Volume 29, Number 1 

Table of Contents


Narrative and conceptual dimensions of immigrant ethnic identity

Lora Pallotta & Michel Ferrari
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto

Address for correspondence:

Michel Ferrari
Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto
252 Bloor Street West, 9th Floor
Toronto, ON M5S 1V6
e-mail: mferrari@oise.utoronto.ca


Emigration creates new dimensions of identity that individuals incorporate into their conception of themselves. The personal and political circumstances that lead to the decision to leave one’s home characterize this newly emerging facet of self. Depending upon the chain of events surrounding their emigration, people may come to view themselves as newcomers or foreigners, refugees or expatriates. Therefore, self and our personal concept of it "is not something just ‘there’, but rather, something constructed out of sense and memory by acts of imagination" (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998, p. 309). These acts of imagination result from reflexive dialogical activities through which identity emerges as a specialized product of the personality system (Lewis & Ferrari, in press).

Thus, creation of new aspects of personal identity raises questions about the content and development of self-conceptions. Defining oneself in any new way involves more than merely ascribing new self-descriptors, there is an evaluative aspect to personal identity (Taylor, 1985) that typically requires individuals to hold some type self-theory that explains aspects of their self-conceptions to themselves and to others.

Along with this evaluative component to personal identity, self-narratives are important to explaining who we are and what we stand for, both to ourselves and others. Recent research has presented models of identity that are autobiographical in nature (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998, Freeman & Brockmeier, in press, McAdams, 1993; Ferrari & Mahalingham, 1998). "We tell ourselves about our own Self and about other Selves in the form of story" (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998). Thus, we are able to elaborate who we are through the telling of self-narratives. The stories we tell reveal cues of our selfhood and selfhood in others (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998). For instance, McAdams, Diamond, de St. Aubin, and Mansfield (1997) view identity as an internalized and evolving life story, "a way of telling the self to the self and others, through a story or set of stories complete with settings, scenes, characters, plots, and themes" (p. 678). Furthermore, autobiography is rooted in action (Lewis & Ferrari, in press). For instance, if a person conceives of herself as adventurous, then the narratives she tells herself and others must be rooted in actions that she conceives of as adventurous. Thus, self-narratives are derived from actions or expressed through actions. The self is transformed through interplay between the narratives we endorse and past, present and future life events (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). Furthermore, from a narrative perspective of self-conception, the most profound changes in selfhood are revealed by the turning points in an individual’s autobiography (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998).

The case of immigrant development of self-conception provides an interesting perspective from which to study the content and emergence of self-conceptions because of traceable emergence of such a turning point (Dien, 2000). For a self-conception of "immigrant" and all of its possible variants (e.g., newcomer or refugee) to emerge, the action of emigration must occur. Thus, if one does not leave his or her nation of origin to settle somewhere else, such a self-conception will never emerge. It is plausible, therefore, to consider the emergence of such a self-conception as situation-specific. An analogous example of another situation-specific dimension of self-conception would be conceiving of oneself as a parent. Such a self-conception may emerge only after the birth or adoption of a child, and would not develop as a self-conception unless such an event occurs.

Looking at such situation-specific constituents of self-conception enables the theorist or researcher to isolate and examine one of many threads woven into the complex tapestry of the self. Moreover, depending upon the age at which individuals emigrate, they may have vivid memories of the emergence or role of their conception of themselves as immigrants, which may be studied (Dien, 2000). In the remainder of this essay, we will consider how immigrant self-conceptions develop and whether they require multiple theories of self. We begin with a brief review of the ethnic identity literature, with a focus on ethnic self-conceptualization.

Self-conceptions as theories of identity

As discussed so far, self-conception implies that individuals possess clearly conceived internalized portraits of themselves composed of the traits, attributes, abilities and qualities that they believe define who they are. Yet, answering the question, "who am I?", has occupied the philosopher, poet, novelist, and psychologist for centuries, suggesting that there is more to satisfactorily defining and understanding the self. Merely defining who we are in terms of what we like to do, or what qualities and skills we believe we posses is not an adequate definition of self-conception. Taylor (1985, 1989) views the ability to reflect upon who we are and articulate our evaluations about preferences, the quality of life, or the kind of beings we are or want to be as central to our existence as human agents. Following Taylor (1989), self-conception cannot be given merely through listing traits, preferences or self-descriptors (although these may be subsumed in identity); instead, personal identity is defined by the capacity of the agent to evaluate especially the qualitative worth of his or her desires. The ability to formulate such articulations of what is contradictory, as in the example above, confusing or inchoate is what shapes our sense of significance of what is important or desired by the self (Taylor, 1989).

Therefore, self-conception involves holding or creating explicit or implicit accounts that explain the varied and complex aspects of the self, and which are even able to reconcile apparent contradictions. For instance, a person may develop an account to explain to herself or others how she may be both accommodating and stubborn (Pallotta & Ferrari, 2000). Being able to account for such an incongruity not only requires a person to articulate an explanation or rationale, but also to be able to evaluate the fact that an apparent self-contradiction exists. Yet, if self-conception involves accounts to explain who a person believes himself or herself to be, then two questions remain: What forms do these accounts take? And how do they deal with the multiple dimensions of self that may exist?

Ethnic Self-Conception

Research on self-conceptualizations of ethnicity has emphasized the role of states of mind, feelings, self-assertions, internal struggles and self-narratives. Knight and his colleagues (1993), for example, argue that because ethnic identity is an integral part of the self-concept and a product of the socialization process, it is unique to each individual, and it is not necessarily the same even among members of the same ethnic group. Similarly, Bernal and her colleagues (1993) define ethnic identity as part of the self-concept in their model of the development of children’s ethnic identity. Specifically, they extend Harter’s (1983) developmental framework for self-descriptions that involve multiple domains of the self (e.g., social competence, achievement competence) to include children’s view of their ethnic self. A related study by Phinney and colleagues (1997) on the role of ethnic identity as a predictor of global self-esteem found strong support for the importance of group identity as a predictor of self-esteem even when a number of other variables were measured.

Several social constructs also arise from the study of self-identity in an ethnic context. The main focus of such research is on the processes and effects that culture, environment and other people have on identity. In a large scale study of the results of a survey of 2,338 respondents in Toronto, Breton and his colleagues (1990) describe ethnic identity as comprising at least one of six components: (a) distinct overt and covert cultural behaviour patterns; (b) personal ties and friendship networks; (c) organizational ties (i.e., to churches, enterprises and media); (d) associations such as clubs; (e) functions sponsored by ethnic organizations such as picnics; and (f) identity as a social-psychological phenomenon (p.10). From this perspective "ethnic identity is defined as one aspect of the way in which individuals conceive of their location within and their relationship to the social system at large and to others in it" (Breton et al., 1990, p. 11). A key theme of these six components is the relation between internal and external aspects of identity.

Likewise, Phinney (1993) distinguishes between the focus on either content or process that exists in ethnic identity research. A focus on content entails attention to "the actual ethnic behaviors that individuals practice, along with their attitudes toward their ethnic group" (p.64). Alternatively, research on the processes of ethnic identity centers upon "the way in which individuals come to understand the implications of their ethnicity and make decisions about its role in their lives, regardless of the extent of their ethnic involvement" (Phinney, 1993, p.64). Casas and Pyltuk (1995) follow Phinney’s distinction between content and process, yet modify it by further distinguishing enculturation (i.e., normative socialization experiences of one’s own culture) and acculturation, "the product of culture learning that occurs as a result of contact between the members of two or more distinct groups" for understanding ethnic identity (p.158).

This interplay between internal and external dimensions is also prevalent in other conceptualizations of ethnic identity (Sodowsky, Kwan & Pannu, 1995; Nagel, 1994; Bacon, 1996). The division of ethnic identity into internal aspects such as states of mind and feelings, and external or observable social cultural behaviors such as ethnic language use and participation in group functions and activities, highlights the interaction of the psychological and the social dimensions of ethnicity (Sodowsky et al., 1995). Although such a distinction is made, the focus of social research is on the role of external aspects of ethnic identity, as such, these theories seek to explain how social factors such as environment, culture and language use affect people’s interpretation of the self.

Some research claims that the labels given to certain groups by society may impinge upon aspects of the individual’s self-concept. In a study using focus groups, Carrillos and Simmons (1999) described the positive and negative aspects of adopting the ‘Latino’ label among Latino youths in Toronto. On the positive side, the label provides a sense of cultural pride and group solidarity. Yet, at the same time, those who wish to stereotype Latin Americans give the term a negative connotation.

Some authors claim that the labels ascribed to certain groups by society may impinge upon aspects of the individual’s self-concept. For instance, in an analysis of a large-scale survey of children in South Florida and Southern California, Portes and MacLeod (1996) explored the ethnic self-identification of second-generation children whose parents came from Latin America to the United States. They found that children who adopted the pan-ethnic label ‘Hispanic’, reported poorer English skills, lower self-esteem and higher rates of poverty than children who identified themselves as hyphenated Americans or as Americans (Portes & MacLeod, 1996). And Bacon (1996) notes that ethnic groups and other subcultures in American society are faced with the same definitional tasks, as they must work out basic identity issues such as "Who are we? Who am I? What does it mean to be ‘Latino’"? (p.XIV). Thus, at the fundamental level, ethnicity "can shape identities by determining who people are in their own eyes and those of others" (Breton, 1990, p.5). Interestingly, the study by Phinney and colleagues (1997) did not find support for the claim made by social identity theorists (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) that if other people view one’s group negatively, negative self evaluations will result.

Furthermore, choosing to refer to oneself using a self-generated ethnic label fails to prevent the emergence of strong citizenship attitudes toward one’s host nation. For instance, analyses of a 1991 National survey (n = 3325 respondents) on ethnicity and citizenship attitudes in Canada revealed that when asked to choose one particular identity, respondents of British and all other ethnic origins (outside of Quebec) selected Canadian identity before ethnic identity (Kalin, 1995, p.37). Thus, the choice of an ethnic label does not necessarily preclude the expression of a sense of civic nationalism, nor does it appear to prevent the existence of multiple self-conceptions (e.g., an "ethnic self" and a "Canadian self").

Social-psychological models of ethnic self-conception describe ethnicity and the effects of the social phenomenon related to it, such as acculturation and assimilation, in the context of social category membership in which "ethnic identification [is] reflected in a constellation of social categorizations in which the self is located" (Cameron & Lalonde, 1994, p.515). Ethnic identification occurs at various levels such as at the interpersonal level (e.g. with friends and family) and at the inclusive levels of social categories such as the ethnic group, and nationality (Cameron & Lalonde, 1994). Cameron and Lalonde (1994) view acculturation as the mechanism for such intergenerational ethnic change. They follow the distinction made by Berry (1990) between acculturation and psychological acculturation to account for changes at the cultural level and changes at the level of the individual. Specifically, in a review of the acculturation research Berry (1997) distinguishes between acculturation (i.e., the cultural changes resulting from group encounters), and psychological acculturation and adaptation. The latter two terms "are employed to refer to the psychological changes and eventual outcomes that occur as a result of individuals experiencing acculturation" (p.6). Furthermore, Berry (1997) presents an acculturation framework intended to identify the key variables essential for conducting studies of psychological acculturation (p.15).

Narrative approaches to self-conception are a branch of psychological research that attempts to answer these and related questions by focusing upon the autobiographical dimensions of personality and identity. A growing body of narrative-based theories of personality and identity has recently emerged (e.g., McAdams, Hoffman, Mansfield, & Day, 1996; McAdams 1985, 1990, 1993; Lewis and Ferrari, in press; Bruner and Kalmar, 1998; Ricoeur, 1986)

General Foundations of a Narrative View of Self-Conception

Narrative is how people convey their articulations and evaluations, and thus reveal their personal identities. From this theoretical standpoint, self emerges from life story, or autobiography. However, understanding the self in narrative terms involves more than simply viewing a person as the sum of the stories they tell about themselves. In defining a person from an autobiographical perspective, several dimensions must be considered before applying this narrative view of self-concept to immigrants.

Narrative self-conception surfaces from the interplay between events and our perception of those events re-constructed in a narrative form (Burger & Miller, 1999; Nelson, 1996; Ricoeur, 1986). Bruner and Kalmar (1998) view self as developing from the world as experienced by the individual. The events and circumstances that shape self-conception are fashioned from the world we experience to fit our continually developing concept of ourselves: "So while the experienced world may produce the Self, Self also produces the experienced world" (p. 309). Thus, the experienced world and self have a chiastic relationship that works to shape self-conception. Further, from this relationship there emerges the somewhat paradoxical interaction between the stable, yet dynamic nature of self-concept evidenced in narrative. Despite the apparent presence of a fixed self, there is an inconstant quality to our personal identities. Bruner and Kalmar (1998) note that approximately one-third of self-referent sentences in autobiographical interviews contained linguistic markers of uncertainty (i.e. subjunctives and modals of uncertainty), which they refer to as "Hamlet-like musings" (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998, p. 308). Even though most people may feel that they have a sense of who they are, our interactions with the world and our ability to reflect upon these interactions allows personal identity to develop or change. So, what elements of our self-concept are dynamic and which remain unchanged?

Lewis and Ferrari (in press) recently proposed a model of identity to account for the interplay between stability and change in one’s self-conception. The theory distinguishes between implicit and explicit dimensions of identity (Lewis & Ferrari, in press). Implicit identity (i.e., personality) involves interpretations, emotions, goals, and intentions and provides the foundation for psychological sameness over the lifespan (Lewis & Ferrari, in press). It remains relatively implicit, and unconscious, and it describes the identity of infants and nonhuman animals. Explicit identity (i.e., autobiographical identity) is a specialized product of personality that often relies on semantic, reflective, and deliberate conscious activities. It is the dimension of identity that is the dynamic counterpoint to the anchor of personality. This theory proposes that personal identity is experienced by people as statements, stances, policies, or stories about themselves and how they live their lives (Lewis & Ferrari, in press). Thus, expression of personal identity takes on autobiographical and dialogic narrative forms. This model also considers the roles that culture and emotion play in theories of narrative self-conception.

Immigrant Ethnic Identity as Narrative

Both Berry (1990, 1997) and Bacon (1996) have conceptualized the sociological construct of assimilation in psychological terms in an effort to account for the effects of this process at the individual level. Assimilation is often viewed as a "process that transforms somebody alien into someone who is part of the ‘mainstream’" (Bacon, 1996, p. XIV); however, in her case study of five immigrant families, Bacon (1996) defines assimilation as a social-psychological process of identity formation in which assimilation is viewed as a day-to day social process, that is about creating an identity that locates oneself in the social world. Bacon’s (1996) model of intergenerational change explains the processes of assimilation within the context of the social world of the family. At one level, the model focuses on an "intergenerational change dynamic" which is "a consequence of parental history and the memories and expectations formed in the past coming up against the demands of the current environment in which their children live" (p.243). At a second level, a series of filters shape the way the ‘intergenerational change dynamic’ is played out. The types of filters may vary among different ethnic groups. For example, in the case of Indians residing in the Chicago area, prototypes, "the comparisons people make of themselves to the ‘standard Indian experiences’"(Bacon, 1996, p.234) are a filter which influences the behavioral and ideological issues within the family. Similar filters may be operating within other immigrant groups, who may also have standard group experiences which they use to compare and contrast their own behavior and beliefs as group members.

The importance of such interrelationships between the individual and his or her social milieu in explaining the multidimensional nature of identity is also prevalent in other ethnic identity research. The Students’ Multiple Worlds Study (SWM), for instance, created a theoretical model of the interrelationships between students’ family, peer, and school worlds, and the effects that the socially derived knowledge and understandings from each of these worlds had on student learning and school engagement (Yu, Soukamneuth, & Lazarin, 1999). This model is based upon two waves of surveys of six schools, site visits, and focus groups with single race ethnic groups in which students were asked about their attitudes and behavior towards different ethnic groups. The SMW approach helps us understand adolescents from ethnic and minority backgrounds (Yu et al., 1999). "Worlds" in this model refers to the cultural knowledge and behavior found within different social contexts such as the family, peer groups and schools; each world, contains its own sets of values, beliefs, expectations, actions and responses familiar to insiders. This idea of worlds is similar to Bacon’s (1996) construct of "family idiom"–the overarching themes that "form the basis of the unique perspective and language developed by each family…that each family member appears to share" (p.13). Moreover, the idea of multiple worlds is related to the compartmentalization of narratives and practices in one’s personal cognitive development (Ferrari & Mahalingham, 1998).

Related to the constructs of worlds and the boundaries that exist between them is the idea of the salient reference group and its relationship to ethnicity. Sodowsky and colleages (1999) note that one’s ethnic identity is likely to be heightened when one is exposed to an immediate environment like the school or the workplace, in which an ethnic person is confronted by two cultural groups (i.e., by the dominant cultural group and one’s own ethnic group) whose respective values or expectations may differ. Moreover, one will need to locate oneself both socially and psychologically with reference to both groups. This need to locate oneself among groups is explained by the assertion that an "ethnic person identifies with a cultural reference group, whether his or her own ethnic group or the dominant group, to which a psychological relatedness is attached" (Tajfel, 1978). Thus, from such a standpoint, ethnic identity is a process in which the individual is continually assessing the ‘fit’ between the self and the different social systems of his or her environment (Spencer & Markstrom-Adams, 1990, p. 292). Moreover, according to Burke (1991), the meaning of the identity one constructs derives from the set of internalized meanings attributed to one’s self in a social position or role. Thus, identity becomes a reference for who one is. However, dissonance theory suggests that since identity is dynamic, the identity process presents a continuous feed-back loop that works by adjusting behaviors to reduce the discrepancy and achieve congruence between the identity an individual portrays in a certain environment and the internal identity a person constructs for themselves (Burke, 1991). Further, Sodowsky and colleagues (1995) cite dissonance theory to account for the possible distress that people may experience when such an inconsistency between the identity portrayed and the internal identity one endorses arises. They note that behavior change may result to rectify such a discrepancy between who one shows oneself to be in a particular social context, and who a person believes he or she is.

Such a situation may also arise from the social labeling of certain ethnic groups. Southern Italian peasant immigrants, for example, represent a group that had exclusively local ties prior to their arrival in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; yet, after their settlement, they developed an ex-patriot nationalism that affected their self-concept (i.e. how they thought of themselves). Southern Italians in America supported the Ethiopian War, a campaign they would not have supported in Italy due to deep-seated tensions between the North and the South (Portes & MacLeod, 1996; Glazer, 1954). Furthermore, this conscious acquisition of a national identity may have occurred because of the immigrants’ inability to resist external pressures to relinquish their original identities (Portes & MacLeod, 1996).

The Role of Canonicity in Cultural Narratives

In most narrative views of identity, culture shapes the form that personal narratives may take, as well as governing what is considered acceptable content. Being able to articulate and evaluate one’s narrative in creating a self-conception requires moral agents to be reflexively aware of the standards that they are (perhaps failing) to live by (Taylor, 1985). Bruner & Kalmar (1998) call this cultural consensus conception of commonly held standards, beliefs, expectations, and acts "canonicity". The shared sense of "canonicity" among individuals within a culture determines what is expected of them and what they may expect of others (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998). "Canonicity" determines what forms of trouble may when one endeavors to break with what is accepted, or what "ought-to-be" (Amsterdam & Bruner, 2000). This shared sense of what is acceptable allows us to identify what is canonical and troubling in personal narrative. Our shared sense of canonicity allows us to identify "Marriage Trouble", "Trouble with the Boss", and "Money Trouble" solely by naming them, given our commonly held perceptions of what such problems would entail.

Similarly, personal identity can be seen as an explicit and conscious facet of self-conception that reflects the cultural milieu in which individuals are raised, and that relies on unifying narratives to explain an individual’s past actions and organize actions in the present and future. The structure and content of one’s personal stories, therefore, are rooted in forms that are culturally specific (Lewis & Ferrari, in press). Furthermore, a multitude of narrative frames (e.g., gender, ethnicity, family, and historical political frames) may exist within a culture that will govern the personal narratives one endorses and their associated actions (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). For instance, (explicitly or implicitly) narratives about men staying home to raise children while women work outside of the home may not be canonically endorsed by a culture or cultural group, and thus may shape the actions of men and women in that culture not to endorse such a course of action.

Role of Emotion in Narrative

Along with the role of culture in shaping personal narrative, emotion may also imbue a person’s autobiography with a lineage of narratives through recurring self-appraisals tied to a specific emotion (Haviland & Kahlbaugh, 1993). Excitement or hope, for example, may be tied to narratives of accomplishment while jealousy or guilt may be paired with narrative interpretations of failed relationships (Lewis & Ferrari, in press). Further, narrative plays a role in enabling us to share our emotions with others, or understand another person’s emotional state; by describing our situation we are able to describe the emotions we experience (Taylor, 1985). Narrative descriptions of emotion, therefore, have a cultural component, as those from different cultures may not be able to appreciate the sense of significance that a particular situation has (Taylor, 1985; Weirzbicka, 2000). Thus, situation-description that takes a narrative form is often implicit self-description because the situation is grasped by the sense of significance it has within a culture (Taylor, 1985).

Sketch of a Personal Cognitive Development Framework:

According to the personal cognitive development framework currently being developed by Ferrari and Mahalingam (1998), "individuals act to create or fulfill individual self-identities (perhaps several) by participating in activities that develop the skills and dispositions needed to excel in their cultural milieu" (p. 36). The creation of such self-identities develop within the context of narratives, both personal and cultural, and through self-regulated participation in valued activities themselves set in a political and cultural context. Thus, persons develop through the interaction between narrative and action (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). Narratives about gender, ethnic identity, or family serve to frame and orient action while action transforms narratives by enriching and validating them, or by posing problems that must be overcome in order to sustain them.

Although the experience of narrative is personal, there is a shared or communal dimension to personal cognitive development. Our narratives, no matter how personal, are influenced by, shared with, or intertwined with the narratives of others. The influence exerted by the narratives of others can then influence not only the narratives we endorse, but also the course of our actions. The ‘historical-political’ narrative frame, which describes the political and historical processes that bind all individual and collective actions, provides an example of this communal dimension of narrative (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). Broad sociocultural trends and events, such as the outbreak of a war or the collapse of the stock market influence the types of narratives and choices available to entire generations of individuals (Elder in Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). All classes of people, for instance, benefit in different ways and to varying degrees during a significant economic upturn; some people may benefit from higher investment return, while others may benefit from gaining access to a boarder range of social assistance services. Although the character of each person’s narrative would differ, individual narratives would be influenced by the shared experience of living during a time of economic prosperity. Moreover, individuals themselves may be either aware or unaware of the operation of a particular narrative or multiple narratives. The person who benefits from increased social assistance may be oblivious to the operation of a ‘Historical-political’ narrative in his or her life, while the person whose investment return is higher than anticipated may be completely cognizant of the operation of such a narrative in his or her life. Shared narratives may affect personal narrative, implicitly or explicitly.

In addition to the operation of communal narratives, several narrative frames exist and operate in tandem. The same story may be adapted for different audiences that value different things and will judge one’s story by different criteria (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998; Harter, 1999). Further, narratives may be censored for specific audiences or for ourselves (Bruner & Kalmar, 1998). When we endorse our own public narratives and find them consistent with our actions, we experience our self and identity as authentic (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). Yet different, even opposing, facets of identity may surface and be validated by the individual to meet context specific demands. A litigating defense attorney, for example, must be aggressive, outspoken and quick to respond to a prosecutor’s arguments. Yet, when the same individual is a client in a courtroom, he or she must be passive, and refrain from responding to a prosecutor’s arguments. Neither narrative would be acceptable in the other context. The individual, therefore, in accordance with the demands of each situation, validates opposing narratives about the self.

The operation of two opposing narratives and sets of actions demonstrates the dynamic nature of identity. An individual may choose or be forced to compartmentalize the narrative frames he or she endorses when two opposing narratives or courses of action cannot be reconciled. This is especially evident among marginalized groups within a society. Marginalization refers to one’s sense of living on the fringes of society, unable to participate in meaningful ways–a sense that is often reinforced by common prejudices of others with whom they interact (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). Moreover, even if they accept the narratives of the status quo, marginalized individuals’ views of themselves may be rejected by mainstream society. Therefore, the self-conception that immigrants may hold or create about their own integration into their new host society, may not be the same view that others in that society have of them. For example, one may see himself as a newcomer, eager and willing to become a citizen of his newly adopted nation, but members of the host nation may view the immigrant as a foreigner, whether he becomes a citizen of the host nation or not. Although such prejudices may bar the full participation of marginalized groups in mainstream society, when a marginalized person is able to participate in a given society, it is often the result of endorsing those narratives accepted by the status quo in specific situations. Italian-immigrant co-workers, for example, may feel pressure to only speak English at a social company gathering, such as a company picnic, (when they otherwise might prefer to speak in Italian amongst themselves) to endorse the status quo of speaking English. In other non-work related contexts, such as at a local bar, the same people may not endorse the status quo and may communicate in Italian, even if the same types of implicit narratives about speaking the language of the majority exist. Thus identity is not static, and the individual may choose or be forced to endorse specific narratives and actions, depending on the context and the audience (Pallotta & Ferrari, 2000).

Yet, narratives do not always stand alone. They are intertwined with life experiences and those experiences to be lived in the anticipated present (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998). Narratives provide a context from which we interpret our life events, and orient our future actions. Thus, identity "emerges in the course of interaction between story and action, as persons come to value different stories that they tell themselves and others, and different actions that they have accomplished or failed to accomplish" (Ferrari & Mahalingam, 1998, p. 40). From this conception of identity, one may conceive of individuals as the sum of their experiences and the stories used to justify and explain their actions to themselves and to others.

Applying the Personal Cognitive Development Framework to Immigrant Self-Conception

The personal cognitive development framework provides a vantage point from which to understand ethnicity. For instance, from the standpoint of the personal cognitive development framework, ethnic identity may be viewed as a self-identity that exists and operates in conjunction with several other self-identities, such as female, father, athlete, or boss. The self as a whole, may be conceptualized as a pastiche of these multiple self-identities that emerge and are suppressed at different times, depending on the cultural demands or constraints of a particular context or audience.

These claims are supported in the ethnic identity literature. For instance, Carillos and Simmons (1999) suggest that significant dimensions of ethnic identity among Hispanic youth in Toronto are self-generated, fluid and context specific. Moreover, ethnic identity is often hybrid in nature as new elements are believed to be incorporated into a new identity collage that is influenced by transnational social and cultural processes, and local influences. Bacon (1996) also views ethnic identification as something that varies over the course of life, generations and in different situations.

Furthermore, an individual is more than a conduit for personal stories; people take an active role shaping their identity, even though they may not be conscious of their participation in determining who they are. For instance, people develop through coordinating personal and cultural narratives that involve participating in political and cultural activities (Ferrari & Mahalingham, 1998). In turn, action in specific contexts, transforms narratives by validating them or by creating dilemmas that must be overcome if such narratives are to be sustained (Ferrari & Mahalingham, 1998). Such a view of identity development is similar to the feedback loop analogy of identity described by Burke (1991) in which behaviors are adjusted to reduce the discrepancy and achieve congruence between the identity an individual portrays in a certain environment and the internal identity a person constructs for themselves. Moreover, one may choose to endorse particular narratives and actions in specific contexts or with different audiences. In discussing exceptions to his acculturation strategies, Berry (1997) notes that the variation among choices in strategies may vary according to the individual’s location since "in more private spheres or domains (such as the home, the extended family, the ethnic community) more cultural maintenance may be sought than in more public spheres (such as the workplace, or in politics)" (p.12).

The coordination of narrative and action and the validation of different narratives through participation in different culturally valued activities may be viewed as the way acculturation takes place for the immigrant and his or her descendants. An immigrant to a democratic nation, for example, who becomes a citizen may take part in the democratic process in order to show his support of the party for his or her choice and their policies, an action that may not have been possible in his country of origin. The immigrant in the example has validated the narrative of voter by engaging in the new culturally accepted practices of his host nation. Thus, the immigrant is adopting new narratives and actions while abandoning or simply not instantiating old ones.

Yet, the endorsement of a particular narrative or course of action over another may create a dilemma (Ferrari & Mahalingham, 1998). Immigrants and their descendents may be caught between two competing sets of narratives and courses of action, those endorsed by their country of origin, and the new narratives and actions advocated by their host nation. For instance, one may reflect upon competing narratives that call for an ethical decision on how to handle a dilemma, such as to have an arranged marriage, or to choose one’s own spouse (Bacon, 1996; Ferrari & Mahalingham, 1998). Both narratives are right within different narrative frames--in this case the narrative of prescribed customs or rules of the country of origin, or those of the status quo of the host nation--but require the individual to choose between the two courses of action. Such a dilemma may lead to the abandonment of old practices in favor of new ones, the retention of old practices, the dual operation of two narratives and sets of actions when the dilemma cannot be reconciled, or a dialectic blending and transformation of old and new practices. Thus, one may choose to consent to an arranged marriage, yet have a say in selecting that spouse. This course of action would reflect the dialectic transcendence of old practices by incorporating some aspects of newly encountered practices, in this case the freedom to choose one’s own spouse. The blending of old and new practices in this example, however, is spurred by the dual operation of two competing narratives (i.e., arranged marriage versus spouse selection) that could not be reconciled by the individual.

The research literature recognizes that immigrants may face such acculturative dilemmas. Psychological adaptations to acculturation may be viewed as matter of learning new behaviors that are appropriate for the new cultural context. This may require what Berry (1997) terms culture shedding: "the unlearning of aspects of one’s previous repertoire that are no longer appropriate" (p.13). Furthermore, in cases where the conflict is serious and behavioral repertoires are difficult to change, "culture shock" or "acculturative stress" may result (Berry, 1997, p.13). Alternatively, the dilemma that ethnic people face may be the mixed messages that they receive from the dominant group and their minority group. Since both groups psychologically accommodate each other to various degrees, the ethnic individual may receive mixed messages regarding ethnicity that cause him or her to reinforce it on some occasions and ignore it in other situations (Sodowsky, 1995). Thus, situation specific demands may force the individual to choose to endorse different behaviors and beliefs about the self.


Emigration creates new opportunities for developing self-conceptions, and sometimes dilemmas about the sort of actions one should pursue when value systems from one’s country of origin and those of the host country come into conflict. The ability to create and hold different self-conceptions also raises questions about the development of personal identity over the life span. Unlike classical cognitive development of increasingly sophisticated cognitive structures throughout childhood, the interplay between the dynamic personal cognitive development is seen in the nascent development of a new identity among immigrants. Such self-conceptions arise amidst a plethora of other implicit an explicit self-conceptions that are continually developing within the individual (i.e., mother, friend, student or spouse).

Furthermore, self-conceptions develop through an interaction between narrative and action. This dialectic in constructing a new ethnic identity among immigrants also suggests a plausible theoretical standpoint from which to study the process of acculturation, especially in cases of initial marginalization and subsequent endorsement of status quo. In such cases, one may expect personal dilemmas to occur due to two possible audiences whom immigrants address in defining and discussing themselves, namely, their culture of origin and the new host culture. These issues are crucial to the sort of theory, narrative and supporting actions through which immigrants articulate their self-conception. Ultimately, we propose that theory, narrative and action are intertwined in the essential self-conceptions that define all of us as the sort of person we are.


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31st Annual Meeting–Berkeley CA

Biology and Knowledge Revisited: From Embryogenesis to Psychogenesis

Jean Piaget Society Meeting
Berkeley California, May 31-June 2, 2001

Organizers: Jonas Langer, Sue Parker and Constance Milbrath

The 1995 JPS Meeting, organized by Jonas Langer & Melanie Killen (Eds., Piaget, Evolution and Development. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum, 1998) focused on the evolution and development of behavior. In this follow-up meeting we propose to extend the discussion by focusing on the evolution of experience-contingent brain development which constitutes the foundation for cognitive construction, language acquisition, and social and personal identities. The 1995 meeting considered human behavioral development in its comparative cross-species context, especially its primate developmental context. So too, the 2001 meeting will consider human brain development in its comparative cross-species, especially primate context.

Piaget's central metaphor from embryogenesis, the concept of epigenetic construction of cognitive development, applies equally well to brain development. Beginning in the embryo and continuing at least through adolescence, brain development co-occurs with cognitive construction through progressively widening feedback loops. Recent studies underline the experience-contingent nature of brain development causing investigators to rethink the concept of innateness. New comparative data on great ape brains highlight both similarities and differences with human brains. These data have important implications for understanding brain and behavioral evolution and development. Along with new understandings of size and information based limitations on genetic control of brain development they suggest more sophisticated models for the evolution of developmental algorithms.

The conference will be held at the Radisson Hotel at the Berkeley Marina, where the 1995 meeting took place. This is one of the most beautiful settings on the San Francisco Bay, with views of San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, and Mt. Tam in Marin. The hotel is located adjacent to Cesaer Chavez Park which has several miles of walking trails along the shore. There is easy access to downtown San Francisco via the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) and to the University of California, Berkeley campus. The hotel has a complete health club including state-of-the art exercise equipment, lap pool, whirlpool, and sauna and a separate family pool. Sailboat and motorboat rentals, windsurfing, fishing charters and golf or tennis are available nearby. We have negotiated excellent hotel rates for those registering before May 1.


Plenary Sessions

What can child language tell us about the origin of Language?
Dan Slobin, UC Berkeley

Cycles of brain and cognitive development: Embodiment of Piaget's reflective abstraction
Kurt Fischer, Harvard University

Language development in an embodied brain
Elizabeth Bates, UC San Diego

Evolution and development of the symbolic mind
Terrance Deacon, Boston University:

Organismic self-regulation and neural plasticity
V. S. Ramachadran, UC San Diego

Genotype/phenotype relations: A neuroconstructivist approach to studying atypical development
Annette Karmiloff Smith, MRC, London

The full program for the conference is now available on the JPS web site (www.piaget.org). The web site also includes on-line registration forms, transportation and hotel information as well as a sneak preview of JPS 2002.

Invited Symposia

The Emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of Development, Acquisition, and Evolution
Organizer: Richard Senghas, Sonoma State

Mammalian Brain Evolution and Embryogenesis
Organizer: Constance Milbraith, UC San Francisco

Evolutionary perspectives on human brain expansion: Implications for the emergence of human mental abilities
Organizer: Kathleen R. Gibson

Development of the Embodied Mind & Consciousness
Organizer: Willis F. Overton, Temple University

Special Seminar

A Seminar on Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge. Conference participants are invited to discuss the ideas presented in Piaget’s book with the invited scholars who will lead the seminar. Organizers suggest that participants review the book prior to the conference.

The full conference program is now available on the JPS web site (www.piaget.org). You can also register for the conference using on-line registration forms (credit card payments only), or download the forms if you prefer to register by check or money order.


Cognitive Development
- the official journal of The Jean Piaget Society

JPS has affiliated with the journal Cognitive Development which is now the official journal of the Society. Beginning this year, JPS members will receive this quarterly journal at a special low subscription rate as part of their membership benefits. Members will continue to receive the Genetic Epistemologist and the annual symposium series volume. For more information on the journal, visit the JPS web site at www.piaget.org or the Elsevier web site at www.elsevier.nl