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How Women Socially Construct a ‘Powerful’ Identity Based on Language
As the world begins to move from an androcentric society, communication researchers have a responsibility to expand their areas of focus to include that of a changing viewpoint. Examining identity is no new task for communication researchers, but has begun to transform qualitative research, specifically in feminist studies. In modern society, feminist researchers continue to struggle with an accepted definition of feminism as they construct and deconstruct gender as a whole (Medved & Rawlins, 2011) as well as to study the language associated with gender (Gal, 1995). However, researchers can begin to look at how women are viewed as powerful and how their language shapes the identity with which they associate themselves (Baxter, 2015). When paired with an exploration of social construction and utilizing membership categorization analysis (Silverman, 1998), we can begin to look at how women are capable of constructing a more powerful communicative identity to aid in the development of feminist research as well as communication and language advancements.
Social constructionism has been given a great deal of attention by communication scholars. One main characteristic of those that believe in the social constructionist viewpoint holds the notion that various experiences are determined by human behaviors and decisions (Mallon, 2007). Perceptions of the formation of reality are of great debate to social constructionists. The language and communicative strategies individuals require to interact together are also altered by those perceptions. The construction of one’s identity fosters how we communicate together and incorporate language in every day conversations (Ajtony, 2015). As Stewart (1995) explains, “language (speech communicating) is the human’s way of being-in-the-world (everyday coping)” (p. 29), which allows for the development of constructing one’s reality and in turn their identity as well.
Language holds no meaning unless conducted interpersonally with another (Couper, 2011; Stewart, 1995). Through the social construction of language, communication begins to obtain meaning and value to the individuals involved. The philosophical perspective of social constructionism begins to touch on what individuals view as reality and how communication alters that sense of socially constructed reality. Communication describes the process by which an object, or in this case, language, gives meaning and “exist[s] in a social context” (Keaton & Bodie, 2011, p. 192; Stewart, 1995). Through the establishment of meaning begins to develop with another, we are able to expand our own language, which in turn affects other contexts as well.
Social constructionism is largely affected by the situational contexts in which something is being constructed, particularly language. According toStewart (1995), one consideration of social constructionism holds that language exists as an event rather than a system. In his explanation, understanding is the primary dynamic of being human and aids in the development of socially constructing one’s reality. This social occurrence is a process that is exhibited through interaction with another. In this sense, language and communication are altered largely in various situational contexts, and are determined by those that participate in the collaboration.
Through individuals’ perceptions, people are able to co-construct their personal view of reality, which in turn impacts how they interact and communicate with others (Stewart, 1995). These interactions are not “representations of ‘natural objects’ formed independent of cultural processes and literary forms,” (p. 31) but rather are contingent upon social and cultural contexts and are expressed interpersonally and given meaning. Social construction holds the standard that one’s perceived reality shifts constantly and sustains subjectivity to each individual’s beliefs (Archakis & Papazachariou, 2008).
Socially constructed reality. Through communication and the development of language, our perception of reality adjusts to meet the situational demands that are represented (Ajtony, 2015; Soukup, 2012; Stewart, 1995). We begin to question and alter how we fit into our perceived world that we co-construct during interactions. Although multiple views of social constructionism exist, one description claims to hold “a social process of creating the world,” (Barnett Pearce, 1995, p. 98) which asserts the lack of an already known world. This notion conflicts with the more positivist research, which aims to discover the perceived reality. Barnett Pearce (1995) distinguished how individual interests and behaviors, as well as one’s language take part in the process of construction through both the receiver and participant positions. This notion complements that of Richardson (2013) and her examination of identity. She claims the “understanding of reality and identity is constructed in the talk of the narrative” (p. 97). By conducting research through narratives and told accounts, we gain a glimpse of how others perceive the reality in which their lives are set. Through this understanding of reality, we are able to shape our identities further, which additionally affects how we communicate with others.
Socially constructed identity. Identity stands as a dynamic construction determined by multiple resources, such as language and culture (Ajtony, 2015; Baxter, 2015; Hall & Bucholtz, 1995). As previously described, identity largely links to communication and linguistic interactions (Ajtony, 2015; Archakis & Papazachariou, 2008; Richardson, 2013). The social construction of identities occurs as being “indexical” (Archakis & Papazachariou, 2008, p. 627) where individuals develop and produce such identities in “moment-to-moment interactions” (Archakis & Papazachariou, 2008, p. 628; Hall & Bucholtz, 1995). Various properties contribute to the construction of one’s identity including communicative strategies incorporated in interactions, as well as prosodic, or intonation, combinations. Each of these characteristics exists based on contextual cues and differs from situation to situation. Baxter (2015) reasons that identity exists as a socially constructed practice and maintains dependence upon the production of our behavior and beliefs. In this sense, language is portrayed as a tool to be utilized in communication and the development of one’s identity (Baxter, 2005; Stewart, 1995), which is additionally determined by “social factors such as [one’s] gender, ethnicity, education, professional status, and so on” (Baxter, 2015, p. 428). This tool is a reference used to shape how we communicate with others, which aids in the development of one’s identity rather than one’s identity shaping how we communicate using language.
Communication can establish stereotypes of one’s identity based upon the dialogic representations exhibited in interactions. These interactions also lead to the understanding that an individual’s identity is largely relational. As Ajtony (2015) states, “the primary marker of a person’s identity is his/her speech” (p. 48). In this sense, stereotypes alter our beliefs and contribute to the construction of our own identity, as well as those we interact with. Stereotyped identities are common among gender research. However, researchers are beginning to examine the effects of reversing these stereotypes and how they affect our socially constructed view of identity (Baxter, 2015; Medved & Rawlins, 2011).
Socially constructed gender. Gender is intertwined with social construction and is consistently shaped due to the communicative strategies employed in discourse (Medved & Rawlins, 2011). Through interpersonal interactions with others, individuals are capable of constructing a gendered identity within a specific social context. As the topic of gender continues to transform, people begin to form and co-construct their individual identities as well as their linked identities. However, gender is not a singular aspect of identity, but rather a complex branch that intersects with many other social identities (Richardson & Taylor, 2009). Each identity plays a significant role in the construction of one’s identity and how their gendered identity is created.
Social constructions are revealed and created in situational experiences and do not simply exist, waiting to be discovered (Medved & Rawlins, 2011). Through the process of constructing a gendered identity, it is important to acknowledge the process by which interaction occurs and the communicative approach that helps form one’s gender in a social environment. It is a constantly changing and evolving construction, where each individual construction is dependent upon the actions and reaction of the other person (Medved & Rawlins, 2011; Soukup, 2012). Gendered construction is often categorized into various identities and affects how our language usage, as well as others’ perceptions of us, are depicted.
Membership Categorization Analysis
When examining how women socially construct powerful language, it is advantageous to look into utilizing membership categorization analysis (MCA) and how it can expand our knowledge of language use. MCA is an analytic approach in which we categorize behaviors, or activities, exhibited in interactions (Butler & Weatherall, 2006; Housley & Fitzgerald, 2009). This correlates to identity in the same manner by “the way people both do and recognize descriptions of themselves and others” (Butler & Weatherall, 2006, p. 443). MCA begins to classify individuals in a series of categories that can be described as various identities, such as gender, race, familial membership, societal status, occupation, etc. (Butler & Weatherall, 2006; Silverman, 1998). Originally, MCA constructed relatively fixed categorizations, but has since expanded further (Leudar, Marsland & Nekvapil, 2001). These categorizations can be misleading despite their frequently obvious nature. For example, Eglin (2002) examines how despite calling an individual ‘woman,’ an array of possible classifications is still revealed. The obvious answer is to make an assumption of classifying the individual as female over male, though the possibility stands of whether the classification is indicating an adult female, over a child, or girl. In this sense, like much of communication and language, MCA is grounded in context and the situation of the individuals involved.
Various facets of MCA can help to establish how one’s language and identity can be constructed in a powerful manner. MCA is one method, which can be utilized in interactions and lead to more knowledge on the development of language and identities (Fitzgerald, 2012). Another tool of MCA that can be incorporated in the establishment of such identities is that of a membership categorization device (MCD). MCDs are classified as “collection(s) of categories” (Silverman, 1998, p. 79) for which an individual is part of. Collections, or sets of categories, include multiple identities of the same category, such as father and son being members of a family. Through this categorization, we are able to examine and observe a framework for the type of language expressed to identify ‘powerful’ women as well as how others help shape those identities.
People often construct their own identity through the use of MCDs and language without the attempt to do so. In one particular example, Stokoe (2010) began looking into how men’s identities are formed based on actions and behaviors through violent assaults of women. These men were likely to still lack blame for their activities, despite the fact that the assault occurred. This was portrayed in classifying themselves as not the type of men to hit women. On the opposite end, individuals looking into this issue from the outside are likely to incorporate MCDs and categorize these men as abusers, criminals, etc. MCA is one way we can help shape our identities as well as others identities that we are apart of. Women, in particular, are not often regarded as having powerful identities, but our language use can assist in this categorization, as well as having others improving their construction of what a powerful identity is.
Identity through Women’s Language
A woman’s identity is often developed in comparison to men’s identities. In one example, researchers found that financially successful women, when compared to men, often lessen their success when communicating about their lives and “refrain from exercising the traditional masculine link between money and power” (Medved & Rawlins, 2011, p.11). As previously described in her research, Richardson (2013) begins to describe how women are able to develop their individual identity through their telling of personal stories. In this sense, language allows for the development and exploration of a woman’s identity and constructs their own notion of reality, which leads to a more individual identity, as opposed to a connected one. While it is important to acknowledge the comparison between each gender, we must expand further. As gender begins to transform in today’s society, it would be beneficial to develop an understanding of each gender individually, which in turn will lead to a greater understanding of identity as a whole. While it is difficult to pinpoint specific linguistic features that lead to a gendered identity, examining language can assist in the development of learning how we construct our identity through our communicative acts (Burkette & Warhol, 2009).
One’s gender has the ability to influence how we communicate and the type of language we utilize in interactions with others (Medved & Rawlins, 2011; Sidelinger, Frisby & McMullen, 2009). While gendered language is socially constructed based on situational experiences, “gender style impacts communication in such a way that an individual’s interpersonal relationships are affected” (Sidelinger, Frisby & McMullen, 2009, p. 166), which alters the way women are viewed by others.
The data collected within this study was obtained from interviews conducted and subsequently depicted on the blog, Babes Who Hustle (http://babeswhohustle.com). Each interview produced occurred prior to the formation of this study by the founder and writer of Babes Who Hustle (C. DuDeVoire, personal communication, April 10, 2017). The majority of the women featured on the blog were nominated by other women and were contacted to inquire about interest in being featured on the blog. The interview process was comprised of a moderately scheduled interview guide, which permitted open-ended responses from the interviewee. The interviewer developed specific questions pertaining to each person, but did follow a relatively structured format for each interview. The questions were then subsequently emailed to each interviewee and the respondents elected to proceed with the interview at their will. After responding to each question with personal information and answering the requested questions, the blog post was composed for the website (C. DuDeVoire, personal communication, April 10, 2017). Each blog post was collected as data and analyzed on behalf of language structure and response styles.
The aim of the research was to collect information from a female-only source to consider how women socially construct a powerful identity. The sample chosen featured women from different backgrounds, who are considered to be successful in their personal and professional lives. In this sense, the information was gathered to gain insight into how powerful language is structured and the development of a powerful identity for women in particular.
Data Reduction and Coding
After the data collection, a thematic analysis was utilized to determine commonly occurring patterns exhibited throughout the collected interviews. While the interviews were significantly reduced from the precise responses provided to suit the blog format, the responses incorporated the chosen language from the interviewees for each entry and question. In analyzing the data, an open coding process was followed to gain insight into the type of language used by each interviewee as well as to examine and establish themes and patters revealed throughout the collected data.
Researcher’s Role and Ethical Considerations
The role of the researcher was strictly observational and analytical and relied on information provided by the writer. As the interviews were presented previously on the blog, Babes Who Hustle (http://babeswhohustle.com), the study did not require access to the participants and therefore, incorporated an exclusively analytic approach to gathering and coding data. Due to the public nature of the interviews, the participants’ true names were included in the data and referred to as such throughout the data analysis.
Each blog entry highlights the successes, both personally and professionally, of various women from a multitude of career fields. Sixty-four interviews were collected, each of which included four sections: how the writer met the interviewee, The Basics, The Interests, and The Hustle. The Basics included background information, such as hometown, current city, degree and school, as well as what is labeled as “Hustle,” and refers to the main topic of what they will discuss. The Interests included a woman they admire, how the spend their free time, and a few individually chosen questions of their favorite things. The Hustle is the main section of the blog and incorporates the previously emailed question responses of each woman and their success stories. The tone of the blog is conversational and includes precise responses from the participants.
Multiple patterns were exposed throughout the data including language that referenced positive self talk, fear, confidence, speaking up about one’s thoughts and beliefs, surrounding yourself with strong people, specifically women, as well as the use of incorporating the pronoun we when discussing what their daily work day consists of. These patterns were seen over multiple responses and can be attributed to assisting with a ‘powerful’ identity perspective. Additionally, the majority of advice given by each woman was aimed at improving personality imperfections or internal characteristics about oneself, such as confidence, honesty, and kindness, while few discussed specific tasks that would benefit your success, such as having more internships, being organized or practicing more at various tasks.
One theme frequently found throughout the data was that of employing positive self-talk as well as advising others to do so to achieve success. Many women, when describing obstacles they had to overcome, used positive language to describe themselves or their experiences. For example, Tessa Dee Miller, when asked how her gender has affected her success, stated, “I am strong. I am smart. And I am damn capable of running my own store and lifting heavy furniture, thank you very much” (DuDeVoire, 2016p). She even went so far as to advise others on maintaining positive self-talk by saying, “Never let anyone else tell you what you can or cannot do – not even that deep, dark part of yourself.” This type of positive language was exhibited in the data often. Another example was provided by Jen Gurecki when she claimed, “I’m a visionary. I love big ideas that challenge the status quo, and I’m not afraid to execute them” (DuDeVoire, 2016y). One respondent additional offered blatant advise to women to be positive and to avoid a negative attitude. She stated, “I hope to be able to continue looking in the mirror, thinking, ‘Hey! There you are: unique and shining. Keep doing your thing, girl!’” (DuDeVoire, 2016e). In many instances, women attributed parts of their success to improving their own self-talk as well as to tell themselves they are capable and to feel confident in their ability to do.
One recurring theme discovered throughout the data was that of confidence, either the lack of having it and the desire for more or the claim to be confident and speak up to achieve greater success (DuDeVoire, 2016c; DuDeVoire, 2016d; DuDeVoire, 2016i; DuDeVoire, 2016k; DuDeVoire, 2016l; DuDeVoire, 2016m; DuDeVoire, 2016o; DuDeVoire, 2016q; DuDeVoire, 2016r; DuDeVoire, 2016s; DuDeVoire, 2016u; DuDeVoire, 2016x; DuDeVoire, 2016y). One respondent in particular, Brittany Norris, advised women to, “Practice a strong handshake. Stand like a superhero. Be confident when you speak” (DuDeVoire, 2016b). Another respondent, Rachael Tally, claimed that women should, “Stand up for yourself, even if you think it is a small issue. These moments of confidence will add up overtime and truly make a difference” (DuDeVoire, 2016i). Other women claimed the importance of being proud of what you accomplish to have confidence when you speak (DuDeVoire, 2016d). Taking pride in what you do, or recommending others to do so, reoccurred by multiple women (DuDeVoire, 2016f; DuDeVoire, 2016g; DuDeVoire, 2016h; DuDeVoire, 2016w). Multiple women claimed being proud and confident, while some advised others to have these traits to achieve success.
Another theme revealed was expressions of overcoming fear and to avoid the fear of failure, as well as accepting that fears exist. Various women offered advice or narratives about overcoming one’s fear in order to succeed at their goals (DuDeVoire, 2016d; DuDeVoire, 2016j; DuDeVoire, 2016m; DuDeVoire, 2016n; DuDeVoire, 2016r). One woman, Donna Irene, discussed what not to fear by stating, “you don’t need to have it all together, and failure is not to be feared but embraced because it makes you better!” (DuDeVoire, 2016a). Another respondent, Sarafina Persuad, discussed the importance of how we should “be curious, be fearless, and be kind” (DuDeVoire, 2016d). When asked about offering career advice to others, Cassidy Routh, responded with “it’s okay to feel how you feel! Use it to your advantage and push yourself through the fear or the frustration or whatever it is that could be holding you back from getting what you want” (DuDeVoire, 2016j). Other women discussed fear in the women they admire most, such as Olivia Wilson, who stated, “I really love Chelsea Handler. One of my favorite things about her is that she admits when she doesn’t know something…she’s also never afraid to speak her mind, that’s for sure!” (DuDeVoire, 2016t). In the same manner, Brittany Mignanelli offered her response to a woman she admires by responding with the following:
Samantha Bee. I always enjoyed her segments on The Daily Show, but this past year she has ignited a fire in me…She’s been hitting harder than many other late night shows on the subjects that matter most and isn’t afraid to ‘go there’. (DuDeVoire, 2016v)
According to these interview responses, women believe overcoming and accepting fear is an integral part of being successful and can aid in one’s identity management. By evolving from being afraid, we are able to realize our capabilities and put that fear towards greater accomplishments.
Throughout this study, the aim was to discover how women socially construct ‘powerful’ identities through language use. While there were many types of language depicted throughout the data, the three areas discussed were the most prominent. The results supported the notion that women who express positive self-talk, maintain confidence, and accept various characteristics, such as fear within their lives leads to a more ‘powerful’ identity through the type of language used when speaking about themselves. By integrating language of this type in one’s mind as well as in daily conversations has the possibility to improve others perceptions and the way we are categorized by others. This in turn has the capability of constructing a more powerful identity. By incorporating social construction ideas, as well as a membership categorization analysis approach to analyzing identity, we can begin to analyze how women can construct these more powerful identities. Noticeably, these findings do not provide definitive results on socially constructing a powerful identity through language, but do aid in the discovery of new ways to examine how women do construct such identities through the language styles exhibited within this data set.
Although the study provided a great deal of data to analyze, it must be remembered that all research was conducted on a singular blog site with multiple postings. Additionally, time constraints existed, which led to the restriction of looking into further data that will be posted after this study was conducted. As the blog continued to evolve since its creation, the data is fixed to include responses held prior to this study.
Technological limitations. Although an abundance of information was provided on the blog from which to pull data, the limited landscape of an edited blog could have implications on the results of this study and the responses portrayed on each entry. Additionally, the ability for participants to conduct the interviews over email may have altered the type of language generally exhibited from these women in face-to-face interactions.
Demographic limitations. Despite having over sixty different women from which to choose, the demographic was relatively restricted to young, white females. Due to many of the blog entries focusing on women part of small-businesses rather than successful women of large corporations and businesses, one limitation could be depicted as lack of varying success levels of each woman’s occupation.
This study is capable of providing a benchmark from which to expand the research conversation on how women powerfully construct an identity through language. While there were over sixty interviews from which to pull data, it would benefit the field of research to examine powerful language of solely women in additional landscapes, as well as additional blog websites. The blog utilized within this study has progressed since its creation in 2016 and there are potential opportunities for developing a longitudinal study to examine how women’s language depicted prior to completing the interview as well as after the blog post is created.
By having the ability to edit their own responses as well as extend the time for such responses, the women interviewed had the potential to appear more powerful than would potentially be seen in immediate face-to-face interview responses. In order to learn how nonverbal communication and immediate responses differ, a study could incorporate live interviews and compare the responses to those depicted on the blog. The slight lack of diversity in participants allows for a greater understanding of powerful identities by looking further into women from various ethnic and racial backgrounds. This has the potential to improve the field’s understanding of powerfully constructed identities and can be extended to observing children and older women.
Additionally, the study
would support the examination of a comparison between an all-female blog and an
all-male blog to further discover the differences between men and women’s
language use in the same setting. There are numerous avenues from which this
study could expand upon and all lead to greater knowledge on an increasingly
important topic within the communication field.
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