Identity | Edna Tan

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Edna Tan is a social science researcher in STEM education who uses qualitative approaches to explore issues of power and systemic injustices as they relate to identity. Her research uses the concepts of “identity work” and “identities in practice” (i.e. what youth do, say or perform) to understand how youth engage with STEM in ways that empower them and position them as valuable contributors in STEM. Watch the short video or download the full interview transcript below.

“We found it more productive to think about ‘identity work’ rather than identity and also ‘identities in practice’. This suggests it is more active and something that is fluid.”
– Edna Tan, Associate Professor of Science Education, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

2017 Interview Highlights:

How do you define identity?
I think we found it more productive to think about identity work and identities in practice, rather than just identity as a concept by itself. Identity work is more productive because it’s more active, and identities can be stabilized or destabilized through dynamic interactions with significant others. Identity can be taken to mean something very innate and stable, like an individual trait. We don’t take that perspective completely. We think a lot of identity and identity work is a negotiation with people in whatever space or figured world that we’re in. So in thinking about identities in practice, the whole idea of practice is really key.

What are “figured worlds”?
That comes from Dorothy Holland’s work, and “figured worlds” is her way of talking about a space that has its own norms and practices.

How do you think identity matters for science learning?
In addition to the achievement gap, which is one piece of data, we need to think about the identity gap. Research shows that youth of color and women and girls just don’t see themselves as belonging in STEM. There are not enough role models. There’s a lot of literature on that. The other piece that I think is interesting is that some youth, African American youth for example, feel conflicted: “Do I want to risk any erasure of who I am in order to be somebody in STEM?” Researchers say that 60% of STEM professionals decided they wanted to pursue that as a career at ages 12 or 13. The issue of an identity gap should be something that is addressed right from the get-go, at a young age.

How is your approach distinct from other approaches to identity?
I think our approach, which looks at identities in practice, is similar to that of some other scholars in the field. We see identity as socially negotiated, not an innate trait. We are very hesitant to draw strong conclusions, because in our work we’ve seen that identity is very fluid and dynamic. I think we can capture snapshots of what the manifestation of a particular identity looks like in the moment in which we are taking that snapshot, but there are a lot of caveats about what we can infer from this snapshot.

Do you think there’s such thing as a STEM identity?
I don’t know if there is a STEM identity that applies across contexts. I think it’s more useful as a concept for teachers and educators, the adults who are engaged in the enterprise, than for student learners. When you consider technology, the T in STEM, for example, is computer science even included in that? People have different opinions. I think it’s very challenging to say that there’s a STEM domain and that people are equally engaging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics every single time.

How do you measure identity in your work?
We’re not. I think we wouldn’t use the word “measuring.” We would use the word “capturing” snapshots across time. But we have found that there are what we term in our research “critical science identity artifacts.” An example would be a kid who made a documentary in an afterschool STEM program about greenhouse gases and then was really compelled by the work that he could do and brought the movie from the informal space to the formal space to show his science teacher.

How do interest, motivation, and attitudes connect with identity, if at all?
We’ve thought a lot about this. I think we take a sociocultural and sociohistorical view of identity, focusing on identity work and identities in practice. So I think the descriptions, labels, or constructs such as interest, motivation, and attitude are manifestations or markers of a student’s identity in practice in the moment when attributes are captured. If you asked me today about my motivation, from one to ten, to do well in science, my response would be how I’m thinking or how I’m feeling at that moment. I think it is a snapshot and again, there are limitations to that snapshot.

Download full interview

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