Understanding the Concept of ‘identity’

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Understanding the concept of ‘identity’ is equally fundamental to conceptualising ‘teacher professional identity’, yet there appears to be no agreement in the research literature about a single conceptualisation of the concept. The concept has taken on variety of meanings as many different issues surface in any attempt to reach a single definition (Gee, 2000-2001). A possible explanation to the difficulty in arriving at a single definition could be due to the way the concept has been used in multiple disciplines over time. For instance, in the 20th century, the concept was used by psychoanalysts to mean the personalised self-image an individual possessed. By this, identity was seen as independent and self-directed (Olsen, 2008). Concerned by this prominence on the individual by the psychoanalysts, social scientists proposed their term ‘cultural identity’ to imply the way any individual identifies with, or is influenced by, various cultural groups. Seen in this manner, identity was treated to mean cultural and social pointers such as gender, ethnicity, nationality, class, race and language. In view of all these varying perspectives, this study deems it rather convenient to focus on examining the nature of the concept in the literature rather than seeking to find a single definition of it.

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The argument has been whether ‘identity’ is dynamic, stable, fixed or changeable. One standpoint is that identity is fixed and stable and rarely depends on any external influences (Nias, 1989). If this is understood to mean one’s behaviour, attitude or way of reacting to situations will not change irrespective of the environment, it raises the fundamental question of whether this is always the case. In view of the likelihood of change due to a myriad of external factors, it makes sense to rather think of identity as being dynamic, complex, diverse and open (Barrett, 2008; Hong, 2010; Williams, 2013); and that, it is formed through interaction within a particular context (Flores and Day, 2006; Sachs, 2001). A study by Teixiera and Gomes (2000) with a group of 10 women college students of diverse racial, ethnic and academic backgrounds at the East Coast University demonstrated that the salience of identity of all students who participated in the study depended upon the contexts where they were experienced. Cultural norms, influences of family, background and current experiences all influenced how they perceived their identities and that these identities changed over time due to a combination of factors. This view seemed to be supported by Gee (2000-2001) who indicates that one’s identity cannot be decontextualised because it is negotiated through social interaction and points out that the way one identifies himself or herself may differ from context to context and from time to time. He argued further that identity is the kind of person one is recognised as being, at a given time. He makes us understand that identity can also be ambiguous and reiterates that ‘being recognised as a certain kind of person in a given context, is what I mean here by ‘identity’ (p.99).

Perhaps, a broader explanation of the contextual influences on one’s identity is one illustrated by Gee (2000-2001). He demonstrated four interlinked views of identity using the label ‘African American’. According to Gee, four contexts that can influence a person’s identity are nature, institution, discourse and affinity. The ‘nature identity’ refers to those aspects of who a person is that has its source in nature rather than from society. Here, being an African American’ is rooted in blood. There is also the ‘institutional identity’, which denotes those aspects of who a person is that has its source in a particular institution. Thus, the manner in which institutions create conditions in which certain individuals are expected or may be forced to act as being an ‘African American’ is the source of one’s identity. Gee also used the ‘discourse identity’ to imply those aspects of who a person is that emanates from the person’s dialogue with others. Here, black people may be described as ‘African Americans’ that portrays negative assumptions that people come to internalise. On the other hand, through discourse, black people may achieve a more positive identity as being ‘African American and become proud of themselves. Finally, the ‘affinity identity’ relates to aspects of who a person is that has its origin in a particular practice. That means, black people may choose to be ‘African Americans’ and white people may also choose to be ‘African Americans’.

The Implications of Gee’s Views

The import of Gee’s argument that have significant implications for the situation of teachers is that people can accept or contest their identities depending on whether they prefer their identities to be viewed as nature, institutional, discourse or affinity identities. It also implies that identity must be negotiated and re-negotiated with other people. This has important implications for teachers’ identity. As Melucci (1996) makes us understand, negotiation for one’s identity will require the ability to act and speak for what one stands for. Yet, this could be difficult for teachers to achieve since authorities may not always consider it to be in their interest to give a voice to teachers in the service. As Sachs (2005, p.9) noted, when teachers strive to safeguard their interests, authorities do not sanction it but instead chastise them. Meanwhile, the development of ‘a strong professional identity is what distinguishes the expertise of teachers’ from other professionals. Gee’s arguments also suggest that people can project multiple identities depending on the situation. That is, although people may have a core identity which they will try to retain, this may not exist independently of other identities (Burke and Stets, 2009). An example in teaching could be a teacher who is part of a specific school, functions as a teacher within that school and fulfils this role in his or her own way. Similarly, a teacher can identify himself or herself not only as a teacher in his or her subject area but also as a teacher in a particualr school, district, country, and even with all teachers in the world.

However, some have observed that there is risk in projecting multiple identities. As Pennington and Richards (2016) caution, multiple identities must be kept in balance to avoid identity crisis where a person is not sure about his or her identity or may question who he or she is in a particular situation. There are often ‘struggles over the kinds of identities that people are permitted to claim for themselves; struggles over the kinds of identities they can conceive for themselves; and struggles over which identities in any social institution people strive to establish in themselves (Lemke, 2008, pp. 31). Exemplifying his argument, Lemke makes the point that institutions seek to make employees ‘good employees’, who show interests in the institution and who see themselves through role identities such as a good worker. In a similar way, schools may seek to make pupils and teachers accept the image of the ‘good pupil’ and ‘competent teacher’ respectively, just as families may strive to make their members conform to the image of the good sibling, the good child and the good parent. Under such situations, the extent of agreement among the different views of a particular identity is the dominance of some interests over other interests, although Somekh and Thaler (1997) seem to contrast this claim. While they acknowledge that people’s identities can be challenged through social interactions, they believe that individuals also have the capacity to both accept demands emanating from their social interactions and at the same time reject them. Hence, they are able to represent themselves their own way in any social situation.

Burke and Stets’ (2009) Categorisation of Identity

Besides the way the concept of identity is characterised broadly, it can also be understood through specific categories. Burke and Stets (2009) in their book ‘identity theory’, suggest three categories; personal identity, role identity and social identity. The personal identity relates to the set of attributes defining a person such as one’s name, sexuality, gender and history. These attributes of the person remain unique and consistent over time and across contexts, thereby accounting for the person’s distinctiveness or individuality (Hogg, 2011; Schwartz et al., 2009). What informs actions is the person’s own goals rather than the demands of others (Burke and Stets, 2009). Therefore, a person will reveal what he or she chooses to reveal of his or her personal identity depending on who the audience is (Smit and Fritz, 2008; Vryan, Adler and Adler, 2003).Drawing from earlier arguments in this section, these claims about the personal identity may not be entirely true. Gender identity, for example, is not simply about someone being ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. As Lemke (2008, p.19) argues, some people may have more stereotypically feminine on some traits such as cooperativeness and nurturance and may at the same time exhibit some stereotypically ‘masculine’ attributes such as courage and less so on others. People may also be ‘hybrid’ in their personal identities. That is, a bit ‘feminine’ and a bit ‘masculine’ or a bit ‘African’ and a bit ‘American’. It is also possible that some people may not conform to any these at all. Thus, personal identities are not entirely matters of internal states or unique personalised discourses but also are ‘contested public terrain’ as they may mean different to different people (ibid, p.32).

The role identity, according to Burke and Stets (2009), is the meanings of a role that individuals associate themselves with. Stryker (2007) claims that the different meanings people associate with their roles are connected to their expectations of the roles; which are further associated with their social positions (Burke and Stets, 2009). Because the meanings of the role people associate with serve as reference points to them, they hold implications for their attitudes and behaviours. Thus, people will behave in line with the meanings they associate themselves with to conform to those meanings. Also, because the meanings of the roles are partly derived from interactions with others, different individuals may have different meanings for the same role identity. According to Burke and Stets (2009), when this happens, people tend to negotiate the meanings with others who may have a different understanding of that role identity. This may lead to individuals settling on a compromise as to the role identity meaning they can claim and the actions that correspond to that meaning. This view appears to be supported by Ibarra (1999, p. 12), who argue that ‘other people’s reactions shape identity by endorsing or failing to endorse new behaviours.

The social identity is based on a person’s identification with a socially formed group. As a result, the person sees things from the group’s perspective. This is based on the assumption that individuals as group members think alike and act alike. From this develops a sense of ‘we’ or ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Burke and Stets, 2009, p. 119). Thus, members of the in-group are most likely to define themselves in a positive way, which in turn implies that the out-group may be identified in a negative manner (Chonody and Teater, 2016).

Burke and Stets’ (2009) categorisation of identity is useful in this study, as they suggest that although the personal, role and social dimensions of one’s identity may differ, they are likely to exist simultaneously in different situations. In view of this, this study situates ‘teacher professional identity’ in the middle of the personal, role and social in order to draw perspectives from all three. As this study is first of its kind with teachers in this part of the country, it is expected that this will provide an opportunity for a broader exploration of teachers’ sense of professional identity.

To sum up the discussion in this section, what can be deduced is that identity is always in the making, rather than fixed. It shifts according to individual experiences and contextual factors, which include interactions with others. This explains why it may be multiple, dynamic and varied in nature. Although this study explores specifically teachers’ professional identity, these different perspectives regarding the concept of identity lay a good foundation for discussing the concept of teacher professional identity in the next section.

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