Identity Theory

views updated


Identity theory, in the present context, has its referent in a specific and delimited literature that seeks to develop and empirically examine a theoretical explanation, derived from what has been called a structural symbolic interactionist perspective (Stryker 1980), of role choice behavior. It is only one of a large number of formulations—social scientific, therapeutic, humanistic—in which the concept of identity plays a central role, formulations having their roots in a variety of disciplines ranging from theology through philosophy to political science, psychology, social psychology, and sociology. Further mention of these diverse formulations will be forgone in order to focus on identity theory as specified above; those who desire leads into the literature of sociology and social psychology to which identity theory most closely relates will find them in McCall and Simmons (1978); Stryker (1980); Weigert (1983); Stryker and Statham (1985); Hewitt (1997a, 1997b); MacKinnon (1994); and Burke and Gecas (1995).

The prototypical question addressed by identity theory, phrased illustratively, is: Why is it that one person, given a free weekend afternoon, chooses to take his or her children to the zoo while another person opts to spend that time on the golf course with friends? The language of this prototypical question implies a scope limitation of the theory that is important to recognize at the outset of the discussion. The theory is intended to apply to situations where alternative courses of action are reasonably, and reasonably equivalently, open to the actor. A defining assumption of the symbolic interactionist theoretical framework is that human beings are actors, not merely reactors. Identity theory shares this assumption, which recognizes the possibility of choice as a ubiquitous feature of human existence. At the same time, however, identity theory recognizes the sociological truth that social structure and social interaction are equally ubiquitous in constraining—not in a strict sense "determining"—human action. That constraint is variable. It may be true in an abstract and philosophical sense that people are "free" to act in any way they choose in any situation in which they may find themselves, including choosing to endure great punishment or even death rather than to behave in ways demanded by others; but surely it is entirely reasonable to presume that jailed prisoners have no viable options with respect to many—likely most—facets of life and in any event have fewer viable options than persons who are not jailed. Identity theory has more to say on those the latter persons than on the former, and more to say on those—perhaps few—aspects of life about which the former do have reasonable choice than on those many aspects of prisoner life where options, as a practical matter, do not exist.

As a derivative of a symbolic interactionist theoretical framework, identity theory shares a number of the assumptions or premises of interactionist thought in general. One, that human beings are actors as well as reactors, has already been suggested. A second is that human action and interaction are critically shaped by definitions or interpretations of the situations of action and interaction, which definitions and interpretations are based on shared meanings developed in the course of interaction with others. A third premise is that the meanings which persons attribute to themselves, their self-conceptions, are especially critical to the process producing their action and interaction. And a fourth premise is that self-conceptions, like other meanings, are shaped in the course of interaction with others and are, at least in the initial instance and at least largely, the outcomes of others' responses to the person.

The fourth premise has sometimes been phrased as "self reflects society." Taken in conjunction with the third premise, it gives rise to the basic theoretical proposition or formula of symbolic interactionism: Society shapes self, which shapes social behavior. That formula, it must be noted, admits of and, indeed, insists upon the possibility of reciprocity among its components—social behavior impacts self and society, and self can impact society. Identity theory builds upon refinements of the traditional symbolic interactionist framework and specifications of its basic formula.

The refinements essentially have to do with three facets of the traditional symbolic interactionist framework as it evolved from Mead ([1934] 1962), Cooley ([1902] 1983), Blumer (1969), and others: the conceptualization of society, the conceptualization of self, and the relative weight to be accorded social structure versus interpretive processes in accounts of human behavior. The traditional framework tends to view "society" as unitary, as a relatively undifferentiated and unorganized phenomenon with few, if any, internal barriers to the evolution of universally shared meanings. It also tends to a view "society" as an unstable and ephemeral reflection, even reification, of relatively transient, ever-shifting patterns of interaction. In this view of society, social structures, as these are typically conceived of by sociologists, have little place in accounts of persons' behaviors. These accounts tend to be innocent of a coherent sense of extant social constraints on those behaviors, and there are few means of linking the dynamics of social interaction in reasonably precise ways to the broader social settings that serve as context for persons' action and interaction.

Further, and enlarging this theme of an inadequate conceptualization and consequent neglect of social structure, this view of society tends to dissolve social structure in the universal solvent of subjective definitions and interpretations, thus missing the obdurate reality of social forms whose impact on behavior is undeniable. To say this does not deny the import for social life of the definitional and interpretative processes central to interactionist thinking and explanation. It is, however, to say that seeing these processes as in large degree unanchored and without bounds, as open to any possibility whatsoever without recognizing that some are much more probable than others, results in visualizing social life as less a product of external constraints and more a product of persons' phenomenology than is likely warranted. Finally, on the premise that self reflects society, this view of society leads directly to a view of self as unitary, as equivalently internally undifferentiated, unorganized, unstable, and ephemeral.

Contemporary sociology's image of society is considerably different from that contained in traditional symbolic interactionism, and it is the contemporary sociological conceptualization of society that is incorporated into the structural symbolic interactionist frame from which identity theory derives. This contemporary conceptualization emphasizes the durability of the patterned interactions and relationships that are at the heart of sociology's sense of social structure. It emphasizes social structure's resistance to change and its tendency to reproduce itself. The contemporary image differs as well by visualizing societies as highly differentiated yet organized systems of interactions and relationships; as complex mosaics of groups, communities, organizations, institutions; and as encompassing a wide variety of crosscutting lines of social demarcation based upon social class, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, and more. This vast diversity of parts is seen as organized in multiple and overlapping ways—interactionally, functionally, and hierarchically. At the same time, the diverse parts of society are taken to be sometimes highly interdependent and sometimes relatively independent of one another, sometimes implicated in close and cooperative interaction and sometimes conflicting.

The symbolic interactionist premise that self reflects society now requires a very different conceptualization of self, one that mirrors the altered conception of society. Self must be seen as multifaceted, as comprised of a variety of parts that are sometimes interdependent and sometimes independent of other parts, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes conflicting, and that are organized in multiple ways. It requires a sense of self in keeping with James's ([1890] 1990) view that persons have as many selves as there are other persons who react to them, or at least as many as there are groups of others who do so.

Equally important, viewing both society and self as complex and multifaceted as well as organized opens the way to escaping the overly general, almost banal, and essentially untestable qualities of the basic symbolic interactionist formula by permitting theorization of the relations between particular parts of society and particular parts of self, and by permitting reasonable operationalizations of those parts.

In identity theory, this theorization proceeds by specifying the terms of the basic symbolic interactionist formula, doing so by focusing on particulars hypothesized as especially likely to be important in impacting role choice. That is, first of all, the general category of social behavior is specified by taking role choice—opting to pursue action meeting the expectations contained in one role rather than another—as the object of explanation. Role choice is hypothesized to be a consequence of identity salience, a specification of the general category of self, and identity salience is hypothesized to be a consequence of commitment, a specification of society. Identity theory's fundamental proposition, then, is: Commitment impacts identity salience impacts role choice.

The concept of identity salience develops from the multifaceted view of self articulated above. Self is conceptualized as comprised of a set of discrete identities, or internalized role designations, with persons potentially having as many identities as there are organized systems of role relationships in which they participate. Identities require both that persons be placed as social objects by having others assign a positional designation to them and that the persons accept that designation (Stone 1962; Stryker 1968). By this usage, identities are self-cognitions tied to roles and, through roles, to positions in organized social relationships; one may speak of the identities of mother, husband, child, doctor, salesman, employee, senator, candidate, priest, tennis player, churchgoer, and so on. By this usage, too, identities are cognitive schemas (Markus 1977), structures of cognitive associations, with the capacity of such schemas to impact ongoing cognitive and perceptual processes (Stryker and Serpe 1994).

Self is not only multifaceted; it is also postulated to be organized. Identity theory takes hierarchy as a principal mode of organization of identities; in particular, it assumes that identities, given their properties as cognitive schemas, will vary in their salience, and that self is a structure of identities organized in a salience hierarchy. Identity salience is defined as the probability that a given identity will be invoked, or called into play, in a variety of situations; alternatively, it can be defined as the differential probability, across persons, that a given identity will be invoked in a given situation. Identity theory's fundamental proposition hypothesizes that choice between or among behaviors expressive of particular roles will reflect the relative location in the identity salience hierarchy of the identities associated with those roles.

The concept of commitment has its basic referent in the networks of social relationships in which persons participate; as such, commitment is a social structural term. Associated with the "complex mosaic of differentiated parts" image of society is the recognition that persons conduct their lives not in the context of society as a whole but, rather, in the many contexts of relatively small and specialized social networks, networks made up of persons to whom they relate by virtue of occupancy of particular social positions and the playing of the associated roles. To say that persons are committed to some social network is to say that their relationships to the other members of that network depend on their playing particular roles and having particular identities: To the degree that one's relationships to specific others depend on being a particular kind of person, one is committed to being that kind of person. Thus, commitment is measured by the costs of giving up meaningful relations to others should an alternative course of action be pursued. Commitment, so defined and measured, is hypothesized by identity theory to be the source of the salience attached to given identities (Stryker 1968, 1980, 1987a).

Two analytically distinct and possibly independent dimensions or forms of commitment have been discerned: interactional and affective (Serpe 1987; Stryker 1968). The former has its referent in the number of relationships entered by virtue of having a given identity and by the ties across various networks of relationships (for instance, one may relate as husband not only to one's spouse, her friends, and her relatives but also to members of a couples' bridge club and other such groups). The latter has its referent in the depth of emotional attachment to particular sets of others.

Reciprocity among the three terms of the identity theory formula is again recognized; but the dominant thrust of the process is hypothesized to be as stated by the proposition, on the grounds that identity, as a strictly cognitive phenomenon, can change more readily than can commitment, whose conceptual core is interaction rather than cognition.

The empirical evidence brought to bear on the hypotheses contained in the fundamental identity theory formula has been supportive. Stryker and Serpe (1982) demonstrate that both time spent acting out a religious role and preferred distribution of time to that role are tied to the salience of the identity associated with the role; they demonstrate as well that the salience of the religious identity is tied to commitment (in this case, the measure of commitment combines interactional and affective commitment) to others known through religious activities. Burke and various associates (Burke and Hoelter 1988; Burke and Reitzes 1981; Burke and Tully 1977) show the link between identity and gender, academic attainment and aspirations, and occupational aspirations, finding evidence that the linkage reflects the commonality of meaning of identity and behavior. Lee (1998) finds that the correspondence of meanings of students' personal identities and meanings they attach to those occupying positions in scientific disciplines predicts interest in science as well as appreciably accounting for gender differences in intention to become scientists. Serpe and Stryker (1987), using data on student-related identities obtained at three points in time from students entering a residential college, provide evidence that the salience of these identities is reasonably stable over time; that in a situation in which earlier commitments have been attenuated by a move to a residential university, high identity salience leads to efforts to reconstruct social relationships that permit playing the role associated with the salient identity, efforts taking the form of joining appropriate organizations; and that when such efforts are not successful, the level of salience of the identity subsequently drops and self-structure is altered. Callero (1985), Callero and associates (1987), and Charng and associates (1988) show that commitment and identity salience add appreciably to the ability to account for the behavior of repeated blood donors. Sparks and Shepherd (1992) find, to their considerable surprise, that identity theory–based predictions stand up well in accounting for behavioral intentions with regard to green consumerism, the predicted relationships holding when examined in the context of the variables of a theory of planned behavior. Serpe (1987) shows that over time there is indeed a reciprocal relationship between commitment to various student role relationships and the salience of identities associated with those roles, and that the identity theory hypothesis arguing the greater impact over time of commitment on salience than vice versa is correct.

The success of identity theory attested to in this brief and incomplete review of empirical evidence notwithstanding, however, there is reason to believe that the theory requires development and extension beyond the basic proposition that has been the major focus of attention to this point. Indeed, such work has begun; and it has a variety of thrusts. How to incorporate varying degrees of situational constraint into the theory—the impact that variations in "choice" have on the ways in which the relationships among commitment, identity salience, and role performances play themselves out—is one such thrust (Serpe 1987). Another seeks to explore mechanisms underlying the linkages among commitment and identity salience, and identity salience and behavior; to this end, work (especially by Burke and Reitzes 1981, 1991) exploits the basic symbolic interactionist idea that it is commonality of meaning which makes social life possible. Some attention has been given to extending the applicability and predictive power of identity theory by incorporating into it other than strictly role-based identities; in particular, the concern has been with what have been termed "master statuses" (such as age, gender, and class) and personal traits (such as aggressiveness and honesty), and the suggestion is that master statuses and traits may affect identity processes by modifying the meaning of the roles from which identities derive (Stryker 1987a). Stryker and Serpe (1994) treat the conceptual and measurement confusion of the importance ranking of identities and identity salience, in the process showing that both importance and salience respond to commitment, that importance and salience are related, and that both contribute to the prediction of role-related behavior.

An effort is being made to correct the almost totally cognitive focus of identity theory (as well as its parent and grandparent interactionist frameworks) by recognizing the importance of affect and emotion to the processes with which the theory is concerned. The earliest statement of the theory (Stryker 1968) posited a cathectic modality of self that parallels the cognitive modality from which the emphasis on identity flows; however, subsequent work on the theory has not pursued that idea. Stryker (1987b) has attempted to integrate emotion into the theory by arguing, with Hochschild (1979), that emotional expressions carry important messages from self and, beyond Hochschild, that the experiences of emotions are messages to self informing those who experience those emotions of the strength of commitments and the salience of identities.

Finally—and here work has barely begun—it is time to make good on the promise to provide more adequate conceptualization of the linkages between identity theory processes and the wider social structures within which these processes are embedded. From the point of view of structural symbolic interactionism, structures of class, ethnicity, age, gender, and so on operate as social boundaries making it more or less probable that particular persons will form interactional networks; in this way, such social structures enter identity theory directly through their impact on commitments. However, the relation of such structures to identity processes clearly goes beyond this direct impact; they affect not only the probabilities of interaction but also the content (meanings) of the roles entailed in interaction and, thus, the meanings of identities, the symbolic and material resources available to those who enter interaction with others, and the objectives or ends to which interactions are oriented. Explication of these impacts, both direct and indirect, of social structure on the processes that relate commitment, identity salience, and role performance remains to be accomplished.


Blumer, Herbert 1969 Symbolic Interactionism: Perspectiveand Method. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Burke, Peter J., and Viktor Gecas 1995 "Self and Identity." In Karen Cook, Gary A. Fine, and James House, eds., Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Burke, Peter J., and Jon W. Hoelter 1988 "Identity and Sex–Race Differences in Educational and Occupational Aspirations Formation." Social Science Research 17:29–47.

Burke, Peter J., and Donald C. Reitzes 1981 "The Link Between Identity and Role Performance." Social Psychology Quarterly 44:83–92.

——1991 "An Identity Theory Approach to Commitment." Social Psychology Quarterly 54:239–251.

Burke, Peter J., and Judy Tully 1977 "The Measurement of Role/Identity." Social Forces 55:880–897.

Callero, Peter L. 1985 "Role-Identity Salience." SocialPsychology Quarterly 48:203–215.

——, Judith A. Howard, and Jane A. Piliavin 1987 "Helping Behavior as Role Behavior: Disclosing Social Structure and History in the Analysis of Pro-Social Action." Social Psychology Quarterly 50:247–256.

Charng, Hong-Wen, June Allyn Piliavin, and Peter L. Callero 1988 "Role-Identity and Reasoned Action in the Prediction of Repeated Behavior." Social Psychology Quarterly 51:303–317.

Cooley, Charles H. (1902) 1983 Human Nature and SocialOrder. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.

Hewitt, John P. 1997a Dilemmas of the American Self. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

——1997b Self and Society, 7th ed. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Hochschild, Arlie R. 1979 "Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure." American Journal ofSociology 85:551–575.

James, William (1890) 1990 Principles of Psychology. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Lee, James D. 1998 "What Kids Can 'Become' Scientists? The Effects of Gender, Self-Concepts, and Perceptions of Scientists." Social Psychology Quarterly 61:199–219.

MacKinnon, Neil J. 1994 Symbolic Interaction as AffectControl. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Markus, Hazel 1977 "Self-Schemas and Processing Information About the Self." Journal of Personality andSocial Psychology 35:63–78.

McCall, George, and J. S. Simmons 1978 Identities andInteraction, rev. ed. New York: Free Press.

Mead, George H. (1934) 1963 Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Serpe, Richard T. 1987 "Stability and Change in Self: A Structural Symbolic Interactionist Explanation." Social Psychology Quarterly 50:44–55.

——, and Sheldon Stryker 1987 "The Construction of Self and the Reconstruction of Social Relationships." In Edward J. Lawler and Barry Markovsky, eds., Advances in Group Processes, vol. 4. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Sparks, Paul, and Richard Shepherd 1992 "Self-Identity and the Theory of Planned Behavior: Assessing the Role of Identification with 'Green Consumerism."' Social Psychology Quarterly 55:388–399.

Stone, Gregory P. 1962 "Appearance and the Self." In Arnold M. Rose, ed., Human Behavior and the SocialProcess. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Stryker, Sheldon 1968 "Identity Salience and Role Performance." Journal of Marriage and the Family 30:558–564.

——1980 Symbolic Interactionism: A Social StructuralVersion. Menlo Park, Calif.: Benjamin/Cummings.

——1987a "Identity Theory: Developments and Extensions." In Krysia Yardley and Terry Honess, eds., Self and Society: Psychosocial Perspectives. New York: Wiley.

——1987b "The Interplay of Affect and Identity: Exploring the Relationships of Social Structure, Social Interaction, Self and Emotion." Paper presented at annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Chicago.

——, and Richard T. Serpe 1982 "Commitment, Identity Salience, and Role Behavior: Theory and Research Example." In William Ickes and Eric S. Knowles, eds., Personality, Roles, and Social Behavior. New York: Springer-Verlag.

——, and Richard T. Serpe 1994 "Identity Salience and Psychological Centrality: Equivalent, Overlapping, or Complementary Concepts?" Social Psychology Quarterly 57:16–35.

——, and Ann Statham 1985 "Symbolic Interactionism and Role Theory." In Gardner Lindzey and Eliot Aronson, eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology, 3rd ed. New York: Random House.

Weigert, Andrew J. 1983 "Identity: Its Emergence Within Sociological Psychology." Symbolic Interaction 6:183–206.

Sheldon Stryker