Faceless woman

Performing identity

Our identities are made up of many different aspects. For example, we might think of ourselves and others in terms of broad categories such as our gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. This approach was undoubtedly taken by some of the earlier researchers in sociolinguists, who would assign the participants in their studies to a pre-determined category. But we can also think of ourselves as members of a seemingly infinite number of groups, when we consider who we are friends with and who we interact with, both face-to-face and online.

For sociolinguists nowadays, our identity is not treated as something unchanging or ‘fixed’. Instead, identity is seen as fluid or something which people constantly create through interactions in everyday life. Language and identity are completely intertwined with one another. Think about your own day-to-day experiences. The way that you speak at school, college or work is likely to be different from how you would talk at home, with friends or family. At the end of the day, you are still ‘you,’ but you have changed how you come across, based on who you are interacting with at any given time. We can all signal our membership of these broader or more closely-knit groups through our language use. We can also use language to express multiple parts of our identities at once.

The expression of identity does not happen in a vacuum, nor does it happen with complete freedom. It can be argued that our expression of identity is continually shaped by the situational context that we’re in at any given time.

Just as the idea of ‘identity’ is complex and varied, so too are the ways sociolinguists try to study it. There are many different perspectives: some from mostly sociolinguistic approaches, and others which come from other subject areas like anthropology, psychology or cultural studies. Increasingly, researchers in sociolinguistics also look to other disciplines like these for ways to better understand identity.

Later in this course, we’ll introduce a few approaches used to study language and identity in sociolinguistic research. Along the way, we’ll also think about how we go about defining and expressing our own identities.

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity

University of York

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