Identities and Ideologies in Study Abroad Contexts: Negotiating Nationality, Gender, and Sexuality
This thesis examines the discursive negotiation of identities in study abroad (SA) settings, examining how university exchange students in New Zealand and France use language to enact, reflect on, and problematise social identities in interaction. I push beyond the more common focus on language learning as the end goal of identity scholarship in SA, focusing instead on an emergent approach to social identities for participants as they encounter ‘new’ Discourses and norms in their exchange settings. The post-structural perspective of identities as multiple, dynamic, and a site of struggle is enriched by attending closely to how identities are discursively co-constructed at ‘ground level’ in interactions with attention to wider sociocultural Discourses and ideologies. I approach this complexity by weaving a strong theoretical thread throughout the thesis, acknowledging (and problematising) the social categories, knowledge, Discourses and ideologies we (re)construct for ourselves, yet recognising the structural constraints that these constructions provide for identity negotiations at any point in time in the guise of social reality. Methodologically, I adopt a novel bidirectional approach to examine the whats and hows of identity co-construction for my participants in France and New Zealand. Data collection spanned a period of sixteen months and involved multiple sources, prioritising naturalistic interactional data and interviews. This was supplemented by an ethnographic data collection which included extensive field notes, time spent with participants, interviews with other key people (language buddies and tutors), and social media. Analytically, interactional sociolinguistics provides valuable tools for a rigorous discourse analysis which considers both micro and macro factors. The analytic focus on the processes of identity negotiation in interaction, underpinned by a social realist approach, provides a fertile platform from which to investigate identity construction in its intersubjective complexity, and to move beyond the reliance on student perspectives as the main source of accessing identity in SA. My findings show that particularly salient identities for participants hinge on constructs of nationality (which interacted with ethnicity), as well as gender and sexuality. These identities were often ‘triggered’ by the activation of ‘discursive faultlines’ in exchange settings and ideologies (associated with the above categories) were pervasive in all participants’ ensuing identity negotiations. The emphasis on the social embeddedness of participants and the researcher has rich implications for understandings of the relationship between structure and agency, and analysis shows that even ostensibly agentive acts are constrained by ideological structures, which act as vehicles of power. I conceptualise agency as being co-constructed, dynamic, and multifaceted, and as involving resistance, perpetuation, complicity, and strategic harnessing of Discourses - both conscious and unconscious. Within these broad parameters, my data provides evidence of greater transformative potential in forms of ‘oppositional’ agency, and at the same time, fledgling potential in what I term agency in a germination phase. I argue that ‘seeds of agency’ are planted for some participants in their new settings and that reflecting on the arbitrary nature of ideologies and accepted truths was a more common outcome for participants who had prior experience of marginalisation. In this sense, the study also speaks to notions of study abroad as social change. What study abroad contexts afford, by virtue of movement across geographical and discursive space, is unique access to how identities are negotiated in light of ideological constraints by young people living in an increasingly mobile and globalised world. Moving beyond singular portrayals of SA university students as language learners and adding depth to existing treatments of identity has crucial repercussions for the way we conceptualise study abroad participants. My study firmly positions them as ‘whole people’ who continue to experience real world issues on exchange, in contexts where the revered immersion experience has been replaced by mobility and connectedness through technological advances. The increasing internationalisation of education adds economic implications to the social, emphasising the need for deeper understanding of the connections between language, identity, and ideology as impacting the study abroad experience. These understandings have the potential to benefit many groups of people, including academics, educators, policy writers, and not least the students themselves.