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Review of  Language, Identity and Symbolic Culture

Reviewer: Roxana Birsanu
Book Title: Language, Identity and Symbolic Culture
Book Author: David Evans
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 32.30

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“Language, Identity and Symbolic Culture” is a collection of 12 articles, organized into four sections, which cover different areas of the topic that makes the focus of the book, namely the intricate relationships between language and culture and the impact the former has on the formation of identity. The articles are preceded by a list of illustrations and the volume closes with notes on the contributors and an index. Each part is introduced by an intervention of the editor, who makes brief summaries of the respective papers.


Part I (“Language and Identity: A Theoretical Perspective”) comprises three articles, all signed by David Evans, who is also the volume editor. In the Introduction, Evans presents the main thesis of the volume (the relationships between language, identity and culture, with emphasis on the influence of language on identity formation/manifestation) and makes some succinct comments on the component articles. In “Meaning: From Inner Structure to Post-Structure”, the author makes a diachronic review of modern linguistic models with an emphasis on how these distinct perspectives on language have shaped the concept of identity. Thus, he starts from Descartes, goes through Chomsky’s cartesian linguistics and the constructivists’ idea that language development is socially dependent, and finally explores Bakhtin’s view of identity as a process which mixes otherness and self-awareness. The structuralism of Saussure continues the theory that language is constructed socially, but that meaning takes shape in the mind, while Derrida’s deconstruction advances the idea of plural identities and that one’s voice actually consists of those of others. The other article signed by Evans. “Discourse Formation”, deals with various definitions of discourse. Although Saussure does not use the word ‘discourse’ per se, he claims that language is more than a mere association of words. As the focus of the paper is on the connection between discourse and identity, Evans quotes Bakhtin for whom language and discourse is the manifestation of identity as a blend of self and other. Ideological discourse is also mentioned in the context of Fairclough’s discourse typology: socio-economic, institutional and interactional, while in close connection with the concept of ideology and power he quotes Bourdieu on the idea of language as symbolic capital and the potential source of conflict and tension between center and margin. Finally, he emphasizes two of Foucault’s highly important tenets: that language is never objective, but ideologically inscribed, and that discourse analysis if valid only if considered in context.

Part II (“Urban Discourses”) consists of two papers, Christopher Anderson’s “DFLs versus Locals’: Discursive Conflict on Social Media and the Battle for Regional Identity” and Patricia Giardiello’s “Youth Identities: Media Discourse in the Formation of Youth”. Both papers analyze discourse in two sociocultural contexts in the UK as a potential source of conflict and social marginalization. In Anderson’s article, the focus is on the discourse of ‘gentrification’ – a process under which poorer regions of a country are ‘rediscovered’ mainly by artists due to their beautiful, yet cheap accommodation and proximity to large cities. Starting from an online article praising the regeneration of Margate due to Londoners’ intervention, the author identifies the ‘hipster’ type of discourse that generates a locals – non-residents binary. The antagonism self-other, visible here at discourse level, generates a conflict stemming from differences of cultural identity in terms of class and region. Giardiello’s paper, also embedded in the British sociocultural context, looks into how the media discourse impacts identity formation in teenagers and how, in turn, they make use of it to create their image of the self. Relying on Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and Marcia’s identity status paradigm, Giardiello presents the findings of a small-scale study on ten teenage students, focus falling on identity development and the enhancement of self-other relationships following the use of technological devices and the degree to which the media influences the outcome of young people’s quest for identity.

Part III (“Marginalized Discourse”) is made of four papers, two signed by Henry Kum, “Language-Culture: Marginalization or Opportunity in Cameroon’s Official ‘State Bilingualism’” and “Refugee Communities: The Disappearance of Voice and Impact on Care and Identity”, one authored by Joseph Mundananikkal Thomas, “Subalterity, Language and Projects of Emancipation: An Analysis of Dalit Literature”, and a fourth one entitled “Mandarin Chinese in Education and Society in Xinjiang”, signed by Mamtimyn Sunuodula. The focus of this third part is the power relationship between languages and cultures, the key words here being hierarchy, marginalization and resistance – attempts, more or less successful, of language-cultures in controlling positions to dominate and marginalize minority ones. This is very clearly illustrated in the first paper signed by Henry Kum, which tackles the issue of dominance between two presumably equal official state languages, i.e. French and English, in Cameroon. Taking a historico-sociological stand, Kum brings to the fore the language situation in postcolonial Cameroon, insisting on a conflict that seems to hinder the formation of a linguistic identity in this highly diversified multicultural and, thus, multilingual country. The rich linguistic fabric of Cameroon, with over 270 local languages, is dominated by French and English, the two official languages that make the country a bilingual state. Although ensured equal status of power under the Constitution, English and French are treated differently in the state apparatus. As revealed by this paper, the word ‘conflict’ describes best the relationships between the above-mentioned languages at two levels – there is tension between the use and prestige associated with the official languages and the local ones, but also in the relation between the two official languages themselves, French being given prominence over English. In this light, Anglophones claim to be the subject of marginalization and even stigmatization, against which they are fighting in a vehement manner which also takes the form of reactions and violent protests. The author’s conclusion is a recommendation towards a reappraisal of the language policy of Cameroon which considers multilingualism instead of official bilingualism.

The second paper signed by Henry Kum, “Refugee Communities: The Disappearance of Voice and Impact on Care and Identity” addresses the way in which the anti-immigration rhetoric has silenced refugees’ voices with a direct effect on identity expression within these socially, emotionally and economically sensitive communities. Starting from the assumption that, because of stereotypical approaches, refugees have been negatively labeled and homogenized particularly in the media of recent years, he looks into a number of case studies (based in USA, UK and Scotland) that focus on how the voice and image of refugees are shaped and conditioned by the views of the host community. Following his analysis, he draws the conclusion the forced voicelessness of refugees has as a direct consequence a lower standard of care and fewer rights that those to which they are entitled. In “Subalternity, Language and Projects of Emancipation: An Analysis of Dalit Literature”, Joseph Mundananikkal Thomas takes a closer look at Dalit literature as a still marginalized, though increasingly visible branch of Indian literature. After a brief presentation of the caste system and the place of Dalists therein, the author presents a series of specific features of Dalit literature which set it apart from mainstream Indian literature. Relying on Bhabha’s notion of “third space”, Thomas sets to demonstrate that despite their forced marginalized status within national literature, Dalit writings suggest the formation of a new sense of the self in the space between “collaboration and contestation” (p. 169), a novel identity image of a minor culture making its way towards recognition by the dominant one.

The last paper in this part, “Mandarin Chinese in Education and Society in Xinjiang”, authored by Mamtimyn Sunuodula, gives an account of the recent language policy in Xinjiang and its impact on the reflection of regional identity in the tension between the dominant Han culture and the minority Uyghur culture. Under a national policy of linguistic centralization, in Xianjing, a region mainly inhabited by an Uyghur population, speaking preponderantly their regional language, the government gradually, but firmly, imposed Mandarin Chinese as a language of instruction, relegating the language and culture of the Uyghurs to a second plan. The so-called ‘bilingual education’ policy was actually a means to force the local population to abandon their native culture and language under economic and social pressures. Relying on Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic capital and language domination and on his personal research on identity reflection among young Uyghur people, the author demonstrates that this linguistic reform is actually a concealed form of propaganda and, under the guise of prospective economic development, its true aim is to subordinate the local culture and language to the dominant Han practices, which creates tension as the Uyghurs consider language a significant part of their ethnic identity.

The last part (“Pedagogical Discourse”) consists of three articles: “Cultural Discourses in the Foreign Language Classroom: Economic Opportunity, Instrumental Motivation or Cultural Understanding”, by David Evans, “Teacher Development through Classroom Discourse Analysis: The Self-Evaluation of Teacher Talk Instrument Developed by Walsh”, signed by Karin Zotzmann, and “Conclusion: A Pedagogy for Marginalized Language-Culture” signed also by David Evans. In the first paper, Evans approaches the manner in which foreign language classroom discourses and the discourses of ampler social frameworks collaborate in the formation of learner identity, starting from the assumption that the pedagogic activity is inscribed within larger sociocultural ideologies. He gives an account of learner identity from three perspectives: Kramsch’s intercultural view of language learning as a means for the creation of a ‘third culture’, Dorneyi and Ushioda’s paradigm of the future self benefiting the present language learning process, and Norton’s socio-economic approach to language learning as the acquisition of ‘cultural capital’. The author also presents the findings of his own research on the connection between learner identity and the meanings ascribed to language learning by secondary school students. The data reveal two types of learner identity: one that associates language learning with familiarization with cultural differences, and another which views language acquisition as a means to obtain material gains. Zotzmann’s paper represents an appraisal of a methodological approach called SETT – the self-evaluation of teacher talk, designed by Welsh for the purpose of assisting teachers in becoming aware of their classroom behavior or the adequacy of their discourse to their pedagogic aims. Zotzmann conducted a SETT study comprising four Spanish teachers, the findings of which revealed that SETT is valuable in providing a metalanguage useful for teachers to analyze their pedagogical practice and improve it. However, this instrument fails to take into account context factors and the fact that learning is actually a product of the interaction between instruction participants and their environment. That is why Zotzmann proposes instead an ecological view of pedagogy which also considers the influence on this process of the larger social framework, which provides further value to and insight into the classroom discourse analysis.

In the concluding chapter, “Conclusion: A Pedagogy for Marginalized Language-Culture”, the volume editor David Evans sums up the main ideas explored in the volume papers. In addition, he revisits the notion of identity from the perspective of Bourdieu’s structuralism and his concept of symbolic capital, and Derrida and Foucault’s post-structuralist approaches that view identity as an ongoing process. He further reiterates the huge importance of discourse in the formation of identity, which is deeply embedded in social structures and systems and concludes with a plea for a critical pedagogy in Freire’s vein, which should settle linguistic and cultural imbalances and restore status to marginalized minority language-cultures.


Language, Identity and Symbolic Culture is a valuable resource for undergraduates and researchers in various fields of study, as it proposes a cross-disciplinary approach to the so current issues of identity, language and culture. Therefore, any person with an interest in power studies, linguistics, sociology, education or communication will find the book useful on two levels, as Part I provides a theoretical framework of the above-mentioned topics, while the remaining parts discuss specific case studies that illustrate the intricate relations established among them. The List of contributors at the end reveals that the authors of the articles are specialists in these areas of instruction, which vouches for the authority and competence of their input. The book achieves its goal announced by the editor in the Introduction, as it successfully manages to “explore the interwoven connections between language, identity and symbolic culture” (p. 3).

The central idea that crosses the volume like a red thread is that of discourse – that is, language in context – and how it can be used in the formation and manifestation of identity, but also to more ideologically loaded purposes such as the imposition of a dominant language-culture onto local ones. The volume is well-organized and coheres both due to the topics covered and to the cited works, since the theoretical scaffolding of most papers is constructed on the works of acclaimed authors in the fields of identity studies, power studies or communication such as P. Bourdieu, M. Foucault. M. Bakhtin or H. Bhabha. The two major fields of study approached in this volume are media discourse and discourse as the topos of tension between languages and cultures that share the same national area. From among the papers covering the former topic, Anderson’s article, although slightly subjective, makes good use of a case study to demonstrate that media discourse can be a powerful influencing tool. In the latter category of topics, both Kum’s articles are well-written, thoroughly documented and the points are rigorously demonstrated.

One strength of the volume resides in its topicality. In the last decades, intercultural exchanges have been one of the major coordinates of our world, with people from various cultural and educational backgrounds interacting along the personal-professional axes. In this context, issues pertaining to the inevitable conflicts and tensions arising from variations of and gaps in terms of expectations, knowledge and cultural and linguistic awareness seem to be more current than ever. In this light, Part III – “Marginalized Discourse” – seems to be the most intriguing and compelling. The marginalization of local cultures and languages under the pressure of the dominant ones as indicated in the case studies referring to Cameroon and China and the attempts at resisting such forced assimilation and devaluation illustrate an awareness of the power of language to dominate, but also to assist the survival of identity. The same is valid about the red flag raised by Henry Kum related to refugees’ increasing loss of voice and, with it, of visibility and rights.

The book stimulates further research particularly in the areas of media discourse and its impact on the formation/reflection/manifestation of local identity and youth identity, but also in the domain of imbalances that occur when a dominant language-culture, to use Evans’ s term, intersects with a minority one. This is all the more relevant due to the dynamics of such relations and encounters, as people are constantly on the move and, unfortunately, not all encounters are beneficial to all the parties involved. Likewise, refugee discourse (or lack thereof) would definitely benefit from more attention from researchers, as this form of forced migration will most likely continue to be part of the social fabric of our world.
Roxana Ștefania Bîrsanu is a lecturer and is currently teaching English for Specific Purposes and Romanian as a Foreign Language at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest, Romania. She holds a PhD in Translation Studies, which she obtained at the University of Salamanca, Spain. Her research interests mainly encompass Romanian translations from modernist Anglo-American literature, translation norms in the Romanian literary system, and intercultural communication. She has published numerous translations of French and English works, both fiction and non-fiction, and has co-authored textbooks on general and business communication in English.

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