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Identity | Heidi Carlone

Heidi Carlone is a learning researcher whose work examines identity in concert with the study of culture. She studies an individual’s "performance," in relation to what is demanded, celebrated, and marginalized in the setting they are in. Her work assumes that the identity-related outcomes of any given set of practices, or local context, are often heavily shaped by larger social structures, like race, and class and gender. You can watch this short video or download the full interview transcript below.

"I cannot completely address the question who an individual is becoming in a setting, unless I also address the question who are youth obligated to be in the setting. I’m always looking at individual’s performances in relation to what the setting demands, celebrates, and marginalizes."

Heidi Carlone, Hooks Distinguished Professor of STEM Education, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Heidi Carlone

2017 Interview Highlights:

Tell us about your projects that focus on identity. 
Since 2000, probably every study that I’ve done has involved identity in some form. I’ve done a comparative ethnography of two groups of high school girls in physics; a comparative ethnography of two fourth grade classrooms; a study of diverse high school students who did not necessarily fashion themselves, or unevenly fashioned themselves, as science people; and a new project on STEM-linked identity, tracking middle school youth as they participate in a series of afterschool and summer enrichment programs that integrate science, engineering, and computing and focus on socioenvironmental problems. So, I’m sticking with this identity construct, even though it sure is a murky and difficult terrain.

What’s your definition of identity?
My work examines identity in concert with the study of culture, so I cannot completely address who an individual is becoming in a setting unless I also address the question of who youth are obligated to be in the setting. So I’m always looking at individuals’ performances in relation to what the setting demands, celebrates, and marginalizes. I’m looking at those things together.

When I study identity in coordination with culture, I’m making assumptions. First, I assume that people are formed in practice. I also assume that identity outcomes of any given set of practices, or any local context, are often heavily shaped by larger social structures, like race, class, and gender. These perspectives highlight the explanatory potential of identity, and that’s why I love the construct of identity. It has such strong explanatory potential because it opens up this space and tension between structure and agency.

The other thing it does is to allow us to pay attention to multiple time scales: historical, local, current, immediate future, and generational futures.

How do you measure identity?
In the original model that Angela Johnson and I came up with, we measured performance, competence, recognition of self, and recognition by others. If you had asked me how I measured identity five years ago, I would have said, “Uh, I don’t measure identity. I am an ethnographer. We don’t measure, you know.”

And yet there has to be some accounting. We want to figure out in the moment how to capture or characterize the identity work that youth are doing, and over time what kind of identity work they are doing.

So my biggest challenge right now about capturing identity, because I don’t want to use the word measuring, is identifying what constructs are prominent for youths’ meaning-making of their experiences in these science programs.

How do you think about interest or motivation in identity?
Interest is part of the identity work too, and so is motivation—all of these psychological constructs. The difference for me—and educational psychologists or learning scientists might disagree with me about this—is that they feel much more cognitive—it’s about what’s between the ears.

If you think about the tension between agency and structure—like how people position you, how the norms position you, how you position yourself, and how you think of yourself—if you think about that tension between the individual and the context, it seems to me that motivation and interest privilege the individual above all else.

I will admit in some of my studies—and this has been an ongoing struggle—the structure becomes too deterministic, and the individual’s agency is squashed a little bit. In some of my colleagues’ work, I think the individual agency gets blown up. These moments of beautiful identity work get blown up, and I wonder about the significance of those individual moments, over time.

So I do think that if I’m thinking about interest and motivation, those don’t account as much for issues of power, race, class, and gender. And for issues of  historical ways of doing things, they privilege the individual in context. They’re still important.

Download full interview

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