What is identity?
An influential figure who wrote about the concept of identity in adult development and personality theory was Erik Erikson (1902-1994). Erikson proposed a theory of identity formation in childhood and adolescence that, while based on the Freudian view of development, extended Freud’s ideas through recognising the role identity played across a person’s adult life (Erikson, 1963). Erikson suggested that humans advanced through eight stages during their lives, with progression through levels contingent on solving some crisis. Erikson identified identity as a critical issue faced by adolescents in particular. He introduced the terms “identity crisis” and “role confusion” to explain the nexus between childhood and adulthood that needed to be resolved by a person in order to define their role and purpose in life and, ultimately, their identity as an adult (Erikson, 1963). Shaffer (1979) noted that Erikson had addressed the idea of shared identities, where individuals become intimate with others, experiencing mutual trust and an ability to care about others. Pervin (1984) suggested that Erikson made a major contribution to personality theory in three ways: by emphasising the psychosocial aspects of personality; through extending stages of development to encompass individuals entire life cycles; and in recognising that both the past and the future have a major impact on how people constructed their identities at different times in their lives.
Educational psychologists Vander Zanden and Pace (1984) applied Erikson’s ideas in defining identity as: ‘… an individual’s sense of placement within the world—the meaning one attaches to oneself as reflected in the answers one provides to the questions, “Who am I” and, “Who am I to be?”’ (p.74). Atchley (1989) also drew on the work of Erikson when he suggested that identity was ‘… a set of characteristics that differentiates self from others and that persists over time. Identity can also be a goal through which people try to arrive at a conception of themselves as loving, competent, and good’ (p.115).
A useful set of terms describing identity in adult development were articulated by Levinson (1990). The self was how a person perceived themselves; personality how a person appeared to others; and life structure the pattern of a person’s life that resulted from the interaction of self, personality and external world. Levinson suggested that these were unstable and ever-changing, as both the person and the world were constantly in transition. Identity was also strongly related to the concept of the self in combination with membership of various social and cultural groups (Paris et al., 2001), as well as the cultural tools that people interacted with, such as schools, museums, films, literature or other forms of cultural engagement. Paris et al. (2001) also argued that people constantly formed, re-formed and shaped their identity in order to understand themselves ‘… partly in relation to their own histories and anticipated futures’ (2001, p.257).
Kidd (2002) stated that identity was the way sociologists framed how individuals thought of themselves and their world. He defined identity as ‘… the characteristics of thinking, reflecting and self-perception that are held by people in society’ (p.24). Kidd identified three forms of identity:
- Individual identity – the unique sense of personhood held by each person in their own right.
- Social identity – a collective sense of belonging to a group, identifying themselves as having something in common with other group members.
- Cultural identity – a sense of belonging to a distinct ethnic, cultural or subcultural group.
Sfard and Prusak (2005) proposed that individuals had multiple identities defined by the narratives, or stories people told themselves. They outlined three narrative-defined identities—first-person identity as told by the person themselves; second-person identity as told to another person; and third-person identity told by a third party to a third party. Sfard and Prusak identified two subsets of identity and narrative: ‘… actual identity, consisting of stories about the actual state of affairs, and designated identity, consisting of narratives presenting a state of affairs which, for one reason or another, is expected to be the case, if not now then in the future’ (2005, p.18). Gee (2001) described a person’s “core identity” as a combination of their many different experiences and self-perceptions: ‘Being recognised as a certain “kind of person”, in a given context, is what I mean … by identity’ (p.99).
- Atchley, R. (1989). A continuity theory of normal aging. The Gerontologist, 29, 183-190.
- du Guy, P., Evans, J., & Redman, P. (Eds.). (2000). Identity: a reader. Sage: London.
- Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and Society. New York: MacMillan.
- Gee, J. (2001). Identity as an analytic lens for research in education. Review of Research in Education, 25, 99-125.
- Kidd, W. (2002). Culture and Identity. Hampshire: Palgrave.
- Paris, S., Byrnes, J., & Paris, A. (2001). Constructing theories, identities and actions of self-regulated learners. In B. Zimmerman & D. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement (2nd ed., pp. 253-287). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Pervin, L. (1984). Personality: Theory and Research (4th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
- Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling Identities: In Search of an Analytic Tool for Investigating Learning as a Culturally Shaped Activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
- Vander Zanden, J., & Pace, A. (1984). Educational Psychology: In Theory and Practice (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.