An Interdisciplinary Overview of Canadian Research on Identity

Canadian Identities:

An Interdisciplinary Overview of Canadian Research on Identity

An Interdisciplinary Overview
of Canadian Research on Identity

Joanna (Anneke) Rummens, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto

Scientist I, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health—Clarke Site

Fellow, Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean

Research Associate, Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement, Toronto


Commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage for the
Ethnocultural, Racial, Religious, and Linguistic Diversity and Identity Seminar

Halifax, Nova Scotia

November 1-2, 2001

Available on-line at

The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect
those of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Table of Contents

I - Introduction 3

II - Search Strategies and Parameters 4

III - Analysis of Materials 5

Overview of Major Thematic Areas 6

IV - Summary Overview of Findings 7

  1. Types of Identity 8

  1. Specific Identities 13

  1. Identity Processes 15

  1. Group Dynamics 19

  1. The Role of the State 20

V - Conclusions .23

VI - Appendix 24

Literature Searches 25

Sample Search Strategies 26

Bibliography 28

I. Introduction

“Identity” may be defined as the distinctive character belonging to any given individual, or shared by all members of a particular social category or group. The term comes from the French word identité which finds its linguistic roots in the Latin noun identitas, -tatis, itself a derivation of the Latin adjective idem meaning "the same." The term is thus essentially comparative in nature, as it emphasizes the sharing of a degree of sameness or oneness with others in a particular area or on a given point. “Identity” may be distinguished from “identification;” the former is a label whereas the latter refers to the classifying act itself. Identity is thus best construed as being both relational and contextual, while the act of identification is best viewed as inherently processual (Rummens 1993: 157-159).

The term “personal identity” may be used to refer to the result of an identification of self, by self, with respect to other. It is, in other words, a self-identification on the part of the individual. In contrast, “social identity” may be used to refer to the outcome of an identification of self by other; it is an identification accorded or assigned an individual by another social actor (Rummens 1993). Both concepts are clearly distinct from the notion of “self-identity,” which may be defined as the "individual self as reflexively understood by the individual in terms of his/her life history." The latter concerns itself with the state of being a specific person and no other, the distinctive character belonging to a single individual—in short, a given subjects' total, all-encompassing and defining essence—and has traditionally been more the domain of psychology than of sociology and anthropology. All three conceptualizations of identity are important to consider when examining the interdisciplinary literature concerned with the social classification of individuals and concomitant identification processes.

A great deal of research has been done in Canada that focuses specifically on issues of identity. This material is, however, rather difficult to access since it tends to fall under various overly general rubrics, including “cultural identity,” “social identity,” “ethnic identity,” “racial identity,” “social identity,” “group identity,” as well as “self-concept.” Used as keywords, these terms are often simply convenient “catch-alls” that are primarily descriptive in nature. Only 1 in 5 items retrieved via existing search terms commonly used in various on-line search services and university library catalogues actually deals with identity per se.

In light of Canada’s rapidly changing demographics and growing sense of itself as a maturing nation, a comprehensive overview of the research already done in the area is important to researchers and policy makers alike. The topic of identity is of increasing interest to scholars, researchers and students in a wide variety of disciplines, and of particular policy relevance to various governmental ministries and departments. The latter includes Canadian Heritage (Multiculturalism, Canadian Studies, Official Languages, Native Citizens, Arts and Heritage, Community Participation, etc.) as well as Citizenship and Immigration (CIC).

This literature review provides an interdisciplinary overview of the Canadian English-language research literature on identity. It covers a wide array of disciplines and fields of study, including anthropology, education, geography, history, psychology, sociology, political science, as well as ethnic, native and women studies. This comprehensive overview is based on an analysis of all materials that could be retrieved via on-line periodical indexes, library catalogues, and website searches. These items include journal articles, books, reports, theses, videos, governmental documents as well as unpublished manuscripts. Particular effort was also made to include recent graduate level work and, where possible, project reports from recently completed research initiatives. International research was incorporated only if it included a focus on Canada; otherwise the emphasis is clearly on the Canadian literature.

Given that there are almost an unlimited number of "identities" that are ascribed to and/or assumed by individuals and groups as social actors, this review limits itself to a consideration of the major socio-cultural identities deemed relevant in the Canadian context. These include aboriginal, ethnic, national, linguistic, regional, racial and religious identifications. Other important identities such as age, sex, gender, dis/ability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status have been incorporated only to the extent that their consideration in the literature intersects with a primary focus on cultural identities. In the interest of greater conceptual clarity, racial and religious identities are given separate treatment from "ethnic" ones in the analysis. In this synopsis, ethnic identity is thus used to refer specifically to Canada’s various immigrant cultural communities. This in no way denies recognition of the various overlaps and intersections among these three types of identity but instead enhances it. Most importantly it should be noted that materials retained for inclusion in the bibliography had to make clear reference to identity per se; ethnographies and other treatises concerning specific cultural groups were not automatically included. The only exceptions were those works that clearly dealt with social group identity or inter-group dynamics. Finally, though common alternate nomenclature has also been included in this overview, groups' own self-identifications have been favoured wherever possible.

II. Search Strategies and Parameters

A number of different search strategies were used to ensure inclusion of a wide range of materials across the various disciplines. Online search services were used to locate academic journal articles, while books, theses, reports, videos and governmental documents were found via major university library catalogues. In addition, various website searches facilitated the retrieval of relevant research project reports, conference papers and other unpublished documents. In all cases, the particular keywords used were tailored to the particular search service or strategy employed in order to ensure the optimal retrieval of relevant materials. Care was also taken that the search terms used reflected topic areas and terminological usage within each of the various disciplines covered in this literature review. (For examples please see Sample Search Strategies in the Appendix). The timeframe covered in the literature search was limited only by the search services themselves. All searches are as up-to-date as possible and include the most recently published books and journal articles.

Journal articles and conference papers were located via such on-line servicesas Sociological Abstracts, Humanities Index, PsychInfo, Psychlit, Medline, Dissertation Abstracts, Microlog (Canadian Government Documents) and Social Sciences Abstracts (Social Sciences Index). A search of Current Contents—an interdisciplinary search service—was also undertaken to ensure that even the most recently published materials were included, namely those not yet catalogued by the various search services. Books, theses, reports, videos, and government documents were located via the on-line catalogues of the Library of Congress, York University Libraries and the University of Toronto Libraries. Research reports, workshop papers and unpublished documents were found via website searches of Canadian Heritage, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Metropolis Centres of Excellence, and The Policy Research Initiative (PRI), or else provided by the author's personal collection of relevant materials. An overview listing of Literature searched appears in the Appendix.

2928 items were retrieved via on-line services and library catalogues using these search strategies. In addition, more than 250 documents were scanned via the website searches for possible relevance. This work was undertaken with the research assistance of Ali Hassan Zaidi M.A. who implemented the various search strategies and made the initial determination of items to be retained for inclusion in this literature review. 557 of the approximately 3200 items retrieved using a wide range of identity-relevant search terms were then retained after a second cut by the author. The overall retention ratio was thus close to 1 in 5 items. Search Parameters: For a reference to be retained for more detailed analysis, its focus had to be specifically on—or directly overlapping with—socio-cultural identity. It was not enough that the material in question might be relevant to issues of cultural identity for an item to be retained; so, for example, very few ethnographies of particular cultural groups have been included in this review. At the same time items that focus on “social group identity”—a commonly used keyword in existing search engines—have been included for their relevance both in terms of identity development, construction and negotiation, and in terms of inter-group relations. "Race as a social category" is, for instance, important on both counts.

III - Analysis of Materials

Each of the 557 reference items retained in this comprehensive literature search was then analyzed to determine the particular type of identity and nature of identity processes discussed. This entailed a complete review, analysis, and coding of both the considered and retained items by the author in order to distill major topic areas, themes, and issues, and was informed by the author's own specialization and 14 years of research and teaching experience in the area of identity. The goal of this "content analysis" was a) to determine what research has been undertaken in Canada to date on issues of identity, in order to b) determine areas requiring future attention. Given the volume and diverse range of materials located via this interdisciplinary literature search, this literature review is necessarily limited to an analytic overview of research undertaken rather than synthesis of all research findings.

The analysis of the compiled materials revealed the following major thematic areas: specific types and kinds of identity; various aspects of identity formation/development, construction and negotiation; implications for group dynamics; and the role of the state. A summary of these larger thematic areas and key subheadings appears in the overview table below. A review of the specific topics contained under these various headings is provided in the synopses that follow.

Overview of Major Thematic Areas

1) Types of Identity

Aboriginal/Indigenous/Native/First Nations Identity

Ethnic Identity

Linguistic Identity

National Identity

Regional Identity

Racial Identity

Religious Identity

2) Specific Identities

Aboriginal/Indigenous/Native/First Nations Identities in Canada

Canadian Ethnic Identities

Canadian Identities

-> includes national, linguistic, regional or other cultural identities,

plus any combination thereof

Linguistic Identities in Canada

Religious Identities in Canada

Visible Minorities in Canada

3) Identity Processes

Identity Development/Formation

Identity Construction

Identity Negotiation

4) Group Dynamics

Inter-Group Attitudes

Inter-Group Relations

Intra-Group Attitudes

Intra-Group Relations

5) The Role of the State

State sponsorship or promotion of identity/identities through:

Citizenship/Naturalization Policy


Constitutional Legislation and Discourse

Cultural Policy

Education Policy and Practices


Human Resources

Human Rights

Immigration Policy and Practices

Justice System

Language Policy

Legislation, Policies and Practices regarding

Canada's Aboriginal/Indigenous/Native Peoples

Social Services

Support for the Arts

IV - Summary Overview of Findings

First some general observations. Changes over time: It is clear from a review of the literature that the rubric of "multiculturalism" of the 1970s was largely replaced by a discourse on anti-racism (particularly in education) through the 1980s. Both were later subsumed under the more inclusive term "identity" over the course of the 1990s. Interdisciplinary differences: Identity research in sociology, anthropology and political science tends to focus on the ascribed nature of identity, the social construction and negotiation of group differences, as well as the informing and ensuing group dynamics. In sharp contrast, work in psychology and medicine tends to focus almost entirely on identity development and formation within the individual and is therefore very much concerned with issues of identity searching, identity crisis, self-concept and self-esteem. Research in the humanities tends to concern itself with various expressions of identities—including Canadian national identity—both in literature and discourse, while government documents as well as some of the political and sociological research explores the role of the state in the sponsorship of cultural identities. Recent works: Much of the most recent work done in the area of identity appears as theses, project reports, and conference papers. A number of major books, doctoral thesis and reports have also been written and/or published on the topic over the last decade, and include the following:

Books dealing with aboriginal, indigenous, native, First Nations identities include (Davis 1997), (Burley, Horsfall, et al. 1992), (Parkinson 1992), (Tafoya, Sterling, et al. 1995), (Thomas 1990), and (Restoule 1994). There is also an interesting 1974 bibliography on by the Micmac (Union of Nova Scotia Indians 1974). Key books in the area of ethnic identity include (Berry & Laponce 1994), (Driedger 1987 & 89) as well as the research of (Kalin & Berry 1994) and (Bourhis 1994) on ethnic attitudes. Other work consider ethnic identity and: demographics (book chapter by Krotki & Reid 1994); race (Isajiw 1999); immigrants (Benvenuto 1996); youth (Hebert, Kodron, et al. 1998); literature (Schaub, Keefer, et al. 1996), (Padolsky 1994); the media (Fleras 1994); and the importance of place (Crombie 1995). Notable theses include (Romans 1990) on Ukrainian identity in Canada as well as (Sarhadi 1993) on globalization and youth.

Research on national identity includes (Ministry of Supply and Services 1991), (Earle & Wirth 1995)  and (Mandel & Taras 1988). (Fraser 1967) and (Angus 1997) consider Canadian identity: (Flett, McKinley, et al. 1999) explores its relationship with race and (Mauguiere 1998) its expression in literature. Regional identities are examined by (Mandel & Taras 1988) and (Taras & Rasporich 1997), while (Dodge 1992) focuses on Quebec identity in particular. The Canadian Policy Research Network has also prepared a number of papers that address issues of social cohesion. These include: (Canadian Heritage 1998), (Jeannotte 1997), (Jeannotte, forthcoming), (Jeanotte, Ellis, and Butt, 1996) and (Stanley forthcomin); (De Santis, forthcoming) on diversity and cultural participation; as well as (Karim, forthcoming) on the impact of digital communities (new media).

Key books that explore racial identity include (Kelly 1998), and (Walcott 1997). (Clairmont & Wien 1976) look at the racial composition of Canada, (Govia & Lewis 1988) provide an historical perspective, while (Manyoni 1986) examines the notion of "skinship." Mention should also be made of the theses by (Kitosa 1998) and (Yon 1995). Work on religious identity includes books by (Yousif 1993) and (Mol 1985), and explores its intersection with aboriginal, indigenous, native identity (Treat 1996), ethnicity and immigration (Berns-McGown 1999) and multiculturalism (Adelman & Simpson 1996).

In terms of identity processes (Makabe 1998) looks at generation differences within the Japanese Canadian community, (Hazelle Palmer 1997) explores perception of identity and assimilation in her book "But Where are You Really From?" while Hall's thesis examines the phenomenon of ethnogenesis within the francophone community in Toronto (Hall 1999). Kalin and Gardner's edited volume on social psychology (Kalin and Gardner 1981) also remains influential in the field. Finally, therole of the state in identity processes is examined in work by (De Santis, forthcoming), (Gamlin, Berndorff, et al. 1994), (Karim 1996), (Kymlicka & Norman 2000), (Laponce 1994), (Pask 1994), (Paquet 1994), (Tepper 1994) and (Weinfeld 1994).

1. Types of Identity

Most of the research literature focuses on ethnic identity, followed by national identity, then native identity and racial identity. Research on regional identity and religious identity is less well represented in terms of total number of reports, articles and books. The former might reflect a relative lack of attention to the topic; the latter the fact that religious identity has tended to decrease in salience for many—though certainly not all—established groups in Canadian society. It should be noted that the analysis distinguishes between national identity and citizenship since a sense of national belonging is not necessarily a prerequisite for the latter.

Aboriginal/Indigenous/Native/First Nations Identity

Research on aboriginal, indigenous, native, and/or First Nations identity includes discussion of native cosmology, healing practices, rituals, the sacred, traditional culture, traditional games, traditional subsistence and world view. Much of the work concerns itself with acculturation models or strategies such as assimilation, integration, segregation and marginalization, as well as issues of cultural retention, maintenance and intergenera­tional socialization. A few references deal with change, namely identity transition, non-traditional religious identities, as well as the link between native identity and sport.

The intersection of native identity and age is explored in work that focuses specifically on children and youth as well as the cultural role of Elders. Intersections with gender identity are also addressed in some of the research. Other work considers the overlap of native identity with Canadian identity, citizenship, national identity, and issues of colour. A few references deal with the impact of colonization on native identity; these look at indigenous identity as colonized, as "ethnic," or as First Nations, while others explore Metis identity as a mixed identity.

The largely psychological literature focuses on cognitive development, self-concept and personality, while some of the very early—and academically dated—education research examines the role of culture on intellectual abilities. More recent research in the area of education concerns itself with native education, school curriculum, academic performance, academic or educational achievement, and vocational aspirations.

Other work focuses on the impact of economic factors, societal and structural conditions, social status and level of societal development on native identity. The role of the justice system is also explored, as are links with politics, self-determination and social conflict. The relationship between native identity and language, as well as its expression in art, literature, oral narratives and other discourse also receives attention, as does the link between native identity and place.

Finally, the literature search also yielded more general reference materials that cover native demography, mental and physical health, and history. Other works provide a bibliography of relevant sources or address related research issues.

Ethnic Identity

The term "ethnic" is commonly used to refer to a group that differs from others in terms of culture (either immigrant and/or non-immigrant), nationality, race or even religion. In this review these four different identity criteria have been treated separately for the sake of greater conceptual clarity. The term “ethnic” is thus retained for specific reference to Canadian cultural groups of immigrant origin.

Research on ethnic identity focuses on descriptions, expression, narra­tives or discourse, and ethnic experience. It considers ethnic self-identity, ethnic salience, symbolic ethnicity, social preference, social meaning as well as social significance. Some of the work focuses on perceptions of self-identity, perceptions of social identity, preference, social preference, social meaning, social significance and social category membership, while other work explores various identification patterns, the existence of hyphenated identities as well as the phenomenon of transnational identity.

The literature includes material on ethnic origin or heritage, the homeland, traditional culture, value orientations, ethnic norms and ethnic subculture. Attention is also given to food preferences, child rearing, home-leaving, marriage patterns, cultural transmission and socialization, as well as ethnic organizations and community governance. A few items focus on collectivist/individualist distinctions, regional differences or variations and international comparisons.

A wide range of immigrant and refugee groups are represented in the research undertaken to date. Comparisons are made with the host culture, and the social contributions of newcomers to Canada also receive mention. Some of the work focuses specifically on diaspora communities, domestic workers, sojourners and the foreign-born. Much of the work, however, tends to focus on the migration/emigration/immigration, settlement experiences, adaptation strategies and group survival of these immigrant populations. Particular attention is given to acculturation models or strategies (assimilation, integration, marginalization, segregation) pursued by various ethnic groups within a context of cultural diversity as well as differences in acculturation processes within an ethnic group.

Other work focuses on change, more specifically on cultural retention and culture loss. Research on ethnic cultural maintenance explores the roles of community size, cultural values, government, language, religion, mass communications, social networks and structural resources on this process. Strategies pursued by specific ethnic groups also receive attention, and include the establishment of ethnic enclaves, ethno-specific recreational activities and the process of ethnic regenera­tion. Language, language preferences or abilities and language retention are also examined.

Research also addresses issues related to cross-cultural contact, alienation, social isolation, and the effects of social interaction, including discrimination and historical redress. Much of the psychological research literature focuses on social psychology, the role of culture in intellectual abilities, personality, psychological development, other psychological aspects, self-esteem and vocational maturity.

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