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.


23 Comments on “The Limits of Identity Theory”

  1. alfredo says:

    Thank you! This discussion of identity clarifies some of the issues around this concept for me; specifically, it helps explain the boundedness of so many discussions of identity in TESOL (as you indicate, boundedness within especially middle-class concerns). I have avoided the term generally in my studies of L2 development and its association with teaching, preferring instead to discuss the “socio-semantic dispositions” (of learners and instructors) that develop slowly and evolve gradually through social life (as such, is highly complementary with Vygotsky’s notion of semiotic mediation). This frame – drawn from Basil Bernstein’s (Marxism friendly) notion of coding orientation – makes relevant the more foundational kinds of positionings and forms of socialization that are associated with the formation of robust dispositions. These dispositions can be seen to vary systematically with language use, but the linguistic theory needs to be sufficiently social and systematic. Following the systemic functional linguist Ruqaiya Hasan, I adopt the transdisciplinary framework involving Halliday’s SFL, Vygotsky’s pyschology, and Bernstein’s sociology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Hi Alfredo, thanks for commenting here and explaining a little bit about your research. It certainly sounds interesting! I’d be very interested to hear more especially how and why you connect SFL with Bernstein’s sociology: this seems quite similar to legitimation code theory in orientation?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Alfredo says:

        Hi Alex,
        Thanks for the feedback.
        I’ve heard of LCT, but have not investigated much, though my understanding is that LCT is a recent extension of Bernstein’s work on pedagogic and academic discourse. It’s interesting that LCT may be becoming the default reference for the very complementary links between SFL and Bernstein’s sociology. However, the links have been explored very deeply in the work of Ruqaiya Hasan since the late 60s, I think with very well-rounded representation of both Bernstein’s ideas and SFL (the latter is represented in her work not by Martin et al’s extension (in which genre is a key theortical piece) as in LCT, but by Halliday’s original formulation). Hasan’s collected works is a good place to explore that literature, if it interests you. I imagine this informed Maton’s development of LCT as well, which appears to extend both SFL and Bernstein. I hope this – limited as it is – helps.
        Thanks again for your original post on identity!


      • Steve Kirk says:

        Maton is continuing the interdisciplinary conversation that Halliday had with Bernstein. He and Jim Martin share a corridor, I believe, at the University of Sydney. Recent developments in LCT and in SFL emerge from this dialogue. See e.g. Maton & Doran (2017) – available here:


  2. Douglas Bell says:

    A thought-provoking post, Alex.

    I recently submitted a PhD thesis in which I examine the positioning and professional identity of EAP practitioners in UK universities, largely using models and concepts developed by Tony Becher (tribes and territories), Basil Bernstein (the pedagogic code) and Pierre Bourdieu (habitus, field and capital).

    My (admittedly rather pessimistic!) conclusion is that factors such as a poor appreciation and understanding of EAP within the academy at large; a lack of clarity and consistency around professional standards and teacher development within EAP itself, not to mention the current marketization of higher education in general and the influx of private educational providers, seriously threaten the longer-term security and future development of EAP in UK university contexts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      First of all, congratulations on submitting your thesis Doug and I hope the viva goes smoothly! I think your findings are, sadly, hardly surprising… I hope to read more about your research in publications soon. Although we ‘know’ what your research suggests, we don’t talk about it enough and Gregory’s book is the only book I know that deals with this. It’s much simpler to think about EAP in an abstract way, thinking about pedagogy, needs, assessments etc. without considering the sociopolitical contexts in which EAP exists. It might be depressing in some ways but it should not be obscured from discussions either…


      • Douglas Bell says:

        Cheers, Alex.

        And yes, I also hope the viva goes smoothly…. It’s coming very soon!
        With regard to publications, the short answer is yes- I have some articles and book chapters in draft form which I’m hoping to get out there over the coming months. Watch this space 🙂

        Not surprisingly perhaps, I would agree with you entirely that we don’t talk about these things nearly enough. The literature tends to be dominated by what I see as the ‘what’ of EAP- typically genre analysis etc- and this comes at the expense of discussing the ‘how’ and the ‘who’… In this regard, I feel that EAP often misses the wood for the trees.


  3. Steve says:

    Regarding ‘poor appreciation and understanding of EAP within the academy at large’, I imagine that teachers, managers and other practitioners involved in what we might regard as EAP-oriented activity may feel some responsibility for maybe not arriving at or getting a/the right message across clearly enough for it to have the lasting and pervasive impact that we think it deserves.

    Andy Gillett, elsewhere on this site, asks what the EAP unique selling point is, for example. Is there one, or are there many depending on contexts? What is it that EAP does which might just set it/us apart from other things/players on offer out there, and perhaps just as good, in the eyes of some decision-makers (perhaps, especially, if the alternatives come at a cheaper price)? How well-defined and condensed can/should such a USP be to have a chance of making its desired mark, in the face of other assumptions, expediencies and demands which, within as well as the academy at large, may also be difficult to withstand within EAP circles. This touches on the previous neo-liberal theme on this site which you allude to, I think, where marketisation, profit and consumerist values seem to have invaded, and continue to colonise, so much discourse and practice in and beyond education, and perhaps more than we ourselves may have fully realised.


    • Douglas Bell says:

      Hi Steve, yes, I think that ‘we’ as collective EAP practitioners definitely have to take some responsibility for how EAP is or isn’t valued. As I explore in my thesis, I think part of the issue is to do with how professional knowledge is conceptualized and packaged, which is why the models proposed by Bernstein and Bourdieu can be such useful tools for analysis. In the case of EAP, even within the profession itself, it is hard to get agreement on what makes EAP special- Andy’s unique selling point- and how this differentiates EAP from more mainstream ELT in general. As far as the academy is concerned of course, one of the ways in which subjects accrue what Bourdieu refers to as ‘capital’ and show their academic robustness is via the rigour of their qualifications i.e. PhDs. On this note, I’d have to say that I’m in complete agreement with Martha Pennington (1992) who says, ‘We must…face up to the fact that as long as we are a Master’s rather than a Doctoral level specialisation, we will have problems being recognised within tertiary institutions…. we must work to bring the qualification of the ELT professional up to a PhD level, or else settle for being second-class citizens in a society of PhDs’. The fact that Pennington was making this argument in 1992- an alarming 24 years ago!- but as a professional body, we’re essentially still facing the same challenges and debating the same issues now, (sadly) speaks volumes I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dr Alex Ding says:

        Hi again Doug! Interesting point about PhDs. I’m not in entire agreement there for a host of reasons but it would make for a very lively debate. The BALEAP discussion list tends to get over excited about whether a DELTA or MA is better for teaching EAP. Suggestion a doctorate to teach EAP would certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons… Anyway, maybe qualifications is a discussion or another day.


      • Douglas Bell says:

        Hi again Alex, Yes, for sure, debate is always good. 🙂

        Just to be clear though, I’m not saying that practitioners necessarily need to have a doctorate in order to teach EAP; what I am suggesting, however, is that in university contexts, it is the lack of PhD qualifications which helps to contribute to EAP’s second-class citizen status because in academia after all, doctorates are de rigeur and part and parcel of the necessary capital. And of course recognized research outputs and publications also fall squarely into this camp. As EAP practitioners, I think we have to start recognising this and acknowledge that if we want the kudos and professional respect awarded to many other university disciplines, then we have to ‘walk the talk’ and trade with other academics using the same currencies. We can’t have our cake and eat it too, and if we don’t like the heat, then in my view, we really shouldn’t be in the kitchen… (not sure why my metaphors have suddenly gone all culinary, but hopefully you get the drift :-))

        With regard to qualifications for EAP though, yes, that would be/is (and let’s face it, has been) a pretty major debate in its own right. As I think you know, I personally believe that none of the current qualifications out there are entirely satisfactory when it comes to EAP preparation. In my view, an MA alone, without relevant experience and teaching practice doesn’t really cut it. Conversely, while the CELTA and DELTA prepare people for generic ELT, I’m not so sure that the principles they instil are necessarily all that useful for EAP- in some cases, I think they can even do more harm than good. What I personally believe is needed is something more in the middle- something that combines both theory and practice but in a way that is more directly tailored to EAP contexts; this is what my colleagues and I were trying to do when we developed the PgC TEAP at Plymouth University all those years ago…and since then of course, a number of other institutions have done similar. But I’m sure this debate will continue… 😉

        All the best for now,



      • Steve says:

        Hi Doug. You mention a need to ‘walk the talk’ and trading ‘with academics using the same currencies’. It’s those things (breakthroughs and success stories – though based on what criteria?), I guess, which are perhaps most interesting.


    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Thanks for your comments Steve… I think what your comment suggests quite strongly is the extent to which we, as practitioners, are subject to forces which shape what we can do. It would help of course if EAP, the community of practitioners that is, had a much sharper sense of who we are and what are values are. That part of the equation is under theorised and lacks debate too.


  4. This is possibly taking things off topic, but when Alex mentioned class (not just gender, sexual orientation, etc.) as a marker of teacher 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.”,

    I immediately thought about the social class of our EAP students and how their social class makes the capitalist market-driven money-making industry that EAP possible (regardless of who provides this EAP provision – I don’t work for a private provider (as such), but my EAP unit is driven and shaped by profit-generating outcomes, so as far as I am concerned, it is private in the sense that it is profit that motivates it, not education).

    I’m throwing this thought into the mix because if we want to converse meaningfully about the identity of the EAP practioner (the Subject, in Archerian/critical realist terms), we also need an account of the identity of our students (the Objects of our Subjectivity). And as far as I can tell, our students are the global elite, and this says something about us, about our identity as teachers and as representatives of higher education, and about our life choices: so, linking back to Steve’s point on what the purpose of EAP is, my thoughts here are linked to what and who we (the Subjects) think our students (the Objects) are, and what we want them to be, and what that says about us, our values, and our educational theories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Thanks julia, I always appreciate your comments! One of the things that always surprises me is that, when talking about students, there’s a tendency to analyse them in terms of origin, culture, discipline and religion, never social class and never in consideration of what that might mean in terms of their motivation to study. It’s a blind spot. What are we participating in exactly when teaching EAP? As for the profit motive, this can seriously warp educational endeavours, warp how we see students and define our ambitions. In that case are we causing more harm than good?
      Of course, we can choose to focus on innovating in the classroom, class materials, develop courses etc and choose not to think about these somewhat troubling aspects of our work. They don’t go away though.


  5. Yes, this is a very thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing it. I too, along with Douglas, have found some less than encouraging things related to the professional identity of teachers. What I would say, based upon my research, is that in today’s world, only people with power are allowed to have an identity. They define who they are, and those with less power are defined by those with power. Those who have old sources of power must be broken, twisted, and disarticulated in order for them to be rebuilt according to the needs and aspirations of the power elite. Of course, this sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years, but I would somehow hope that humanity would learn to transcend the old patterns for something more enlightened. Your posting gives me hope!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Douglas Bell says:

      Hi Greg, Yes, I think you’re referring here to The Golden Rule i.e. those that have the gold, make the rules… 🙂 All the best, Doug


    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Hi Gregory, thanks again for contributing! Power is clearly part of EAP, the labelling, the physical location on campus, the salaries, access to university life, careers, workloads etc all say something about our place in stratification… All is not lost though. We do have some agency and that, in turn, has some impact on structure. The question is how to do this, a question of strategy and direction. Again all linked to values and what values we wish to see prevail. We also need to learn from each other vis a vis success stories, examples of how things can change etc.


      • I like the positive tone of your message. This is an important quality for a successful and inspiring leader. I think that Doug (hiya mate!) does have a point, though. Not all Teachers of EAP (TEAPs) need to get a PhD, but one can only go so far with the anti-intellectual stance that is adopted by so many of the (wonderful, dynamic, and inspiring) TEAPs that I have worked with in Presessionals. Greater theory and scholarly rigor (and yes, credentials) need to be added to and to inform their practice. As it is, in the class-riven organizational culture of many corporatized universities, TEAPs have become the overlooked working class of extremely aspirational institutions.


      • Douglas Bell says:

        Hi Greg,

        As you say, it’s not that those of us in TEAP necessarily ‘need’ a PhD (in the sense that we need a driving licence before we’re considered qualified to drive a car), although I agree with you entirely that greater scholarly rigour doesn’t go wrong; in my view, this is part of what being a true professional (in any field) is all about; that constant need to keep up-skilling and further developing ones knowledge base. The point I was originally trying to address in my responses to Alex and Steve though was specifically why EAP often gets afforded lower status in the academy…and as I say, I do think that recognised academic capital (either in the form of qualifications and credentials, or scholarly outputs) plays a huge role in this. As Becher (1989) showed so clearly, there will always be a pecking order across the different academic tribes and territories with some disciplines afforded more prestige and status than others. One of my frustrations in EAP is that I think some colleagues want to have it both ways- on the one hand, they enjoy the freedom and flexibility that traditionally comes with a career in TEFL, but on the other, they then complain that EAP as a discipline doesn’t get the professional recognition it deserves. For those of us pushing for the latter, I think it can only come if EAP collectively takes a much firmer line on what professionalism in our field actually means… one strand of which leads back to Martha Pennington’s argument all those years ago about upgrading our qualification base . With the marketization of education in general, unless we as a body of practitioners take proactive steps to greater professionalize what we do, convincing the senior management of universities that EAP centres, schools and departments should be treated like any other recognised subject area in HE (and paid accordingly), will only become more and more difficult, I fear…


  6. jrr1238 says:

    Good stuff, Alex. Can I forward it to the CELE bunch?

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yoav says:

    Thank you for this post Alex,
    I must say, this is an overwhelming issue that has indeed become a pandemic in academia. Unfortunately, the paradigm of identity politics has become the de rigueur approach to most topics in social sciences as well as in the humanities. Personally, I had no idea that this has permeated ELT as well. Thank you for this enlightening post.


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