“Identity versus Identity Confusion” is the fifth of Erik Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages of development, which he developed in the late 1950s. Adolescence is the most salient time for defining identity, the process of determining the meaning, purpose, and direction of one’s inner, unique core of self—while also maintaining some sense of sameness and continuity with one’s past and of comfort within the context of one’s culture. An identity crisis is “a necessary turning point, a crucial moment, when development must move one way or another, marshaling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation” (Erikson 1968, p. 16). The most common use of the term identity crisis refers to normative psychosocial development during the periods of adolescence and emerging adulthood. This concept of crisis, however, has been applied quite broadly, at times being used to include not only healthy individual growth but also other issues of individual therapy and reconsiderations of what it means to be part of a reconstituted nation in the process of rapid historical change.
Based on Erikson’s epigenetic principle, each of the other seven psychosocial stages has implications for the quality of identity resolution. Along a continuum within each stage, a person will express healthier psychosocial development if that stage’s crisis is resolved with more positive (syntonic) outcomes. Ideally, for example, one develops reasonable trust in the world, autonomy, initiative, efficacy, identity, interpersonal desire, worth, and finally with stage eight, satisfaction. The results of ego syntonic or dystonic outcomes may include viewing one’s self as either protected or vulnerable in the world, self-controlled or disordered and dependent, ambitious or evasive, competent or incapable at tasks, committed or lacking conviction, loving or reclusive, productive and caring or not valued, and a success or a failure. Unsatisfactory aspects of one’s identity in these areas (i.e., being more dystonic) may lead to crisis, in which one must rework a previous stage and seek a different outcome.
James Marcia has provided the most influential empirical framework for identity formation. He has focused on a behavioral expression of identity by investigating the processes of exploration of alternatives and commitment to values, beliefs, and goals in various life domains, such as career and ideologies. From the dimensions of exploration and commitment, he derived four identity statuses: Achievement (exploration resulting in commitment), Moratorium (present exploration with the intention of achieving a commitment), Foreclosure (ascribed commitment with no exploration), and Diffusion (no commitment whether exploration has taken place in the past or not). Moratorium is the status of “crisis” or exploration, defined by the need to arrive at a self-definition, which is actively propelled by the individual. In 1990 Alan Waterman described an important goal of identity exploration as the identification of potential talents, the development of which can lead to feelings of personal expressiveness. It is the responsibility of significant others to aid the individual in learning the process of exploration and to provide information that may help the individual to arrive at a commitment that is exemplified by continuity, “goodness of fit” within self, and appropriateness within one’s social contexts. While each individual should find unique domains of importance, individuals identified as being in a state of long-term Diffusion, without meaningful self-definition in any domains of significance, may be perceived especially as being in need of counseling. These individuals approach the task of identity with passivity or perhaps apathy, and they have poor resolution of at least some of the other psychosocial stages of development.
Working within Erikson’s psychosocial theoretical perspective, decades of research have emerged from Marcia’s empirical framework focused on development in numerous and varied contexts (e.g., Marcia 1966; Kroger 2007). Examples of other contemporary approaches to identity and its measurement include the structural stage perspective, which focuses on internal structures that provide meaning making, and the sociocultural perspective, which focuses on the roles and status granted by one’s society. These and other frameworks are described and critiqued by Jane Kroger in Identity Development: Adolescence through Adulthood (2007).
Mixed societal demands are particularly problematic for identity formation and its refinement at a time when one is seeking continuity or looking to find a sense of one’s uniqueness yet still fit within one’s societal parameters over time. In those instances in which one is part of a minority (e.g., by race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation), or if one has identifications with multiple groups (e.g., by being biracial), or if one is pulled by conflicting messages (e.g., those coming from the media and the family), an identity crisis is likely to emerge. Respect for diversity of self would go a long way in allowing people to be “uniquely themselves” while belonging to a community. Healthy “crisis” or exploration can afford people the opportunity to knowledgeably investigate choices in which there is positive meaning with regard to where they have come from, where they presently exist, and where they envision their future to be.
SEE ALSO Ethnicity; Identity; Self-Concept; Self-Identity
Archer, Sally L., ed. 1994. Interventions for Adolescent Identity Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Erikson, Erik. 1950. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
Erikson, Erik. 1968. Identity, Youth, and Crisis. New York: Norton.
Kroger, Jane. 2007. Identity Development: Adolescence through Adulthood. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Marcia, James E. 1966. Development and Validation of Ego Identity Status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3: 551–558.
Marcia, James E., Alan S. Waterman, David R. Matteson, et al. 1993. Ego Identity: A Handbook for Psychosocial Research. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Waterman, Alan S. 1990. Personal Expressiveness: Philosophical and Psychological Foundations. Journal of Mind and Behavior 11 (1): 47–74.
Sally L. Archer
Jeremy A. Grey
Identity Crisis ★ 1990 (R)
Campy fashion maven and flamboyant rapper switch identities causing much tedious overacting. Lifeless murder comedy from father and son Van Peebles. 98m/C VHS, DVD . Mario Van Peebles, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Nicholas Kepros, Shelly Burch, Richard Clarke; D: Melvin Van Peebles.