A Sense of Identity: What Research in ‘Identity’ Means for Applied Linguistics

‘Identity’ is a prominent topic in 21st century research in applied linguistics (Norton & Toohey, 2011; Preece 2016), matching a more general interest in the academic community and in politics.

The initial aim of this presentation is to query the multiple meanings of identity and describe its most common patterns in applied linguistics discourse, based on an analysis of a corpus of over 300 applied linguistics journal articles published on identity between 1995 and 2005. Corpus analysis reveals a prevalence of post-structural definitions of identity, emphasising the enacted nature of an ever-shifting, socially-constructed, multi-dimensional concept.

More importantly, the presentation probes the reasons for the ascendancy of identity in the discipline. Critical approaches from cognate fields (e.g. Rouse, 1995; Skeggs, 2008) have tended to implicate identity in the homogenisation of groups and communities to further powerful interests in gaining the assent of populations in those neo-liberal societies where identity has become a keyword. Yet, there has been no discussion of the motivations behind identity gaining prominence in applied linguistics discourse. This lack of reflexivity, combined with the polysemous nature of identity and a dependence on relativistic post-structural perspectives may leave applied linguists open to the charge of complicity in disenfranchising the very communities that they seek to legitimise and empower.

The presentation will conclude with an approach to identity informed by an immanent critique (Herzog, 2016; O’Regan, 2014), exemplified by cases from the same corpus of journal articles, to propose a transformational discourse of identity.


Herzog, B. (2016). Discourse Analysis as Social Critique. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Norton, B. & Toohey, K. (2011). Identity, language learning, and social change. Language Teaching 44(4), 412-446

O’Regan, J.P. (2014). English as a Lingua Franca: An Immanent Critique. Applied Linguistics 35(5), 533-552

Preece, S. (Ed.) (2016). The Routledge Handbook of Language and Identity. London: Routledge

Rouse, R. (1995). Questions of Identity. Critique of Anthropology, 15(4), 351-380

Skeggs, B. (2008). The problem with identity. In Lin, A.M.Y. (Ed.) Problematizing Identity. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp11-32