Discursive Construction of Bicultural Identity

A Cross-Generational Sociolinguistic Study on Oromo-Americans in Minnesota

by Oromiya-Jalata Deffa (Author)
©2016 Thesis 233 Pages


The author examines the cultural identity development of Oromo-Americans in Minnesota, an ethnic group originally located within the national borders of Ethiopia. Earlier studies on language and cultural identity have shown that the degree of ethnic orientation of minorities commonly decreases from generation to generation. Yet oppression and a visible minority status were identified as factors delaying the process of de-ethnicization. Given that Oromos fled persecution in Ethiopia and are confronted with the ramifications of a visible minority status in the U.S., it can be expected that they have retained strong ties to their ethnic culture. This study, however, came to a more complex and theory-building result.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 Emergent cultural identities in a globalized world
  • 1.2 Earliest studies on language and social identity construction
  • 1.3 Studies on language and cultural identity
  • 1.4 Outlook on methodological approaches to assess cultural identity via language
  • 1.5 Triangulation of methods applied in this study
  • 2. Context – The Oromos
  • 2.1 The particular situation of Oromos
  • 2.2 Cultural heterogeneity and ethnic orientation of Oromos
  • 3. Theoretical framework
  • 3.1 Reification of aspects of “identity” in a constructionist analysis
  • 3.2 Social Constructionist accounts of identity
  • 3.3 Difference between natural and constructed qualities
  • 3.4 Social constructionist accounts of knowledge generation
  • 3.5 Essentialist misconceptions of culture and identity
  • 3.6 Validity and applicability of relativist analyses
  • 3.7 Usage-based approaches towards the discursive construction of cultural identity
  • 4. Methodology
  • 4.1 Methods of data collection
  • 4.1.1 Triangulation of data – the corpus
  • 4.1.2 Setup of informants
  • 4.1.3 Representativity – balancing social parameters
  • 4.1.4 Recruiting of informants
  • 4.1.5 Interview structure
  • 4.1.6 Observer’s Paradox (Labov)…
  • 4.2 Methods of data analysis
  • 4.2.1 Triangulation of methods
  • 4.2.2 Quantitative analysis
  • 4.2.3 Qualitative analysis
  • 5. Quantitative data analysis
  • 5.1 Indexicality: pronoun analysis and identification
  • 5.2 Quantitative findings – pronoun distribution (“We-” and “They-groups”)
  • 5.2.1 “We” in reference to Oromos in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.2.2 “We” in reference to Americans in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.2.3 “They” in reference to Oromos in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.2.4 “They” in reference to Americans in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.2.5 Influence of other social parameters on pronoun distribution
  • 5.2.6 “We” in reference to Ethiopians in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.2.7 “They” in reference to Habeshas/Ethiopians in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.3 Ethnic orientation and lexical variation
  • 5.3.1 Frequency of “Oromumma” in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.3.2 Frequency of “back home” in a cross-generational comparison
  • 5.4 Discussion of the quantitative findings
  • 6. Qualitative data analysis: Conceptual metaphors (CMAs), conceptual metonymies (CMOs), and tactics of intersubjectivity
  • 6.1 Conceptual metaphors (CMAs) in the interviews
  • 6.2 Conceptual metonymies (CMOs) in the interviews
  • 6.2.1 Examples of cultural stereotyping via CMOs referring to Habesha-Ethiopians
  • 6.2.2 Negative generalizations of Habesha-Ethiopians via totum pro parte CMOs
  • 6.2.3 Positive generalizations of Oromos via totum pro parte CMOs
  • 6.2.4 Positive self-positionings as Oromos via CMOs and adequation
  • 6.2.5 Idealizations of Oromo culture via totum pro parte CMOs in the context of illustrative anecdotes – by second-generation informants
  • 6.2.6 Idealizations of Oromo culture via totum pro parte CMOs – by first-generation informants
  • 6.2.7 Construction of distance to the own community via totum pro parte CMOs
  • 6.3 Summary of major findings related to CMOs & CMAs
  • 6.4 Tactics of intersubjectivity – adequation and distinction
  • 6.4.1 Self-positionings as mono-cultural Oromos
  • 6.4.2 Self-positionings without adequation with Oromos – the second generation
  • 6.4.3 Hybridization or distinction from Oromos - the second generation
  • 6.4.4 Adequation of the second generation with Americans (intra-group distinction)
  • 6.4.5 Summary of the findings on the second generation
  • 6.4.6 Discussion of empirical findings
  • 7. Conclusion
  • 8. Appendix
  • 8.1 Demographics of informants
  • 8.2 Transcription symbols
  • 8.3 Glossay of Oromo-related terms
  • 8.4 Interview log
  • 8.5 Self-report questionnaire
  • 9. References

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1. Introduction

1.1 Emergent cultural identities in a globalized world

Despite the fact that social scientists have given their best attention to providing evidence for the constructed and dynamic nature of social categories for more than 30 years, it is striking how people still hold on to essentialist views on concepts such as ‘culture’ and ‘identity’. Especially regarding nation-states with influxes of people from all over the world, the fact that identities (just as languages) cannot remain stable - but are in a constant state of flux – has proven not only to be a theoretical prediction but the practical truth.

Through mass migration and globalization, more and more people experience cultural and linguistic contact. The clashes and persistent encounters of different cultures have brought along hybrid identities – somewhere in between two or multiple worlds. Since culture, identity and language are directly linked to each other, emerging hybrid identities are mirrored in the ways people use language. However, language not only reflects identity but also functions as an effective means of identity and reality construction. On that account, researchers can use language as a tool to investigate which social groups and cultures speakers identify with. One of the most prominent examples for the interplay of hybrid identities and languages is the emergence of Spanglish in America. While its speakers systematically code-switch between two different languages – English and Spanish – the linguistic hybridity of Spanglish indicates and reinforces the biculturalism of its speakers.

Understandably, as ever more cultures and languages merge, fewer monomodels of culture and language correspond to everyday reality. In fact, the degree to which cultures, ethnicities and languages are being merged in post-modern societies has led to the necessity of rethinking traditional concepts of culture and ← 11 | 12 → cultural identity - away from essentialist understandings and towards a cultural relativist and constructionist notion of culture as a “systematic body of learned behavior” (Mead, 1958)1.

Beyond that, meeting the challenge of understanding the nature of ‘culture’ is not only a conceptual but also a terminological issue. The biggest challenge lies in the inaptitude or unwillingness of many people to either recognize or accept the malleability of ‘culture’ and identity and – accordingly – that of languages. The fact that both cultures and languages can be transformed and developed further may have reached the minds of those reflecting about metaphysical questions on the very nature of these concepts; yet the term culture itself still seems to be fully charged with ideas of homogeneity, cohesion and consistency. This conception of culture perpetuates the idea that members of the same culture share identical moral values, dispositions and – above all – the same understandings of what constitutes their culture.

One factor determining the willingness of people to accept the permeability of ‘culture’ is the degree of social prestige assigned to the cultural community to which they belong: Tajfel and Turner (1986: 16) found that the more members of a cultural group sense that their community is at stake the more they may be inclined to believe that their cultural identity is substantial. In some cases, however, a low social status may also induce people to orient themselves towards another eligible group to enhance their self-esteem. Yet for such a transition to succeed specific preconditions must be fulfilled. As an example, a person from the working class can only move up the social ladder on the condition that he/she manages to accumulate his/her financial resources and material wealth. Much in the same way, a transition into another cultural community may only succeed if the aspirant (phenotypically) fits in with the target group. Tajel and Turner (1986) discerned that in cases where such a transition is impeded (e.g. by a visible minority status), people develop a strong collective orientation towards a supposedly uniform and favorable culture as a survival mechanism. In the case of dispersed minorities, then, a reinforced involvement in the ethnic group can serve as an effective backup and may contribute to enhancing the status of their community in the diaspora. These contrasting ways in which minorities can develop identity-wise suggest two things: Firstly, it indicates that cultures and cultural identities are dynamic and, secondly, that “[d]ifferent sub-groups of the ← 12 | 13 → population have different migration propensities” (Boyle et al., 1998: 36). These propensities may be various yet follow predictable criteria.

In his study on the interplay of language and politics, Joseph (2006: 39) concluded that “oppression [was] the mother of identity”. By analyzing the particular situation of British Pakistanis, he found that the stigma attached to their minority status in fact amplified their inclination to hold on to the idea of a strong and uniform collective:

According to Joseph, the most effective way of displaying the degree of orientation towards their Pakistani roots was to code-switch between the majority language and their ancestral one. In that regard, switching must be understood as a deliberate act of cultural identity construction which cannot be equated with language interference in which a lack of fluency forces people to switch back and forth between two different languages. As a consequence, then, language was used “as a vehicle for minority identity” (Joseph, 2006: 60) or – more precisely – as a marker for bicultural identity to varying degrees: the stronger the ethnic orientation, the greater the proportion of the ancestral language or deviant forms of speech to indicate ‘otherness’. Moreover, Joseph found that ethnic markers in the speech of British Pakistanis not only demonstrated biculturalism but may also display resistance or a partial refusal of assimilation to the British mainstream culture (2006: 60).

In addition to minority status and low social prestige, another factor that must be considered regarding the degree of ethnic orientation is the reason for immigration. While many people have fled their countries owing to poor occupational prospects or violent conflicts over scarce resources, others fled religious or political persecution by virtue of belonging to a specific social group. These differences concerning the reasons for emigration may play heavily on people’s degree of ethnic orientation and – correspondingly – on their motivation to set up strategies of enacting difference to dominant communities. However, reasons for emigration are also linked to the size and social cohesion of a group: the bigger and more diverse a group, the more complicated it becomes to establish and sustain a common sense of belonging (Tajfel and Turner, 1986)2. Consequently, members of such ← 13 | 14 → groups are likely to encounter problems in determining a clear sense of self and consequently a clear conception of the culture(s) they identify with. Among other reasons, this complexity of ‘culture’ gives rise to the general question of whether it is necessary or reasonable to adhere to monomodels of culture according to which people have to decide in favor of or against one culture.

Contrary to many ethnic minorities in America, Oromos have more than two options regarding cultural affiliation due to the multi-ethnicity of Ethiopia. Thus, some of those who refer to themselves as Oromos are either bi-ethnic or partially identify with another Ethiopian ethnic group. As an ethnic group originally located within the national borders of multiethnic Ethiopia, Oromos may also identify with other Ethiopian ethnicities. Those Oromos who migrated to America may also at least partially identify with their host culture. However, the fact that Oromos make up approximately 40% of the total Ethiopian population but still have been dominated and persecuted by Abyssinian minorities (Habeshas) for more than a century (Jalata, 2010a; 2010b; 2010c; Bulcha, 2005; Bulcha 2011) makes it quite unlikely that they will refer to themselves as Ethiopians. However, growing intra-group conflicts in the American diaspora further complicate the process of identification: As political refugees, a large number of Oromos migrated to North America in the late 80s and early 90s, most to the state of Minnesota. Having arrived there, Oromos formed a strong community that, today, is facing serious problems to mediate between its numerous regional, political and religious subgroups.

Apart from the fact that sociolinguistic studies on Oromos have never been conducted, these intra-group conflicts have sparked my interest to investigate whether (and to what extent) diverging cultural orientations between the first and second generation may play a role concerning these intra-group frictions.

With this in mind, the research interest of the study at hand is to analyze the degree of ethnic orientation of Oromo-Americans in Minnesota by using language to deduce the degree of identification with relevant cultural groups. This will be done through a cognitive sociolinguistic analysis of ethnographic interviews among 34 informants across two generations: first- and second-generation Oromo-Americans in Minnesota. ← 14 | 15 →

1.2 Earliest studies on language and social identity construction

In the past, numerous sociolinguists, discourse analysts, and linguistic anthropologists have put forward convincing cases for the discursive construction of social categories such as social class, woman, (trans-) gender or that of national or immigrant identity (e.g. Labov, 1966; Trudgill, 1972; R. Lakoff, 1975; Tannen, 1990; Barett, 1999; Wodak et al. 2009; Fought, C. 2006; I. DuBois, 2008). Although dealing with different social categories, the studies were all based on a general interest in how identities were enacted via language. To this end, the researchers applied linguistic methods of analysis to investigate how (but also why) speakers used language to construct membership of specific social groups. In many cases, these studies were not only grounded on the constructionist paradigm (see below) but also looked at macro-social power relations and their impact on identity constructions in general. Especially among critical discourse analysts – who were inspired by the tenets of critical theory – it was believed that power relations and power disparity were primarily constructed and maintained through language. One of the consequences of this approach was that feminist linguists – in the spirit of the 68 movement and second-wave feminism – pointed to the making of subordinate women through violent discourse practices, arguing that the submission of women was not due to their biology but that it was androcentric society and sexist language use that rendered women subordinate to men (i.e. Lakoff, 1975; West and Zimmerman, 1975). Conforming to Simone de Beauvoir’s statement with respect to the becoming of women (1973), feminist linguists pointed out the significance of language in the process of constituting female second-ratedness. Accordingly, it was believed that a change of language may be conducive to gender mainstreaming (Trömel-Plötz, 1980). In this sense, the premise underlying the endeavor to change language in order to improve the societal status of women was the relativity of social structures, which correlates with the structure of the respective language. This premise, however, was not only reducible to feminist linguistics but functions as the key theoretical framework for most critical linguists and proponents of the constructionist paradigm and thus was also applied to the analysis of other social categories.

As I just indicated, culture and cultural identity are socially constructed and negotiated via discourse in much the same way as gender. In both cases, language functions as a tool to form and transmit norms regarding categories such as culture but also stores these norms in grammar and speech as is purported by proponents of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to whom people ← 15 | 16 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Biculturalism Sociolinguistics Social constructionism Language and cultural identity
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 233 pp., 20 tables

Biographical notes

Oromiya-Jalata Deffa (Author)

Oromiya-Jalata Deffa studied English and American studies with a focus on sociolinguistics at the University of Potsdam. Her research interest is the discursive construction of social identity and she has taught a wide range of sociolinguistic seminars.


Title: Discursive Construction of Bicultural Identity
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236 pages