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Review of  Researching Identity and Interculturality

Reviewer: Le Chen
Book Title: Researching Identity and Interculturality
Book Author: Fred Dervin Karen Risager
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 26.2995

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


“Researching identity and interculturality,” a volume edited by Fred Dervin and Karen Risager, brings together articles written by renowned experts with a focus on qualitative methodology in the interdisciplinary field. The book is structured in four sections, in addition to the introduction and conclusion by the editors. In the opening chapter, Dervin and Risager reveal their positions in taking up intercultural research and provide an overview of how research methodology is defined in terms of five aspects: theory (contested concepts of identity, interculturality, and discourse), research methods, reflexivity and awareness of power, multilingual dimensions, and the research process in context (p. 7). The four sections following the introduction are: The first three sections present studies with a range of qualitative approaches, such as studies of interaction, narratives, conversation analysis, ethnographies, postcolonial studies, and critical discourse analysis, while the fourth section concludes the volume with a review of the basic concepts of identity and interculturality.

Section 1, “Identity and interculturality: Studying narratives.”

Section 1 consists of three chapters: Kadianaki, O’Sullivan-Lago and Gillespie’s “Identity transformations in intercultural encounters: A dialogical analysis,” Anna De Fina’s “Enregistered and emergent identities in narrative,” and Michael Baynham’s “Identity: Brought about or brought along? Narratives as a privileged site for researching intercultural identities.” All authors in this section focus on narratives by analyzing interview data while acknowledging the subjectivity of the researcher.

In the first chapter, based on the assumption of the social nature of identity, Kadianaki, O’Sullivan-Lago and Gillespie propose a methodological and analytical framework for analyzing the discourse of immigrant identity transformation in Greece. Drawing on data from in-depth interviews and focus group discussions, as well as eight months of ethnographic participatory observation in three immigrant communities, the authors followed Gillespie and Cornish’s (2010) three steps of dialogical analysis to examine how immigrant participants internalize intercultural relations, resist the voice of the other, and reposition the “self” through internalized intercultural contact, all from an intra-psychological perspective. Their findings reveal the tensions between multiple voices and processes through which individuals challenge/resist stigma imposed on them during intercultural encounters, rather than being victimized.

In the second chapter, Anna De Fina, as a sociocultural linguist, analyzes the interplay between stereotypical and emergent identities in narratives by Latin American migrant and transmigrant women in the US. As opposed to cultural essentialism and ethnic reductionism, she adopts a social constructionist paradigm in her analysis of the relationships between language and identity, highlighting the relational nature of identity making and human interaction. Drawing on notions of heteroglossia (Bakhtin, 1981) and positioning (Davies and Harre, 1990), De Fina highlights the centrality of indexicality in discourse analysis and proposes the combined use of ethnography and micro-discourse analysis as a privileged tool to explore the interconnections between the reproduction of socially established patterns and the emergence of new ones in the discursive construction of identities.

In chapter three, Michael Baynham also endorses narrative as a privileged site for researching identity which in his argument contains both ‘brought about’ and ‘brought along’ dimensions. Four characteristics in narrative are identified, including repeatability, involvement, distribution of evidential responsibility, and pragmatic and metapragmatic explicitness. Taking up an interdisciplinary approach by incorporating cultural studies, he draws on Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of habitus as well as Butler’s (1990, cited in Burke, Crowley and Girvin, 2000, p. 176) notion of repetition in identity work in terms of “the accumulation and sedimentation of identity positions through narrative” and “the performativity by which identity is contingently made and remade in discourse” (p. 73). Based on his analysis of migration narratives by means of linguistic realizations of stance, positioning and alignment, he demonstrates the case of narrative to be specifically useful in researching intercultural identity.

Section 2, “Identity and interculturality: Studying interaction and discursive contexts.”

Section 2 contains three chapters written by authors from the field of applied linguistics: Elizabeth Stokoe and Frederick Attenborough’s “Ethnomethodological methods for identity and culture: Conversation analysis and membership categorization,” Zhu Hua’s “Interculturality: Reconceptualising cultural membership and identities through translanguaging practice,” and Louise Tranekjaer’s “Discursive ethnography – A microanalytical perspective on cultural performance and common sense in student counseling interviews.” These chapters share a common objective of reconstructing the context with a focus on the analysis of linguistic interaction in natural settings.

In chapter four, Elizabeth Stokoe and Frederick Attenborough follow an ethnomethological approach to study identity and culture. Using conversation analysis and membership categorization as the analytical lens, they highlight the importance of identity categories and the ways in which cultural meanings and actions are performed. Besides, they explore two phenomena (i.e. complaints and denials) in relation to identity making and ‘categorical practices’ and reflect on the social organization of cultural knowledge by drawing on data from everyday life such as classroom and Internet forums. Further, they propose a systematic combination of conversation analysis and ethnomethological approaches to be “a warrantable method for making claims about culture” (p. 106), something that a macro-level analysis of discourses fails to present.

Zhu Hua, in chapter five, also uses membership categorization as an analytical tool to investigate the interplay between language use and socio-cultural identities in translanguaging practice. Sharing the concern on the risk of cultural essentialism in intercultural research, she problematizes the concept of cultural identity by highlighting the ways in which individuals make their cultural identities either relevant or irrelevant to interactions. Drawing on data from a conversation within a Chinese diasporic family, Zhu analyzes the participants’ cultural practices in terms of address terms, metalanguaging, multilingual creativity, and codeswitching, respectively. Her findings reflect the contingent nature of cultural memberships as “the interplay of self-orientation and ascription-by-others” (p. 119), and more importantly, the critical role translanguaging plays in constructing (dis)affiliation towards cultural memberships.

Chapter six, in a similar vein, explores cultural identity as a hybrid performance of various cultural memberships in the context of international student counseling interactions. Louise Tranekjaer advocates discursive methodology (a combination of ethnomethodology, discursive psychology and cultural studies) as the microanalytic approach to structures of meaning and ideology in face-to-face encounters. Drawing on the notions of interculturality, cultural performance and passing, the author investigates how international students and counselors negotiate and perform cultural identities, and how interculturality is “a fundamental premise of a heterogeneous social reality” (p. 145).

Section 3, “Identity and interculturality: Studying practices and discourses in local and global contexts.”

Section 3 comprises two chapters: Lise Paulsen Galal’s “Interculturality in ethnographic practice: Noisy silences” and Heidi Bojsen’s “Who decides what to develop and how? Methodological reflections on postcolonial contributions to analysis of development fieldwork.” Shifting from a linguistic perspective, both chapters perceive identity and interculturality as situated social and cultural practices in terms of local and global context.

Coming from an anthropological perspective, Lise Paulsen Galal proposes the notion of ‘methodological interculturality’ as an ethnographic practice and analytical approach. She focuses on “how to apply the interculturality of ethnographic fieldwork to the analysis” (p. 152) by examining issues of access, autoethnography and interactionism, as well as the varieties of interactions between the researcher and three interlocutors constructing Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt in different ways (i.e. the community perspective, the minority perspective, and the transnational perspective). Given the centrality of direct access to the subjective experiences of cultural ‘Others’ and their emic perspectives in traditional ethnography literature, she argues for ethnographic reflexivity (and autoethnographic sensibility) on the ethnographer’s side; that is, the ethnographer himself/herself is regarded as the methodological instrument in analyzing interactions in the field. Moreover, the researcher’s positioning, whether as outsider or insider, is viewed in a positive light, “not a disturbance but rather data-productive” (p. 166) throughout the research process, a progressive shift from the positivist paradigm which endorses maximized objectivity and minimized researcher bias in the inquiry.

Heidi Bojsen, employing a postcolonial perspective, explains why and how postcolonial reflections and critical research on development may inform each other in research on cultural diversity. The author also provides examples of methodological problems in critical development research to which postcolonial reflections are suggested as a potential solution. Based on the idea of ‘critical quantification,’ she presents a chart outlining the relevance of various epistemological and ontological concepts to practice by different agents who use specific vocabulary and syntax and communication strategies when discourse patterns arise. It can be used as a tool to scrutinize the researcher’s as well as the interlocutors’ subjective experience, not with an attempt to confirm the researcher’s assumptions, but to identify discourse patterns with an analytical and critical awareness and open up space for dialogues between the researcher and the different agents as partners in research projects.

Section 4, “Identity and interculturality: revisiting concepts and analytical foci”

The final section includes two chapters: Birgitta Frello’s “On legitimate and illegitimate blendings – Towards an analytics of hybridity” and Claire Kramsch’s “Identity and subjectivity: Different timescales, different methodologies.” In chapter nine, Birgitta Frello sets out by problematizing the notion of interculturality and transculturality and arguing that conceptual discussions should not focus on seeking the ultimate term for cultural complexity but rather on justification of its use for specific purposes. In order to develop an analytic of cultural hybridity, she firstly distinguishes ‘hybridity as displacement’ from ‘hybridity as blending,’ arguing the former is a more appropriate conceptualization as it challenges essentialism by questioning the very basis of boundary maintenance. Then she points out the importance of studying hybridity not only “as a critical perspective but also as a potential form of power in its own right” (p. 201), thus a critical reflection on one’s own perspective is crucial to the researcher in the first place. Finally she concludes that the key question in cultural hybridity is not the actual ‘blending’ itself but rather the asymmetrical power relations that lead to specific power struggles over legitimacy claims.

In Chapter ten, Claire Kramsch compares research on identity and research on subjectivity in intercultural communication at epistemological and methodological levels. She suggests the two analytic categories to be kept separate since they are informed by two different epistemological assumptions (i.e., modernist and postmodernist) to answer different questions. In author’s own words, “[w]hile identity fits into a diversity paradigm, subjectivity brings difference into the picture” (p. 217). Based on data collected from students’ essays on the topic of “What does it mean to be multilingual?”, Kramsch demonstrates how each approach can be used to analyze the same data differently. She especially highlights the importance of reflexivity in intercultural identity research and promotes Alison Phipps’ (2012) recommendations to guide her postmodernist interpretation of the students’ accounts. In her conclusion, she regards identity and subjectivity, as well as the modernist and postmodernist approaches they entail, as complementary to each other in terms of balancing the demands of research validity and reliability.

The volume ends with the Concluding Remarks where the editors summarize some key points made in previous chapters and invite readers’ further reflection on identity and interculturality research. They reiterate the importance for the researcher to explicitly address the histories and the ways polysemic concepts have been used to avoid further confusion. They also highlight the necessity of working on the hyphen between self-other by fully accounting for the social relations involved in intercultural encounters. Finally, it is beneficial to expand the notion of context and local interaction to include wider social processes and discourses in order to understand how these conditions both enable and constrain the subjectivity of interlocutors.


The importance attached to the concepts of identity and interculturality has been reflected on in a growing wealth of journal articles, books, and anthologies that have addressed various aspects of cultural identity and intercultural interactions in foreign or second language teaching and learning (e.g., Alfred, Byram, and Fleming, 2003; Hall, 2002; Jackson, 2013; Kramsch, 1998, 2000; Kubota and Lin, 2009; Le Baron-Earle, 2013; Scollon and Scollon, 1995). Likewise, this stimulating volume engages the complexity of the interdisciplinary perspective of intercultural encounters and has successfully achieved its goal of exploring a range of interrelated theories and qualitative approaches that inform the research on identity, discourse and interculturality.

In this broad context of globalization, knowledge is perceived as highly situated, dynamic and diverse (Appadurai, 1990). In a similar vein, all chapters in this volume reject an essentialist conceptualization of cultures as relatively stable and homogeneous systems of norms, but see culture and cultural practices as dynamic and context sensitive. Also criticized is a static and essentialist understanding of self as regulated by social environment rather than autonomous agents. Besides, since the validity of data is no longer reliant on the yardstick of objectivity but the researcher’s reflexivity, subjectivity is mostly recognized not as a potential obstacle to be screened for in order to maximize objectivity of data but is valued and promoted in generating meaning negotiated between the researcher and the interlocutor (a term sensitive to the power relations involved and indicative of the partnership between). Here, the participant is not simply seen as an informant of a single reality of the research site, but a partner who co-constructs multiple versions of reality interactively with the research (Gubrium and Holstein, 2003), as demonstrated in Lise Paulsen Galal’s study (chapter 7) and Heidi Bojsen’s article (chapter 8).

In spite of the shared understanding of cultural essentialism, the authors differ in their epistemological and ontological positions in intercultural research as they reflect on how the philosophical and ideological assumptions are associated with the theories, research design, and analytic approaches selected for their studies. The final chapter by Claire Kramsch, for example, takes up a postmodernist perspective on subjectivity and sees language as social construction, as opposed to Kadianaki, O’Sullivan-Lago and Gillespie’s position in the first chapter that sees identity qualities in intra-psychic representations as existing prior to and beyond conversational contexts (p. 33).

In addition, the volume has successfully managed to clarify conceptual confusion caused by different definition and varied use of certain concepts or notions in a field as fragmented and contested as intercultural communication. In her critical examination of identity and subjectivity in the study of communication across cultures in chapter 10, Claire Kramsch vigorously seeks to clarify this conceptual confusion by arguing the former is informed by the modernist stance while the latter is influenced by the postmodern position. Although this comparison may not achieve a consensus within the field that is already highly contested, it at least lays the groundwork to avoid further confusion or misinterpretation in her study.

While this volume presents a synthesis of powerful ideas particularly vital for identity and intercultural work, some limitations remain. In terms of the theoretical frameworks, while most authors follow a poststructuralist line of inquiry and explicitly acknowledge their ontological positions, few provide reflection on what insights may be offered by alternative worldviews (e.g., postpositivism) nor justify the exclusion of such perspectives. Such worldviews may be seen as fundamentally different thus incommensurable with poststructuralist inquiries. However, much as positivist theories are criticized for their macro-sociological persuasion, poststructuralist theories are challenged for their micro-sociological perspectives (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison, 2011). Therefore there is need to acknowledge the wealth of knowledge that can be produced in identity and intercultural research informed by different paradigms.

In addition to a tendency to theoretical polarization and incommensurability hypothesis, the methodological frameworks adopted in the studies in this book also seem to neglect the rich possibilities that quantitative methodology and mixed methods research can bring about. Situated within qualitative methodology, the chapters included in this volume are categorized and divided into sections that focus on different aspects of identity and interculturality research: narratives (chapters 1, 2, 3), linguistic interactions (chapters 4, 5, 6), ethnographies (chapters 7, 8), and critical reviews of theoretical concepts and analytics (chapters 9, 10). However, while qualitative methodology is transformative in identity and human interaction work and the approaches are well justified in the studies, it would be beneficial for the volume as a whole to explore diverse ways in which quantitative and qualitative methodologies can be complementarily and systematically combined (Creswell and Plano Clark, 2008; Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2009). The tendency to polarize research into either quantitative or qualitative approach can be neither meaningful nor productive (Denscombe, 2008; Moss, 2005).

In sum, this volume coherently integrates articles that articulately shed light on core concepts, significant controversies and new directions in the field and offer expertise, insight, and resources for teaching and learning identity and intercultural encounters in the broad context of globalization. It is an engaging and useful reading for scholars and graduate students in multiple disciplines such as applied linguistics, cultural studies, and international education.

Acknowledgements: This work is supported by the Ontario Graduate Scholarships and the National Social Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 14BYY045).


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Le Chen is a PhD candidate in Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Western Ontario. She is also a lecturer in Shanghai Maritime University. Her main scholarly interests are related to language socialization across bilingual and multilingual settings, mixed research methods in applied linguistics, and sociocultural, sociolinguistic, and sociopolitical aspects of language(s) in education.

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