Narratives of location: School science identities and scientific discourse among Navajo women at the University of New Mexico

Carol B. Brandt
College of Education, University of New Mexico
July, 2006


This research examines the interplay of scientific discourse and students' sense of self among four Navajo (Diné) women as they major in science at a university in the southwestern United States. This dissertation research is an ethnographic case study of Navajo women as they were completing their final year of undergraduate study in the life sciences at a university. How do Navajo women express their identity in Western science at the university? What role does scientific discourse play in this process? This research employs a feminist post-structural approach to language and expands the way discourse has typically been addressed in science education. I expand the notion of discourse through post-structuralism by recognizing the co-constitutive role of language in fashioning realities and generating meaning. Data sources in this study included transcripts from one-on-one interviews, electronic correspondence (e- mail), observations of social contexts on campus, students' writing for science courses, university policy statements, departmental outcomes assessments, web profiles of student research in science, and a researcher's reflective journal. This study took place beginning in January 2002 and continued through May of 2003 at the University of New Mexico. After completing the thematic (constant comparative analysis) and an analysis of metaphors, I 'retold' or 'restoried' the narratives collected during interviews. In the cross case analysis, I compared each participant's description of those discursive spaces that afforded engagement with science, and those locations where their awareness of academic language was heightened in a process of metadiscourse. I identified these spaces as locations of possibility in which students and their mentors (or instructors) valued connected knowing, acknowledged each other's history, culture, and knowledge, and began speaking to each other subject-to-subject to challenge normative views of schooling. The participants in this research located spaces in which they authored themselves: study groups, a research project on invasive plants, the American Indian Medial Association, and a community college. The women in this study selectively accommodated elements of Western science that were consistent with their identity as they positioned themselves in service to family, community, and tribe, and also sought positions beyond the objectified gaze of the institution.