Identity Definition

The concept of identity has been defined as an internalized psychic system that integrates an individual’s inner self and the outer social world into a congruent whole. The integration of a personal self and social outer world has been viewed as a developmental process and one that, according to Erik Erikson, requires the individual to synthesize fragments of childhood identifications into a single structure during late adolescence and early adulthood. Identity formation has long been viewed in this way; however, the notion that individuals synthesize fragments of childhood identifications into a single structure during adolescence may no longer be an adequate model in which to fully understand the development of identity. Many researchers and theorists now contend that traditional theories of identity development do not fully explain the development of an individual’s group or social identity such as gender, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. A prominent criticism of foundational theories of identity development is that they were constructed based on traditional Eurocentric individualistic culture. Consequently, traditional theories may not aptly apply to women, non-White European racial/ethnic groups, and collectivistic cultures whose family systems, cultural norms, and developmental milestones may be different from traditional Eurocentric cultural patterns. It is at this point that psychologists began looking at elements of personal identity and the sociopolitical and cultural forces that affect identity.

Much of the research examining identity has focused on traits or dynamics that are considered universal for all human beings (e.g., self-esteem, introversion-extraversion, and levels of anxiety) regardless of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, or class. At this level, researchers and clinicians treat human experiences as being similar, for example, the experiences of aging, coping with life stress, and interpersonal relationships. However, the extent to which any one of these traits and dynamics may be high or low, prominent, amplified, or muted differs as a result of sociodemographic categories such as culture, class, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

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All individuals must merge cognitive, emotional, and social factors to construct one’s sense of self. Although the process of integration is similar for many people, Erikson’s theory does not account for differences people may experience while integrating multiple identities based on demographic categories (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability). An individual’s unique traits and characteristics, family dynamics, cultural and ethnic norms, beliefs and attitudes, and experiences of oppression significantly contribute to the development of one’s inner self and social outer world. These factors may either inhibit or facilitate the developmental process of exploration, resolution, and commitment needed for the expression and saliency of one’s identity. As the field of psychology has incorporated a broader understanding of identity, many researchers and theorists have come to recognize that individuals are cultural beings and are affected differently by various dimensions of personal identity and contextual factors. The relationship between psychological and socio-cultural forces in individuals’ lives has expanded conceptualizations of the manner in which individuals develop awareness and acceptance of themselves in relation to self, others, their place and definition in society, and membership(s) in social groups.

Social and Group Identity

Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory is an integration of social psychological theories that describe the process by which individuals identify with respective social groups. People categorize themselves and are categorized by others in terms of social reference groups, which often serve to maintain shared attitudes, beliefs, and values common to insider members. A feeling of “belonging” is an important aspect of every person’s sense of self. Social groups help create a frame of reference that contributes to an individual’s place and definition in society. Personal identity development addresses the question “Who am I?” whereas social identity addresses the question “Who am I, relative to others?” The latter question is rather poignant for non-dominant group members, who often experience issues of societal oppression, discrimination, and marginalization that are connected with their group identity. When taking these factors into account, exploration of identity may include the need to be aware of, evaluate, and self-identify with respective social groups (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, religion), while experiencing oppression and marginalization associated with membership in those respective groups. Identification with a social group that is viewed negatively by society is filled with cognitive and affective challenges that must be negotiated and integrated with the self. Consequently, integrating inner and outer perceptions of oneself becomes a complex process, potentially involving positive perceptions of oneself on a personal level, but also having to negotiate negative perceptions of oneself as a member of a respective social group. Commitment and resolution toward an integrated “self,” as proposed by traditional identity theorists, can therefore become more challenging and difficult.

Identity Development Models

During the past 20 years, identity development models have emerged primarily because of the interest in multicultural counseling. Several models have been developed to describe racial identity, feminist and womanist identity, gay and lesbian identity, biracial identity, and social class worldview. Identity models provide a conceptual framework to describe the psychological and sociocultural affiliation and connectedness to respective social groups. Typically each model describes a progression through a series of stages or ego statuses of nonacceptance/unawareness to self-acceptance/awareness of a specific social group. Each ego status involves distinct developmental tasks, which must be resolved for successful progression to the next status. Some models focus on the impact of “isms” (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexism) as contributing factors to acceptance or nonacceptance of a respective social identity. For example, Janet Helms’s models of racial identity describe the process of development by which members in respective social groups must overcome internalized racism in order to achieve a self-affirming racial group identity. The general assumption of Helms’s and other social identity development theories is that if an individual can embrace the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs relative to his or her social identity, his or her psychological well-being will be positive.

This description regarding the process of identity development is a very general theme found in many identity development models and should not be interpreted as a uniform process for all members within a respective social group or across social groups. Experiences of “isms” are internalized differently from person to person and from group to group and should be explored from both an etic and an emic perspective. Identity development involves the process of integrating an individual’s cognitive, emotional, and social experiences with aspects of his or her inner self (e.g., personality traits, anxiety, self-esteem, introversion-extroversion).

Until the recent past, models of identity have focused on single social identities. Researchers and theorists have argued that single-identity models are inadequate to describe and understand individuals’ multiple social identities from this perspective. Many people are members of more than one social group. For example, women of color identify as women and as racial group members. Additionally, both memberships place these individuals in marginalized, non-dominant groups. Given that most identity models and identity theories focus on one identity, they often omit experiences related to the convergence of multiple identities within one individual. Membership in overlapping social identities may also extend to experiencing and internalizing multiple forms and layers of oppression. Psychological and sociocultural factors influence the development of one’s social identities and thus affect the way in which an individual integrates those identities to construct a congruent whole.

Individuals are cultural beings, and all aspects of an individual’s identity are interconnected (including race, gender, class, sexual orientation). The development of an individual’s identity involves integrating the cognitive, emotional, and social experiences related to his or her social identity with aspects of his or her inner self (e.g., personality traits, anxiety, self-esteem, introversion-extroversion). An individual’s sociocultural context serves as a filter through which the cognitive, emotional, and social experiences of his or her social outer world are integrated with aspects of his or her personal self to construct a congruent whole. This complex process of integration is particularly salient for individuals who are members of non-dominant groups. They often have the challenging task of integrating multiple, sometimes conflicting, aspects of themselves to form a single structure of identity. Counseling strategies need to embrace the idea that identity development for nonmajority members includes sociocultural factors, as well as personal aspects of the self. In this way, the individual is better able to integrate all facets of his or her multiple selves and develop a more congruent, whole sense of self.


  1. Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.
  2. Helms, J. E. (1994). Black and White racial identity: Theory, research, and practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  3. Triandis, H. C. (1989). The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts. Psychological Review, 96, 506-620.

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