1. Hoffman, Sarah J. PhD, MPH, MSN, RN
  2. Tierney, Jessica Dockter PhD

Article Content


The Notion of identity is embedded in context. That is, the course of becoming encompasses structure, the social systems that frame our world, and agency, the ways in which an individual perceives and exerts his or her unique self in the world. Nursing, the science of health, is uniquely positioned as a multifaceted platform for engagement with identity theory.


Our work began as an interprofessional partnership exploring, through a lens of cultural relativism and community partnership, discourses of identity constructed by refugee women living in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border1 and postresettlement in the United States.2 In particular, we focused on the social, political, and cultural systems around and through which women navigated forced displacement. The narratives of women who participated in the research reflected the ways that Karen women from Burma positioned themselves as agentic and resilient actors within the structures of forced migration.


As we framed these women's narratives through a lens of identity, we recognized that a historical account of the evolution of engagement of nursing research with theories of identity was not documented. Further deepening our interest was a necessity to draw from scholarship outside of the field of nursing in order to achieve the depth of theory required to interpret our findings.


Discussions of our approach to theorizing evolved into the project described in this commentary. The aims were to review, frame, and organize studies through which nurse researchers approached identity theory in relation to explorations of the practice of nursing. Here we distill findings from the full review and describe challenges and discernments that emerged in the work of developing themes, assigning meaning to themes, and considering why our findings are important and relevant to nursing scholarship and practice.


To begin, we crafted a search strategy centered in the CINAHL database. Within the database we searched the terms "identity' and "theor*." To achieve both a manageable and relevant sample of articles, we limited our results to research articles published in the English language. The search yielded 467 articles. The initial review of abstracts eliminated 211 articles from the analysis. These articles lacked focus on identity as a major theoretical construct. Preliminary search outcomes resulted in the distribution of the 256 studies between 2 broad groupings in nursing research: applied identity (n = 182) and professional nursing identity (n = 74).


Among themes generated from articles considering the professional identities of nurses, learning identities, socialized identities, and context-dependent identities emerged prominently. Learning identities characterized interactions with curriculum and pedagogies that functioned as mediating spaces in shaping identity. Socialized identities referenced the construction of professional identity in place. These studies often acknowledged the emergence of professional nursing identity in the context of interprofessional workspaces. Finally, context-dependent identities described the influence of place and time in the formation of professional identity. Related, and considered further as a subtheme of context-dependent identities, are identities formed through a critical incident and momentary or episodic experiences with a substantial impact on the formation of professional nursing identity.


In the applied grouping-organized to explain ways nurse researchers frame the performance of identity among patient populations and communities under study-emergent themes included shifting identities, factors that protect or threaten identity, and symbols of identity. Shifting identities reflected research where identities, mediated by some action (eg, survivorship, recovery, becoming a mother), transformed or became new. Studies that described factors threatening or protecting identity tended to address symptom or sensory experiences, lost or shifting ability, or changing role. Symbols of identity were representations of identity, often in nursing research an experience that is embodied, such as medical devices or physiological dysfunction.


Important examples of nursing research in both applied and professional groupings reflected theorizing and the application of theory constructed through historical and discursive understandings of identity. However, we feel there remains space to complicate the frame of identity theory in ways that extend beyond the unified and stable. Identities in our focal collection of articles presented as conflicted and shifting, but frequently those identities remained sequential, moving from one to the other. The question we pose in this commentary, and that will influence our future work, is whether hybrid, improvisational, and layered frames of identity could more aptly reflect the performance of the intersectional identities embodied by the individuals and communities we serve?


- Sarah J. Hoffman, PhD, MPH, MSN, RN


University of Minnesota


School of Nursing




- Jessica Dockter Tierney, PhD


University of Minnesota


College of Education and Human


Development Curriculum and Instruction






1. Hoffman SJ, Tierney JD, Robertson CL. (2017). Counter-narratives of coping and becoming: Karen refugee women's inside/outside figured worlds. Gender, Place & Culture. [Context Link]


2. Hoffman SJ, Robertson CL, Tierney JD. "What about the next generation that's coming?" The recontextualization of mothering post-refugee resettlement. Adv Nurs Sci. 2017;40(2):122-153. [Context Link]