The Undermining of Dual Identity by Identity Threat

In my other life I have classic academic aspirations. I’ve just been offered a place in my PhD program of choice, and while part of me cringes at the thought of three more years of hard graft, the rest of me is  jubilant. In honour of my accomplishment-yes that is really how I am gonna play this-I’ve decided to post a suitably educational essay.

Identity is possibly on of the most contested, and least understood concept in the social sciences. There is no shortage of theories about it, but for every step forward made in the field more questions arise. As populations grow, demographics shift, and cultures interact more closely than ever before the question of ‘who’ one is becomes ever more difficult to answer.

One of the places that this is most apparent is in the educational environment. Schools bring children from various class, racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds together in a melee of personal encounters; and some of them are fairing better than others.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pp.40-41)

Clark, Putnam, & Fieldhouse (2010, p.4) assert that “the most certain prediction we can make about any advanced economy is that it will be more ethnically diverse a generation down the line than it is today.” The ‘Diversity Revolution’ is well underway. This makes the question of how the new generation negotiates their place in an increasingly diverse society eminently important, and the question of “who are you” more difficult to answer.

Immigrant children, and indeed all minority group members in modern Western democracies, have three regional identity strategies available to them, strictly ethnic, national (assimilated), and dual identities[1] (Deaux, et al., 2007). This essay will examine the success of the dual identity[2] strategy, touching on ethnic and national as necessary for comparative purposes. It will explore the usefulness of this identity strategy using academics as a touchstone. The specific question addressed is under what circumstances does identity threat undermine the dual identity strategy for academic success?

This is, of course, a multi-layered question. It must first be established that in some circumstances dual identity is a successful strategy. Otherwise, there is nothing to undermine. It must then be established what an identity threat is, and then whether this identity threat undermines dual identity’s success in the academic realm. Here identity threat will be looked at in the form of exclusion, unfairness and negative stereotyping (Purdie-Vaugns, Steele, Davies, et al., 2008). These could be reclassified as prejudice or, its active expression, discrimination. Thus, the question could be rephrased as, under what circumstances does discrimination undermine the success of the dual identity strategy?

Prejudice was defined by Allport in 1954 as a felt or expressed “antipathy based on a faulty or inflexible generalisation (p.9).” When its expression carries over into decisions and actions, causing a difference in treatment between groups, it becomes discrimination (Quillian, 2006). Discriminatory experiences are strongly associated with subsequent identification (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, p. 189). It can constitute an identity threat to minority groups by invoking “anxiety and withdrawal—as perceived threat entails underperformance or disengagement—or alternatively, with increased persistence and motivation to succeed—when threat provokes a challenge response (Baysu, Phalet, & Brown, 2011, p. 122).” While it could never be claimed that discrimination is a good thing, it does not always result in undermining an individual’s identity strategy. Oyserman, Kemmelmeier, Fryberg, et al. (2003) found that some of the minority youths in their experiments responded to experiences of discrimination in ways that compromised their academic success, however others succeeded despite their experiences.

This is essentially a question of identity. The term ‘identity[3]’, however, is contentious (Callero, 2003; Brubaker & Cooper, 2000), and much could be made of arguing just which aspect of it is to be utilised. This shouldn’t be surprising, as identities are subjective (Deaux, et al., 2007), socially constructed (Bobo, 2001; Brettell, 2000), malleable (Alba, 1997; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, Crawford, 2007), and can be more or less salient at any point in time (McLeish & Oxoby, 2011). They are refashioned in everyday contexts, and it is in this everydayness that a whole micro-enactment of inclusion/exclusion, group definition and identity is enacted (Bloch & Solomos, 2010, p. 11). Different individuals, even from within the same group, create different schema to succeed (Oyserman, et al., 2003), and Social Scientist have only recently begun exploring the success of each strategy. (Branscombe, Harvey, & Schmitt, 1999; Ruggiero & Taylor, 1995; Taylor, Wright, Moghaddam, & Lalonda, 1990)

This essay shall be limited to Tajfel’s (1974, p. 69) concept of social identity, “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the emotional significance attached to that membership.” In the social sciences today the relevant groups are most often race, gender or ethnicity (Wrong, 2000). Gender will not be addressed. Ethnicity will primarily be discussed. However, as Brettell (2000, p. 114) has argued, “race and ethnicity need to be considered together in any theoretical formulation of the construction of immigrant identity.” In this context racial identification can be subsumed into ethnic identity.

The term ‘identity strategy’ was previously defined by Brubaker and Cooper (2000) and Baysu, et al. (2011, p. 122) as “situated acts of ethnic and/or national self-identification in distinct intergroup context.” This strategy develops from individual differences in identification that has developed from the accumulation of personal experiences in a relatively stable and predictable inter-group system (Oyserman, et al., 2003).  There are, of course, other areas that individuals might utilise in identity formation; however, for the sake of comparison this essay will limit itself to just these forms of self-identification. Dual identity, in this context, can be defined as an identity claiming validation from both ethnic and national allegiances.

What is particularly important for the purposes of this essay is whether the object of prejudiced attitude and/or action perceives it as such. Prejudice or discrimination that is not recognised cannot be expected to have a notable effect on the subject. Limiting the discussion to perceived discrimination is important because recent research has found evidence that individuals often underestimate the level of discrimination they encounter. Taylor, et al. (1990) found that the Haitian and South Asian Canadian immigrants in their study persistently perceived a higher level of discrimination directed at their group than at themselves. In the laboratory setting Ruggiero and Taylor (1995) found that unless discrimination was highly unambiguous the women in their experiments tended to avoid ascribing negative outcomes to discrimination. This was because they had a vested interest in not attributing failure to discriminatory practices, thus protecting themselves and maintaining a sense of control[4] over the situation. Branscombe, et al. (1999) found much the same thing in experiments with African-American males. They found strong evidence supporting their prediction that a willingness to make attributions to prejudice and discrimination have a direct harmful effect on personal well-being.

Discrimination is, of course, something the victim has no control over, and numerous studies have found that self esteem[5] is formed and bolstered by establishing a sense of efficacy or control in ones life[6] (Gecas & Schwalbe, 1983; Bandura, 1986; Langer, 1975; Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Loss of that control can, thus, be harmful to the self-esteem of victims of discrimination. This, in turn, can affect their performance in school.

Until graduating (or dropping out) youths spend more time in school than anywhere else other than their homes. Academic success or failure can make a real-world difference in the lives of today’s students—tomorrows parents, political leaders and workforce. For better or worse, it is here that children of immigrant parents meet, mix and make friends or enemies with their native peers (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, p. 203). This makes school an important component of “the eventual integration and cohesion of western countries (Heath & Brinbaum, 2007, p. 291).”

This question of who students will become is of eminent importance. “Individuals actively choose, alter, and modify their identities based on what will enable then to get along best (Baumeister & Muraven, 1996, p. 405).” This can be difficult for those who do not fit easily into the majority group and face, possible, prejudice or discrimination.

According to Heath, Rothan, and Kilpi (2008) there is not a lot of evidence linking discrimination and academic disenfranchisement in ethnic minorities. However a number of international studies have documented “a persistent educational disadvantage (Baysu, et al., 2011, p. 121)” for ethnic minorities and the children of recent immigrants. Heath and Brinbaum’s (2007) Guest Editorial: Explaining Ethnic Inequalities in Educational Attainment in Ethnicities includes contributions from seven authors, covering eight countries and thirteen ethnic minority groups, all documenting said educational discrepancies.

This isn’t the whole story however. Portes and Zhou (1993, p. 80) found that “children of immigrants are as likely to attend private schools, as unlikely to be dropouts, and as likely to graduate from high school as native-parentage youths[7].” They also found that second-generation students are performing as well as their native peers. As an example, Thomson and Crul (2007, p. 1,030) recently asked why Punjabi Sikhs in California or British-Indian students in the UK are succeeding in the face of racial discrimination? They wished to know what the ‘coping strategies’ adopted by these, and students like them, might be. Portes and Zhou (1993) answered that the success of these two groups was the result of the youths having little contact with students outside of their community, and thereby maintaining respect for the values of their parents and community.

I would suggest that for other such success stories the answer could lie in the coping strategies, more specifically in the identity strategy, adopted. I would further assert, that for those not in the majority, a dual identity is a more successful identity strategy than one centred solely on one’s ethnic identity or one’s broader national identity. Heath, Rothon, and Ali (2010, p. 198) state “we do not see any clear inverse correlation between orientations towards one’s own community and the wider society…This immediately suggests that attachment to the ethnic community and the wider society are not either/or concepts. Instead it is possible to be attached to both simultaneously.” Their research involved the 1997 Ethnic Minority Election Survey, in which a vast majority of respondents reported ascribing to dual identities (both British and ethnic). While this affirms that the dual identity is being utilised by the public, the question still remains, is it successful?

In two experiments involving Hispanics, Native and African Americans in America and one involving Arab-Palestinians in Israel, Oyserman and her colleagues (2003) found that dual identifiers had higher last quarter grades than did individuals who identified solely with their ethnic or national grouping. Those students that took both the in-group and society at large into account remained more academically engaged than those that did not. This is supported by Portes and Rumbaut’s (2001) work, which found engagement (the willingness to expend energy and effort) to be one of the most fundamental elements of students’ academic success[8]. Additionally when Oyserman et al. (2003) primed ethnicity, making it artificially salient, those with dual identities persisted at the task (a mathematical puzzle) longer than those who did not.

Persistent prejudicial and discriminatory practices result in denying minority populations the ability to make such decisions wholly voluntarily, however (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, p. 55). They must also contend with prescribed identities, or those identificatory labels that they are not free to self-determine (Scholz, 1999). Individuals claiming a dual identity risk dual identity threat when members of the majority group deny, question or reject their claims of double membership (Baysu, et al., 2011; Berry, Phinney, Sam, & Vedder, 2006), thereby implicitly conveying the message that their group identity is less valued. What is seen as threatening, however, will vary from individual to individual and situation to situation (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999, p. 56).

Additionally, not all threats are perceived as equally threatening. They are situational (Crocker, 1999). The effects of perceived prejudice or discrimination will differ depending on how individuals define their social identity in the given context (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999), the length of time the dual identifier is exposed to it (Williams, Shore, & Grahe, 1998), and if it is perceived as a single incident, or as evidence of on-going and systematic prejudice against themselves and their group (Branscombe, Harvey, & Schmitt, 1999). These could also be phrased as situations of low or high identity threat.

In their 2011 experiment involving Turkish immigrants in Belgium, Baysu, et al. found that “a dual identity strategy was beneficial for school success when perceived threat was low. It was much less advantageous, however, at high levels of perceived threat.” Notably, dual identified Turkish-Belgians were less often academically successful than those with separated [ethnic] or assimilated [national] identities under high-perceived threat, but they were most successful in the absence of threat (p. 133).

Baysu, et al. (2011, p. 135) call dual identity a two edge sword that leads to “more positive performance outcomes in low threat contexts and to more negative outcomes in high threat ones.” I would agree. It can be concluded that, yes, dual identity is a successful identity strategy in the absence of identity threat. It must also be accepted that high levels of identity threat compromise it. Much as Baysu, et al. (2011) concluded, it would be difficult to come to any decision on dual identity’s ultimate success or failure without acknowledging both scenarios. However, the acceptance or rejection of the majority group (a component that the individual has no control over) is crucial to the success or failure of this identity strategy, making it a risky strategy.

It is also hard to establish and maintain (Oyserman, et al., 2003). Oyserman and her colleagues found that very few of the students in their experiments had dual identities, and those that did tended to be younger. They hypothesised that this was because as students aged and encountered more prejudice and discrimination over time, they lost the ability to identify with both their ethnic and national groups, and were forced to focus on one at the expense of the other. So, yes, discrimination does constitute an identity threat and, yes, in circumstances of high identity threat it does undermine the success of dual identifiers.

The research presented here “illustrates how a threat to the value of a social identity is responded to differently depending on how identified the individual is with a social group (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999, p. 48).” There may not be any inverse relationship between ethnic and national identities, as Heath, Rothon, and Ali (2010) have suggested, but when one’s commitment to one identity or the other weakens, one’s commitment to the remaining identity sometimes fills the void, “particularly if an ethnic or national ideology is already in place (Obeyesekere, 1995, p. 242).”

We have entered an age of migration (Brettell & Hollifield, 2000), and it is unlikely that the pattern will abate in the near future. Increased cross-cultural knowledge, cheaper airfare, easy international communications, and a consistent need for immigrant/migrant labour is likely to keep people crossing boarders well into the future. It makes the answer to Alain Touraine’s (2000, p.1) quizzically titled book, Can We Live Together?, all the more apt. “We already do,” he writes, and anything that increases the accord with which we do is noteworthy.

There is reason to be hopeful, however. Portes and Rumbaut (2001, p. 190) interviewed just over 1,000 second generation American immigrants and their parents (a total of 2,442 individuals) and found that the youths were “quite plural in their self-definitions,” noting that “Children who learn the language and culture of their new country without losing those of the old have a much better understanding of their place in the world (p. 274).” Dual identity is a risky and difficult identity strategy, predominantly successful only in environments free from prejudice and discrimination, but as discriminatory attitudes have been found to be generationally stratified and largely declining with each new cohort (Ford, 2008) there is reason to believe that it will, in time, become safer, less difficult and more common.

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[1] Arnett (2002) would add local and global, but this essay will limit itself to ethnic, national and dual.

[2] Throughout this essay the term dual-identity is used. However, authors have used various terminologies to express the same or similar concepts. Arnett (2002) uses bicultural identities, Portez and Rumbaut (2001)—quoting Mary Waters—use hyphenated identities (Mexican-American, African-American), Deaux and her colleagues (2007) refer to dual (member of the in-group and society at large) and minority (member of the in-group and the group that is discriminated against) racial-ethnic self-schemas, Tajfel and Turner (1986, p. 13) discuss social categorization, or “belonging to two distinct groups,” and Berry, et al. (2006) use the term ‘marginalization’ to refer to individuals who are weakly attached to both ethnic and national identities. Some, such as Baysu, et al. (2011), have argued that this last one represents a separate category, however this is too fine a distinction for the purposes of this essay.

[3] Stephanie Lawler (2008) in Identity: Sociological Perspectives and David Abbott (1998) in Culture and Identity clearly explain the concept of identity from the perspectives of the different fields and theorists.

[4] It should be noted that in unambiguous situations Ruggiero and Taylor’s (1995) findings support Crocker and Major’s (1989) attribution-to-discrimination theory, that individuals will attribute failure to discrimination in an attempt to protect their self-esteem. Ruggiero and Taylor’s work is particularly important as it links and clarifies two outcomes previously thought to be contradictory. Branscombe, Harvey, and Schmitt (1999), for example, claim to have disconfirmed Crocker and Major’s hypothesis that “greater willingness to attribute negative outcomes to prejudice across situations exerts a direct positive effect on well-being (p. 143),” despite acknowledging that they found attributions to prejudice encouraged group identification, which had a slight positive effect on well-being.

[5] Rosenburg (1979) defined self- esteem as a “personal and global feelings of self-worth, self-regard, or self-acceptance (Crocker, 1999, p. 90).”

[6] Ruggiero and Taylor (1995, p. 832) provide a brief, but concise explanation of the various theories of self-esteem’s association with control of one’s environment.

[7] They do acknowledge, however, that these comparisons are based on averages and, therefore, conceal great diversity.

[8] Portes and Rumbaut note that engagement is of eminent importance to academic success, but they stress that it is ultimately affected by the student’s environment, social acceptance, group identity, etc. They at no point claim that if a child was simply more engaged he or she would be more successful; quite the opposite. “Placed in an impoverished community and surrounded by a hostile world, even the most motivated individuals flounder (p. 268).”