Identity in Communicative Contexts

by Kamila Ciepiela (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 224 Pages
Series: Łódź Studies in Language, Volume 48


The central focus of the book is the identification of the ways people engage in communicative encounters to (re)constitute personal and social identities. Its aim is to identify some principal themes that have emerged from the ample research on identity in a variety of contexts. A common thread of the articles is the role of language in the construction and performance of identities. It embraces an exploration of the sociocultural environments in which human communication takes place, the interplay between these environments, and the construction and display of identities through our communicative performances. Research located in a range of literary, sociological, psychological and linguistic perspectives is used to illustrate the potential of communication in establishing a sense of identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Explorations of the issue of identity in communicative contexts: Themes and methods
  • Intersectional identities in interpersonal communication
  • A pair of ovaries or a butterfly: Bodily femininity of women with Turner’s syndrome
  • Language, leadership and visibility in online discussions
  • Emotion-identity management through talk: Anger talk in young Israeli men’s accounts on a negative experience
  • Stereotype-based representations of national identity in signed communication
  • Functions of diglossic and Arabic/English code-switching in identity construction on Egyptian television
  • Issues of identity and ‘otherness’ in relation to accent and language in an intercultural learning context
  • Global citizenship: An education or an identity?
  • Eric Berne’s Games People Play, the phatic and rhetoric modes of speech, and the “two to one dialogue” situation in Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party
  • Identity as argumentation: Argumentation as identity
  • Cherry’s contribution to the rhetorical theory for self-representation: ethos and persona. Does the ‘real’ self of the writer exist?
  • ‘The prologue of my story’ – positioning of selves in re-told migration stories
  • Redundancy as a tool for identity-creation – the narration scenes in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his brothers

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Kamila Ciepiela
University of Łódź, Poland

Explorations of the issue of identity in communicative contexts: Themes and methods

In his presidential address at the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), in New York on May 28, 2005, Wolfgang Donsbach argued:

Any account of a state of a discipline is limited in scope and is biased. It is limited because the field grows faster than the capacity of the average scholar to process and digest new information and thus keep an overview. And it is – by default – biased because people differ in what they think is good and what they think is relevant research. (Donsbach 2006: 437).

Therefore, this volume, by no means, is to be taken as a complete or exhaustive account of research related to identity in communicative contexts. It sits alongside other titles, but looks at the process of communication primarily through the lens of identity projects people aim to accomplish.

The central focus of the studies presented in the volume becomes the identification of means and ways people employ in their communicative encounters in the (re)constitution of our personal and social identities and those of others. The aim is to identify some of the principal themes to have emerged from the ample research on identity in a variety of contexts. The book begins with a general outline of current scholarly approaches to the issue of identity and then identifies some key themes in the fieldwork, and finishes with an interpretation of what all this means for a research on identity agenda.

In a nutshell, its goal is to show how identity research is expanding to cover new ground, and being adapted to address a variety of specific identity dimensions and contexts, research objectives, and populations examined.

How communication and identity criss-cross

Numerous scholars emphasise that in communication, apart from conveying messages, people accomplish other goals, of which the most prominent one is identity construction and performance. As Stella Ting-Toomey (1999: 26) notes: “individuals acquire their identities via interaction with others” and several perspectives from the disciplines of psychology, sociology and linguistics have been ← 7 | 8 → influential in exploring the links between social interaction and the construction and performance of identity.

Despite the fact that people communicate by employing a variety of semiotic codes (mimicry, kinesics, drawings, colours, etc.), language is understood as the basic means of communication. Linguists, however, highlight the dual function of language in human life. Language is not only the most efficient means of expression but also a tool for meaning representation.

The view of language as an ability of the individual, firmly located within the mind and abstracted from experience, and the view of language as a means of interaction with others have given rise to a pervasive dualism in which oppositions are set between the individual and the group, and which has permeated not only psychological and cognitive theories of language and the self, but also the interactionally oriented ones.

From one perspective, identity is seen to be established and maintained either through negotiation within social situations, or through social roles that are internalized by the individuals. These internalizations can take the shape of a prototypical self in the form of an image, a self-schema or a category. A convenient way of thinking about such categories is in terms of a central exemplar (Rosch 1978) whose meaning as Taylor (1989) argues, can be interpreted as a schematic representation of the core of the category that is used on different occasions.

Perhaps the clearest example of the approaches to identity that parallel the cognitive-psychological theories of language is the Social Categorisation Theory (SCT) (Turner et al. 1987). It is based on Rosch’s (1978) work on natural categories in which category formation is driven by perceptual processing of real life data. Turner, however, assumes that categories are not only conceptual but also verbal, which means that they are used in interactions whereby they are subject to alternations. Despite the fact that identity categories are psychological structures, they also “have a social reality by virtue of their relation to social groups” (Widdicombe 1998: 193). SCT advocates argue that individuals are born into a society, upon which they are ascribed specific social categories. With time, they develop awareness of these social categories and they may become aspects of their self-concept. In this way, identity acquires a real psychological reality and becomes an aspect of the self-concept.

In a similar vein but with a greater emphasis on the interactional aspects of identity construction, Ting-Toomey (1999: 28) points out that “[n]o individual person develops a sense of self in a vacuum…Both social identity and personal identity are acquired and developed within the larger webs of culture”. Within these webs are to be found definitions, evaluations and expectations of social ← 8 | 9 → identities along with the ideologies that underpin them, though these are subject to change and may be resisted. Gee (2001: 99) adds that “identity is connected not to internal states but to performances in society”. More specifically, he claims, the “kind of person” one is recognised as being at a given time and place, can change from moment to moment in the interaction, can change from context to context, and, of course, can be ambiguous or unstable. In this modern view, identity is recognised as a certain kind of person in a given context. In that sense all people have multiple identities, “connected to their performances in society” (Gee 2001: 99), and language, alongside other codes, is used as the means of identity expression and performance.

The argument that identity is not a universal entity but a culturally specific discursive construction is grounded in the antirepresentationalist understanding of language whereby it does not act as a mirror able to reflect an independent objective world, but is better understood as a tool that people use to achieve their purposes (Rorty 1979). Within this range of post-modern theories, neither identity nor language use is a fixed notion; both are dynamic, depending upon time and place (Norton Pierce 1995). How people perceive themselves changes with their community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998), allowing them multiple identities over the years or even within a day. Because “social life is messy and speakers’ memberships shift depending upon the specific contexts in which they are engaged” (Moore 2010: 133), identities are not stable but fluid and prone to change with changing contexts.

The poststructuralist approaches to identity focus on contexts in which participants have to choose between codes, languages or varieties of a language, and in which an individual’s identity orientation may shift from moment to moment. In this sense, many identities may be articulated in a given context, in which case there will be a number of identity shifts and possible conflicts between competing identities. As Omoniyi (2006: 13) notes: “[t]he identity category that is perceived from, or projected through, language behaviour is the consequence of moment-by-moment factor-driven decisions about appropriateness and position of that category in a hierarchy of identities”. She, however, admits that identities are not only shaped in immediate interactional contexts since people are, at any moment of their life, being engaged in varied cultural domains “laden with meaning within established social systems” (ibid.).

Volume overview

This volume contributes to the understanding of the issue of identity through an interdisciplinary approach that intersects anthropology, linguistics, sociology, ← 9 | 10 → literature and education. Even so, in calling on these various disciplines, the authors do so always in the pursuit of the participants’ perspectives on the way that identity is culturally and/or situationally achieved by and through discursive practices. Since any person’s world is made up of many ways of interacting, it must follow that various semiotic codes, media of interaction and contexts can shape their big and small social worlds. In this sense, their means of communication are integral to the process of accomplishing their cultural, situated and transportable identities (Zimmerman 1998).

The book embraces an exploration of the sociocultural environments in which human communication takes place, the interplay between these environments, and the construction and display of identities through our communicative performances. Research located in a range of literary, sociological, psychological and linguistic perspectives is used to illustrate the potential of communication to contribute to the challenge of forging a sense of identity.

Because of the multitude of approaches and methodologies employed by the authors of the articles, the book defies any taxonomic organisation. Nevertheless, a common thread underlying the sequence of the articles in the book can be dissected: it is language and the role of linguistic forms in the construction, negotiation and performance of identities. Other ways to map the variety of articles of the volume could start with different modes, types and forms of discourse: from oral to written, from face-to-face conversation to public encounters, from everyday talk to structured and formal interviews, from real to virtual and CMC, from narrative to rhetorical.

The volume opens with a chapter by Alex Frame who focuses on theoretical and methodological issues pertinent to the analysis of identities and the appropriateness of theoretical constructs for the study of aspects of identity. Frame argues against the essentialist and dichotomising accounts of the relationship between identities and behaviour. He calls for an approach to identity that would take into account multiple identities, and the multiple cultures and sites in which identities are constructed and interactionally performed; an approach that would take into account several identities at a time. He suggests that a major weakness of many accounts of identity up till now is their focus on one facet of identity in one particular context. While he admits that “identities in interactions” frameworks appreciate the investigation into how individuals are trying to manage the unity of the different identities simultaneously activated in interaction, he questions the value of such post factum analysis as having “little bearing on the phenomenological intersubjectivity of the interaction itself” (Frame, this volume). ← 10 | 11 →

He claims that each identity as a socially-recognisable construct can be expressed with certain traits that any individual must be composed of. These traits are managed in human interactions, while simultaneously interactants are trying consciously or unconsciously to maintain coherence and pursue various goals through the intersubjective encounter itself. Individuals do not focus on a single identity; rather they estimate how the envisaged behaviour might be assessed in the light of various ongoingly activated identities. They may aim to choose traits which are compatible with the most possible activated identities or those most desirable and aimed at in an interaction.

Kamila Ciepiela’s paper resonates with Frame’s article in the sense that it views individuals not just as members of a particular category (Turner’s syndrome individual), but as complex persons both unique and belonging to several categories. She aims to analyse feminine identities that emerge from social media contributions made by women with Turner’s syndrome. By looking more closely at the components of various identities, and the way TS individuals seek to position themselves and are positioned by others, she argues that TS femininities are not only biologically based and constructed by dominant discourses, but also created by TS women themselves who actively engage in gendered self-creation.

Adopting CDA approach, Ciepiela analyses a number of stories shared on internet fora and blogs by TS women, with which she manages to present certain tendencies in the kinds of identities sought after and performed by TS subjects. Her analysis reveals that TS women look for ways to integrate conflicting and competing ideologies of humanity and femininity. One image of a TS individual that emerges from the texts is that of a sexless, meagre and faulty human being. Nonetheless, there are also two versions of feminine identity surfacing in the texts. On the one hand, a stereotypical female identity transpires, i.e., a woman who is helpless, dependent and other-centred. And on the other hand, TS’s feminine identity is displayed as provocative, potent, and dynamic.

In her chapter, Barbara Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk makes an attempt to identify patterns of dominance and leadership in online discussions of newspaper articles referring to political and social matters. On the basis of contrastive analysis of English and Polish comments, she aims to discover the main factors that can impact on the process. Considering the absence of visual cues in internet exchanges, she argues that linguistic and discourse are the main strategies employed by the interactants in CMC. She further hypothesises that leaders in online discussions are efficient users and adaptors of relevant discourse strategies that enable them to “convey signals of identity marking and achieve CMC visibility” (Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk this volume). ← 11 | 12 →

Formulating the Compensation Hypothesis (the use of all linguistic resources the commentator has at their disposal to compensate for the lack of direct visible clues), Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk assumes that leaders in online discussions employ both quantitative and qualitative discourse resources that contribute to the commentator’s identity profile marking.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (October)
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 224 pp., 14 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Kamila Ciepiela (Volume editor)

Kamila Ciepiela is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Łódź, Poland. Her research interests span issues of the self and identity and how those are embedded in different discourse practices. She is particularly interested in linguistic performances of the self and the analysis of situated identity performance.


Title: Identity in Communicative Contexts