Identity Discourses


Interpreting learning as entangled with one’s evolving being

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible action and interpretation
  • Knowing is … appropriate acting/interpreting
  • Learner is … an evolving being
  • Learning is … evolving; developing
  • Teaching is … engaging




Identity Discourses do not separate one’s knowing, one’s doing, and one’s being. Consequently, “learning” is tied to all aspects on one’s ever-evolving identity. How and what is learned, then, is not shaped by pre-given and measurable personal traits (compare: Learner Trait Discourses); rather, how and what is learned has everything to do with how and what has been learned. A common theme of Identity Discourses is that the conditions of emergent identities are set within relationships. Prominent discourses addressing this specific matter include:
  • Attachment Theory (John Bowlby, 1960s) – Attachment Theory explores the nature of bonds formed by children with other humans and the role of those bonds in cognitive, emotional, and social development. The phrase has been applied to a wide range of specific theories that are rooted in such varied discourses as Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, Cognitive Developmentalisms, and Psychoanalytic Theories. Overwhelmingly, these theories emphasize attachments in the first few years of life, especially with the mother. Bowlby is perhaps most prominently associated with Attachment Theory. His version was grounded in the assertion that attachment should be understood in terms of evolution, as a survival advantage afforded to the infant.
  • Conformist Social Learning – the tendency for cultures to evolve toward homogeneity among their citizens – that is, for individual identity to be more a reflection of cultural situation than a personal invention or self-creation
  • Nurture Assumption (Judith Rich Harris, 1990s) – an evidence-based challenge to the belief that one’s personality is mainly determined by the way one was raised, positing that one’s peers (and, to a lesser extent, one's teachers) are more influential in shaping identity than popularly imagined ... and parents less so
In recent decades, a range of Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses have taken up and elaborated Identity Discourses. Discourses and constructs prominently associated with these elaborations include:
  • Empathy – the ability to appreciate and/or identify with others’ emotional responses to their experiences
  • Theory of Mind – the ascribing of mental states to others, typically in relation to motives, emotions, and beliefs that might differ from one’s own
  • Perspective-Taking (Perceptual Perspective-Taking) – the ability to interpret (appropriately) how another perceives an experience
  • Perspectival Understanding (James Greeno, Carla Van de Sande, 2000s) – the assertion that conceptual understandings necessarily include points of view
  • Schismogenesis (Gregory Bateson, 1930s) – from the Greek words σχίσμα schisma + γένεσις genesis (“break, division” + “generation, creation”), Schismogenesis refers to those aspects of identity-making that are associated with processes of differentiation – on the individual level, from other persons, and on the collective level, from other social and cultural groups


Identity Discourses complexify the educational process, partly because they interpret any efforts to influence learning as efforts to affect the learner’s being.


  • Attachment Theory
  • Conformist Social Learning
  • Empathy
  • Nurture Assumption
  • Perspectival Understanding
  • Perspective-Taking (Perceptual Perspective-Taking)
  • Schismogenesis
  • Theory of Mind

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Identity Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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