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Construction of social identities: An ethnographic study of Tibetan student discourses in higher education

Karma Choepel Dolma, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Working within the framework of critical postmodern perspectives, and based on fifteen sources of ethnographic data, and two methods of data analysis, this research explores how Tibetan students construct a variety of social identities through their discourses. The postmodern concept of a variety of social identities is coded here as an individual construction of “a portfolio of social identities,” which facilitates the negotiation and mediation of intercultural tensions and identity differences. Five key themes that emerged were tensions and intercultural challenges in the field of scholarship and socialization, specifically in (1) negotiating access and opportunity for higher education in forming specific student identities through university and program access and affiliation, (2) accommodating bicultural learning and teaching approaches, and future professional identities, (3) constructing a network of academic support, (4) accommodating change in gender social identities, and (5) negotiating core and intercultural social identities. Research findings indicate that individual ideologies, goals, and intercultural salience or difference plays a major role in the construction of social identities, as students, as Tibetans, and so on. Tibetan women, and to a lesser degree, Tibetan men respondents expressed greater sense of self-empowerment through acquisition of student and professional identities, financial independence, and intercultural competency. Participants negotiated and accommodated social identities that were biculturally valued by American and Tibetan societies, but these sites were also contested individually, due to differences in ideologies, goals, and so forth. Generally, student and professional identities were more easily accommodated, while other group social identities, such as gender and cultural identities presented more tensions and identity contestations. Students strategically negotiated intercultural tensions by foregrounding salient, and backgrounding contested social identities, while at the same time, maintaining and reaffirming core cultural and intercultural social identities, as Tibetans, as Buddhists, and as western, educated students and professionals. The individual construction of a “portfolio of social identities” can be grouped into three social identity schemas, consisting of modern social identities as individuals, students, and future professionals, political social identities based on negotiated gender and group cultural identity constructs, and thirdly, identity support networks consisting of academic and life-long support sources which facilitate identity constructions.

Subject Area

Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Higher education|Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Dolma, Karma Choepel, "Construction of social identities: An ethnographic study of Tibetan student discourses in higher education" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3012127.