“First they Americanize you and then they throw you out”: A LangCrit Analysis of Language and Citizen Identity

MARINKA SWIFT, University of California, Davis


While the United States (U.S.) has the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, second only to Mexico, an essentialized ideology persists of what it sounds like to be an American citizen, which impacts some speakers in distinctive ways. Generation 1.5 adults who have been repatriated to Mexico are uniquely impacted by this language ideology and the power structures that sustain it. The present study analyzes digital stories of deportation as spaces through which generation 1.5 adults perform citizen identity. Data for the present study is drawn from digital testimonies and are part of a larger archive of the Humanizing Deportation project. Guided by Critical Language and Race Theory (Crump, 2014b), this study aims to better understand the interaction between language and citizen identity for generation 1.5 adults. While scholarship around language and social identity has received much attention across a range of disciplines over the past few decades, little research has investigated the linguistic and citizen identities of adults repatriated to Mexico by the United States. I offer an analysis of the role of language in citizen identities and the implications of these findings for future research and activism.


Tandis que les États-Unis comptent la deuxième plus grande population hispanophone au monde, tout juste après le Mexique, une idéologie simpliste persiste quant à ce que cela laisse entendre d’être un citoyen américain, ce qui influence les locuteurs de différentes façons. Les adultes de la génération 1,5 ayant été rapatriés au Mexique sont particulièrement affectés par cette idéologie langagière et les structures de pouvoir qui la maintiennent. La présente étude analyse des histoires numériques de déportation comme moyens à travers lesquels des adultes de la génération 1,5 se forgent une identité citoyenne. Les données de la présente recherche sont tirées de témoignages numériques et prennent part à des archives plus vastes du projet Humaniser la déportation. Guidée par la théorie critique sur la langue et la race (Critical Language and Race Theory; Crump, 2014b), cette recherche vise à mieux comprendre les interactions entre la langue et l’identité citoyenne chez les adultes de la génération 1,5. Alors que l’érudition quant aux langues et à l’identité sociale a retenu l’attention de diverses disciplines dans les dernières décennies, peu de recherches se sont intéressées à l’identité linguistique et citoyenne d’adultes rapatriés au Mexique par les États-Unis. Une analyse est offerte sur le rôle de la langue dans l’identité citoyenne ainsi que sur les implications de ces conclusions pour les recherches futures et l’activisme.

Keywords: language, migration, identity, LangCrit.


While the United States (U.S.) boasts the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, second only to Mexico (Burgen, 2015; Spanish Language Domains, 2014), an essentialized ideology persists of what it sounds like to be an American citizen, which impacts some speakers in distinctive ways. Generation 1.5 adults who have been repatriated to Mexico are uniquely impacted by this language ideology and the power structures that sustain it (such as educational agencies and governing bodies). The term ‘generation 1.5’ refers to individuals that immigrate to a new country before or during their teenage years. The label ‘1.5’ refers to the fact that often such individuals bring with them characteristics of their country of origin, though they also assimilate and adopt characteristics of their new country. Some of the authors we meet in the present study were, in fact, lawful permanent residents at the time of their removal from the U.S., while others were undocumented. The present study analyzes digital stories of deportation as spaces through which generation 1.5 adults perform citizen identity. Guided by Critical Language and Race Theory (Crump, 2014b), this study aims to better understand the interaction between language and citizen identity for generation 1.5 adults. While scholarship around language and social identity has received much attention across a range of disciplines over the past few decades, little (if any) research has investigated the linguistic and citizen identities of adults repatriated to Mexico by the United States. In the following sections, I will provide a brief history of forced repatriation, an explanation of the theoretical framework guiding the present analysis, and a summary of pertinent previous research on issues relating to language, identity, and translanguaging. I then offer an analysis of the role of language in citizen identities and the implications of these findings for future research and activism. Throughout the paper, I refer to the speakers as narrators, authors, and forced-returnees.

How do individuals talk about language in digital stories of deportation? How do speakers identify themselves and their sense of belonging? The present study contributes to scholarship at the intersection of language, identity, race, and citizenship. The analysis shows how essentialized notions of language, as linked to national and citizen identities, impact the linguistic identities of forced-returnee adults both before and after deportation. The present study contributes to scholarship around language and forced migration through a critical discourse analysis (van Dijk, 1993) of five digital narratives archived as part of the Humanizando la Deportación digital storytelling project (see http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/en/). The study urges social scientists to further investigate how language contributes to experiences of generation 1.5 adults. Such an understanding is necessary to best support the social and linguistic identities, as well as the linguistic needs of generation 1.5 adults after repatriation. Through such inquiry we can contribute to existing scholarship that acknowledges and challenges essentializing notions of language and national identity, and bring attention to the perceptions and experiences of racialized speakers. There is little research, if any, which addresses the linguistic practices, identities, and experiences of adults deported from the U.S. The present study aims to reduce this gap.

Recent History of Forced Repatriation

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI, 2015; 2016), of the 207,000 Mexicans repatriated by the United States in 2015, “fifteen percent (29,000) had six years or more of U.S. residence before being deported” (p. 5). It is not clear exactly how many generation 1.5 (gen1.5) adults have been repatriated, nor how many gen1.5 adults reside in the United States. While one estimate claims that about half a million gen1.5s have been repatriated to Mexico over the past decade (Lakhani & Jacobo, 2016), this figure cannot be confirmed with any source. While these figures may bring us closer to a countable representation of gen1.5 forced-returnees, it is evident that additional measures are needed in order to gain clarity about the extent to which repatriation impacts generation 1.5 individuals repatriated to Mexico from the United States.

Another facet of repatriation that complicates our understanding of the situation are the legal categories that determine the deportability of an individual, which are complicated and often not known or understood by gen1.5 individuals who arrive in the U.S. as minors. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is not an aggregated explanation for the reasons leading to the forced repatriation of gen1.5 returnees. Some gen1.5 individuals are Lawful Permanent Residents at the time of their removal from the U.S., a distinct categorization that is not the same as legal citizen status and is often unclear to gen1.5 individuals. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2018), “Lawful permanent residents (LPRs) are foreign nationals who have been granted the right to reside permanently in the United States.” LPRs are often referred to simply as “immigrants”, but they are also known as “permanent resident aliens” and “green card holders” (Department of Homeland Security, 2018). While LPRs may live and work in the U.S., in order to become legal U.S.citizens they must meet additional eligibility requirements and apply for naturalization. LPRs are eligible for deportation under a variety of circumstances. One way that an individual with LPR status can be eligible for deportation is by committing a “Crime of Moral Turpitude” (CMT), which is only broadly defined by U.S. immigration law. Various offenses may be considered a CMT, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. In some cases, no actual court conviction needs to be made for an offense to be considered a CMT (Bray, 2019; 8 USC;1227).

The language of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act is broad enough to allow states and local law enforcement agencies to independently interpret the type of infraction that would qualify an LPR for deportation. In this way, even individuals who have lawfully entered the U.S. and have valid legal documentation (such as a “green card” or LPR status) are still eligible for forced-repatriation. In many cases, gen1.5 individuals do not have LPR status and are entirely unaware that their parents (if they immigrated with their parents) did not apply for such legal status on their behalf. For these individuals, learning that they are in fact not legal U.S. citizens and are deportable is shocking news, to say the least.

It should be understood that, while I mention some legal violations that can result in forced repatriation, I am in no way suggesting that gen1.5 returnees have been repatriated as a result of a CMT. Rather, I provide these legal classifications to point out the range of legal codes that may be utilized by U.S. law enforcement to justify the forced-repatriation of individuals. Furthermore, such legal codes are often cited by law enforcement agencies and the Trump Administration as justification for the portrayal of immigrants and forced-returnees as criminals, despite the fact that there is “no evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than native-born American citizens” (Ye He Lee, 2015).

Theoretical Framework

Critical Language and Race Theory (LangCrit) lends itself to the examination of how gen1.5 adults do citizen identity through language. The concept of doing language describes the notion that language is a performative tool used by speakers to enact certain expressions of identity. From a LangCrit perspective, identity is fluid and complex rather than fixed. Through an analysis of the identity experiences of multilingual Japanese-Canadian children in Montréal, Alison Crump proposed LangCrit as a lens that identifies and challenges the complex interactions between “audible and visible identities” (Crump, 2014a) because “fixed identity categories do not recognize the acts of identity that individuals perform through language” (Crump, 2014b, p. 208). Crump challenges essentialized notions of belonging which equate language with membership in a one-to-one relationship. Critically, this framework challenges ideas of what it means to sound like and look like someone that “belongs”. LangCrit scholars examine “the ways in which race, racism and racialization intersect with issues of language, belonging, and identity” (p. 207-208); through this critical lens, it is possible to capture the full spectrum of identity possibilities and the expressions of belonging enacted and perceived by speakers.

Power manifests in many ways through policies related to immigration, education, and language. Power also lives in the beliefs that individuals, communities, and societies have about criteria for belonging. According to LangCrit, “power has come to be clustered around certain linguistic resources in certain spaces” (Crump, 2014b, p. 209). In other words, certain spaces and contexts often elicit specific linguistic practices. In these spaces, particular resources are made available in the language or languages associated with social access and power. LangCrit is interested in examining the power in linguistic resources and spaces in order to understand how individuals do language, the values they associate with language, and the identity possibilities that result from the interaction between power and language in space. Existing sociolinguistic scholarship posits that language may, in all its complexity, index identities (Bucholtz & Hall, 2009). In analyzing the interaction between conversational code-switching and social identity, Auer (2003) argued that bilingual speech indexes extralinguistic social categories, referring to categories that are not intrinsically about language. Examples of such extralinguistic social categories might be ethnicity, nationality and citizenship status. More simply, certain ways of speaking are associated with certain identities (or certain ideas of belonging). Sometimes this indexing is imposed onto a speaker and other times a speaker actively engages in particular language practices in order to enact a social identity or to perceive themselves as having a certain identity (Auer, 2003). In this way, language is performative and the identities permitted through language are contrived and dictated by larger social structures rooted in essentialized notions of belonging, related to what an individual sounds like and looks like. Through LangCrit, Crump offers a framework through which to engage these concepts of belonging, language, race, and identity.

As a social practice, language and language ideologies have been studied by many researchers as a function of social identity. Particularly over the past two decades, scholars in the social sciences have approached questions about language ideologies to explore topics such as social identity and bilingual identity (Auer, 2003; Song, 2010; Zentella, 1997), the racialization of language (Leeman, 2004), and power structures rooted in language ideologies (Kroskrity, 2004). The present study explores the use of language in digital narratives as a tool for performing citizen identity, an extralinguistic category, and the implications this has for deportation experiences.

LangCrit views language as a social practice that informs social norms, such as how individuals and groups engage with each other and society. Crump proposed that boundaries around languages have been socially contrived and constructed, produced and maintained (Crump, 2014b). Specifically, “power is clustered around certain linguistic resources in certain spaces” and explores how such language boundaries inform what individuals can and cannot do with language in daily life, as well as the values associated with language use and possible identities (Crump, 2014b, p. 209). Importantly, language boundaries are not language barriers, rather boundaries refer to the socially constructed ways of doing language. The difference being, language boundaries refer to the social norms that dictate what language use is acceptable, whereas language barriers describe the discrepancy in language proficiency between interlocutors (Crump, 2014b citing Hill, 1998). I will elaborate on this concept of language boundaries in my analysis of the digital stories presented. While a linguistic perspective shall not adopt essentialized notions of language and identity, the reality is that many speakers do. Crump reminded us that, “even though languages are social constructions, the ideology of languages as fixed entities still carries a powerful social force” (Crump, 2014b, p. 209), which explains why in the present study we see the ideology of English as a tag for U.S. American belonging and citizen identity, linking a fixed language entity (English) with a nation-state identity (U.S. American).

LangCrit shares much in common with Raciolinguistics, first popularized by Flores and Rosa (2015) and elaborated on by Alim, Rickford, and Ball in their 2016 publication titled Raciolinguistics: How language shapes our ideas about race. Raciolinguistics focuses on the socially cyclical relationship between race, racialization, and language: language is used to construct race (“languaging race”) and perceptions of race influence how language is used (“racing language”). This framework has been utilized particularly well to better understand how sociolinguistic variation is intertwined with social and political factors. In this way, language may be used to seek or demonstrate (racial) group membership (Alim, Rickford, & Ball, 2016).

Crump explored these questions as well through her research on the linguistic racialization of speakers and the issue of “whiteness as a norm associated with native English speakers” (2014b, p. 207). LangCrit asserts that different physical and social spaces interact with racialized discourses impacting how speakers use language and perform identities. Understanding this power dynamic between normative spaces and language practices, Crump proposed LangCrit as a necessary contribution to critical studies on language.

Both LangCrit and Raciolinguistics acknowledge that linguistic racialization contributes to identity formation and expression, and is perpetuated through power structures. Examples of such power structures are governing bodies, such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement which seeks to identify and enforce categories of belonging and not belonging. Another example is that of educational institutions, which have historically segregated individuals in the U.S. on the basis of race, language, gender, and religious affiliation. Although LangCrit is the theoretical framework for the present study, it should be clear that Raciolinguistics is also a suitable lens.

Review of Previous Research

In 2012, the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends published a report titled “When labels don’t fit: Hispanics and their views of identity” claiming that nearly half (47%) of Hispanics in the U.S. do not identify as a “typical American[s]” (Taylor, Hugo Lopez, Martínez, & Velasco, 2012, p. 3). Importantly, the report also claimed the opposite, that 47% of Latinos do identify as “typical[ly] American.” Taken from data collected as part of the 2011 National Survey of Latinos, the report highlighted the range of identity labels used by Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S., as well as their language beliefs and practices. Using data from a telephone survey of 1,220 Latino adults across 50 states, the report found that 21% of Latinos in the U.S. identify themselves as “American” most often, while 51% use their family’s country of origin to describe themselves, and 24% prefer the term “Hispanic” or “Latino.” Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, generation status appeared to influence these identity label preferences in the U.S.; first-generation immigrants born outside the U.S. were less likely than U.S.-born Hispanics to identify as a “typical American.”

The report demonstrates the complexity of “American” identity as experienced by Hispanics and Latinos, as well as the role of language and generation status in identity. Our interpretation of these findings influences how we think about identity as experienced and articulated by Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. While it may be true that many adults surveyed for the report did not identify as a “typical American,” many do self-identify in this way. Furthermore, the report does not explain what it means to be a “typical American.” From a LangCrit perspective, we cannot essentialize notions of belonging, there is not one look or one sound that qualifies “American” identity. Raciolinguistic identities do not preclude citizen identity, as suggested by the “either-or” model of the report, which offers “American” as a category separate from the categories “Latino” and “Hispanic.” However, Crump also acknowledged the power of such essential notions of identity: “we cannot ignore that fixed categories do exist, problematic as they are. . . they are powerful in shaping an individual’s possibilities for becoming” (2014b, p. 209).

Therefore, LangCrit insists that we identify and challenge such essentializing notions, especially because individuals adopt them as part of their sense of identity. With regards to generation status, the study does not indicate the age of arrival of foreign-born respondents and thus, creates an overgeneralized interpretation of the identifiers used and preferred by first-generation Latino and Hispanic adults in the U.S. From a linguistic standpoint, language acquisition and language attitudes are quite different for young learners than for adult learners. Additionally, the use of English and Spanish tends to differ depending on the generation status of the speaker. This reflects a difference not only in language acquisition across ages but also in language use and ideologies. However, this study does make clear the need to explore further what it means to be “American” for immigrants in the U.S., particularly for gen1.5 adults, and the role of language in “American” identity.

Language and Identity

Language is a social practice through which ideas and beliefs are communicated (Crump, 2014b; Fairclough, 1989). As language is socially and locally constructed, analysis of language use can reveal connections to larger social, political, and historical practices and beliefs about language (Crump, 2014b). Language ideologies can unveil, among other things, how individuals are relegated to either positions of power or subordination within a society. Paul Kroskrity defined language ideologies as “beliefs, or feelings, about languages as used in their social worlds” (Kroskrity, 2004, p. 498). Language and language ideologies have been studied as a function of social and bilingual identity (Zentella, 1997; Song, 2010), the racialization of language (Leeman, 2004), and of power structures (Kroskrity, 2004). Woolard and Schieffelin (1994) asserted that studies in language ideology should demonstrate “a commitment to address the relevance of power relations to the nature of cultural forms and ask how essential meanings about language are socially produced as effective and powerful” (p. 58), and as such should adopt critical ideological analysis with a focus on the political use of language as an instrument of power maintenance. In the narratives analyzed here, power often stems from English as a commodity, tool and resource that grants access to particular services or spaces, or the nationalistic language ideologies that assign language a symbolic feature of self, community, and citizenship (Menard-Warwick, 2013). Therefore, to gain insight into the interaction between language and citizen identity, we must explore the beliefs and feelings that speakers have about language as they relate to their lived experiences around migration and deportation.


First introduced by Cen Williams in 1994, translanguaging is defined as “an act of bilingual performance, as well as a bilingual pedagogy of bilingual teaching and bilingual learning” (García & Leiva, 2014, p. 199). At its conception, it referred to a pedagogical approach by which students alternated languages in order to develop literacy and writing skills in more than one language. Now, the term has expanded to refer to more fluid language practices and linguistic resources used and acquired by bilingual speakers and writers. From a pedagogical perspective, translanguaging has been theorized and applied as a linguistic resource to foster bilingual students’ full linguistic repertoire, while resisting “the historical and cultural positionings of English monolingualism in the USA” (p. 199). From a social justice standpoint, translanguaging challenges monolingual ideologies for U.S. citizens, as well as a “‘Hispanophone’ ideology that blames U.S. Latinos for speaking ‘Spanglish’” (p. 200). Translanguaging practices of speakers offer insight into the identities associated with language, space, and belonging.

In the present study, translanguaging practices by authors of deportation narratives are analyzed to ascertain how gen1.5 adult forced-returnees perform citizen identity through language. To approach this analysis, I view translanguaging through a LangCrit framework, which recognizes translanguaging as “what languagers (people) are doing [with language]” and acknowledges that speakers negotiate language use in order to navigate the “socially constructed boundaries around languages” (Crump, 2014b, p. 210). The ways in which instances of translanguaging occur through digital narratives are different than in a live conversation between two or more people because the socially constructed boundaries around languages are different online than they are off-line. In digital narratives, translanguaging takes shape through the interaction between Spanish and English accompanied by images that convey meaning and experiences. Speakers negotiate language choice in all interactions with interlocutors. Similarly, through digital narrative, a speaker negotiates ways of belonging and citizen identity through language, revealing a facet of translanguaging and identity.

Discourse Analysis and Digital Stories

While research has analyzed YouTube and other digital platforms in relation to education and participatory culture, there is a serious dearth of related literature that has utilized YouTube in its analysis. Van Zoonen et al. (2010) analyzed YouTube reactions to Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam video Fitna. The aim of their study was to analyze if, and in what ways, the participatory culture of YouTube invited performances of citizenship. The study asked “what kind of selves people produce through uploading their videos” against or in support of Fitna(p. 253). According to the authors, citizenship is embedded in practices and routines and “by doing citizenship one becomes a citizen” (p. 252). A key feature of performing citizenship through a platform such as YouTube is the interaction between a video author and viewer or listener. For van Zoonon et al, the real or imagined audience informs how a speaker perceives their performance as meaningful.

The authors conducted a content analysis of various styles of YouTube videos in response to Fitna to assess if and how video posters assert their performance of citizenship and which audiences they assume. The authors found a range of citizenship performances assumed by the video authors. For example, many videos made in response to Fitna were explicit apologies for Wilders’ video. Speakers in these response videos performed political selves positioning the video authors as citizens with a need to apologize in the name of the Dutch nation state, feeling the Fitna video reflected poorly on their citizenship and nationality. Another type of citizenship performance was analyzed in testimonial style videos, in which video authors make a case for themselves as being different from the Muslims portrayed in Fitna. Testimonial videos, according to the authors, are perfect examples of the performance of an inclusive self that aims to be accepted by an audience. This study demonstrates how digital culture platforms, (such as the Humanizando la Deportación project, discussed in the present study), can foster spaces for performed citizen identity as articulated and performed by the video authors. Furthermore, YouTube videos are described as ‘border-circumventing’ which makes it easier for speakers to participate in citizenship as a performance and practice. These findings indicate the value in exploring language use as citizen performance on social platforms such as YouTube.

Data Collection

Language used to describe immigration and immigrants in the U.S. has led to hostile portrayals of immigrants. Most recently, the current president of the U.S., Donald Trump, has described immigrants as follows:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. (Ye He Lee, 2015 citing Donald Trump, Presidential Announcement Speech, June 16, 2015)

Unfortunately, the example above is only one of many in which the president of the U.S. wrongfully makes a blanket statement that portrays immigrants as criminals. When asked about the comments he made on June 16th, Donald Trump said, “they are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” (July 6, 2015). In reality, the claims made by Donald Trump are not reflected empirically and instead perpetuate xenophobic perceptions of immigrants. In fact, first-generation immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans (Camarota & Vaughan, 2009; Ye Hee Lee, 2015), and despite the lack of evidence for hostile claims like those made by Donald Trump, such rhetoric has perpetuated a racist view of Mexican and Central American immigrants in the U.S., clouding the realities of immigration and deportation.

In the current sociopolitical climate of immigration, activists and research scholars have trended more toward collaboration to create transparent and inclusive conversations about the impacts of deportation. One such collaboration, Humanizando la Deportación, is an online archive of personal digital stories of deportation. Digital storytelling is a narrative genre that pairs recorded audio with visuals (e.g. still images, drawings, clippings, or segments of other video clips) to create a single video or segment of a video (Hull & Nelson, 2005; Lambert, 2013). Digital stories range in length but are generally much shorter than a movie and are often uploaded to social platforms online, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or original website archives. This genre of narrative has enabled storytellers to share their voice with an audience of fellow internet users. In some instances, viewers and listeners can engage with the original storyteller through a social platform’s comment function, though this is not always the case.

For the present study, data is analyzed from five digital stories selected from the larger archive of the Humanizando la Deportación (HLD) project. I participated in this project as a field researcher and video production collaborator during the summer of 2017. The aim of the HLD project is to put a human face to the issue of deportation as experienced by individuals forcefully repatriated to Mexico from the U.S., and to challenge the perception of immigrants and migrants as ‘bad hombres,’ a narrative driven by the U.S. media and President Donald Trump. While deportation rates reached record highs under the Obama Administration (Nowrasteh, 2019), the policies and language used to describe immigrants under the Trump Administration have been uniquely divisive, discriminatory, and hostile. Furthermore, the Obama Administration started the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in an effort to create a path toward legal citizenship for gen1.5 individuals. The Trump Administration has proposed rescinding the DACA program and has put forth additional legislation to limit immigration into the U.S. The HLD project is a response to the social and political perceptions of immigrants and migration. Through this project, researchers collaborate with forced-returnees in various cities throughout Mexico to produce “cut-and-mix” digital testimonials (van Zoonen et al, 2010). Cut-and-mix videos are defined by van Zoonen et al. (2010, p. 254) as “Self produced video consisting of self made, or existing footage, pictures, images, words and sound, combined into a new ‘text’” (p. 254). A forced-returnee and one or more researchers collaborate to create these videos. The authors decide what images they want to be included in the video, such as family photos with or without identifying information or photos from image databases. The story told in each video is unique to the video author and elicited through open conversation with the researcher(s). My role, as one of the project researchers, was to collaborate with other researchers and the video author. I joined in an open conversation about the author’s experience with deportation and assisted in all aspects of the video production process4.

The videos examined here were published between 2017 and 2018 and were chosen for their focus on individuals that could be described as generation 1.5. I chose to focus on gen1.5 individuals because, sometimes, they are unaware that they do not have legal citizen status in the U.S. despite feeling like they belong after spending much, if not most of their lives in the U.S. My initial feelings about the importance of this project arose when I read reports of individuals being repatriated to Mexico who don’t speak Spanish, which highlights a linguistic component of migration and deportation. While my focus is on the relationship between language and citizen identity, I did not choose digital stories based on the language of the author. The videos include audio in Spanish, English, or a mixture of the two. I transcribed the videos at the most basic level and relied on ordinary punctuation. I did not transcribe prosody, body language, or false starts because physical features were often not included (see APPENDIX I for transcription conventions). Additionally, I did not feel that prosody would be a critical component of my analysis since I am mainly concerned with what is said, and not how it is said.

Data Analysis

In addressing the research questions, I coded for instances in which speakers talked about language and tagged topics associated with each mention. I also coded for instances in which speakers talked about ‘citizenship’, which I identified as instances in which the narrator talks about things related to ‘legal’ citizenship, such as documentation, being detained, and the deportation process. To understand the more subjective features of ‘citizen’ and the process of deportation I coded for ‘belonging’, instances in which speakers talk about being in affiliation with certain people, spaces or locations. This, I felt, was an intuitive category to include since forced-returnees experience physical relocation. All analyses are based on the original transcription, not the translation.

For the present analysis, I focus on one of the main themes that emerged from my initial coding: Language and belonging. I analyze the identity descriptors related to citizen identity and belonging, the use of English and Spanish, as well as instances of translanguaging. The analysis that follows highlights how authors of digital deportation narratives signal ideological positions around language and what it means to be a ‘citizen’. I then offer a separate section to discuss the use of translanguaging as a performative tool to convey belonging.

Language and Belonging

One way that gen1.5 forced-returnees convey ideas around what it means to be a citizen is through talking about language in relation to experiences with deportation. In the excerpts below, it becomes evident that the experience of deportation challenges individuals’ notions of their own citizen identity. For Danny, Jorge, and Alex, language figures squarely into feelings and thoughts about belonging. These speakers share the ways that language informs or qualifies what it means to be a citizen in the context of the U.S. and Mexico border.

Danny Juaregui Mariz

First they Americanize you and then they throw you out / Primero te Americanizan y luego te expulsan

Humanizando la Deportación (2017)

Danny Juaregui Mariz arrived in the U.S. at the age of 3 and was repatriated over 40 years later. Danny’s entire narrative is in English, and although he would sometimes speak in Spanish during our collaboration meetings, he preferred to speak in English. Danny built his life in the U.S. and believes that certain abilities and knowledge, like speaking English and knowing about American history, contribute to his sense of belonging in the U.S. As the title of his video states, Danny felt that he was made to be “Americanized” by the U.S. before being forced to repatriate to Mexico. In the first few sentences of his story, Danny says “I’ve been trying to survive over here by just trying to be an honest citizen same as I was over there” (lines 1-3), in which he refers to himself as one who was not only a citizen but an “honest citizen” in the U.S., which he calls “over there.”

1 First they Americanize you and then they throw you out. I got deported two and a half

2 years ago and I’ve been trying to survive over here by just trying to be an honest citizen

3 same as I was over there on the other side. And I’ve been surviving over here ever since

4 with the economy 60 dollars a week, just trying to make a living over here while I try to

5 make my way back. I was born in Guadalajara and at 2 years my father and my mother

6 came for me and they brought me to Tijuana and we crossed to the United States with

7 the visa. I was 3 years old when I crossed over. In east LA I grew up. Went to

8 elementary. My first language was English. It is English. I learned how to be an

9 American, American history, everything that has to do with America. I was there all my

10 life. I did a few mistakes hanging out with the wrong crowd all the time but I was never a

11 criminal. I never shot nobody. I never robbed nobody.

Danny identifies English as his first and dominant language, linking his citizen identity to his language use and knowledge of “how to be an American” (line 12). That Danny felt like a citizen because of his educational and linguistic experiences and was not a criminal challenges the rhetoric tossed around in U.S. media (such as the June 16th, 2015 speech by Donald Trump referenced above) that undocumented individuals are law-breaking, non-English speaking, dangerous, uneducated people. So, while Danny does identify being an American with being a valid and deserving citizen, his ideas about why he is American are reflective of larger societal ideas about what it means to be a U.S. citizen: English speaking, non-criminal, contributing member of society. These learned features of citizen identity are not simply things Danny knows to be true, but they are part of his way of doing citizenship through language and knowledge of being. From a LangCrit perspective, Danny’s experience echoes the notion that “the ideology of language as an entity is tightly intertwined with the doing of language” (Crump, 2014b, p. 210). The idea of language as an “entity” refers to the essentialized ideas of language as something a speaker has and that is linked to national identity.

In the lines below, Danny talks about belonging in the U.S. because his “family’s over there” (line 31) and emphasizes his feelings of belonging in the U.S. by countering with his feelings about not belonging in Tijuana (referred to by English speaking locals as TJ). He is asking the audience to hear his experience and see him as a citizen, as he qualifies his eligibility. He misses his family and feels out of place, forced to live in a different country and city, where many don’t manage to find “a way of life” (line 34).

30 I got thrown out because of the Bill Clinton law and the reason why I came back is

31 my family’s over there, my kids are over there. Because

32 I have no business over here in TJ, I have no business in Mexico.

33 All my friends that got deported, most of them have died or committed suicide because

34 they just can’t find a way of life over here.

35 Me, I’ve just been strong and I’ve been going forward.

To “have no business” implies a situation in which a person does not belong: in a place, doing or saying something. However, having no business does not mean the same thing as having no legal right. When Danny says he has “no business over here in TJ,” he isn’t talking about the legal documentation that he lacks. On the contrary, he does have legal status in Mexico, but he has no business being there, meaning no connection, no reason, and no sense of belonging. Danny speaks to the feeling of belonging as a citizen because of the forty-plus years of his life he had spent in the U.S. and his sense of being “Americanized.”


Made a Criminal in America / Hecho un criminal en América

Humanizando la Deportación (2017)

In the following excerpt, we hear Jorge talk about feeling and believing that, in the absence of proficient Spanish, he must live in the U.S. where English dominates and offers a sense of belonging and familiarity. Jorge was 8 months old when he was brought to the U.S. and was repatriated to Mexico at the age of 23. Like many undocumented individuals in the U.S., Jorge was unaware of his documentation status before he turned 19 when he was deported for the first time. In the excerpt below, Jorge shares about his first experience arriving as a forced-returnee in Mexico and the linguistic circumstances that brought him to return to the U.S. despite his undocumented status. Jorge’s entire narrative is in English.

48 I actually tried to enroll in the military but I wasn’t able to because I was deported right

49 before my last meeting or my last appointment with the recruitment officer.

50 I was deported at age 19. I was sent to Mexico. I did not know where I was, what I was

51 doing. I did not really speak Spanish. I spoke really really terrible Spanish and it was

52 mainly slang words that I had picked up in California. So I had no choice but to return

53 back to the United States. I returned five days later.

Jorge felt that because his Spanish was “really really terrible” he could not remain in Mexico. Not knowing the language well prevented him from knowing where he was and what he was doing. He felt lost, in Spanish. So, for Jorge, a sense of belonging is linked to language ability. Belonging also signals a sense of citizenship, because without the ability to speak the local language, Jorge did not feel that he could fully participate in daily life and community. Upon his re-entry into the U.S. Jorge returned to Alabama where he had previously lived, the place he considered home.

Alex Murillo

American Soldiers in Exile / Soldados Americanos en Exilio

Humanizando la Deportación (2017)

Alex, a U.S. Navy veteran, was deported after spending nearly all of his life in the U.S., the country he, like Jorge, identifies as home. Alex identifies as being American in multiple ways, as evidenced by the way he talks about himself and his experiences. In the excerpt below Alex introduces himself as American and talks about feeling exiled from his home.

1 My name is Alex Murillo. I’m a U.S. Navy veteran. I’m from Phoenix, Arizona.

2 I’ve been deported now almost 5 years. I work with Unified U.S. Veterans.

3 We are trying to get back home. I have all my family, my kids – everybody’s in the U.S.

4 I’ve been in the U.S. my whole life.

5 I was taken to the U.S. maybe when I was 1 year old. Started my whole life there.

6 All of my thoughts and memories are that of an American kid.

7 I identify with being an American.

8 It’s not something you can take away from me just by deporting me.

Alex’s video begins with a picture of him in his Navy attire. The image scrolls out and down to give the audience a full view of Alex in his uniform. The next image depicts Alex with fellow veterans before switching to a picture of Alex with his family. These images invite the viewer to first see Alex as a U.S. veteran, which offers a particularly American imagery. In lines 5-8 Alex explicitly says that his “memories are that of an American kid” and feels that “being an American it’s not something you can take away” (line 8). Alex was raised in Phoenix, Arizona and spent his entire life in the U.S., where he attended school before joining the U.S. Navy. For Alex, being a citizen comes with thoughts, memories, and experiences of the world. Alex’s narrative is exclusively in English, a language choice that reflects his citizen identity. Choosing to say, in English, that he identifies as a member of an English dominant speaking country serves to legitimize his citizen identity and his view that language, a medium for thoughts, informs what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Regardless of the physical relocation forced upon him, Alex’s identification as American remains.


Video authors Zaret and Jesús translanguage throughout their narrative. Using both Spanish and English, paired with visual cues intentionally timed to accompany particular excerpts of their narratives, translanguaging conveys meaning and experiences to the audience. For both Zaret and Jesús language has played key roles in their citizen identity in the U.S. and Mexico, and they address the weight of their linguistic choices.


Ni de aquí ni de allá / Not from here, nor from there

Humanizando la Deportación (2018)

Throughout her narrative Zaret switches between Spanish and English, spending a total of 3 minutes speaking in Spanish and about 2 minutes speaking in English. Zaret was not actually deported, though she was forced to repatriate to Mexico when her parents decided to return due to their increased experience with violence against Chicana/o and Latina/o individuals in the U.S. Zaret has much to say about the role of language in her experiences with migration. Zaret’s video opens with a picture of herself as a young girl holding up a stuffed animal, flanked on either side by family members. The excerpt below begins at minute 1:47 and is accompanied by an image depicting the U.S. and Mexico flags blending together (line 21) before transitioning to separate stock images or signs that say “Aqui se habla Español”, immediately followed by a sign in all red letters that reads “English spoken here” (lines 22-23). The image that follows (lines 23-24) depicts a red colored ‘Uncle Sam’ pointing to the viewer with words that read “I want you to speak English” in blue and red letters. All three signs are written exclusively in capital letters, perhaps emphasizing their purpose as warning signs or demands. In this excerpt, Zaret speaks candidly about her experiences transitioning between life in Mexico and the U.S. as a young immigrant. For Zaret, learning English while living in the U.S. was necessary not to be looked at as “weird” (line 23), as an outsider. Around the age of seven, Zaret was removed from school in Mexico and migrated to the U.S. with her parents. As the title of her narrative suggests, Zaret’s experience with migration and deportation made her feel as though she was “ni de aquí ni de allá” (Not from here, nor from there – see APPENDIX II for translation of Zaret’s narrative excerpts).

21 Y siento que lo más fuerte de la transition from Mexico to the states was the language.

22 You walk in Mexico and you speak English, they look at you weird. If you walk in the

23 States and you speak Spanish they look at you weird. So I had to learn English. One way

24 or the other I had to learn so I could communicate in school, outside, friends. If I needed

25 to buy something, if I needed to use the bathroom, if I needed just whatever, I needed to

26 have English, mainly. Spanish was my first language so I did have that one, but obviously

27 when I went to school I was not learning Spanish anymore. So my Spanish start fucking

28 up. It was bad, there were some words that I forgot how to pronounce. I didn’t know how

29 to read well in Spanish. And I think my mom was really smart when she said, “en la casa

30 no hablen en inglés. En la casa yo quiero que sigan hablando en español porque si en

31 dado caso que llegamos a ir a México ustedes tienen que tener el español.”

36 But you can’t be safe. You don’t feel safe. You don’t feel comfortable being in a place

37 where any day you could be arrested and sent to the country where you’re from. So even

38 though my parents had bought a car and we were good in money, there was a lot of

39 inseguridad in the house. Creo que muchos de lo que hemos pasado por situaciones así lo

40 podemos compartir y es algo muy desagradable. El hecho de que tengamos esa

41 inseguridad de ese miedo de que algo va a pasar, y no algo bueno. Si no algo – algo que

42 puede destruir tu familia. Y el hecho de que obviamente también hay bullying en la

43 escuela de que “mira no habla inglés, mira su inglés como es” # muchas cosas que

44 te pueden afectar, no tan solo a los niños si no cualquier persona.

For Zaret, acquiring and using Spanish and English are linked to a desire to avoid being looked at as “weird.” Zaret’s narrative addresses a range of experiences around language that relate to meeting basic needs in the U.S., for example when she says, “If I needed to buy something, if I needed to use the bathroom, if I needed just whatever, I needed to have English, mainly” (lines 24-25). Zaret also talks about the way she has been treated by others in both the U.S. and Mexico in response to her language choices, reflecting that “You walk in Mexico and you speak English, they look at you weird. If you walk in the States and you speak Spanish they look at you weird. So I had to learn English” (lines 22-23). These experiences coalesce to inform particular language ideologies rooted in lived realities: the ‘right’ sound is required to access basic needs and acceptance from local speakers. The power in language, specifically in speaking the ‘right’ language for acceptance, and decent human treatment, is demonstrative as well in Zaret’s reflection on the bullying she experienced as a result of her language. Despite her efforts to be accepted in the U.S. through her use of English, the monolingual ideology present in the majority of U.S. schools compromised her feelings of belonging as well as her sense of safety. While a student in U.S. schools she experienced linguistic discrimination, which Zaret refers to as bullying (lines 42-44) and was forced to prioritize English (lines 26-28). Meanwhile, her mother emphasized the importance of maintaining Spanish in case they ever needed to return to Mexico, where Spanish is the dominant language and is held up by similar monolingual ideologies that index English speakers as “weird” and U.S.-learned Spanish as incorrect or undesirable. For Zaret, the linguistic experiences she describes contribute to her personal ideologies about who she can or should be and where she is permitted to belong as a result of her language use. Her experiences echo the implications of language boundaries, discussed by Crump (2014b), which dictate how speakers such as Zaret are permitted to do language. Zaret, like many immigrants in the U.S., tried to belong in the U.S. and avoid being looked at as “weird” through her use of English. The connection between language, identity, and belonging followed Zaret across the border once repatriated to Mexico.


Mi sueño no termina ahí / My dream doesn’t end there

Humanizando la Deportación (2017)

In the following narrative, Jesús addresses issues of citizen identity and paid taxes. I worked with Jesús in the production of his video. The majority of Jesús’s narrative is in Spanish, though he does code-switch in a few instances. In our meetings, we mostly spoke in English, though much time was spent translanguaging between English and Spanish when discussing his narrative and video production. Jesús explicitly requested not to be identified in his narrative, so his face is never shown and he does not provide his last name. He made this decision to protect his family that remains in the U.S. and to practice agency in starting his new life in Tijuana. As a bilingual forced-returnee, Jesús found work in a restaurant in a touristy neighborhood in Tijuana, where he often uses his English skills. After living as a legal resident in the U.S. for most of his life, Jesús shares his concerns about the fate of his paid taxes. He explains the removal of certain civic rights as a demonstration of revoked citizen identity.

43 And another thing I was wondering about, what’s gonna happen with my taxes?

44 I know they’re not for me, so they say, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t want them

45 for me. My kids are American citizens. They’re gonna need the help now that they’re

46 going to start going to college, universities. Where does that money go? Who keeps it?

47 That’s a big question. Personally, I think I lost my rights or I lost all my benefits.

48 But, what about my kids? They’re still U.S. citizens, they deserve that, they deserve

49 to get that money to help them get to college and university.

While the loss of tax benefits creates financial burdens for an individual or family, the symbolism behind the action is disruptive as well because it sends the message that Jesús is no longer welcome to fully participate in society and that his contributions will not benefit his family. In positioning himself in comparison to his children, who are “still U.S. citizens” and “they deserve that, they deserve to get that money to help them get to college and university” (lines 48-49), Jesús suggests that he no longer identifies as a citizen because he was stripped of his benefits. Through this excerpt, we learn much about Jesús’s ideas of what it means to be a citizen. For him, it means not losing civic rights, such as full participation in, and contribution to, the economy. Being a citizen also means speaking English and sounding like an American. To gain legitimacy from viewers and listeners Jesús decided to break from Spanish for this portion of the video in order to be understood fully by his English-speaking audience, who he talked about being American viewers and individuals such as himself, who had identified as American and participated as such. By posing questions in English about his paid taxes in the U.S. Jesús indexes his identity as an English-speaking, tax-paying American citizen, who has been stripped of his rights.


The narratives analyzed in the present study reveal particular facets of what it means to be a citizen for gen1.5 forced-returnees. The authors of the digital stories discussed in the previous pages talked about language as a quality that labels one as belonging in a place. For some, English is viewed as a requisite of American identity. Spanish is talked about as a skill that some gen1.5 individuals lack, a deficiency that prevents one from acclimating or belonging in Mexico, as a survival tool in the event of repatriation to Mexico, or as a link to heritage and family. Many gen1.5 adults who have repatriated to Mexico view themselves as Americans. This reality impacts their integration into Mexico, their employment and social life, as well as acclimating to Spanish use. If we listen to the stories shared by Danny, Jésus, Zaret, Jorge, and Alex through the lens of LangCrit, we hear the ideology of languages as “fixed entities” associated with citizen identity (Crump, 2014b, p. 209). From a LangCrit perspective, we step back to acknowledge the role of power structures and social norms (e.g., Donald Trump’s description of immigrants, K-12 English only language policies) on expressions of identity and language ideologies. The videos produced and archived in the HLD project are also uploaded to the project’s YouTube page. Within YouTube, there are power dynamics at work that involve language. The social practice of language informs the interactive component of performing citizenship, resulting in the categorization of who is and is not a citizen. As video collaborators and uploaders of the HLD series, we were aware of the possibility that other YouTube users could, if given the outlet, leave hostile comments and undermine the narrative author’s sense of belonging and citizenship. For this reason, the HLD research team decided to deactivate the comment feature on YouTube.

There are additional limitations to the present study due to the nature of digital data collection. Research that aims to examine digital narratives must come to terms with limitations, such as not knowing the full context of the narrative itself. Additionally, the production process can influence the content of a narrative (Riessman, 2003) and such information is not available to the analyst. The “behind the scenes” language use between the video author and collaborators is not available, we only see a part of the complex role that language plays in the experience and performance of citizen identity. Additionally, the languages used by a collaborator may influence the language use of the narrator. Finally, we can only speculate as to the intended audience that the narrator had in mind when they shared their deportation narrative.

Digital narratives foster a platform through which individuals can express citizen identity through the author-audience interaction. Given that the narratives in the present corpus are archived on YouTube, there is arguably a presumed understanding of the global status of the audience. For van Zoonen et al. (2010) the notion of citizenship can be thought of as connectivity because citizenship as a performance requires interaction between the individual performing citizenship and a viewer or listener that validates the performance. Accordingly, “Their videos thus perform a kind of citizenship, an outreach to strangers as it were, that is based on the desire to present a true picture of oneself to others, and to solve misunderstandings” (van Zoonen et al., 2010, p. 259). The digital narratives of deportation discussed and analyzed in the present study can be described as van Zoonen et al. (2010) would propose above, as a sort of ‘outreach to strangers’, a gesture of testimony that asks the listeners and viewers to understand their story, and to view citizenship through the same lens. Furthermore, citizenship is embedded in the performance itself: “by doing citizenship one becomes a citizen” (p. 252). While the content of the digital narratives discussed here covers a range of themes, what the videos have in common is an assumption about the audience: there is an audience that chooses to hear the speaker’s story. Further analysis of the audience’s role in the language use of deportation narratives needs to be explored.

A gen1.5 narrator’s choice to speak in English throughout their story of deportation emphasizes their status as someone who knows the dominant language of the U.S., as well as knowledge of American culture, including English as the language most associated with school and education in the U.S. The majority of states in the U.S. only offer monolingual English education, a fact that should not be forgotten when considering why children are ‘raised’ speaking English over other languages in the U.S., and likely fosters and reinforces ideologies that place English as a trait that makes one a citizen, as addressed in Zaret’s narrative. Citizen identity as indexed by language could be thought of as a tag that marks a particular social identity (Ochs, 1996). Speakers are actively constructing themselves through language as members in particular social, political, and geographical spaces. Such a tag could be language choice, such as speaking in English, Spanish, or code-switching. How speakers identify themselves matters when structures such as educational institutions and government agencies exist to inform and perpetuate such tags. For many gen1.5 adults like Danny, the experience of citizen identity acquired in the U.S. results in feeling that “first they Americanize you and then they throw you out” (2017). For many gen1.5 adults, doing citizen identity through language is learned and expected in the U.S., and follows them to the other side of the border. The stories discussed in the present study reveal that both language ideologies and practices interact with the mere possibilities of citizen identity formation and maintenance.


The present study offers an initial analysis of the role of language in what it means to be a citizen for generation 1.5 adults forced to repatriate to Mexico by the United States. In order to more thoroughly approach the topics discussed here, future studies should offer macro-level critical discourse analysis, such as content analysis of discourses produced in American and Mexican media, to examine the features of language ideologies that inform understandings of the role of language in citizen identity. The study urges social scientists and activists to be attentive to the ways that language contributes to what it means to belong in certain contexts and spaces, particularly for generation 1.5 adults. Such understanding is necessary to best support the social and linguistic identities, as well as the linguistic needs of generation 1.5 adults after deportation.

Due to the realities experienced by forced-returnees that make physical access to interviews and other methods of data collection difficult, in addition to the social justice movement currently thriving on the web, researchers and social activists should continue to explore language use in digital narratives. Identity, belonging, and language interact with experiences of migration and repatriation for generation 1.5 individuals in unique ways. What can linguists do to disrupt the hostile language ideologies that result in bullying or housing fraud, such as Zaret experienced? The impact of deportation crosses generations, languages, and man-made borders. There are voices to be heard.


In addition to Professor Robert Irwin, I would like to thank my fellow researchers and members of the Humanizando la Deportación research team that I worked with in the video collaborations mentioned: Guillermo Alonso Meneses, Danae Valenzuela, Sarah Hart, Lizbeth de la Cruz Santana, Ana Luisa Calvillo, John Guzman, Yesika Ordaz, Yaira Maren, Marlene Mercado, José Israel Ibarra, and Dörte Krebsbach.


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APPENDIX I: Transcription conventions

[…] indicates omitted excerpt or utterance

# incomprehensible utterance

italics denotes a translation

APPENDIX II: Translation of Zaret’s excerpt

21 And I feel like the hardest transition from Mexico to the states was the language

29 And I think my mom was really smart when she said, “at home

30 don’t speak English. At home I want you to continue to speak Spanish because if for

31 some reason we go back to Mexico you need to have Spanish”

39 insecurity in the house. I believe a lot of what we experienced and what

40 we can share is something really unpleasant. The fact that we have that

41 insecurity and that fear that something is going to happen, and not something good. If

42 anything something – something that can destroy your family. The fact that obviously

43 there’s also bullying in school like “look she can’t speak English, listen to her English”

a lot of things that

44 can affect you, and not just kids but any person.

[i] These statistics, while reported by the MPI, use calculations from Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), “Encuesta sobre migración en la frontera norte de México (EMIF Norte)” accessed by MPI September 2, 2016 www.colef.mx/emif/eng/bases.php; SEGOB “Boletines Estadísticos”, 2005, 2010, and 2015.

Navigating competing identities through stance-taking: A case of Ukrainian teenagers

Volume 2(1): 2018

ELIZABETH PEACOCK, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


Scholars of postsocialism have shown how nation and citizenship are shifting along with political and economic borders, and the movement of people across these borders. However, few have examined these transformations through the ways in which individuals take up stances in everyday interactions. Ukraine’s current economic and political difficulties reveal a disconnect between what western Ukrainians feel they deserve and the economic realities that drive them to seek work abroad, which is evident in competing views on migration. This article brings together ethnography and stance theory to examine how teenagers draw upon and engage with a variety of social views to evaluate migration, position themselves and others in relationship to migration, as well as to (dis)align themselves with others in these interactions. The data examined herein come from an informal group discussion held at one public school in a middle-class neighborhood in western Ukraine. The analysis suggests that the stances teenagers take towards Ukrainian migration potentially affect the social identities teenagers construct within their existing peer groups by unintentionally bringing forward socioeconomic class identities that threaten group boundaries based on friendship. In taking up these stances, western Ukrainian teenagers also convey the role migration has in who they are and who they want to be, and reflect the broader views on migration in Ukrainian society.


Les chercheurs s’intéressant au post-socialisme ont montré comment la nation et la citoyenneté évoluent avec les frontières politiques et économiques, et avec le mouvement des personnes à travers ces frontières. Cependant, peu ont examiné ces transformations en étudiant la façon dont les individus prennent position dans les interactions quotidiennes. Les difficultés économiques et politiques actuelles de l’Ukraine révèlent une déconnexion entre ce que les Ukrainiens de l’Ouest estiment mériter et les réalités économiques qui les poussent à chercher du travail à l’étranger, ce qui est évident dans les opinions divergentes sur les migrations. Dans cet article, je lie l’ethnographie et la théorie des attitudes pour examiner comment les adolescents s’inspirent d’une variété de visions sociales pour évaluer la migration, se positionner eux-mêmes et d’autres en relation avec la migration, et se dissocier des autres dans l’interaction. Les données examinées ici proviennent d’une discussion de groupe informelle tenue dans une école publique d’un quartier de classe moyenne dans l’ouest de l’Ukraine. L’analyse suggère que les attitudes des adolescents vis-à-vis de la migration ukrainienne affectent potentiellement les identités sociales que les adolescents construisent au sein de leurs groupes de pairs existants en introduisant involontairement des identités de classes socio-économiques qui menacent les frontières de groupe basées sur l’amitié. En adoptant ces positions, les adolescents de l’ouest de l’Ukraine expriment également le rôle que la migration joue sur la construction de leur identité et reflètent les perspectives plus larges sur la migration dans la société ukrainienne.

Keywords: identity, stance, youth, migration, Ukraine.


Since the early 1990s, migration from Ukraine has been the result of poor living conditions (Shamshur & Malinovska, 1994) that stem from larger economic troubles: the collapse of the USSR and changing relations with the former Soviet republics; hyperinflation following its 1991 independence; growing unemployment, as well as political instability and corruption (Sutela, 2012; Wilson, 2013). For example, the GDP per capita of Ukraine fell from $1,490 in 1991, to $636 in 1999, and was hit hard during the 2008-2009 global economic crisis (Wilson, 2013). Continuing political instability is evident in the 2004 Orange Revolution, the 2014 Euromaidan protests, the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing military conflict in the eastern Donbass regions. Though Ukrainians have historically migrated throughout Russia and other former Soviet Republics, and to Western Europe and North America to escape the Soviet regime, the persisting economic and social instability of post-1991 has pushed many more to seek work abroad (Hormel & Southworth, 2006; Solari, 2014; Tolstokorova, 2009; Vollmer & Malynovska, 2016). As a result, Ukraine has become one of the top emigration countries in the world, with approximately 12.3% of its population living abroad in 2013 (Ukraine, 2016). While Russia and the United States were the top receiving countries for Ukrainians in 2013 (Ukraine, 2016), for those living in western regions like L’viv, a major city near the European Union border, migration often means travelling to nearby Poland and other European Union countries, such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and Portugal (Fedyuk & Kindler, 2016).

Ukraine’s current economic and political difficulties reveal a disconnect between what western Ukrainians feel they deserve as “Europeans” and the economic realities that drive them to seek work abroad (Montefusco, 2008; Solari, 2010; Tolstokorova, 2009). This disconnect is evident in competing views of migration, which weigh the potential economic advantages against the social disadvantages. On the one hand, migration is viewed by many western Ukrainians as a way to reclaim their pre-Soviet European heritage, through living a “normal” life predicated on achieving a European middle-class lifestyle (Galbraith, 2004; Patico, 2008; Peacock, 2012; 2015; Schulze, 2010). It also gives migrants the opportunity to support their families financially, and to gain the cultural capital that comes with experiencing Europe first-hand (Zhurzhenko, 2010). Remittances, such as providing for a child’s education, help to support those back home and can be the primary support for relatives in rural villages (Dickinson, 2005). In addition, successful migrants can return home with the knowledge and resources to help make their home country “European again.” As Tolstokorova (2009) explains, “Young people with experience of foreign employment have more active positions, higher self-reliance and economic self-sufficiency, and stronger responsibility for their own lives. . . .Furthermore, international experience. . .increases linguistic competence and communication skills, expands cultural horizons and intercultural tolerance” (p.10).

Migration, however, has its downsides. Migrants may find themselves exploited by former co-nationals or locals due to their immigration status, their lack of a social support system, and their inability to speak the local language. While their pay may benefit their families, their status abroad is often that of the underclass, and their absence is often blamed for many of Ukraine’s social problems. This migration puts Ukraine in a bind as it reflects traditional Third World migration patterns (Solari, 2010). The perception that Ukrainian emigrants might come more from a Third World country, rather than a First World one, is evident in some of the risks Ukrainian migrants face, such as human trafficking (Solari, 2010).

There is also fear that migration dissolves the nation, since parents are separated from their children and fewer young adults remain to raise their own families. Though additional economic resources give the children of emigrants valuable social capital, it often comes with a lack of parental attention (Tolstokorova, 2009). Ukrainians who leave to work abroad are often seen as less committed to the nation, as they may never return, and linguistically and culturally assimilate to their host countries of northern and western Europe, Canada, and the United States (cf. Solari, 2014). Those who remain see themselves as having been abandoned, left to solve the country’s problems on their own or to emigrate themselves.

Even the youngest generation in L’viv, who has only known independent Ukraine and has seen the borders of Europe expand to within 60 miles of their home city, is aware of both the potential benefits and risks of migrating to Europe. This generation, even more so than their parents, sees itself as torn between two obligations: the duty to retain their Ukrainian-ness—their language, their culture, their love of the country, on the one hand; and, the expectation to help Ukraine rejoin the rest of the Western world, on the other.

In this article, I examine the stances taken by a group of western Ukrainian teenagers on migration, where a stance is viewed as a type of social action that potentially affects the social identities constructed within their existing peer groups and reflects the broader views on migration in the Ukrainian society. These teenagers draw upon and engage with a variety of social views to evaluate migration, position themselves and others in relationship to migration, and to (dis)align themselves with others in the interaction. They learn particular views about the value of migration from the media, their parents—stories that circulate within their peer and family social networks—and in the attitudes expressed at their schools, such as teachers’ attitudes towards the parents of students who work abroad or in stories that describe migration as the primary source of domestic problems and child neglect. In taking up these stances, western Ukrainian teenagers also convey which of their identities are most salient in the interaction, and the role migration has in who they are and who they want to be.


DuBois (2007) defined stance as “a linguistically articulated form of social action” that is “shaped by the complex interplay of collaborative acts by dialogic co-participants” (p. 139, 142). In order to interpret the meaning of any particular stance, what must be known or inferred from the interaction is the identity of the stance taker, the object of stance-taking, and to what prior stance the stance taker is responding (DuBois, 2007). Stance takers position themselves towards a shared object of the interaction and its context. Such context is important for understanding stance-taking because the positioning of the stance taker, and their alignment to the stances of others, often takes into account existing social relations, the relevant in-the-moment context, and stance taker’s current social identity among their peer groups (Jaffe, 2009; Wortham, 2006). DuBois’ (2007) “stance triangle” emphasizes the process through which speakers perform social acts through stance: as a subject evaluates a shared stance object, they simultaneously position themselves and others, and align themselves with other subjects (p.163). As such, stances can be viewed as “acts of identity” (Le Page & Tabouret-Keller, 1985) that are co-constructed by participants in response to the stances they take towards the shared stance object and the alignments they make toward each other. As the salient social identities of participants are often in-flux, these “identities-in-interaction” (Antaki & Widdicombe, 1998) can play a role in stance-taking and realignment with the stances of others.

More than any other social groups, youth actively engage with processes of identity construction as they distance themselves from their parents, connect to their peers, and otherwise respond to wider social phenomena (Bucholtz, 2002). One way in which they juggle various identities is through the stances they take and the alignments they make with the stances of their peers (Eckert, 1989; Goodwin, 2006). These stances can more clearly reveal the social views and values in wide circulation, as well as illustrate the effects of stance-taking on unfolding interactions. An individual’s stance-taking can be the result of particular social identities, such as class, but can also affect other salient identities, like membership in a particular friendship group.


The data examined here comes from a larger 16-month research project conducted in L’viv, Ukraine in 2006-2007, which investigated what the first generation of independent Ukraine learned about “being Ukrainian”, and how they were developing a sense of national identity. To these ends, I conducted participant observations, semi-structured interviews, and informal group discussions with teachers, students, and parents at two neighborhood public secondary schools. The Taras Shevchenko school was located in a working-class neighborhood, comprised of several Soviet-era apartment blocks. Ivan Franko was located in a middle-class neighborhood with detached homes in an area historically associated with L’viv’s intellectual elite.i Between the two schools, I followed three cohorts during their 8th and 9th grade years, attended a variety of classes with them, spent time visiting their homes, and asked them about current events, their uses of language, and their views on what it meant to be Ukrainian. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the analysis of the data collected during one informal group discussion at Ivan Franko school, which focused on students’ future aspirations, attitudes and experiences with international travel, and what they had heard about Ukrainians living abroad. The audio recording of the discussion was transcribed and translated. Instances of stance-taking (IST) were selected from the session and were examined within the context of the emerging interaction by taking into consideration DuBois’ (2007) “stance triangle”, as well as the ethnographically-informed context of the backgrounds and relations between individual students.

During the project, migration emerged as an important point of discussion among teachers and parents. At Taras Shevchenko, parents’ work abroad was viewed as problematic, one that was often voiced by the students’ homeroom teacher during her public scolding of two boys whose mothers worked in Italy and, in her opinion, their poor grandmothers were hopeless in keeping the boys properly disciplined. According to her, without their mothers at home, the boys were destined to become delinquents. The issue of migration at the middle-class school, on the other hand, was more nuanced. Though some students at Ivan Franko had parents working in lower-income jobs abroad, and so were unable to visit their families on a regular basis, migration was not limited to the working class. Rather, working or being educated abroad had an appeal for those with more financial means; a middle-class teenager, for example, could envision gaining both a college degree and first-hand experience of living in a foreign country.

At both schools, two views of migration were apparent in the stances students took toward the issue of migration. The positive view focused on the financial and personal benefits of going abroad. The negative view centered on the dangers of being a migrant in a foreign land and the neglect of one’s family that it resulted in. This negative view was also found towards other students and their stances, including students who were close friends and those who were merely classmates. As such, not all uses of these two views on the value of migration resulted in disruptions of the existing group boundaries. Rather, participants’ stances at times reinforced these boundaries and at other times challenged them.


Friendship groups among teenagers in Ukraine often cross class boundaries, as the socialist value of equality among people continues to prevail. In typical interactions, different classroom statuses allow for the most vocal students to disagree with others with little risk to the existing social relationships, which are based on their status in a peer group, class, and shared interests. The instances of stance-taking that follow occurred during a group discussion among one cohort of 8th graders at Ivan Franko, which was attended by nine girls and two boys, and was held in a classroom after school. The most vocal participants were girls who belonged to two different friendship groups. Ksenya and Vika both come from middle-class families, and are part of the “popular” girls’ friendship group. Whereas, Vika comes from the long-standing middle-class intelligentsia in L’viv, Ksenya’s family is part of the emerging “new” middle class. Her father is an independent businessman and her mother is a housewife by choice, not because of any lack of employment opportunities. Her entire family has also traveled abroad, including a family trip to Egypt with the family of another girl at school. Marta and Sofiya are part of another friendship group in the class. Marta is working-class, the daughter of flower sellers who often send her to spend summers with her rural relatives. Sofiya, like Ksenya, is also part of the emerging middle class; her father migrated to the United States and was working there during that time.

In IST 1 below, class differences lead to competing perspectives on the need to migrate in order to obtain gainful employment.

IST 1: Employment opportunities in Ukraine

Marta ale v Ukrajini lihshi umoby but it’s ideal conditions in Ukraine
Ksenya ale v polovyny= but in the middle=
Nadiya =na naihirshykh robotakh= =in the worst work=
Ksenya =ne znaidesh sobi robota, jakshcho v tebe ne maje, napryklad, vyshchoji osvity, bez vyshchoji osvity nikuda ne berut’, rozumijut’ =you can’t find work for yourself, if you don’t have, for example, a higher education, without a higher education you can’t go anywhere, you know
Marta Mozhna! [mozhna znaity You can! [you can find
FSTii [mozhna znaity, Ksenja, robota shchob [you can find, Ksenya, work that
Marta Ksenya, v Ukrajini zara povno roboty, to ne, to shcho p”jat’ rokiv tomu, prosto ljudy vvyjizhdzhajut’ tuda z [Ukrajiny Ksenya, now in Ukraine there’s full-time work, it’s not like five years ago, it’s just that people migrate there from [Ukraine
Ksenya [ljudy vvyjizhajut’, tomu shcho vony khochut’ krashchoho [zhyttja [people migrate because they want a better [life
Vika [dumaju [I think


Though migrating abroad is unnecessary according to those like working-class Marta, middle-class Ksenya finds migration to be the best and only choice for those with limited education, as well as a way for the middle class to meet their own financial and education goals. In their attempts to take the floor—evidenced by their supporting peers’ latching and overlapping, and Ksenya’s overlap—Marta’s and Ksenya’s opposing stances reinforce their different class positions and friendship group identities.

When multiple identifications are at play, participants can also maneuver their positions in order to favor one identity over another, such as refining one’s stance to align with the morality of one’s peers rather than other non-peers. Though Ksenya and Sofiya usually occupy different positions in the classroom social order, in IST 2, they find themselves taking a similar stance on the value of living abroad, but give different reasons for doing so.

IST 2: I want to live in Ukraine, but. . .

Marta a khochu zhyty v Ukrajini ale maty majetok= I want to live in Ukraine but have an estate=
Sofiya =a ja tozhe khochu zhtyty v kvartyry ale v Londoni =and I also want to live in an apartment but in London
Nadiya v Londoni, duzhe dorohi kvartyry, So[fi in London, apartments are really expensive, So[fi
Sofiya [a nu j shi, ale vse odno meni duzhe Anhlija [podobavajet’sja [so what, it doesn’t matter to me, I really [like England
Nadiya [tam hodynnyky (rzhavijut’) [there’s a clock they ( )
Sofiya meni L’ondon duzhe syl’no podobajet’sja khot’ na p”jat’ khvylyn for me, London is really grand, I liked it after five minutes
((segment skipped))
Vika ja ne khochu…a meni podobaju’tsja v Ukrajini I don’t want to ((go abroad))…I like being in Ukraine
Nadiya a ja b khotila tak mozhe [na ne vse zhyttja I would like to, maybe [but not all my life
Ksenya [ja b khotila pojikhaty za kordon navchatysja, ale ne zhyty [I would like to go abroad to study, but not to live
Maryna Ta yeah
Ksenya a potim povernulasja and return after
Nadiya u v vas taka niby vy zaraz jak vchytesja ale, tak, nu, piznajete svit, nu, mozhete jizdyty tam po svitu for you now it’s as if you’re like studying but, yeah, well, you get to know the world, well, you can go there all over the world
Vika a my, sho ne mozhem? and what about us, we can’t?

While Sofiya favours living in a foreign country due to the more comfortable lifestyle and higher standard of living she could gain there, Ksenya finds the experience of living in another country as a way to improve her life back in Ukraine. Rather than seeking a more comfortable European life and contributing to the country’s growing “brain drain” problem (cf. Solari, 2010), Ksenya’s goal is to get a professional degree at a European university and then return to Ukraine. Though Ksenya agrees with Sofiya that not everything is bad about living abroad, she places more emphasis on her desire to return to Ukraine, framing her desire to emigrate as a particular, demarcated stage in her life, not as the lifetime goal that Sofiya holds. By emphasizing how her stance diverges from Sofiya’s, Ksenya is able to maintain her social distance from Sofiya. Ksenya elaborates in IST 3, where she navigates her similar stance to Sofiya while also managing her disalignment from her close friend, Vika.

IST 3: They want to see something else

Ksenya chomu za kordon? why go abroad?
Sofiya bo za kordonom lipshe, meni zdajet’sja= because it’s easier abroad it seems to me=
Vika =ni ni =no no
Sofiya tak yes
FST ja protestuju I’m against it
((dull thud, followed by laughter))
Natalya tam baksy , baksy zeleni there’s bucks, green bucks
Ksenya ni nje tomu shcho khochet’sja pobachyty shos’ inshe nizh v nas ne til’ky nashu Ukrajinu tobto za kordonom vse rivno jakis’ inshi ljudy spilkuvannja inshe no no because they want to see something different, not only what we have in Ukraine, that is, abroad everything is different, different people and other kinds of interactions

In this way, Ksenya is able to present an identity of a future moral Ukrainian emigrant, one who uses emigration for life improvements and then returns home. By spending time in another country, migrants can experience things that cannot be experienced at home, and can return to Ukraine with greater world experience. In taking this stance, however, Ksenya finds resistance from her friends Vika and Natalya. Vika’s “no” works to reject Sofiya’s claims that life abroad is “easier”, but also foretells her later stance against the value of migration (IST 4). Natalya’s emphasis on seeking money, specifically U.S. dollars (“bucks”), also indirectly resists Ksenya’s claim that migrating leads to deeper changes in the migrants themselves. Though Ksenya is able to negatively align from Sofiya’s position, her strong support of migration reveals possible disalignment from her own friends.

Marta’s and Ksenya’s class identities in IST 1, and Sofiya’s and Ksenya’s class identities in IST 2-3, do not subsume their existing peer group identities. However, a person’s stance-taking can result in the domination of some of identities over others even if the person does not intentionally seek to highlight the dominating identities. Though both Ksenya and Vika belong to the same friendship group, they find themselves taking different stances on whether working abroad is beneficial for Ukrainians. From Ksenya’s perspective, as part of the new middle class, she claims that Ukrainians without a college degree can work as managers and earn more money in Europe than those with degrees in Ukraine. In contrast, Vika comes from a family who is part of city’s long-standing, urban middle class, which values education for itself and which retains social prestige but not necessarily the financial resources equal to that status. As such, Vika challenges Ksenya’s claim saying, “they aren’t managers”, which aligns with Marta’s earlier stance in the discussion (not shown here) that these migrants “abandon their families” when they move abroad to work.

In an effort to explain her view, Vika describes the precarious position of Ukrainian migrants by presenting a narrative about her grandmother’s friend, a woman who found herself in prison in IST 4.

IST 4: Where do you appeal, if you’re not a resident?

Vika I taka sama Italija, pojikhala mojeji babtsi podruzhka, i sho ty dumajesh? jij zrobyly nepravyl’ni dokumenty, vona v tjurmi cydila prosto tak, prosto tak, piv rokiv bo jiji zrobyla tam nepravyl’ni dokumenty, ne tut, jiji zrobyla nepravyl’ni, a tam, i tak povyna ljudej And it’s the same in Italy, my grandmother’s friend went, and what do you think? They made her illegal documents, she sat in prison, yeah only, only, yeah for half a year because she had illegal documents with her there, not here, illegal ones made for her there, and- and, yeah, people have to do it
Lana mozhna ljudy, nu i sho? people might, so what of it?
Vika a sho, nu i sho? Ljudyna prosto tak v tjurmi sydila? tomu shcho jiji hospodari zrobyly jij nepravyl’ni dokumenty and what, so what? people just have to go to jail? because her bosses made illegal documents for her
FST Vsjaki robljat’ dokumenty they make all kinds of documents
Vika a zvidky vona znala sho nepravyl’ni, a tak pobynni ljudej kuda ty zverneshsja, jaksho ty ne mistseva? and how did she know they were illegal? but people have to. where do you appeal, if you’re not a resident?
Ksenya dobre, Vika. davai good, Vika. give us the next one
((open palm hit on tabletop)) ((open palm hit on tabletop))
Nadiya ty musysh ity v jakes’ posol’stvo, zrobyjaty svoji dokumenty, tobi zh ne hospodari tuda idut’ vyrobljaty jikh? you have to go to some kind of embassy, to get your own documents, not have the boss there go and do them for you?
Vika tak, vizu to vsë tak, ale shob vona maje dokumenty [sho vona tam mozhe perebuvaty yeah, all visas are like that, but if she has documents [that she can look over there
Sofiya [ale vona mozhe pereviryty= [but she can verify them=
Nadiya =Vika, vona mozhna pereviryty, khto znaje ukrajins’ku movu, khto pratsjuje, i pereviryty documenty =Vika, she can verify them, someone knows Ukrainian, someone works there, and verify the documents
Ksenya davaite tak, skil’ky poluchaje nasha sidjelka? hryven’ p’jat sot, shist sot, ne bil’she. v misjats’. skil’ky polochaje tam zhe sama sidjelka z Ukrajiny? ja dumaju shcho= tell me, how much does our nurse get? five, six hundred hryven, not more. a month. how much does this nurse from Ukraine probably get there on her own? I think that=
Maryna =°tysjachu dolariv°= =°a thousand dollars°=
Ksenya =tysjachu dolariv, vona des’ tak i poluchaje- ljudy- Vika, tam vyshchyj riven’ zhyttja, rozumijesh? =a thousand dollars, she gets around that, peop- Vika, it’s a higher standard of living, you know?
Sofiya tam mozhe hirshe znannja, ale lipshyj riven’ zhyttja, °ja- ja prosto hovorju° maybe there’s worse information there, but it’s an ideal the standard of living, °I- I only say°
Vika dobre. vsë. good. and that’s all.
Ksenya [davaite dal’she= [give us another one=
FST [davaite dal’she= [give us another one=
Ksenya =bo zaraz posvarymsja =because now we’re fighting

In her narrative, Vika paints a bleak picture of the Ukrainian migrant as a person who has no choice but to migrate with false documents, and who is powerless at the hands of both the Ukrainian and the European states where they end up. In telling this story, the discussion shifts towards issues of immigrant labour rights, forcing the group to face the deeper ramifications of migration beyond employment opportunities and livable wages. After attempting to change the subject, Ksenya repeats her initial stance: the hopes of higher wages are enough to justify why Ukrainians would risk becoming undocumented workers in Europe. While the girls agree that migration will solve many of the economic hardships Ukrainians face at home, their peer group harmony is threatened over the reality that those of different socioeconomic classes may have very different migration experiences and opportunities.

These teenagers find themselves crossing the existing peer group boundaries in taking various stances on migration. Just as Ksenya unexpectedly finds herself positively aligning with non-friend Sofiya in their shared desire to live in Europe, Vika now finds herself in alignment with working-class, non-friends in her desire to remain living Ukraine and in her apprehension of working abroad. Furthermore, the experience of her grandmother’s friend has had an impact on Vika’s stance on migration. If someone like her grandmother’s friend could only migrate with falsified documents and potentially end up in jail because of them, then others like her might one day end up in a similar position. For Vika, undocumented migration is not only the fate of the poor or uneducated, it could happen to a middle-class person like herself.

The Ukraines and Europes that these teenagers describe contrast both economically and morally. The stances taken by these teenage girls support the idea that many Ukrainians migrate for good reasons. Ksenya’s stance in favor of migration highlights the superior European schooling system, and the benefits that higher European wages can bring to migrants, their families, and wider Ukraine in the long term. However, these teenagers hold divergent stances when it comes to the value of migration at a larger scale. For Vika and many of her working-class peers, living abroad can also lead to the rejection of Ukraine, an immoral greediness and focus on individual improvement over that of one’s community, and a life of ease that ignores and avoids the problems faced by their compatriots living in Ukraine. In addition, migration may take away their social support networks and leave them at the mercy of foreign powers, regardless of their social class. This latter stance suggests a traditionally moral Ukraine and a degraded Europe that threatens it; if all of Ukraine were to become like this Europe, it would no longer be Ukraine.


The stances taken and discussed in the ISTs towards migration are connected to the teenagers’ perceptions of Ukraine, and Ukrainians, at the multiple levels (Peacock, 2012; 2016). For example, their stances contrast Ukrainians who decide to migrate and those who do not, between Ukrainian emigrants and those living in their host countries, and between the typical life in Ukraine and in these host countries. Among their various stances, the teenagers seem to agree that western Ukrainians have found themselves on the losing side of the “have-nots,” while the countries abroad provide better opportunities for education and better financial gains, which makes it more difficult for them to become “normal” and “European”, as they deserve.

In their stance-taking, young people draw upon views and values of migration to position themselves both towards the topic of migration, and to align themselves towards their peers. When these views are situated within different logic worlds, however, stance-taking can become a complex process of multiple participants working together to manage (dis)alignments and maintain the pre-existing social order. Participants’ various competing social identities may also influence how they position themselves towards contentious issues and other participants’ stances. Emerging social class identities, such as those in places under transition, can affect which views and values young people are most familiar with, as well as which expectations they hold. In other words, stance-taking, and the worlds that create and are created in the process of stance-taking, highlight the various ways in which people may live in different worlds, worlds that delimit the kinds of experiences they have and what kind of people they may become.

In western Ukraine, teenagers’ stances on migration are shaped by their social positions and the particular worlds these positions create. In the examples discussed in this paper, the stances taken by the Ukrainian teenagers show how they try to make meaning of the conflicting views on migration that exist in the Ukrainian society. The stances they take reflect their values, their aspirations, and their fears. These stances also reflect teenagers’ attempts to try to make meaning of the conflicting views on migration and the life abroad that circulate in the mainstream society. At the same time, the stances the teenagers take bring up underlying social differences, such as social class and their status in a peer group, which unintentionally threaten to disrupt the existing friendship group identities and boundaries. As these teenagers work to manage their conflicting evaluations of Ukrainian migration, they simultaneously mitigate or highlight their (dis)alignments with their peers along friendship and class lines.

The ways in which these youth view Ukrainian migrants can also have a larger impact on Ukrainian society. The debates over whether migrants are retaining or rejecting their Ukrainian identity reveal not just ambivalence towards the role of Ukraine in various perspectives of global migration, but also in how to define Ukrainian identity. While some leave little room for emigrants to remain authentically Ukrainian, others see emigrants as potentially creating a new kind of a hyphenated, dual identity, one that combines the best of Ukraine and Europe.


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i The names of both schools and all participants are pseudonyms.
ii FST refers to a female student who could not be identified by name on the audio recording.

“Maybe Jesus knows sign”: Resistance through identity formation

Volume 2(1): 2018

TIMOTHY Y. LOH, Georgetown University


This anthropological research paper explores how Deaf Christians negotiate their identity as members of two distinct identity groups: Deaf and Christian. The historical perception of Deaf and other disabled peoples in the church has not been positive, and a number of Christians today also view disability as one consequence of a fallen world that God will eventually restore. Since—beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the present time—many Deaf people believe that Deafness is a cultural, even ethnic, identity centered around American Sign Language rather than a disability (Lane, 2005), Deaf Christians in America today occupy a unique position of belonging to two identity groups, whose beliefs may conflict with one another and who may not have the same perspective on what constitutes disability. Using ethnographic evidence among Deaf Christians in Washington, DC, I argue that Deaf Christian identity formation can be seen as a nexus of resistance against deaf-deficient narratives in Christianity, which have historical roots and still hold much currency today. My interlocutors do not necessarily see a conflict between their Deaf and Christian identities, seeing both instead as a single identity of “Deaf Christian,” which they index (Ochs, 2009) through conversion narratives, a discourse of “God’s purpose,” and a desire for better inclusion. In using these language forms, Deaf Christians not only point to its existence but also serve to reinforce its existence.


Cet article reprend une recherche anthropologique et explore comment les Chrétiens Sourds négocient leur identité en tant que membres de deux groupes identitaires distincts : les Sourds et les Chrétiens. La perception historique des sourds et des autres personnes handicapées dans l’Église n’a pas été positive, et un certain nombre de Chrétiens considèrent encore aujourd’hui le handicap comme une conséquence d’un monde déchu que Dieu restaurera. Depuis le début des années 1960, de nombreux sourds croient que la surdité est une identité culturelle, voire ethnique, centrée autour de la langue des signes américaine, plutôt qu’un handicap (Lane, 2005). Les personnes sourdes et chrétiennes aux États-Unis bénéficient donc d’une double appartenance à ces groupes identitaires, dont les croyances peuvent éventuellement entrer en conflits et qui ne partagent pas la même définition du handicap. En utilisant des preuves ethnographiques parmi les Chrétiens Sourds à Washington, je soutiens que la formation de l’identité chrétienne des sourds peut être considérée comme un lien de résistance contre les récits sourds-déficients dans le christianisme, qui ont des racines historiques et qui demeurent encore vivaces. Mes interlocuteurs ne perçoivent pas nécessairement un conflit entre leurs identités de Sourds et de Chrétiens, considérant les deux comme une seule identité de « Sourd-Chrétien », qu’ils indiquent (Ochs, 2009) à travers des récits de conversion, un discours sur « le dessein de Dieu » et le désir d’une meilleure intégration. En utilisant ces formes de langage, les Chrétiens sourds montrent leur existence, mais s’en servent aussi afin de la renforcer.

Keywords: deafness, Deafness, disability, religion, Christianity, identity, indexicality, linguistic anthropology.


During our interview, Lucas1 recounted a story to me told to him by his brothers-in-law, who had both attended Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the world, in the early 2000s. On the first day of their class on Deaf2 history in America, the professor asked the class, “Who here is Christian?” A few students raised their hands. Pointing at each of them in turn, the professor said, “You. . .you. . .you. . . are stupid and feeble-minded.”

Laughing at the absurdity of the situation, Lucas went on to explain that this professor also coauthored a book about the making of the Deaf community in America, in which he had written:

The New Testament contains neither commandments to treat deaf people decently nor promises that one day all shall be free of disabilities. . . they are depicted as sick beings to be cured by the miraculous powers of Jesus. The deaf individual is lost as a human being. Mark shows no concern or empathy for the deaf man; he merely exploits his condition to demonstrate supernatural power. The possibility that deaf persons may be part of God’s plan, that He created them for a larger purpose, is absent. (Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989, p. 3)

When Lucas had finished signing out the paragraph, he said, “I read it and it’s clear that [the author] isn’t interpreting the Scripture in the proper way. You have to read it in context. He is taking a sentence out of the context and it means something different—but that’s my view.” Lucas believed that the professor was writing from an atheist’s perspective, and therefore drew such dire conclusions; for himself, however, as a Christian of more than 40 years, the notion that God has such a low view of deaf people, and that he did not have a purpose for them, was simply inconceivable.

The anecdote I share above illustrates the central problematic I discuss in this paper: the relationship between Deafness and Christianity; in particular, the unique identity configuration of individuals with both Deaf and Christian identities. In this context, Deafness refers to a cultural identity centered around American Sign Language rather than to physiological hearing loss, distinguished by the use of the capital “d”. As Harlan Lane (2005) has written, “It has become widely known that there is a Deaf-World in the United States, as in other nations, citizens whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL) and who identify as members of that minority culture” (p. 291).

Deaf Christians in the United States are in the unique position of belonging to both Deaf and Christian identity groups. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the present time, the former group have believed that Deafness is a cultural, even ethnic, identity. Many, given the choice, would rather stay Deaf than become part of the hearing community; for example, Lane (2005) recounted an incident when Gallaudet’s first Deaf president, I. King Jordan, was asked on Sixty Minutes if he would like to be hearing, to which his response was, “That’s almost like asking a black person if he would rather be white. . .I don’t think of myself as missing something or as incomplete” (p. 298).

The latter group, on the other hand, views disability (of which deafness is often considered a part) theologically, as one consequence of a fallen world that God will eventually restore. Historically, in traditional Christian doctrine, deaf people were often portrayed as victims of circumstance in need of healing, as the healing of disabilities was taken as a sign of Jesus’ ministry on earth (Matthew 11:4-5). In extreme cases, they were seen as being beyond salvation, based for instance in the Bible verse: “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), a view which Deaf historians Van Cleve and Crouch (1989) argued is falsely attributed to Saint Augustine, whose view towards deaf people was far more charitable. Whatever the case, “people who interpreted the Bible literally believed that it indicated that those who are deaf are denied the possibility of faith. Without faith, they cannot be Christians and cannot be saved” (p. 4). These two sets of beliefs seem to be in tension: is a deaf person disabled or not? Does a deaf person need to be healed?

In this research project, I use anthropological methods to explore the question: does an identity conflict exist for Deaf Christians? If so, how do they reconcile and resolve the conflict? I ultimately argue that a unified Deaf Christian identity exists among my informants that is indexed through three linguistic characteristics: conversion narratives, a discourse of God’s purpose, and a desire for better inclusion. Deaf Christian identity formation, I argue, can be seen as a nexus of resistance against deaf-deficient narratives in Christianity, which have historical roots and continue to hold much currency today.


Anthropologist Joel Robbins (2003) has argued that although there exist a few ethnographies of particular Christian communities, an anthropology of Christianity for itself—as a “self-conscious, comparative project” (p. 191)—has yet to truly develop, especially compared to an anthropology of Islam. Anthropological studies on the relationship between disability and Christianity are even fewer, with only one scholar, Leila Monaghan (1991), writing about the interplay of Christian and Deaf identities. She discussed these identities in the context of the founding of two Deaf churches, however, without examining if these identities come into conflict. However, the question of identity conflicts for disabled Christians did prompt Kathy Black (1996), ex-chaplain at Gallaudet University, to write A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability about healing narratives in the Bible, focusing on theological views as opposed to lived experiences of Deaf Christians. The latter aspect is the focus of this project.

Language is a useful index as an analytical tool for helping us understand how identities are formed and performed by individuals. From an anthropological framework, I follow anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod (1991) in focusing on “discourse and practice” (p. 147) as a way to avoid essentialising my informants and presenting their culture as static and unchanging. According to Elinor Ochs’ (2009) Indexicality Principle, people use particular language forms (such as interrogative forms, diminutive affairs, raised pitch, and so on) to point to particular situational meanings (such as temporal, spatial, social identities, social acts and activities, affective and epistemic stances, and so on). A linguistic index, Ochs defined, is “a structure. . .that is used variably from one situation to another and becomes conventionally associated with particular situational dimensions such that when that structure is used, the form invokes those situational dimensions” (p. 406). In particular, Ochs claimed that people use language to index social identity, for example, in hierarchical West Samoan society, “the verbs sau [“come”] and alu [“go”] index that the speaker is of a higher rank than the addressee” (p. 407). Thus, it is appropriate for older siblings to direct imperatives using these verbs at their younger siblings to index their seniority, but not for younger siblings to use them on their older siblings.

Bailey (2000) further elaborated upon how people intentionally and unintentionally use language to index identity by stating that “analysis of language and naturally occurring discourse is a means to understanding how individuals, as social actors, highlight social boundaries and activate facets of identity” (p. 192). He goes on to explain how second-generation Dominican Americans use language practices to highlight their unique identity position and differentiate themselves from other identity groups. For example, they spoke Spanish to differentiate themselves from African Americans, used certain features of African American Vernacular English to differentiate themselves from white Americans, and spoke English to differentiate themselves from Dominicans from the Dominican Republic. Coupland and Jaworski (2009a) also wrote:

Rather than reflecting society and an individual’s place within it, language use is constitutive of social differences and identities. Speakers are able to make active and reasoned linguistic choices, while also responding to the combination of social constraints regulating and restricting their verbal repertoires. (p. 31)

However, Bailey seemed to take for granted the existence of a Dominican American identity without taking into account the process of its formation and the potential conflicts that come with the meshing of two disparate identities. To understand possible responses to identity conflict, Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000) interviewed gay and lesbian Christians, who are analogous to Deaf Christians in that they also belong to two distinct identity groups whose beliefs may conflict with each other. In a similar way to disabled people, there are LGBTQ-negative narratives in Christianity, particularly American evangelicalism, which may cause an identity conflict among gay and lesbian Christians; however, these Christians may not see their sexual orientation as a choice, whereas Deaf identity, as I will elaborate upon further, is often consciously adopted. Rodriguez and Ouellette wrote that there were four strategies in response to gay Christian identity conflict: rejecting the gay identity, rejecting the Christian identity, compartmentalising, and integrating the two identities. They argued that most of the gay Christians they interviewed have successfully integrated these identities and no longer see a conflict between the two. I argue that the Deaf Christians that I interviewed have similarly integrated their identities and no longer see conflict between them.

The participants used a number of stories to index their identities as Deaf Christians, and these narratives are an important discursive tool that allows people to not only present who they are but also better understand who they are. Schriffin (1996) analysed two stories told by Jewish-American women to demonstrate how they construct their identities, using language to display their epistemic and agentive selves, their role in the family, and their identities as mothers. She emphasised the importance of narrative, the centerpiece of her argument:

Narrative is a means by which to arrive at an understanding of the self as emergent from actions and experiences, both in relation to general themes or plots and as located in a cultural matrix of meanings, beliefs, and practices. The form, content, and performance of narrative thus all provide sensitive indices of our personal selves and our social and cultural identities. (p. 194)

In my research, therefore, I attempt to elicit and analyse narratives that point to aspects of the participants’ identities.


This paper is based on data collected from five qualitative interviews I conducted with Deaf Christians over Skype as part of ethnographic fieldwork conducted at a large, multi-sited evangelical church with a Deaf ministry in Washington, D.C. over the period of a year and a half. Interestingly, the theme of disability rarely came up during this period (which could in fact point to a resolved conflict between Deaf and Christian identities), and so my findings are derived primarily from the interviews I conducted rather than from my fieldwork, during which I asked questions specifically regarding this topic.

I conducted one interview with each participant. Interviews lasted between 40 minutes and an hour and 10 minutes. I video-recorded these interviews on my laptop and then annotated them with ELAN for significant themes and important instances of linguistic use. Any quotes that I later use in this article have been translated from ASL into English by me,3,4 and I have strived to preserve the voice of the participant as far as possible by using a more literal, word-for-word approach. In line with more qualitative sociolinguistic work that has been done in recent years (see, for example, Bucholtz, 1999; Juspal & Coyle, 2010; Schriffin, 1996), rather than extrapolating my data to generalise about the experiences of all Deaf Christians, I am more interested in exploring the range of possible responses that individuals in such a position may use to respond to an identity conflict. The qualitative data I collected are useful for “helping us understand the intricacies and local complexities of more particular instances, seen ‘from the inside'” (Coupland & Jaworski, 2009b, p. 19), that is, from the perspective of Deaf Christians themselves.

Of the five participants I interviewed, four were regular attendees of the evangelical church in Washington, DC that I mentioned earlier in this section (where I was also an attendee) and had been for at least two years prior to gathering the data. The church is a large multi-site church affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination with a number of locations in the DC metropolitan area; while the vast majority of attendees are hearing, they have a small Deaf ministry at their main campus, where one of the services is interpreted into ASL. The fifth participant had attended the church at least once but now regularly attends another hearing-majority church that also has a Deaf ministry.

While all five had some degree of hearing loss and were fluent in ASL, only one of them was a native user. Jonathan had grown up in a hearing family and attended a Deaf school from two to five before transferring to a mainstream school where he did not sign as he was educated alongside non-signing hearing students. He began learning ASL again while in his first year of college and then transferred to Gallaudet where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Deaf Studies. Vikram had grown up in a deaf family in India, using a variety of homesigns and attending mainstream schools, and only learnt ASL after moving to the United States and attending Gallaudet University. Also mainstreamed alongside non-hearing peers, Lucas did not sign growing up and graduated from a hearing college in Louisiana. After graduation, he moved to Washington DC where he immersed himself in ASL and now uses it as his primary form of communication. Chelsea, the only native ASL user, has a history of hearing loss in her family and her mother and six of her seven siblings are deaf (two were born deaf). She was born hearing and began signing with her Deaf mother and older brother at a young age. She began experiencing hearing loss at the age of 15 and started wearing hearing aids, but did not identify as culturally Deaf until the last two years of high school when she attended a Deaf school. The last, Rachel, was born to and grew up in a hearing family in Singapore. As she was mainstreamed for most of her life, she did not identify as culturally Deaf until she went to Australia where she obtained her undergraduate degree in deaf education and worked as a teacher for deaf children. She spent 11 years there before coming to Gallaudet for her graduate degree and has been learning ASL intensively since then.


The analysis of the data first points to the fact that most of the participants recognise that there could be a conflict between Deaf and Christian identities, though they might not have personally experienced it themselves. Jonathan told me, for instance, that he had struggled with this very conflict between his Deaf and Christian identities in the past (as will be related in a story later). Lucas, who related the anecdote that begins this article, responded that many Deaf people had been “hurt by the church,” given the historical Christian perception of deafness as disability and even a disqualifier for salvation. On the contrary, Chelsea was very adamant in saying that she had never felt a conflict between her identity as a Deaf person and as a Christian. For Vikram, he had personally never felt a conflict between these two identities; when I asked him whether there was one, he was genuinely perplexed and asked me what I meant by that question. However, for both Chelsea and Vikram, they acknowledged that others might perceive the conflict I referred to.

For all the participants, however, they did not see or no longer saw a conflict between Deaf and Christian identities for themselves, instead assuming a new identity of being a “Deaf Christian,” one that they index through language.5 Aside from the question of whether a conflict existed, the data revealed three common themes in the participants’ responses that index the Deaf Christian identity: conversion narratives, a discourse of purpose, and a desire for better inclusion. As I discuss later in my analysis, this Deaf Christian identity and its concomitant themes should be read as a form of resistance against disability-negative narratives present in non-Deaf Christian circles.

Conversion Narratives

The first theme is data was conversion narratives. Conversion narratives are common within evangelical Christianity and wider Christian culture and are often called “testimonies.” These narratives point to the moment at which a person decides to become a Christian and often involves some element of realisation that they did not like how they were living up to that point. For example, Jonathan told the story of how he converted at a co-educational camp: “I remember hearing the story about Jesus knocking on the door of your heart. Jesus says he wants to come in, but you—the person—need to open your heart to let him in.” Chelsea also recounted that she had grown up going to Catholic church and school but never really knew what she believed. She felt the message that she heard growing up was always the same, and never had an impact on her. However, “when I got to my old church, HCC (Heritage Community Church), that’s when I understood [the message of the gospel].”

At the same time, the participants had a similar Deaf “conversion narrative,” also a trope of Deaf literature, if not necessarily labelled as such due to the religious connotations of the word “conversion.” These stories often involve a person who grows up without knowing about Deaf culture and understands deafness only as hearing loss; however, when they encounter the Deaf community for the first time, they find their “true home” there and adopt a Deaf identity (see, for example, Deaf Like Me and Deaf Again). The participants had grown up in primarily hearing environments—Lucas even stated that he had thought of himself as hearing because of his environment—and used speech growing up, but had found the Deaf community at a later stage and now primarily used sign. Jonathan recounted, “Later, when I was 17—or about 16, thereabouts—I started signing again.6 That was when I started to develop my identity from hearing—well, not really hearing, but more hard-of-hearing, more disconnected from the Deaf community. . . I started to make my way to become Deaf.”

These conversion narratives indicate how Deaf identity emerges out of a context of community and is then consciously or subconsciously adopted by its adherents and demonstrated through the learning and deliberate use of sign language.

Discourse of Purpose

The second theme is what I call the discourse of “God’s purpose.” All of the participants, at some point, mentioned their belief that God made them Deaf for some reason. While for Chelsea, the purpose was more personal, for Jonathan, Lucas, and Rachel, it was so that they could reach out to other members of the Deaf community who were not Christians.

For Chelsea, the purpose God had for her was more personal, in that she felt that the most important thing for her was having a relationship with God. As she said, “I can feel, I can have a connection with God. I have feelings, emotions. . . That’s why God made me this way: unique.”

Jonathan believed differently though. After he was not healed of hearing loss at a church service when he was 16 or 17, he had a change of heart. As he recounted:

The more I thought about it, God was really showing me, teaching me, that he made me this way for a purpose. He was not opening my ears, but opening my heart, opening my eyes, to see that his plan and purpose for me. I believe he made me Deaf so I could participate in the Deaf community, in Deaf culture, to sign. . . so I can support Deaf and hearing integration [in the church body].

He also believed that part of God’s purpose for him was also to educate other hearing Christians about Deaf identity, that many Deaf people were happy to be Deaf and did not want to be healed.

Lucas had an even more dramatic shift. He had attended a Deaf school when he was younger, but did not have a good experience there and was often made fun of by other Deaf students because he was not as fluent in sign. He had therefore eschewed anything relating to Deafness in his older years and attended a hearing college. However, he felt that in college he received a call from God to enter full-time ministry serving the Deaf community and, after speaking to his pastor, decided to move to DC to pursue that and became a full-time worker in campus ministry.

Desire for Better Inclusion

The third theme that emerged through the interviews was a desire for better inclusion in the wider Christian body as a particular group, albeit in different forms. For Lucas and Jonathan, they preferred that Deaf Christians have their own church and, in particular, their own Deaf pastor. As Lucas expressed, accessibility in a hearing church was “no substitute for a pastor preaching in sign language compared to a hearing pastor who is preaching with an interpreter.” For him, it was important for Deaf Christians to access the message and the gospel “in their own language,” that is, ASL. Even with interpreters, he felt that some parts of the message were always lost. Jonathan insisted that no matter what a hearing church did to integrate its Deaf members, Deaf people “would always complain”—they needed a church they could consider their own, not one in which they felt they were in the margins.

Vikram, on the other hand, felt that Deaf Christians could be better integrated and that their needs had to be better met. For example, interpreters should stay after the service to help facilitate conversations; currently, he said, interpreters finish interpreting for the service and leave immediately after: “It’s rude!” he said. He insisted on the need for more social events, such as picnics, in which Deaf and hearing members of the church could interact and get to know each other better. Rachel, too, expressed her appreciation of her church’s efforts to provide, for example, sign language classes for hearing people so that they could converse with the Deaf members in the church.


The three themes that emerge from the data—the use of conversion narratives, the discourse of God’s purpose, and the desire for better inclusion—serve linguistically to index the integrated Deaf Christian identity that the participants have adopted. I argue that, in some ways, these three language forms are what Bucholtz (1999) has called “positive identity practices,” which are “those [practices] in which individuals engage in order actively to construct a chosen identity” (p. 211). These positive identity practices, which Bucholtz distinguished from negative identity practices—defined as “those that individuals employ to distance themselves from a rejected identity” (p. 211)—take place at different linguistic levels, including discourse. In the same way that nerd girls in Bucholtz’s study displayed a particular orientation to language form that includes punning, parody, and word coinage, to legitimise their belonging to the nerd girl community, the participants in this study use the three stated discourse-level linguistic strategies to index their belonging to the Deaf Christian community.

The Christian conversion narrative, in particular, is important in indexing belonging in the Christian community, given its prominence in the evangelical Christian tradition (which the Assemblies of God is part of). Everyone is expected to have a “testimony” and having one points to a pivotal point in the Christian’s journey, whether it be a “shift to Christianity from no religion” or the “[strengthening of] a prior commitment to Christianity” (Jindra et al., 2012, p. 2). In fact, at the church, not infrequently, there would be a short, five-minute testimony given by a member of the church just prior to the sermon that could be about God’s deliverance from a particular suffering, a renewed commitment to the faith, a recent conversion to the faith, and topics of that nature. Some of the participants were likely socialised into that experience as regular attendees of the church. Possession of a conversion narrative legitimised their membership in the Christian community, while the language the narrative was given in, ASL, plus a conversion narrative of entry into Deaf culture, indicated their unique position as members also of the Deaf community.

The formation of a Deaf Christian identity was in many ways a rejection of and a form of resistance against the label of “disabled”—and often, “in need of healing”—that hearing Christians impose on them. This is seen in that the discourse of “God’s purpose” that was utilised by many participants was often linked to specific instances of misunderstanding or ignorance by hearing people. For example, Vikram recounted an incident when he visited an interpreted service at a church in Chicago. During the service, he saw two people close by whispering among themselves, and knew immediately that they were going to pray for his healing. Sure enough, they laid their hands upon his ears and started praying. Nothing happened, but after they finished praying, one of them handed him a piece of paper, on it asking him if he wanted to give a testimony. He agreed, walked on stage, and said through the interpreter: “Thank you to the two of you for praying for me. For me to hear—you all want it for me, I understand, because you have pity on deaf people. BUT God—He sees me and He doesn’t [have pity on me]. He gave me everything. This body is what He gave to me and I’m happy with it” (emphasis his). This discourse allowed the participants to define identity for themselves and to see themselves as active protagonists rather than victims of circumstance in their own life stories.

It is also important to note that the three themes that emerged in the interviews with the participants do not merely index the Deaf Christian identity, but in fact also serve to create it. This is what Elinor Ochs (2009) has called “indexical property of constitutiveness.” As she explained, “when interlocutors use indexical forms, they may constitute some social structure in the immediate situation at hand” (p. 411). For example, as mentioned earlier, West Samoan society is very hierarchical and the verbs sau and alu index asymmetric relationships between higher-ranking and lower-ranking members of the society. When older siblings use these verbs on their younger siblings and when younger siblings obey, they in effect recreate the unequal power dynamic. When the participants in the study use these language forms to index the Deaf Christian identity, and also when this identity is recognised by others inside and outside that community (for example, the church agreeing to the Deaf ministry’s request for sign language classes or more interpreters), they essentially reify its unique existence.


There are a number of drawbacks to the methodology I used. The first is my relationship with some of the participants: we are not only fellow church members, but also friends and that could have influenced both their willingness to speak to me as well as the answers they gave me. Our friendship could also mean that they were more honest with me than they would have been with a complete stranger; however, there is no way to discern this. Second, the data I collected was elicited rather than naturally occurring. As Lucas et al. (2013) have written, there is an inherent conflict in data collection of this sort because although sociolinguists are interested in “the language signers’ and speakers’ use when they are not being observed,” researchers often have “to record their production in situations that often lead to self-consciousness” (p. 545). The third is that I am neither deaf nor a native user of ASL. Hill wrote that “ASL users are. . . sensitive to a signer’s audiological status (e.g., Deaf or Hearing)” and recount an incident when a Black Deaf interviewee shifted from signing to speaking when she discovered that one of the researchers was White and Hearing, even though until that point she had been signing fully without voicing (p. 111-112; capitals in the original). While some of these issues, such as my audiological status, cannot be changed, I hope in future projects to mitigate them, through collaboration with a Deaf researcher or recruitment of participants that I do not know.


As shown in the data and argued in this paper, for some Christians, at least, there is a real identity conflict between the Deaf and the Christian identity. However, the participants in this study have managed to resolve the identity conflict by integrating the two, pointing to a unique identity configuration that is both Deaf and Christian, not belonging exclusively to one or the other. They index this new identity by three key linguistic elements: the use of the conversion narratives, the discourse of God’s purpose, and the desire for better inclusion. The title of this piece comes from the interview I conducted with Vikram; when I asked him whether there would be Deaf people in heaven, he responded emphatically, “Why not? Maybe Jesus knows sign.” This response, in which Vikram posits a signing, even Deaf, Jesus, captures the attempt of Deaf Christians to reappropriate a faith that accommodates their membership in the church, in response to disability-negative narratives that have historically served to exclude them from it.

I ultimately hope that this project will serve as a starting point for further research that will inform churches seeking to set up ministries to the Deaf or existing churches with Deaf ministries on how to better serve this particular demographic. More generally, I hope that it provides insight into the issues that arise and the transformations that may take place in the interplay between religion and religious identity and social and cultural developments.


This research was made possible through a Doyle Engaging Difference Undergraduate Fellowship 2014-15, granted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. I thank Melody Fox Ahmed and Dr. Sara Singha for supporting the project, Dr. Risa Shaw for introducing me to the sociolinguistics of the Deaf community, my interlocutors for generously giving of their time to answer my questions, as well as my peer mentor at J-BILD, Dr. Caroline Riches, and the rest of the editorial team at the journal for pushing me to clarify the terms of my argument and to give my argument greater coherence and form. I presented earlier drafts of this paper at Ways of Knowing 2016: The 5th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School and 15th Annual Graduate Research Symposium at the College of William and Mary and am grateful for the feedback I received there. Thanks also to Carine Zanchi for translating my abstract into French.


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1 All the participants have been given pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

2 Deaf refers to the cultural/ethnic identity, centered around the use of sign language, whereas deaf refers to an audiological status (whether one can hear or not). The latter (deaf) is a broader category than Deaf.

3 An important limitation, but necessary due to IRB restrictions. Any translation errors are mine alone.

4 I am a hearing researcher who has been involved in the d/Deaf community for many years, beginning in Singapore where I first learned (Singaporean) sign language. I began learning ASL (related to a certain extent to Singaporean Sign Language) in my first year in college and had become proficient enough to take graduate level classes in ASL at Gallaudet University in my last year.

5 As a caveat, Vikram said that he was not a Christian, but rather, a “follower of Jesus,” a phrase he preferred given disagreements between different Christian denominations.

6 As mentioned in the methodology, Jonathan went to a Deaf school from ages two to five and was educated in a mainstream school without sign thereafter.

Identity as a Research Lens in Science and Physics Education

Volume 1(1): 2017

CHRIS GOSLING, McGill University


Gender research in physics education has traditionally focused on studying learning differences between males and females, understanding how to present content in a way that is more accessible for females, or uncovering explanations for observed differences in engagement with physics (e.g., Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010; Kost, Pollock, & Finkelstein, 2009). Recent work in Physics Education Research (PER) calls for an epistemological shift (Traxler, Cid, Blue, & Barthelemy, 2016) in research concerning gender, one that focuses on the complex and intersectional nature of student learning as gendered identity formation within the culture of school science. This shift is necessary because the traditional approaches to gender research within the Physics Education Research community of practice cannot account for the contextual nature of gender nor its intersection with other factors. The science education community has much to offer in this regard, having developed and applied identity formation as an analytical tool (e.g., Carlone & Johnson, 2007). The aim of this critical literature review is to present a survey of the relevant literature that investigates how identity is employed by researchers and how its use can help move gender research in physics beyond a binary perspective of gender.


Les recherches sur le genre et l’égalité des sexes en didactique de la physique se sont traditionnellement attardées à l’étude des différences dans les apprentissages entre les garçons et les filles, comprendre comment les enseignants peuvent présenter les contenus de sorte que ces derniers soient plus accessibles chez les filles, ou découvrir des raisons expliquant les différences observées dans l’engagement des femmes en physique (Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, et Shanahan, 2010 ; Kost, Pollock, et Finkelstein, 2009). De récentes recherches en didactique de la physique (RDP) suggèrent une transition épistémologique (Traxler, Cid, Blue, et Barthelemy, 2016) dans les études sur sur le genre, une qui met l’accent sur la nature complexe et intersectionnelle sur l’apprentissage des élèves puisque la formation de l’identité genrée et sexuée fait partie de la culture scientifique à l’école. Cette transition est nécessaire étant donné que les approches traditionnelles dans les études sur le genre dans la communauté professionnelle des pratiques enseignantes en didactique de la physique ne peuvent pas tenir pour acquis la nature contextuelle de l’égalité des sexes ni les intersections avec d’autres facteurs. La communauté des chercheurs en didactique des sciences a beaucoup à offrir à cet égard puisqu’ils ont développé et utilisé la formation identitaire comme outil d’analyse (Carlone et Johnson, 2007). Le but de cette recension des écrits critique est de présenter un sondage des écrits pertinents s’intéressant à démontrer comment l’identité est employée par les chercheurs et comment son utilisation peut soutenir d’autres études en physique au-delà de la perspective binaire du genre.

Keywords: Identity, gender, physics, science, education.


Despite decades of concern about female representation in the physical sciences, physics lags behind the other sciences in both the recruitment and retention of women to postsecondary degree programs in Canada, the United States, and internationally (Francis et al., 2016). The demographics of physicists do not reflect those of the wider population; for example, in the United States, only 20% of bachelor’s degrees are currently awarded to women (Statistical Research Center | American Institute of Physics, 2017). This lack of progress is particularly significant given the efforts of scholars whose focus on gender issues within physics education research (PER) has endeavored to uncover ways to bring more women into the field and keep them there (see discussion in Traxler, Cid, Blue, & Barthelemy, 2016).

Gender research in PER has traditionally focused on studying learning differences between male and female students, understanding how to present content in a way that is more accessible for women, or uncovering explanations for observed differences in engagement with physics (e.g., Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010; Kost-Smith et al., 2010). These related threads of inquiry have produced a detailed picture of these learning differences, but by their nature cannot capture the nuances of students’ experiences in physics and how they relate to the field. Gender research in PER has also traditionally considered “female” students as a uniform category defined in relation to their male counterparts. This approach positions female students as deficient when compared to their male counterparts (Traxler et al., 2016) and also prohibits a deeper exploration of how students, with a spectrum of gender identities, engage with and experience physics.

The limitations outlined above plague the majority of existing gender studies in PER. To address these shortcomings, scholars have called for an epistemological shift (Traxler et al., 2016) in research on gender, one that focuses on the complex and intersectional nature of student learning as gendered identity formation within the culture of school science. In addition, we must carefully consider how gender is categorised to avoid reinforcing gendered inequalities of power (Francis & Paechter, 2015). These shifts are needed because the traditional approaches to gender research within the PER community cannot account for the contextual nature of gender nor its intersection with other factors (May, 2012). Science education researchers have much to offer in this regard, having developed and applied identity formation as an analytical tool (e.g., Carlone & Johnson, 2007).

This critical literature review will first discuss the motivation for using identity as a research lens in PER. I will then compare and contrast how identity has been conceptualized and mobilized in the study of science and physics education in recent studies. Finally, this review will consider the potentially illuminating lessons in the way that these researchers conceive and deploy identity as a theoretical lens in their work.


A Sociocultural Perspective

In his 2001 article, Lemke describes the sociocultural perspective on science education as “viewing science, science education, and research on science education as human social activities conducted within institutional and cultural frameworks” (p. 296). Accordingly, a sociocultural approach to science education research does not consider science learning to be a stand-alone process, but rather an activity which is intricately connected to students’ lives outside of school. Lemke notes that, “students’ beliefs, attitudes, values, and personal identities” are all critical to their success in learning science (p. 305). How then, could a research approach focused solely on cognitive gains or differences between different groups of learners, hope to capture the complexity of students’ experiences? The answer, of course, is that it cannot. The process of learning science as it is currently taught frequently requires students to surrender facets of their personal identity and some of the bonds that they share with their community (Lemke, 2001). This process is most problematic for students who do not fit the dominant paradigm of a physicist—that is to say, anyone who is not white, cisgender (gender identity matching their birth sex), male, able-bodied, and heterosexual. While some non-dominant students reject these concessions and maintain their connections to their cultures and communities, in doing so, they run the risk of failing in science. A cognitive approach to understanding the process of learning science would deem these students as “unsuccessful”, but a sociocultural approach might shed light on the disconnect between the cultures of home and school while demonstrating that there are confounding influences that affect student learning. The construct of identity, in particular, is aptly suited to investigating such complex interdependencies between cultures, community, and learning.

What is identity?

Though a literature review of this nature does not require the development of a theoretical framework, it is worth defining what researchers mean when they use the term identity. Brickhouse (2001) described the process of learning as “not merely a matter of acquiring knowledge, it is a matter of deciding what kind of person you are and want to be and engaging in those activities that make one a part of the relevant communities” (p. 286). She refers to this this act of deciding what kind of person you are and want to be as identity formation. Similarly, Gee (2000) defined identity as being recognized as a certain “kind of person” (p. 99) at a given time and place. Taken together, we arrive at a working definition of identity as: the sum of one’s beliefs about oneself, one’s actions, and how one’s behavior is interpreted by others in a given context.

A note on poststructuralist terminology

Before delving into a review of recent research in science and physics education that uses identity as an analytical lens, I will pause to explain two terms that poststructuralist researchers commonly employ when talking about identity and student learning: positioning and performativity.

Positioning is used to describe the act of putting one’s self or someone else into a particular stance, most frequently during a verbal exchange or conversation (Davies & Harré, 1990). With a specific eye toward group work in physics, Berge and Danielsson (2013) wrote that “positioning is always twofold; a positioning of someone else also implies a positioning of oneself, and moreover, people can both position themselves (reflexive positioning) and position others (interactive positioning) in a conversation” (p. 1181). Consider as an example a comment that I might make while working in a small group comparing the approach a fellow group member employed to solve a problem to that I used. By voicing this aloud, I am simultaneously putting myself into a particular role (“thorough checker,” for example) and positioning my peer in a certain way (“rapid problem solver,” perhaps). It is important to note that the range of positions available during a conversation is not infinite. Though a small group of three to four students working together is itself a form of cultural production (Carlone, Johnson, & Eisenhart, 2014), the function of this group of students and the roles that each one assumes are modulated by larger discourses, such as the classroom culture, the school community, and the larger physics community as a whole.

Performativity is a term that is used to describe how individuals perform a certain role in a given context. In her writings on the nature of gender, Judith Butler (1999) wrote that performativity is “repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (p. xv). That is to say, performativity refers to how a person acts in ways that lead others to view them as a certain kind of person. These acts are sustained and ongoing and, for many, unconscious ways of fulfilling expected roles. Therefore, if someone is described as performing a male gender, they think of themselves as male, act in ways that they consider to be compatible with a male gender, and are recognized as having a male gender in that context. Notice that none of these elements are related to a person’s sex—a performative perspective of gender rejects the binary female/male definition completely.

It is important to note that the idea of performativity is not limited to gender and can be applied to different facets of our identities. For example, students can perform “good student” identities by acting in ways that meet the expectations that others might have for how good students should act. Finally, performativity can change based on one’s situation. For instance, the way that one performs a “good student” identity might change dependent on one’s academic course given that different teachers have differing expectations and definitions of what it means to be a good student.

Learning as Identity Formation

Understanding learning as a form of identity construction is a particularly rich approach because “it accounts for the importance of both individual agency as well as societal structures that constrain individual possibilities” (Brickhouse, 2001, p. 286). As such, the concept of identity enables researchers to determine the cause for a student’s difficulty in learning, whether because they are having difficulty grasping the information being presented or because the difficulty stems from a conflict between how a student views themselves and how they are expected to behave in class. Brickhouse (2001) provides a poignant example:

Thus a girl who is silent in science class may well be acting in this way because she aspires to be a good girl student. . . . It may be the case that a student will decide that she has no desire to be a part of the communities at school that are engaged in school science. Perhaps she finds what they do to be boring and irrelevant to her own concerns. Or perhaps she finds the other members of the community to be simply obnoxious. She chooses disengagement and ignorance in the process of deciding that she does not desire membership into school science communities. (p. 287)

In using identity as a theoretical construct, we are better able to understand student learning; it is not sufficient to say that students are or are not learning; we must aim to understand the reasons why students are learning the way that they are.

Carlone and Johnson (2007) made a compelling case for using identity to study the learning of science. They noted that existing approaches fall flat when attempting to determine why some students do not persist in science despite their qualifications to do so (Carlone & Johnson, 2007). The obvious response is that there is something about these students that is at odds with the way that they are being taught science—perhaps it is something in their backgrounds, the way they experience the courses, or the roles that they must take on in order to be successful within the culture of school science. Carlone and Johnson (2007) also highlighted how traditional approaches to studying the learning of science fail to account for students’ agency and are generally static;that is, such approaches consider factors that modulate student learning to be discrete variables, rather than allowing for a wide spectrum of responses. After chronicling the limitations of past studies of science learning, they offered identity as an alternative. This allows for accounts of structure and agency, for a performative view of gender and race, and for flexibility to be applied across large time scales and in variable contexts (Carlone & Johnson, 2007). These scholars developed a model for identity to better understand their data; I discuss this model later in this review.

A more recent call for the use of identity in science education research comes from Traxler, Cid, Blue, and Barthelemy (2016), who highlighted identity as a possible way forward for gender research in physics education given its flexibility. In particular, as a research lens, identity is not limited by a binary definition of gender; rather, it understands gender to be performative and contextual. That is to say, Traxler and her collaborators assumed a Butlerian approach to gender, describing how it is both performed and interpreted, and pointing out that the way that one’s gender is performed and interpreted depends on context. Finally, Traxler et al. (2016) noted that identity also has the potential to account for the intersection of gender with additional factors such as race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. Given the dearth of studies examining the confluence of such factors concerning gender in PER, this appears to be an area where the use of identity as a research lens would enable substantial gains by allowing researchers to produce a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of how students engage with physics.


A Model of Science Identity Formation: Competence, Performance, and Recognition

In their research, Carlone and Johnson (2007) created a novel model of science identity formation to understand how the experiences of their participants with science, over time, contributed to different elements of their science identities. Their definition of identity operationalizes the sociocultural definition offered by Gee (2000). Carlone and Johnson’s model maintains three facets of identity: competence, performance, and recognition; all must exist for students to fully form science identities. Competence refers to being proficient in practices that are relevant to the one’s context (a physics classroom, for example), performance refers to demonstrating this competence, and recognition refers to others perceiving this performance as credible. In the context of a physics class, these facets might look like a student having the ability to solve a particular problem, doing so in a way that their teacher can observe their work, and the teacher then confirming the suitability of their solution.

Carlone and Johnson found that the development of students’ science identities was, at times, severely hampered by their interactions with established members of the field, who did not provide the positive recognition critical for the formation of full-fledged science identities. This unconscious behavior may have occurred because the students’ performance of their competence did not meet their professor’s expectations. This is not to say that the performances were lacking, but rather, that they did not have the expected form. For example, describing a scientific idea accurately, but using different language than that common to the field, might have prevented some faculty members from recognizing their explanation as accurate.

Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) study is of critical importance, not only because it successfully utilized identity as a research lens, but also because it illuminated three essential elements that are crucial to students’ identity formation. This is particularly meaningful because if students do not form science identities, they are unlikely to be successful in their science courses and will subsequently not pursue careers in the field. Carlone and Johnson’s study also highlighted recognition as a crucial component of identity formation, which, in turn, directly impacts student learning given that an incomplete science identity may prevent students from fully engaging with science content as insiders.

Secondary Students’ Physics Identity Formation

While previous research suggests that female students are less likely to view themselves as physics people than male students, a recent study determined that students’ gendered perceptions of identity are mutable (Hazari et al., 2013; Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010). In their work, Hazari et al. (2010, 2013) found that discussions about the under-representation of women in physics held a particular power to positively affect students’ physics’ identities.

Lock and Hazari’s later research (2016) built on these findings when they focused on a single classroom where discussions about the under-representation of women in physics were being conducted to investigate the impact that these discussions had on student thinking. This study concluded that these discussions offered an opportunity for students to change their views of who can be a physicist and what being a physicist entails. It also revealed that this shift can, in turn, change the way students interpret their science experiences and can also impact their physics identity and career aspirations. It is crucial to note that the shifts in student thinking occurred not only for “female” students but also for “male” students, which indicates the potential for such discussions to gradually transform the culture of physics to be a more accepting space.

Forms of competence

Gonsalves (2014) used identity as a tool to examine how students modify their behaviors or pursue different ways to demonstrate competence within the cultural norms of physics. As viewed through the lens of identity, her data “revealed two predominant ways of being recognized as a physicist: demonstrating one or more of three main types of competence (analytical, technical and academic competence); and by performing stereotypical physicist behaviour” (p. 509). These themes of competence and performance connect directly to Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model of identity formation and further enhance it. In this case, the use of identity as a lens allowed Gonsalves to demonstrate that the competence required for students to form physics identities might assume different modes and still be recognizable by established members of the field. Her work additionally demonstrates how students modified their behavior in response to their experiences of the physics culture.

Recognition: The Role of Teachers in Secondary Students’ Science Identity Formation

Hazari, Brewe, Goertzen, and Hodapp’s (2017) study focused on factors that affect how high school students form physics identities. The researchers collected quantitative data from a large Likert-scale survey (n=962) that asked female undergraduate students to report how they viewed themselves; there were similarly asked to assess how they were positioned by their peers and by their teacher (p. 97). The students’ responses showed that recognition by high school teachers was particularly important for the formation of a physics identity for girls in high school (Hazari et al., 2017). This finding is a linchpin in the field because it demonstrates the significant influence these teachers maintain in impacting their students’ physics identity development—many teachers are ignorant of the extent to which their recognition (or lack thereof) impacts female students. Hazari et al. (2017) also found that high school is a particularly fruitful time during students’ development for them to receive positive recognition. However, Hazari et al. also noted that further research is needed to determine what counts as meaningful recognition and how the recognition can be transmitted to students. I wondered about this final aspect as I read her work, curious if the recognition must happen verbally, and in person. Or, could the recognition be transmitted using other media, such as comments and feedback on written assignments (e.g., homework or journals) or even responses to students’ posts on an electronic discussion board?

Performance: Pedagogical Approaches and Identity Disruption

The role of the teacher in a student’s physics identity formation is not limited to recognition alone; pedagogical approaches are also a key component in helping students see themselves as physics people. Carlone’s (2004) research into reformed teaching methods that endeavored to engage students in their own learning and encouraged them to think about what it means “to ‘do science’ and ‘be a science person'” (p. 393) provided clear insights into why student learning was not as successful as anticipated. Carlone’s study used the concept of identity to understand the experiences that students, with similar backgrounds, had in a novel high school physics course. Identity emerged as a construct that determines what sort of behaviors are valued within a learning environment and what kinds of roles are available for particular students to assume (pp. 396-397). The reformed teaching methods, provided by the teacher in Carlone’s study, disrupted student identity formation because they valued different modes of class participation than previous courses. This change in teaching style endangered the good student identities that students, especially female students, had cultivated in previous science courses and triggered crises for some students as they struggled to position themselves around this new way of doing science. The progressive pedagogical approach used in this course impacted students’ physics identity formation, which, in turn, affected their learning. Using identity as a theoretical lens allowed Carlone to understand their resistance to the reformed course in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.

Societal Impact of Physics as a Gendered Construct on Secondary Students

While teachers maintain influence over pedagogical approaches and their recognition given to students within the classroom, societal pressures outside the school must also be considered when looking at how physics identities are formed. Archer, Moote, Francis, DeWitt, and Yeomans’ (2016) research investigated the identity work done by girls enrolled in a variety of secondary schools across England over a ten-year period. Their longitudinal approach to understanding identity formation examined how the way society considers physics to be a masculine domain prevented girls from identifying with the field. The researchers understood gender and classroom behaviors to be performative in nature and they also mobilized the concepts of habitus and capital (Bourdieu, 1986) to examine the ways in which the students interacted with physics (Archer et al., 2016) in light of their previous experiences outside of class. The data collected indicated a strong influence from mainstream culture on the roles that were available for girls to play and about the suitability of males for careers in physics. Identity was a useful lens in this case because it provided insights into how students positioned themselves relative to physics and the degree to which they maintained their femininity while participating in physics. This is a particularly important study because it examined secondary students’ positioning around physics relative to gender, which is a topic that had not been widely explored before this work was published. Further, it is significant because, rather than looking at differences between girls and boys learning physics, it looked for variations within the group of students categorised as girls to see what enabled some students to succeed in forming physics identities.

Gendered Roles in the Physics Laboratory

Western culture’s larger understanding of physics as a masculine field is replicated within the micro-culture of the laboratory. Danielsson’s (2012) study found that, while each unique, individual student’s identity is molded and constrained by the norms of the field. Even in cases where her participants positioned themselves outside the stereotypical positions available, the participants were still comparing their own identities against those available to them in physics. Much like Archer et al. (2016), Danielsson (2012) conceptualized gender as performative but noted that these performances are constrained by the context within which one works. She wrote, “not only are the female physics students relating to masculine norms of the discipline, they may also have to deal with the norms and expectations about how a woman is supposed to be in a physics and engineering context” (p. 36). This passage illustrates how Danielsson’s use of identity as a theoretical lens makes apparent the subtle ways that student identities are produced within and in opposition to the culture of physics.

Science Identity Trajectories

Like Archer et al. (2016), Jackson and Seiler (2013) also used identity as a lens to study students’ positioning with regard to science. Rather than focusing on gender, however, they used identity to explore the trajectories of non-traditional science students at a CEGEP institution in Montréal, which spans the traditional divide between high school and university (Jackson, 2014; Jackson & Seiler, 2013). These researchers looked at how latecomers — those students who arrive in physics after an atypical academic trajectory — learn science, and how they position themselves relative to the field.

The most significant result of Jackson and Seiler’s (2013) research was the creation of a new model of identity trajectory that captures students’ science identities over time. These scholars looked at how students positioned themselves, and others, while they did identity work and found that students’ science trajectories can be disrupted by the cultural models of learning present in most science classrooms. In this instance, the use of identity as an analytic lens allowed the researchers to view the latecomers who participated in the study not just as students who struggled, but as students whose ways of learning and past experiences were incongruent with the approaches that their instructors used to currently teach them science. This created a conflict between the identities that students narrated for themselves and the identities available within science. This finding can be extended to gender research–students whose ways of learning do not fit the dominant paradigms of school science are likely to struggle to form science identities, and in turn, to learn science. From this perspective, the theoretical lens of identity produced valuable insights into the connections between instructional methods and the likelihood that students will continue their studies of science.


The studies highlighted above demonstrate the variety of ways in which identity can be used as a theoretical lens to produce novel insights into how students learn physics and science. In particular, this review has shown that an identity lens allows us to understand that issues with student learning are not limited to difficulties with content, but can also stem from an incompatibility between how students view themselves and the modes of behavior and learning that are expected within their physics classrooms. Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model for identity formation set the foundation for identity work by identifying competence, performance, and recognition as elements crucial to women of colour studying science at the university level. Other researchers have built upon this model, showing that multiple types of competence can garner positive recognition (Gonsalves, 2014) and that recognition is particularly important, especially for girls at the secondary level (Hazari et al., 2017).

Furthermore, Lock and Hazari (2016) found that conversations about the under-representation of women in physics have the potential to change the way students think of the field of physics and their own place in it. Both mainstream culture and the culture of physics itself constrain the gendered roles that are possible for students to assume (Archer et al., 2016). Non-dominant students struggle to create identities against the norms of the culture of physics in an effort to maintain the way they see themselves (Danielsson, 2012). Finally, the methods that instructors use in their classrooms can have a massive impact on students whose ways of learning do not align with their instructors’ expectations. Students actively resist such changes when their good student identities are threatened (Carlone, 2004) and can end up on outbound trajectories from physics if they are not allowed to perform their competence and engage with the content (Jackson, 2014; Jackson & Seiler, 2013).

Taken as a whole, these studies present a wide variety in the ways that identity can be used to study how students learn science and physics. It is clear that, as a theoretical lens, identity allows for a consideration of aspects of student learning that are not possible with more traditional models. For example, the binary approach to gender precludes any mention of students who do not meet the female/male binary, and also positions female students as lesser than their male peers. Identity does not have the same sort of limitation, as it allows for a wide spectrum of gender to emerge. It also allows researchers the opportunity to look for variations within a given category rather than comparing categories of students against one another. Further, identity is a flexible lens, useful for examining the intersection of multiple facets of student identity simultaneously. For example, Carlone and Johnson (2007) showed that it could be used to understand the experiences of women of colour, who engage in the practices of science differently from both white women and men of colour. For the multiple reasons outlined above, identity holds tremendous potential as a research lens. It is well-suited to a wide range of research undertaken from the socio-cultural perspective and permits researchers to ask difficult questions about how students engage with science and physics.


Given the current position into which physics places non-dominant students, it would seem imperative that action be taken to redress the imbalance. Hopefully, physics education would open dialogue with students about the under-representation of women in physics, which, as Lock and Hazari (2016) demonstrated, positively affects students’ physics identities and increases the likelihood that they might enter the field. However, the precise types of changes that may occur in students’ thinking and identities during these discussions have not been established. In addition, while recognition of students’ competence is a critical element of their physics identity formation, the forms that this recognition may take and the frequency with which it need occur are not well known. Though the interplay between students’ backgrounds and the modes of teaching employed by their instructors has been documented, this area also warrants further investigation with respect to other intersectional aspects of their identities, such as socio-economic class. Finally, much of the data that has been generated by these studies relies on students’ beliefs and intentions about whether or not they will continue to study physics in the future. A fruitful line of inquiry would be to follow secondary students in a long-term study to determine whether or not they follow through with their intentions.

Despite the researchers’ varied lines of inquiries, this review has demonstrated that identity is a research lens well worth considering. The construct of identity allows scholars to ask difficult questions about the nuanced aspects of non-dominant students’ experiences with physics. Hopefully the answers they find will enable us to improve the way that physics is taught and change the culture of physics so that future students see a place for themselves in it.


I am indebted to my supervisor, Allison Gonsalves, for helping me select the topic for this analysis and for her guidance during the writing process. I am also grateful for the careful reading done by Philippa Parks and for her many useful suggestions. I also wish to acknowledge the helpful contributions of Bronwen Low, Ying-Syuan (Elaine) Huang, and Marta Kobiela, who provided feedback on an early version of this manuscript.


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