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Identity Problems

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Over the past 40 years, identity has moved to centre stage in the social sciences in general and applied linguistics in particular as the construct has been taken up with enthusiasm by a good number of researchers working in linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics and second language learning. As a consequence, there have been a good number of books – both collections and monographs – which have put identity at the centre of discussions about language learning and use in studies focusing on bi- and multilingualism in educational contexts (e.g. Blackeldge and Creese, 2009; Creese, 2005; Hadi-Tabussen, 2006; Heller, 1999, 2006; Miller, 2003) and naturalistic contexts (e.g. Block, 2006; Joseph, 2004; Nic Craith, 2007; Norton, 2000; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004) .

My aim in this paper is not to rehearse exhaustively the findings and arguments of these and other publications, but to identify and discuss what I see as problematic aspects of contemporary applied linguistics research in which identity is central and a key construct. To this end, I present four aspects of identity research in applied linguistics which I think are problematic and therefore worthy of further and more in-depth exploration by future researchers. These aspects are: (1) the term ‘identity’ itself and how it might be distinguished from ‘subjectivity’; (2) the tension between structure and agency in much identity research and how it might be addressed; (3) the prospect of a psychologically-inspired approach to identity to complement the already dominant social orientation; and (4) the need for more economically and class based orientations to identity (as opposed to the exclusively culture-based ones that predominate at present). I will devote considerably more time to the last of these, given my current thinking about identity.

This talk is part of the Second Language Education Group series.

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