In this I will describe the similarities and the differences in the way identity is conceptualised by Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of identity (hereafter PT) and Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory (SIT). By discussing facets of both PT and SIT such as methodology, power relations and the way in which the term “identity” is interpreted I will discuss how these translate into similarities and differences between the two theories. “Identity” is a multi-faceted term: a standard definition from The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology suggests that it is ‘the study of personality, a person’s essential, continuous self, the internal, subjective concept of oneself as an individual.’ (Reber, 2001, p.338) Although this is a generic definition when compared with Erikson and Tajfel’s ideas surrounding identity it becomes ambiguous and debatable.
For Erik Erikson, PT is based on the assumption that identity is formed through a series of conflicts. He suggested 8 stages of development, which we, as humans, all encounter, that pass from ‘trust versus mistrust’ to the final stage of ‘integrity versus despair.’ He supposes that identity influences us both through personal and social factors and that developing a sense of who we are and how we fit in society comes naturally, along with the notion that identity is not static and overtime there are shifts in identity which relate to social contexts.
Developing these core ideas of PT, James Marcia, ‘proposed a variant on Erikson’s theory;’ (Phoenix, 2007, p.57) that has only four specific statuses. Marcia places much attention on the commitment and exploration of identity and his four stages range from identity diffusion to identity foreclosure then onto a period of moratorium and finally to identity achievement in which a young person has completed stage three, moratorium. In Contrast to Erikson’s notion of naturally developing a sense of who we are, identity for Tajfel and SIT is about becoming members of different groups and how membership to these help construct identity. Tajfel’s theory placed identity into two categories, the personal and the social. The social aspect of identity is said to compromise of the groups in which we belong, Tajfel termed these ‘in-groups’ and those in which we don’t belong to, ‘out-groups.’ Tajfel proposes that an individual does not just have one personal identity but numerous ‘selves’ which relate to their involvement of social groups. (Phoenix, 2007)
The methodologies implied by Erikson and Tajfel differ vastly. Research for PT was largely based upon biographies of famous men, clinical observations and a number of semi-structured interviews, designed to cover topics relevant to the research and allowing flexibility in questioning. In contrast to Erikson, Tajfel focussed predominantly on experimental methods, the most commonly used methods in psychological research but also controversial as laboratory-based experiments may end up belittling important aspects such as gender and unintentionally creating a slightly false social setting. Tajfel carried out a number of these experiments on ‘minimal groups’ which act as a way of determining the minimum conditions needed for discrimination to occur between groups. Although the methodology prescribed for PT and SIT is primarily different, similarity can be drawn in that the research participants assigned by Erikson and Tajfel are exclusively boys.
Erikson views identity, although relatively fluid throughout childhood and early adolescence, as being particularly fixed, due to the theory that everyone passes through the proposed eight stages. However Tajfel supposes a more complex and dynamic view of identity and notes that it is a more fluid and adaptable concept which is a result of social mobility: ‘a process by which members of groups improve their status by leaving behind their (previous) social group.’ (Phoenix, 2007, p.65)
Similarities between the two theories demonstrate an agreement that individuals are active participants in the construction of their own identity and in both PT and SIT there is a great deal of attention on moratorium, a process occurring whereby young people search for the identity they wish to commit to.
This common usage of identity as described above continues into the role given to power in both PT and SIT approaches. Erikson’s PT places little focus on the role of power with regards to the construction of identity, whilst Tajfel places a great deal particularly on the social and individual aspect of identity. SIT encompasses the idea that groups aiming to improve their status do so through ascending social mobility. They also strive for improvement through social creativity, another way of aiming to improve the social identity of groups members through the redefining of groups which are becoming defunct. A final tool for improvement is social competition, which uses cognitive strategies to attain social change.
These differences between PT and SIT have resulted in differing criticisms. A common criticism of Erikson is that he places much focus on the individual and neglects the large scale social identity along with an overemphasis on adolescence as he speaks regularly and places enormous focus on this particular period within PT. While Tajfel, as mentioned above, has received disapproval for much of his research being laboratory based resulting in some social differences such as gender, race etc. being simplified in order to undertake experiments and therefore creating an un-true everyday social context.
As we have observed, PT and SIT have certain common features such as a focus on the ‘social’ in the respective concept of identity, the research participants chosen by the theorists and the notion that individuals are active in constructing their own identities. However they also manifest a greater number of differences, what constitutes identity, the major differences in the methodology prescribed, the fluidity of identity and the vast difference in the role power plays in the conceptualisation of ‘identity.’ Their respective effectiveness as an identity theory depends upon the approach of the user and their desired goals.
Reber, A and Reber, E. (2001) ‘Identity’ in Reber. A, and Reber. E. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, London, The Penguin Group
Phoenix, A. (2007) ‘Identities and diversities’ in D. Miell, A. Phoenix, and K. Thomas. Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University