Within the discipline of psychology the study of identity has given rise to a number of theories that attempt to better understand how people’s identities are formed. This essay will describe two of the prominent theories – psychosocial and Social Identity Theory – and explain some of the differences between them. As the main point, it will contrast the individual approach of the psychosocial model with the group approach of Social Identity Theory. The essay will also suggest why these different approaches may have been developed.
The psychosocial theory was originally constructed by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1968, cited by Phoenix 2002) who contended that identity was formed by passing through a series of eight role transitions from infancy to old age. At each stage there would be a resolution conflict, the outcome of which would influence the achievement of identity. Erikson’s main focus was at the fifth, adolescent stage, where an individual would have the opportunity to experiment with different responses to social roles and expectations. This period of time, which Erikson called psychosocial moratorium, would either end successfully, resulting in a positive ego identity – a secure feeling of who and what you are – or an identity crisis, where feelings of being overwhelmed by all the role changes would lead to a failure to achieve a secure ego, a situation Erikson termed as role (or identity) diffusion.
Whilst Erikson’s approach may have merit, Phoenix (2002) alerts us to the fact that emphasis on identity crisis is not well supported by other psychologists, principally because further studies have found that changes in identity are gradual rather than at fixed times. On the other hand, there are clearly some set factors over which we have little or no control (for example, impending death) that may bring about a period of identity crisis, and in this regard Erikson’s approach may be more acceptable.
Erikson acknowledged the importance of social influence, but considered social identity as a separate system, thereby neglecting race, colour, gender and social class as critical factors. Instead, he emphasised individual and personal identity formation as the key aspects of his theory.
This approach to identity is in contrast to the Social Identity Theory (SIT) developed by Henri Tajfel (1978, cited by Phoenix 2002). Tajfel believed that identity was heavily shaped by social group membership rather than individualism. He claimed that people gain self-esteem from their sense of belonging to a social group or structure. Tajfel contended that group status creates a ‘them and us’ situation whereby identification with one’s own group (the ‘in-group’), creates positive self-esteem for its members, but often leads to rivalry or prejudice towards non-members (‘out-group’).
Tajfel’s research into social identity began with minimal groups, selected on trivial criteria such as preferences for painters. He discovered that people would be prepared to withhold rewards for an out-group even if this meant less reward for their own group, in order to preserve in-group status. These findings were used to assert that large-scale social categories such as gender, race, nationality, class, etc., can also experience competitiveness, prejudice and discrimination. Tajfel argued that when a social category feels inferior, it will endeavour to achieve a more superior status, either by attempting social change (for example, lobbying for changes in society’s perceptions or stereotyping of groups) or by efforts to be promoted to a higher social group.
In this regard, Social Identity Theory takes a more dynamic approach to the development of identity. Unlike psychosocial theory, where times and stages of conflict appear to be abrupt and inevitable, SIT acknowledges that tension between groups may result in social change, a migration to a different social group or an attempt to redefine the existing group in terms which convey higher status. Tajfel’s conclusions also maintain that identity is much more related to power and status than to the kind of chronological process of development defined by Erikson. However, Tajfel’s research has been criticised (Hayes, 1994) for asserting that group conflict is taking place when it is possible that hostility arises from interpersonal reaction between individuals from each group. It could also be argued that minimal group research is not necessarily reflective of the group dynamics of larger social structures (Henriques, 1998, cited by Phoenix 2002).
Erikson’s theory was developed further by James Marcia (1966, cited by Phoenix 2002) who wanted empirical evidence on how choices were made during the critical adolescent stage. Nevertheless, despite the introduction of research methods by Marcia and his deeper analysis of the adolescent period, this has not really closed the gap between the overall approaches of psychosocial theory and SIT.
Another point of difference is that whilst Tajfel’s approach to identity was wholly psychological, Erikson viewed physiology as a major factor in determining identity. He stated that the final period of his eight developmental stages occurred when bodily functions and features deteriorated, creating a conflict which could either result in positive feelings of life fulfilment, or general despair where life is considered to be meaningless and futile.
The backgrounds of Erikson and Tajfel suggest reasons for their different approaches. Erikson’s theory was based on his mainly observational work with World War 2 veterans, children and analyses of famous people. Erikson lived in what Kuther (2001, internet) called ‘a time of storm and stress.’ His theory reflected his own disturbed adolescence and he underwent extensive psychoanalysis by Anna Freud. Thus, Erikson’s approach to his theory seems the likely result of Freudian influence and his lack of empirically validated research reflects his observational rather than experimental methodology. In contrast, Tajfel’s personal experience of the powerful Nazis led to his quest to find causes and effects for their prejudice and persecution of others, culminating in a ‘group’ approach and a desire to provide substantive, robust evidence of his theory.
This essay has described some of the main differences between psychosocial and SIT theories, emphasising Erikson’s rigid, person-centred approach and Tajfel’s stance on social group concepts of identity. But given the criticism that Tajfel’s ‘group’ studies could simply be recording interpersonal behaviour, perhaps the differences are not so great after all.