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Over the past two decades, identity has emerged as a concept framing studies of early career researcher experience. Yet, identity is an amorphous concept, understood and used in a range of ways. This systematic review aimed to unpack the underpinnings of the notion of researcher identity. The final sample consisted of 38 empirical articles published in peer-reviewed journals in the last 20 years. Analyses focused on (a) identifying the dimensions used to define researcher identity, and (b) characterising the meta-theories—the underlying assumptions of the research—in relation to these dimensions. We identified four different stances towards researcher identity (clusters), based on variation on the identity dimensions in relation to the meta-theories. We characterised these as (1) transitioning among identities, (2) balancing identity continuity and change, (3) personal identity development through time and (4) personal and stable identity. These stances incorporate thought-provoking nuances and complex conceptualisations of the notion of researcher identity, for instance, that meta-theory was insufficient to characterise researcher identity stance. The contribution of the study is first to be able to differentiate four characterizations of researcher identity—important given that many studies had not clearly expressed a stance. The second is the potential of the four dimensions to help characterise identity, in past as well as future research—thus a useful tool for those working in this area. Many questions remain, but perhaps the biggest is to what extent and under what conditions is identity a productive notion for understanding early career researcher experience?
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What perspectives underlie researcher identity?A
review of two decades of empirical studies
Montserrat Castelló
1,2
&Lynn McAlpine
3,4
&Anna Sala-Bubaré
1
&Kelsey Inouye
3
&
Isabelle Skakni
5
#The Author(s) 2020
Abstract
Over the past two decades, identity has emerged as a concept framing studies of early
career researcher experience. Yet, identity is an amorphous concept, understood and used
in a range of ways. This systematic review aimed to unpack the underpinnings of the
notion of researcher identity. The final sample consisted of 38 empirical articles published
in peer-reviewed journals in the last 20 years. Analyses focused on (a) identifying the
dimensions used to define researcher identity, and (b) characterising the meta-theories
the underlying assumptions of the researchin relation to these dimensions. We identi-
fied four different stances towards researcher identity (clusters), based on variation on the
identity dimensions in relation to the meta-theories. We characterised these as (1)
transitioning among identities, (2) balancing identity continuity and change, (3) personal
identity development through time and (4) personal and stable identity. These stances
incorporate thought-provoking nuances and complex conceptualisations of the notion of
researcher identity, for instance, that meta-theory was insufficient to characterise re-
searcher identity stance. The contribution of the study is first to be able to differentiate
four characterizations of researcher identityimportant given that many studies had not
clearly expressed a stance. The second is the potential of the four dimensions to help
characterise identity, in past as well as future researchthus a useful tool for those
working in this area. Many questions remain, but perhaps the biggest is to what extent
and under what conditions is identity a productive notion for understanding early career
researcher experience?
Keywords Researcher identity .Meta-theories .Identity dimensions .Theories .Identity
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00557-8
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-
00557-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
*Montserrat Castelló
montserratcb@blanquerna.url.edu
Extended author information available on the last page of the article
Published online: 23 June 2020
Higher Education (2021) 81:567–590
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Introduction
Today, in many parts of our lives, identityis a recurrent concept, that although frequently
contested, is often used to frame human activity in various domains, such as digital, social or
genre identity. Increasingly, the concept of identityhas been invoked over the past two
decades in the higher education literature, including that of early career researchers (PhD and
post-PhD researchers). Studies frequently claim identity as a central aspect of early career
researcher development and the extent to which they manage to develop a sound identity as
researchers is crucial to their professional success (Alvesson, Ashcraft and Thomas 2008;
Castelló et al. 2015). However, we
1
argue the representations of identity in such empirical
studies are rarely challenged, instead being largely presented as a start- or end-point for
examining early researcher career experiences. For instance, studies on doctoral students often
include reference to Greens(2005) notion of the PhD as identity work in their introductions,
but do not usually define what it means in the context of the study (Baker and Lattuca 2010).
In other words, identity is not a straightforward notion and has multiple embedded
meanings. Still, it can be a useful device since it is a tool to think about sameness and
difference both in terms of individual continuity and change over time and social categoriza-
tion or group affiliation(Hammack 2015, p. 11). So, if identityis to be useful and
meaningful as a concept that can advance research into early career researcher experience,
we need to fully understand the assumptions behind the view of identity taken in any particular
study, since such assumptions will drive the research and colour the resulting interpretations
(Mac Naughton, Rolfe and Siraj-Blatchford 2001). As several authors have argued, it is not
possiblenor appropriateto provide a single, overarching definition of identity. Rather, we
need to start with the theoretical underpinnings underlying each particular definition or study
(Hall 1992; Strauss 2017;Hammack2015). In this systematic review (Kennedy 2007), we
critically analysed the empirical literature on researcher identity in order to unpackthe varied
theoretical underpinnings of identityand concurrently, our own respective definitions and
assumptions (Grant and Booth 2009).
Analysing the underlying dimensions of researcher identity is especially necessary today. In
the last decade, institutions, stakeholders and policies around the world have called for a new
researcher profile able to develop responsible research and innovation to make possible science
with and for society (SWAFS, Horizon 2020). To understand what might be implied in the
development of this researcher profile, we should reflect on how researcher identity has been
defined and empirically addressed and discuss the theoretical assumptions guiding researcher
profile definition. Further, in undertaking this analysis, we recognized that identity has over
time been under empirical and theoretical debate, particularly in organizational studies
(Alvesson et al. 2008;Atewologunetal.2017). We were attentive to these conversations in
our study, acknowledging debates in specific domains, such as researcher identity, are
influenced by and can modify discourses on identity in other domains.
Framing the study
In establishing a useful framework for the study, we started by looking at previous reviews on
identity, both in general and specific domains other than the researcher identity domain and
1
An international team of five researchers researching PhD and post-PhD identity development with various
disciplinary backgrounds (psychology, education and sociology)
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higher education fieldlargely teacher, professional, mentoring or management identity
(Epitropaki et al. 2017; Holck et al. 2016; Palmer et al. 2015;Trede et al. 2012; Van
Lankveld et al. 2017). This first reading of the existing reviews revealed identityin studies
has often been ill-definednot explicitly stated but implicitand varied in its apparent focus.
This fuzziness was largely evident only through a careful interpretive reading as noted by
others (Alvesson et al. 2008; Atewologun et al. 2017;Brown2017; Pifer and Baker 2013).
This initial evidence was integrated with (a) our own experience as researchers in the field of
early career researcher identity development (Castelló et al. 2015;McAlpineetal.2013)and
(b) a series of iterative readings of the articles included in this review. Two principles emerged
as a result of combining these different sources of evidence which were central to how we
approached the review: (a) research on identity can be framed across a range of meta-theories
and (b) we can examine the manifestations of different meta-theories through different
dimensions of identity. Both meta-theories and dimensions are defined as follows and
elaborated in the Methodsection.
Meta-theories As individuals, we each draw on different epistemological and ontological
perspectives or ways of viewing the world, with our views providing a framework through
which to understand human experience (Kuhn 1962). A meta-theory, an analytic lens
2
,
provides a loose collection of logically related assumptions, concepts, or propositions that
orient thinking and research(Bogdan and Biklen 1998 p.22): more specifically, (a) a belief
about the nature of knowledge, (b) a methodology and (c) criteria for validity (MacNaughton
et al. 2001). Each meta-theory represents the philosophical intent or motivation for undertaking
a study (Cohen et al. 2002).
Understood in this way, meta-theories act as knowledge-claims guiding decisions regarding
research questions, conceptual frameworks and methodological decisions in empirical studies.
Further, they are defined differently depending on disciplinary traditions. Thus, since research
on identity has developed transversally from a varied range of disciplines, we did not expect or
seek a shared, standard way to understand and classify the influence of different meta-theories
on studies of identity (Atewologun et al. 2017). To capture this variation and organise the
studies reviewed, the analytical structure that we developed integrated authors and traditions
from sociology, psychology and education, the three main traditions that account for the
variability of the studies included in this review (Bogdan and Biklen 1998;Kuhn1962;
Neuman 2000;Sousa2010).
Our view is that meta-theories can be represented on a continuum. The continuum allows
for a range of positions between two extremes as to what is considered valid knowledge. In
other words, the continuum avoids suggesting discrete perspectives, but rather proposes
overlaps and grey zones as to epistemological assumptions. In this continuum, we distin-
guished two distinctive end-points, and along the continuum variants that we refer to as meta-
theories, which depending on the disciplinary traditions might have different names. At one
end of the continuum, we situated positivismreality is directly observable and scientific
knowledge is exclusively valid, with objectivity not only possible but also desirable in
developing scientific work. Related meta-theories considered in different disciplinary tradi-
tions include cognitivism and behaviourism or associationism.
2
Alternative terms with a similar meaning include knowledge claims(Creswell and Poth 2017); epistemology
and ontology (Neuman 2000).
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The other end of the continuum is represented by post-positivism. Here, there is a great
diversity of meta-theories but the major claim is that reality cannot be understood without
taking into account the social context; thus, reality is subjective, and, to some extent,
knowledge and scientific interpretations are situated within the experiences of the participants
and researchers. Meta-theories move from more realistic and individual to more sociocultural
and contextual premises and explanations of people, activity and concepts. Common meta-
theories include constructivism/interpretivism, transformative and critical realism.
Constructivism assumes reality is different depending on who interprets a specific situation
or individual, which in turn, results in a spectrum of individually to more socially based
explanations, theories and related notions. Agency and the notion of mental representation are
usually related to the former while references to socio-historical and cultural mediation as well
as to communities as tools for development are used by the later. Transformative aims to use
research and derived interpretations to promote social change, given core notions of power
relationships, justice or emancipation. A final emerging meta-theory is critical realism, which
assumes many of the constructivist statements but claims ontological realism restricts the range
of plausible interpretations.
These different meta-theories represent the underlying assumptions researchers use in
planning, conducting and interpreting research, though they often remain implicit
(Atewologun et al. 2017) and may or may not be used coherently. Moreover, meta-theories
are constantly reframed and reinterpreted due to the implications of empirical findings,
disciplinary cultures and constraints. However, meta-theories are not particular to the concept
of identity; rather, they characterise a general way to understand research and related concepts.
So, they were unlikely on their own to be productive in achieving our goal of differentiating
stances towards identity. We needed a more fine-grained analytic tool.
Dimensions of identity We needed a concept-specific approach to evoke the underlying
dimensions relevant to capturing the variability in how identity was used empirically. We
chose to derive the specifics of these dimensions abductively since they needed to be
distinctive enough to explain variability, an approach consistent with previous reviews from
different disciplinary areas (Alvesson et al. 2008; Atewologun et al. 2017). Collectively, the
application of these dimensions would provide a unique portrait of the characterization of
identity for any one studyand potentially be related to the meta-theoriesthough we could
not assume in what way. Our assumption was that the integrated assessment of the dimensions
for each study would enable us to differentiate the studiesviews as to the mechanisms claimed
to explain the use of the concept of identity, relate these mechanisms with the meta-theories
and, in turn, better understand the underlying assumptions of each study.
Based on results and considerations of previously mentioned reviews, theoretical frames of
identity and the emergent characteristics of the articles included in our sample, we distin-
guished four emergent dimensions, with each understood as representing a continuum.
&The first dimension addresses the degree to which the view of identity varies in terms of its
emphasis on the individual (Hermans 2001) through the social (Ivanič1998;
Zucchermaglio and Talamo 2000; Wenger 1999; Butler 1999).
&Dimension two highlights variation in the view of identity as stable through dynamic
(Elliott 2005;Hermans2001).
&Dimension three, in contrast, focuses on variation from a view of identity as singular
(Ricoeur 1991) through to multiple identities held by one individual (Knez 2016).
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&The last dimension emphasizes the variation in focus from thinking (Archer 2000)through
action in characterising identity (Vandenberghe 2007).
The four dimensions echo theoretical discussions around the notion of identity in varied
disciplinary traditions in the last twenty years. In other words, the cultural, situational or
psychological nature of identity has consistently encompassed monolithic through dualistic
understandings of the self and boundaries of reality as physical through mental constructions
(Hermans and Dimaggio 2007;Hammack2015; Ibarra and Barbulescu 2010;Strauss2017).
Aim of review
As noted earlier, we wanted to unpack the underpinnings of the notion of researcher identity,
given its increasing, but unexamined, use in research (and policy). Such studies, if published,
legitimate the conclusions and the uses of the research-based knowledge and thus, implicitly
inform readersunderstanding of researcher identity. This, in turn, has implications for future
research, and for others using the research for policy or pedagogical purposes.
Our underlying assumption was that meta-theoretical assumptions (often implicit) guide
both empirical research design and interpretation of findings (Bogdan and Biklan 1998)
further, that we needed to incorporate dimensions of identity to generate a more fine-grained
characterization of the varied stances to researcher identity. By making clear the underlying
dimensions of identity in these studies, and assessing them as regards the relative weight given
to the different meta-theories, we could identify variation and any gaps.
To unpack the theoretical underpinnings of researcher identity, we asked:
1. What is the range of ways in which researcheridentity is understood and used in
empirical studies? Specifically,
a. What dimensions are used to define researcher identity?
b. How can we characterise the underlying meta-theories in relation to these dimensions?
2. What are the implications of this for our understanding of identity and future research?
Method
Scope of the review
The review included peer-reviewed journal articles in English, French and Spanish
3
that were
published from 1997 to 2017 and explored the identity of researchers at any stage of their
career (e.g. doctoral students, senior researchers, etc.). The twenty-year window allowed for a
comprehensive overview of the literature, while including papers in multiple languages
extended the review to encompass multiple research cultures.
3
We initially chose these languages because we did not want to restrict the search to only English published
research, and these were the languages the authors could read. Neither French nor Spanish published papers
remained in the final review.
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Inclusion criteria focused on articles addressing researcher identity,but also other key-
words such as disciplinary identityor academic identityas long as the main focus met our
interest in researchers.
Search terms and article filtering
Web of Knowledge and SCOPUS were chosen as the two online databases underpinning our
literature search. We began with the primary keyword, identity,and its two synonyms, self-
conceptand self-perception,and then identified additional 13 secondary keywords meant to
capture our interest in researcher identity development: scholarly, academic, trajectory, devel-
opment, journey, researcher, junior researcher, early career researcher*, PhD, doctorate,
doctoral, postdoc*, and masters. Results of the searches were input into Mendeley, and once
duplicates were removed, yielded 554 articles (details of the search string can be found at the
online resource 1_ ESM_4.pdf)
Given our aim, to explore how researcher identity specifically is conceptualized in empir-
ical studies, we excluded the following:
a) Those without a clear focus on researcher identity;
b) Those with a focus only on specific socio-demographic characteristics in particular pre-
defined groups, such as race and gender, since, after reading them, since they did not
address researcher identity;
c) Non-empirical articles such as reviews and position papers as the aim was to analyse how
evidence was linked to the approaches adopted by empirical research;
d) Those that studied other identities, e.g. teacher; and
e) Those that were interventions, since the focus was on evaluating programs rather than
understanding identity.
After reviewing the abstracts, a significant number of articles were excluded: 342 were
unrelated to researcher identity (e.g. papers from history or medical fields, studies on teacher
education, etc.) and 98 focused on identities of specific groups, not on researcher identity (e.g.
Chinese socialisation in US universities, scientific visibility of Mexican researchers, gender
and academic socialisation). The remaining 114 papers were downloaded, and the complete
text for each was read to assess its alignment with the inclusion and exclusion criteria and the
objectives of this review. After careful examination, 41 articles were rejected because,
although they mentioned researcher identity in the abstract, and upon reading the papers, it
became clear that this was not the focus of the study (e.g. research paradigms, researcher
health, otherness, researcher interactions, etc.), and 10 more were excluded because they were
theoretical or position papers.
As well, 14 studies exploring writer, teacher or student identity, but not researcher identity
were excluded. Finally, those articles assessing interventions aimed at promoting researcher
identity were also excluded (n= 11). After applying these criteria, 38 articles were in the final
selection and analysed in more depth (see Fig. 1).
Teamwork
An interesting part of co-authoring this literature review was that, although we shared a keen
interest in researcher identity, our stance as to its various dimensions varied. As suggested by
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Gough et al. (2017), keeping this in mind eventually helped us to develop and fine-tune
comprehensive definitions of researcher identity dimensions. We adopted an iterative proce-
dure in which each of us read, coded and classified the selected set of articles individually. We
then compared our results and reconciled them. The same process was subsequently conducted
in pairs. To ensure that we shared the same definitions, and maintained consistency, we
followed every round of analysis with thorough discussions about how the dimensions of
researcher identity were represented in each article. Specifically, we reviewed any disagree-
ments or different opinions and modified our definitions accordingly.
Analysis
The analysis took place in four steps, conducted by all the researchers as described in
Teamwork.
First, the final selected sample of articles was read iteratively, and the following character-
istics were documented in an excel spreadsheet: Author(s), year, definition of identity,
keywords, aims of the study, design and results. For each study, relevant concepts related to
conceptual approach, methodological approach, and significance were identified and entered
in the spreadsheet. This first phase was non-inferential since the words and concepts identified
were the same used in the articles.
Second, to assign an article to a particular meta-theory, we relied on the initial analysis of
concepts and keywords involved in the analysed articles, thus keeping a low inferential level.
Discussions focused on how these concepts and keywords were related to the four broad meta-
theories defined previously: each sustaining different purposes and notions involved (see
Table 1for a description of this analytical tool). In other words, once we agreed regarding
the relationships between key notions and meta-theories, we applied the first analytical tool
situating the articles along the continuum of meta-theories. Each researcher individually coded
Titles and abstracts
screened
Citations identified through database
searching
Web of Knowledge & SCOPUS
(n=554)
440 Excluded
342 unrelated to researcher identity
98 focused on specific groups
114 full text articles
retrieved
76 Excluded
41 not the focus of the literature review
14 focused on other types of identity
11 Intervention programs
10 non empirical
Full texte articles
screened
38 articles included
Data analysis
Fig. 1 Flow chart of the article filtering process
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each of the 38 articles. To guarantee reliability among coders, a series of paired analysis using
Kappas Cohen index were calculated. Results indicated agreement among researchers ranged
from high to acceptable (0.790.88). The meta-theories provided an overview regarding how
the study of identity as a whole was addressed.
Third, we developed a second analytical tool to provide a more nuanced picture of the
results. Since the previous tool focused on the underlying assumptions of the study, not the
specifics of how identitywas conceived, this tool differentiated variability as to how identity
was either elaborated in the studies or represented in the description of the findings. It
identified (a) those distinctive dimensions in defining identity, and (b) the continuum of
characteristics or values differentiated in each dimension.
Dimensions and their values were defined and redefined until they covered all the variation
regarding the range of interpretations of identity we found in the empirical studies reviewed
(Table 2). Five successive rounds of analysis were performed in which all the researchers
independently analysed a small group of articles (6, 6, 9, 9, 12) and individual results were
discussed until consensus was reached, either to introduce some modifications into the tool or
to classify the article. Once consensus was reached regarding the meaning of each of the
dimensions and their values, all the papers were analysed again independently by the
researcherswith reliability assessed. To do this analysis, we first looked for key notions
mainly in the introduction section. When not explicit, other related aspects, explanatory
statements in the rest of the article, including results and discussion, were also reviewed.
Finally, the whole article was checked to guarantee the validity of categories. The level of
agreement ranged between 0.81 and 0.92 depending on the dimension and the coders, which is
considered high for this type of analysis (Cohen et al. 2002).
Finally, we looked for relationships and correlations (a) among the dimensions and
(b) the dimensions and the meta-theories. This final analysis enabled us to assess (a)
differences in how these articles characterised identity along the dimensions, and (b) to
Table 1 Analytical tool to analyse the meta-theories underlying the studies
Continuum of meta-theories Concepts and Keywords involved
(examples from articles analysed)
Positivism Cognitive
Associationism
Objectivity
Deductive logic
Experiment
Critical realism Ontological realism
Epistemic relativism
Judgemental rationality
Post-positivism
Interpretivist/
Constructivist
Situated cognition and learning
Socio-cultural differences
Socially-constructed meanings
Communities of practice
Relativism
Transformative Power
Inequality
Social Justice
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Table 2 Dimensions and values defining identity based on the reviewed articles
Value 1 2 3 4 5
Dimension
Individual
versus
social
The individual (self)
characteristics
prevail as the focus to
define identity.
Individual as agent in the
development of identity.
Emphasis on the individual
(self) but interplay with
work contexts
(day-to-day
and long-term)
A balance between
interaction
of individual and social
Not an extreme position. Interaction
is claimed but emphasis is on
social interaction. Identity is
built through social interaction
The social characteristics
prevail
to define identity
The social as the agent in the
development of identity.
Stability versus
dynamism
Identity has permanent
characteristics.
Focus is on unchanging,
steady
It is expected to move from
one identity to another.
Some changes can be
inferred though they are
not explicitly addressed
Focus is on transitioning
(time is an important issue
but the process ends)
Focus is on identity development.
Changes and stability through
time are crucial
(past-present-future).
Constant negotiation-re-negotiation
of identity
Identity is constantly changing.
The focus is on the processes,
thus on changes.
Unity versus
multiplicity
One identity: stated as
unity though integrates
different roles
One identity but not
explicitly stated
Reference to two identities
moving from one to
another
A landscape of different identities
not constricted to two
Disjointed identities
Several identities exist that
compete at the same time
Thinking
versus
action
Thinking and the notion of
representation prevail in
defining identity
Thinking is relevant as the
notion of re-thinking
Thinking and action are
both equally relevant to
define identity
Thinking and action are relevant
but more emphasis on action/
action comes first
Action prevails in defining
and shaping identity
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what extent there was a relationship between the understanding of identity, and (c) the
meta-theory framing the study The final step in this analysis was to characterise
qualitative clusters based on the identified regularities and consistent patterns. Clusters
were primarily based on the correlations among the dimensions whereas secondary
analysis looked for their relationship with meta-theories.
Results
Descriptive characteristics of the studies
Although our literature search covered the last 20 years, those articles fulfilling the
inclusion criteria ranged from 2004 to 2017 and numbers tended to increase with time,
especially from 2012 (see Annex 1). Regarding the journals, the scattering of the results
is revealing 23% (n= 6) of the studies were published in Studies of Higher Education;
15% (n= 4) in Studies in Continuing Education; 11.5% (n= 3) in Innovations in
Education and Teaching International and 7.7% (n= 2) in the International Journal of
Doctoral Studies and Teaching in Higher Education. The rest of the journals (n=9,
35.1%) have one single article published on the topic of researcher identity in the
analysed period. Slightly more than half of the studies (58%) were exclusively devoted
to the development of researcher identity in doctoral students, with the remainder
focusing on early career researchers (28%) and experienced researchers (14%).
Meta-theoretical frameworks of studies
Studies were distributed among three of the four considered meta-theories. Three quarters
(76%, n= 29) of the articles were classified as interpretative/constructivist. Of the remaining
studies, 18.5% (n= 7) were classified as critical realism and only 5.5% (n= 2) as transfor-
mative. There were no examples of positivism (e.g. cognitivism).
Constructivist studies tended to situate themselves within a variety of theories noted earlier,
which range from what can be broadly termed the sociocultural perspective of learning and
development to other more sociological-related approaches. In all cases, historical and context-
related issues are crucial to defining identity, typically understood as dynamic and a develop-
mental process.
Studies representative of the critical realism framework were less diverse and relied on the
idea of identity as a dynamic biographical process grounded in a history, with pre-existing
personal understandings, which in turn influences the present interpretations and future
learning (McAlpine et al. 2013). The notions of agency and trajectory are central to understand
identity within this framework, which provide a means to balance unity and change.
The transformative framework is characterised by studies in which, in these cases, a
feminist approach is used to characterise identity as dynamic, multidimensional, complex
and socially developed (Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. 2017).
Dimensions to define identity
Within the four dimensions and their emergent values, we found a diverse distribution
explaining the variation of all the articles included in this review (see Table 3).
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Individual versus social
Most of the studies assumed that identity is socially constructed (71%, n= 27) (located to the
right end of the continuum, positions 4 and 5) and though individuals experiences are
acknowledged, the role that authors attribute to them is diverse. In some cases, identity is
considered relational and individuals are claimed to positionand be positioned by others
differently in particular changing scenarios (Castelló et al. 2013;Cotterall2015;Murakami-
Ramalho et al. 2013). In other cases, the emphasis is placed entirely on the role of sociocul-
tural, historical and political contexts in which situational identities are negotiated and lived in
and through activity (Gunasekara 2007;Remichetal.2016).
Studies that assumed identity is mainly individually based, thus located close to the left end
of the grid continuum, were less frequent (19%, n= 7, position 2). They emphasised the role of
individuals, and especially their agency in the development of identity, without denying the
importance of context and the situated nature of this development (Gardner and Willey 2018;
Inouye and McAlpine 2017; McAlpine et al. 2014). These studies (position 2) mostly
represented critical realism, except two (Buss et al. 2014; Pifer and Baker 2016), which,
despite adopting a constructivist perspective, considered the construction of the self, through
notions as salienceor learned mindand perceptions of the selfrespectively, as a matter of
individuals rather than a social issue.
Finally, only 4 studies were situated in the middle of the continuum (3), meaning that
identity resulted from balancing individual agency and social influence. These studies defined
identity by using expressions such a set representation built by individuals in sociocultural
contexts(González et al. 2014)orthe core sense of the self(Rockinson-Szapkiw et al.
2017).
Stability versus dynamism
Most of the studies (73%, n= 28) considered dynamism a crucial dimension of researcher
identity, rather than understanding identity as a stable characteristic of individuals (positions 4
and 5 of the continuum). Most of them (n= 21) focused on identity development, and thus,
looked for changes through time. In some cases, development is understood explicitly as
constant negotiation-re-negotiation of past, present and future identity experiences, within the
notion of identity-trajectory (McAlpine et al. 2014; Inouye and McAlpine 2017); development
is a relevant heuristic to characterise dynamism in the continuous negotiation between stability
and change through time. The other seven studies, which consider researcher identity as a
dynamic construct, were situated at the end of the continuum and thus made more explicit
Table 3 Results regarding dimensions and values defining identity in the reviewed articles
Value 12345NA*Value
Dimension Dimension
Individual 19% 10% 61% 10% Social
Stability 3% 24% 55% 18% Dynamism
Unity 16% 8% 34% 19% 23% Multiplicity
Thinking 5% 5% 16% 51% 13% 10% Action
*NA, non-applicable
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claims about identity being constantly changing, or even fluid (Gunasekara 2007;Rayneretal.
2015). This stance requires authors to focus on processes instead on outputs.
Almost a third (27%, n= 10) of the studies took a balanced position on this dimension
namely they focused on transitioning from one identity to another (Dison 2004;Gonzálezetal.
2014; Holley 2015) or modifying a particular identity. In these cases, the process of change is
expected to end, whereas this is not the case for the rest.
Unity versus multiplicity
Around a quarter of the studies (24%, n= 9) explicitly stated individuals have one single
identity, though it might integrate several roles (positions 1 and 2). When combined with the
notion of identity-trajectory, unity is the result of the continuous negotiation between stability
and change that characterised the former dimension (Gardner and Willey 2018;Inouyeand
McAlpine 2017;McAlpineetal.2014; McAlpine and Amundsen 2009).
More than one third of the studies (34%, n= 13) referred to two identities and focused on
moving from one to another. Transitioning from a student to a researcher identity is one
common topic within this set of studies, as well as from teacher to researcher identity (Baker
and Pifer 2011). Consequently, although time is important, what is expected and looked for is
the end of the process of identity change (González et al. 2014; Holley 2015). However,
several studies included in this group did not provide an explicit definition of identity except
for describing the transition situation in which students (or professionals) have to develop their
identity as researchers (Araújo 2009; Baker and Pifer 2011; Heinrich 2005; Murakami-
Ramalho et al. 2013;Rayneretal.2015).
Finally, the largest set of studies (42%, n= 16) accepted, more or less explicitly, a
landscape of different identities not necessarily restricted to two (positions 4 and 5).
Within this set, almost half of the studies (n= 7) focused on contradictions and conflicts
that arise when individuals negotiate particular identities related to their participation in
different contexts. In such cases, their stances and activities are not compatible with the
research identity they are developing (Castelló et al. 2013;Cotterall2015;Mewburn
2011). The focus is on relationships between these identities, or identity dimensions
(Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. 2017), roles (Merolla and Serpe 2013; Pifer and Baker 2016)
or identity positions (Castelló et al. 2013). The aim is to elucidate why, when and how
conflicts are solved; norms and practices are adopted, ignored or resisted (Hökkä,
Eteläpelto and Rasku-Puttonen 2012); and how multiple trajectories are linked to varying
membership positions in multiple communities (Smith and Boyd 2012; Zambo et al.
2015). The rest of the studies (n= 8) were more situated at position 5 of the continuum
and assume identities are not only multiple because they are situational (Guerin 2013;
Gunasekara 2007) but they are also disjointed (Costa, 2015).
Thinking versus action
Studies located in positions 1 and 2 of this continuum assumed that thinking, thus ideas,
representations, conceptions or perceptions, prevails in defining identity. This means
that, although practices and experiences are acknowledged as highly relevant, the way in
which individuals perceive and interpret these experiences is also crucial to explain how
identity is developed and shaped. These few studies (n= 4, 6%) emphasised the role of
self-reflection and critical thinking (Alexander et al. 2014; Leibowitz et al. 2014)aswell
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as the thoughts, ideas or representations of oneself, which are constructed in social
contexts (Buss et al. 2014; González et al. 2014).
A slightly higher number of studies (n= 6, 15%) took an intermediate stance regarding the
role of thinking and action in constituting identity. They assumed some inner processes filter or
mediate the activity and contextual factors that, in turn, influence the self-perceptions of
identities and the relationships between each. These instances ranged from meaning-making
mechanisms (Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. 2017), self-definition and personal history (McGregor
et al. 2010; Schulze 2014), writing and self-narratives (Cotterall 2015) to individualsinternal
expectations useful to make sense of themselves (Hökkä et al. 2012).
Finally, the majority of studies were situated in the action end of the continuum (positions 4
and 5), thus assuming that thinking and action are relevant but placed more emphasis on action
(50%, n= 19), or that action prevails in defining and shaping identity (13%, n= 5). In these
studies, identity is shaped or enacted by participation in different contexts (Castelló et al. 2013;
Gardner and Willey 2016; Inouye and McAlpine 2017;McAlpineetal.2013,2014;McAlpine
and Lucas 2011; Merolla and Serpe 2013; Wegener et al. 2016). Another view is that activity
or behaviour comes first, and researcher identity is developed byand visible inhow one
speaks, reads, writes or behaves (Baker and Pifer 2011; Guerin 2013;Thompsonetal.2016).
Some of these studies adopted the notion of participatory social practices (Lave and Wenger
1991;Wenger1999) in which identity is shaped by Communities of Practice (Boyd and Smith
2016;Dison2004;Lassigetal.2013). There were four articles (10%) (Araújo 2009;Costa
2015; Gunasekara 2007; Pifer and Baker 2016) that could not be classified in regards to this
dimension since they did not offer any explanation regarding this dimension.
Relationship among dimensions and meta-theoretical frameworks in the researcher
identity studies
In looking at relationships among the dimensions and between the dimensions and the meta-
theoretical approaches, one finding predominated. Two dimensions moved consistently to-
gether: the second, stability vs dynamism, and the third, unity vs multiplicity. After collapsing
the data from the rubric into three values, (1) low (levels 1 and 2 of the former classification),
(2) medium (former level 3) and (3) high (former levels 4 and 5), this consistency was
remarkable (see Table 4). Four different clusters were identified based on the primary
commonalities in the dimensions of stability vs dynamism and unity vs multiplicity and related
variation on the rest of the dimensions defining identity. We provide both qualitative and
quantitative characterizations for each cluster.
The dimensions are key to understand the distinctiveness of each cluster, but they alone do
not provide information about the prevalence of the different clusters or the prevailing stance
within each clusteressential if one is to understand how the construct is being empirically
used in the field, which was obtained by looking at the meta-theoretical approaches distribu-
tion across clusters.
Cluster 1. Transitioning among identities
The fourteen papers included in this cluster are characterised by understanding identity as
socially constructed and dynamic and accept, though not always explicitly, the existence of
more than one identity, even multiple identities, which in some cases, can be disjointed. The
notion of transitioning among different, often competing, identities is discussed as both a
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Table 4 Results regarding the meta-theoretical frameworks and dimensions defining identity
Meta-theoretical approachesaDimensions
Article 1st author Constructivist Critical realism Transformative Indiv/
soc
Stab/dynamism Unity/multi Thought/action Cluster
Alexander, P x 3 3 2 1 2
Araujo, E.R. x 3 3 2 NA* 2
Baker, V L x 3 2 2 3 4
Barnacle, R. x 3 2 3 3
Boyd, P x 3 3 1 3 3
Buss, R R x 1 2 3 1
Castello, M. x 3 3 3 3 1
Costa, C x 3 3 3 NA* 1
Cotterall, S x 3 3 3 2 1
Dison, A. x 2 2 2 3 4
Gardner, A x 1 3 1 3 3
González, M A x 2 2 2 1 4
Guerin, C. x 3 3 3 3 1
Gunasekar, C x 3 3 3 NA* 1
Heinrich, K T x 3 3 2 3 2
Hokka, Paivi x 3 3 3 2 1
Holley, K A x 3 2 2 2 4
Inouye, K S x 2 3 1 3 3
Klenowski, V. x 3 2 2 3 4
Lassig, Carly J. x 3 3 2 3 2
Leibowitz, B. x 3 3 2 1 2
McAlpine, L. x 1 3 1 3 3
McAlpine, L. x 1 3 1 3 3
McAlpine, L.. x 1 3 1 3 3
McAlpine, L. x 1 3 1 3 3
McGregor, D. x 3 2 2 2 4
Merolla, D M x 3 3 3 3 1
Mewburn, I x 3 3 3 3 1
Murakami-Ramalho, E. x 3 2 2 3 4
Pifer, M J x 1 3 3 NA* 1
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Table 4 (continued)
Meta-theoretical approachesaDimensions
Article 1st author Constructivist Critical realism Transformative Indiv/
soc
Stab/dynamism Unity/multi Thought/action Cluster
Rayner, S x 3 3 2 3 2
Remich, R x 3 3 3 3 1
Rockinson-Szapkiw, A J x 2 3 3 2 1
Schulze, S. x 3 3 3 2 1
Smith, C. x 3 3 3 3 1
Thompson, C x 3 1 1 3
Wegener, C x 3 3 1 3 3
Zambo, D x 3 3 3 3 1
*NA, non-applicable. As mentioned, 4 articles did not provided information regarding this dimension
aWe did not include the positivist meta-theoretical approaches because none of the reviewed articles used them; thus, no results were found.
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theoretical assumption and a focus for the empirical data collection and analysis. Moreover,
identity is mainly socially constructed and developed, except for Pifer and Baker (2016)who
emphasised individual characteristics as the focus to define identity, and Rockinson-Szapkiw
et al. (2017) who were located in the middle, thus valuing both the individual (self) and
contextual influences in identity development. More than half of the papers included in this
cluster considered both thinking and action as relevant but placed more emphasis on action in
defining and shaping identity. Of the remaining, only four took an intermediate stance, thus
claiming that both thinking and action are relevant to define identity. The remaining three did
not reveal a clear stance on this dimension.
Interestingly, all papers in this cluster were constructivist in approach. The articles in this
cluster were also quite recent, all published in the last seven years (the first one is from 2011).
Cluster 2. Balancing identity continuity and change
Six papers that, as in the first cluster, considered identity as socially constructed and highly
dynamic shape the second cluster. The main difference from the previous group relates to their
stance towards unity in identity definition. Most of the papers in this cluster only referred to
one single identity (Araújo 2009) or to moving from one identity to another (Lassig et al.
2013). In this latter case, the process is sequential, and no multiple identities are considered
simultaneously except for some specific transition moments (Alexander et al. 2014). However,
transitions were rarely the explicit focus of the studies included in this group. Despite the
consistency of identity as socially constructed and dynamic, there is great variability regarding
whether thought or action prevails in defining identity. Half the papers felt action and
participatory practices prevail in shaping and defining identity, whereas, within the other half,
two mentioned representations and individual thoughts in identity definition and the last
provided no information regarding this dimension (see Table 4).
All the papers included in this cluster were in the post-positivist meta-theoretical ap-
proaches. However, they were theoretically highly variable with all three meta-theoretical
approaches represented. Publication year ranged from 2005 to 2015.
Cluster 3. Personal identity development through time
The eight papers gathered in this cluster were highly consistent in defining identity as dynamic
and mainly individually driven, thus a developmental and agentive processwhile acknowl-
edging the interaction with not only social contexts but also physical contexts (McAlpine and
Lucas 2011). Only in two cases (Boyd and Smith 2016; Wegener et al. 2016)didsocial
characteristics prevail. All of them also defined identity as unique and driven by action and
participation on social events.
As regards their meta-theoretical stance, the majority shared critical realism, with only the
two favouring social characteristics located in the constructivist. Years of publication range
from 2009 to 2017.
Cluster 4. Personal and stable identity
The last cluster gathers seven papers defining identity as mainly unique and stable, though
some changes can be inferred in transitions. They viewed social characteristics as crucial or
important in defining identity. Still, there was greater variability observed regarding the role of
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action. Four considered identity as mainly shaped through action and participatory practices;
two claimed that thinking and action are both equally relevant to define identity (Klenowski
et al. 2011; Murakami-Ramalho et al. 2013) and the last (González et al. 2014) situated
thinking and the notion of conceptions, strategies and feelings as predominant.
All the studies in this cluster shared the constructivist framework and were published
between 2010 and 2015.
Finally, we were unable to locate three studies in any cluster since they did not display any
regularities related to the dimensions we applied in this review. Two of them display a
balanced position regarding the dimension of stability and change but claim for multiple
identities: Barnacle and Mewburn (2010) argue the social nature of identity and the relevance
of action; Buss et al. (2014) that identity is individually based and guided by personal thoughts
and mental representations. The last defines identity as unique and stable but shaped through
social and action (Thompson et al. 2016).
Emerging patterns across clusters
Perspectives on dynamism
Using the dimensions to define identity revealed that most papers looked at dynamism and
movement of identities, consistent with the constant changes researchers face nowadays. This
dynamism related to three different characteristics: transitions, development and fluidity.
In the papers interested in transitions, dynamism is restricted to changes among identities or
roles. Thus, it is expected to end, usually when the new identity replaces a former one.
Contradictions may be considered, especially when the focus is transitions, with a single
changed identity conceived as ensuring self-coherence and stability. In contrast, in those
papers focusing on identity development, no ending or replacement of one identity by another
is expected. In these cases, time plays a crucial role to explain how and why specific identity
characteristics are characterised. Here, dynamism constitutes constant change, with identity
understood as fluid, and may include the notion of multiple identities, even disjointed.
Regardless, in both cases, longitudinal designs and trajectories are valued.
Perspectives on action
Papers also displayed alternative understandings of the role of action in shaping identity:
whether related to activity or the community. Those papers that related action to activity
considered the development of identity linked to the individuals appropriation of the specific
characteristics of a particular type of activity (writing, talking, behaving). In contrast, other
papers assumed that the characteristics of a particular community and its practices shape
identity. This difference is not minor since results show a relationship between the notion of
action and the nature of identity as social or individual. Papers exploring particular contexts of
researcher identity development (e.g. engineering researchers) were those that more frequently
attributed the individual a substantial role in defining its identity (or at least equated the role of
the individual with the social). In contrast, those studies assuming that communities of practice
shape identity defined identity mainly as socially constructed.
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Interaction of dimensions and meta-theories
The four clusters identified illustrate interesting relationships among and between the dimen-
sions and the meta-theoretical approaches displayed by the reviewed studies. Looking at the
results, the consideration of identity as unique or multiple is the main difference between the
two first clusters (transitioning among identities and balancing continuity and change); thus,
papers included in both agree that researcher identity is socially constructed and dynamic.
However, papers in the first cluster, claiming multiple identities, were the most frequent and
recent ones, and were mainly situated in socio-cultural constructivist approaches.
Differences in the remaining clusters related to both dynamism and the social or individual
nature of identity. Papers in the third cluster (personal identity development through time) claim
that changes and dynamism are linked to the notion of identity development; at the same time,
they situate the self and agency as key terms to explain changes through time. Theoretical
consistency is high in this group, which leads us to conclude that when it comes to researcher
identity, the critical realism meta-theory assumes identity as a personal developmental process,
mainly individual.
In contrast, those in the fourth cluster (personal and stable identity) considered identity as
mainly stable and personal and, though the influence of social characteristics in its develop-
ment is not denied, the role attributed to the social and its theoretical understanding may vary
significantly in this group. Theoretically, this group represents the more individually based
explanations within the constructivist meta-theory, assuming agency and situated mental
representations as crucial in researcher identity.
Discussion
We conducted this review to unpack the underpinnings of researcher identity,a notion used
and debated in different disciplinary fields (e.g. educational and social psychology, organiza-
tional studies), particularly in higher education and faculty or academic identity development
(Alvesson et al. 2008; Atewologun et al. 2017; Brown 2017). While we had presumed that
studies focusing on a specific notionsuch as researcher identitywould clarify their epis-
temological and theoretical assumptions, this proved not to be the case.
Thus, we used an analysis that integrated meta-theories of scientific knowledge with
dimensions of identity to interpret the studies. We identified four stances towards researcher
identity. These stances incorporate intriguing nuances and complex characterizations; partic-
ularly highlighting difference perspectives on (a) dynamism, (b) action and (c) the interaction
of dimensions and meta-theorieswith implications for both our understanding of researcher
identity and future research.
Important nuances emerged when analysing how each paper explained those characteristics
and dimensions defining researcher identity. The results as a whole revealed the prevalence of
meta-theories towards the post-positivist end of the continuum with the premises linked to
constructivist meta-theoretical approaches prevailing across the papers. Further, all four
stances incorporated papers with a constructivist approach. Thus, while the meta-theory was
necessary to understand the approach to the study, it was insufficient to characterise the
researcher identity stance. Notably, none of the analysed papers adopted a positivist
stancepresumably because a positivist stance does not engage with the subjectivity of the
researcher, and thus, the notion of identity has no value or interest per se.
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As regards the four characterizations of researcher identity, their value lies in two direc-
tions. The first is to enable fine-grained comparisons of already-published empirical studies: to
judge and contest the ways in which different stances may provide different perspectives (and
blind-spots) on researcher identity. The second is the valuable tool that the four dimensions
represent for future research. Researchers can use them to characterise and report their own
stance. Further, if this were done consistently, over time, we would generate a collective
empirical understanding of researcher identity that would be much more nuanced, complex
and comprehensive.
Three further considerations emerge that have implications for our current under-
standing and future research on researcher identity. First, given the limited number of
authors that appear more than once in the final articles, we wonder if some authors delve
into identity as an explanation of other areas of interest rather than as an intrinsic
interest, i.e. identity as peripheral rather than central. In other words, what exactly is
being looked at when the notion of researcher identity is used? Related subjects, such as
PhD programs, attrition, professional development or career changes, were at the core of
some of the reviewed studies. In these cases, identity was used as a way to interpret the
results or even as a heuristic to conceptually frame those research subjects. The theoret-
ical approaches assumed by those papers appeared to come from disciplinary research
fields not always consistent with the researcher identity definition they claimed. This
might explain why authors used some theoretically grounded notions that were in
opposition (e.g. identitiesin plural alongside transition), or researchers might avoid
the term identity totally given the difficulty of clarifying it in an empirical paper. A final
explanation for this lack of clarity might be theoretical shifts in researcher identity that
cannot be detailed in an empirical paper.
Second, we suggest current and future researchers of identity can use the dimensions to
clarify their underlying assumptions and the implications for their empirical designs and
methods. For instance, reflecting on our understanding of stability and change helps decide
how to address development in defining identity. Further, clarifying to what extent identity is
individual or socially constructed forces us to consider notions of structure and agency.
Focusing on the thought-action dimension implies taking a stance on how and when change
occurs as well as how the concept of action is related to individual and communities. Finally,
reflection on whether identity is unique or multiple forces us to relate researcher identity to
roles and spheres of activity. We argue that using such an approach would legitimate the
conclusions and uses of the research-based knowledge and better inform readersunderstand-
ing of researcher identity. This particularly has implications for others using the research such
as developers, curriculum designers and policy makers.
Third, others, regardless of social science discipline, could use the same systematic analytic
proceduredimensions and meta-theoretical approachesto characterise the representation of
more abstract concepts in empirical studies.
Limitations
Some decisions we made entailed limitations. Restricting the review to the notion of researcher
identity could have biased some results, especially as regards the notion of the multiple
identities since this decision may have excluded some pertinent papers. However, we did
not consider using the broader search term identitywithout any secondary keyword, because
this would have broadened the scope and focus of the review too much.
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We also excluded articles focused on the identity of specific groups but not on researcher
identity. While this could have resulted in missing articles, based on the initial reading, this
was not the case for any of the discarded articles. Still, the final sample included four papers
addressing early career researcher identity as intersecting with other factors like gender.
Though we acknowledge discussing intersectionality might have resulted in more nuanced
researcher identity explanations in those four cases, examining this issue in sufficient depth
would reframe the focus of the paper.
Readers might also wonder whether some form of selection bias contributed to the
prominence of social constructivism with less than a quarter representing other meta-theories.
We believe this finding stems from the predominant use of social constructivism in the general
literature on early career researchers.
Another aspect of selection bias that the final articles reviewed were all English may reflect
the databases used. Van Leeuwen (2013) argues that WoS and Scopus do not consistently
incorporate the literature in the social sciences and humanities and have a bias towards English
studies. Further, powerful cultural/linguistic differences may lead to different ways of under-
standing early career researcher experience. These limitations can be explored in future
reviews.
Finally, a further limitation stemmed from our decision to not discuss the relationships
between methodologies, theoretical stances and framings of identity, as those elements are
often intimately interrelated. Such a discussion might have enhanced the contribution of this
study, but we felt it was beyond the scope of the reviews focus on the framing of identity.
Future research
Many questions still remain: To what extent is the interpretation of data influenced by the
researcher identity stance, whether or not explicit? What are we not seeing when interpreting
data through our own stance only? Are we clear on why we are adopting one stance and not
another and for what goal? What influence might data collection and analysis be having on our
understanding of identity; recall that those incorporating dynamism often used longitudinal
designs. Perhaps the biggest: To what extent and under what conditions is identity a productive
notion for understanding early career researcher experience? For researchers in this field (like
us), these questions provoke considerable thought since if we do not answer them, our use of
the notion of research identity may not prove as productive as it might.
Conclusion
We began this paper noting that identity is a frequently used and contested concept. The results
from the review make clear why this may be the case, given the range of different perspectives
on identity in the studies analysed. Interestingly, we noted few attempts to contrast the stance
taken with other studies, yet such comparison is important if we are truly to make sense of
empirical findings.
Further, the unique results from this review clarify how particular understandings of
researcher identity relate to a set of underlying conceptual dimensions and theoretical stances.
Through the analytical tools used, we drew out the nuances and complex conceptualisations
when studies address researcher identity empirically. Given that many studies had not clearly
expressed a stance towards identity, a major contribution of our analysis was to clarify not only
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the specific ways in which identity was understood in each study, but also to characterise how
identity was generally conceived in the researcher identity literature. In the process, we created
a discourse for articulating stances towards identity. We hope the analysis and the discourse
lead to fruitful debates among researcher identity scholars.
Funding Information European Commission. Directorate-General for Education and Culture
Erasmus+ (2017-1-ES01-KA203-038303)
European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST Action IS1401)
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which
permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and
indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's
Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included
in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or
exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy
of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
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Affiliations
Montserrat Castelló
1,2
&Lynn McAlpine
3,4
&Anna Sala-Bubaré
1
&Kelsey Inouye
3
&
Isabelle Skakni
5
Lynn McAlpine
lynn.mcalpine@learning.ox.ac.uk; lynn.mcalpine@mcgill.ca
Anna Sala-Bubaré
annasb4@blanquerna.url.edu
Kelsey Inouye
kelsey.inouye@linacre.ox.ac.uk
Isabelle Skakni
i.skakni@lancaster.ac.uk
1
Facultat de Psicologia, Ciències de lEducació i de lEsport Blanquerna, Universitat Ramon Llull, C/ Cister
34, 08022 Barcelona, Spain
2
Graduate School of Psychology, Blanquerna, Ramon Llull University, C/ Cister 34, 08022 Barcelona, Spain
3
Department of Education, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
4
Faculty of Education, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
5
Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, Lancashire, UK
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