Both Particle and Wave: A Discussion on Identity

By: Dean Garlick

During our class on gender and identity, Alison mentioned the fact that when writing about identity we need to establish which frame of reference we are working from. Are we looking at identity as fixed in the structuralist sense, or as fluid and contextual in the post-structuralist sense? This is very good advice for maintaining a clear frame for discussing the topic, yet in thinking about the complexity of identity, it seems to me that in the same way physicists see light as both particle and wave, we may need to see identity as simultaneously fixed and fluid.

What exactly does this mean? This means that in performing our identities, we are free to express them as fluidly and variably in as many contexts as we see fit. And the way that we perform race, gender, sexuality, etc with the language we use, or the clothing we wear, is fully within our own agency. Yet at the same time, the identities that may be put onto us by others within the community as a reaction to our performances can in many ways be seen as fixed. Aspects of identity which we cannot choose, such as race, sexuality, or class affect the way we are treated by others. As Luke (2009) argues “notwithstanding the multiplicity of identity celebrated by poststructuralist theory, some identifications can so strongly determine social relations that resistance is difficult” (as cited in Norton & Toohey, 2011, p 435).

Of course, we can modify our performances, as we saw in the case of Martina in the Norton and Toohey (2011) paper. Due to the feedback she received from her community (i.e. being poorly treated at work because of her low-status cleaning position and perceived lack of English proficiency), Martina “reframed her relationship with her co-workers as domestic rather than professional, and from the identity position ‘mother’, rather than ‘immigrant’ or ‘broom’, she claimed the right to speak” (p. 413). But what if Martina had been a teenaged girl from Congo instead of a middle-aged Eastern European woman? Would her age/race have constrained her ability to take on the ‘mother’ role? If Martina were an elderly Laotian male, what performance shifts would’ve been available to him? This is all to say that sometimes the identities that are externally put onto an individual can seriously limit the range of performative possibilities available to them. One can speak posh, and dress posh, but if you happen to be of a racial minority within the dominant culture, you may be placed into a certain fixed identity category that does not allow you to be perceived as posh due to discriminatory and prejudiced perspectives within the community. Some may even find the performance ‘humorous’ or ‘absurd’.

This brings us to the notion of resistance. As Norton and Toohey (2011) say, “structural constraints and customary classroom practices are sometimes resisted by learners so as to create innovative and unexpected identity relationships” (p. 434). By creating pedagogical safehouses, Canarajah (2004a) found that “clandestine literacy activities of students are seen to be forms of resistance to unfavourable identities that learners may be assigned because of their participation in the L2 community” (as cited in Norton & Toohey, 2011, p. 434). That is to say, the outsider may use their agency to make space for the expression of their identity within a constrained environment, but it is in reaction to the fixed/unfavourable identities that are placed onto them by others within the community that they are doing so. If an individual feels there are no performance moves that will put them into a more favourable position, they may lose all investment in the target language and its community, and further take on identities that are considered ‘unfavourable’ by the dominant culture.

For this reason, I believe that it is instrumental to approach identity as a phenomenon that is both fluid within the individual, and potentially fixed outside the individual. Until we have a society that acknowledges the limitations and prejudice that we place onto others, and accepts the fluid and contextual nature of identity, we will have to concede that the fixed nature of identity plays a significant influence on how identity is performed.

Do you think this way of thinking about identity overcomplicates the discussion of identity, or gets closer to describing the complexity of the phenomenon?




Norton, B., & Toohey, K. (2012). Identity, language learning, and social change. Language Teaching, 44(4), 412-446.


4 thoughts on “Both Particle and Wave: A Discussion on Identity”

  1. Hi Dean,
    This is great! Identity IS complex. What you’ve discussed here is very much in line Ostuji and Pennycook (2010), who argued for the need to account for fixity and fluidity when interpreting identity. Check it out (if you haven’t already). I think you’ll appreciate how closely your position resonates with theirs.

    Otsuji, E., & Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism: Fixity, fluidity and language in flux. International Journal of Multilingualism, 7(3), 240–254.


  2. I like that you’re suggesting we look at identity as potentially fixed from the outsider’s perspective, but fluid in terms of how we see ourselves. Certainly, in terms of gender, race, and class, some people might not be able to reevaluate their prejudices when faced with someone performing an identity that doesn’t conform to what they expect. It’s definitely quite complex when you really start to consider all the possibilities of how identity is constructed and, in turn, perceived. Here’s hoping we have a chance to explore these issues more over the next few weeks!


  3. Hi Dean:
    Thank you for opening up another view of seeing identity. For me, I defined myself as a pure Chinese before, because I was born, raised and educated in China. But later on, I changed my identity definition because of my work, I defined myself as a Chinese Mandarin teacher with good English ability. Now I am studying in Canada, I define myself as an international Chinese student who struggles in class. Because first of all, I found my English is not good enough to understand all the speeches and papers. So I am surely a Chinese whose first language is Mandarin. Second, I found myself so unfamiliar with the content we learned in class, I need to study a lot as what I did when I was a high school student, I became a student again. So I think you are right, our identity is always changing because what we are doing, where we are, even who we are with. And this is not only ourselves’ reflection, I think it is more coming from the outside context. I am not sure if the outside effect is contributing to a fixity or fluidity, but it definitely has a great influence on the formation of identity.


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