i.e. expectation that refugees be grateful for what that the host country has provided them with upon resettlement). The chapter closes with basic theoretical tenets of interactional sociolinguistics, and how concepts like ‘(cross-cultural) context’ are therein understood.

Chapter 3 begins with a reflection on the implications of the participants’ refugeehood for the methodology of the study and issues of power differentials between the participants and the researcher (e.g. culturally bound understandings of research participation, potential vulnerabilities, performing in a language other than one’s mother tongue). The author then moves on to on the merits of a (critical) ethnographic approach for the purposes of the study and the procedure of collecting data while touching upon the challenges of participant recruitment and ethical considerations (e.g. seeking informed consent). The chapter then introduces the dataset under analysis and closes with a brief yet illustrative example of analysing narrative positioning drawing on the work by Bamberg and Georgakopoulou (2008).

Chapter 4 introduces the five participants of the study, describing their geographical, social and educational trajectories:

Kelly: origins from Palestine but born in Kuwait, completed primary education in New Zealand but finished school and got married in Palestine, returned to New Zealand, got divorced and completed a Bachelor of Business Studies, mother of two.

Omar: grew up in Syria, where he worked as a (chief) engineer for various shipping companies, left Syria with wife and children after a massacre, resettled in New Zealand after spending 20 months in Egypt where he was granted asylum, seeks to find a job suitable to his experience and with a prospect of advancement.

Isaac: born in Eritrea, left in fear of being arrested for political reasons, made use of counterfeit documents and smugglers to enter Sudan, where he stayed in a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp and was granted asylum, worked as a cleaner upon resettlement in New Zealand, completing a degree in International Relations.

Arwa: grew up in a Middle Eastern country, completed a master’s degree and PhD in Computer Science in Malaysia where she was granted refugee status by the UNHCR, has volunteered with local charities and taken several English-language courses after resettlement in in New Zealand but has had little success in the labour market.

Nina: grew up in Colombia, death threats made her and her daughter flee to Ecuador, where she lived for 10 years and had 3 more children, discrimination and health issues prompted her to accept an offer for resettlement in New Zealand, initially worked as a cleaner but now works as a carer in an eldercare facility.

At the end of the chapter, the author reflects on how her own autobiographical journey and her position as “a politically liberal, feminist, middle-class, Pakeha woman” (p. 58) have an impact on her research.

The fine-grained linguistic analysis in Chapter 5 skilfully illustrates how stories-in-interaction function as rich sites where former refugees and the researcher herself contribute to the co-construction of three participants’ multiple identities by drawing on a range of linguistic and semiotic strategies through which they variously (dis)align themselves with capital-D-discourses –as protagonists in the story-worlds and/or in the here-and-now of the storytelling practice. Through a highly reflexive, painstaking micro-analysis of what Greenbank refers to as ‘narratives of flight’ (i.e. stories about refugees’ leaving their countries of origin, or a secondary country outside their country of origin), the author shows how former refugees construct their employable identities by reaffirming normative expectations of refugeehood (e.g. exhibiting vulnerability, victimisation, powerlessness) or rejecting them (e.g. exhibiting strength, determination, responsibility, personal capability).

In Chapter 6, Greenbank explores former refugees’ discursive enactment of agency vis-à-vis the negotiation of employable identities, demonstrating how agency becomes relevant in participants’ stories both in their role as protagonists in their narrated taleworlds and as storytellers in the research context of interviews. Drawing on the moment-by-moment exploration of agency from an intersectional perspective and Bamberg’s (2011) agency dilemma – where it is conceptualised as a scalar notion ranging between positionings of a strong, in-control self and victimised/less influential self, the author shows how former refugees navigate past periods of low-agency, structural challenges and macro-level Discourses through narrative positionings that reconcile them with a present, capable, agentive and thus employable self.

In Chapter 7, Greenbank elaborates on how “employability involves narratively packaging the self” (p. 119), focusing on the discursive processes through which former refugees draw on their cultural and social capital in order to perform locally appropriate employable identities. The complexity and the challenges undermining this enactment of employability are also highlighted. The thorough analysis of the narratives in this chapter sheds light on the constraints imposed by the lack of the cultural capital of citizenship or the limited proficiency of the local language, the inherent difficulties of forced migration with regard to creating and maintaining a useful social capital, and the fact that institutional cultural capital (e.g. tertiary qualifications) is no longer a guarantee of employment – and in the case of refugees, its value may even be erased or diminished in the host country.

Through an analysis of narratives co-constructed by the researcher herself and a participant she calls Arwa, Chapter 8 proceeds with a longitudinal exploration of a former refugee’s employable identity negotiation. More specifically, capturing the trajectory from Arwa’s initial understanding of employability as solely institutional capital to a view of employability as the iterative performance of an identity that aligns with local interaction norms and Discourses, Greenbank shows that besides emergent, dynamic and co-constructed, the enactment of successful employable identities is iteratively developed. From a methodological perspective, the chapter also illustrates how an ethnographic approach to the study of narrative identities was helpful for exploring this gradual shift in the ways the participant conceptualised and narratively performed her employable identity over a span of 20 months.

Chapter 9 draws on authentic interactions in in an eldercare facility between a former refugee (Nina) in her job position as a carer and two residents. The author explores the moment-by-moment navigation of Nina’s employable identity by analysing how participants discursively negotiate self/other positionings, issues of citizenship and ideological binaries (e.g. New Zealander vs Other), capital-D-Discourses (e.g. of Refugeehood, Gratitude, Aging, Integration and Assimilation), and standard language ideologies (e.g. about pronunciation). Focusing on the relational work achieved in interactions, Greenbank illustrates how Nina’s pragmatic skills assist her in fostering friendly relationships with the elderly residents and overcoming power imbalances, which in turn facilitates the (co-)construction of contextually appropriate identities (including professional/employable identities).

CHAPTERS 10 – 11
In Chapters 10 and 11, the author summarises and discusses the findings of her research in relation to her initial research questions, as well as the methodological, analytical, and societal contributions of the book. Of particular interest here is the introduction of the concept ‘spectacle of refugeehood’ though which the author discusses former refugees’ experienced inequalities in relation to the social distribution of power and capital by making a distinction between between refugees and consumers of Discourses and (media) representations of refugees –or in Greenbank’s terms between “those who have not experienced refugeehood, viewing it from the outside” and “the spectacularised seen”, the “viewable and viewed object”, the “passive ‘seen’ for the viewing of the dominant ingroup” (p. 175).


Overall, this book provides an accessible and engaging overview of the ways in which former refugees construct, navigate and make sense of their employable identities through discourse, while effectively demonstrating the immense complexity of the relationship between identity work, dominant discourses, agency and structure, social and cultural capital. Assuming little to no prior knowledge in this area, Greenbank provides a timely, thorough and comprehensive account of the matrix of narrative, migration and employability that is up to date with current sociolinguistic trends in theorising identity. In addition, the author’s high reflexivity vis-à-vis her positionality in the research context and throughout the micro-analysis and discussions of findings is another strong attribute of this book in that it illustrates how the researcher’s epistemological commitment to postmodern discourse analysis can (and should) be achieved in practice for any ethnographically informed study. On that note, this book is an excellent resource for scholars as well as under/postgraduate students interested in discourse analytic perspectives on narrative identities, (forced) migration and issues around employment/employability.


Bamberg, M. (2011). Who Am I? Narration and Its Contribution to Self and Identity. Theory & Psychology 21(1), 3–24.

Bamberg, M., & Georgakopoulou, A. (2008). Small stories as a new perspective in narrative and identity analysis. Text & Talk 28(3), 377–96.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood.

Bucholtz, M. & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7(4–5), 585–614.

Gee, J. P. (2015). Discourse, small d, big D. In The international encyclopedia of language and social interaction (pp. 1-5).

Greenbank, E. (2020). Discursive navigation of employable identities in the narratives of former refugees. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.


Christos Sagredos is a PhD student at the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication at King's College London. His research interests revolve around narrative analysis and the matrix of language, gender and sexuality in digital contexts.

Page Updated: 28-Apr-2021