Two theoretical approaches to identity and their contributions
to our understanding of this concept
Debating theories and thinking about them can make a concept clearer and different psychological perspectives can help us understand human behaviour, distinctiveness and experience.
According to psychosocial theories identity occurs naturally. Personal and social identity are interlinked meaning that we define our core identity by seeing ourselves a certain way that is related to our past and future, and also social influences (e.g. different cultures produce different identities ) could have an effect on how we represent ourselves and how each person sees themselves, although large-scale social identity here is neglected. There is much more focus on a fixed and central identity.
Psychosocial theories state that there are different stages that a person goes through during their life time in search of discovering themselves and to develop a core identity which can last several years, and also that for a good, positive sense of identity we need a sense of uniqueness and self-worth and for others to see us the same way over time.
Psychoanalyst E. Erikson (1968, cited in Phoenix 2002) developed this theory first and J. Marcia (1980 cited in Phoenix 2002) adapted his ideas. According to Erikson, to achieve identity a person will go through eight stages during their life, the most critical being the stage of adolescence which is accompanied by a normative crisis’ when people experience difficulties or find it impossible to make commitments to adult roles.
Marcia developed a qualitative method in a style of a semi-structured interview to ask questions of many young people (insider-account), evaluating and analyzing their answers (outsider-viewpoint) concentrating on the individual aspect of identity (Kroger, 2000, cited in Phoenix 2002.).
Marcia drew conclusions from his findings which led to identifying four major statuses that people go through in search of who they are. Marcia and Erikson both saw the period of adolescence essential to achieve a central identity and called it a period of moratorium where young people search for the identity to which they want to be committed.
The Social Identity Theory (SIT) focuses on group identities and the major feature of this theory is that people, once they categorize themselves with a particular group are prepared to discriminate in favour of their group against others. It addresses social category issues (e.g. religion, race, disability, social class). It focuses on how people identify with certain groups and separate themselves from others ( Tajfel 1978, cited in Phoenix 2002).
The main view of this theory is that social identity is mostly composed of descriptions of ourselves that come from what we believe define the social groups to which we belong. An important part of SIT is the focus on the personal feelings of belonging to a group ( Turner 1987, cited in Phoenix 2002.).
SIT views identity as social in that if one particular social identity is important to us it will be expressed in our behaviours and attitudes where we stereotype ourselves and act like that stereotype.
Tajfel’s research method – the experimental method which uses an altogether outsider-viewpoint – is different to that of Marcia’s method. It seems to explain why a positive social identity is important when we are faced with social differences and how this effects identity.
The minimal group’ experiment (Tajfel et al. 1971, cited in Phoenix 2002.) was done on small groups of young boys, using a quantitative method and objective measures.
Tajfel found that there was intergroup discrimination even in simple categorization of individuals into groups which is enough to cause prejudice.
He concluded that striving for a fulfilling social identity inevitably causes prejudice and discrimination in one group (ingroup) and
resistance to them from other groups (outer group). This is because an individual wants to improve their group’s social position to make their group’s social identity more positive and better.
This experiment if repeated has the same results even in different cultures.
SIT also considers identities associated with people who have disabilities. The Social Identity Theory supports their view of how society perceives them in a negative way (e.g. as less than human) because of their physical impairments. Many disabled people would like to change how others refer to them and this supports the theory that identities require that others view us in a positive way.
The two theories above both recognize that the social factor is important but differ in focus and emphasis.
In both theories it is essential in achieving identity that knowing who we are requires knowing who we are not. Both approaches show similarity , stressing the importance of diversity in the many aspects of identity.
During our lives our identity changes and comparing Social Identity Theory with psychosocial theories SIT allows more possibility for this to occur, and views identity as historically and culturally dependent; there is not a single, fixed identity as psychosocial theorists believe.
Psychosocial theories focus on what makes each of us a unique human being while SIT emphasises social groups’ behaviour and its effects on our identity.
These theories conflict with each other in some ways but they also complement each other, helping our understanding of ourselves and our behaviour through research and methods that test different psychologists’ hypotheses.