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Inclusion and exclusion: identity construction of second-generation Sri Lankans in multicultural Australia

posted on 16.02.2017, 03:50 by Athukorala, Handun Rasari
This study is the first in-depth exploration of ethnic identity and belonging among second-generation Sri Lankans in Australia. The scholarly contribution of this thesis lies in the originality of its subject matter, the identity formation of second-generation Sri Lankans, including those from three ancestry groups Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers. Based on 30 in-depth semi-structured interviews and diaries and drawing on the theoretical framework of social constructionism, I analyse the intricate social processes behind the identity construction of second-generation Sri Lankans in the contemporary, multicultural Australian social context. The thesis provides new knowledge on how structural integration and ethnicity intersect in the multicultural Australian social landscape. As I will demonstrate, the lives of the children of middle-class Sri Lankans are characterised by subtle struggles of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion because of the interplay between socioeconomic affluence and racial discrimination. Assimilation theorists have argued that the salience of ethnic identity would decrease as immigrants became middle-class, English educated and integrated into mainstream professional occupations. On the contrary, I show that despite their middle-class background and high socioeconomic assimilation within the mainstream society, ethnic identities retain resonance in the identity narratives of second-generation Sri Lankans in Australia. I found that the second-generation Sri Lankans construct their ethnic culture with reference to their heritage culture, mainly through constructing and reconstructing the symbols of family, ‘ethnic’ values and food. They accomplished this while at the same time, upholding a self-defined Australian identity. I found that the participants articulate their national identity mainly though language, shared interests and claiming an emotional belonging to the Australian nation-state. However, one of the most noteworthy findings of this study on the ethnic identity of second-generation Sri Lankans is that they adopted strong Australian national identities by maintaining, rather than relinquishing, their ethnic culture and transnational ties. This study also elaborates the continuing salience of racialisation and how contemporary racism operates in Australian society despite years of multicultural policies and the wide prevalence of anti-discrimination legislation. It reveals that racialisation remains crucial in shaping the identities of second-generation Sri Lankans, regardless of having similar educational and occupational achievements to middle-class whites. Yet, and at the same time, I found that without becoming passive receptors of external ascriptions these second-generation Sri Lankan Australians exercise considerable agency in actively negotiating the racial and ethnic constraints they encounter in their daily life. As a whole, this study suggests that ethnic identity construction is a dynamic, complex, contradictory and selective process, which involves negotiation, creation and transformation of an array of demands, expectations and influences from both migrant cultures and host cultures that ultimately lead to the construction of new forms of ethnic and national identification.


Principal supervisor

Jo Lindsay

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Political and Social Inquiry. Sociology


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts