Communication Theory of Identity (cti)

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Communication Theory of Identity (CTI)

Who Are You?

  • I am…
    • X
    • X

Views of Identity

  • Scientific
    • “Group” predicts communication
      • Women v. men; Blacks v. Whites; straight v. gay
  • Humanistic
    • Communication “creates” group
      • “Doing” gender
  • Critical
    • Group differences serve/center/privilege some groups, disservice/marginalize others

But first, Social Identity Theory!

  • We perceive ourselves (ID) in terms of groups
    • Personal identity
    • Social identity
      • Role identities
      • Relational identities
      • Group identities

Social Identity Theory

  • We perceive others on a continuum from “intergroup” to “intercultural”
    • But always, at some level. . .
  • Interpersonal
  • Intergroup

Social Identity Theory

  • The process of “intergroup” communicating:
    • Categorization
    • Evaluation
    • Comparison

Communication Theory of Identity Assumptions

  • Multiple, overlapping identities
  • Aspects that are enduring, changing
  • Content (meanings, norms) and relationship (feelings) aspects
  • “Intersubjective,” continually recreated by the group
  • Expressed, emergent, negotiated
  • Lead to expectations, motivations
  • Tell us what is “effective”
  • Connected to meanings, norms, labels

CTI: Background

  • A move away from the scientific approach, CTI sees cultural groups as fluid, being constantly co-created through communication (similar to symbolic interactionism)
  • The theory seeks, in sum, to find out how people communicatively live out identities.

Communication Theory of Identity Aspects of Identity

  • Content (Cognitive/ Behavioral-norms)
  • Relationship (Affective)
  • Salience (and Centrality)
  • Intensity
  • Scope
  • Labels, Core symbols
  • Enduring/changing
  • Avowed versus ascribed

Communication Theory of Identity Levels of [Jewish] Identity

  • Personal
  • Dyadic
  • Relationship
  • Communal
  • [Media]
  • [Policy]

Communication Theory of Identity Assumptions

  • Ontology:
  • Epistemology:
  • Methodology:
  • Axiology:
  • Variables ??? Hypotheses???

Communication Theory of Identity

  • Note: What follows is an “on-line” power presentation, with font too small for public presentation. It will “fill in” the notes in class.


  • 1988: Mary Jane Collier & Milt Thomas write a chapter that summarizes many of the principles.
  • 1993: Michael Hecht summarizes his view of ethnicity, which is similar, in a Communication Monographs essay.
  • 1993/2003: Hecht works together with Collier and Sidney Ribeau to draft a book on African American Communication. In 2003, Hecht revises it with Ronald Jackson, II.
  • 2005: Collier has moved in a different direction, more critical and postcolonial. Hecht and colleagues summarize the latest development of the theory in an essay in Gudykunst’s Theorizing Intercultural Communication

Main Assumptions

  • In terms of reality, CTI holds that reality is intersubjective—that is, socially created between subjects or people (neither fully objective nor subjective)
  • Epistemologically, writers differ. While Collier’s work tends to merely describe the realities of groups, Hecht makes predictions with statistics in some articles, and merely reports interview findings in others. The main notion is that, since reality is intersubjective, the best method is to gain many perceptions and then find common themes.

Main Assumptions

  • Axiologically, the theory leans towards critical theory by admitting the role of history and context on communication, but is not fully critical.
  • Methodologically, the writers have tended to prefer open-ended methods, such as questionnaires or communication diaries, interviews, and focus groups to try to come up with “realities” in the groups’ own terms (“grounded theory”). Again, some simply describe the categories, and others show how some categories relate to others.

Some Key Terms

  • Meanings and Norms: Researchers often seek to find out what certain symbols mean to a group or what the norms for appropriate group behavior are. (Norms and rules are treated interchangeably in this theory)
  • Core symbols, “Symbols” that “tend to pervade cultures broadly, forming symbol ‘galaxies’ that cluster around core symbols” (Collier & Thomas, 1988, p. 103).
  • Labels: Names that a group chooses to call itself or others, with specific symbolic meanings, feelings, and expected behaviors
  • Intercultural effectiveness: When people negotiate well the norms and meanings of both groups AND when avowal matches ascription (two different definitions—the original theory in 1988 is not consistent!)

Some Key Terms: Example

  • Meanings and Norms: There may be specific things in an African American community that have specific meanings within that culture—and specific ways of behaving that mark one as culturally “African American.”
  • Core symbols: Johnson (2002) suggests that individualism and personal expression might be core symbols that are demonstrated in many parts of AA culture.
  • Labels: Hecht’s work shows that, at least in 1989, those who preferred the label African American different in terms of some expectations of White communication than those who called themselves Black. So also, “Latino” and “Mexican American” might actually represent different types of cultural expression.
  • Intercultural effectiveness: If Whites can negotiate and respect personal expression and Black expressiveness with respect, intercultural effectiveness is more likely to occur. But there is more….

View of Identity & Communication

  • Much of CTI is based around a set of assumptions (explanations, not predictions, like in many theories), about relationships. I will explain and apply as I go. Essentially, we can say that:
  • Multiple identities: Each person has different identities that overlap or perhaps contradict (religious, age, sex/gender, race/ethnicity, political, professional, etc.)
  • Fluid identities: Identities are fluid—they are created by communication and thus always changing. The theory admits that there might be multiple ways of acting out any identity, but does not profess to be postmodern!
  • Emerging identities: Identities are negotiated in communication, for example, when someone makes a remark, communicates in a certain way, or refers to a group. Thus, in a single conversation, one may move between different important identities.

Aspects of Identity

  • The assumptions of CTI suggest that identities:
  • Have an affective (emotional), cognitive (thought), and behavioral component.
  • Can be avowed (claimed) or ascribed (assigned to others)
  • Can vary in terms of:
    • Scope (how many people hold the identity)
    • Salience (how important the identity is to a person at a given point in time)
    • Centrality (how important the identity is usually to a person’s self-esteem—Gudykunst, 2004)
    • Intensity (how vocal or expressive one is about an identity)
    • Changeability (some aspects of identities change and others do not)

Aspects of Identity: Example

  • If we think of the identity of gender in the Sahara, we can state that:
    • Scope: Sex has a much broader scope than, say, Jewish people
    • Salience: A woman might be a professional, a student, a researcher, or a Muslim. In some contexts, one identity will be more relevant or in the front of her mind than others.
    • Centrality: Because of the emphasis on gender in the Sahara, this identity is probably “salient” all or most of the time—thus, it has more centrality.
    • Intensity Women may express their identity either more or less vocally. By wearing a head-covering, especially when such is optional, as it is in some countries, the women is expressing identity more explicitly. She is “out” about her religious identity
    • Changeability: Clearly, as expressed in the photo to the left, gender identity in parts of the Saharan region is changing—but likely in other ways staying the same

Aspects of Identity: Example

  • In addition, we might say that:
  • Women in the Middle East will have specific
    • Thoughts about what it means to be a woman (cognition)
    • Feelings about being a woman in the specific cultural context (and these feelings might surprise many American feminists)
    • Behaviors that they feel enact their womanhood in culturally appropriate ways
  • Women will enact their female identities in some ways, but may enact other identities (professional, strictly religious, role relationships) in other contexts

Some Research

  • The research in this field, very diverse, has looked at a number of things, such as:
  • Issues that Blacks and African Americans perceive in communication with Whites, who is responsible for the issues and possible strategies for resolving (open-ended diaries with statistics to show differences between those who use different labels to describe themselves).
  • Communication rules for what makes for competent communication both within groups (White, Mexican, and African American) and between people of different groups (open-ended questionnaire)
  • Competence issues perceived by Whites, Latinos (closed-ended questionnaire based on earlier research applied to new sample); demonstrates that Blacks often see identity in terms of both political and cultural dimension, while Whites to do not perceive a political dimension to their identity
  • Representation to representation of Jewish Identity on Northern Exposure and rules for when and how one “comes out” about his or her Jewish identity (interviews, focus groups)
  • In sum, this research is multi-method, using both qualitative and quantitative research, with elements of both scientific and humanistic assumptions.

Doing Research in CTI

  • Some research uses closed-ended surveys
  • Some research uses in-depth interviews
  • Some research uses diaries of communication, or open-ended questionnaires, with thematic analysis and sometimes statistics
  • Some research is now using media analysis

Making Communication Better

  • http://www.young-germany. de/intercultural_communication.html
  • How this theory might help communication (Baldwin’s take):\
  • It is a useful theory to help me understand and research how a group creates and defines its own culture, what behaviors, thoughts, and specific aspects help define cultural membership.
  • Avowal and ascription are very important. The theory says that effective communication is when the identity I ascribe to a person matches the identity she or he wants to claim in a situation. Thus, if a woman comes to the workplace as a business professional, I should treat her in that identity.
  • Even within my own perceived identity, I can see that there may be different ways to act out that identity. I should also seek to understand the avowal of identity that one of my own group holds.

Some Strengths & Limitations

  • Strengths
  • Limitations
  • Gives a new, more humanistic view of how communication creates reality
  • The new view of communicative construction of identity has become widely accepted
  • Very practical in helping people to be better communicators
  • Allows for difference within groups, instead of assuming homogeneity
  • A diversity of research on friendship, competence, conflict, and representation, on different identities, some quantitative and some qualitative. Multi-method!
  • While it admits role of power, does not say much about hatred, group-level power. Might be more critical.
  • While says that different labels may be related to different ways of being Black, Latino, etc., much research still groups all people of the identity group together.
  • Some later research seeks to apply and interpret “realities” and issues of earlier groups (e.g., African American) on later groups, which seems contrary to earlier assumptions of the theory

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