Carnegie Mellon University

Nation and Ethnicity in Everyday Lives of Immigrants: Toward a Rhetorical
Approach to Identity

Author: Neeta Bhasin
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2007

This dissertation seeks to add to our understanding of the rhetorical nature of identity by offering an analysis of dynamic and situated processes of identity construction by immigrants in the United States. I examine the cultural politics of the everyday lives of members of an Indian immigrant family: the rhetorical situations in which they evoke and construct national and ethnic identity, and the processes by which they do so, in interactions that are largely routine in nature. The purpose of my research is twofold: first, to explore the relationship between identity and ethos, and second, to explore how, when, and where ethnicity and nation become rhetorical resources for identity construction for immigrants to the U.S. To do this, I articulate ideas from rhetoric with ideas from interactional sociolinguistics, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory. My research site is a family of Indian immigrants who run a restaurant and a convenience store in a largely African-American Pittsburgh neighborhood. I ask how they establish and negotiate individual and group identities in complex rhetorical situations. I investigate the processes that establish meanings; the way identities come to appear to be fixed; the challenges posed by globalization and migration for normative social definitions of community, ethnicity, and nation; and the way these challenges are countered by these immigrants. To account for how they talk about what it means to them to be Indian and what other social identities they draw on, I use ethos as a heuristic, exploring its explanatory value in processes of identity formation. I do a bottom-up reading of ethos based on interactional and rhetorical perspectives that emerge out of my case study. I demonstrate how concepts such as "identity politics," and "multiculturalism" are locatable at the micro-level. I show how such constructs are indexically invoked and creatively used as performative resources under the conditions derived from the exigencies of the rhetorical situations they find themselves in.