Identity | Angela Johnson
"When they’re doing certain activities in a place that is new to them, they might feel that they don’t belong in that place."
2017 Interview Highlights:
How do you define identity?
When a person has a STEM identity, what I think matters is whether they see themselves as having an affinity to the field and what others reflect back to them, whether they recognize themselves as belonging in the field and whether other people recognize them as belonging to the field. It’s also important if other people recognize them as not belonging and interfere with the field embracing them.
For example, a student I interviewed recently was doing an undergraduate research experience. It was summer, and she was the only woman in her lab, the only undergraduate, and the only person of color—so she was triply different from anybody else in the lab. One day someone bumped her, and a chemical got spilled. Then somebody in the lab said, “We all know who did that.” And they turned, invited everyone else in the lab to laugh at her, and then said, “How does it feel to have the boys’ club laughing at you?” So although she had a perfectly strong affinity to physics that continued beyond that day, she could not get what she was there for, which was to participate in the life of a research group.
So for identity, there’s an internal component and there are external factors?
Yes. As an anthropologist, I’m interested in the external factors because I think how you feel inside might affect your motivation and your ability to persist in the face of obstacles. I’m more interested in the characteristics of the setting and in determining how to create settings where people’s external perceptions of you are less likely to be able to literally damage your career.
How does identity matter for science learning and science communication?
There are two senses of identity. One is something that’s intrinsically felt. If you lack an affinity for science, your ability to learn science and communicate about science is going to be affected because you’re not going to be very motivated to do it, and you won’t care about it. The other, this external sense of identity as a role that you can step into easily or with more difficulty, has a huge impact on your ability to learn science. It also affects whether you can communicate science. If people don’t perceive you as a legitimate member of a science community, they’re not going to take your communication seriously.
How do you measure identity in your work?
I look at ways that a person can present themselves in a setting so that they are celebrated or admired in that setting, versus ways of being and acting that are marginalized or less successful in a setting.
My work is ethnographic. I’m an anthropologist, and it’s classic ethnography, looking at the things people do and say, the things they use, and the shared meanings that are attached to those actions, speech, and objects.
How do interest, motivation, and attitudes relate to identity for you?
Interest is key. You have to have an affiliation with the field. According to the way that I think about identity, if you don’t have an affiliation with the field you won’t be seen as belonging there when you enter a setting in which you’re trying to be accepted. But beyond that, I don’t think of identity as residing in a person; I think of it as residing in a setting and who is and isn’t regarded by other people in the setting as belonging, being valuable, and being an exemplary member of the setting. I know it’s really different from the way other people conceptualize these ideas.
Those of us who are studying this would like to make settings less toxic. We have almost no control over how a person feels inside. All we have control over is the setting. So all this focus on trying to change what’s inside people, to cultivate some kind of identity, well, I guess we could do that, but I think that there are plenty of people who already strongly identify with the field and are being forced out. As professors, we have a lot of power to change our setting.
I can’t go in and move the levers in somebody’s head, but I can demand that students treat one another a certain way and marginalize those whose behavior is marginalizing other students.