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Review of  Language and Identity across Modes of Communication

Reviewer: Andrea Eniko Lypka
Book Title: Language and Identity across Modes of Communication
Book Author: Dwi Noverini Djenar Ahmar Mahboob Ken Cruickshank
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 27.562

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Linguistic approaches to interconnection among language, identity, and societal power structures have received significant scholarly attention; however, few studies explore these interconnections across various modes of communication. Contemporary interdisciplinary scholarship stretches the conventional linguistic orientation to identity by conceptualizing it as a perpetual social sense-making process and a struggle to articulate membership in a community of practice. Communication in traditional and informal spaces, including public speech, learning in mainstream schools or heritage language schools, is impacted by individuals’ (un)conscious ability to negotiate who they are, how they discursively validate certain positions and avow or resist socially ascribed identity positions (Davies & Harré, 1999), such as non-native speaker status, race, minority or ‘other’ status within social norms, ideologies of majority language and culture, and institutional discourses that tend to marginalize certain groups or individuals. Depending on their agency, individuals can choose to contest belonging to a community of practice by not-participating in the discourse community when marginalized by normative discourses or by choosing alternative modes of self-presentation in web-mediated, visual or artistic spaces.

Drawing from the social semiotic view of identity, the fifteen chapters in the volume edited by Dwi Noverimi Djenar, Ahmar Mahboob, and Ken Cruickshank expand the earlier language-based definition of identity to multimodal, semiotic contexts, advocating for a layered approach to examine the dynamics of identity constitution on a continuum, as opposed to viewing identity as fixed and pre-established variable. The contributors in this edited collection, faculty and scholars in the field of language and identity, recognize identity as a perpetual, strategic, relational, and multi-directional meaning-making process and action shaped by social norms and conventions, meta narratives, multimodality, style, and genre. They recognize that identity is negotiated across various modes of communication, via different modalities, and semiotic resources, in and through language. Specifically, identity-in-action emerges in various modes of communication, such as verbal (Meyerhoff, Cruickshank, Tsung, and Rubino), written (Mahboob and Wang), visual (Paltridge), or combination of modes, such as images, speech, gaming, and facial expressions (Bucholtz) or writing, layout, and speech (Lipovsky). The chapters highlight the fact that identity is both conditioned and enabled by a web of factors linked to interactional contexts, existing power relations, and social norms. Because of this interdependence, identity performance requires strategic orientation toward a set of semiotic resources.

In line with this multimodal approach to identity, authors problematize simplistic definitions of identity and uncover the complex process of constituting a language learner self while maintaining multiple identities as a student, researcher, adviser, mother, worker, or housewife, for example. Particular attention is paid to identity-in-action or identity-in-interaction; how the actions enacted by an individual to belong to a community of practice intersect with multiple other identities, languages, cultures, and geographical spaces. The chapters examine how identity is strategically negotiated in a particular time frame and in various interactional contexts, i.e., web-mediated communication, media environment, and face-to-face communication; in informal and formal modes of communication, and hybrid modalities, such as blogs (Liu), popular fiction (Noverini Djenar), women’s magazines (Jarkey), general interest magazines (Wang), editorial communications (Starfield), curriculum vitaes (Lipovsky), and Business English writing (Zhang), among other modalities. Identity is studied in relation to majority languages, such as Standard English, host-country language, such as English or Chinese, and heritage languages, such as Rarotongan (in the chapter by Cruickshank) and Bequia English (Meyerhoff) across the globe, such as Australia (Paltridge, Rubino, and Cruickshank), Caribbean (Meyerhoff), Pakistan (Mahboob), Japan (Jarkey), China (Tsung, Wang, Zhang, and Liu), Indonesia (Noverini Djenar), France (Lipovski), and the US (Bucholtz, Starfield, and Nelson). These studies associate identity with topics, including communities of practice, style, minority languages, code switching, language variation, social class, ethnicity, race, and mainstream educational norms.

In the introduction chapter, “Identity and mode as a frame for understanding social meanings”, the editors provide an overview of identity research, modes of communication, and the theoretical framework of social semiotic approach (Kress, 2001) that guides this volume. This section includes thematic and methodological evaluations of the chapters included in this volume and furthers the call for interdisciplinary approaches to identity inquiry.

The first two chapters are of particular interest for emerging scholars; these chapters synthesize identity research and discuss terminology connected to other chapters, including migrant identity, online identity, language learning, and blogging. In Chapter One, Brian Paltridge discusses visual representations of Princess Mary of Denmark and Kylie Kwong, Asian-Australian celebrity chef. His analysis of news images and of existing research on identity negotiations illustrates the socially ascribed dimension of identity embodied both in linguistic repertoires, such as labels, choice of language, proficiency, and accent and non-linguistic terms, such as clothing and makeup, to demonstrate or refute an individual’s belonging to a certain community. Drawing on the “imagined communities” and “imagined identities” concepts (Norton & Toohey, 2011) in second language acquisition classrooms, Paltridge concludes that the power of imagination and multimodality to claim membership in a community of practice can provide a more nuanced approach to identity inquiry.

From a multimodal perspective, in Chapter Two, Mary Bucholtz conceives style as a multidimensional negotiation process and action to negotiate identity. Using sample transcripts and analyses from previous research, the author demonstrates how a group of high school students construct their identities within historical, social, or political contexts, by choosing among a wide range of stylistic markers, such as voice quality, standard, super-standard or nonstandard language, clothing options, and participating in certain activities. The complex interactions among these elements create distinctive identities among groups. The adaptations of certain stylistic elements, such as designer fashion, strategically index belonging to a particular community of practice, as well as stance and expertise in the context of interaction.

Inspired by Bucholtz’ definition of style, in Chapter Three, Miriam Meyerhoff explores frequencies of the variable “be” in past tense marking and existential constructions in urban sojourners’ Bequia English, using quantitative research methods. Analysis of interviews with sixty speakers born in Bequia and field notes reveals that linguistic patterns regarding the absence or presence of the ‘be’ and past tense marking differ across groups of speakers from various villages in a Caribbean island.

In the next chapter, Ken Cruickshank examines learner identity negotiation in non-traditional learning contexts in Australia. Analysis of interviews with principals and teachers, focus group interviews with 38 students, and field notes reveal that learners at Chinese, Arabic, and Cook Island Maori heritage languages schools adopted various strategies to legitimize their membership in a community of practice or distance themselves from metadiscourses. For example, to contest racism against Asians in mainstream schools, Asian participants adopted the label “Chinese” as their ethnic and language identity marker. The more inclusive Arabic marker was used to unify students from different ethnic backgrounds in the Arabic language school. Arabic learners are reported to have used the same marker to contest repressions against minorities in mainstream schools. Students at Cook Island Maori school are reported to have developed stronger linguistic and cultural identities in the community languages schools by participating in cultural performances, such as dancing and drumming and collaborating with teachers who were less fluent in the community language, Rarotongan.

In Chapter Five, Linda Tsung uncovers Chinese language learning opportunities of South Asian migrants, in Hong Kong, using an ethnographic approach. In-depth interviews with 23 Pakistani, Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Indian students reveal that even though participants perceived learning Chinese as a means for achieving upward social mobility, their Chinese learning opportunities were stifled by teachers and peers who perceived them as less competent in Chinese, by traditional teaching methods, and by institutional discourses that devalued participants’ first languages and English language competency and emphasized participants’ lack of fluency through the “non-Chinese speaking” label.

In Chapter Six, Antonia Rubino analyzes how members of a working-class Sicilian-Australian family alternate between the two dominant languages, English and Sicilian, and the least dominant language, Italian, in multilingual verbal disputes, drawing on a conversation analytic approach (Auer, 1984) and Gumperz’s notion of code-switching (1982). The turn-by-turn analysis of mother-child disputes reveals the complexity of identity and agency-in-interaction embodied in various linguistic strategies. Family members drew on a variety of linguistic and cultural resources to perform their identities during disputes, including transforming the severity of the discussion into a joke, code-switching to invoke negative evaluations or contest identity positions, and modifying certain words, such as the Sicilian ‘fummaggiu’ to sound like the Italian ‘formaggio.’

Drawing on Systemic Functional Linguistics, Ahmar Mahboob in Chapter Seven unpacks how English language textbooks in Pakistani schools reinforce ideologies and limit access to global knowledge by including local variants of English and excluding global English from the educational curriculum. The analysis of the content and language in textbooks for grades 9 and 10 reveals that by providing more local content about local culture and national religious or military heroes and by privileging the genre of biographies, textbook discourse normalized a national religious and political identity and limited the development of alternative identities, such as global English user or academic/professional identity development.

The constitution of housewife identity in the Japanese women's magazine, The Housewife’s Companion, is investigated in Chapter Eight by Nerida Jarkey. Drawing on Bucholtz’ notion of style, Jarkey highlights example excerpts from articles published in the magazine to discuss textual strategies employed in the magazine to construct and legitimize the identity of the housewife, including the use of poetic devices, such as metaphors and simile as well as the use of honorific language to communicate the role and the persona of the housewife embodied in the labels of “self-discipline,” “care” and “practical.”

In the next chapter, Wei Wang makes the same point in her analysis of narrative identities of ordinary people in a collection of 100 most popular articles in Duzhe, a Chinese general interest magazine with a circulation of 9 million, using positioning theory (Davies & Harré, 1990). Findings reveal that the magazine employed a variety of storytelling strategies to increase its audience and construct an ordinary reader identity through educational stories. Strategies employed in stories included family-themed narratives, resolution to the conflict, reflective stance from the protagonist's standpoint, and dramatic plots predominantly related to Confucian ethics.

From a sociostylistic approach, Dwi Noverini Djenar defines writer identity as a negotiation among the writer, genre, and audience. She adopts stylistic analysis to study authorial stance in teen popular fiction in Indonesia by examining the use of different negative forms. Using interview data and a corpus of 6,000 words from two novels by Ken Terate, Noverini Djenar suggests that Terate’s choice of using different negatives is representative of her attempt to ease reading for audience and contest standard forms in teenlit.

In Chapter Eleven, Sue Starfield emphasizes the process of her writer and researcher identity negotiations in academic writing contexts. The analysis of samples of unpublished and amended texts by editors, as well as responses from editors on her encyclopaedia entry on researcher reflexivity in applied linguistics research, reveal that the two texts establish different relationships with the audience. Starfield suggests that her “non-negotiation” of use of the first person singular pronoun, “I”, in academic contexts diminishes her authorial identity: she perceives that the shift of her stance from a personal style toward a more impersonal style signifies an acceptance of academic writing norms. The reflexive stance on this non-negotiation process as well as reflections of her student advising and pedagogy transform this chapter into an ongoing reflection and contestation of academic writing norms and positivist research paradigms, revealing that such negotiations influence identity negotiations beyond the context of a research article.

Drawing on Systemic Functional Linguistics Theory, in Chapter Twelve, Caroline Lipovsky provides a case for professional identity construction in applicant curriculum vitaes (CVs) for a management position at a food company in France, arguing that the purpose of curriculum vitaes (CVs) is to strategically establish a relationship between the writer/applicant, recruiter, and discourses on profession. The comparison of CVs of participants selected for job interviews and those not selected, reveals that CVs selected for job interviews strategically utilized nominalizations, bullet points, extended qualifiers, such as adjectives and prepositions, noun forms, and bolded terms, as well as synonyms, hyponyms, repetitions, exemplifications, technical terms, a clear statement of objective, and headers to clarify specific information, emphasize experiences and skills related to the advertised position. Such strategies provide coherence, and legitimize applicants’ professional identities, as opposed to using full clauses and general language used in CVs not selected for job interviews. The author concludes that such strategic use of language creates lexical cohesion, increases the readability and clarity of information, and thus increases the possibility of an applicant to be selected for a job interview.

A Business English student’s evolving identity as an international business professional is the topic of Chapter Thirteen by Zuocheng Zhang. The analysis of the student journals, interviews, classroom observations, samples of the student’s (Nan’s) writing in business genres, and professionals’ evaluations of this student’s writing at a university in China suggests that professional identity is both reflexive and co-constructed between the individual and the social world. Through this reflective and enacted socialization process, Nan internalized specific linguistic and rhetorical resources and used these structures strategically to constitute his professional identity. During this process, Nan gained understanding of disciplinary norms and practices, genre knowledge, and developed beliefs in and awareness of what it means to be an international business professional.

In the next chapter, Jianxin Liu explores the identity development of a female migrant domestic worker in China using a virtual ethnography. Drawing on Butler’s performativity theory (1990), the author analyzes blogposts and photo collages on gender performance posted by blogger Liuman Yan and media reports on her blogging. Findings reveal the complex nature of Yan’s evolving identity as a female: blogging and using profane language created opportunities for Yan to disrupt power relations, censorship, and discourses on heteronormativity and traditional views of women.

Inspired by performativity theory, theatre studies, and arts-based methods, in the final chapter, Cynthia D. Nelson focuses on researcher identity performance in applied linguistics research. The author analyzes scripted multimodal research performances to further calls for more performative approaches that engage public audience in applied linguistics research through arts, poetry, theatre, and other participatory methods.


Taking a social semiotic approach (Kress, 2001), the authors in this edited volume, offer a comprehensive perspective on the intersections among identity, language, socialization across modes of communication. From a multidisciplinary, performance-based stance, these chapters challenge reductionist definitions of identity, culture, language, and ideology. They emphasize a nuanced approach to study interrelations between micro- and macro contexts, such as language preferences, perceived linguistic, cultural, and professional competence, family, culture, race, ethnicity, religion, learning spaces, media, and institutional discourses on language and communication, arguing that these factors shape identity positions and normalize status quo in everyday interactional contexts.

The aim of this edited book is to offer a multimodal approach to identity inquiry from an international perspective. Chapters are an essential read for educators, students, applied linguists, communication scholars, and researchers interested in identity and language. The first two chapters introduce readers to existing identity-related research and operationalize relevant definitions. The remaining chapters address identity in a variety of areas, including language learning, mundane interactions, and web-mediated communication contexts. Investigated are the discursively and semiotically constructed social identity negotiations of various groups or individuals, ranging from more visible public figures (Paltridge) to marginalised voices of ethnic minorities or individuals, such as Mexican migrant youth and high schoolers in California (Bucholtz), South Asian migrants in Hong Kong (Tsung), working class multilingual families (Rubino), school students (Mahboob), housewives (Jarkey), middle-class families (Wang), and researchers (Starfield and Nelson), among others. Findings reveal that identity is (re)enacted, (re)interpreted, and sometimes (re)inforced, depending of encoder and decoder across various cultures, modes of communication, and social contexts, such as mainstream schools, universities, media, community language centers, peer pressure, and family as well as genres, such as textbooks, women’s magazines and digests, popular fiction, business writing, academic writing, CV writing, and blogs, among others.

This collection of research highlights that identity negotiation is a struggle for both visible and less visible communities. However, identity negotiation becomes more nuanced for less visible communities, such as newcomers, migrant workers and second language learners, who might not have the linguistic and cultural capital to refute master discourses that construct them as “the other.” The focus on less visible communities, individual experiences, and identity negotiations in everyday conversations make this book insightful, as migrant language learners, community perspectives, and mundane conversational contexts remain less studied in research. For example, in-depth analyses of evolving individual identities, such as a female migrant blogger in the chapter by Liu or the professional socialization of a Business English student in the chapter by Zhang, are examined in blogs or CV writing, that blur the distinction between the voices of the creator or writer and audience or user. For language educators, some chapters provide valuable insights into the way that social experiences by second language learners mediate their second language acquisition.

The exploration of language and identity from the perspectives of the majority and minority community could be more emphasized. To include both perspectives of majority and minority community, for example, Lipovsky invites recruiters’ comments on CVs and Zhang includes comments by business professionals in his data collection procedures. Other chapters would have enriched understanding of identity negotiations by emphasizing this two way interactional process between the minority group and host society.

To account for a multimodal approach to study identity-in-action, chapters utilize a wide range of methodologies, including multi-sited video ethnography (Bucholtz), virtual ethnography (Liu), performed research (Nelson), conversation analysis (Rubino), narrative analysis (Wang), and a combination of content analysis and genre analysis (Mahboob), and discourse and narrative analyses (Zhang), among others. Some chapters provide a more in-depth examination of methodologies. For example, Meyerhoff foregrounds her study on linguistic variables from Bequia English by cautioning against privileging certain research methods in sociolinguistics. The author provides rich sociohistorical context of the Caribbean villages and clear rationale for using 100 hours of recorded interviews with sixty speakers born in Bequia and field notes in a Caribbean island to analyze frequencies of the existence of “be”, past tense marking, and existential constructions. However, methodological approaches, including analytical frameworks, could be explored more in-depth in other chapters. For example, it is unclear how analysis frameworks and codes from identity research are conceptualized in the analytical framework in the chapter by Paltridge. A more in-depth discussion on themes that emerged in the literature and data and the resulting concept maps could also enrich the methodology section of the chapter by Cruickshank. Reflexive statements about researchers’ cultural and language backgrounds as well as their insider/outsider positions related to the participants are noteworthy in the chapters by Cruickshank and Tsung, as researcher reflexivity about the research process and researcher-participant power hierarchy provides another relational dimension to identity inquiry.

Other authors point out the importance of reflecting on research paradigms and advocate for combining quantitative and qualitative methods to effectively study a phenomenon. Particularly, Meyerhoff calls for a reflexive examination of research methods and the interconnections among participant, assumptions behind methods, and semantics: “our research paradigms should be absolutely clear about what they think we are explaining, because ultimately this clarity will fine-tune the connections between what are sometimes seen as quite disparate fields of enquiry: (i) how speakers operationalize identities; (ii) the assumptions underlying different sociolinguistic research methods; and (iii) the workings of formal semantics” (p. 64). Novice researchers might find the author’s use of clear language to provide her rationale for the statistical analysis (multivariate analysis) employed in the study noteworthy.

Most chapters establish clear connections with concepts mentioned in other chapters, easing the reading process for the reader. For example, the chapters by Paltridge, Meyerhoff, and Noverini Djenar are inspired by Bucholtz’ notion of style. Other chapters explore similar concepts related to identity in different contexts. For example, race, traditional practices, language learning, and educational experiences thematically unite the chapters by Tsung and Cruickshank. A focus on linguistic strategies in magazines connects the chapters by Jarkey and Wang, and professional identity negotiations within academic genres connects the chapters by Starfield, Zhang, and Nelson.

Contributors in this book expand the examination of identity in social spaces, such as traditional learning contexts, that reinforce existing power hierarchy and against the backdrop of monolingualism, to multiple socialization contexts, such as non-traditional learning environments and mundane interactional contexts. By highlighting the importance of various learning contexts, modes of communication (spoken, written, visual, or a combination of these), media (photography), and register (language choice dependent on the situation) for identity negotiations and positions, they advocate for more nuanced micro and macro level approaches to the study of identity. In these chapters, identity as an ongoing meaning-making interactional process is examined across multiple learning contexts, traditional and nontraditional, “in-between” spaces, such as community language schools (Cruickshank), villages (Meyerhoff), or mother-children conflict talk (Rubino) that create possibilities for identity negotiations within less established power struggles among ethnicity, culture, family, generation, places of origin, and religion. For example, by examining identity negotiations in non-traditional learning environments, such as community languages schools, Cruickshank suggests that these language schools create possibilities for alternative identity positions, positions that might allow learners to contest ascribed labels in mainstream schools. For example, through the more inclusive Cook Island Maori term, traditional literacy-based language learning shifted to language learning through cultural activities, an approach that has mitigated the teacher-student power hierarchy and created opportunities for less fluent students to adopt this identity maker to preserve their culture and language. Such findings could enlighten pedagogy in mainstream education and second language acquisition as well as language policy.


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Andrea Lypka is PhD candidate in the Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology (SLA/IT) program at the University of South Florida (USF). Her research interests include learner identity, discourse analysis, and digital storytelling.