The problem of identity is where psychology merges with culture. Human beings are biological creatures, to be sure. But among the myriad species on our planet, we are strongly given to the absorption of story into our being, so that we are self-consciously biographical creatures, needing reminders from time to time that we are animals as well. We are animals who inherit and create history; we take seriously our religions, our nationalities, our kinships, our racial markers, and our occupational and professional achievements and failures. We are identified by these and other markers—some transient, some permanent.

We are bathed in culture from birth. A name is given—in Western culture, a first name to provide distinction, a surname to provide connection. Words are spoken to the mewling infant, a preposterous exercise, it would seem—but one that lays down the fundaments of social identity. Given the medium of language, children can learn who they are—can come to see themselves, more or less, as others see them—as having a particular name and connection to others via family, as having a gender and a race and a nationality, and  perhaps  even  a  religious  identity. As  children grow, they acquire more social connections—in schools, on playgrounds, in the streets, in the fields, and by coming to participate, selectively to be sure, in such opportunities for human affiliation as are afforded by the host society. Identity is both given and acquired.

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Identity is so pervasive in human experience that the meaning of the term itself can be slippery. Indeed, the term is used in a variety of senses in contemporary psychology. Social psychologists refer to identity as congeries  of  social  roles  and  perceptions  of  those roles. Piaget thought of identity as a cognitive achievement, so that a young child is at some point able to see that objects, including human objects, retain their essential identities even though they are reshaped or transformed. Conservation of identity is demonstrated by an exercise described by Michael Lewis, wherein a child of 3 years of age touches his or her own rouged nose while looking in a mirror, as opposed to the behavior of a younger child, who reaches out to touch the rouged nose of the “person” in the mirror. The identity problem is implicit in Freudian psychology, with the parents serving as the major vehicles for connecting the child to the civilization in which, all unknowing, it came to be born. Identification is the major mechanism for socialization, in the Freudian view. The ego psychology that is the intellectual product of many of Freud’s followers can be seen centering about the problem of human identity.

Erik Erikson’s Theory Of Identity Development

Erik Erikson is the first psychologist to give identity a central position in his psychology. In his seminal work, Childhood and Society, Erikson extends, develops, and reshapes the basic psychoanalytic position on the development of human identity. For Erikson, human development proceeds through eight distinct stages, each succeeding stage building on the accomplishments of the previous stage, as an architectural construction is laid together from its foundation upward.

Erikson’s eight stages of social and emotional development are not described as conditional upon the particularities of culture or historical epoch. Rather, they are meant to stand as a universal progression, given in the nature of things, like the Freudian stages of psychosexual development of which they are an extension. Of course, the way in which an individual traverses these stages is not posited as uniform, but is subject to the vagaries of external influences. Each stage, in fact, is thought to be accompanied by a “psychosocial crisis,” which demands resolution of some kind before the next stage be confronted.

The stages are as follows:

  1. Basic Trust vs. Mistrust. First 2 years of life. The child is either loved and nurtured into being trustful, or neglected or mistreated, producing insecurity.
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame. Ages 2 to 4 years. Success at this stage produces a child with self-assurance, pride, and self-control. Tantrums and displays of stubbornness are part of the work toward autonomy. Failure to overcome the crisis at this stage produces a lasting sense of shame.
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt. From about 4 to 6 years of age. Healthy children learn to play with others, including the initiation of play activities. Failure to achieve this broadening of social life produces a child who is overcome with shyness and guilt, hanging back from social engagement.
  4. Industry vs.  Inferiority.  From  about  6  years of age until about 12. At this stage, the child learns mastery of major social conventions, including how to relate to peers, as well as mastering basic intellectual skills, such as reading and writing and quantitative skills. Children who have negotiated the previous stages successfully are likely to be successful at this stage as well. Insecure, shamed, and guilt-ridden children are likely to fail at primary school tasks.
  5. Identity vs. Diffusion of Identity. This period is that of adolescence—ages 13 to 20. The primary task of this stage of development is to develop a solid answer to the question, “Who am I?” This will entail experimentation with the borders of propriety, of legality, of acceptable social conventions. Successful resolution of this stage results in a young person with a strong and stable sense of who they are, success in their sexual identity, male or female, and a sense of potential achievement in life. Failure produces delinquency, withdrawal, and an unclear sense of identity, including confused gender identity.
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation. The young adult can experience the sort of intimacy that produces successful marriages and enduring friendships. Once again, failure in the previous stages of development leads to failure in this later stage—producing isolation.
  7. Generativity vs. Self-absorption. The successful outcome of adulthood is the generation of children and creative personal achievements. The self-absorbed individual is seen by Erikson as incapable of achieving this kind of extension.
  8. Integrity vs. Despair. The person who has negotiated all of the previous crises successfully is now ready to assume a position as a wise elder in society, showing acceptance rather than fear, pride rather than despair.

It seems evident now that the progression Erikson described with such confidence in the era just after World War II is a vision of identity development shot through with the ideals and values of the times. Critics have noted that the model here seems distinctively masculine and decidedly unsympathetic to forms of identity that depart from the standards of heterosexual marriage and the production of children. It has been noted as well that Erikson developed this progression “out of his head”—that is, it is not the product of systematic or documented observations about the ways in which development occurs. Even so, Erikson must be credited with having established identity as a central term in human development  and  with  having  argued  persuasively that human development must be regarded as a lifelong process, not something that is finished with childhood.

Recent Developments

Contemporary conceptions of human identity are sensitive to differences in cultural norms. It is generally conceded that there is no universally correct progression of identity development. This is clearly illustrated by cases in which identity conflict becomes manifest by the conjunction of differing cultural norms.

Benson provides an excellent illustration of such a conflict. In 2002, a woman of Kurdish origin was murdered in Sweden by her father, an immigrant to Sweden, because of her announced intention to marry a Swedish man. Her father had grown up in Turkey, immersed in Turkish/Kurdish culture, wherein the father bears responsibility for upholding the honor of his family. The young woman grew up in Sweden, where individuals are supposed to have the right to make their own choices about intended mates, not adhering to the preferences of parents. As Benson notes, her “hierarchy of feelings with respect to identity-relevant  decision-making  did  not  synchronize  with that of her father.” Her death resulted not from a conflict between good and evil, or the failure of the socialization of identity, but rather from a conflict between two quite divergent versions of what is good.

Henri Tajfel has developed a theory of social identity based on the premise that social affiliations are formed rapidly and have great power as determinants of social action. His “minimal group” group experiments have shown that random assignment of individuals to groups immediately produces a loyalty to the group and barriers with respect to outgroups. In actual practice, social identities are highly complex and layered, as the illustration of the conflict between Swedish and Turkish/Kurdish culture demonstrates. As William James pointed out in his seminal chapter on “The Consciousness of Self,” we have as many identities as there are groups about whose opinions we care. Since our world is now characterized by an unprecedented freedom of access, directly and symbolically, to other groups and cultures, it is increasingly clear that the problem of identity is of absolutely central importance to the understanding of the relation of the individual to the social order, and in turn, of the psychological health and well-being of the individual as such.


  1. Benson, (2003). The unthinkable boundaries of self: The role of negative emotional boundaries in the formation, maintenance and transformation of identity. In R. Harre & F. Moghaddam (Eds.), The self and others. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  2. Erik Erikson’s Developmental Theory, http://www.azaz.essortcom/psychosocialdev_rijk.htm
  3. Erikson, (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W. W. Norton.
  4. Freud, S.  (1930/1961).  Civilization  and  its   New York: W. W. Norton.
  5. Lewis, (1992). Shame: The exposed self. New York: Free Press.
  6. Sani, F., & Bennett, (n.d.). Developmental aspects of social identity. Available  from
  7. .uk/ESRCInfoCentre/indeaspx
  8. Scheibe, E. (1995). Self studies: The psychology of self and identity. Westport, CT: Praeger.