The Limits of Identity Theory

The question of EAP practitioner identity is one that has proved to be a leitmotif (if often tackled obliquely) to many of the posts on this blog.  I have already noted Belcher’s (2012:544) recent observation that the ‘community that ESP professionals know the least about is their own’ ( and it would be interesting to speculate as to why this is the case. However, the purpose of this post is to point a way away from how identity has been theorised and why this is important work.

Given that the EAP practitioner is largely invisible in the EAP literature an obvious way to begin would be to turn to the research in teacher identity in TESOL, of which there is an abundance of articles and books examining teacher identity, for theoretical and methodological guidance. However, in this post I suggest that this leads to an impoverished understanding of the self and a very particular and very partial understanding of the politics of identity.

Varghese et al. (2005) claim that interest in TESOL teacher identity arose from two perspectives; the first is that teacher identity is crucial to understanding the language classroom, and the second, sociocultural and socio-political dimensions of language teaching (the so-called sociocultural turn in applied linguistics) came to the fore with a particular focus on identity as a key interest in language education. These claims made by Varghese et al. are, at best, myopic and reveal fundamental problems in theorising teacher identity (which I believe we in EAP would do well to avoid).

Identity theory in TESOL is largely parasitical on existent (and past) debates and frameworks in, inter alia, philosophy, politics and social theory. However, rather than suggesting a plethora of theoretical inspiration taken from elsewhere two associated theories dominate research in TESOL: poststructuralism and postmodernism. TESOL research is largely a reworking, repetition and reiteration of poststructural and postmodern theories of identities and, to use a poststructual expression, operates as theoretical hegemony in discourse on teacher identity in TESOL foreclosing other more promising avenues of research.

Perhaps the defining characteristics of postmodernism can be distilled as follows: an antagonism to any meta-theory (particularly Marxism); promotion of ethical, ideological and epistemological relativism; sensitivity to and celebration of identities, difference and diversity; a focus on context, discourse and practices; a lack of belief in social progress; an anthropomorphic understanding of knowledge and, most importantly, a deconstruction and dissolving of the self.

 [Postmodernism] stressed the fragmentary, heterogeneous and plural character of reality, denied human thought the ability to arrive at any objective account of that reality and reduced the bearer of this thought, the subject, to an incoherent welter of sub- and trans-individual drives and desires.

Callinicos, 1989:2


TESOL research on teacher identity parrots (almost to the point of parody) many of the concerns of poststructuralism and postmodernism:

… the concept of multiple subjectivities as dynamic, shifting, often conflicting and situated in particular sociohistorical contexts

Glodjo, 2016:5


[identity is} multiple, shifting, negotiated and contingent on external factors and protagonists

Cheng et al. 2015: xvi


Identity is not a fixed, stable, unitary and internally coherent phenomenon but is multiple, shifting and in conflict

Verghese et al 2005: 22-23.


Whether by ‘asphyxiation by social forces’ (Archer, 2000:18) or dissolution in discourse there seems to be only remnants of the self; an ontological self lacking both in coherence and initiative (Callinicos, 1989:6). This is what TESOL research, by and large, offers as a model for identity.

A second point to make here is that TESOL research on identity in general repeatedly focusses specific features of identity notably race, gender and sexual orientation, but almost never on social class. This means that the sociocultural turn in applied linguistics has, as David Block (2014) has noted ‘erased’ social class from applied linguistics (again following trends in the social sciences). Why? Block’s speculative answer to this is interesting (but incomplete) adopting Bourdieu’s notions of intellectualcentricism or scholastic fallacy to suggest:

An important aspect of researcher’s life stories and trajectories is their middle class condition, it is not surprising that there is often a tendency to impose on a view of the world that emanates from and reflects middle class position…  This means that when focusing on identity, as a lot of applied linguists have done in recent years, there is a strong tendency focus on issues around gender, race, religion, and sexuality because these are dimensions of identity that are most salient to applied linguists in their daily lives and middle class people in multicultural societies.

Block, 2014: 170.


Whilst Block gives a highly plausible (and damning) explanation of the erasure of social class from applied linguistics and Varghese et al. (2005) give an equally plausible (but very narrow) explanation for the growing interest in teacher identity in TESOL, what has not been explained is why identity has become so indispensable in politics and social theory in recent years.

Izenberg (2016) and Moran (2015) offer complimentary accounts of the historical emergence of identity. Moran argues that identity is an ideological keyword – a cultural materialist concept developed by Raymond Williams (1985) – and the core premise is that ‘words change their meaning over time in relation to changing social, economic and political pressures’ (Holborow, 2015:71) and the ‘problems of its meanings [are] inextricably bound up with the problems it [is] used to discuss’ (Williams, 1983:15). Put simply, identity now carries meanings and effects that it didn’t have even 70 years ago. Identity came to mean what it does today at that precise moment in history when questions of the self and group became problematic. Identity is an articulation of threats to the self and group. Moran (idem: 25) relates the emergence of new meanings attached to identity to three key changes:

  1. Emergence of new social movements around race and gender
  2. Intensified consumption in contexts of contemporary capitalism
  3. Popularisation of psychology and the self help industry

Identity has been largely appropriated by the cultural postmodern left (rather than the economic  Marxist left) and has generally refused to base identity in the material and social conditions of capitalist societies. However, because of theoretical commitments to anti-essentialism (or anything foundational) postmodernism is unable to conceive of identity as anything other than fragmentary, partial, contingent, and fluid. It is more a paralogical understanding of identity: a theory against identity. It is a theory that denies that there is anything essential to an identity of a person or group. Ever finer demarcations of identity are sought to counteract claims of essentialism to capture the experience of a given group leading to ever decreasing group affiliations and ever increasing incommensurate identities and voice. This has the effect of atomising groups to individuals and weakening social ties and solidarity: poststructuralism and postmodernism are highly congruent with neoliberalism and individualism and it is no historical accident that both have flourished at the same moment.  Postmodernism and poststructuralism identity politics is all about recognition of difference and nothing about redistribution which is one reason why it sits so well with neoliberalism:

Recognition at the level of discourse and attitudes is of course important, but it is not enough, and at worst may be tokenistic. It is easy for the dominant to grant discursive recognition and civility to the dominated or socially excluded; giving up some of their money and other advantages to them another matter.

Sayer, 2005:64


The purpose of this blog post has been to lay the groundwork for a positive theory of identity that could be applied to EAP practitioner identity without succumbing to the weaknesses of theoretical frameworks that have shaped discourse of teacher identity in TESOL. As there has been no research (to my knowledge) specifically on EAP practitioner identity we have no theoretical legacies to follow, no established frameworks to respect, and no discourses which have erased or promoted specific aspects of identity. I believe it important not to follow the lead given by research in TESOL because, in the end, it can only offer a very partial account of our identity and a very emaciated one at that.

My positive theory of identity discusses the following elements:

  1. Provide a link from identity to agency
  2. Have explanatory powers to articulate the relationship between structure and agency and, specifically account for morphostatis and morphogenesis i.e to account for how agents are shaped by structural forces and how agents change structure over time.
  3. Account for, at least theoretically, how professional identity is shaped. What are the discourses, knowledge bases, practices, and social material contexts and forces that intersect to influence professional identity?
  4. How does personal identity relate to social identity (or which one aspect is professional identity)? How do our personal concerns and commitments manifest themselves in the social sphere?
  5. What connects or affiliates one practitioner to another? Is there such thing as a profession? Is there an essence to EAP? Something that binds all practitioners?
  6. How do we account for recognition, distinction, social stratification and boundaries in defining a practitioner? Who makes these distinctions? And how do we change them?
  7. How do neoliberal values impose themselves in universities and how do these values transform practitioner identity?

The framework for identity coming in the following post is inspired by many of the fundamental premises of critical realism especially in the works of Margaret Archer and Dave Elder-Vass.

Archer, M. S. (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Belcher, D. (2012) ‘The future of ESP research: Resources and access and choice’ in B. Paltridge and S. Starfield (eds). Handbook of English for Specific Purposes. Boston: Blackwell, pp.535-552.

Block, D. (2014) Social Class in Applied Linguistics.  London Routledge.

Callinicos, A. (1989) Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cheng, Y. L., Said, S. B., and Park, K.’ Expanding the Horizon of Research in Language Teacher Identity’ in Cheng et al. (eds) Advances and Current Trends in Language Teacher Identity Research. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. xv-xxi.

Glodjo, T. (2016) ‘Deconstructing Social Class Identity and Teacher Privilege in the Second Language Classroom’. TESOL Journal .

Holborow, M. (2015) Language and Neoliberalism. London: Routledge.

Izenberg, G. (2016) Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Moran, M. (2015) Identity and Capitalism. London: Sage.

Sayer, A. (2005) The Moral Significance of Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Varghese, M., Morgan, B., Johnston, B, and Johnson, K, A. (2005) ‘Theorizing Language Teacher Identity: Three Perspectives and Beyond’, 4(1), Journal of Language Identity and Education, 21-44.

Williams, R. (1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Society and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.