Identity construction and performance on WeChat: Case studies of Chinese students at a UK University

  • Luyao Li

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This sociolinguistic study adopts an online-offline ethnographic approach to studying six Chinese international students’ identity construction and performance and multilingual/multimodal practices on WeChat. Mobile communication technologies have triggered temporal-spatial change in daily interaction and made disembodied, long-distance, asynchronous and synchronous, and anonymous and onymous communications possible. These changes constantly shape and reshape any act of communication and identity practices. In light of this, this study aims to examine how the change of temporal-spatial conditions creates new understandings of Chinese international students’ identity construction and performance, and how these students draw on multilingual and multimodal resources to construct their identities on WeChat.

An integrative understanding of identity was adopted together with the concepts of translanguaging, agency and chronotope to investigate students’ identity work and communicative practices on WeChat. The research questions guiding this study were 1) what are the characteristics of communicative practices on WeChat, and how do Chinese international students put communicative resources into use; 2) what are the characteristics of identity on WeChat; and 3) how do individual students construct and perform their identities on WeChat. To answer these questions, different tools of inquiry were employed including semi-structured interviews, follow-up interviews, participant observations, and participants’ self-recorded methods. The fieldwork lasted ten months. Data analysis was conducted both inductively and deductively.

Main findings are: firstly, individual students simultaneously and flexibly use multilingual and multimodal resources to make meaning and construct their identities. Secondly, identities, performed by individuals, appear to be multiple, fluid and selective. The identity work online follows two intertwined paths: externalisation and internalisation. Externalised identity work refers to the fact that individuals selectively draw resources across time and space to perform and claim preferred identities in front of disembodied audiences. Internalised identity work addresses individuals’ reflexivity in constructing their identities. These two intertwined processes facilitate the nuanced understanding of identity that is a dialogic self-world relationship. Thirdly, the chronotope is particularly addressed as it connects to historical and momentary agency and enables the co-occurrence of different resources from different times and places and various images of individuals in one WeChat posting. Fourthly, WeChat is not merely a social platform providing affordances for people’s interaction, it also functions as a digital panopticon which disciplines users’ linguistic practices and voice giving.

Overall, this study contributes to an in-depth interpretation of digital identity performance in relation to multilingualism, multimodality, and online communication. It also provides a useful reference to the understanding of identity work by considering the time-space dimension in the largest social space of our time: the digital space.
Date of Award21 Jul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorXiao Lan Curdt-Christiansen (Supervisor) & Janina Iwaniec (Supervisor)


  • identity
  • WeChat
  • language
  • translanguaging
  • Time-space

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