What is Ethnic Identity?

In our increasingly diverse society, issues of race and ethnicity have become of utmost interest to psychologists. Ethnic identity refers to a person’s social identity within a larger context based on membership in a cultural or social group. Research about ethnic identity has come from various disciplines, including psychology,  sociology,  and  anthropology  and  thus has been conceptualized and measured in different ways depending on the discipline. While sociologists and anthropologists have investigated group level processes related to ethnic identity, psychologists have focused more on the individual and the development of ethnic identity on the individual level.

Current conceptualizations of ethnic identity within psychological research suggest that it is a complex, multidimensional construct, with members of ethnic groups potentially varying widely in their sense of ethnic identity. Within an individual’s lifetime, as he or she encounters different situations and other people, ethnic identity can change and become more or less salient for that person depending on the context. Furthermore, societal and political influences (e.g., the Civil Rights era, and increasing immigration to the United States) can play a role in the development of ethnic identity, again emphasizing the dynamic and fluid nature of this construct.

While researchers disagree on the different aspects that comprise ethnic identity, common elements have been identified across ethnic groups. First, ethnic identity includes ethnic self-identification, or an individual’s self-label as a member of an ethnic group. Feelings of belongingness and evaluations of one’s ethnic group, as well as preferences for ethnic behaviors and practices, represent the affective components of ethnic identity. Cognitive components of ethnic identity refer to an individual’s knowledge about his or her ethnic group, such as cultural traditions and history. Finally, value orientations, which refer to cultural values associated with a group’s ethnicity (such as collectivism and familism), are another important aspect of ethnic identity.

Research about ethnic identity has involved interviews, open-ended questions, and quantitative measures and questionnaires. Findings suggest that members of ethnic groups report ethnic identity to be a defining aspect of their identity. Results also suggest that for some individuals within different ethnic groups (i.e., African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos) ethnic identity is associated with self-esteem, though this relationship depends on the individual and ethnic group. Specifically, individuals with more positive evaluations of their ethnic group tend to have higher levels of self-esteem. This relationship is usually stronger for individuals for whom ethnicity is salient, such as members of minority groups within the United States.

Various theories have been proposed to describe the process that individuals undergo as they form their ethnic identity. One of the earliest models of racial/ ethnic identity was advanced by William Cross (1971) to  describe African American  identity  development, and this model has since been applied to other ethnic groups as well. In this conceptualization, racial identity development involves a process of four stages: preencounter, encounter, immersion-emersion, and internalization. During each of these stages, an individual negotiates the culture around him or her, moving from a goal of assimilating to European American culture to the final stage of possessing a secure African American identity. Janet Helms (1990) has described a model of White racial identity that is analogous to the model proposed by Cross, though it involves six stages of identity development. Finally, Jean Phinney’s (1991) model of ethnic identity is based in Erikson and Marica’s psychosocial approach to development. This stage model, which has been studied within adolescents, suggests that as an individual moves from an unexamined identity to searching for an identity to identity achievement, self-concept will increase. Thus exploring the meaning of one’s ethnicity often leads to a secure ethnic identity in an adolescent or young adult.


  1. Bernal, E., Knight, G. P., Ocampo, K. A., Garza, C. A., & Cota, M. K. (1993). Ethnic identity: Formation and transmission among Hispanics and other minorities. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Cross, W. (1971). Negro-to-Black conversion experience.Black World, 20, 13–27.
  3. Guanipa-Ho, Guanipa, J. A. (n.d.). Ethnic identity and adolescence. Retrieved from http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/ CGuanipa/ethnic.htm
  4. Helms, E. (1990). Black and White racial identity: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Greenwood.
  5. Phinney, S. (1991). Ethnic identity and self-esteem: A review and integration. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 13, 193–208.