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. Rather, one is regarded as a coherent-but-evolving whole:
  • Identity – one’s continuous sense of self, comprising one’s awareness of those aspects (physical, psychological, social, cultural, situational, occupational, narrative) that either distinguish or align one with others
  • Identity Development Theory – an umbrella category that includes any theory that offers a perspective on how one comes to have a coherent and continuous sense of self. Many, but not all, such theories are also Developmentalist Discourses.
  • Identity Formation (Identity Construction; Identity Development) – the complex, multi-leveled processes by which one comes to a coherent and continuous sense of one’s self, which include both the experiences that shape one’s identity and the lenses one comes to use to interpret those experiences
  • Identity Work – not-necessarily-conscious efforts to modify one’s identity in order to establish or maintain acceptability in a given situation
  • Individuality – the uniqueness of one’s way of being, as manifest in perceptions, interpretations, and actions
  • Postmodern Subject – an acknowledgement and a problematization of the complexities, tensions, and dilemmas associated with the creation of one’s identity. The Postmodern Subject is simultaneously attentive to one’s agency, action, and authorship of subjectivity and to the subjections and deferrals that frame and constrain subjectivity. (Compare: Cartesian Subject, in Learner Trait Discourses.)
Consequently, “learning” is tied to all aspects of one’s ever-evolving identity. How and what is learned is not shaped by pre-given and measurable personal traits (compare: Personality Types Theories); 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. Exemplars of Identity Discourses include:
  • Field Theory of Personality ­(Kurt Lewin, 1940s) – a theory in which personality is described as an emergent phenomenon (a “field”) that arises in the interactions of multiple “intrapsychic forces.” (Contrast: Factor Theory of Personality, in Personality Types Theories.)
  • Dynamic Interactionism (Jack Martin, Jeff Sugarman, 1990s) – a perspective that frames personality as dynamically emergent, as one engages continually and reciprocally with one’s environment
The notion of Identity have many associated constructs:
  • Private Self – one’s private conception and knowledge of one’s Identity, which may or may not align strongly with one’s Public Self (Contrast: Public Self)
    • Ought Self – one’s convictions about the personal attributes one ought to have, which are generally reflective of social norms and cultural situatedness
    • Perceived Competence – one’s perceptions of one’s learned abilities
    • Perceived Self – the attributes (and one’s assessments of those attributes) that one asserts of oneself
    • Self-Concept (Self-Appraisal; Self-Assessment; Self-Evaluation; Self-Rating) – in Psychology, one’s formal reporting on the traits, skills, affiliations, and other qualities that contribute to a robust, sustained sense of self. Associated constructs include:
      • Self-Definition – a term that is often used as a synonym to Self-Concept, but that is sometimes associated more particularly with senses of personal independence or autonomy
    • Self-Construal – a specific belief about oneself. Two subcategories have been studied:
      • Independent Self-Construal – a Self-Construal that highlights the traits and accomplishments that differentiate one’s identity from other identities and that minimizes or ignores one’s social and cultural embeddedness
      • Interdependent Self-Construal – a Self-Construal that highlights one’s social and cultural embeddedness and that minimizes the traits and accomplishments that differentiate one’s identity from other identities
    • Self-Image – one’s view of one’s Identity, typically associated some manner of judgment of goodness or moral self-worth
    • Self-Perception (Self-Percept) – one’s assessments, accurate or otherwise, of one’s mental and physical attributes
    • Self-Schema (Working Self-Concept) – one’s sense of one’s own abilities, willpower, and agency – typically considered against the backdrop of one’s interests and aspirations
    • Sense of Self (Sense of Identity) – one’s awareness of one’s own identity as a coherent, stable personality that is continuous over time
  • Public Self – the Identity that is presented to others through activities, affiliations, narratives, appearance, and so on. Public Self may vary significantly, depending on role or audience. (Contrast: Private Self). Associated constructs include:
    • Facework – those social actions and positionings designed to influence others’ opinions of one’s identity
    • Social Identity – those qualities that one manifests with a consistency sufficient for others to regard them as defining of or essential to one’s identity (Note: The construct of Social Identity should not be confused with Social Identity Theory.)
    • Social Image – one’s public persona – that is, a deliberately crafted identity, typically intended for a particular audience
    • Social Self – often a synonym of Public Self. In some contexts, Social Self refers to facades – that is, deliberately performed identities, often associated with a level of deceit
Prominent constructs and discourses associated with this specific matter include:
  • Action Identification Theory (Robin Vallacher, Daniel Wegner, 1980s) – a perspective on the relationship between one’s actions and one’s thoughts about those actions. The theory offers insights into self-regulation of activity, as well as emotional and social implications and interpretations of actions.
  • 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
  • Culture of Children – the habits, norms, and rules that are defining of a specific collective of children. Such qualities are often decidedly different from those of surrounding adults and other collectives. (Compare Kids’ Culture, below; see Group Socialization Theory, below.)
  • Group Socialization Theory (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. Concisely, the theory asserts that children seek to be more like their peers than like their parents or teachers. (See Culture of Children, above.)
  • Kids’ Culture – the settings and activities that are specific to children and that operate separately from the adult world. (Compare Culture of Children, above; see Group Socialization Theory, above.)
  • Lifetime Personality (Henry Alexander Murray, 1950s) – the dominant (or prevailing patterns of acting and interpretation across one’s entire life
  • Narrative Theory – an approach to the study of personal narratives, founded on the assumption that such narratives are simultaneously personal (e.g., integral to one’s sense of identity; helping to shape habits of thinking) and sociocultural (e.g., e.g., structurally and thematically fitted to cultural narratives
  • Personalism – a philosophical and moral stance on personal knowledge founded on the conviction that one’s conception of the reality is derived from one’s unique pool of experiences.
  • Personalistic Psychology (Eduard Spranger, 1940s) – a branch of psychology embraces Personalism (see above), and that thus emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual’s construal of the world
  • Personality Development – an umbrella term used to describe and collect discourses that address processes and consequences of self-creation, including tactics of distinguishing one’s self from others’ selves, sites of collective identifications, life-altering events, and ever-evolving contexts across the lifespan.
  • Personality Processes – the processes by which personality evolves – that is, the dynamics and systems that influence one’s ever-evolving identity
  • Reference Group Theory (Herbert Human, 1940s) – any perspective on personal identity that assumes individuals compare (and adapt) their traits, behaviors, and circumstances to others in an identified reference group
  • Relational Theory – a category of theories that assume or emphasize that one’s self emerges in relationship with other selves. Different Relational Theories tend to have distinct foci (e.g., conflict, cultural influences, child–parent dynamics, etc.), but all are attentive to “relational matrix” – that is, the assertion that self-identifications make sense only against the backdrop of relating to others, to sociocultural situation, and to environment.
  • Self-Completion Theory – the perspective that one’s actions are selected to align with the identity one desires
  • Self-Complexity Theory – the suggestion that those with “low self-complexity” (i.e., a Self-Concept that comprises few distinct aspects) tend to react much more strongly to unexpected events (positive or negative) compared to those with “high self-complexity” (i.e., who have multiple and diverse self-aspects)
  • Self-Differentiation Theory (Differentiation of Self) (Murray Bowen, 1970s) – a theory of individuality that indexes one’s sense of self to one’s identifications with one’s family, where “differentiation” is understood as the ability to have independent emotions, thoughts, and interpretations
  • Situationism (Situational Theory; Situationalism) – a theory that asserts one’s behavior and enacted personality are determined by contextual (external) factors, not by personal (internal) traits
  • Social Relations Model (David Kenny, 1980s) – a perspective that frames identity in terms of one’s relationship to someone else – specifically, the extent to which that relationship reflects the larger social group/situation considered alongside the extent to which it reflects aspects unique to the individuals and their affiliation.
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:
  • Deep Social Mind (Andrew Whiten, 1990s) – the ability to identify and interpret mental states of others with sufficient fidelity to maintain robust social relationships while affording others sufficient information to identify and interpret one’s own mental state
  • Diagnosticity – the information one can glean in social interactions about one’s own character or identity. Diagnosticity can be motivated in different ways:
    • Accuracy Motive (Appraisal Motive; Self-Assessment Motive) – the desire for high Diagnosticity – that is, to gain accurate information about one’s self in a social interaction
    • Consistency Motive – the desire for low Diagnosticity – that is, to engage in social interactions that affirm one’s current sense of self
    • Self-Enhancement Motive – the desire to manage Diagnosticity – specifically, to engage in social interactions that present flattering information about one’s self
  • Empathy (current interest appears to have been catalyzed by Brené Brown, 2010s) – the ability to tune into others’ emotions. Empathy is sometimes characterized as a capacity for experiencing or mirroring another’s what another is thinking and feeling. Empathy is strongly associated with personal development, social cohesion, and collective well-being. There is evidence that it is, to some extent, a learnable skill – and so the suggestion that Empathy can and should be taught has gained much traction in recent years.
  • I–Thou (I and Thou) (Martin Buber, 1920s) – a reference to mutuality in relationship between self and other, based on the theological principle that a human’s relationship with God is the purest and most basic of any relationship
  • Mentalization (Reflective Functioning) (Peter Fonagy, 1990s) – the capacity to appropriately interpret one’s own and others’ intentions and emotional states
  • Need for Cognition (A.R. Cohen, 1950s) – a personality characteristic that includes one’s need to generate meaning from experience and one’s need to structure activities in meaningful ways
  • 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
  • Theory of Mind (Theory-Theory) – the ascribing of mental states to others, typically in relation to motives, emotions, and beliefs that might differ from one’s own


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


  • Accuracy Motive (Appraisal Motive; Self-Assessment Motive)
  • Action Identification Theory
  • Attachment Theory
  • Conformist Social Learning
  • Consistency Motive
  • Culture of Children
  • Deep Social Mind
  • Diagnosticity
  • Dynamic Interactionism
  • Empathy
  • Facework
  • Field Theory of Personality
  • Group Socialization Theory (Nurture Assumption)
  • I–Thou (I and Thou)
  • Identity
  • Identity Development Theory
  • Identity Formation (Identity Construction; Identity Development)
  • Identity Work
  • Independent Self-Construal
  • Individuality
  • Interdependent Self-Construal
  • Kids’ Culture
  • Lifetime Personality
  • Mentalization (Reflective Functioning)
  • Narrative Theory
  • Need for Cognition
  • Ought Self
  • Perceived Competence
  • Perceived Self
  • Personalism
  • Personalistic Psychology
  • Personality Development
  • Personality Processes
  • Perspectival Understanding
  • Perspective-Taking (Perceptual Perspective-Taking)
  • Postmodern Subject
  • Private Self
  • Public Self
  • Reference Group Theory
  • Relational Theory
  • Schismogenesis
  • Self-Completion Theory
  • Self-Complexity Theory
  • Self-Concept (Self-Appraisal; Self-Assessment; Self-Evaluation; Self-Rating)
  • Self-Construal
  • Self-Definition
  • Self-Differentiation Theory (Differentiation of Self)
  • Self-Enhancement Motive
  • Self-Image
  • Self-Perception (Self-Percept)
  • Self-Schema (Working Self-Concept)
  • Sense of Self (Sense of Identity)
  • Situationism (Situational Theory; Situationalism)
  • Social Identity
  • Social Image
  • Social Relations Model
  • Social Self
  • Theory of Mind (Theory-Theory)

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Identity Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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