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Gender

and
Language

G&L (print) issn 17476321


G&L (online) issn 1747633X

this is not mine anyway

Review

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Discourse and identity.


Bethan Benwell and Elizabeth Stokoe.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. pp 314.
Reviewed by Dharshi Santhakumaran

The discursive construction of identity has become a central concern amongst


researchers across a wide range of academic disciplines within the humanities
and social sciences, and there are a number of different, sometimes conflicting,
analytic approaches used by researchers in theorising and analysing identity.
Most existing work either concentrates on a specific identity category, such as
gender, sexuality, or national identity, or else offers a broader discussion of how
identity is theorised. In Discourse and identity Bethan Benwell and Elizabeth
Stokoe provide an overview of some of the main analytic methods and theoretical perspectives used in the study of identity, including conversation analysis
(CA), membership categorisation analysis (MCA), discursive psychology, critical discourse analysis (CDA) and narrative analysis. However, what sets this
book apart from much of the previous work on the discursive construction
of identity is its practical focus on how researchers identify and analyse the
processes of identity construction as they occur in different discursive contexts.
The book is divided into seven chapters, six of which are devoted to a different
discursive environment, such as everyday conversation or institutional talk. In
each of these chapters Benwell and Stokoe discuss and evaluate existing work
in the area, and use a variety of data examples to demonstrate how researchers
can apply different methods to analyse how identity work is done in different
contexts. The books chapters are also divided into two sections. Part I com-

Affiliation
Dharshi Santhakumaran, Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh, UK
email: dharshi.santhakumaran@gmail.com

G&L vol 1.2 2007 315318


2007, equinox publishing

doi : 10.1558/genl.v1i2.315
LONDON

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prises Chapters 1 to 4, and combines a practical guide to analysis with critical


discussion of relevant methods, and the theoretical debates surrounding them.
In Part II Benwell and Stokoe look at commodified, spatial and virtual identities, which are increasingly becoming the focus of identity research. This part
focuses less on methodology, and more on the discursive contexts concerned.
Chapter 1 provides an overview of how different theories of identity have
developed over time, contrasting essentialist theories of the self with a social
constructionist viewpoint. This chapter also introduces the different analytic
methods used in the later chapters, drawing attention to the difference between
macro- and micro-level approaches. This chapter serves as a useful introduction
for students, but will be of less value to those already familiar with different
discourse analytic methods.
Chapters 2 and 3 deal with conversational and institutional identities.
Chapter 2 demonstrates how conversational identities can be identified and
analysed using either a performativity/social constructionist approach or the
ethnomethodological approach of CA and MCA. Chapter 3 looks at institutional identities and addresses the problem of how to define institutional talk
as opposed to ordinary talk. This chapter also contains further explanations of
CA and MCA, and elaborates on the contrast between CA and CDA. Benwell
and Stokoe also discuss some of the criticisms which have been levelled at each
of these approaches, including the issue of what counts as permissible context,
which has sparked an on-going debate amongst conversation analysts and
CAs detractors. These debates have been well-rehearsed elsewhere, and will be
familiar to most language and gender researchers. Benwell and Stokoes main
contribution is in giving readers a clear illustration of what these different types
of analysis actually look like, which they do by taking a stretch of university
tutorial interaction and analysing it using first CA and then CDA.
Like discourse analysis, narrative analysis is not a single unified approach,
but rather an umbrella term which covers the varied approaches of researchers
in an interdisciplinary field. Chapter 4 looks at how researchers in different disciplines have analysed the relationship between narrative and identity,
flagging both the commonalities and differences between approaches, and
again providing illustrative examples and practical advice on how researchers
go about collecting narrative data. As in the previous chapters, Benwell and
Stokoe pay particular attention to the tensions between micro- and macro-level
forms of analysis. In Chapter 4 they look at how Scott Kiesling (forthcoming)
combines the two levels when analysing an extract from an interview with a
member of an American college fraternity, and then go on to discuss issues and
problems involved when combining top-down and bottom-up approaches.
Chapter 5 draws on critical discourse analysis and critical discursive
psychology to explore the concept of commodified identities, looking at the

d. santhakumaran 317

identities of consumers, the process of identity commodification through acts


of consumption, representations of identities in commodified contexts, and
self-commodifying discourses such as CVs and job applications. One of the
benefits of Benwell and Stokoes approach is that they look at how identities
are constructed at both the sites of production and consumption, for example
by comparing textual analysis of mens lifestyle magazines with analysis of
interviews with male consumers.
Chapters 6 and 7 address spatial and virtual identities. These aspects of identity have been relatively under-explored by identity researchers until recent
years. Spatial identities in particular have been neglected by discourse analysts,
who have tended to focus purely on linguistic practices, without taking into
account the embodied, visual aspects of identity. Chapter 6 uses both visual
and textual data to explore the role of space and place in identity construction,
looking for example at the context of the beach, and what peoples location
within this context can tell us about identity practices, particularly regarding
group identity. Benwell and Stokoe trace the development of the spatial turn
across the humanities and social sciences, and briefly discuss how work done
by feminist geographers theorizes the relationship between gender and public
and private space.
Perhaps the most illuminating part of this chapter is the section in which
Benwell and Stokoe use both visual and linguistic data to explain and illustrate
the spatial basis of neighbour relations, and specifically the way in which
complaints against neighbours tend to be based on perceived breaches of the
spatial moral order.
Chapter 7 deals with the growing field of work on computer-mediated communication (CMC). In this chapter Benwell and Stokoe use MCA to analyse
the ways in which different identity categories are invoked and negotiated in
online chatrooms, and apply politeness theory to the category Newbie and
its associated characteristics, rights and obligations. They also problematise
the concept of virtual identity, as defined in opposition to authentic or real
identity.
This book provides an engaging and accessible overview of a broad and varied
field which will be of use to all identity researchers. Furthermore, Benwell
and Stokoes judicious use of examples and clear demonstration of different
analytic methods make the book an essential practical guide for students and
newcomers to the field of identity research.
Although the book deals with identity in general, much of the analysis focuses
on gender identity, a point which is acknowledged by the authors. This is a
reflection not only of the research interests of the authors, but also of the fact
that the majority of existing work in the field of language and identity is concerned primarily with gender. As such, much of the research and the analytical

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approaches discussed, particularly in Part I of the book, will be familiar to


language and gender researchers. However, the authors are particularly strong
in their analysis and practical demonstration of the tensions between top-down
and bottom-up approaches to discourse, and they make a persuasive case for
the advantages of using conversation analytic and other ethnomethodological
approaches in the study of identity. This discussion will be of interest to language and gender researchers as these issues continue to inspire considerable
debate within the field.
Reference
Kiesling, Scott Fabius. (forthcoming). Hegemonic identity-making in narrative. In Anna
de Fina, Deborah Schiffrin and Michael Bamberg (eds). Discursive construction of
identities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.