Identity in Communication Research Paper

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“Who am I?” From ancient Greek philosophers who emphasized the importance of “know[ing] thyself” to well-known intellectuals in the 20th century, scholars have wrestled with theoretical, empirical, and practical questions about identity (Carbaugh, 1996; Eisenberg, 2001; Mead, 1934, 1936; Strauss, 1956). Questions about identity challenge each of us individually, in our web of social relationships with family and friends, and in our workplaces and communities. Scholars from communication studies have joined scholars from other disciplines including philosophy, sociology, and social psychology in studying identity.

A number of these scholars have engaged in ongoing conversations around the notion that the construction of individual, relational, and group identities is an ongoing process that occurs in social interaction. Our goal in this research paper is to explore how this scholarly conversation about identity as constructed in relationship with others has evolved over the past century and how identity construction is being studied as a communication phenomenon at the beginning of the 21st century. The conversation starts with comparing the idea of identity as constituted in communication with other perspectives of identity.

The Study of Identity

The psychological concept of identity has generally been synonymous with self-definition, or the question “Who am I?” (Baumeister, 1987; Eisenberg, 2001; Gergen, 1971; Holstein & Gubrium, 2000). Because persons in theWestern world think of themselves as “individuals,” one’s identity is commonly thought to be located somewhere within one’s inner being or psyche. Baumeister (1987) described this “inner nature of selfhood” as being characteristic of “modern psychological thought” (p. 165). Carbaugh (1996) explained the psychologically based concept of identity as follows: “The individual has a ‘self’ or something inside of himself or herself that is special, unique, yet rather stable across scenes and times” (p. 28). Thus, an individual’s identity is not only characteristic of a unique person but is expected to be somewhat consistent over time, as illustrated by the Latin etymology for the word identity, meaning “sameness” (Halsey, 1983). Psychologically based perspectives on identity have had a great deal of influence on how the average American thinks about his or her own identity.

Carbaugh (1996) characterized the modern American search for identity as “the serious task of digging deeper into their own and others’‘core’selves” (p. 194). Carbaugh explained three popular “discourses of identity” in 20th-centuryAmerican culture: (1) the discourse of biology, (2) the discourse of psychology, and (3) the discourse of cultural and social identity. The discourse of biology centers on identity as reflecting one’s biological makeup with regard to race, ethnicity, and/or sexuality. For example, your authors both identify as Anglo, heterosexual females. The discourse of psychology refers to identity in terms of a person’s internal psychological attributes or personality traits, characterizing ourselves and others as “outgoing,” “shy,” “intellectual,” or “having a great sense of humor.” The third discourse, of cultural and social identity, discusses individuals’ identities in relation to their membership in particular groups. For example, your authors would identify as “upper middle class” and “academics.” A common thread running through each of these three popular discourses of identity is their emphasis on identity as located within individuals, or, as Eisenberg (2001) characterized it, “the idea of an independent, fixed, unitary self” (p. 536).

An interaction that one of us had with a student in our undergraduate interpersonal communication classroom last semester illustrates this pervasive notion of identity as internal and individual. The student objected when presented with the idea of self being constructed in interaction with others. The student suggested that mature adult persons should not allow others to influence their self-concepts! When asked by the professor, “How do you know what you look like?” she initially responded with a puzzled expression.After a bit of thought, she responded, “Because we can look in a mirror and see ourselves.” Ah-ha. Just as we need a mirror to know what we look like physically, we need the mirror of other people’s reactions to us to gain insight into “who we are.” This example with the student highlights Herbert Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self” (1902), perhaps one of the most well-known early20th-century articulations of the social construction of self.

Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the perspective that our identities are constructed through our interactions and relationships with others has been further theorized, clarified, and refined. Our purpose in the remainder of this research paper is threefold: (1) to discuss the intellectual heritage of the idea that identities are constituted in communication; (2) to examine how communication theorists have integrated this foundational scholarship into communication approaches; and (3) to explore four different theoretical perspectives for studying identity, providing examples of how communication scholars have used each of these theories in empirical research. Finally, we end by briefly offering some suggestions for additional perspectives that might be profitably used by communication scholars studying issues of identity. We begin the following section by tracing the development of the idea that identity is located in social interaction through the process of communication.

Communication-Based Explanations of Identity

The notion that the identities of self and others are constructed through interaction has been addressed by scholars across several disciplines, including communication studies. The communication scholar Donal Carbaugh (1996) explained, “Social identities are not just inside a self, but enacted in scenes; communication is not just a revelation of self, but its formative fashioning [italics added]” (p. xiv). Three scholars in the first half of the 20th century who had primary roles in identifying communication as the way we construct identity were George Herbert Mead, Kenneth Burke, and Erving Goffman. Midcentury, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann based their theoretical perspective of the social construction of reality (including the construction of selves) on the foundations laid by these earlier scholars. Diverse contemporary communication theorists have built on these earlier intellectual traditions, as we shall see. We begin with Mead, who coherently articulated the relationship between communication and the construction of identity in the early part of the 20th century.

The Intellectual Heritage of Mead, Burke, and Goffman

The philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) tried to make sense of the relationship between individuals, their thought processes, and the broader social structure, leading to his book Mind, Self, and Society (1934). One of Mead’s important contributions was his conception of selves and society as being created in a continually evolving process.

Mead explained his thinking about identity in an essay titled “The Problem of Society: How We Become Selves” (1936). Mead’s answer to how the self comes into existence was summarized at the conclusion of that essay. “A self can arise only where there is a social process within which this self has had its initiation. It arises within that process. For that process, the communication and participation . . . is essential” (as cited in Strauss, 1956, p. 42). Mead (1934) believed that selves were created through the process of social interaction. Both one’s self (identity) and one’s mind (the ability to use language to symbolize thought) were acquired through communication with others (Mead, 1934; Meltzer, 1967). Because language is symbolic and requires social interaction with others, Mead’s theoretical perspective has become known as “Symbolic Interaction.” Because Mead’s theory of identity construction is based on the use of language and social interaction, he has been a significant influence on many communication scholars as well as those in sociology and psychology.

There is ample evidence that Kenneth Burke (1897–1993) was influenced by the ideas of Mead (McLemee, 2001). Burke was a rhetorician and has been influential for communication scholars. Burke grappled with issues of language, identity, and power. Burke’s (1966) overarching concern with language is reflected in his well-known definition of [hu]man: “Being bodies that learn language thereby becoming wordlings; humans are the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal.” Following Mead, Burke saw language as the way human beings interface with society and thus construct identities in an ongoing process. Burke’s conceptualization of identity, like Mead’s, hinged on the belief that individuals do not have identities apart from their interaction with others. Burke (1937) derided the idea that “an individual’s ‘identity’ is something private, peculiar to himself” (p. 263). Burke believed that there was no such thing as a “core self” and that “the self, divorced from the social bases of experience which constitute identity, is a void” (Branaman, 1994).

Burke emphasized the importance of focusing attention on the language choices people make. In another oftquoted statement, Burke (1966) pointed out that the language we select simultaneously reflects one portion of reality while it deflects another portion of reality (p. 45). The implications for identity are obvious: As we call attention to one aspect of our identity, we deflect attention away from other aspects of our identity. Burke saw language primarily as a rhetorical strategy for social change, and thus, his work has been central for rhetorical and critical scholars (Branaman, 1994). Burke’s scholarship has been influential for others also, including Goffman.

Erving Goffman (1922–1982) was a sociologist who, like Mead and Burke, emphasized the essential role of social interaction in identity formation. The title of Goffman’s well-known book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) emphasized the performative perspective of identity, which he often referred to as “impression management.” Goffman’s thesis was that people are generally predisposed to present themselves in a positive manner consistent with their desired image. This “presentation” is done through communication in social interaction.

While Goffman (1959) used dramaturgical metaphors of the stage (e.g., “actors,” “role,” “performing”), he was clear that the “presentation of self” is not just an act for others’benefit. He cited Park (1950), who pointed out, “It is probably no historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning is a mask. It is rather recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role” (p. 249). Goffman (1959) went on to say that “so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves—the role we are striving to live up to—this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be [italics added]” (p. 19). Goffman emphasized that rather than being located within the individual, the self is located in interaction with others, the “product of a scene that comes off” and “something of collaborative manufacture” (pp. 252–253). Like both Mead and Burke before him, Goffman rejected the notion of a preexisting essential core self.

A particularly valuable contribution from Goffman was his contention that identities are not validated until they are recognized and supported by others. The identities we want to claim for ourselves, as well as how we behave, are influenced by our interactions with others. Individuals do not just get to be who they want to be; their desired identities must be accepted and supported by others (Carbaugh, 1996; Goffman, 1963). This is the basis for arguing that identities are negotiated in social interaction.

In the early part of the 20th century, Mead, Burke, and Goffman contributed to our foundational understandings of identity as constructed in social interaction with others, before the discipline’s current focus on social science and communication theory became prominent. There was one other important contribution to this body of scholarship on the construction of identity that we should acknowledge— Berger and Luckmann.

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) were sociologists who were significantly influenced by Mead and the symbolic-interactionist approach, as well as by Goffman, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and others. At the center of their classic book The Social Construction of Reality was the assertion that all human experience, including identity, is socially constructed as a subjective reality. Identity is “a phenomenon that emerges from the dialectic between individual and society” (p. 174). Like Mead, Goffman, and Burke, Berger and Luckmann contended that the concept of “self” is meaningless without social interaction. Berger and Luckmann emphasized the essential role of interaction with “significant others” in developing and maintaining personal identities, as well as the role of others in society.

Like the earlier scholars, Berger and Luckmann (1966) recognized that language—more specifically, face-to-face conversation—is the “vehicle” that maintains social reality and identity. “The reality of everyday life further presents itself to me as an intersubjective world, a world that I share with others . . . Indeed, I cannot exist in everyday life without continually interacting and communicating with others” (pp. 22–23). Like Goffman, Berger and Luckmann recognized that social processes and structures are also necessary for maintaining desired identities.

Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) theoretical perspective has had great import for the study of identity by communication scholars for at least two reasons: First, these authors were able to synthesize and integrate much of the previous thinking on the essential role of communication and social interaction in identity processes. Second, by coining the phrase “the social construction of reality,” they were able to give us a vocabulary with which to discuss identity issues.

In summary, the intellectual heritage of Mead, Burke, Goffman, and Berger and Luckmann rejected the idea of a preformed self coming into the social world. They all saw the answer to the question of identity (“Who am I?”) as being communicatively constructed in social interaction with others. As communication scholars started studying identity issues in social and personal relationships, they turned to this body of scholarship for theoretical grounding.

Communication Approaches to the Study of Identity

Early in the 20th century, what we now know as communication studies focused on the study of rhetoric and public speaking. In the second half of the century, the focus of the discipline broadened to include a social scientific, primarily logical-empirical research approach to communication issues (Braithwaite & Baxter, 2006). These scholars, particularly those in interpersonal communication, took up the study of identity based on the scholarship we discussed above. Three direct legacies of these earlier scholars were (1) rules-based approaches, (2) cultural communication approaches, and (3) postmodern approaches.

Rules-Based Approaches

Mead and Burke influenced the work of communication theorists such as Cushman, Pearce, and their colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s (Carbaugh, 1996). Cushman’s (1977) rules-based perspective on communication sprang from the premise that “interpersonal communication has as its principal goal the coordination of human activity in regard to the development, presentation, and validation of individual self-concepts” (p. 39). The coordinated management of meaning (CMM) theory (Pearce, 2004; Pearce & Cronen, 1980) provided a theoretical response to the question “What are they [people] making together?” Thus, the CMM theory asserted that identities, as well as episodes, relationships, and cultures, were created by the interaction between persons, a “process of co-construction, of being made by the conjoint action of multiple persons” (Pearce, 2004, p. 43). Although they acknowledged identities as being co-constructed through communication, researchers using the CMM and other rules-based theories have tended to focus on communicative outcomes such as the resolution of conflicts rather than identity issues per se, and the CMM theory has been used by organizational communication scholars more than those studying interpersonal communication (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008). A second communication approach growing out of the earlier foundational work on identity was cultural communication.

Cultural Communication Approaches

The work of Carbaugh and Philipsen in the 1990s exemplifies the cultural communication approach growing out of the heritage of Mead, Burke, and Goffman. Carbaugh’s (1996) primary interest has been studying identity as communicatively constructed in specific sociocultural contexts. Carbaugh based his study of communication and social identity on the twin perspectives of identity constructed through communication and cultural ethnography. He articulated that identities are not only socially constructed through communication practices but are situated firmly in specific cultural and historical settings. Thus, individuals have not just “an identity” but rather multiple identities across situated social contexts, a notion that has been taken up by postmodern scholars (e.g., Eisenberg, 2001; Gergen, 2000).

Following Burke’s contention that individuals’ choices of words were important clues to their identities, Carbaugh theorized that communication researchers could investigate the construction of social identities by attending to the symbols, forms, and meanings in situated social interactions. For example, in his study of marital naming practices and women’s marital identities, Carbaugh (1996) found that women’s choices about their surnames after marriage reflected and constructed particular attitudes, values, and beliefs they had about themselves and their marital relationships.

Similarly influenced by Burke, Philipsen (1992) looked at particular ways of speaking in speech communities (such as his classic study of Teamsterville, a working-class industrial community in Chicago). Using a theoretical perspective he called the “ethnography of speaking,” Philipsen claimed that “personal identity, social reality, and social actions are constituted in—created, negotiated, and transformed, as well as reflected in—the communicative conduct of which speaking is a part” (p. 15). Operating from the assumptions that ways of speaking are structured, socially and culturally distinctive, and based in social life, Philipsen observed individuals’ use of language and analyzed these ways of speaking and their attendant meanings, premises, and rules to formulate speech codes. Philipsen’s main goal was to examine culturally situated language-inuse to discover the ways in which speech communities create and transmit cultural identities.

Cultural communication scholars such as Carbaugh and Philipsen have helped communication scholars to realize that to answer questions of identity we must not ask just “Who am I?” but “When, where, and how am I?” (Holstein & Gubrium, 2000). Postmodern communication approaches further extend the idea of identities as complex and shifting phenomena.

Postmodern Communication Approaches

Postmodern communication approaches view individuals as having multiple identities constituted in communication but also influenced by webs of relational, cultural, biological, and environmental factors. The communication scholar Eric Eisenberg (2001) proposed a model of communication and identity that takes into account multiple factors that interact dynamically to construct identities. His model highlighted the interwoven nature of individuals’ communication with others; their personal narratives and moods; along with the influences of society, culture, interpersonal relationships, biology, economics, and religion that construct multiple and ever-changing identities.

Both Eisenberg (2001) and Gergen (2000) have viewed identity as relational and dynamic; far from being a fixed core, identities are fluid and change with situated contexts. Eisenberg (2001) contended that we all have a “multiplicity of selves,” and Gergen (2000) asserted, “One’s identity is continuously emergent, re-formed, and redirected as one moves through the sea of everchanging relationships” (p. 139). Because the word identity seems to invoke the notion of an “independent, fixed, unitary self’ (Eisenberg, 2001), thinking about individuals having “multiple identities” is an important linguistic move. Gergen (2000) called for a “new vocabulary of being” that “de-objectifies the individual self” (p. 242) and “recognize[s] the extent of our relational embeddedness” (p. 254). Communication scholars should certainly be at the fore in creating this new vocabulary of identity.

Leslie Baxter has talked about socially constructed identities as “constituted in communication.” Baxter (2004b) described what it means to take a “constitutive” view of communication: “A constitutive approach to communication asks how communication defines, or constructs, the social world, including our selves and our personal relationships” (p. 3). Baxter’s approach to viewing identities as “constituted in communication” calls attention to the unique contribution that communication scholars can make to research on identity, distinguishing it from work in other disciplines.

While Baxter (2004a, 2004b) positions her current work within Bakhtin’s postmodern dialogic theory, there are commonalities between Baxter’s perspective and the intellectual heritage of the other scholars discussed in this research paper. First, similar to Mead and Cooley, Baxter (2004b) described the way we come to know our “selves” as the result of interaction with others: “An individual knows self only from the outside, as he or she conceives others see him or her. The self, then, is invisible to itself and dependent for its existence on the other” (pp. 3–4). Second, Baxter rejects the notion of a “monadic self” in favor of a “dialogic self.” Baxter (2004b) argued, “Self cannot be a unitary, monadic phenomenon, according to dialogism; instead it is a fluid and dynamic relation between self and other. Bakhtin’s metaphor for this relation is a dialogue” (p. 4). Thus, when we are in dialogue with another, we are engaged in the process of identity construction—simultaneously constructing our identities as “selves” and our relational identities with others. Third, Baxter talks about the process of “selves becoming”—not unlike the ongoing process articulated by Mead, Burke, and others. In Baxter’s dialogic perspective, this process of selves becoming involves the relational pair negotiating integration and separation.

Baxter emphasizes that adopting a “dialogic perspective” does not mean simply dialogue between two relational partners with one-dimensional identities. Rather, dialogism is characterized by the dynamic interplay of the voices of multiple identities in the ongoing, “unfinalizable” conversation of social interaction. Bringing a dialogic perspective to the study of identity recognizes the ongoing creation of selves and relationships and the multiple identities created in interaction.

In summary, a number of communication theorists have refined and extended the earlier intellectual traditions. Although there are important differences in the way these theorists have approached the study of identity, all agree that identity is a relational phenomenon, constructed in social interaction. In the next section, we will look at several theoretical perspectives that have been frequently used by relational communication scholars to study identity.

Theoretical Perspectives in Communication and Identity Research

Contemporary communication scholars have used a number of theoretical perspectives to study identity issues. Each theory provides a different lens for the camera, allowing scholars to understand different aspects of communication and identity. Three theoretical perspectives that help us understand how communication constructs identity are symbolic interaction/social construction, facework, and relational dialectics/dialogism. We describe each theory briefly and provide selected examples of research on communication and identity based on each theory.

Symbolic Interaction/Social Construction

Symbolic interaction (Mead, 1934; Meltzer, 1967) and social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) have similar premises; they both focus on how people create meaning of themselves and the world around them through social interaction (Braithwaite & Baxter, 2006). Scholars using both theoretical perspectives believe that identities and relationships are mutually constituted in communication with others (Carbaugh, 1996; Leeds-Hurwitz, 2006). Leeds-Hurwitz (2006) recognized the similarities and overlap between the two theoretical perspectives, explaining that they have “different intellectual histories and different emphases in practice” (p. 229). We do not find these distinctions of great import for our purposes here. While their vocabulary is somewhat different, the two perspectives share very similar views on the role of language and social interaction in the construction of identity. We summarize the main tenets of both perspectives, followed by examples of how communication scholars are using these theories to inform their research on identity.

Symbolic Interaction

Mead believed that both one’s self (identity) and one’s mind (the ability to use language to symbolize thought) are acquired through communication (Mead, 1934; Meltzer, 1967). The identities we want to claim for ourselves are created in interactions with others (Carbaugh, 1996; Goffman, 1963). Julia Wood (1994a, 1994b), for example, used the symbolic-interaction perspective to explain how persons construct gender identity. Wood (1994b) used symbolic interaction to explain the identity transformation of her own mother, who, as a married woman with two children, took great pride working as a stockbroker during the 1950s, when most middle-class women were stay-athome mothers. When a family move forced Wood’s mother to quit her career, she re-created herself as the epitome of the stereotypical housewife and mother, absorbing the expectations of both significant and generalized others and became what others around her expected her to be.

In research examining the nontraditional identity construction of commuting wives living apart from their husbands to pursue careers, Bergen (2006) found that these wives employed “accounts” to explain their commuting arrangement to others. Social network members often challenged commuter wives’identities by asking questions about their marital arrangement and expressing sympathy for their husbands and children. Commuter wives responded to these identity challenges by providing accounts. For example, one wife who reported being asked who prepared her husband’s meals felt obligated to explain that her husband had always done much of the cooking during their marriage, as a way of responding to the unspoken suggestion that she was neglecting her wifely duties. Bergen’s analysis of the stories of these women sheds light on how identities are negotiated in social interaction.

In their study of committed lesbian couples with children conceived by donor insemination, Bergen, Suter, and Daas (2006) also used symbolic interaction to investigate how comothers attempted to construct an identity of legitimate parenthood for the nonbiological mother. They found that co-mothers used address terms acknowledging motherhood for the nonbiological mother, hyphenated children’s last names, and drafted legal documents including the nonbiological mother’s name in efforts to persuade others to accept the nonbiological mother as a legitimate parent. These naming practices showed how symbols such as referents and address terms are an important part of constructing identity. Bergen and colleagues’study also illustrated that the desired identities are not always accepted by others and that validation by others is an essential part of the process.

Social Construction

Like symbolic interaction, social construction operates from the assumption that people make sense of the world and themselves through language (Braithwaite & Baxter, 2006). The construction metaphor suggests that relational functions such as repair, maintenance, and change are carried out through the use of language (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2006); thus, studying identity from the lens of social construction mandates examining discourse in social contexts.

For example, in her study of how U.S. families with adopted children from China construct their familial identities, Elizabeth Suter (2008) used social construction along with Galvin’s (2006) concept of discourse-dependent families. By focusing on the discursive processes of these families as they interacted with members of the extended family, social networks, and community institutions, Suter found that family identity was challenged by questions and comments that assumed that adoptive family relations are inferior to biological family ties and/or remarked on the visible dissimilarity between the parents and their adopted children. For example, people would ask Caucasian parents of a Chinese child, “Is he/she yours?” Suter discovered that adoptive parents used discursive strategies such as challenging comments, educating others, answering directly, or sharing something positive about their family to assert their family status to others. Suter’s study illustrated how language in the form of discursive strategies can function as a resource in constructing and validating family identity. We now turn to a second major theoretical framework that has been used by communication scholars studying identity.

Facework (Face Theory)

Goffman (1959, 1971) suggested that individuals communicate with others to establish a desired identity. We seek to maintain this “face,” or the public image that we present in social interaction, by expecting others to treat us in a manner consistent with our desired identity (Metts & Cupach, 2008). The communicative strategies used in making and maintaining these identity claims formed the basis for Goffman’s theoretical perspective of “facework,” or face theory. While Goffman was primarily concerned with public interactions, Cupach and Metts (1994) extended face theory by applying it to the study of interpersonal interactions in close relationships.

McBride (2003) contributed to the literature by studying facework in ongoing real-life situations. McBride interviewed participants who had broken up with their relational partner following a serious relational transgression (e.g., an affair or serious drug use) and later reconciled with the partner. McBride wanted to know how persons who had told family members about their partner’s transgression communicatively managed the face needs of themselves, their partner, and their relationship, as well as the face needs of their family members. He found that participants often initially used strategies that protected the desired identities of all parties by managing what they told and who they told about their romantic relationship problems; they used strategies of keeping family members upto-date (or not) on their ongoing contact with the former partner and providing accounts to (or avoiding telling) family members to manage the face threats that occurred after the reconciliation with the partner. McBride’s findings are an important addition to facework research because they illustrate the interplay of multiple persons’ multiple identities within social networks and in ongoing personal relationships.

Other communication researchers have used facework to study how identity concerns are salient to interactions between teachers and students (e.g., Bergen, 2002; KerssenGriep, 2001). Bergen (2002) found that experienced female college instructors tended to use proactive facework strategies to establish and maintain their professional identities in the college classroom. She also found that instructors were reluctant to use face-threatening strategies in problematic situations and tried to allow students to maintain a positive image. Kerssen-Griep (2001) found that college students who had instructors sensitive to their face needs reported being more motivated to accept their instructors’ authority, as well as more invested in their learning process. Metts and Cupach (2008) noted that in all social interactions, “ a performance is designed, consciously or unconsciously, to create an impression for others of who we are—an idealized self that fits appropriately into the requirements of the context” (p. 205). The theoretical perspective of facework has enabled these communication scholars to learn more about the ways persons negotiate multiple identities within specific situated relational contexts. Next, we turn to a third theoretical lens that has been useful to communication scholars studying identity—relational dialectics.

Relational Dialectics/Dialogism

Over the past 20-plus years, Baxter has developed and used the theoretical perspective of relational dialectics (for a review, see Baxter 2004b; Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008). The core contention of relational dialectics is that all relationships involve a “dynamic interplay” between unified yet contradictory tensions. This dynamic interplay occurs in communication in everyday interaction. These tensions may be experienced internally between relational partners or externally between the relational dyad and their social network. Three recurring pairs of contradictory tensions found most often by researchers are integration-separation, expression-nonexpression, and stability-change. Baxter and her colleagues, however, have cautioned that these three categories are not exhaustive and each of these three major “unified opposites” has multiple-nuanced variations.

In her articulation of “second generation relational dialectics,” Baxter (2004a) emphasized the dialogic nature of social life as “a process of contradictory discourses” (p. 182) and stressed that dialogue is not limited to two voices but rather should be thought of as multiple voices striving to be heard simultaneously. In this dialogic process, Baxter says, “selves and relationships are constituted in the jointly enacted communication events of the relationship parties” (p. 184). Thus, relational dialectics is a perspective tailor-made for examining identity as constituted in the communication between relational partners and has been used extensively by interpretive researchers who study communication and identity issues.

Baxter, Braithwaite, and various colleagues have used relational dialectics as a lens in different contexts. For example, they studied the changing personal and marital identities of elderly women whose spouses with dementia live in nursing homes. (Baxter, Braithwaite, Golish, & Olson, 2002). These women lived the altered identity of “married widows” as they negotiated the contradictions experienced in interacting with husbands who were present physically and absent cognitively and emotionally. They examined the ways these wives communicatively negotiated the web of contradictions as they redefined what it meant to have a marital relationship. Baxter and Braithwaite (1995) studied couples who participated in vow renewal ceremonies and how they discursively managed identity as a pair and as part of a larger social web.

Toller (2007) used relational dialectics to examine how parents negotiated changes in identity after the death of a child. She found that the death of a child affected spouses’ personal identities, parental identities, and marital identities. One of the primary dialectical tensions that Toller found was presence-absence: “feeling like a parent/not having a child to parent” and “feeling like an outsider/feeling like an insider.” Toller’s research illustrates how multivocal variants of the primary dialectical tension of integration-separation come into play as parents reconstruct their personal, parental, and marital identities after the death of a child.

Marko (2006) investigated the dialectical tensions experienced by the parents of visibly different adopted children (children from different cultures) as they attempted to construct their familial, parental, and children’s identities in interaction. For example, she found that parents negotiated the dialectic of similarity and difference by telling their adopted children, “We are a family like any other” and “We are unique and different.” In examining the process of constructing identities, Marko (2006) illustrated Baxter’s (2004b) recent “dialogic turn” by portraying the communicative construction of identity as a complex process that involves multiple, often contradictory meanings.

Future Research

We believe that there are several other theoretical perspectives that could enrich our understandings of how identities are constituted in communication. Thus, we base our suggestions for future researchers by calling on communication scholars to consider studying identity construction through the lenses of narrative, symbolicconvergence theory, and critical-feminist perspectives.


Narrative scholars argue that narratives are the way in which human beings make sense of their lived experience and identities (e.g., Somers, 1994). While rhetoricians have long realized the link between narrative and identity (Burke, 1966, defined man as “the story-telling animal”), social scientific communication researchers have only relatively recently begun to use varied narrative approaches to identity (Koenig Kellas, 2008). In spite of the great potential of narrative perspectives for studying how identities are socially constructed, to date, few communication researchers have used a narrative lens to guide their work (Koenig Kellas, 2008). One exception is Koenig Kellas (2005), who used a narrative perspective to study identity construction within relational and family contexts by examining family storytelling. A related perspective, Weick’s “sensemaking” (1995), is being used by organizational and work-life communication scholars to study identity construction. For example, Buzzanell and colleagues (2005) used a sensemaking lens to study managerial women’s narratives in order to learn how they constructed identities as “good working mothers.” We believe that narrative and sense making will be central to future identity research.

Symbolic-Convergence Theory

Another theoretical perspective that we believe holds more potential for relational communication scholars studying identity is Bormann’s symbolic-convergence theory (Bormann, 1981; Braithwaite, Schrodt, & Koenig Kellas, 2006). Through sharing stories, inside jokes, and other interactions out of the here and now, persons in relationships and collectives engage in shared fantasies and create a rhetorical vision of their identity and culture. For example, Golden (2002) used symbolic-convergence theory to study how couples interacted and created a shared parental identity and rhetorical vision of managing work and parenting.

Critical-Feminist Perspectives

Wood (1995) urged interpersonal communication scholars to integrate a critical-feminist perspective into their study of personal relationships. She contended that the communication processes in interpersonal relationships cannot be understood apart from the considerations of gender that influence interactions. Wood’s own study of women and caregiving (1994) used such a critical-feminist perspective. Communication work-life literature has also incorporated recognition of gendered power dynamics both in and out of the workplace. Interpersonal communication research, however, has been slow to integrate critical-feminist perspectives (Braithwaite & Baxter, 2008).


In this research paper, we have maintained that rather than being a singular, unchanging phenomenon located within the individual, our identities are multiple, fluid, and created in interaction with others. As communication scholars, we owe our intellectual heritage of communication-based explanations of identity in large part to Mead, Burke, and Goffman. Over the past 30 years or so, communication theorists have extended and refined the basic notion that identities are constituted in communication. While the perspectives used by communication scholars to study identity have provided theoretically rich frameworks to explore identity construction in social and personal relationships, we suggest that understanding of identity construction will be enriched even further by additional empirical research and the use of more diverse perspectives.


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