Understanding identities is one of the main subjects of psychological studies. The purpose is to try explaining individuals’ behaviours and how people see themselves. One of the first theorists interested by the construction of identities was William James (1890). Since then, various theories were elaborated and three of them have been influential: the psychosocial theory, the social identity theory and theories of social construction.
We will study more in details the psychosocial theory and the social constructionist theory.
The first theorist of the psychosocial approaches was Erik Erikson. For him, identity is based on what he calls a “core identity” that is a consistent and stable over time and which gives to the individuals the feeling to have found their place in a society or in a social group considered as ideal. It gives a sense of continuity and also of belonging (Phoenix 2007) Identities are developed themselves all along the life through eight stages and through resolution of conflicts and normative crises between the individual and the society or between positive or negative developmental possibilities. The period of adolescence is an especially important stage for the construction of this core identity. Individual becomes then conscious of themselves (ego crisis). For Erikson, and after him James Marcia, adolescence is a period of psychosocial “moratorium”, i.e. a period when young people can try and experience different roles so that they can build up their own identity. Only after this period of adolescence individuals can have, this sense of continuity and of personal worth required for reaching a psychological equilibrium.
James Marcia develops in the 90s the psychosocial approaches using the identity status interviews which consist in studying the development of 18-25 years old student through semi-constructed interviews. The purpose was to understand how active choices are made through different alternatives before a commitment to a particular role. He identifies then four identity statuses.
While both Erickson and Marcia concentrate on individual rather than on the influence of society on identity, the social constructionist theorists explain the development of identity through the daily interactions between individuals and their environment.
For them identity is constructed through social relations including the language which classifies people in specific categories. For example, Nelson Mandela has been called terrorist or freedom fighter depending of social groups and their values. Language is the means for translating our beliefs, ideas, and it is crucial to our interactions with people. Without relational and social interactions, identity cannot exist. For this theory, individuals exist only because the others recognize their existence. As a consequence, identities change over time depending on the group with which we interact. Identity is also grounded in a cultural environment and its values which influence the way we think and we talk. For social constructionist, there is no distinction between personal and social identity even if we can adopt different identities depending on the historical and cultural context. Identity is a resource to our disposal in our everyday interactions with other people: we can choose between identities depending on the social group we want to adhere. A choice between conflicting identities can then occur. For example, is it important to be considered as a woman or a mother for this particular social group? What aspect am I going to emphasize? For the social constructionist, this choice will be based on power relations. For Hall (1996) we even can reconstruct the past to fit in the identity we want to have.
The two theories on the construction of identity are at the opposite of a spectrum that goes from individual determinism to social influence. For Erikson, social and personal identities are interlinked while social constructionists consider that there is no distinction between these two aspects. However they have common points; for the both the identity can evolve, through crises for the psychosocial theorists and under the pressure of social interactions for social constructionists. Identities are socially and historically constructed for the both. But, the impulse is in the first case coming from the person himself or in the second case from his external environment. The both theories are relevant for understanding and predicting people behaviour and interaction in their everyday life.
They also underline the importance of social interactions in the construction of identities even they do not have the same approach. For psychosocial theorists, the confrontation with the environment may trigger to identity crisis such as for the soldiers during the war who become conscious of their identity because their life is endangered and because the individual disappear to the benefit of the collective, here the army. For the constructionist, it is because we want to be accepted by one influential group that we adopt and/or adapt an identity.
The both also used evidence-based research and made psychological researches important progress and they introduce explanations on people psychological health. Psychosocial identify theory has been used to understand adolescence psychological development and even if the theoretical conclusions can be criticised as not all adolescents face crisis, they help the research on young people psychology and identity construction. Social constructionist theory is important for understanding the way we are building up the world around us through language and the importance of social interactions in the choice between multiple identities.
They also introduce the concept of identity construction and evolution and try to identify the causes that could explain it. They finally acknowledge the great diversity of identities. Even if they have both been criticised, they enable psychological understanding on identity and social interactions to make progress.
Phoenix A. (2007) Identities and Diversities, in D. Miell, A. Phoenix & K. Thomas (Eds.) Mapping psychology (2nd Ed, pp 43-95). Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Erikson, E. (1968) Identity, Youth and Crisis, New York, W.W.Norton& Co.
Marcia, J.E. (1966) ‘Development and validation of ego-identity status’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol.3, pp.551–8.
Marcia, J. (1980) ‘Identity in adolescence’, in Adelson, J. (ed.) Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, New York, John Wiley.