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Two Different Psychological Approaches to Identity

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Identity within psychological terms is the study of who we are and how we live our everyday lives. Since William James introduced the first theory of identity in 1890, psychologists have been driven to explore and explain the fundamental principles of how our identity is established.

The Psychosocial theory was developed by German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1902 - 1994). Erikson believed that identity was comprised of two essential elements, social and personal identity. Although believed to be inter-linked, Erikson treated each as separate. (Phoenix, 2007, p.53). His theories were based on observational methods.

Erikson believed that our identity was a life-long developmental process that would ultimately give the individual a sense of position and connectivity, not just with the past but also with direction for the future. Also essential to Erikson's theory was the importance of a positive sense of identity, derived through a sense of self-worth and continuity provided by the society in which the individual lives. He believed that the views of the social groups to which we belong must stay consist to re-enforce a positive sense of identity.(Phoenix, 2007, p.53).

Erikson's theory argues that identity is a succession of developmental conflicts, from personal issues or those imposed on us by social expectation. The nature of these conflicts, are wholly dependant on the zeitgeist in which the individual lives. Erikson believed that the resolution of these 'normative crisis' were the building blocks of our identity. Each needed to be successfully resolved for us to move onto the next stage of our identity development. This developmental theory has eight clear stages from birth to old age, each with it's own normative crisis and distinct resolution outcomes. (Phoenix, 2007, p.53).

Erikson's theory pays particular relevance to stage five - adolescence. Erikson believed that our identity's were predominately but not fully established during this stage . Erikson argues that if normative crisis is not resolved during adolescence then a smooth transition into adulthood cannot be achieved. This transition, Erikson argues, is essential for an individual to achieve a clear self-understanding and worth within the personal and social perspective essential for creating a central core identity. (Phoenix, 2007. pp.56 & 57).

In more recent studies, James Marcia has attempted to expand on Erikson's fifth-stage theory on identity into a measurable structure using semi-structured interviews. (Phoenix, 2007,p.58).

The Social Identity Theory or SIT was primarily developed by Henri Tajfel (1919-82) although the term SIT was coined by two of Tajfel's students (Turner & Brown, 1978) (as cited in Phoenix 2007, p.62). Tajfel wanted to explain identity though a social not individual perspective. His theory was developed from his own experience as a survivor of Nazi persecution during WWII. (Phoenix 2007, p.62). Hoggs and Adams, 1999 (as cited in Phoenix, 2007 p. 62) state that Tajfel wanted to understand the processes that can result in group prejudices.

Tajfel believed that identity was multifaceted That is was comprised of parts of all the social groups that the individual belongs. He also divided identity into two distinct groups, personal identity relating to the close relationships we have with individuals and social identity pertaining to the category we belong to; i.e. race, gender etc.

Tajfel's research methods were experimental, laboratory based studies between randomly assigned groups. This technique was designed to ascertain whether simply belonging to a group was sufficient to produce a sense of 'in-group' identity and 'out-group'



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