Psychosocial theory

In my essay, I aim to look at and comment on the limitations of two of the theories and methods favoured by leading theorists on identity; Psychosocial theory, adapted from Erik Erikson by James Marcia, which is concerned with how individual identities are achieved, using the semi-structured interview, and Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity theory, which focuses on how people come to identify with certain groups and not others, using the minimal group experiment.

To begin with, I intend to comment on the semi-structured Interview developed by James Marcia, to study identity. This method was a way of measuring Erikson’s ideas and focused on how individual identities change and are achieved during adolescence, which can last from 13-25 years of age. After the series of interviews with young males, he was able to categorise his findings into four states that adolescents are said to go through.

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This semi-structured interviewed has evolved into one of the most frequently used qualitative methods today, though some of the data can be analysed quantitatively. Semi-structured interviews are conducted with a fairly open framework, which allow for focused, conversational, two-way communication between the researcher and the participant.

An obvious main advantage for this method is its flexibility to explore areas of questions during the interview process. It is basically a guided conversation where a wide range of open-ended questions can be asked, and new questions, which crop up as a result can be followed through. It allows more scope than say questionnaires or surveys which tends to have very structured questions that are not deviated from. The set of questions for this type of interview would be pre-prepared to some degree, but allow the participants to freely express their own ideas and opinions. Prompts and suggestions can be made can the researcher. “Researchers are therefore able to cover all the issues they consider important to their study with every participant, and to explore these in different ways with each person.” (Phoenix, 2002, p58).

Most of the interviews are taped at the time and then transcribed after, as this allows the researcher to concentrate on what the participant is saying and to create the feel of an informal chat, rather than a formal interview. The data can then be analysed either qualitatively or quantitatively. The data gained is considered valuable, as it is from an insider point of view; the participant expressing their view of their own world.

If used qualitatively this type of method can give the researcher a “great deal of rich data” (Phoenix, 2002, p58) and are most useful for exploring themes such as commitment, values and goals, as seen in Marcia’s 4 Identity Statuses. If used quantitatively, the results can be categorised and samples examined and applied on a wide scale.

The semi-structured interview has some limitations: it focuses on the construction of the individual’s identity, while ignoring group identities; it is a really time-consuming method, as it requires more time to collect the data. A method of this kind could last anything from a half-hour to an hour depending on the nature of the research being carried out; analysing the data afterwards is also lengthy as the transcribers need to go back over the tapes, “samples can never be as large … and much care and perseverance are needed to interpret the data.” (Phoenix, 2002, p58).

Another drawback to this type of method could be the skill of the researcher involved. The questions asked may elicit “data that comes from the insider viewpoint”, (Phoenix, Thomson, 2002, p17) but for the results in this method, to remain valid, it is necessary for the researcher to maintain a certain level of objectivity in how the data is analysed.

Henry Tajfel’s, Social Identity Theory (SIT) differs considerably from Marcia’s in that its primary focus was on “artificially created ‘minimal groups’.” (Phoenix, 2002, p63) in his effort to understand and prove his theory on social/group identity, as opposed to Marcia’s pre-occupation with personal identity.

Tajfel’s key question of whether, ” being a member of a group is enough in itself to promote identity with the ingroup and hostility against the outgroup,” (Phoenix, 2002, p63) is a central one for his study.

The method used to investigate Tajfel and associates’ Social Identity Theory, are very different from those used in psychosocial identity research. He employed the “most commonly used psychological method” (Phoenix, 2002 p63) – the experiment.

He carried out a laboratory study, choosing as his focus, a group of schoolboys aged 14-15 years, from Bristol. They were assigned randomly to groups – at first thinking that their separation was due to a preference for one of two artists, and the second time told their group allocations were completely random – but the result was the same. He found that the boys were more concerned with maximising the points difference between their group and the other, showing that even the most “minimal” conditions are ample to “induce discrimination in favour of the ingroup”, (Phoenix, 2002, p64), and prejudice against the outgroup.

An advantage of this type of method is that the variables are easily controlled and the results can be repeated. Behavioural data obtained from research of this kind is measured quantitatively, the statistics of which can then be analysed and generalizations made. The type of method has been applied to other social categories.

There are some limitations with it however. It has been criticised for overly simplifying “complex social processes and so are not like everyday contexts,” (Phoenix, 2002, p65). It could be argued that minimal group research is not necessarily reflective of the group dynamics of larger social differences, “such as those of (dis) ability, gender and race.” (Henriques, 1998, cited by Phoenix 2002).

In conclusion, Psychosocial, Social Identity Theory and their associated methods, take different stances in their approach to identity: Psychosocial using the insider viewpoint of a semi-structured interview to gain knowledge of an individual’s thoughts and feelings, Social Identity Theory employing the outsider method of an experiment, to demonstrate the importance of group identities within their social contexts. It has to be said that a researcher’s query will most likely determine their preferred choice of method, and in some cases like Marcia, Tajfel, Erikson and others, reflect an area of interest for the psychologist in their own personal lives. Both the theories and methods of Marcia and Tajfel can be seen to play an invaluable role in explaining the very complex issue of identity.