Adolescent Identity

Defining Identity

Identity is a new way of thinking about oneself that emerges during adolescence. Identity involves a sense of self-unity, accompanied by a feeling that the self has continuity over time. A firmly established identity also provides a sense of uniqueness as a person. According to Erikson's psychosocial model of development, identity must be perceived by the individual, but also recognized and confirmed by others. Thus, the process of establishing an identity involves "Integrating into a coherent whole one's past experiences, ongoing personal changes, and society's demands and expectations for one's future" (Sprinthall & Collins, 1984).

James Marcia argued that identity could be viewed as a structure of beliefs, abilities and past experiences regarding the self. "The better developed this structure is, the more individuals appear to be of their own...strengths and weaknesses.... The less developed this structure is, the more confused individuals seem to be about their own distinctiveness from others and the more they have to rely on external sources to evaluate themselves." (Marcia, 1980, p. 159). Identity is a dynamic, not static psychological structure. The formation of identity in adolescence sets the stage for continual changes in the content of identity through the adult years.

Marcia's Identity Statuses

James Marcia refined and extended Erikson's work on identity. In Marcia's model, identity involves the adoption of 1) a sexual orientation, 2) a set of values and ideals and 3) a vocational direction. A well-developed identity gives on a sense of one's strengths, weaknesses, and individual uniqueness. A person with a less well-developed identity is not able to define his or her personal strengths and weaknesses, and does not have a well articulated sense of self.

To better understand the identity formation process, Marcia conducted interviews with young people. He asked whether the participants in his study (1) had established a commitment to an occupation and ideology and (2) had experienced, or were presently experiencing, a decision making period (adolescent identity crisis). Marcia developed a framework for thinking about identity in terms of four identity statuses. It is important to note that these are NOT stages. Identity statuses should not be viewed as substages in a sequential or linear process.

Foreclosure. These people have made commitments to an occupational future, but have not experienced an identity crisis. They have conformed to the expectations of others concerning their future. For example, an individual may have allowed a parent to decide what career they will pursue. These individuals have not explored a range of options (experience an "identity crisis").

Diffusion. The young person has not made a commitment, and may or may not have experienced an identity crisis. He or she appears to have given up any attempt to make the commitments needed for developing a clear sense of identity as Marcia defines the term.

Moratorium. Individuals in moratorium are actively exploring alternative commitments, but have not yet made a decision. They are experiencing an identity crisis, but appear to be moving forward toward identity formation, making commitments.

Achievement. The individual has experienced an identity crisis and has made commitments necessary for building a sense of identity as described above.

Created 6/7/02. Last update 6/7/02 / jka.

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