Identity comprises individual and social elements, with most theories stemming from the notion that ‘knowing who we are requires that we know who we are not,’ adhering to simultaneous influences on the body through social/psychological as well as physical/biological means; a common theme of ‘embodiment’. Psychosocial theory, defined as an interaction of the biological, psychological and societal systems, can be examined for patterns of continuity and change. It considers that all identities are social.
Erikson, the first to acknowledge the Psychosocial, categorized the process where the shape of a persons identity formulates from the community in which they live, consisting of a ‘conscious state of individual uniqueness with the unconscious striving for continuity reinforced by a solidarity with group ideals. ’ Thus his ‘Ego Psychology’ differentiated from Heinz Hertman and Freud interpretations. It attempts to classify human development throughout a lifespan, focussing on alterations in ego development reflected through self-understanding, identity formation, social relationships and worldview.
Erikson came to a powerful realisation that identity is taken for granted when life is going well and consequently we become unselfconscious. He did not consider that identity never changed, but that development of a core identity involved various positive and negative, individual and social factors. These ‘negative crises’ would be typical of most people. Erikson proposed the ‘Eight Stages of Development’, following the epigenetic principle, comprising periods of growth, recognition and function between the individual and their social environment.
He considered the psychomoratorium of Stage 5 (Identity versus Role confusion) to be crucial, where various life decisions are confronted and ‘ego identity’ must be achieved. He defined failure of achievement as ‘role diffusion’ where the belief that it is ‘abnormal to be normal’ is accepted. Hence social groups are intrinsic to this stage. His wife, Joan Erikson, later concluded that each sequential growth is significantly socially influenced where resolutions of the basic confrontation are realised through the support of a social environment.
William James and Wilhelm Wundt’s original idea of introspectionism, contributed to the refining of Erikson’s adolescent stage. James Marcia, who posited that Erikson’s adolescent stage is rather the degree of commitment to an identity within a variety of life domains, argues that two distinct parts form an adolescent’s identity: crisis and commitment. His Identity Status argues that identity is determined largely by the commitments made regarding certain personal and social traits, and not the sequential process indited by Erikson.
Psychosocial theory exemplifies identity achievement as the outcome of a relationship towards significant others who socially demand, expect and reward. Erikson and Marcia’s frameworks of stages have been considered by acclaimed psychologists to further the understanding of identity and personality, such as Jean Piaget’s ‘Stages of Cognitive Development’ , Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs motivational model’ and most recently Ulric Neisser’s ‘Five Kinds of Self’.
Social Constructionism focuses on human consciousness in conjunction with community and world affairs, manifesting itself in discourses – the processes by which people construct meanings. Developed by several psychologists it focuses itself on meaning and power between people or groups of people, highlighting that identities are fluid and mutable. This is not to say that social constructionism is not influenced by history or tradition, but rather that change happens and that decisions are based on societal belief.
Potter and Wetherell emphasise this in the example of Nelson Mandela, where some would name him a freedom fighter, and others a terrorist. Social constructionists discuss the power relationships that exist between people or groups of people. Kenneth Gergen illustrates the construction of his identity through anecdotes that are drawn from social relationships, arguing that identities are constructed between people through language and social relations in everyday interactions. In recent years the aspect of quantifying the erratic influences towards identity gives rise to the realism-relativism debate.
Lev Vygotsky’s earlier development of ‘The zone of proximal development’ elaborates on this in differentiating between what a learner can do with and without help. In his cultural-historical theory he wrote of the cultural and social construction of the human mind, and shared many of Piaget’s assumptions of how children learn, placing emphasis on the social context of learning. Social Constructionism theory may endorse diasporic identities that refer to the dispersal of people forced to consciously or unconsciously fashion new personalities.
It therefore plays a significant role in international relations and also working with the identity of people living with disability or within institutions. Furthermore both Erving Goffman and Jerome Bruner have also held analytical ideas towards this theory portrayed in their approaches of learning and social interaction. Bruner suggests that ‘we make ourselves and our identities through the stories about ourselves that we tell others and ourselves (our autobiographical narratives)’.
Woodward makes reference to Diane Blood’s personal story, where Blood reconstructs an heroic narrative of the use her dead husbands frozen sperm to ensure her children are able to construct their own identity stories. George Herbert Mead, credited for his discussion of the ‘I and Me’, explores an individual’s internal dramatisation of surroundings. Similarly, Mead affirms Erikson’s theory that the cognitive interpretation of social interaction with internalised conversation, constitute thinking and develop the origins and foundations of the self.
His ‘Symbolic Interactionism’ proposed that the dialogues between ‘I’ and ‘Me’ provide the basis of social order. However, constructionist theory demonstrates his idea of a shared system of meaning but not necessarily the approach of a ‘structured self’. Identity within these two approaches hold some similarities, yet each regards identity as vulnerable and subject to social categories such as gender, race, nationality, class, occupation, sexuality, religion etc.
By contrast Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory outlines the ideas of social creativity and mobility, and in addition, the ingroups and outgroups separating each individuals perspectives. These aspects can be found resonant within Psychosocial and Social Constructivist approaches through the respective actions of moratorium and discourse. Each theory has played an important role in contributing to understanding the processes of identity development and given new insights into international relations, immigration and those living with disability.