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Identity, Psychosocial

Identity, Psychosocial

Interests and approaches

A theory of psychosocial identity

Historical considerations


When we wish to establish a person’s identity, we ask what his name is and what station he occupies in his community. Personal identity means more; it includes a subjective sense of continuous existence and a coherent memory. Psychosocial identity has even more elusive characteristics, at once subjective and objective, individual and social.

A subjective sense of identity is a sense of sameness and continuity as an individual—but with a special quality probably best described by William James. A man’s character, he wrote in a letter, is discernible in the “mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: ‘This is the real me!’” Such experience always includes “an element of active tension, of holding my own, as it were, and trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guaranty that they will” (1920, vol. 1, p. 199). Thus may a mature person come to the astonished or exuberant awareness of his identity.

What underlies such a subjective sense, however, can be recognized by others, even when it is not especially conscious or, indeed, self-conscious: thus, one can observe a youngster “become himself” at the very moment when he can be said to be “losing himself” in work, play, or company. He suddenly seems to be “at home in his body,” to “know where he is going,” and so on.

The social aspects of identity formation were touched upon by Freud when in an address he spoke of an “inner identity” that he shared with the tradition of Jewry and which still was at the core of his personality, namely, the capacity to live and think in isolation from the “compact majority” ([1926] 1959, p. 273). The gradual development of a mature psychosocial identity, then, presupposes a community of people whose traditional values become significant to the growing person even as his growth assumes relevance for them. Mere “roles” that can be “played” interchangeably are obviously not sufficient for the social aspect of the equation. Only a hierarchical integration of roles that foster the vitality of individual growth as they represent a vital trend in the existing or developing social order can support identities. Psychosocial identity thus depends on a complementarity of an inner (ego) synthesis in the individual and of role integration in his group [seeRole; see also Erikson 1959].

In individual development, psychosocial identity is not feasible before and is indispensable after the end of adolescence, when the grown-up body grows together, when matured sexuality seeks partners, and when the fully developed mind begins to envisage a historical perspective and seeks new loyalties—all developments which must fuse with each other in a new sense of sameness and continuity. Here, persistent (but sometimes mutually contradictory) infantile identifications are brought in line with urgent (and yet often tentative) new self-definitions and irreversible (and yet often unclear) role choices. There ensues what we call the identity crisis.

Historical processes in turn seem vitally related to the demand for identity in each new generation; for to remain vital, societies must have at their disposal the energies and loyalties that emerge from the adolescent process: as positive identities are “confirmed,” societies are regenerated. Where this process fails in too many individuals, a historical crisis becomes apparent. Psychosocial identity, therefore, can also be studied from the point of view of a complementarity of life history and history (Erikson 1958; 1964, chapter 5).

In its individual and collective aspects, psychosocial identity strives for ideological unity; but it is also always defined by that past which is to be lived down and by that potential future which is to be prevented. Identity formation thus involves a continuous conflict with powerful negative identity elements. In times of aggravated crises these come to the fore to arouse in man a murderous hate of “otherness,” which he judges as evil in strangers—and in himself. The study of psychosocial identity thus calls also for an assessment of the hierarchy of positive and negative identity elements present in an individual’s stage of life and in his historical era.

These are dimensions which will prove indispensable to the study of identity in the variety of disciplines now to be listed. In the meantime, I hope to have disposed of the faddish contemporary “definition” of identity as the question, “Who am I?”

Interests and approaches

Psychiatry and social psychiatry

Intricate life processes often reveal themselves first in epidemiological states of dysfunction. Thus, in our time the significance of the identity process first became apparent to psychopathologists who recognized psychosocial factors in severe disturbances of the individual sense of identity (alienation, identity confusion, depersonalization) and to diagnosticians of social upheavals who found psychosocial phenomena at work (role conflict, anomie).

As the theoretical focus of psychoanalysis shifted from “instincts” to “ego,” from defensive to adaptive mechanisms, and from infantile conflict to later stages of life, states of acute ego impairment were recognized and treated. A syndrome called identity confusion (“identity diffusion” proved a somewhat ambiguous term) was recognized as characterizing neurotic disturbances resulting from traumatic events, such as war, internment, and migration (Erikson [1950] 1964, pp. 38-45). But it also proved to be a dominant feature in developmental disturbances in adolescence (Erikson 1959, pp. 122-146). Identity crises aggravated by social and maturational changes can evoke neurotic or psychotic syndromes but are found to be diag-nosable and treatable as transitory disturbances (Blaine & McArthur 1961). Identity confusion, furthermore, can also be recognized in pervert-delinquent and bizarre-extremist behavior, which can assume epidemiological proportions as a result of technological changes and population shifts (Witmer & Kotinsky 1956). Thus theory, therapy, and prevention are seen to lack the proper leverage if the need for psychosocial identity is not understood, and especially if instead the young deviant or patient is “confirmed” as a born criminal or a lifelong patient by correctional or therapeutic agencies (Erikson & Erikson 1957; K. T. Erikson 1957).

Child development and anthropology

The study of a variety of dysfunctions thus threw light on identity formation as the very criterion of psychosocial functioning at, and after, the conclusion of one critical stage of development: adolescence. Identity, to be sure, does not originate (and does not end) in adolescence: from birth onward the child learns what counts in his culture’s space time and life plan by the community’s differential responses to his maturing behavior. He learns to identify with ideal prototypes and to develop away from evil ones. But identity formation comes to a decisive crisis in youth—a crisis met, alleviated, or aggravated by different societies in different ways (Lichtenstein 1961; Erikson 1950).

History and sociology

Historical considerations lead back into man’s prehistory and evolution. Only gradually emerging as one mankind conscious of itself and responsible to and for itself, man has been divided into pseudospecies (tribes and nations, castes and classes), each with its own over-defined identity and each reinforced by mortal prejudice against its images of other pseudospecies.

In history, identifications and identities are bound to shift with changing technologies, cultures, and political systems. Existing or changing roles thus must be reassimilated in the psychosocial identity of the most dominant and most numerous members of an organization. Large-scale irreconcilabilities in this ongoing assimilation result in identity panic that, in turn, aggravates irrational aversions and prejudices and can lead to erratic violence on a large scale or to widespread self-damaging malaise (Stein et al. 1960; Wheelis 1958).

The fact that the remnants of “tribalism” in an armed and industrialized species can contribute to conditions of utmost danger to the survival of the species itself is leading to a new consciousness of man’s position in his own ongoing history.

Religion and philosophy

While projecting evil otherness on enemies and devils, man has habitually assigned a supreme “identity” to deities who guarantee, under revealed conditions, his chances for individual immortality or rebirth. This tendency is a proper subject for psychoanalytic and psychosocial investigation only insofar as it reveals the psychological and cultural variations of man’s projection of his own striving for omnipotent identity on the “Beyond” (Erikson 1958).

Finally, man’s psychosocial identity has been related philosophically to his striving to attain and to transcend the pure “I” that remains each individual’s existential enigma. Old and new wisdom would suggest that man can transcend only what he has affirmed in a lifetime and a generation. Here, clinical and social science will concern themselves with the demonstrable, and philosophy with the thinkable (Lichtenstein 1963).

Out of this multiplicity of approaches we will now select a few converging themes for more coherent presentation.

A theory of psychosocial identity

The identity crisis

In some young people, in some classes, at some periods in history, the identity crisis will be noiseless; in other people, classes, and periods, the crisis will be clearly marked off as a critical period, a kind of “second birth,” either deliberately intensified by collective ritual and indoctrination or spontaneously aggravated by individual conflict.

In this day of psychiatric overconcern, it must be emphasized that crisis here does not mean a fatal turn but rather (as it does in drama and in medicine) a crucial time or an inescapable turning point for better or for worse. “Better” here means a confluence of the constructive energies of individual and society, as witnessed by physical grace, mental alertness, emotional directness, and social “actualness.” “Worse” means prolonged identity confusion in the young individual as well as in the society which is forfeiting the devoted application of the energies of youth. But worse can ultimately lead to better: extraordinary individuals, in repeated crises, create the identity elements of the future (Erikson 1958).

Identity closure and “ideology.”

In the individual, the normative identity crisis is brought about by contemporaneous and indivisible developments that have received uneven attention in various fields of inquiry. The “growing together” of late adolescence results in increasingly irreversible configurations of physical and sexual type, of cognitive and emotional style, and of social role. Sexual maturation drives the individual toward more or less regressive, furtive, or indiscriminate contact; yet the fatefulness of a narrowing choice of more permanent partners becomes inescapable. All of this is strongly related to maturing patterns of cognition and judgment. Inhelder’s and Piaget’s studies (1955) suggest that only in adolescence can man “reverse” in his mind a sequence of events in such a way that it becomes clear why what did happen had to happen. Thus, the irreversibility of consequences (more or less intended, more or less “deserved”) becomes painfully apparent. With such cognitive orientation, then, the young person must make or “make his own” a series of personal, occupational, and ideological choices.

At the same time, an unconscious integration of all earlier identifications must take place. Children have the nucleus of a separate identity early in life; often they are seen to defend it with precocious self-determination against pressures which would make them overidentify with one or both of their parents. In fact, what clinical literature describes as identification is usually neurotic overidentifica-tion. The postadolescent identity must rely, to be sure, on all those earlier identifications that have contributed to a gradual alignment of the individual’s instinctual make-up with his developing endowment and the tangible promise of future opportunities. But the wholeness of identity is more than the sum of all earlier identifications and must be supported by a communal orientation which we will call ideological. A living ideology is a systematized set of ideas and ideals which unifies the striving for psychosocial identity in the coming generation, and it remains a stratum in every man’s imagery. whether it remains a “way of life” or becomes a militant “official” ideology [seeIdeology]. An ideological world view may be transmitted in dogmatic form by special rites, inductions, or confirmations; or society may allow youth to experiment for specified periods (I have called them psychosocial mora-toria) under special conditions (Wanderschaft, frontier, colonies, service, college, etc.).


Sooner or later, the young individual and the functioning society must join forces in that combination of loyalty and competence which may best be termed fidelity (Erikson 1963). This may be realized by the involvement of youth as beneficiaries and renewers of tradition, workers and innovators in technology, critics and rejuvenators of style and logic, and rebels bent on the destruction of hollow form in such experience as reveals the essence of the era. For contemporaries, it is often difficult to discern the vital promise of a new and more inclusive identity or to assess the specific alienation inherent in a historical period: there are prophetic voices in all eras which make a profession of ascribing man’s existential self-estrangement to the sins of the time [see Alienation].

Obviously, an era’s identity crisis is least severe in that segment of youth which is able to invest its fidelity in an expanding technology and thus evolves new and competent types and roles. Today, this includes the young people in all countries who can fit into and take active charge of technical and scientific development, learning thereby to identify with a life-style of invention and production. Youth which is eager for such experience but unable to find access to it will feel estranged from society until technology and nontechnical intelligence have come to a certain convergence.

Male and female identity

Do male and female identities differ? The “mechanisms” of identity formation are, of course, the same. But since identity is always anchored both in physiological “givens” and in social roles, the sex endowed with an “inner-bodily space” capable of bearing offspring lives in a different total configuration of identity elements than does the fathering sex (Erikson 1965). Obviously also, the childhood identifications to be integrated differ in the two sexes. But the realization of woman’s optimal psychosocial identity (which in our day would include individuality, workmanship, and citizenship, as well as motherhood) is beset with ancient problems. The “depth,” both concretely physical and emotional, of woman’s involvement in the cycle of sexual attraction, conception, gestation, lactation, and child care has been exploited by the builders of ideologies and societies to relegate women to all manner of lifelong “confinements” and confining roles. Psychoanalysis has shown feminine identity formation to be prejudiced by what a woman cannot be and cannot have rather than by what she is, has been, and may yet become. Thus the struggle for legal and political equality is apt to be accompanied by strenuous attempts to base woman’s identity on the proof that she is (almost) as good as man in activities and schedules fashioned by and for men. However, the flamboyant brinkmanship of technological and political men in matters now of vital concern to the whole species has revived the vision of a new identity of womanhood, one in which the maternal orientation is not at odds with work and citizenship but gives new meaning to both. But here as elsewhere new inventions will not suffice as long as deep-seated negative identities prevail [seeIndividual Differences, article onSex Differences].

Negative identity and totalism

As pointed out, a negative identity remains an unruly part of the total identity. In addition, man tends to “make his own” the negative image of himself imposed on him by superiors and exploiters (Erikson 1959, pp. 31-38). To cite a contemporary issue, a colored child’s identity may have gained strength from his parent’s melodious speech, and yet he may come to suspect this speech as the mark of submission and begin to aspire to the harsh traits of a superiority from which the “master race” tries by every means to exclude him. A fanatical segregationist, in turn, may have learned to reinforce regional identity with the repudiation of everything colored and yet may have experienced early associations with colored people for which he remains nostalgic. He will, therefore, protect his superiority with a narrow-mindedness so defensive that it fails to provide a reliable identity in an enlightened society.

Two phenomena further complicate these inner rifts. For one, negative images become tightly associated with one another in the individual’s imagery. The reinforced defense against a negative identity may make a pronounced he-man despise in himself and others everything reminiscent of female sentimentality, colored passivity, or Jewish braininess and at the same time make him fear that what is thus held in contempt may take over his world. This kind of reaction is the source of much human hate. In the event of aggravated crises, furthermore, an individual (or a group) may despair of his or its ability to contain these negative elements in a positive identity. This can lead to a sudden surrender to total doctrines and dogmas (Lifton 1961) in which the negative identity becomes the dominant one. Many a young German, once sensitive to foreign criticism, became a ruthless Nazi on the rebound from the love for a Kultur which in post-Versailles Germany seemed at odds with a German identity. His new identity, however, was based on a totalism marked by the radical exclusion of dangerous otherness and on the failure to integrate historically given identity elements also alive in every German. What differentiates such totalism from conversions promising a more inclusive wholeness is the specific rage that is aroused wherever identity development loses the promise of a traditionally assured wholeness. This latent rage is easily exploited by fanatic and psychopathic leaders. It can explode in the arbitrary destructive-ness of mobs, and it can serve the efficient violence of organized machines of destruction.

Historical considerations

As predicted, developmental considerations have led us to examine historical processes, for identity and ideology seem to be two aspects of the same psychosocial process. But identity and ideology are only way stations on the route to further individual and collective maturation; new crises work toward those higher forms of social identification in which identities are joined, fused, renewed, and transcended.

There are, however, periods in history which are relative identity vacuums and in which three forms of human apprehension aggravate each other: fears aroused by discoveries and inventions (including weapons) which radically expand and change the whole world image, anxieties aggravated by the decay of institutions which had been the historical anchor of an existing ideology, and the dread of an existential vacuum devoid of spiritual meaning. In the past, ideological innovators evolved vital new identity ingredients out of their own prolonged and repeated adolescent conflicts (Erikson 1958; 1964, pp. 201-208). Today, however, the ideology of progress has made unpredictable and unlimited change itself the “wave of the future.” In all parts of the world, therefore, the struggle now is for anticipatory and more inclusive identities. Revolutionary doctrines promise the new identity of “peasant-and-worker” to the youth of countries which must overcome their tribal, feudal, or colonial orientation. At the same time, new nations attempt to absorb regions, and new markets attempt to absorb nations; the world space is extended to include outer space as the proper locale for a universal technological identity.

Functioning societies can reconfirm their principles, and true leaders can create significant new solidarities only by supporting the development of more inclusive identities; for only a new and enlightened ethics can successfully replace dying moralisms. Nehru said that Gandhi had given India an identity; and, indeed, by perfecting an active mode of nonviolence, Gandhi had transformed a divisive and negative identity (the “passive” Indian) into an inclusive and militant claim on unified nationhood. In other parts of the world, youth itself has shown that when trusted to do so, it can provide patterns for new elites. One thinks here of Israel’s “kibbutzniks,” the U.S. Peace Corps, and the American students committed to the dislodgement of racial prejudice. In such developments, young men and women can be seen to develop new forms of solidarity and new ethics.

In conclusion, however, we must remind ourselves that the complementarity and relativity of individual identity and collective ideology (which no doubt has emerged as part of man’s sociogenetic evolution) also bestows on man a most dangerous potential, namely, a lastingly immature perspective on history. Ideologies and identities, it is true, strive to overcome the tyranny of old moralisms and dogmatisms; yet, they often revert to these, seduced by the righteousness by which otherness is repudiated when the conditions supporting a sense of identity seem in danger. Old ideologists equipped with modern weaponry could well become mankind’s executioners. But a trend toward an all-inclusive human identity, and with it a universal ethics, is equally discernible in the development of man, and it may not be too utopian to assume that new and world-wide systems of technology and communication may serve to make this universality more manifest.

Erik H. Erikson

[Directly related are the entriesPersonality; Psychoanalysis, article onego Psychology; Self Concept. Other relevant material may be found inAdolescence; Anthropology, article onCulturalAnthropology; Developmental psychology; Infancy; Life cycle; Socialization.]


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