Purpose: Medical educators have expressed concern that students’ professional identities do not always align with their expectations or with professional standards. The authors propose that, in constructing appropriate professional identities, medical students today are affected by the competing discourses of diversity and standardization.
Method: Between March and May 2012, the authors conducted a critical review of seminal publications to highlight the discourses of diversity and standardization in the medical education literature. They surveyed the social sciences literature on identity construction and drew examples from medical education to demonstrate how a social constructionist approach could inform the discussion about how medical students’ professional identities are affected by these discourses.
Results: The discourse of diversity emphasizes individuality, difference, and a plurality of possibilities and advances the notion that heterogeneity is beneficial to medical education and to patients. In contrast, the discourse of standardization strives for homogeneity, sameness, and a limited range of possibilities and conveys that there is a single way to be a competent, professional physician. Thus, these discourses are in tension, a fact that medical educators largely have ignored. A social constructionist approach to identity suggests that medical students resolve this tension in different ways and construct different identities as a result.
Conclusions: To influence medical students’ professional identity construction, the authors advocate that educators seek change across the profession—faculty must acknowledge and take advantage of the tension between the discourses of standardization and diversity.