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Constructing social identity through language: the case of Chinese migrant youth schooled in Prato (Italy)

posted on 21.02.2017, 23:50 by Paciocco, Adua Elizabeth
This thesis explores the social identity of Chinese migrant youth schooled in Prato, a provincial town located near Florence in Italy. Chinese labour migrants began arriving in Prato in the early 1990s and have had a significant demographic, economic and social impact on the town. In just two decades, the number of Chinese in Prato has increased from about 500 to well over 12,000. Documented Chinese migrants, most of whom are from the Zhejiang Province, constitute 5.4% of Prato’s population. Chinese migrants arrived in Prato to fill a void in the local garment industry. Italian garment industry operators outsourced work to Chinese migrants because local labour was scarce, and because they provided competitive costs and services. Currently, Chinese migrants are the principal garment industry proprietors and workers in Prato. Chinese garment businesses supply local, national and global markets. Chinese business proprietors are the innovators of the pronto moda [ready-to-wear] garment production model, which is in turn responsible for their economic success. Notably, Chinese migrants live in a nation-state with a short history of immigration that is struggling to develop an official government policy to manage the settlement of third country immigrants. This study contributes to the research on the recent phenomenon of Chinese immigration to Italy as well as to Chinese migration studies subsequent to China’s 1979 open door policy, which resulted in increased mobility flows into and out of China. More specifically, it contributes to research on Chinese migrant youth identity construction. The social identity of Italian-schooled Chinese youth in Prato is influenced by their parents’ socio-economic status on arrival in Italy, the socio-economic position they have created for themselves in Italy and Italian discourses on migration. The social identity of Italian-schooled Chinese-Pratese youth is explored through an analysis of their linguistic repertoire, language practice and discursively constructed identities. An interdisciplinary theoretical framework is used to analyse data drawing on the sociocultural linguistic view that social identities are revealed through language and are intersubjectively produced by hierarchically ordered culture and society. I adopt a grounded theory approach employing discourse analysis, social identification theory, sociocultural linguistic theory and sociolinguistic theories to show that there is a nexus between language and identity. Data was taken from questionnaire responses, semi-structured interviews and informal talk among informants. Informants were mixed generation, 18+ year-old males and females in attendance at senior secondary schools in Prato. The study revealed that second and 1.75 generation Chinese migrant youth have layered, hybrid Chinese-Italian social identities. Chinese identities are locally produced and comprise Chinese diasporic identity, Chinese identity ascribed by the dominant group, and an identity which seeks affiliation with China as a global economic superpower. Italian social identities are also locally produced. However, they are self-ascribed and not ascribed by the dominant cultural group. Other identity positions are also nested within Italian-schooled Chinese migrant youth hybrid identities. Interestingly, the identities of study participants’ are not particularly marked by their parents’ cultural heritage. This study also reveals the presence of other Chinese migrant youth groups in Prato.


Principal supervisor

Sunsanna Scarparo

Additional supervisor 1

Zhichang Xu

Additional supervisor 2

Loretta Baldassar

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts