Two different psychological approaches to identity

Identity is a topic in psychology studied by many theorists. The term identity is used to describe a person’s conception and expression of their individuality or group affiliations. A commonly used psychological method of studying identity is the ‘I am’ method. This is a simple, everyday exercise and has been used by psychologists since the discipline began. The Twenty Statements test is one which was used by the founders of psychology to help them study identity. It basically asks people to write down twenty statements to the question ‘who am i?’.

Erik Erikson believed that identity is developed in a series of stages. The eight stages which he described occur over a person’s lifetime and he developed this theory from naturalistic observations, clinical work and his own experiences. He believes that each stage is all about becoming competent in an area of life. If a stage is handled well, it provides the foundation for the next stage. If handled poorly, then the individual will feel a sense of inadequacy. The development of ego identity is one of the main elements of Erikson’s theory. Ego identity is Erikson’s term for a secure feeling of who and what one is (Phoenix, 2007, p55). He says that this is achieved during adolescence which is the fifth stage of his theory. During adolescence, young people are developing a sense of self and exploring their independence. In this period, young people can, for a while, try out various identities without commitment before finding their own niche in society (Phoenix, 2007, p55). If they find it hard to make commitments to adult roles and are at war with themselves, this is called identity crisis.

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Marcia developed Erikson’s theory further by developing a semi-structured interview method to measure identity as well as developing four different identity statuses. These four different statuses are not stages and are not sequential according to Marcia. His method has been particularly influential as it has provided a method that allows Erikson’s ideas on identity to be measured (Phoenix, 2007, p57). Marcia’s theory argues that crisis and commitment form and adolescence’s identity. He defined crisis as a time of upheaval and the end outcome leads to a commitment being made to a certain role or value.

Henry Tajfel developed Social Identity Theory (SIT) which found that if people categorise themselves as belonging to a group, they will be prepared to discriminate in favour of their group (the ingroup) and against others (the outgroup) (Phoneix, 2007, p68.). SIT that they are prepared to discriminate in order to enhance their self- image. Tajfel used the experimental method to investigate his theory, and used laboratory conditions to create a study to find out whether being part of a group is enough to promote identity with the ingroup and hostility with the outgroup. During this study Tajfel found that intergroup discrimination occurred even if the differences between the groups were minimal (Phoenix, 2007, p68).

Jane Elliott devised the ‘Blue eyes/Brown eyes’ exercise which labelled participants as inferior or superior based on the colours of their eyes. She was a teacher and told a class of seven year olds that children with blue eyes were stupid and denied them privileges. Following this, the blue eyed children in the class became depressed and sullen but the children with brown eyes improved their performance in classes but discriminated against their blue eyed friends. She repeated this study for several years and reported the findings each time. Elliot’s theory supported SIT but is ethically doubtful. Elliot was not a psychologist and so was not bound by the Code of Ethics. She subjected the children to discrimination and risked them being bullied because of what she said about their eye colour.

Both of these theories can be used to further our understanding by applying them to everyday situations such as disability and bullying.

Embodiment indicates that we live in and through our bodies and that we simultaneously experience our bodies physically and biologically as well as socially and psychologically (Phoenix, 2007, p49). This is important to identity and is most evident when looking at people who are disabled or who have physical impairments. SIT suggests that people can change their identity throughout their lives and allows more possibilities for these changes than the phsychosocial theory. It suggests that it is the change of belonging to a group that leads to a consciousness of identity. This occurs when people become physically impaired in adulthood.

According to the psychosocial theory, embodied identities can also play a major part in adolescence for young people without physical impairments. During this time their can be things like eating disorders etc. that occur. This phsychosocial theory does not allow for changes to identity through peoples life course.

The two theories that have been looked at both play major parts in furthering our understanding of identity. They both agree that people are active in the construction of their identities and they all recognise that diversity is important to identity and that there are several aspects to our identities (Phoenix, 2007, p81). But they have differences between them and how they view identity. The psychosocial theory states that our identities are formed in adolescence and are part of a developmental process whereas SIT says that identity is achieved in our current social relations and contexts. Erikson also says that our identities are fixed and that we develop one central identity from the different domains in our lives, e.g. sexuality and education, whereas Tajfel says identities are changed depending on what happens in our lives.