Theoretical approaches to identity

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Identity is a complex issue and attempts to define and understand it have been made by many psychologists since the beginning of the study of psychology itself. There are a range of approaches but in this essay I will be concentrating on just two – the Psychosocial and the Social Constructionist Theories.

Developmental psychologist Erik H. Erikson (1902-1994) was the main proponent of the Psychosocial theory. Through clinical observations and his own life experiences he argued that identity is shaped by both our own psychological make up and our social interaction. It was important that our community saw us as the same person over time. Erikson also noted that in troubled times such as during wars, we no longer take our identity for granted. Identity for Erikson was the ” development of a stable, consistent and reliable sense of who we are and what we stand for in the world that makes sense for us and our community “. Once this is achieved it becomes our core identity. (Mapping Psychology, Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, pg 52).

Erikson did not think our identity was wholly fixed however. He asserted that it was more of a continuous process according to the different experiences we lived through.

At the heart of Erikson’s theory is his classification of 8 stages of identity development through life. Each stage is characterised by a different crisis we need to resolve before progressing on to the next stage. He used his observations of the native American Oglala Lakota tribe to support his theory that adolescence was the most important stage. Erikson believed adolescents went through a time of experimentation (he termed it ‘psychological moratorium’) when they try on different roles for size. For many though this is a period of ‘identity crisis’ (Mapping Psychology, Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, pg 56), and they find it difficult to settle on an identity and progress onto the next stage. The development of core identity is therefore delayed while conflicts are reconciled. Erikson called this failure to achieve identity ‘Role diffusion’ (Mapping Psychology, Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, pg 56).

Erikson’s theories were developed by James Marcia. Marcia addressed the idea of the adolescent stage being of vital importance. He extended this period to the ages of 13 – 25 years. Marcia used a research method called the ‘Identity Status Interview’ to question a number of 18 – 25 year olds about their views on various important issues (religion, politics etc). Using the interview results he argued that ‘there are four stages to identity development – diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium and achievement’. (Mapping Psychology, Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, pg 59)

Psychosocial theory is useful in the understanding of identity because it has helped to explain the way teenagers behave. If they are going through a crisis of identity then they may seek comfort and reassurance from others in the same situation. This could explain why they place so much importance on the social group to which they belong, dressing in the same way, listening to the same music etc may help them to feel less alone and more accepted. ‘Over identifying with groups can also explain bullying and clannishness amongst teenagers’ (Erikson, 1968, pg132 – 3). Lack of self esteem and the need to feel accepted and ‘normal’ leads to affiliating yourself to one group and seeing other groups as different and therefore threatening.

Erikson’s belief that identity is constant helps to explain why we generally remain the same in terms of personality throughout our lives. If our identity is developed in a healthy way during our period of moratorium then we do tend to keep similar viewpoints for the rest of our adult lives.

There are some problems with Psychosocial theory. Erikson’s ideas seem to overemphasize the importance of the adolescent period and while Marcia’s amendments went some way to resolving this by saying the crisis comes later in life, it still assumes that crisis is the norm. This is not always the case as many people go through adolescence / earlier twenties with no doubts or problems over their identity.

Psychosocial theory has also been criticised for not really considering the social factors, it concentrates on individual experience and doesn’t look into the social group relations and any effects they may have.

The other theory to be discussed in this essay is social constructionism. Developed by a variety of theorists, social constructionism states that our identity is shaped by our social interaction. How we view the world and how we view ourselves is ‘socially constructed’ (Mapping Psychology, Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, pg 68). We work out who we are and what we believe through our relationships with other people. Unlike Psychosocial theory, social constructionism asserts that identities are not fixed, but changeable according to the different interactions we have. We have multiple identities and they can be contradictory. This is because we use our identity as a resource, a way of gaining or giving power. We can change our identity according to the social situation. Identities always involve power because they are always social and constructed in relation to other people.

Language is an important part of social constructionism. Potter and Wetherell (Potter and Wetherell 1987) use the terms ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’ to show how the same person can be viewed differently according to the language used. Social constructionists believe we use language to build up our identities and go on to develop them through autobiographical accounts. How we portray ourselves to others contributes to our sense of self.

This theory helps us to understand the concept of identity by showing how important our social relations are in building our sense of who we are. How we are viewed by others and how we use relations to develop our identity.

It also explains why we can be one person in one situation and another in a different context. It explains why people can change over time according to their relationships. This theory offers a more flexible explanation of identity.

Social constructionism could be criticised for not explaining why many people would argue that they do have just one identity which doesn’t really change over time and which is not affected by social encounters. It could be argued that who you are depends on other factors such as genes and inherited tendencies. The social constructionist would react to the criticisms by saying that this core identity is an illusion maintained by our autobiographical accounts. Our need to remain stable and the same leads us to relate our experiences in a certain way so that we appear to have a similar identity throughout.

In conclusion I believe both theories assist greatly in our understanding and as discussed above both have valid points. Although to fully grasp the concept of identity I think it would be necessary to take the valid points of these approaches and combine with other theories.

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