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Understanding the Concept of Identity

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Identity is a tricky idea to pin down. Many people think of identity as simple and fixed, but it’s not. Many other people think that identity is changeable and malleable, but even they misunderstand how and why identity is changeable and malleable, and end up using the word (and the idea) poorly. Let’s start with a few things that identity isn’t, to help us figure out how to think about what all it can be.

Identity is not:

Fixed — identity is not something that remains the same throughout one’s life. It changes over time. It can also change from situation to situation, over very short spans of time.

Singular — identity is not something of which a person has only one. There isn’t a “true” self that exists within a person, with everything else being layers of interpretation. One’s identity can be one thing in the morning at breakfast, and another thing in the afternoon during class, yet both are still fully identities.

A possession — identity is not something that someone owns. It is created in the interplay of people, and is therefore made and remade constantly.

Controlled by any one person — identity is not held in the control of a single entity, and therefore is not subject to definition by any one entity (even the person claiming the identity).

Lots of people want identity to be a noun because nouns are real and concrete. They’re things. I can own a thing. I can say it’s mine, and tell you how to treat it, and make the rules about it. There’s a feeling of intimacy with an identity because it seems definitional, and if something defines me, I want to be the one in control of it. In order to have more control of it, I want it to be fixed and concrete. When it’s fixed in form just the way I like it, then I can be comfortable with it defining me. And that cycle of justifications becomes a self-supporting set of arguments. But what if we break that cycle? What if we crack it open at the moment when an identity defines someone?

Definitional — identity does not make a person who they are. It does not shape, or limit, or solidify someone in a particular form, or category, or manner.

If identity doesn’t define us, then what does it do? If it’s not who we are in a definitional sense, then what is it, and what does it mean to say “I am an X, a Y, or a Z”? Well, if it’s not telling me what something is , the best it can be doing is telling what something is like . It can describe, rather than define.

Identity is:

Descriptive — identity attempts to capture what something means in a given context. By doing so, this understanding of identity acknowledges that context is never absent, and it is always shaping the thing it contextualizes.

If we understand identity as descriptive, rather than definitional, then it becomes easier to understand all of the things above that identity is not. Descriptions aren’t fixed; they can vary from person to person. Descriptions aren’t controlled by one person; some people love cheesecake, while others hate it. If we can now wrap our heads around some of those things identity isn’t, what else can our understanding of identity as description rather than definition tell us about what identity is?

Fluid — identity changes across time and space. Who I am tomorrow may not be very much like who I am today due to a whole host of factors.

Situational — identity can vary from one situation to the next. In the context of my friends, I may know myself as a fun and funny person, but in another context of a conversation with my boss, I may be very serious and focused. I’m one me, but my identity in each situation is different.

Communicative — identity is the result of people’s ideas, words, and actions interacting with one another. I can send out a message by wearing a shirt with a logo on it, but how that shirt is given meaning by someone else is beyond my control. I send out the message, others take it in and interpret it, just like linguistic communication.

At this point, some people may be throwing their hands up and thinking, “if identity is just a description, and it’s all so variable, then what does it matter?” Well, it matters quite a lot because, even though identity is not a definition in some existential way, people still pretend or misunderstand that identities define, and then they layer other meanings on top of those definitions. In other words…

Operative — identity does stuff.

If I decide that the way I describe you is somehow fundamentally who you are, then I can use that identity as a justification for all sorts of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, actions, etc. Even further, if I have some sort of power that I can wield, my feelings and beliefs can become actions that affect you greatly. So, while identity is descriptive, rather than definitional, we shouldn’t let ourselves fall into the trap of thinking it is unimportant. Likewise, we shouldn’t fall into the other trap of using the often inappropriate importance given to identities to try to prove that they are definitions.

Analytical frameworks, critical frameworks, critical lenses, and so forth

Epistemology (or, an episteme), interdisciplinary.

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Self-Image, Self-Concept

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one’s sense of self. This amalgamation creates a steady sense of who one is over time, even as new facets are developed and incorporated into one's identity.

  • What Is Identity?
  • How to Be Authentic
  • Theories of Identity


Everyone struggles with existential questions such as, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want my future self to be?” One reason why may be that the answer is so complex.

Identity includes the many relationships people cultivate, such as their identity as a child, friend, partner, and parent. It involves external characteristics over which a person has little or no control, such as height, race, or socioeconomic class. Identity also encompasses political opinions, moral attitudes, and religious beliefs, all of which guide the choices one makes on a daily basis.

People who are overly concerned with the impression they make, or who feel a core aspect of themselves, such as gender or sexuality , is not being expressed, can struggle acutely with their identity. Reflecting on the discrepancy between who one is and who one wants to be can be a powerful catalyst for change.

Identity encompasses the values people hold, which dictate the choices they make. An identity contains multiple roles—such as a mother, teacher, and U.S. citizen—and each role holds meaning and expectations that are internalized into one’s identity. Identity continues to evolve over the course of an individual’s life.

Identity formation involves three key tasks: Discovering and developing one’s potential, choosing one’s purpose in life, and finding opportunities to exercise that potential and purpose. Identity is also influenced by parents and peers during childhood and experimentation in adolescence .

Every individual has a goal of nurturing values and making choices that are consistent with their true self. Some internalize the values of their families or culture, even though they don’t align with their authentic self. This conflict can drive dissatisfaction and uncertainty. Reflecting on one’s values can spark change and a more fulfilling life.

The idea of an identity crisis emerged from psychologist Erik Erikson, who delineated eight stages of crises and development, a concept later expanded upon by others. Although not a clinical term, an identity crisis refers to facing a challenge to one’s sense of self, which may center around politics , religion, career choices, or gender roles.

Adolescence is a time in which children develop an authentic sense of self, distinct from their parents, in order to become an independent adult. Experimentation is an important part of the process: As teens try on different identities—in terms of friends, hobbies, appearance, gender, and sexuality—they come to understand who they are and who they want to be.

Features of identity can highlight similarities or differences between people—through race, gender, or profession—which can function to either unite or divide. People who view themselves as members of a larger overarching group tend to have stronger kinship with other people, animals, and nature.


A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play, and prayer. Teens and twentysomethings try out friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements to see what fits and what's "just not me." Midlifers deepen commitments to career, community, faith, and family that match their self-images, or feel trapped in existences that seem not their own. Elders regard life choices with regret or satisfaction based largely on whether they were "true" to themselves.

Authenticity is also a cornerstone of mental health. It’s correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem , and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one's core self—a trait called self-determination—is ranked by some experts as one of three basic psychological needs, along with competence and a sense of relatedness.

Everyone subconsciously internalizes conventions and expectations that dictate how they believe they should think or behave. The decision to examine or challenge those assumptions, even though it’s difficult, is the first step to living more authentically. This set of 20 steps can guide you through that process.

There can be tension between being wholly yourself and operating successfully in your relationships and career. No one should be completely deceitful or completely forthright; a guiding principle to achieve a balance is that as long as you’re not forced to act in opposition to your values or personality , a little self-monitoring can be warranted.

Relationships can come under threat when there’s a disconnect between expressing yourself freely and taking your partner’s feelings into account. The Authenticity in Relationships scale —which measures this construct through statements such as “I am fully aware of when to insist on myself and when to compromise”—can initiate discussion and help couples cultivate a healthy balance.

As so much of the world has shifted online, discrepancies have emerged between one’s virtual self and real self. People may cultivate their online avatar more and more carefully over time, and the virtual self can influence the perception of the real self. Therefore, it can be valuable to reflect on whether the virtual self is really authentic .

identity definition essay

One of the most enduring theories of development was proposed by psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson divided the lifecycle into eight stages that each contained a conflict, with the resolution of those conflicts leading to the development of personality. The conflict that occurs during adolescence, Erikson believed, is “identity versus role confusion.”

Adolescents grapple with so many different aspects of identity, from choosing a career path to cultivating moral and political beliefs to becoming a friend or partner. Role confusion pertains to the inability to commit to one path. Adolescents then go through a period of experimentation before committing, reconciling the pieces of their identity, and emerging into adulthood.

Identity formation is most acute during adolescence, but the process doesn’t stop after the teen years. Taking on a new role, such as becoming a parent, can make self-definition a lifelong process.

As a person grows older, the overall trend is toward identity achievement. But major life upheavals, such as divorce , retirement , or the death of a loved one, often lead people to explore and redefine their identities.

According to Freud’s psychoanalytic framework, the mind was composed of the id, driven by instinct and desire, the superego, driven by morality and values, and the ego which moderates the two and creates one’s identity. Many features contribute to ego functioning, including insight, agency, empathy, and purpose.

Erik Erikson’s proposed a theory of development based on different stages of life. He also coined the term “ego identity,” which he conceived as an enduring and continuous sense of who a person is. The ego identity helps to merge all the different versions of oneself (the parent self, the career self, the sexual self) into one cohesive whole, so that if disaster strikes, there's a stable sense of self.

Social psychologist Henri Tajfel conducted pioneering research on prejudice , revealing that people favor those in their own groups, even when those groups are designated randomly, such as by people’s preferences for artwork. This research was the basis for Social Identity Theory—that self-esteem is in part derived from group membership, which provides pride and social identity.

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The path to excellence isn’t physical. It is entirely mental. The best performers learn excellence by mastering a set of mental disciplines. Here's one of them.

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Why Identity Matters and How It Shapes Us

Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.

identity definition essay

Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor at Yeshiva University’s clinical psychology doctoral program.

identity definition essay

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

Defining Identity

  • What Makes Up a Person's Identity?

Identity Development Across the Lifespan

The importance of identity, tips for reflecting on your identity.

Your identity is a set of physical, mental, emotional, social, and interpersonal characteristics that are unique to you.

It encapsulates your core personal values and your beliefs about the world, says Asfia Qaadir , DO, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at PrairieCare.

In this article, we explore the concept of identity, its importance, factors that contribute to its development , and some strategies that can help you reflect upon your identity.

Your identity gives you your sense of self. It is a set of traits that distinguishes you from other people, because while you might have some things in common with others, no one else has the exact same combination of traits as you.

Your identity also gives you a sense of continuity, i.e. the feeling that you are the same person you were two years ago and you will be the same person two days from now.

Asfia Qaadir, DO, Psychiatrist

Your identity plays an important role in how you treat others and how you carry yourself in the world.

What Makes Up a Person's Identity?

These are some of the factors that can contribute to your identity:

  • Physical appearance
  • Physical sensations
  • Emotional traits
  • Life experiences
  • Genetics 
  • Health conditions
  • Nationality
  • Race  
  • Social community 
  • Peer group 
  • Political environment
  • Spirituality
  • Sexuality 
  • Personality
  • Beliefs 
  • Finances 

We all have layers and dimensions that contribute to who we are and how we express our identity.

All of these factors interact together and influence you in unique and complex ways, shaping who you are. Identity formation is a subjective and deeply personal experience.

Identity development is a lifelong process that begins in childhood, starts to solidify in adolescence, and continues through adulthood.

Childhood is when we first start to develop a self-concept and form an identity.

As children, we are highly dependent on our families for our physical and emotional needs. Our early interactions with family members play a critical role in the formation of our identities.

During this stage, we learn about our families and communities, and what values are important to them, says Dr. Qaadir. 

The information and values we absorb in childhood are like little seeds that are planted years before we can really intentionally reflect upon them as adults, says Dr. Qaadir.

Traumatic or abusive experiences during childhood can disrupt identity formation and have lasting effects on the psyche.


Adolescence is a critical period of identity formation.

As teenagers, we start to intentionally develop a sense of self based on how the values we’re learning show up in our relationships with ourselves, our friends, family members, and in different scenarios that challenge us, Dr. Qaadir explains.

Adolescence is a time of discovering ourselves, learning to express ourselves, figuring out where we fit in socially (and where we don’t), developing relationships, and pursuing interests, says Dr. Qaadir.

This is the period where we start to become independent and form life goals. It can also be a period of storm and stress , as we experience mood disruptions, challenge authority figures, and take risks as we try to work out who we are.

As adults, we begin building our public or professional identities and deepen our personal relationships, says Dr. Qaadir.

These stages are not set in stone, rather they are fluid, and we get the rest of our lives to continue experiencing life and evolving our identities, says Dr. Qaadir.

Having a strong sense of identity is important because it:

  • Creates self-awareness: A strong sense of identity can give you a deep sense of awareness of who you are as a person. It can help you understand your likes, dislikes, actions, motivations, and relationships.
  • Provides direction and motivation: Having a strong sense of identity can give you a clear understanding of your values and interests, which can help provide clarity, direction, and motivation when it comes to setting goals and working toward them.
  • Enables healthy relationships: When you know and accept yourself, you can form meaningful connections with people who appreciate and respect you for who you are. A strong sense of identity also helps you communicate effectively, establish healthy boundaries, and engage in authentic and fulfilling interactions.
  • Keeps you grounded: Our identities give us roots when things around us feel chaotic or uncertain, says Dr. Qaadir. “Our roots keep us grounded and help us remember what truly matters at the end of the day.”
  • Improves decision-making: Understanding yourself well can help you make choices that are consistent with your values, beliefs, and long-term goals. This clarity reduces confusion, indecision, and the tendency to conform to others' expectations, which may lead to poor decision-making .
  • Fosters community participation: Identity is often shaped by cultural, social, political, spiritual, and historical contexts. Having a strong sense of identity allows you to understand, appreciate, and take pride in your cultural heritage. This can empower you to participate actively in society, express your unique perspective, and contribute to positive societal change.

On the other hand, a weak sense of identity can make it more difficult to ground yourself emotionally in times of stress and more confusing when you’re trying to navigate major life decisions, says Dr. Qaadir.

Dr. Qaadir suggests some strategies that can help you reflect on your identity:

  • Art: Art is an incredible medium that can help you process and reflect on your identity. It can help you express yourself in creative and unique ways.
  • Reading: Reading peoples’ stories through narrative is an excellent way to broaden your horizons, determine how you feel about the world around you, and reflect on your place in it.
  • Journaling: Journaling can also be very useful for self-reflection . It can help you understand your feelings and motivations better.
  • Conversation: Conversations with people can expose you to diverse perspectives, and help you form and represent your own.
  • Nature: Being in nature can give you a chance to reflect undisturbed. Spending time in nature often has a way of putting things in perspective.
  • Relationships: You can especially strengthen your sense of identity through the relationships around you. It is valuable to surround yourself with people who reflect your core values but may be different from you in other aspects of identity such as personality styles, cultural backgrounds, passions, professions, or spiritual paths because that provides perspective and learning from others.

American Psychological Association. Identity .

Pfeifer JH, Berkman ET. The development of self and identity in adolescence: neural evidence and implications for a value-based choice perspective on motivated behavior . Child Dev Perspect . 2018;12(3):158-164. doi:10.1111/cdep.12279

Hasanah U, Susanti H, Panjaitan RU. Family experience in facilitating adolescents during self-identity development . BMC Nurs . 2019;18(Suppl 1):35. doi:10.1186/s12912-019-0358-7

Dereboy Ç, Şahin Demirkapı E, et al. The relationship between childhood traumas, identity development, difficulties in emotion regulation and psychopathology . Turk Psikiyatri Derg . 2018;29(4):269-278.

Branje S, de Moor EL, Spitzer J, Becht AI. Dynamics of identity development in adolescence: a decade in review . J Res Adolesc . 2021;31(4):908-927. doi:10.1111/jora.12678

Stirrups R.  The storm and stress in the adolescent brain .  The Lancet Neurology . 2018;17(5):404. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(18)30112-1

Fitzgerald A. Professional identity: A concept analysis . Nurs Forum . 2020;55(3):447-472. doi:10.1111/nuf.12450

National Institute of Standards and Technology. Identity .

By Sanjana Gupta Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.

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Article contents

Identity development in adolescence and adulthood.

  • Jane Kroger Jane Kroger Department of Psychology, University of Tromsoe
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.54
  • Published online: 27 February 2017

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was the first professional to describe and use the concept of ego identity in his writings on what constitutes healthy personality development for every individual over the course of the life span. Basic to Erikson’s view, as well as those of many later identity writers, is the understanding that identity enables one to move with purpose and direction in life, and with a sense of inner sameness and continuity over time and place. Erikson considered identity to be psychosocial in nature, formed by the intersection of individual biological and psychological capacities in combination with the opportunities and supports offered by one’s social context. Identity normally becomes a central issue of concern during adolescence, when decisions about future vocational, ideological, and relational issues need to be addressed; however, these key identity concerns often demand further reflection and revision during different phases of adult life as well. Identity, thus, is not something that one resolves once and for all at the end of adolescence, but rather identity may continue to evolve and change over the course of adult life too.

Following Erikson’s initial writings, subsequent theorists have laid different emphases on the role of the individual and the role of society in the identity formation process. One very popular elaboration of Erikson’s own writings on identity that retains a psychosocial focus is the identity status model of James Marcia. While Erikson had described one’s identity resolution as lying somewhere on a continuum between identity achievement and role confusion (and optimally located nearer the achievement end of the spectrum), Marcia defined four very different means by which one may approach identity-defining decisions: identity achievement (commitment following exploration), moratorium (exploration in process), foreclosure (commitment without exploration), and diffusion (no commitment with little or no exploration). These four approaches (or identity statuses) have, over many decades, been the focus of over 1,000 theoretical and research studies that have examined identity status antecedents, behavioral consequences, associated personality characteristics, patterns of interpersonal relations, and developmental forms of movement over time. A further field of study has focused on the implications for intervention that each identity status holds. Current research seeks both to refine the identity statuses and explore their dimensions further through narrative analysis.

  • identity status
  • identity formation
  • adolescence


We know what we are, but not what we may be . Shakespeare, Hamlet

The question of what constitutes identity has been answered differently through different historical epochs and through different theoretical and empirical approaches to understanding identity’s form and functions. However, basic to all identity definitions is an attempt to understand the entity that, ideally, enables one to move with purpose and direction in life and with a sense of internal coherence and continuity over time and place. Despite the changing physique that aging inevitably brings and the changing environmental circumstances that one invariably encounters through life, a well-functioning identity enables one to experience feelings of personal meaning and well-being and to find satisfying and fulfilling engagements in one’s social context. The means by which one experiences a feeling of sameness in the midst of continual change is the focus of identity theory and research.

Historically, concerns with questions of identity are relatively recent. Baumeister and Muraven ( 1996 ) and Burkitt ( 2011 ) have noted how changes in Western society, specifically the degree to which society has dictated one’s adult roles, have varied enormously over time. Additional changes have occurred in the loosening of social guidelines, restrictions, and constraints, such that contemporary late adolescents experience almost unlimited freedom of choice in their assumption of adult roles and values. In Medieval times, adolescents and adults were prescribed an identity by society in a very direct manner. Social rank and the kinship networks into which one was born set one’s adult roles for life. In early modern times, wealth rather than kinship networks became the standard for self-definition. In the first half of the twentieth century , apprenticeship systems that prepared adolescents for one specific line of work were giving way to more liberal forms of education, thus preparing adolescents for a broad range of occupational pathways. A more liberal educational system, however, eventually required occupational choice in line with one’s own interests and capacities. In addition, many regions in the United States became more tolerant of diversity in attitudes and values, and gender roles became more fluid. Thus, by the middle of the twentieth century in the United States and many other Western nations, the burden of creating an adult identity was now falling largely on the shoulders of late adolescents themselves.

Into this twentieth century United States context came Erik Erikson, a German immigrant (escaping Hitler’s rise to power) and psychoanalyst, trained by Anna Freud. Erikson began his clinical work and writings on optimal personality development in the Boston area, focusing, in particular, on the concept of identity and identity crisis . As an immigrant, Erikson was acutely attuned to the role of the social context and its influence on individual personality development, and, as a psychoanalyst, he was also adept at understanding the roles of conscious as well as unconscious motivations, desires, and intentions, as well as biological drives on individual behavior.

Erikson ( 1963 ) first used the term “ego identity” to describe a central disturbance among some of his veteran patients returning from World War II with a diagnosis of “shell shock” (or currently, post-traumatic stress disorder), who seemed to be experiencing a loss of self-sameness and continuity in their lives:

What impressed me most was the loss in these men of a sense of identity. They knew who they were; they had a personal identity. But it was as if subjectively, their lives no longer hung together—and never would again. There was a central disturbance in what I then started to call ego identity. (Erikson, 1963 , p. 42)

Through identity’s absence in the lives of these young men, Erikson came to understand the tripartite nature of identity, that he believed to be comprised of biological, psychological, and social factors. It was often a particular moment in a soldier’s life history where soma, psyche, and society conspired to endanger identity foundations that necessitated clinical care. And, thus, it was through disruptions to individual identity that Erikson more clearly came to understand identity’s form and functions.

Erikson has often been referred to as “identity’s architect” (e.g., Friedman, 1999 ), and his initial writings on identity served as the springboard for many later theorists and researchers to examine further identity’s many dimensions. Erikson’s psychosocial approach will thus serve as the organizing framework for a review of research on identity development during adolescent and adult life.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Orientation

Erikson’s ( 1963 , 1968 ) understanding of identity views the phenomenon as a result of the mutual interaction of individual and context; while individual interests and capacities, wishes and desires draw individuals to particular contexts, those contexts, in turn, provide recognition (or not) of individual identity and are critical to its further development. Erikson stressed the important interactions among the biological, psychological, and social forces for optimal personality development. He suggested a series of eight psychosocial tasks over the course of the life span that follow an epigenetic principle, such that resolution to one task sets the foundation for all that follow. Identity vs. Role Confusion is the fifth psychosocial task that Erikson identified, becoming of primary importance during adolescence. Resolution to preceding tasks of Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Doubt and Shame, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority are the foundations upon which one’s resolution to Identity vs. Role Confusion is based, according to Erikson; resolution to subsequent adult tasks of Intimacy vs. Role Confusion, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair all similarly depend upon resolution to the Identity vs. Role Confusion task of adolescence.

Erikson ( 1963 , 1968 ) postulated a number of key identity concepts that have served as foundations for much subsequent identity research. For Erikson, identity formation involves finding a meaningful identity direction on a continuum between identity attainment and role confusion . The process of identity formation requires identity exploration and commitment , the synthesis of childhood identifications into a new configuration, related to but different from, the sum of its parts. The identity formation process is extremely arduous for some, and the resolutions of a negative identity or identity foreclosure are two means by which the identity formation process can be bypassed. A negative identity involves identity choices based on roles and values that represent polar opposites of those espoused by one’s family and/or immediate community. Thus, the daughter of a Midwestern minister of religion runs away to become a prostitute in inner city Chicago. A foreclosed identity resolution also avoids the identity formation process by basing identity-defining choices on key identifications, mostly with parental values, without exploring potential alternatives.

Erikson ( 1963 , 1968 ) also proposed several further concepts for optimal identity development. A moratorium process, the active consideration and exploration of future possible identity-defining adult roles and values, was considered vital to optimal identity development. Erikson also became well known for his use of the term identity crisis , an acute period of questioning one’s own identity directions. And finally, Erikson stressed that while an initial resolution to the Identity vs. Role Confusion task often occurs during adolescence, identity is never resolved once and for all, but rather remains open to modifications and alterations throughout adult life. The strength of Erikson’s approach lies in its consideration of both individual and sociocultural factors and their mutual interaction in identity construction and development. Erikson’s model of identity development has wide applicability across cultural contexts and highlights the ongoing nature of identity development throughout adulthood. Weaknesses include his imprecise language, which at times makes operationalization of key concepts difficult, and his historically dated concepts regarding women’s identity development.

While other psychosocial models have evolved from Erikson’s original writings (e.g., Whitbourne’s [ 2002 ] identity processing theory, Berzonsky’s [ 2011 ] social cognitive identity styles, McAdams’s [ 2008 ] narrative approach), it is Erikson’s identity formation concepts, particularly those operationalized by Marcia ( 1966 ) (Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky, 1993 ) that have generated an enormous volume of empirical research over past decades and will be the primary focus of subsequent sections of this article.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Approach and Marcia’s Identity Status Model

As a young Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, James Marcia was interested in Erikson’s writings but suspected that the process of identity formation during late adolescence to be somewhat more complicated than what Erikson ( 1963 ) had originally proposed. While Erikson had conceptualized an identity resolution as lying on a continuum between identity and role confusion, an entity that one had “more or less of,” Marcia proposed that there were four qualitatively different pathways by which late adolescents or young adults went about the process of forming an identity. Based on the presence or absence of exploration and commitment around several issues important to identity development during late adolescence, Marcia ( 1966 ; Marcia et al., 1993 ) developed a semi-structured Identity Status Interview to identify four identity pathways, or identity statuses, among late adolescent or young adult interviewees.

An individual in the identity achieved status had explored various identity-defining possibilities and had made commitments on his or her own terms, trying to match personal interests, talents, and values with those available in the environmental context. Equally committed to an identity direction was the foreclosed individual, who had formed an identity, but without undergoing an exploration process. This person’s identity had been acquired primarily through the process of identification—by assuming the identity choices of significant others without serious personal consideration of alternative possibilities. An individual in the moratorium identity status was very much in the process of identity exploration, seeking meaningful life directions but not yet making firm commitments and often experiencing considerable discomfort in the process. Someone in the diffusion identity status had similarly not made identity-defining commitments and was not attempting to do so.

Marcia et al.’s ( 1993 ) Identity Status Interview was designed to tap the areas (or domains) of occupation, political, religious, and sexual values that had been described by Erikson as key to the identity formation process. In Marcia’s view, however, the nature of the identity domain was not as critical to the assessment of identity status as was finding the identity-defining issues most salient to any given individual. Marcia suggested the use of clinical judgment in assigning a global identity status, the mode that seemed to best capture an adolescent’s identity formation process. It must be noted that Marcia and his colleagues (Marcia et al., 1993 ) have never attempted to capture all of the rich dimensions of identity outlined by Erikson through the Identity Status Interview; such a task would be unwieldy, if not impossible. Marcia does, however, build on Erikson’s concepts of identity exploration and comment to elaborate these identity dimensions in relation to those psychosocial roles and values identified by Erikson as key to the identity formation process of many late adolescents.

Subsequent to the original Identity Status Interview, several paper-and-pencil measures were developed to assess Marcia’s four identity statuses. One widely used measure has been the Extended Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status (EOM-EIS II), devised and revised through several versions by Adams and his colleagues (Adams, Bennion, & Huh, 1989 ; Adams & Ethier, 1999 ). This questionnaire measure enables identity status assessments in four ideological (occupation, religion, politics, philosophy of life) and four interpersonal domains (friendships, dating, gender roles, recreation/leisure), as well as providing a global rating.

Different dimensions of identity exploration and commitment processes have also been identified through several recent and expanded identity status models (Luyckx, Goossens, Soenens, & Beyers, 2006 ; Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008 ). Luyckx and his colleagues differentiated two types of exploration (exploration in breadth and exploration in depth) and two types of commitment (commitment making and identification with commitment). Exploration in breadth is that moratorium process identified by Marcia, while exploration in depth describes the process of considering a commitment already made and how well it expresses one’s own identity. Commitment making refers to deciding an identity-defining direction, while identification with commitment describes the process of integrating one’s commitments into an internal sense of identity. Later, Luyckx and his colleagues (Luyckx, Schwartz, Berzonsky, Soenens, Vansteenkiste, Smits, et al., 2008 ) also identified a process of ruminative exploration.

Meeus and his colleagues (e.g., Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008 ) also identified three identity processes: commitment, exploration in depth, and reconsideration of commitments. Commitment here refers to the dimensions of commitment making and identification with commitment in the Luyckx, Goossens, Soenens, and Beyers ( 2006 ) model; exploration in depth corresponds to that dimension in the Luyckx model. Reconsideration of commitment refers to one’s willingness to replace current commitments with new ones. In this model, commitment and reconsideration reflect identity certainty and uncertainty, respectively, in the identity formation process.

Through cluster analysis, these two groups of researchers have extracted clusters that match all of Marcia’s original identity statuses. In addition, Luyckx and his colleagues (Luyckx, Goossens, Soenens, Beyers, & Vansteenkiste, 2005 ) identified two types of diffusion—troubled and carefree—while Meeus, van de Schoot, Keijsers, Schwartz, and Branje ( 2010 ) found two types of moratoriums—classical (where the individual exhibits anxiety and depression in the identity exploration process) and searching (where new commitments are considered without discarding present commitments). Work has now begun to explore the identity formation process during adolescence and young adulthood with these refined identity statuses, which hold interesting implications for understanding both adaptive and non-adaptive identity development.

Over the time since Marcia’s initial studies, the identity statuses have been examined in relation to personality and behavioral correlates, relationship styles, and developmental patterns of change over time. Most of the studies reviewed in subsequent sections address some aspect of identity development during adolescence or young adulthood; a later section will focus on identity development research during adulthood. It must be further noted that discussion of identity statuses here will be limited to general (or global) identity and its relationship to associated variables.

Personality and Behavioral Correlates of the Identity Statuses

Work utilizing Marcia’s original identity status model, as well as its more recent refinements, have focused on personality and behavioral variables associated with each identity status in order to help validate the model; such studies have produced some reasonably consistent results over time. In terms of personality variables associated with the identity statuses, Kroger and her colleagues (e.g., Martinussen & Kroger, 2013 ) have produced a series of findings utilizing techniques of meta-analysis. Meta-analysis is a “study of studies,” using statistical procedures to examine (sometimes contradictory) results from different individual studies addressing comparable themes over time. Results from such meta-analytic studies allow greater confidence in results than a narrative review of individual studies can provide. The personality variables of self-esteem, anxiety, locus of control, authoritarianism, moral reasoning, and ego development and their relations to identity status have attracted sufficient studies for meta-analyses to be undertaken and are described in the sections that follow. While a number of other personality variables have also been examined in identity status studies over the past decades, their numbers have been insufficient to enable meta-analytic studies.

An initial database for all studies included in the meta-analytic work described in the following sections was comprised of some 565 English-language studies (287 journal publications and 278 doctoral dissertations) identified from PsycInfo, ERIC, Sociological Abstracts, and Dissertation Abstracts International databases, using the following search terms: identity and Marcia, identity and Marcia’s, and ego identity. Cohen’s ( 1988 ) criteria were used to define small, medium, and large effect sizes. In some of the meta-analyses that follow, different methods were used to assess identity status (categorical ratings of identity status and scale measures of identity status). Separate meta-analyses had to be undertaken for studies utilizing each of these two types of identity status assessments for statistical reasons.


Ryeng, Kroger, and Martinussen ( 2013a ) undertook meta-analytic studies of the relationship between identity status and global self-esteem. A total of twelve studies with 1,124 participants provided the data for these studies. The achieved identity status was the only status to have a positive correlation with self-esteem ( r = .35), considered to be moderate in effect size. Mean correlations between self-esteem and the moratorium, foreclosure, and diffusion statuses were all negative (−.23, −.23, and −.20, respectively) and considered small to moderate in effect size. All of these correlations were significantly different from zero, based on their confidence intervals. When identity status was assessed categorically, there was no difference in effect size between achievements and foreclosures on self-esteem measures. The effect size for the foreclosure-diffusion comparison ( g̅ = −0.19) was small to medium and also significant. Remaining comparisons evidenced small effect size differences in self-esteem scores. Findings here were mixed, as previous research had also produced mixed results on the question of whether foreclosure self-esteem scores would be lower than or similar to those of the identity achieved. Here, results show that only the achieved status (when the identity statuses were measured by continuous scales) produced a moderately positive correlation with self-esteem, while there was no difference in effect sizes between the achieved and foreclosed identity status when studies assessing identity status categorically were analyzed. Thus, the relationship between identity status and self-esteem may depend upon how identity status is measured.

Lillevoll, Kroger, and Martinussen ( 2013a ) examined the relationship between identity status and generalized anxiety through meta-analysis. Twelve studies involving 2,104 participants provided data for this investigation. Effect size differences in anxiety scores for moratoriums compared with foreclosures ( g̅ = 0.39) and for the foreclosure–diffusion comparison ( g̅ = −0.40) were small to moderate. Additionally the confidence intervals for both of these effect sizes did not contain zero, indicating a significant result. A significant moderate effect size ( g̅ = 0.46) was also found in the achievement–foreclosure comparison, but for men only. As predicted, foreclosures had lower anxiety scores compared with all other identity statuses except the achievement women. While it was predicted that those in the achievement identity status would have lower anxiety scores than those in moratorium and diffusion statuses, a small but significant effect size difference was found for the achievement–moratorium comparison only ( g̅ = −0.22). Thus, the moratoriums showed higher generalized anxiety scores than foreclosures, who, in turn, showed lower anxiety scores than the diffusions and male achievements. It appears that unexamined identity commitments undertaken by the foreclosures provided relief from the anxieties and uncertainties of uncommitted identity directions experienced by the moratoriums and diffusions.

Locus of Control

Lillevoll, Kroger, and Martinussen ( 2013b ) examined the relationship between identity status and locus of control. Some five studies with a total of 711 participants provided data for this study. A positive correlation between identity achievement and internal locus of control ( r = .26) and a negative correlation between identity achievement and external locus of control ( r = −.17) was found; these effect sizes are considered small to medium. The moratorium identity status was negatively correlated with internal locus of control ( r = −.17) and positively with an external locus of control ( r = .17), both considered small to medium effect sizes. The foreclosure status was negatively correlated the internal locus of control ( r = −.12) and positively with external locus of control ( r = .19), both considered small to medium effect sizes. The diffusions’ status was negatively correlated with internal locus of control ( r = −.15) and positively with external locus of control ( r = .23), both considered small to medium effect sizes. Apart from the moratorium findings, which were anticipated to reflect an internal locus of control, all other results were in expected directions. It appears that the ability to undertake identity explorations on one’s own terms by the identity achieved is associated with an internal locus of control. Moratorium, foreclosure, and diffusion statuses are associated with an external locus of control.


The relationship between identity status and authoritarianism was investigated by Ryeng, Kroger, and Martinussen ( 2013b ) through meta-analysis. Some nine studies involving 861 participants provided data for this study. The mean difference between authoritarianism scores for the achievement—foreclosure comparison ( g̅ = −0.79) was large in terms of Cohen’s criteria and significant. The mean difference in authoritarianism scores for the moratorium–foreclosure comparison ( g̅ = −0.67) was medium and significant, while the mean difference in authoritarianism scores for the foreclosure and diffusion identity statuses was medium ( g̅ = 0.42) and significant. Other comparisons were relatively small and not significant. That the foreclosures scored higher on authoritarianism than all other identity statuses is consistent with expectations. Foreclosures often base their identity commitments on their identifications with significant others, rather than exploring identity options on their own terms; thus, the rigidity and intolerance of authoritarian attitudes seem to characterize the terms of their identity commitments, in contrast to the more flexible commitments of the identity achieved or moratoriums in the process of finding their own identity directions.

Ego Development

Jespersen, Kroger, and Martinussen ( 2013a ) examined studies utilizing Loevinger’s ( 1976 ) measure of ego development in relation to the identity statuses through meta-analysis. Eleven studies involving 943 participants provided data for this investigation. Odds ratios (OR) were used to examine frequency distributions of the categorical data. Results of correlational studies showed a moderate, positive relationship between ego development and identity status ( r = .35), which was significant. Results from categorical assessments of identity status also showed a strong relationship between identity status and ego development (mean OR = 3.02). This finding means that the odds of being in a postconformist level of ego development were three times greater for those high in identity statuses (achievement and moratorium) compared with those in the low identity statuses (foreclosure and diffusion). The study also found a moderate relationship between identity achievement and ego development (mean OR = 2.15), meaning that the odds of being in a postconformist level of ego development were over two times greater for those in the identity achievement status than remaining identity statuses. However, no relationship was found between the foreclosed/nonforeclosed identity statuses and the conformist/nonconformist levels of ego development, contrary to prediction (mean OR = 1.31). While results indicate a strong likelihood of being in a post-conformist level of ego development for the identity achieved and moratoriums, as one would predict, it is somewhat surprising that the foreclosure status was not associated with conventional levels of ego development. This lack of association requires further investigation.

Moral Reasoning

A meta-analysis of moral reasoning stages (using Kohlberg’s [ 1976 ] stages in relation to the identity statuses) was also undertaken by Jespersen, Kroger, and Martinussen ( 2013b ). Some ten studies involving 884 participants provided data appropriate for this study. Results showed a small positive mean correlation (.15) between identity status and moral reasoning development, which was significant. Results from categorical assessments of both measures indicated a strong relationship between high identity status (achievement and moratorium) and postconventional levels of moral reasoning (mean OR = 4.57). This result means that the odds of being in the postconventional level of moral reasoning are about four and a half times greater for the high identity status group (achievement and moratorium) than the low (foreclosure and diffusion) group. A strong relationship was also found between the achieved identity status and the postconventional level of moral reasoning (mean OR = 8.85), meaning that the odds of being in a postconventional level of moral reasoning were almost nine times greater for the identity achieved than for other identity statuses. However, no significant relationship appeared for the foreclosed/nonforeclosed identity statuses and the conventional/nonconventional levels of moral reasoning, contrary to prediction. While a meaningful relationship was found between postconventional stages of moral reasoning and the moratorium and achievement identity statuses, it is again surprising that no relationship appeared for the foreclosed identity status and conventional levels of moral reasoning. This finding warrants further investigation.

Additional Personality and Behavioral Variables

A number of additional personality and behavioral variables have been explored in relation to the identity statuses, but no further meta-analyses have yet been undertaken. With regard to the newer, more refined measures of identity status, some additional personality and behavioral associations have been noted. Luyckx et al. ( 2008 ) found ruminative exploration related to identity distress and low self-esteem, while exploration in breadth and depth were positively related to self-reflection. Furthermore, commitment-making (particularly identification with commitment) was associated with high self-esteem, high academic and social adjustment, as well as with low depressive symptoms. Crocetti et al. ( 2008 ) similarly found strong, positive associations between commitment and self-concept clarity, in addition to strong negative associations between in-depth exploration and reconsideration of commitment with self-reflection. Emotional stability was strongly associated with commitment and negatively with in-depth exploration.

Recent work has performed cluster analyses on the exploration and commitment variables, finding four clusters replicating Marcia’s four identity statuses (with the diffusion status including carefree and diffuse diffusions) and an undifferentiated status (Schwartz et al., 2011 ). In terms of psychosocial functioning, achievements were significantly higher than carefree diffusions on a measure of self-esteem; diffusions, in turn, were significantly lower than all other identity statuses on this variable. On a measure of internal locus of control, achievements and moratoriums were significantly higher and carefree diffusions significantly lower than all other identity statuses. On psychological well-being, identity achievements scored significantly higher and carefree diffusions significantly lower than all other identity status groups. For general anxiety, moratoriums and the two diffusion groups scored significantly higher than achievement and foreclosure groups, while the moratoriums scored significantly higher than foreclosures and the two diffusions groups on depression. These findings are generally in line with findings of earlier studies using Marcia’s original model.

Further behavioral studies in relation to the identity statuses have consistently found the identity diffusion status to be related to psychosocial problem behaviors. Delinquent behavior (e.g., Jessor, Turbin, Costa, Dong, Zhang, & Wang, 2003 ; Schwartz, Pantin, Prado, Sullivan, & Szapocznik, 2005 ), substance abuse (e.g., Jones & Hartmann, 1988 ; Laghi, Baiocco, Longiro, & Baumgartner, 2013 ), risky behaviors (e.g., unsafe sex, Hernandez & DiClemente, 1992 ), social, physical aggression, and rule-breaking (carefree diffusions, Schwartz et al., 2011 ), and procrastination (Shanahan & Pychyl, 2006 ) have all been linked with the identity diffusion status. By contrast, the identity achieved have demonstrated a low prevalence of all preceding problem behaviors, coupled with high levels of agency or self-direction and commitment making (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2011 ; Shanahan & Pychyl, 2006 ). Moratoriums have also scored relatively high on levels of social and physical aggression, although they have also scored high on a number of psychosocial measures of well-being (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2011 ).

Relationships and the Identity Statuses

While a number of relational issues have been explored in identity status research (e.g., parental attitudes toward childrearing, family styles of communication, and friendship styles), to date, meta-analyses have been undertaken to examine identity status only in relation to attachment patterns and intimacy or romantic relationships.

Bartholomew and Horowitz ( 1991 ) have proposed that one’s very unique attachment history and subsequent working models of attachment lead to one of four different adolescent/adult attachment styles, or patterns of relating to significant others; these attachment styles become activated particularly in times of stress. S ecurely attached individuals are at ease in becoming close to others and do not worry about being abandoned or having someone become too close to them. Furthermore, they are interdependent—comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. Those using the avoidant attachment style find it difficult to trust and depend on others and are uncomfortable in becoming too emotionally close. The preoccupied (anxious/ambivalent) attachment group wants to be close to others but worries that others will not reciprocate and will abandon them, while the fearful attachment group wants to be emotionally close to others but are too frightened of being hurt to realize this desire.

These varied styles of attachment have been examined in relation to Marcia’s identity statuses among adolescents and young adults in a number of studies over the past decades, and recent meta-analytic work has explored patterns of findings across studies (Årseth, Kroger, Martinussen, & Marcia, 2009 ). From the large database of 565 identity status studies described earlier, some 14 had data suitable for meta-analysis (a full description of the database can be found in Martinussen & Kroger, 2013 ). A total of 2,329 participants were involved in this investigation. Weak to moderate correlations were found between identity status and attachment style when scale measures were used to assess each variable; the highest mean correlations were between the secure attachment style and identity achievement ( r = .21) as well as identity diffusion ( r = −.23). (Cohen, 1988 , regarded a correlation of .30 as moderate and .10 as weak.) The diffusion status was also weakly to moderately positively correlated with the fearful attachment style ( r = .19). Among categorical assessments of identity status and attachment style, results suggest there are real differences between the identity achieved and foreclosed as well as diffusion identity statuses, with the identity achieved far more likely to be securely attached than foreclosed or diffusion statuses. Data from these studies suggests that one’s relational experiences do have some links to one’s identity status.

According to Erikson’s ( 1963 , 1968 ) epigenetic principle, resolution to the task of Identity vs. Intimacy should set the foundation for resolution to the task of Intimacy vs. Isolation during late adolescence and young adulthood. In Erikson’s ( 1968 ) view, true intimacy involves mutuality and commitment, an acceptance of another with all of his or her strengths and weaknesses in an interdependent, sexual relationship. Erikson ( 1968 ) believed that genuine intimacy requires a sense of identity to be firmly in place, or the relationship becomes merely a tool to help resolve identity concerns for each partner. However, Erikson was unclear about the potential for gender differences in his theory, and a number of feminist writers (e.g., Gilligan, 1982 ) have stressed the importance of relationship issues for women to the identity formation process. Literature examining the relationship between identity and intimacy statuses for late adolescent and young adult men and women has often produced conflicting results.

Thus, a meta-analysis of the relationship between identity status and intimacy for men and women was undertaken by Årseth, Kroger, Martinussen, and Marcia ( 2009 ). Some 21 studies with a total of 1,983 participants were included in meta-analyses here. For studies utilizing scale measures of intimacy, results indicated a low to moderate effect size for men ( g̅ = .35) and women ( g̅ = .30) considered separately, as well as for the total group ( g̅ = .40). All results were significant and indicate that high identity status individuals (achievement and moratorium) scored higher on scale measures of intimacy than low identity status individuals (foreclosures and diffusions). For categorical assessments of identity and intimacy, the picture was somewhat more complex. Among men, the mean odds ratio of having both a high identity and high intimacy status was very high at 22.09, while for women the mean odds ratio was 2.61. In terms of percentages, some 69% of high identity status men were also high in intimacy, while only 23% of low identity status men were high in intimacy. Erikson’s epigenetic principle thus finds strong support among men. Among women, while 65% of high identity status women were also high in intimacy status, some 46% of low identity status women were also high in intimacy status. Thus, the low identity status women were almost equally distributed over high and low intimacy status groups. These results indicate Erikson’s epigenetic principle also was present for a large proportion of women sampled; however, the relationship was significantly stronger for men than women (p < .001), and reasons for this gender difference require further investigation.

Identity Status Change from Adolescence Through Adulthood

Erikson ( 1963 , 1968 ) had proposed that while making initial identity resolutions was a key developmental task of adolescence, identity remained malleable, open to further changes throughout adult life. Similarly, the identity status literature that has pointed to different patterns of movement during young, middle, and late adolescence clearly shows that identity will continue to meet challenges and, for some, the need for revision throughout adulthood. What are the most prevalent patterns of identity status change over the course of adolescent and adult life, and what are the key events primarily associated with these changes?

A number of studies addressing identity status changes over time have now been undertaken, and a series of meta-analytic investigations are perhaps the most effective means of summarizing common patterns of movement and stability in the identity status literature. Kroger, Martinussen, and Marcia ( 2010 ) investigated some 72 of 124 identity studies that contained developmental information from the larger database of 565 English-language identity status studies described earlier. Movement patterns were investigated in several ways.

When movements over approximately three years of late adolescence and young adulthood were examined longitudinally from data that assessed identity status in categorical terms, the mean proportion of adolescents making progressive identity status changes (D–F, D–M, D–A, F–M, F–A, and M–A) was .36, compared with .15 who made regressive changes (A–M, A–F, A–D, M–F, M–D, and F–D) and .49 who remained stable (A–A, M–M, F–F, D–D) over this time period. It is interesting that the mean proportion of those remaining stable in identity status was so high, especially during the time of late adolescence that Erikson ( 1968 ) has identified as central to the identity formation process. As anticipated, the highest mean proportions of progressive movements were from M–A (.46), F–A (.22), and F–M (.22). The highest mean proportions of those remaining stable were the committed identity achieved (.66) and the foreclosed (.53) statuses. The highest mean proportions of those making regressive movements were from A–F (.17) and M–F (.17).

For cross-sectional studies assessing identity status in categorical terms, the mean proportion of identity achievements increased steadily through the high school years, dropped upon university entry and increased to .34 by age 22 years. It was not until the 30–36 year age group that about half of the participants were rated identity achieved (.47). The mean proportion of moratoriums rose fairly steadily to age 19 years, which peaked at .42 and declined fairly steadily thereafter through the 30–36 year age span. The mean proportion of foreclosures dropped fairly steadily to a low at age 19 years of .12, but then showed and up and down movement throughout remaining ages to .17 in the 30–36 year age group. The mean proportion of diffusions declined fairly steadily from age 14–20 years of age (from .36 to .21), but by age 21 years, the diffusions rose again to .26 and showed up and down movement until the final 30–36 year age span (.14).

For cross-sectional studies using continuous measures of identity status, it was anticipated that achievement and moratorium scores would increase across age groups and foreclosure and diffusion scores would decrease over time. Studies here were based on data for early and mid-adolescents. The anticipated patterns were found, but all effect sizes were small. It may be that more pronounced identity status changes occur during and beyond late adolescence.

Additional studies of identity status change through middle and later adulthood years not included in meta-analyses have also generally found slow, progressive identity status movements over time. Fadjukoff, Pulkkinen, and Kokko ( 2016 ) analyzed identity status longitudinally in a Finnish sample of men and women drawn from the general population. Identity status was assessed at ages 27, 36, 42, and 50 years. Movement towards identity achievement was predominant on the overall measure of identity status, with women typically reaching identity achievement earlier than men. In a narrative analysis of identity pathways among women assessed from late adolescence through mid-life, Josselson ( 1996 ) found a diversity of identity pathways, with achievement and foreclosure pathways tending to be the most stable over time. Carlsson, Wängqvist, and Frisén ( 2015 ) have also examined identity status change and stability in a longitudinal study of young adults at ages 25 and 29 years in Sweden. Half of participants were coded in the same identity status at Times 1 and 2, while half who changed did so in a progressive direction. Additional identity processes of how people approach life-changing situations, the extent to which they continue to engage in meaning-making, and how they continue to develop their personal life directions were explored through narrative methods among foreclosed and achieved participants. Identity achievement was associated with continued identity development over time, while patterns for ongoing development among foreclosures were more mixed. McLean and Pasupathi ( 2012 ) have made a plea for the use of narrative methods that examine reconstructions of past events to supplement current understandings of the exploration and commitment processes involved on ongoing identity development throughout the life span. Additional identity processes may usefully be identified through such means.

Events Associated with Identity Status Change

An issue that researchers have been exploring over several decades is the question of what kinds of circumstances are associated with identity status change and, conversely, what circumstances are linked with identity status stability. Some hints have appeared in related literatures. For example, Helson and Roberts ( 1994 ) found that some optimal level of “accommodative challenge” or life stimulation is critical for adult ego development (referring to Loevinger’s, 1976 , model of ego development). Accommodative challenge is a circumstance or event that involves either a positive or negative disruption to one’s life. It may be that such life challenges are important to ongoing identity development over time as well.

Anthis and colleagues (Anthis, 2002 , 2011 ; Anthis & La Voie, 2006 ) have conducted several investigations into life events associated with identity exploration and commitment. In her “calamity theory of growth” model, Anthis ( 2002 ) has found stressful life events, such as divorce or job loss, to be associated with increased levels of identity exploration and decreases in identity commitments. She has also found increased levels of identity exploration to be associated with a “readiness for change” measure (Anthis & La Voie, 2006 ). Anthis suggests investigating how optimal levels of perceived conflict interact with other factors for different cohorts of people in exploring the role that life events may play in ongoing identity development during adulthood.

Additionally, Kunnen ( 2006 , 2010 ) asks if conflict may be the driver of identity change. In a study of freshman university students, she found that students who experienced a conflict in their career goals increased identity exploratory activity and also manifested a decrease in the strength of their present commitments. Furthermore, those experiencing conflict perceived more change in their commitments as compared to nonconflicted students. The types and levels of perceived identity conflict and the mechanisms by which conflict may stimulate or impair ongoing identity development are in need of further study. Lilgendahl’s ( 2015 ) narrative work reiterates the value of negative events and their potential for psychological growth during midlife, while events that are understood as positive are key to the formation of identity commitments during young adulthood.

Identity Development in Adulthood

Research into ongoing identity development during adulthood has taken several forms. Some researchers have attempted to understand the relationship between resolution to identity issues during late adolescence or young adulthood and the Eriksonian psychosocial tasks of adulthood: Intimacy vs. Isolation (young adulthood), Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood), and Integrity vs. Despair (late adulthood). Others have attempted to examine selected issues of identity during these specific adult life phases and whether or not identity cohesion and stability increase with age over the course of adulthood. The following brief overview presents some selected findings from these strands of identity research during various phases of adult life.

According to Erikson’s ( 1963 , 1968 ) epigenetic principle, resolutions to earlier psychosocial tasks will impact resolutions to all subsequent ones. Research to date has generally supported this proposal, with some caveats for the relationship between identity and intimacy, described in meta-analytic studies in a preceding section. The relationships among identity, generativity, and integrity have only recently become a focus of research attention, and they present important opportunities for future investigations. Beaumont and Pratt ( 2011 ) have examined links among Berzonsky’s ( 2011 ) identity styles, Intimacy vs. Isolation, and Generativity vs. Stagnation in samples of young and midlife adults. They found that the informational style (associated with identity achievement) was linked with both the capacity for intimacy and generativity, while the diffuse–avoidant style (associated with identity diffusion) was negatively linked with both intimacy and generativity. The normative identity style (associated with the foreclosure identity status) also positively predicted resolution to intimacy and generativity tasks of adulthood. Pulkkinen, Lyyra, Fadjukoff, and Kokko ( 2012 ) obtained longitudinal data from Finnish adults at ages 27, 36, 42, and 50 years on measures including parental identity, general identity, generativity, and integrity. Generativity scores (as well as scores for psychological and social well-being) were highest if parental identity was achieved by age 42. On a cross-sectional basis, Hearn, Saulnier, Strayer, Glenham, Koopman, and Marcia ( 2012 ) examined the relationship between identity status and a measure of integrity status. A significant relationship was found, with some 86% of integrated persons rated as identity achieved, while no despairing persons were. Those in the non-exploring integrity status (in which questions of personal life meanings were unexplored), the pseudo-integrated integrity status (in which the world was understood in terms of simplistic templates or clichéd meanings), and the despairing integrity status were most frequently in the foreclosed identity status. Hannah, Domino, Figueredo, and Hendrickson ( 1996 ) explored predictors of Integrity vs. Despair in a sample of later life adults, finding the most predictive and parsimonious variables to be trust, autonomy, identity, and intimacy, with no meaningful gender differences. Thus, Erikson’s epigenetic principle has found considerable support over time and illustrates the important role that identity resolution plays to the resolution of subsequent psychosocial tasks during adulthood.

While Erikson ( 1963 , 1968 ) had postulated the ongoing nature of identity development throughout adulthood, and Stephen, Fraser, and Marcia ( 1992 ) had first proposed the likelihood of ongoing moratorium–achievement–moratorium–achievement cycles in adult identity development, there have been relatively few efforts to examine the nature of change and continuity in identity development over the course of adulthood. While some early research has estimated the likelihood of a midlife identity crisis to be about 10% (e.g., Brim, 1992 ), recent work has pointed to ongoing times of identity crisis (or revision) during the later adult years as well (Robinson & Stell, 2015 ). Experiences of well-being have been examined in relation to adult psychosocial stage resolutions in the Rochester Adult Longitudinal Study (Sneed, Whitbourne, Schwartz, & Huang, 2011 ), where scores on both identity and intimacy measures in early and middle adulthood predicted midlife feelings of satisfaction and well-being. A sense of coherence and life satisfaction in later adult years has been fully mediated by resolution to Integrity vs. Despair (Dezutter, Wiesmann, Apers, & Luyckx, 2013 ). Much remains to be learned about ongoing identity development in the adulthood years, and the relation of identity to subsequent psychosocial tasks and additional personality variables.

What the Identity Statuses Mean

Through the decades since Marcia ( 1966 ) developed his identity status model, there has been considerable discussion in the literature about what the identity statuses actually mean and how best to assess them. Marcia ( 1980 ) considers identity to be a structure for organizing individual conscious and unconscious wishes, interests, skills, and talents within the framework of one’s biology and cultural context. His identity status model was intended to reflect the movement through Erikson’s ( 1963 , 1968 ) identity formation process, from an identity based on identifications (foreclosure status), through an exploration (moratorium) process, to a new configuration, based on but different from the sum of its identificatory elements (achievement).

In considering the question of what it is that actually changes in an identity status transition, Kroger ( 2003 ) has suggested that qualitatively different forms of ego organization underlie each of Marcia’s identity statuses. However, after an initial identity has formed, further use of the identity status model during adult life begs the question of what the identity statuses actually mean when applied to adults. While new identity-defining decisions may occur in adult life, is there an actual underlying structural change of identity? There may or may not be. There may actually be new or additional structures of ego organization that underlie the identity achievement status of adulthood, and future research could fruitfully explore this issue. Lile ( 2013 , 2015 ) considers structural identity boundaries for each of the identity statuses and offers some empirical support for a structural model of identity that underlies the identity statuses. Identity status research in adulthood should carefully consider the meaning that the identity statuses may hold when applied to a life phase beyond that for which they were originally developed.


Historically, the task of identity formation is a relatively recent phenomenon. Erikson ( 1963 , 1968 ) first used the identity concept in his clinical writings to describe that entity that seemed to be lacking in the lives of young men returning from combat in World War II. From Erikson’s early writings, several broad approaches to identity theory and research have emerged, laying differential emphasis on the psychosocial, phenomenological, and the contextual nature of identity. This article has reviewed some of the writings and research that have sprung from the identity status model of James Marcia ( 1966 , 1980 ). This review has documented meta-analytic work covering the associations of Marcia’s four identity statuses with various personality, relational, and behavioral variables, as well as documenting the most common patterns of identity status change and stability during adolescence and adulthood. The review has also documented the role that resolution to questions of identity plays in resolutions to ongoing psychosocial tasks of adulthood.

Further identity research could fruitfully explore both the meaning of the identity statuses in ongoing adult identity development as well as the processes and contents of identity changes during adult life. The role of regression in adolescent and adult identity development is poorly understand, occurring more frequently than can be predicted by chance alone (see Kroger et al., 2010 ). Understanding what kinds of regression there may be and whether or not specific types of regression are vital to ongoing adult identity development are important avenues for further identity research. And though identity concerns of adolescence have many parallels to identity issues of later adulthood, very little identity-related theory and research has been undertaken with older adults. (For example, individuals in both phases of the life span must adjust to important biological changes, deal with philosophical questions of life’s meanings, and readjustment to changing demands from social contexts.) It is hoped that this article will present a foundation upon which future psychosocial research into the process and contents of identity development from adolescence through adulthood can take place.

Further Reading

  • Berman, S. L. , & Montgomery, M. J. (Guest Eds.). (2014). Problematic identity processes: the role of identity distress [Special issue]. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 14 , 241–312.
  • Côté, J. E. (2006). Identity studies: How close are we to developing a social science of identity?—An appraisal of the field. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 6 , 3–25.
  • Erikson, E. H. (Ed.). (1978). Adulthood . New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Erikson, E. H. , & Erikson, J. M. (1997). The life cycle completed . New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Josselson, R. , & Flum, H. (2015). Identity status: On refinding the people. In K. C. McLean & M. Syed (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of identity development (pp. 132–146). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kroger, J. (2007). Identity development: Adolescence through adulthood . Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.
  • Kroger, J. , & Marcia, J. E. (2011). The identity statuses: Origins, meanings, and interpretations. In S. J. Schwartz , K. Luyckx , & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 31–53). New York: Springer.
  • Luyckx, K. , Schwartz, S. J. , Goossens, L. , Beyers, W. , & Missotten, L. (2011). Processes of personal identity formation and evaluation. In S. J. Schwartz , K. Luyckx , & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research, Vol. 1, Structures and Processes (pp. 77–98). New York: Springer.
  • Marcia, J. E. (2010). Life transitions and stress in the context of psychosocial development. In T. W. Miller (Ed.), Handbook of stressful transitions across the lifespan (pp. 19–34). New York: Springer.
  • Marcia, J. E. (2014). From industry to integrity. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 14 , 165–176.
  • Adams, G. R. , Bennion, L. , & Huh, K. (1989). Objective measure of ego identity status: A reference manual . Ontario, Canada: University of Guelph.
  • Adams, G. R. , & Ethier, J. L. (1999). The objective measure of ego identity status: A manual on theory and test construction . Ontario, Canada: University of Guelph.
  • Anthis, K. (2002). On the calamity theory of growth: The relationship between stressful life events and changes in identity over time. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 2 , 229–240.
  • Anthis, K. (2011). The role of conflict in continuity and change: Life events associated with identity development in racially and ethnically diverse women. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 11 , 333–347.
  • Anthis, K. , & La Voie, J. (2006). Readiness to change: A longitudinal study of changes in adult identity. Journal of Research in Personality, 40 , 209–219.
  • Årseth, A. K. , Kroger, J. , Martinussen, M. , & Marcia, J. E. (2009). Meta-analytic studies of the relational issues of attachment and intimacy. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 9 , 1–32.
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  • Jespersen, K. , Kroger, J. , & Martinussen, M. (2013a). Identity status and ego development: A meta-analysis. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 13 , 228–241.
  • Jespersen, K. , Kroger, J. , & Martinussen, M. (2013b). Identity status and moral reasoning: A meta-analysis. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 13 , 266–280.
  • Jessor, R. , Turbin, M. S. , Costa, F. M. , Dong, Q. , Zhang, H. , & Wang, C. (2003). Adolescent problem behavior in China and the United States: A cross-national study of psychosocial protective factors. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13 , 329–360.
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  • Kroger, J. (2003). What transits in an identity status transition? Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 3 , 197–220.
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  • Lile, J. (2013). Toward a structural understanding of identity formation: A review and extension of theory. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 13 , 318–347.
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Locke on Personal Identity

John Locke (1632–1704) added the chapter in which he treats persons and their persistence conditions (Book 2, Chapter 27) to the second edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1694, only after being encouraged to do so by William Molyneux (1692–1693). [ 1 ] Nevertheless, Locke’s treatment of personal identity is one of the most discussed and debated aspects of his corpus. Locke’s discussion of persons received much attention from his contemporaries, ignited a heated debate over personal identity, and continues to influence and inform the debate over persons and their persistence conditions. This entry aims to first get clear on the basics of Locke’s position, when it comes to persons and personal identity, before turning to areas of the text that continue to be debated by historians of philosophy working to make sense of Locke’s picture of persons today. It then canvases how Locke’s discussion of persons was received by his contemporaries, and concludes by briefly addressing how those working in metaphysics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have responded to Locke’s view—giving the reader a glimpse of Locke’s lasting impact and influence on the debate over personal identity.

1. Locke on Persons and Personal Identity: The Basics

2. locke on persons: what’s up for debate, 3. the early modern reception of locke’s picture of persons, 4. locke’s lasting impact on the personal identity debate, primary literature by locke, other historical literature, contemporary literature, other internet resources, related entries.

Locke’s most thorough discussion of the persistence (or diachronic identity) of persons can be found in Book 2, Chapter 27 of the Essay (“Of Identity and Diversity”), though Locke anticipates this discussion as early as Book 1, Chapter 4, Section 5, and Locke refers to persons in other texts, including the Second Treatise of Government . The discussion of persons and their persistence conditions also features prominently in Locke’s lengthy exchange with Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester (1697–1699).

Locke begins “Of Identity and Diversity” by first getting clear on the principle of individuation, and by setting out what some have called the place-time-kind principle—which stipulates that no two things of the same kind can be in the same place at the same time, and no individual can be in two different places at the same time (L-N 2.27.1). [ 2 ] With some of the basics of identity in place, Locke posits that before we can determine the persistence conditions for atoms, masses of matter, plants, animals, men, or persons, we must first know what we mean by these terms. In other words, before we can determine what makes atoms, masses of matter, plants, animals, men, or persons the same over time, we must pin down the nominal essences—or general ideas—for these kinds. Of this Locke says,

’Tis not therefore Unity of Substance that comprehends all sorts of Identity , or will determine it in every Case: But to conceive, and judge of it aright, we must consider what Idea the Word it is applied to stands for…. (L-N 2.27.7)

That we must define a kind term before determining the persistence conditions for that kind is underscored in Locke’s definition of “person”. Locke starts off by saying,

This being premised to find wherein personal Identity consists, we must consider what Person stands for….

He goes on,

which, I think, is a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places…. (L-N 2.27.9)

A person for Locke is thus the kind of entity that can think self reflectively, and think of itself as persisting over time.

Locke additionally asserts that persons are agents. For Locke “person” is a

…Forensick Term appropriating Actions and their Merit; and so belongs only to intelligent Agents capable of a Law, and Happiness and Misery. (L-N 2.27.26)

Persons are therefore not just thinking intelligent beings that can reason and reflect, and consider themselves as the same thinking things in different times and places, but also entities that can be held accountable for their actions. It is because persons can think of themselves as persisting over time that they can, and do, plan ahead, with an eye toward the punishment or reward that may follow.

Just after Locke defines “person”, he begins to elucidate what makes any person the same person over time. He asserts that

…consciousness always accompanies thinking, and ‘tis that, that makes every one to be, what he calls self . (L-N 2.27.9)

Consciousness is what distinguishes selves, and thus,

…in this alone consists personal Identity, i.e. the sameness of rational Being: And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought, so far reaches the Identity of that Person ; it is the same self now it was then; and ‘tis by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that Action was done. (L-N 2.27.9)

After the initial assertion that the diachronic identity of persons consists in sameness of consciousness, Locke goes on to use various imaginary cases to drive this point home.

The imaginary cases that Locke employs are not dissimilar to ancient cases, such as the Ship of Theseus, reported by Plutarch. In this case, we are asked to imagine a ship that has slowly had its planks replaced with new ones. The intuition Plutarch’s case is intended to test is whether, at the end (when the ship has an entirely new material constitution), we have the same ship as before. Likewise, Locke is using cases to test readers’ intuitions about persistence and identity. But it is arguable that Locke is the first to devise such cases to specifically test readers’ intuitions about persons and the conditions under which they are the same. Locke is thus carving out a new conceptual space through such imaginary cases. A few of these will be outlined and discussed in what follows.

In the “prince and the cobbler” passage, or L-N 2.27.15, Locke asks the reader to imagine the soul of a prince entering and informing the body of a cobbler, taking all of its “princely thoughts” with it. In this scenario, the person called “prince” ends up persisting in the man identified as the “cobbler”, because the prince’s consciousness goes along with the prince’s soul. Just after Locke describes this scenario, he says,

I know that in the ordinary way of speaking, the same Person, and the same Man, stand for one and the same thing. And indeed every one will always have a liberty to speak, as he pleases, and to apply what articulate Sounds to what Ideas he thinks fit, and change them as often as he pleases. But yet when we will enquire, what makes the same Spirit, Man , or Person , in our Minds; and having resolved with our selves what we mean by them, it will not be hard to determine, in either of them, or the like, when it is the same , and when not. (L-N 2.27.15)

Through the “prince and the cobbler” passage it not only becomes clear that a person goes where their consciousness goes, but also that Locke distinguishes between the term “man” (which is synonymous with “human being”) and “person”.

Other scenarios that Locke conjures, such as the “waking and sleeping Socrates” case (L-N 2.27.19), make clear that even if an individual remains the same man, he may not persist as the same person. Here Locke says,

If the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness , Socrates waking and sleeping is not the same Person. And to punish Socrates waking, for what sleeping Socrates thought, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more of Right, than to punish one Twin for what his Brother-Twin did, whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they could not be distinguished; for such Twins have been seen. (L-N 2.27.19)

If Socrates has a different consciousness by day than he does by night, then waking Socrates ought not be punished for what sleeping Socrates does. This is because although Socrates is the same man by day as he is by night, he is a different person by day than he is at night (and moral responsibility lies with persons, according to Locke). Thus while the identity of consciousness determines the identity of person, the identity of persons and the identity of men come apart for Locke—or at least they can . [ 3 ]

Locke additionally distinguishes between persons and souls. There is evidence for this in L-N 2.27.13. Here Locke claims,

But yet to return to the Question before us, it must be allowed, That if the same consciousness … can be transferr’d from one thinking Substance to another, it will be possible, that two thinking Substances may make but one Person.

If consciousness can actually be transferred from one soul to another, then a person can persist, despite a change in the soul to which her consciousness is annexed. Thus if a reader’s soul switches out as she progresses from the start of L-N 2.27 to the end, so long as the reader’s consciousness remains the same, she remains the same person, according to Locke.

On top of this, Locke asserts that even if an individual has the same soul, he may fail to be the same person. Locke makes this point in L-N 2.27.14, 23, and 24. In the “day and night-man” passage, or 2.27.23, Locke asks the reader to imagine “…two distinct incommunicable consciousnesses acting the same Body, the one constantly by Day, the other by Night” (L-N 2.27.23). Locke goes on to suggest that the “… Day and the Night-man ” are “as distinct persons as Socrates and Plato ” (L-N 2.27.23). Locke then makes clear that this is the case even if day and night-man share the same soul:

For granting that the thinking Substance in Man must be necessarily suppos’d immaterial, ‘tis evident, that immaterial thinking thing may sometimes part with its past consciousness, and be restored to it again, as appears in the forgetfulness Men often have of their past Actions, and the Mind many times recovers the memory of a past consciousness, which it had lost for twenty Years together. Make these intervals of Memory and Forgetfulness to take their turns regularly by Day and Night, and you have two Persons with the same immaterial Spirit, as much as in the former instance two Persons with the same Body. So that self is not determined by Identity or Diversity of Substance…but only by identity of consciousness. (L-N 2.27.23)

Just as the “waking and sleeping Socrates” passage, L-N 2.27.23 shows that there can be a change of person due to a change in consciousness, and this is the case even though there is no change in man. But, what Locke also makes clear through L-N 2.27.23 is that there can be a change of person even though there is no change in soul. Thus while many philosophers (including Plato, Rene Descartes, Samuel Clarke, etc.) think that one cannot be a person unless one has an immaterial soul, and the identity of persons rests in the identity of souls, Locke makes the bold move of pulling persons and souls apart.

In addition to this, Locke calls the substantial nature of souls into question. Locke takes thought to be immaterial, and while Locke contends that the immaterial cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the material, Locke is not committed to substance dualism, when it comes to finite thinkers. This is because Locke thinks substratum—or the substance that underlies and supports any particular substance’s qualities—is impossible for finite minds to penetrate. Additionally there is nothing in the concepts “thought” and “matter” that allows us to deduce that one excludes the other, and God could have superadded the ability to think to formerly inert systems of matter. In Locke’s picture, we cannot know whether the substance (or substratum) that underlies thinking and willing is different from the substance (or substratum) that underlies being solid and white, or yellow and malleable. Locke’s official position on the substantial nature of finite thinkers is therefore one of agnosticism.

This section outlines some of the areas of Locke’s text, and aspects of Locke’s view, that continue to be debated by historians of philosophy working to make sense of Locke’s picture of persons and their persistence conditions today. As will soon become clear, there is disagreement about almost every aspect of Locke’s discussion of persons, and even some of what has been presented thus far betrays a particular interpretive framework.

One of the overarching questions asked about Locke’s Essay is how much it includes metaphysical exploration. Some think that Locke’s project is exclusively epistemological, citing (among other passages) the following as evidence for their view: In the Epistle to the Reader , Locke describes himself as an “underlabourer”. Locke then goes on to say,

This, therefore being my Purpose to enquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent; I shall not at present meddle with the Physical Consideration of the Mind; or trouble my self to examine, wherein its Essence consists, or by what Motions of our Spirits, or Alterations of our Bodies, we come to have any Sensation by our Organs, or any Ideas in our Understandings; and whether those Ideas do in their Formation, any, or all of them, depend on Matter, or no. These are Speculations, which, however curious and entertaining, I shall decline, as lying out of my Way, in the Design I am now upon. (L-N 1.1.2)

Under this reading, Locke is interested in determining what we can and cannot know by first determining how we come to have ideas, but what this entails is determining which activities give rise to our ideas, rather than investigating the metaphysical nature of the thinking thing wherein these activities—sensation and reflection—take place. Likewise all other explorations within the Essay eschew metaphysics.

Those who read L-N 2.27 as part of a project which is purely epistemological see the claims that Locke makes about the persistence of persons as claims about what we can know about the persistence of persons. As Lex Newman puts it,

Locke’s broader aim is to clarify the conditions under which we judge that we are numerically the same with some earlier person, not the conditions under which we strictly are the same person. (2015: 90)

Under this kind of reading, Locke’s claim that the identity of any person does not rest in the identity of substance (L-N 2.27.10 and 23) amounts to the claim that if any person wants to determine whether they are the same, they do not look to substance to find out. The idea is that because we have such an impoverished notion of substance in general, we do not look to substratum to determine if we are the same person over time in Locke’s view.

Other scholars tend to think that although Locke sets his task in the Essay as an epistemological one, he cannot help but dabble in some metaphysics along the way. What has been presented (regarding the basics of Locke’s picture of persons) in this entry thus far falls within this interpretive camp. This is why the imaginary cases that Locke employs in L-N 2.27 have been described as giving the reader information about what makes it the case that a person is the same at time 2 as at time 1. According to this view, what Locke is giving us in L-N 2.27 are inter alia “the conditions under which we strictly are the same person”.

Nevertheless, within the interpretive camp that takes Locke to dabble in metaphysics, there is widespread debate, both at the macro and the micro level. To start with the macro level: Some who fall into this camp see Locke making metaphysical claims in various passages throughout the text . Such scholars thus see what Locke is doing in L-N 2.27 as very much in keeping with moves that he makes in other parts of the Essay (see Stuart 2013, for example). However, others see L-N 2.27—and the metaphysics Locke is doing therein—as a significant break from the methodology that Locke employs in the rest of the Essay . This is because just after Locke claims that his project in the Essay is an epistemological one (1.1.2), he makes clear that in this project, he is using the historical plain method, or roughly, the Baconian method of induction (see Nuovo forthcoming). Of this, Locke says,

…I shall imagine I have not wholly misimploy’d my self in the Thoughts I shall have on this Occasion, if, in this Historical, plain Method, I can give any Account of the Ways , whereby our Understandings come to attain those Notions of Things we have, and can set down any Measures of the Certainty of our Knowledge, or the Grounds of those perswasions, which are to be found amongst Men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory…. (L-N 1.1.2)

Those who see a tension between Locke’s discussion of personal identity and the rest of the Essay contend that the way in which Locke proceeds in L-N 2.27 not only includes metaphysics, but also a reliance on thought experiments for data. Thus, rather than surveying a number of instances, and drawing inferences from there—or utilizing the historical, plain method—as he claims to be doing throughout the Essay , Locke is doing something quite different in 2.27: He is employing imaginary cases instead (see Antonia LoLordo 2012, for example).

However, what the historical plain method amounts to for Locke, and whether Locke’s use of thought experiments in L-N 2.27 is in tension with this method is also the subject of debate. So too is whether Locke uses thought experiments in 2.27 alone . Additionally, some have questioned whether the exercises that Locke walks readers through in 2.27 count as thought experiments at all (see Kathryn Tabb 2018, for more on this). There are thus wide-ranging debates about how to best describe 2.27 and the methodologies Locke employs therein. There is also much disagreement regarding how to square these methodologies with the general description Locke gives of his project in the Essay . Moreover, this is the case even amongst those who are in agreement that Locke is doing metaphysics in 2.27.

On top of this, there are deep and long-standing micro-level debates amongst those who think Locke is giving us some metaphysics in L-N 2.27. One such debate regards the implications of Locke’s assertion that the identity of any person does not rest in the identity of substance (2.27.10 and 23). Some scholars take Locke’s assertion that the identity of any person does not rest in the identity of substance, and other similar claims, to be evidence that Locke is a relativist about identity (see Stuart 2013, for example). To get a sense of what this entails, it is helpful to consider the contrast case: strict identity. If a philosopher holds a strict identity theory, then she takes it that we can ask, “Is y at time 2 the same as x at time 1?” and arrive at a determinate answer. On the other hand, if a philosopher is a relativist about identity, then she asserts that in response to the former question, we have to ask “Same what?” So if we ask, “Is Socrates the same?” a relativist about identity thinks we have to specify under which sortal term we are considering Socrates. Are we thinking about Socrates as a human being, or a body, or a soul (or something else altogether)?

On top of this, the relativist about identity thinks that an entity who is of two sorts can persist according to one, while failing to persist according to the other. We might say that from one day to the next, Socrates persists as the same human being, but not as the same body. Thus when Locke says that a person can persist despite a change in substance, or a person can persist despite a change in soul, some scholars take Locke to be showing that he is a relativist about identity. Relative identity readings were rather unpopular for some time, but have experienced a resurgence as of late (see Stuart 2013).

Still, some think that attributing this kind of reading to Locke is anachronistic. Others take issue with the fact that under a relative identity reading, there is, properly speaking, just one entity described under different sorts. (What we call “Socrates” does not pick out a human being, and person, with a body and soul, but rather one thing, described in these different ways.) This is appealing for some, especially those who think that this is the only way to save Locke from violating the place-time-kind principle, which stipulates that no two things of the same kind can be in the same place at the same time. But it lacks appeal for those who take Locke to be claiming that persons and the human beings who house them (for instance) are distinct. [ 4 ]

Some scholars take Locke’s assertion that the identity of substance is neither required nor enough for the persistence of any person to be evidence that persons are modes (or attributes), rather than substances (or things themselves). Such scholars then turn to Locke’s place-time-kind principle, for further evidence for their view. They take Locke’s assertion that no two things of the same kind can be in the same place at the same time to mean that no two substances of the same kind can be in the same place at the same time. Souls are thinking substances for Locke, and if persons are substances, they would count as such. Thus, persons cannot be substances, for otherwise wherever there is a person and her soul there are two thinking substances in the same place at the same time. Those who offer mode readings additionally turn to Locke’s claim that person is a “forensic term” and Locke’s bold assertion that a demonstrative science of morality is possible as evidence that the term “person” must be a mode term, rather than a substance term. This line of interpretation is popular today (see LoLordo 2012, Mattern 1980, Uzgalis 1990), but dates back to Edmund Law (1769).

Other Locke scholars defend substance readings of Locke on persons. They turn to Locke’s claims about substance, power, and agency, to conclude that if an entity has any power whatsoever it has to be a substance. Persons have powers. Thus, persons have to be substances for Locke (for arguments along these lines, see Gordon-Roth 2015, Rickless 2015, Chappell 1990). They then have to explain what Locke means when he asserts that the identity of any person does not rest in the identity of substance. Those who do not take the relative identity path usually end up working to get clear on what Locke could mean by “substance” when he makes this claim. Many conclude that what Locke means is that the identity of any person does not depend upon the identity of the simple substances that compose or constitute her. There are numerous defenders of this position today (see Alston and Bennett 1988, Bolton 1994, Chappell 1990, and Uzgalis 1990). Thus questions about two of the most basic features of Locke’s picture of personal identity—What is Locke’s (general) view on identity?; and, What kind of entity is a person, exactly?—are the subject of ongoing debate. [ 5 ]

So too are the most clearly stated aspects of Locke’s view: the claim that persons have consciousnesses, and the accompanying assertion that sameness of person rests in sameness of consciousness. What is consciousness for Locke? What does Locke mean by “sameness of consciousness”? Answering these questions turns out to be difficult, since Locke does not say much about what he takes consciousness to be (and we only know the persistence conditions of any entity, once we get clear on the nominal essence of that entity’s kind, according to Locke). Nevertheless, answering these questions is crucial to understanding Locke’s theory of personal identity since it is consciousness centered.

Some scholars take Locke to be a strict memory theorist. In other words, consciousness just is memory for Locke. As will become clear below, this reading dates back at least as far as Thomas Reid. Of course, it is the case that the way a person extends their consciousness backward is via memory. It thus may seem as if the identity of consciousness consists in memory, or that to have the same consciousness as she who did x , one has to have a memory of doing x , under Locke’s view. Nevertheless, as Margaret Atherton points out, Locke talks at length about forgetfulness, and if consciousness just is memory, then we cannot make sense of consciousness at any given moment where a person is not invoking memory (1983: 277–278). Atherton then goes on to develop an account of consciousness that is analogous with Locke’s conception of animal “life”.

The identity of consciousness is what allows for the persistence of any person, just as the identity of life is what allows for the persistence of any animal. “If we look at Locke in this fashion”, Atherton argues,

then what he is saying is that what makes me different at this moment from any other person is that my thoughts are identical with my consciousness of them. No one else can have my consciousness any more than any organism can have my life. (Atherton 1983: 283)

A person, in Atherton’s reading of Locke, is a single center of consciousness, and so long as that single center of consciousness persists, the person persists.

Other scholars hold what is called an “appropriation reading” (see Winkler 1991, Thiel 2011, LoLordo 2012). Under this reading, what Locke means when he says that sameness of person consists in sameness of consciousness, is that any person extends back only to those mental events or acts which they take to be their own . In other words, the persistence of any person or self is best seen in terms of the “subjective constitution of the self” (Winkler 1991: 204). There might be a worry that under this kind of reading, Locke gives persons too much authority. That is, a person could deny that she is the one who committed the crime, just because she doesn’t see that act as her own. But, although the “self has a certain authority over its own constitution”, Kenneth Winkler makes clear that

it is important to realize that this authority is not consciously exerted. I do not willfully disown one act and appropriate another; instead I accept what my consciousness reveals to me. There is also a severe limit on that authority, imposed by the transitivity of identity,

which comes through, as Winkler notes, in Reid’s objection—an objection which Winkler thinks sympathetic readers of Locke can answer and which is discussed in section 3 below (Winkler 1991: 206).

From these treatments it is still difficult to discern what consciousness is for Locke, however. Shelley Weinberg works to give a robust picture of Locke’s conception of consciousness in her recent book (2016). According to Weinberg, Locke uses the term “consciousness” in two different ways:

…Locke seems to see consciousness as (1) a mental state inseparable from an act of perception by means of which we are aware of ourselves as perceiving , and (2) the ongoing self we are aware of in these conscious states . (Weinberg 2016: 153)

The former is a momentary psychological state that allows for what Weinberg calls

a momentary subjective experience that the self presently perceiving is the same as the self that remembers having once had a past thought or action

and captures the first-person experience of persisting over time (Weinberg 2016: 153). The latter is an “objective fact of an ongoing consciousness” (Weinberg 2016: 153). This sense of consciousness is available from a third personal point of view, and fills in the gaps that any person’s subjective experience might entail.

Thus, Weinberg contends that the identity, or continued existence, of consciousness consists in a metaphysical fact, rather than appropriation. Nevertheless, Weinberg additionally argues that the first personal (conscious) experience of our own mental states, whether those states are occurrent sensations, reflections, or via remembering is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of personal identity. In other words, to have the awareness (or knowledge) of an ongoing self—or (2)—we must have (1). Although there is a range of interpretations of Locke on consciousness on the table, Weinberg’s book, Consciousness in Locke , marks the first large-scale treatment of Locke’s views on consciousness. [ 6 ]

In addition to the debate over what consciousness is, and what Locke means when he says that the identity of any person consists in the identity of consciousness, there is ongoing debate about what Locke’s stance is when it comes to what can give rise to consciousness. That is, there is ongoing discussion of what Locke means when he says that God could have superadded thinking to formerly inert systems of matter, and what Locke’s actual position is on the substantial nature of finite thinkers. There are those who take Locke to be truly agnostic. Those who take this line of interpretation remind readers of Locke’s stated aims at the start of the Essay (as quoted earlier), and the epistemic modesty that Locke maintains throughout the text. But, there are others who think that Locke overstates the probability that souls are immaterial substances, so as not to ruffle the feathers of Stillingfleet and other religious authorities. Some in the latter group think that Locke leans toward materialism. This raises questions about how far Anthony Collins (discussed below) departs from the Lockean picture, or the degree to which Locke anticipates later materialist pictures of persons. [ 7 ] At the very least, it can be said that Locke challenges the importance that many philosophers place on the immaterial soul to personhood and personal identity. [ 8 ] As might be expected, this was met with mixed reviews.

This section addresses how Locke’s view was received by his contemporaries and by those writing in the remainder of the early modern period (16 th -18 th centuries). A good number of philosophers vehemently objected to Locke’s treatment of persons, though some defended it, and many others used it as an inspiration, or springboard, for their own views.

Many who objected to Locke’s treatment of persons did so because they objected to the decreased importance Locke places on the soul for personhood and personal persistence (see Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, and Samuel Clarke, for example). Many such philosophers argue that numerical identity consists in no change at all , and the only kind of entity that allows for identity in this strict sense is an immaterial substance.

Along the way, some charged Locke’s theory of personal identity with circularity. As Joseph Butler puts it,

…[O]ne should really think it self-evident that consciousness of personal identity presupposes, and therefore cannot constitute, personal identity; any more than knowledge, in any other case, can constitute truth, which it presupposes. (1736 [1842: 298])

Butler then asserts that Locke’s misstep stems from his methodology. He says,

This wonderful mistake may possibly have arisen from hence; that to be endued with consciousness is inseparable from the idea of a person, or intelligent being. For this might be expressed inaccurately thus, that consciousness makes personality: and from hence it might be concluded to make personal identity. (1736 [1842: 298])

One of the points that Locke emphasizes—that persistence conditions are determined via defining kind terms—is what, according to Butler, leads Locke astray.

Butler additionally makes the point that memory is not required for personal persistence. He says,

But though present consciousness of what we at present do and feel is necessary to our being the persons we now are; yet present consciousness of past actions or feelings is not necessary to our being the same persons who performed those actions, or had those feelings. (1736 [1842: 298])

This is a point that others develop when they assert that Locke’s view results in contradiction.

The most popular, or well known, version of this line of objection comes from Thomas Reid (1785). In the “brave officer” objection, Reid poses the following challenge to Locke’s theory of personal identity. He says:

Suppose a brave officer to have been flogged when a boy at school for robbing an orchard, to have taken a standard from the enemy in his first campaign, and to have been made a general in advanced life; suppose, also, which must be admitted to be possible, that, when he took the standard, he was conscious of his having been flogged at school, and that, when made a general, he was conscious of his taking the standard, but had absolutely lost the consciousness of his flogging. These things being supposed, it follows, from Mr. Locke’s doctrine, that he who was flogged at school is the same person who took the standard, and that he who took the standard is the same person who was made a general. Whence it follows, if there be any truth in logic, that the general is the same person with him who was flogged at school. But the general’s consciousness does not reach so far back as his flogging; therefore, according to Mr. Locke’s doctrine, he is not the person who was flogged. Therefore, the general is, and at the same time is not, the same person with him who was flogged at school. (Reid 1785 [1851: 248–249])

In this exercise (and other similar versions of it) we are supposed to assume Locke’s theory of personal identity, and maintain that sameness of person consists in sameness of consciousness. When we do, Reid expects we will conclude that the general (C) is the same person as he who took the standard from the enemy (B) because the general (C) remembers doing so. Additionally he who took the standard from the enemy (B) is the same person as he who was flogged at school for robbing the orchard (A) because he (B) remembers that past traumatic experience. Thus C (he who is was made general) is identical to B (he who took the standard) and B (he who took the standard) is identical to A (he who was flogged at school).

Given the law of transitivity (which says that if C is identical to B and B is identical to A, then C is identical to A), we should conclude that C (the general) is identical to A (the flogged school boy). But, since we are assuming Locke’s theory of personal identity, Reid thinks we cannot come to this conclusion. If we assume Locke’s view, Reid contends that we have to conclude that C (the general) is not identical to A (the school boy). This is because C (the general) has no consciousness or memory of having been flogged at school (A).

This and other similar objections are meant to show that if we place the identity of persons in the identity of consciousness, as Locke suggests, then we run into a problem—namely one of contradiction—for we get the result that C and A both are, and are not, identical. Nevertheless, as is made clear above, there is debate about whether Locke’s claims about identity of consciousness should be read in terms of memory, and whether Reid is correct to take “memory” and “consciousness” as synonymous terms for Locke.

Circularity and contradiction are just two of the major objections launched at Locke’s theory of personal identity shortly after it is published. Importantly, these are objections to which sympathetic readers of Locke are still responding (see Atherton 1983, Weinberg 2016, LoLordo 2012, Thiel 2011, Garrett 2003, Schechtman 2014, etc). This gives the reader a glimpse of some of the lines of attack that were launched against Locke’s discussion of persons during the early modern period. Nevertheless, not all of Locke’s peers attacked his picture of persons, and numerous philosophers worked to defend his view.

One such philosopher is Catharine Trotter Cockburn. Cockburn pens her Defence of Mr. Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding in 1702. [ 9 ] In this text, Cockburn is responding to three pamphlets directed at Locke’s Essay . [ 10 ] These pamphlets take aim at Locke’s Essay rather broadly, and Cockburn’s Defence reflects this, but much is said about Locke on persons and their persistence conditions therein. Specifically, these pamphlets charge Locke with not proving that the soul is immortal, or threatening proofs of the immortality of the soul. They additionally charge that Locke’s view leaves us with the strange consequence that our souls are in constant flux, making it the case that we “awake with new souls each morning”. Given the importance of the soul, its persistence, and its immortality, to many traditional theories of personal identity, these objections are arguably intended to be objections to Locke’s picture of persons. Cockburn is quick to defend Locke, but proceeds carefully and thoroughly as she does so.

Cockburn points out that Locke never sets out to prove the soul immortal, and Locke actually claims that it is more probable that the soul is immaterial, than material. Moreover, even if Locke is not committed to the soul being immaterial, this ought not threaten proofs of the immortality of the soul. This is because what allows Locke to speculate that God could have superadded thinking to formerly inert systems of matter is that God is omnipotent, and surely an omnipotent being could make souls immortal even if they are material. Moreover, proofs for the immortality of the soul that rely on the immateriality of the soul are not likely to convince laymen of the soul’s immortality, and may actually leave them sceptical about whether the soul is indeed immortal (even if it is immaterial).

Cockburn additionally attacks the assertion that Locke’s claim that “men think not always” threatens proofs of the immortality of the soul. Of this she says,

But let it be granted, that it is ever so clearly proved, that thinking is necessary to the soul’s existence, that can no more prove, that it shall always exist, than it proves, that it has always existed; it being as possible for that omnipotence, which from nothing gave the soul a being , to deprive it of that being in the midst of its most vigorous reflections, as in an utter suspension of all thought. If then this proposition, that the soul always thinks , does not prove, that it is immortal, the contrary supposition takes not away any proof of it; for it is no less easy to conceive, that a being, which has the power of thinking with some intervals of cessation from thought, that has existed here for some time in a capacity of happiness or misery, may be continued in, or restored to the same state, in a future life, than that a Being which always thinks, may be continued in the same state. (Cockburn, in Sheridan (ed) 2006: 53)

As Cockburn points out, the notion that the soul is always thinking is not used as evidence for the soul’s immortality. Locke’s claim to the contrary thus ought not count as evidence against it, and we ought to have faith that an omnipotent God will ensure the soul’s immortality (whether it always thinks or not). Additionally, there is ample evidence that Locke thinks the soul is immortal, and that persons will go on to receive divine punishment and reward in the next life for their deeds in this life. This comes through not just in L-N 2.27 of the Essay , but also in Locke’s correspondence with Stillingfleet, and many of Locke’s religious writings, including the posthumously published “ Resurrectio et quae secuuntur ” (though Cockburn would not have had access to the latter while drafting her Defence ). [ 11 ]

Finally, Cockburn argues that the assumption that Locke’s view entails that we “awake with new souls each morning” rests on a misunderstanding. Just as a body that was in motion and comes to rest does not become a new body once it starts moving again, a soul that was thinking and ceases to think does not become a new soul once thought is restored to it. Thus, Locke’s claim that we do not always think—and indeed may have dreamless sleep—does not have the absurd consequences for the persistence of persons that the pamphlets charge. To this it might also be added that even if we awake with new souls each morning, it need not mean that we are new persons each morning, according to Locke.

Through the Defence , Cockburn additionally makes clear that although Locke’s theory of personal identity allows for sci-fi switches such as those described in the “prince and the cobbler” passage (L-N 2.27.15), the “waking and sleeping Socrates” passage (2.27.19), and the “day and night-man” passage (2.27.23), Locke does not think that this is the way things ordinarily go. In other words, in Locke’s view it is not that persons are switching bodies and swapping souls on a regular basis. Rather, Locke is making clear that we should distinguish between the concepts “man”, “body”, “soul”, and “person”. Moreover, the persistence of any person does not always align with the persistence of a human being or soul, as many assume. Making this point is the purpose of those imaginary cases.

Sixty-seven years after Cockburn’s Defence , and twenty-one years after the correspondence between Cockburn and Edmund Law ends, Law drafts a Defence of his own. Law’s Defence of Mr. Locke’s Opinion Concerning Personal Identity (1769) is later included in the 1823 version of Locke’s Works , and in it Law offers a particular reading of the ontological status of persons. Law defends a consciousness-based view, and makes much of Locke’s claim that person is a “forensic term”. Law moves from this point to the conclusion that Locke thinks persons are modes (or attributes) rather than substances (or things in themselves). He says,

Now the word Person , as is well observed by Mr. Locke …is properly a forensick term, and here to be used in the strickt forensick sense, denoting some such quality or modification in man as denominates him a moral agent, or an accountable creature; renders him the proper subject of Laws , and a true object of Rewards or Punishments. (1823: 1–2)

This is significant since whether Lockean persons are best thought of as substances, modes, or relations is something that is still debated amongst Locke scholars today.

While some philosophers were happy to defend Locke, as Cockburn and Law did, numerous philosophers writing in the eighteenth century utilized Locke’s theory of personal identity as a stepping stone to establish their own even more provocative views on persons. The ways in which these theorists go beyond Locke varies. Some of these are outlined below. [ 12 ]

In Anthony Collins’s correspondence with Samuel Clarke (1707–1708), it can often look as if Collins is a mere defender of Locke’s view. Collins holds a consciousness-based view of personal identity, and Collins invokes Locke’s discussion of persons and their persistence conditions throughout this lengthy exchange. Nevertheless, Collins takes Locke’s assertion that for all we know God could have superadded the ability to think to formerly inert systems of matter, and runs with it. As Larry Jorgensen puts it,

A significant difference between Collins and Locke…is that Collins thought that material systems provided a better explanatory basis for consciousness, which changes the probability calculus. Collins provides evidence that casts doubt on Locke’s claim that “it is in the highest degree probable” that humans have immaterial souls. Although he is building from a Lockean starting point, namely the possibility that God might superadd thinking to matter, he ends up with a naturalized version: thinking “follows from the composition or modification of a material system” (Clarke and Collins 2011: 48). (Jorgensen forthcoming)

Collins’s view on personal identity is a consciousness-based view, but what gives rise to consciousness, according to Collins, is likely a material system. Thus some take Locke’s purported agnosticism about the substantial nature of finite thinkers, and proceed more forcefully in the direction of materialism. In other words, Locke’s views on the substantial nature of finite thinkers opens the door to materialist views of persons and their persistence conditions.

Others take criticisms launched at Locke’s theory of personal identity, including the criticism that the self (or persisting self) is a fiction, and appear to embrace such consequences. [ 13 ] This can be seen rather readily in David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1738). In the Treatise , Hume asserts that it is not clear how we can even have an idea of the self. This is because most take selves to be persisting entities, and all of our ideas come from corresponding impressions. But since our impressions constantly change, there is no one impression that can give rise to the idea we call “self”. Of this Hume says,

It must be some one impression, that gives rise to every real idea. But self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are suppos’d to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, thro the whole course of our lives; since self is suppos’d to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is deriv’d; and consequently there is no such idea. (1738 Book I, Part IV, Section VI [1896: 251–252])

Moreover, whenever Hume looks for himself, all he finds are impressions. He says,

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. (1738 [1896: 252])

This leads Hume to claim that we are just bundles of perceptions, in constant flux (1738 [1896: 252]).

Thus it is not only the case that we fail to have an idea of the self, according to Hume, but also the case that, properly speaking, no subsisting self persists from one moment to the next. It is the imagination that leads us astray when we think of ourselves, and other entities, as persisting over time (1738 [1896: 254]). As Hume puts it,

The identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one, and of a like kind with that which we ascribe to vegetables and animal bodies. (1738 [1896: 259])
It cannot, therefore, have a different origin, but must proceed from a like operation of the imagination upon like objects. (1738 [1896: 259])

In moving away from a more traditional substance-based view of personal identity (where the identity of person lies in the identity of soul), Locke opens the door to more fragmentary treatments of selves and persons. [ 14 ]

Along similar lines, some take Locke’s claim that the identity of persons lies in the identity of consciousness as fuel for the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no special relation between person x and any other future person. That is, personal identity only exists between present and past selves, not present and future selves. For this reason, we ought not have prudential concern, or concern for a future self that is distinct from our concern for others. This is the argumentative move that William Hazlitt makes, and in An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805), he explicitly sets as his task showing

…that the human mind is naturally disinterested, or that it is naturally interested in the welfare of others in the same way, and from the same motives, by which we are impelled to the pursuit of our own interests. (1805: 1)

This line of argumentation is replicated and expanded almost one hundred and eighty years later by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons (1984), though it does not appear that Parfit is aware of Hazlitt’s view when he drafts his own. [ 15 ]

This section briefly outlines the lasting impact that Locke has had on the debate over persons and their persistence conditions by exploring how Locke’s theory of personal identity gets taken up in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Most metaphysicians contributing to the debate over personal identity refer to Locke’s treatment of persons in their texts. Many even directly respond to Locke’s view as they flesh out their own.

Most who hold psychological continuity theories of personal identity take their views to be descendants of Locke’s. This is true of John Perry (1975), David Lewis (1976), Sydney Shoemaker (1984), and Derek Parfit (1984), for instance (Schechtman “Memory, Identity, and Sameness of Consciousness”, forthcoming in The Lockean Mind ). In fact, Parfit defends what he calls a “Lockean view” as recently as 2016 (34). What makes each of these views Lockean (at least according to their authors) is that, as Locke does, they take personal identity to consist in the continuity of psychological life, and they take this to mean that personal identity is relational. Moreover, like Locke, they emphasize the forensic nature of personhood.

Marya Schechtman offers a rival interpretation to those held by Perry, Lewis, Shoemaker, and Parfit, but Locke is very much in the foreground of Schechtman’s narrative account as well. In The Constitution of Selves (1996: 15), Schechtman claims,

The argument that personal identity must be defined in psychological terms is first systematically presented and defended by Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding

Schechtman then goes on to show that the project of psychological continuity theorists is “incoherent” because

[t]he goal of offering reidentification criterion is fundamentally at odds with the goal of defining personal identity in terms of psychological continuity…. (1996: 24)

Importantly, Schechtman does this not just by making a passing reference to Locke and then treating Parfit, Perry, and the like, but via a thorough examination of Locke’s theory, and the objections raised to it by Butler, Reid, and others.

Moreover, this is the case not only in Schechtman’s earlier work, but in her most recent work as well. Schechtman includes a thirty-two page chapter titled, “Locke and the Psychological Continuity Theorists” at the start of Staying Alive: Personal Identity, Practical Concerns, and the Unity of a Life (2014), and in “Memory, Identity, and Sameness of Consciousness”, Schechtman turns to recent developments in the psychological study of memory to update Locke’s view to “…capture some of the crucial insights of Locke’s account, and show why it remains relevant and influential” (in The Lockean Mind , forthcoming).

Those who defend animalism—or the view that persons just are human organisms—hold a position that is quite different from psychological continuity theories or narrative based views. Still, most animalists respond to Locke. Some even invoke Locke’s view as they develop their own. For example, Eric Olson’s animalist view relies very heavily both on Locke’s conception of “life”, and the persistence conditions Locke gives for organisms (1997: 137–138, etc.). This is why Olson describes his view as “Lockean”.

At the same time, some animalists blame Locke for separating the discussion of persons and personal identity from the discussion of human beings or human animals. In Animalism: New Essays on Persons, Animals & Identity , Stephen Blatti and Paul Snowdon ask, “Why was the idea of an animal conspicuously absent…” in the personal identity debate for so long (2016: 3)? They go on,

To answer this question, we need to return to Locke’s famous discussion of personal identity, in which the notion of an animal was central…Locke exercised great care in specifying the different ideas for which the words ‘animal’ and ‘person’ stood. A reasonable conjecture, or proposal, we suggest, is that Locke’s treatment of these two terms and notions was so effective that it generated in people engaging with the problem the conviction that the notion of a person is the central one fixing the type of thing the problem is about, with the consequence that the notion of an animal was lost to sight. (2016: 3)

Locke does much to distinguish between human beings (or men)—which are animals—and persons, and Blatti and Snowdon assert that this sets the stage for how the personal identity debate plays out for the next several hundred years. In other words, Locke is the reason that animalist views do not emerge until later in the twentieth century. [ 16 ]

Finally, even those working to carve out an entirely new space for the discussion of persons and their persistence conditions say something about Locke as they proceed. Leke Adeofe outlines and develops a tripartite picture of persons according to what he calls the “African thought system”. As he does, Adeofe aligns his approach with Locke’s. He says,

My approach, partly descriptive and partly imaginative, ought to be familiar; it has been borrowed from a tradition that dates back at least to John Locke. (2004: 69)

Moreover, this is the case even though Adeofe uses the African, or Yoruba, conception of “person” to challenge Western philosophy’s treatment of persons and their persistence conditions.

In Real People: Personal Identity Without Thought Experiments (1988), Kathleen Wilkes takes aim at the proliferation of thought experiments in the personal identity literature. It is clear that Wilkes has the elaborate thought experiments that Parfit employs (including teletransportation, split brain cases, etc.) in mind throughout her critique. But, it is also clear that Wilkes traces this methodology back to Locke. Of this she says,

The subject of personal identity…has probably exploited the method [of thought experiments] more than any other problem area in philosophy. Many of the examples are familiar:…Locke testing ‘what we would say if’ the soul of a cobbler migrated into the body of a prince, or if the Mayor of Queinborough awoke one day with all of Socrates’ memories. (Wilkes 1988: 6)

The “prince and the cobbler” passage, or L-N 2.27.15, proceeds in the opposite direction, with Locke asking us what we would conclude about the soul of a prince entering and informing the body of a cobbler, but, regardless, Wilkes takes Locke and the tradition that follows, as her target as she works to move the discussion of personal identity away from fantasy cases and toward real-life ones.

Locke’s discussion of personal identity is central to the current debate over persons and their persistence conditions. Nevertheless, there are many different versions of Locke’s view that contemporary metaphysicians take themselves to be embracing or rejecting. Even those who describe their respective views as “Lockean”—Parfit and Olson, for instance—can end up defending very different pictures of persons. This highlights just how difficult it is to determine what Locke’s view on persons and their persistence conditions amounts to, despite how clear its importance is.

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  • –––, 2007, “Locke on Ideas of Identity and Diversity”, in Newman 2007: 192–230. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521834333.008
  • –––, 2011, “Locke on Consciousness, Personal Identity and the Idea of Duration”, Noûs , 45(3): 387–408. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0068.2010.00773.x
  • Yolton, John W., 2004, The Two Intellectual Worlds of John Locke: Man, Person, and Spirits in the Essay , Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Author Meets Critics on “Locke’s Moral Man” , July 2013 discussion of LoLordo’s book at The Mod Squad (Modern Philosophy Group Blog).
  • John Locke Bibliography , part of the John Locke Resources site, maintained by John C. Attig.
  • The John Locke Society

animalism | Clarke, Samuel | Cockburn, Catharine Trotter | consciousness: seventeenth-century theories of | Descartes, René | Hume, David | Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm | Locke, John | Locke, John: moral philosophy | personal identity


I am grateful to the Chicago Early Modern Round Table for helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this entry, Shelley Weinberg and an anonymous referee from SEP for insightful comments on later drafts. I’m also deeply indebted to Margaret Atherton, John Whipple, Marya Schechtman, and the many audiences I’ve gotten feedback from when I was just starting to think about Locke on personhood and personal identity.

Copyright © 2019 by Jessica Gordon-Roth < gordo216 @ umn . edu >

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3 Self and Identity

For human beings, the self is what happens when “I” encounters “Me.” The central psychological question of selfhood, then, is this: How does a person apprehend and understand who he or she is? Over the past 100 years, psychologists have approached the study of self (and the related concept of identity) in many different ways, but three central metaphors for the self repeatedly emerge. First, the self may be seen as a social actor, who enacts roles and displays traits by performing behaviors in the presence of others. Second, the self is a motivated agent, who acts upon inner desires and formulates goals, values, and plans to guide behavior in the future. Third, the self eventually becomes an autobiographical author, too, who takes stock of life — past, present, and future — to create a story about who I am, how I came to be, and where my life may be going. This module briefly reviews central ideas and research findings on the self as an actor, an agent, and an author, with an emphasis on how these features of selfhood develop over the human life course.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the basic idea of reflexivity in human selfhood—how the “I” encounters and makes sense of itself (the “Me”).
  • Describe fundamental distinctions between three different perspectives on the self: the self as actor, agent, and author.
  • Describe how a sense of self as a social actor emerges around the age of 2 years and how it develops going forward.
  • Describe the development of the self’s sense of motivated agency from the emergence of the child’s theory of mind to the articulation of life goals and values in adolescence and beyond.
  • Define the term narrative identity, and explain what psychological and cultural functions narrative identity serves.


In the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the ancient Greeks inscribed the words: “Know thy self .” For at least 2,500 years, and probably longer, human beings have pondered the meaning of the ancient aphorism. Over the past century, psychological scientists have joined the effort. They have formulated many theories and tested countless hypotheses that speak to the central question of human selfhood: How does a person know who he or she is?

A man stands in front of the bathroom mirror and reaches out to touch an altered reflection of himself.

The ancient Greeks seemed to realize that the self is inherently reflexive —it reflects back on itself. In the disarmingly simple idea made famous by the great psychologist William James ( 1892/1963 ), the self is what happens when “I” reflects back upon “Me.” The self is both the I and the Me—it is the knower, and it is what the knower knows when the knower reflects upon itself. When you look back at yourself, what do you see? When you look inside, what do you find? Moreover, when you try to change your self in some way, what is it that you are trying to change? The philosopher Charles Taylor ( 1989 ) describes the self as a reflexive project . In modern life, Taylor agues, we often try to manage, discipline, refine, improve, or develop the self. We work on our selves, as we might work on any other interesting project. But what exactly is it that we work on?

Imagine for a moment that you have decided to improve your self . You might, say, go on a diet to improve your appearance. Or you might decide to be nicer to your mother, in order to improve that important social role. Or maybe the problem is at work—you need to find a better job or go back to school to prepare for a different career. Perhaps you just need to work harder. Or get organized. Or recommit yourself to religion. Or maybe the key is to begin thinking about your whole life story in a completely different way, in a way that you hope will bring you more happiness, fulfillment, peace, or excitement.

Although there are many different ways you might reflect upon and try to improve the self, it turns out that many, if not most, of them fall roughly into three broad psychological categories ( McAdams & Cox, 2010 ). The I may encounter the Me as (a) a social actor, (b) a motivated agent, or (c) an autobiographical author.

The Social Actor

An illustration of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare tapped into a deep truth about human nature when he famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” He was wrong about the “merely,” however, for there is nothing more important for human adaptation than the manner in which we perform our roles as actors in the everyday theatre of social life. What Shakespeare may have sensed but could not have fully understood is that human beings evolved to live in social groups. Beginning with Darwin ( 1872/1965 ) and running through contemporary conceptions of human evolution, scientists have portrayed human nature as profoundly social ( Wilson, 2012 ). For a few million years, Homo sapiens and their evolutionary forerunners have survived and flourished by virtue of their ability to live and work together in complex social groups, cooperating with each other to solve problems and overcome threats and competing with each other in the face of limited resources. As social animals, human beings strive to get along and get ahead in the presence of each other ( Hogan, 1982 ). Evolution has prepared us to care deeply about social acceptance and social status, for those unfortunate individuals who do not get along well in social groups or who fail to attain a requisite status among their peers have typically been severely compromised when it comes to survival and reproduction. It makes consummate evolutionary sense, therefore, that the human “I” should apprehend the “Me” first and foremost as a social actor .

For human beings, the sense of the self as a social actor begins to emerge around the age of 18 months. Numerous studies have shown that by the time they reach their second birthday most toddlers recognize themselves in mirrors and other reflecting devices ( Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979 ; Rochat, 2003 ). What they see is an embodied actor who moves through space and time. Many children begin to use words such as “me” and “mine” in the second year of life, suggesting that the I now has linguistic labels that can be applied reflexively to itself: I call myself “me.” Around the same time, children also begin to express social emotions such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride ( Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007 ). These emotions tell the social actor how well he or she is performing in the group. When I do things that win the approval of others, I feel proud of myself. When I fail in the presence of others, I may feel embarrassment or shame. When I violate a social rule, I may experience guilt, which may motivate me to make amends.

Many of the classic psychological theories of human selfhood point to the second year of life as a key developmental period. For example, Freud ( 1923/1961 ) and his followers in the psychoanalytic tradition traced the emergence of an autonomous ego back to the second year. Freud used the term “ego” (in German das Ich , which also translates into “the I”) to refer to an executive self in the personality. Erikson ( 1963 ) argued that experiences of trust and interpersonal attachment in the first year of life help to consolidate the autonomy of the ego in the second. Coming from a more sociological perspective, Mead ( 1934 ) suggested that the I comes to know the Me through reflection, which may begin quite literally with mirrors but later involves the reflected appraisals of others. I come to know who I am as a social actor, Mead argued, by noting how other people in my social world react to my performances. In the development of the self as a social actor, other people function like mirrors—they reflect who I am back to me.

Research has shown that when young children begin to make attributions about themselves, they start simple ( Harter, 2006 ). At age 4, Jessica knows that she has dark hair, knows that she lives in a white house, and describes herself to others in terms of simple behavioral traits . She may say that she is “nice,” or “helpful,” or that she is “a good girl most of the time.” By the time, she hits fifth grade (age 10), Jessica sees herself in more complex ways, attributing traits to the self such as “honest,” “moody,” “outgoing,” “shy,” “hard-working,” “smart,” “good at math but not gym class,” or “nice except when I am around my annoying brother.” By late childhood and early adolescence, the personality traits that people attribute to themselves, as well as those attributed to them by others, tend to correlate with each other in ways that conform to a well-established taxonomy of five broad trait domains, repeatedly derived in studies of adult personality and often called the Big Five : (1) extraversion, (2) neuroticism, (3) agreeableness, (4) conscientiousness, and (5) openness to experience ( Roberts, Wood, & Caspi, 2008 ). By late childhood, moreover, self-conceptions will likely also include important social roles : “I am a good student,” “I am the oldest daughter,” or “I am a good friend to Sarah.”

Traits and roles, and variations on these notions, are the main currency of the self as social actor ( McAdams & Cox, 2010 ). Trait terms capture perceived consistencies in social performance. They convey what I reflexively perceive to be my overall acting style, based in part on how I think others see me as an actor in many different social situations. Roles capture the quality, as I perceive it, of important structured relationships in my life. Taken together, traits and roles make up the main features of my social reputation , as I apprehend it in my own mind ( Hogan, 1982 ).

If you have ever tried hard to change yourself, you may have taken aim at your social reputation, targeting your central traits or your social roles. Maybe you woke up one day and decided that you must become a more optimistic and emotionally upbeat person. Taking into consideration the reflected appraisals of others, you realized that even your friends seem to avoid you because you bring them down. In addition, it feels bad to feel so bad all the time: Wouldn’t it be better to feel good, to have more energy and hope? In the language of traits, you have decided to “work on” your “neuroticism.” Or maybe instead, your problem is the trait of “conscientiousness”: You are undisciplined and don’t work hard enough, so you resolve to make changes in that area. Self-improvement efforts such as these—aimed at changing one’s traits to become a more effective social actor—are sometimes successful, but they are very hard—kind of like dieting. Research suggests that broad traits tend to be stubborn, resistant to change, even with the aid of psychotherapy. However, people often have more success working directly on their social roles. To become a more effective social actor, you may want to take aim at the important roles you play in life. What can I do to become a better son or daughter? How can I find new and meaningful roles to perform at work, or in my family, or among my friends, or in my church and community? By doing concrete things that enrich your performances in important social roles, you may begin to see yourself in a new light, and others will notice the change, too. Social actors hold the potential to transform their performances across the human life course. Each time you walk out on stage, you have a chance to start anew.

The Motivated Agent

A woman wearing a helmet driving a Vespa motor scooter while pedestrians walk nearby.

Whether we are talking literally about the theatrical stage or more figuratively, as I do in this module, about the everyday social environment for human behavior, observers can never fully know what is in the actor’s head, no matter how closely they watch. We can see actors act, but we cannot know for sure what they want or what they value , unless they tell us straightaway. As a social actor, a person may come across as friendly and compassionate, or cynical and mean-spirited, but in neither case can we infer their motivations from their traits or their roles. What does the friendly person want? What is the cynical father trying to achieve? Many broad psychological theories of the self prioritize the motivational qualities of human behavior—the inner needs, wants, desires, goals, values, plans, programs, fears, and aversions that seem to give behavior its direction and purpose ( Bandura, 1989 ; Deci & Ryan, 1991 ; Markus & Nurius, 1986 ). These kinds of theories explicitly conceive of the self as a motivated agent.

To be an agent is to act with direction and purpose, to move forward into the future in pursuit of self-chosen and valued goals. In a sense, human beings are agents even as infants, for babies can surely act in goal-directed ways. By age 1 year, moreover, infants show a strong preference for observing and imitating the goal-directed, intentional behavior of others, rather than random behaviors ( Woodward, 2009 ). Still, it is one thing to act in goal-directed ways; it is quite another for the I to know itself (the Me) as an intentional and purposeful force who moves forward in life in pursuit of self-chosen goals, values, and other desired end states. In order to do so, the person must first realize that people indeed have desires and goals in their minds and that these inner desires and goals motivate (initiate, energize, put into motion) their behavior. According to a strong line of research in developmental psychology, attaining this kind of understanding means acquiring a theory of mind ( Wellman, 1993 ), which occurs for most children by the age of 4. Once a child understands that other people’s behavior is often motivated by inner desires and goals, it is a small step to apprehend the self in similar terms.

Building on theory of mind and other cognitive and social developments, children begin to construct the self as a motivated agent in the elementary school years, layered over their still-developing sense of themselves as social actors. Theory and research on what developmental psychologists call the age 5-to-7 shift converge to suggest that children become more planful, intentional, and systematic in their pursuit of valued goals during this time ( Sameroff & Haith, 1996 ). Schooling reinforces the shift in that teachers and curricula place increasing demands on students to work hard, adhere to schedules, focus on goals, and achieve success in particular, well-defined task domains. Their relative success in achieving their most cherished goals, furthermore, goes a long way in determining children’s self-esteem ( Robins, Tracy, & Trzesniewski, 2008 ). Motivated agents feel good about themselves to the extent they believe that they are making good progress in achieving their goals and advancing their most important values.

Goals and values become even more important for the self in adolescence, as teenagers begin to confront what Erikson ( 1963 ) famously termed the developmental challenge of identity . For adolescents and young adults, establishing a psychologically efficacious identity involves exploring different options with respect to life goals, values, vocations, and intimate relationships and eventually committing to a motivational and ideological agenda for adult life—an integrated and realistic sense of what I want and value in life and how I plan to achieve it ( Kroger & Marcia, 2011 ). Committing oneself to an integrated suite of life goals and values is perhaps the greatest achievement for the self as motivated agent . Establishing an adult identity has implications, as well, for how a person moves through life as a social actor, entailing new role commitments and, perhaps, a changing understanding of one’s basic dispositional traits. According to Erikson, however, identity achievement is always provisional, for adults continue to work on their identities as they move into midlife and beyond, often relinquishing old goals in favor of new ones, investing themselves in new projects and making new plans, exploring new relationships, and shifting their priorities in response to changing life circumstances ( Freund & Riediger, 2006 ; Josselson, 1996 ).

There is a sense whereby any time you try to change yourself, you are assuming the role of a motivated agent. After all, to strive to change something is inherently what an agent does. However, what particular feature of selfhood you try to change may correspond to your self as actor, agent, or author, or some combination. When you try to change your traits or roles, you take aim at the social actor. By contrast, when you try to change your values or life goals, you are focusing on yourself as a motivated agent. Adolescence and young adulthood are periods in the human life course when many of us focus attention on our values and life goals. Perhaps you grew up as a traditional Catholic, but now in college you believe that the values inculcated in your childhood no longer function so well for you. You no longer believe in the central tenets of the Catholic Church, say, and are now working to replace your old values with new ones. Or maybe you still want to be Catholic, but you feel that your new take on faith requires a different kind of personal ideology. In the realm of the motivated agent, moreover, changing values can influence life goals. If your new value system prioritizes alleviating the suffering of others, you may decide to pursue a degree in social work, or to become a public interest lawyer, or to live a simpler life that prioritizes people over material wealth. A great deal of the identity work we do in adolescence and young adulthood is about values and goals, as we strive to articulate a personal vision or dream for what we hope to accomplish in the future.

The Autobiographical Author

Even as the “I” continues to develop a sense of the “Me” as both a social actor and a motivated agent, a third standpoint for selfhood gradually emerges in the adolescent and early-adult years. The third perspective is a response to Erikson’s ( 1963 ) challenge of identity. According to Erikson, developing an identity involves more than the exploration of and commitment to life goals and values (the self as motivated agent), and more than committing to new roles and re-evaluating old traits (the self as social actor). It also involves achieving a sense of temporal continuity in life—a reflexive understanding of how I have come to be the person I am becoming , or put differently, how my past self has developed into my present self, and how my present self will, in turn, develop into an envisioned future self. In his analysis of identity formation in the life of the 15th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Erikson ( 1958 ) describes the culmination of a young adult’s search for identity in this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and prospect. By accepting some definition of who he is, usually on the basis of a function in an economy, a place in the sequence of generations, and a status in the structure of society, the adult is able to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it . In this sense, psychologically we do choose our parents, our family history, and the history of our kings, heroes, and gods. By making them our own, we maneuver ourselves into the inner position of proprietors, of creators.”

— (Erikson, 1958, pp. 111–112; emphasis added).

In this rich passage, Erikson intimates that the development of a mature identity in young adulthood involves the I’s ability to construct a retrospective and prospective story about the Me ( McAdams, 1985 ). In their efforts to find a meaningful identity for life, young men and women begin “to selectively reconstruct” their past, as Erikson wrote, and imagine their future to create an integrative life story, or what psychologists today often call a narrative identity . A narrative identity is an internalized and evolving story of the self that reconstructs the past and anticipates the future in such a way as to provide a person’s life with some degree of unity, meaning, and purpose over time ( McAdams, 2008 ; McLean, Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007 ). The self typically becomes an autobiographical author in the early-adult years, a way of being that is layered over the motivated agent, which is layered over the social actor. In order to provide life with the sense of temporal continuity and deep meaning that Erikson believed identity should confer, we must author a personalized life story that integrates our understanding of who we once were, who we are today, and who we may become in the future. The story helps to explain, for the author and for the author’s world, why the social actor does what it does and why the motivated agent wants what it wants, and how the person as a whole has developed over time, from the past’s reconstructed beginning to the future’s imagined ending.

By the time they are 5 or 6 years of age, children can tell well-formed stories about personal events in their lives ( Fivush, 2011 ). By the end of childhood, they usually have a good sense of what a typical biography contains and how it is sequenced, from birth to death ( Thomsen & Bernsten, 2008 ). But it is not until adolescence, research shows, that human beings express advanced storytelling skills and what psychologists call autobiographical reasoning ( Habermas & Bluck, 2000 ; McLean & Fournier, 2008 ). In autobiographical reasoning, a narrator is able to derive substantive conclusions about the self from analyzing his or her own personal experiences. Adolescents may develop the ability to string together events into causal chains and inductively derive general themes about life from a sequence of chapters and scenes ( Habermas & de Silveira, 2008 ). For example, a 16-year-old may be able to explain to herself and to others how childhood experiences in her family have shaped her vocation in life. Her parents were divorced when she was 5 years old, the teenager recalls, and this caused a great deal of stress in her family. Her mother often seemed anxious and depressed, but she (the now-teenager when she was a little girl—the story’s protagonist) often tried to cheer her mother up, and her efforts seemed to work. In more recent years, the teenager notes that her friends often come to her with their boyfriend problems. She seems to be very adept at giving advice about love and relationships, which stems, the teenager now believes, from her early experiences with her mother. Carrying this causal narrative forward, the teenager now thinks that she would like to be a marriage counselor when she grows up.

Two young people with goth style hair and clothes.

Unlike children, then, adolescents can tell a full and convincing story about an entire human life, or at least a prominent line of causation within a full life, explaining continuity and change in the story’s protagonist over time. Once the cognitive skills are in place, young people seek interpersonal opportunities to share and refine their developing sense of themselves as storytellers (the I) who tell stories about themselves (the Me). Adolescents and young adults author a narrative sense of the self by telling stories about their experiences to other people, monitoring the feedback they receive from the tellings, editing their stories in light of the feedback, gaining new experiences and telling stories about those, and on and on, as selves create stories that, in turn, create new selves ( McLean et al., 2007 ). Gradually, in fits and starts, through conversation and introspection, the I develops a convincing and coherent narrative about the Me.

Contemporary research on the self as autobiographical author emphasizes the strong effect of culture on narrative identity ( Hammack, 2008 ). Culture provides a menu of favored plot lines, themes, and character types for the construction of self-defining life stories. Autobiographical authors sample selectively from the cultural menu, appropriating ideas that seem to resonate well with their own life experiences. As such, life stories reflect the culture, wherein they are situated as much as they reflect the authorial efforts of the autobiographical I.

As one example of the tight link between culture and narrative identity, McAdams ( 2013 ) and others (e.g., Kleinfeld, 2012 ) have highlighted the prominence of redemptive narratives in American culture. Epitomized in such iconic cultural ideals as the American dream, Horatio Alger stories, and narratives of Christian atonement, redemptive stories track the move from suffering to an enhanced status or state, while scripting the development of a chosen protagonist who journeys forth into a dangerous and unredeemed world ( McAdams, 2013 ). Hollywood movies often celebrate redemptive quests. Americans are exposed to similar narrative messages in self-help books, 12-step programs, Sunday sermons, and in the rhetoric of political campaigns. Over the past two decades, the world’s most influential spokesperson for the power of redemption in human lives may be Oprah Winfrey, who tells her own story of overcoming childhood adversity while encouraging others, through her media outlets and philanthropy, to tell similar kinds of stories for their own lives ( McAdams, 2013 ). Research has demonstrated that American adults who enjoy high levels of mental health and civic engagement tend to construct their lives as narratives of redemption, tracking the move from sin to salvation, rags to riches, oppression to liberation, or sickness/abuse to health/recovery ( McAdams, Diamond, de St. Aubin, & Mansfield, 1997 ; McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001 ; Walker & Frimer, 2007 ). In American society, these kinds of stories are often seen to be inspirational.

At the same time, McAdams ( 2011 , 2013 ) has pointed to shortcomings and limitations in the redemptive stories that many Americans tell, which mirror cultural biases and stereotypes in American culture and heritage. McAdams has argued that redemptive stories support happiness and societal engagement for some Americans, but the same stories can encourage moral righteousness and a naïve expectation that suffering will always be redeemed. For better and sometimes for worse, Americans seem to love stories of personal redemption and often aim to assimilate their autobiographical memories and aspirations to a redemptive form. Nonetheless, these same stories may not work so well in cultures that espouse different values and narrative ideals ( Hammack, 2008 ). It is important to remember that every culture offers its own storehouse of favored narrative forms. It is also essential to know that no single narrative form captures all that is good (or bad) about a culture. In American society, the redemptive narrative is but one of many different kinds of stories that people commonly employ to make sense of their lives.

What is your story? What kind of a narrative are you working on? As you look to the past and imagine the future, what threads of continuity, change, and meaning do you discern? For many people, the most dramatic and fulfilling efforts to change the self happen when the I works hard, as an autobiographical author, to construct and, ultimately, to tell a new story about the Me. Storytelling may be the most powerful form of self-transformation that human beings have ever invented. Changing one’s life story is at the heart of many forms of psychotherapy and counseling, as well as religious conversions, vocational epiphanies, and other dramatic transformations of the self that people often celebrate as turning points in their lives ( Adler, 2012 ). Storytelling is often at the heart of the little changes, too, minor edits in the self that we make as we move through daily life, as we live and experience life, and as we later tell it to ourselves and to others.

For human beings, selves begin as social actors, but they eventually become motivated agents and autobiographical authors, too. The I first sees itself as an embodied actor in social space; with development, however, it comes to appreciate itself also as a forward-looking source of self-determined goals and values, and later yet, as a storyteller of personal experience, oriented to the reconstructed past and the imagined future. To “know thyself” in mature adulthood, then, is to do three things: (a) to apprehend and to perform with social approval my self-ascribed traits and roles, (b) to pursue with vigor and (ideally) success my most valued goals and plans, and (c) to construct a story about life that conveys, with vividness and cultural resonance, how I became the person I am becoming, integrating my past as I remember it, my present as I am experiencing it, and my future as I hope it to be.

Text Attribution

Media attributions.

  • Me in the mirror
  • The Shakespeare, High Street, Lincoln

The idea that the self reflects back upon itself; that the I (the knower, the subject) encounters the Me (the known, the object). Reflexivity is a fundamental property of human selfhood.

Sigmund Freud’s conception of an executive self in the personality. Akin to this module’s notion of “the I,” Freud imagined the ego as observing outside reality, engaging in rational though, and coping with the competing demands of inner desires and moral standards.

A broad taxonomy of personality trait domains repeatedly derived from studies of trait ratings in adulthood and encompassing the categories of (1) extraversion vs. introversion, (2) neuroticism vs. emotional stability, (3) agreeable vs. disagreeableness, (4) conscientiousness vs. nonconscientiousness, and (5) openness to experience vs. conventionality. By late childhood and early adolescence, people’s self-attributions of personality traits, as well as the trait attributions made about them by others, show patterns of intercorrelations that confirm with the five-factor structure obtained in studies of adults.

The sense of the self as an embodied actor whose social performances may be construed in terms of more or less consistent self-ascribed traits and social roles.

The traits and social roles that others attribute to an actor. Actors also have their own conceptions of what they imagine their respective social reputations indeed are in the eyes of others.

Emerging around the age of 4, the child’s understanding that other people have minds in which are located desires and beliefs, and that desires and beliefs, thereby, motivate behavior.

Cognitive and social changes that occur in the early elementary school years that result in the child’s developing a more purposeful, planful, and goal-directed approach to life, setting the stage for the emergence of the self as a motivated agent.

The extent to which a person feels that he or she is worthy and good. The success or failure that the motivated agent experiences in pursuit of valued goals is a strong determinant of self-esteem.

Sometimes used synonymously with the term “self,” identity means many different things in psychological science and in other fields (e.g., sociology). In this module, I adopt Erik Erikson’s conception of identity as a developmental task for late adolescence and young adulthood. Forming an identity in adolescence and young adulthood involves exploring alternative roles, values, goals, and relationships and eventually committing to a realistic agenda for life that productively situates a person in the adult world of work and love. In addition, identity formation entails commitments to new social roles and reevaluation of old traits, and importantly, it brings with it a sense of temporal continuity in life, achieved though the construction of an integrative life story.

The sense of the self as an intentional force that strives to achieve goals, plans, values, projects, and the like.

The self as knower, the sense of the self as a subject who encounters (knows, works on) itself (the Me).

The self as known, the sense of the self as the object or target of the I’s knowledge and work.

An internalized and evolving story of the self designed to provide life with some measure of temporal unity and purpose. Beginning in late adolescence, people craft self-defining stories that reconstruct the past and imagine the future to explain how the person came to be the person that he or she is becoming.

The ability, typically developed in adolescence, to derive substantive conclusions about the self from analyzing one’s own personal experiences.

The sense of the self as a storyteller who reconstructs the past and imagines the future in order to articulate an integrative narrative that provides life with some measure of temporal continuity and purpose.

Life stories that affirm the transformation from suffering to an enhanced status or state. In American culture, redemptive life stories are highly prized as models for the good self, as in classic narratives of atonement, upward mobility, liberation, and recovery.

An Introduction to Social Psychology Copyright © 2022 by Thomas Edison State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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On identity: from a philosophical point of view

Daniel sollberger.

1 Psychiatric University Hospital Basel, Wilhelm Klein-Strasse 27, CH – 4012, Basel, Switzerland

The term “identity” has a much longer tradition in Western philosophy than in psychology. However, the philosophical discourse addresses very different meanings of the term, which should be distinguished to avoid misunderstandings, but also to sharpen the key meanings of the term in psychological contexts. These crucial points in the philosophical concepts of identity in the sense of singularity, individuality, or self-sameness may structure the ongoing discussion on identity in psychiatric diagnoses (as in DSM-5, Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment, this issue, 2013), in psychology, psychoanalysis, but also neuroscience and neurophilosophy ( Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment, this issue, 2013).

The concept of identity is subjected to a systematic philosophical analysis following some milestones in its history to provide a background for recent discussions on identity in psychiatry and psychology.

The article focuses first on the philosophical core distinctions of identity in the different meanings to be addressed, second, briefly on some of the diverse psychological histories of the concept in the second half of the 20th century. Finally some reflections are presented on borderline personality disorder, considered as a mental disorder with a disturbance or diffusion of identity as core feature, and briefly on a newly developed instrument assessing identity development and identity diffusion in adolescence, the AIDA that is also presented in the special issue of this journal ( Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment, this issue, 2013).

As a conclusion, different points of view concerning identity are summarized in respect to treatment planning, and different levels of description of identity in phenomenology, philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and social science and personality psychology are outlined.

The term “identity” has a long tradition in Western philosophy and much shorter antecedents in psychology and social psychology. In the last six decades, since E. H. Erikson made his path breaking contributions to psychoanalytic theory and character pathology, elevating the term to a theoretical concept, “identity” has been given many interpretations. Nowadays, in a late modern society we see the difficulties that are related to the ambiguity of the term “identity”. Nevertheless, we realize that it cannot be abandoned but is needed to understand both the successful and the unsuccessful processes of psychological development of children, particularly adolescents, as well as of adults in the so-called “emerging adulthood”. We are confronted with questions on identity in a world, where flexibility is seen as a virtue and accelerating change pervades society, in the vocational world, in families, relationships, and in the biographies of individuals. Thus, beside one of the fundamental questions, like “Who do I want to be, which kind of person and personality?” we are basically challenged by the question “How come that I feel like the same person in my whole life, although many and very crucial things changed and will change, like my age and life cycles, marital status, my friendships, occupation, residence, political engagement, my religious beliefs, and social values? What enables me to feel being the same ‘I’, the same ‘self’, or ‘person’ in all the different roles, that I have to play, with all my different qualities, in the changing course of world events and my biography?”

The concept of identity is subjected to a philosophical analysis in focusing some core conceptual distinction in the history of the term and its meaning throughout the history of Western philosophy. This provides a basis for a further discussion of the modern psychological and psychopathological concepts of identity and identity diffusion in psychology and psychiatry, particularly in the diagnosis of borderline personality disorders. On this background some comments on the new instrument AIDA (Assessment of Identity Development in Adolescence) are made.

Results and discussion

Identity in philosophy: some systematic distinctions.

In philosophy “identity” is a predicate, which functions as an identifier, i.e. a marker that distinguishes and differentiates one object from another object. Thus, identity in this sense focuses on the uniqueness of the concerned object. Plato firstly made the distinction between “is” as a copula in a phrase and the identifying “is”; thus, Aristotle distinguished identity in its numeric meaning as equivalence from an identifier that defines an object as an individual. The problem of identity became a problem of substance throughout the history of philosophy in the efforts to define the principle of individuation. Leibniz in his Discourse on Metaphysics (Section 9) [ 1 ], p. 308 summarized this principle in a mathematical law: it states that no two distinct things exactly resemble each other; otherwise they would be “indiscernibles” and therefore one thing. In other words: two things are indistinguishable and in fact one single thing, if everything that truly can be said of the one may be said of the other as well. So, they become replaceable salva veritate (truth preserving) in any other possible context and under any other conditions.

Quantitative identity

One meaning of the term “identity” goes back to the Greek term “atomon”. However, “atomon” signifies “indivisible” in a primary etymological sense; identity in the sense of individuality is a secondary sense. Nevertheless, ‘individuality’ became first the topic of the philosophical mainstream discourse. That is where the conviction of an ineffability and unknowability of individuals is rooted herein. Nothing can be said of an individual than “this one” (‘tode ti’ in Greek), what means that we can identify an individual only by pointing at it, him or her. Leibniz’ contribution to this point in his theory of monads is an attempt to singularize individuals by a complete enumeration of their qualities [ 2 ], p. 235. The metaphysical presuppositions of Leibniz’ theory like infinite space and time shall not be discussed here. But, as one can see, the individuality of a singular object is not easily (even principally not) describable in its empirical dimensions. The “I” as such a singular ‘object’ cannot be characterized by a complete enumerations of its characteristics but reduces us to statements about a localization in space and time.

In contrast, Kant argued that individuals couldn’t be specified in terms of a concept of substance as Leibniz attempts to do: We never would come at the individuality of an individual by its complete description. Individuals primarily are objects, i.e. data in perception and as such bound to space and time. Thus, “identity”, in contrast to “existence”, is not a term of ontology but of epistemology. Anyhow, Kant wanted to attribute identity to the unity of an object in a fundamental way, i.e. a priori and incircumventable. In the transcendental ego he laid down such a principle: Being aware of ourselves as thinking subjects we know the subject as being a unified and unique whole (the ‘same’) in all of its different perceptions or thoughts: “The I think must be able to accompany all my representations“ [ 3 ], §16, B 131. The Kantian sense of identity is exclusively part of the consciousness of the ego that can be seen as a link to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of empirism in Hobbes, Locke, and Hume.

But, a new problem arises when individuals are identified as singular entities because of their spatio-temporal localization, as it is demanded by empirism: If we refer to an individual by his spatio-temporal localization, thus indicating the individual’s absolute uniqueness, it would be impossible to recognize individuals as the same individuals at different times. This problem becomes highly virulent when it is about personal individuals. Besides, J. Locke (1690) particularly related the human self to memory and, emphasizing this point, argued that a person can be addressed as the same person if she is able to remember previous states of consciousness: a person can “consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places [ 4 ], Book II, Chap. 27, 9. If he or she does remember nothing of his or her past her or she “literally has no identity” [ 5 ], p. 71. However, numeric identity has to be complemented by substantially meaningful identification, particularly when it is about individual persons [ 6 ].

Qualitative identity

Thus, identity in the question “Who is it?” intending a merely numeric-quantitative, precise identification is transformed into a qualitative meaning in the question of “What kind of person or character am I and do I want to be?” Identification is then a matter of classifying something or somebody as something respectively somebody; or more technically spoken, as language philosophy does, classifying the individual token (the object as the instance of a concept) by assigning to a type (the concept). This is the usual interpretation of identity in social science. It is a form of “ qualitative identity ” that is specified by detailed, conceptual or substantial attributes: we describe somebody by the particular social roles, which he or she assumes or refuses to assume in his or her action orientation and life praxis, by the ideals and values that matter to him or her, by specific habits, capacities, skills, and biographical experiences [ 7 ]. Whether or not this qualitative identity is only a matter of looking at the individual from the perspective of social role, is widely discussed: whereas E. Goffman [ 8 ] for example argues that the identity of the I is only a matter of an internal, reflexive perspective of the subject, the German philosopher E. Tugendhat [ 6 ] emphasizes that the identification by social roles assumes a commitment by the individual, and depends therefore on an internal view of the individual person from his or her point of view.

Finally, it seems to depend on the epistemological interest: regarding the individual in its qualitative identity from a theoretical point of view as an objectifiable datum it is of no or only little interest in what form and to what extend that individual is committed to the attributed qualities. Whereas from a practical philosophical point of view the individual’s internal attitude to objectifiable social roles crucially matters. Since, this is a question of self-identification: “What kind of person do I want to be?”

The missing link between these two perspectives on the qualitative identity of an individual becomes apparent when we inquire whether an individual identified by social roles (whether intrinsically committed to them or not) can adopt these different roles in different social situations without losing his or her identity. This is probably not a question of identity in the sense of a qualitative identification – and much less one of a numeric one. But, it focuses on the other aspect of identity of individuals: not on the aspect of being different from others but in not being different from oneself – the aspect of “sameness” [ 2 ], p. 251 and constancy.

Identity as self-sameness

If we focus on this aspect, identity is questioned as a structure or form of an individual’s self-relation and self-conception. Identity in this sense aims at competences and capacities of the individual to communicate, to interact, and to integrate and synthesize different emotional states, social roles, values, beliefs, group identifications etc.. It is exactly the point that Erikson has in mind differentiating role identities from “self-sameness” as the capacity to maintain an inner coherence and continuity:

“The term ‘identity’ expresses such a mutual relation in that it connotes both a persistent sameness within oneself (self-sameness) and a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others […] At one time, then, it will to refer to a conscious sense of individual identity; at another to an unconscious striving for a continuity of personal character; at third, as a criterion for the silent doings of ego synthesis; and, finally, as a maintenance of an inner solidarity with a group’s ideals and identity. In some respects the term will appear too colloquial and naïve; in others, vaguely related to existing concepts in psychoanalysis and sociology [ 9 ], p. 109.”

The term “ego identity” therefore does not indicate a substance or absolute entity that is independent of interaction, but rather a capacity for an inner coherence of emotional and cognitive states and interaction in social situations as well as an inner continuity over time. Ricoeur contributed a subtle distinction to the discussion in differentiating the aspect of self-sameness, which he called “idem-identity”, and the one of selfhood or self-relatedness, for which he coined the term “ipse-identity” [ 10 ]. Identity in the sense of self-sameness is not a fixed result of a process of development, but a dynamic process of continual integration itself, creating continuity in the persistent self-consciousness over space and time. Finally, this meaning of the term “identity” is related to moral philosophical contexts of autonomy and self-determination in responsible decision-making. As the philosopher H. Frankfurt argues, an individual is autonomous and an active agent if he or she has “second order volitions”, i.e. that he or she wants certain desires to be part of his or her will [ 11 ], p. 16: “Having an integrated, stable, and coherent identity is an essential precondition for effective second order volitions that stay the same over time” [ 12 ], p. 353. Identity in the sense of sameness or constancy over time can be realized as the effort and performance of creating the unity of an autobiographical self (see also [ 13 ]): integrating different and sometimes conflicting role identifications means transforming them permanently to a conflict free or less conflicted entity that makes up the unique autobiographic history of our life for which we are responsible. The term “narrative self” or “narrative identity” emphasizes on this higher level identity in the sense that the self is continuous through time and under different conditions and that the person is able to construct a coherent narrative or life story to integrate his or her personal identity. Moreover, the narrative identity is always articulated through concepts (and practices) made available by cultural narratives, i.e. “by religion, society, school, and state, mediated by family, authority figures, peers, friends” [ 14 ], p. 20. Therefore, in contrast to a paradigm of cognitive representations the narrative approach entails a shift to a paradigm of social construction, in which the self in its identity, and particularly in its moral development is focused in terms of intersubjectivity: the selves in their identity are embodied, relational, and fundamentally dialogical [ 15 ].

The numerous attempts in defining the qualitative identity of a person with sufficient or necessary criteria for personhood such as bodily identity, brain identity, memory, and psychological connectedness or continuity [ 16 ] find its limitations, particularly in Anglosaxon debates. The search for such criteria by analytic philosophers is executed from a third person perspective (which focuses on persons as objects or as facts in the world). However, personhood in its identity is not a quality belonging to the owner like blue eyes or impulsiveness, thus, the first person perspective cannot be left out: “Who I am is not a fact about me, but should be phrased in terms of from where I come and what I am up to” [ 17 ], and this usually is answered by telling a narrative story. The emphasis on the first person perspective in the phenomenology of the self [ 18 ] has become one of the crucial topic in the recent debate on the self in neuroscience and psychiatry and in the progress in linking theories and experimental procedures from psychology to the results of neuroscience [ 19 ].

Identity and identity diffusion in psychological and psychopathological concepts

As mentioned above the history of the concept of “identity” is relatively short in psychology and social psychology compared to its history in philosophy. Whereas the term “identity” or “identity disturbance” is hardly used by S. Freud, it became a core construct in psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories in the middle of the 20th century.

Earlier, at the end of the 19th century the philosopher and psychologist William James [ 20 ] made a core distinction between two aspects of identity. Sociology, socio-cognitive sciences, as well as psychoanalysis in their different uses of “identity”, “self-concepts” and “mental representation”, make use of this distinction: The “me” representing the permanence and continuity of the self through the shifting variety of experience constitutes identity across time and is related to how the individual sees the story of his or her past (narrative self-reference), the self, seen as object of perception and reflection. The “I” in contrast, acting in the consciousness of experiences is addressed as an integral part of consciousness, as self-consciousness – or, as modern philosophers name the pre-reflective self-consciousness the “phenomenal” or “minimal self” (for this distinction see also [ 13 ]). G. H. Mead [ 21 ], referring to this core distinction, focused on the interactional and social aspect of the “me” as a part of the self that deals with “society”, i.e. social roles and group identifications, resulting from the experienced interaction and response from others. The term “I” in contrast is intended to represent the socially irreducible spontaneity of the self. From this interactionistical point of view, the identity of individuals is seen as being in need for social recognition, recognizing that humans are fundamentally social beings: “We infer who we are by observing how we are perceived by others and how others react to us” [ 22 ], p. 624. Therefore, identity is strongly related on the one hand to the “need for security (the need to belong, to be part of a community and to be attached to others)”, and, on the other hand, to “the desire for freedom (the desire for separation, individuation and autonomy)” [ 23 ], p. 30; see also [ 24 ], p. 623f.

Erikson , who initially made the term “identity” an important concept in his work on psychoanalytic theory and character pathology, referred to W. James by stressing on the importance of the “conscious sense of individual uniqueness”, the “I” in its spontaneous, self-evident acquaintance with itself matching the “unconscious striving for a continuity of experience” [ 23 ], p. 208.

The “me” in its continuity results from a developmental process, in which the adolescent at last passes through what Erikson called an “identity crisis” [ 25 ] that on the one hand might lead to ego-identity as an “integrated awareness and knowledge about oneself” [ 26 ], integrating the confirmation of the self by significant others as a core aspect of normal identity. In this conception identity effects an overall synthesis of ego functions as well as a sense of “the solidarity with a group’s ideals” [ 23 ], p. 208. Erikson actually puts together all the distinctive philosophical meanings of identity outlined above. Identity in Erikson’s work represents therefore a developed fundamental organizing principle that provides a sense of continuity (“self-sameness”) as well as it structures the differentiation between self and others (“individuality as uniqueness”).

On the other hand, if this process of developing a normal capacity for self-definition fails, then the adolescent doesn’t just pass through a period of “crisis”, in which there is a lack of correspondence between the rapidly changing self-experience of the adolescent and the diverse experiences of him or her by others. Thus, Erikson made the distinction between “identity crisis” and “identity diffusion” [ 27 ], where the adolescent experiences an emotional breakdown and conflicts in intimate relationships, over occupational choice, and competition, and becomes increasingly dependent on an increased psychosocial support for self-definition [ 28 ].

J. F. Marcia as one of Erikson’s main follower focused in his operationalized concept of four different “identity status” on the basic dimensions of exploration and commitment. His orientation was therefore directed more to the question of social adjustment in the identity process than in the work of the other prominent successor of Erikson: O. F. Kernberg. The term “identity diffusion”, as used by Marcia and Kernberg, thus has very different meanings. In Marcia it represents one of the four identity status (achievement, moratorium, foreclosure, identity diffusion), in which both commitment and exploration of the person are at low performance level. The content of the dimensions (gender roles, vocational choice, political preferences, and religious beliefs), to which the goals, values, and beliefs of a person are directed and which the empirical measurements of identity status are based on, are actually core elements of personal identity rather than ego identity that is addressed by Kernberg (see below). In this conceptual scheme one can identify the underlying notion of identity disturbance in borderline personality disorder (BPD) characterized by the DSM-4, which emphasizes commitment and social functioning as fundamental elements of the ego identity [ 29 ], p. 651; [ 30 ]. Therefore, facing current conditions, Marcia quite rightly discussed the term of identity diffusion later in his work as no longer just a kind of cataclysmic breakdown but maybe an adaptive form of identity that has to be positively evaluated: „it is adaptive to be diffuse in a society where commitment is not valued, and, in fact, may be punished“ [ 31 ], p. 292. In the terms of the originally proposed DSM-revision the intended content of identity diffusion in this meaning leads to the above-mentioned aspects of self-direction (instability in goals, aspirations, values etc.).

On the other hand, Kernberg on his part focused rather on a notion of identity that “provides a psychological structure determining the dynamic organization of character” [ 32 ], p. 11. This intra-psychic structure does not contain all of the different aspects of identity but – as an ego identity – it provides to some extent the basis and precondition for at least three further levels of identity such as personal identity, social identity, and collective identity. Ego identity manifests itself “in conscious representations of the self, others, and the world in general, and in identifications with social groups, cultural norms, ideals, and values” [ 12 ], p. 346. Kernberg concedes to Erikson’s concept of identity that it already stresses the relevance of the relationship between the self-concept and the concept of a significant other. But, he himself focuses particularly on this background of object relations theory. He defines identity diffusion therefore as “a structural, pathological consolidation of the internalized world of object relations, reflected in a stable lack of integration in the concept of self and significant others” [ 28 ], p. 980.

Identity diffusion in borderline personality disorders

Many researchers and clinicians consider identity diffusion or disturbance to be one of the core diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorders – despite of its equivocal meaning and different operationalization in empirical research ([ 12 , 24 , 30 , 33 ]; Sollberger et al.: Change in identity diffusion and psychopathology in a borderline personality disorder specific TFP-based inpatient treatment, submitted). Kernberg even argues that identity diffusion is “the key anchoring point of the differential diagnosis of milder types of character pathology and neurotic personality organization on the one hand, and severe character pathology and borderline personality on the other” [ 34 ]. His concept of borderline personality organization (BPO) reflects the subjective and behavioral consequences of identity diffusion and is regarded as the basic psychopathological syndrome of all severe personality disorders [ 28 ].

The common thread of all these concepts is that identity diffusion indicates a lack of differentiated and integrated representations of the self and others, a negative self-image, the lack of long-term goals, and the lack of a sense of continuity in self-perception over time [ 9 , 12 , 24 , 28 , 35 - 39 ]. As a result, patients experience rapid shifts in the way they view themselves and others, discontinuities and shifts of roles, and a sense of inner emptiness. Moreover, feelings of loss of integration and a sense of (painful) incoherence have been described [ 40 - 42 ]. Westen and Cohen [ 39 ] furthermore pointed out a “lack of a coherent life narrative or sense of continuity over time” and – implicitly referring to John Locke’s emphasis on memory in the concept of identity – a “loss of shared memories that help define the self over time”.

In short, following Erikson’s groundwork on identity two careers and different ways of operationalizing the construct of identity diffusion will be outlined in the sequel: the one that concentrates on sociological contexts and emphasizes the importance of commitment and social functioning that results in long-term goals, values, and beliefs; the other that focuses on intra-psychic structure that integrates the concept of self and significant other in personality organization.

Brief comments on AIDA

Philosophical distinctions.

On the basis of the considerations made above, I will end by making two remarks on the new instrument AIDA (Assessment of identity development in adolescence), which is presented and discussed in the current special issue of this journal.

What is fundamental and convincing in the theoretical model underlying AIDA is the inherited dichotomy of the construct “identity” [ 26 ]: namely, identity in its qualitative meaning answering to the question “Who am I?” and in the sense of self-sameness answering to the question: “Am I the same person (i.e. same I, self, individual) over time and in different situations (continuity) and in my different emotional and cognitive states (coherence)?”

Regarding these two dimensions of identity the one comprises more a subjective, emotional self (the “I” in Mead’s conception), which denotes the aspect of an immediate and intuitive first-person-perspective in all the subjective experiences and inner feelings. The other denotes coherence and continuity in a sense of a self-definition resulting from cognitive functions such as memories and autobiographical memories, self-reflection, but also resulting from motivational states or social role and group identification, which turn the “I” into an identifiable “Me” [ 21 ].

Northoff [ 13 ] in a more fundamental, philosophical way distinguishes between the “minimal self … that occurs immediately and is always already part of our experience of the world“ (rooting a phenomenal “mineness” and “belongingness”), on the one hand, and the self in its continuity across time and in its other features such as “unity, first-person perspective, and qualia“, on the other hand. He particularly argues that “any experience of the self is part of an experience of the world” as well as “any consciousness of the world goes along with an experience of the self”. Both experiences are inseparable intertwined that this might be a “principal limitation” for experimental investigations of the minimal self 1 .

Short philosophical note on neurocognitive research

This is highly relevant in regard of the model of self and identity that underlies research in cognitive neuroscience. Since, considering that the self is not a metaphysical entity (mental substance) but has rather to be comprehended as and replaced by an inner model of self–representation (as e.g. Thomas Metzinger does [ 43 ]), this changes the methodological approach to self and identity in a fundamental way. Identity shifts from a philosophical to an empirical research topic and is subjected to cognitive psychology, finally to cognitive neuroscience. Hence, the question raises how all the information of our own body and own brain is processed, i.e. summarized, integrated and coordinated that ultimately an inner model of self-representation reasonably results. This is a matter of different and specific higher-order cognitive functions such as working memory, attention, executive function, semantic and episodic memory etc. that are underpinned by specific brain processes that can be subjected to empirical investigations [ 13 ].

However, as we might reasonably question this sceptical tendency to eliminate the notion of self and identity on reductionist grounds, the minimal self, as it is implicitly experienced in consciousness (i.e. consciousness about the world as well as the self being conscious about any world experience), remains specific “self” in contrast to any other experiences. As Legrand and Perrine argue, this self-specificity cannot be “constituted by the integration of contents that are not themselves self-specific” [ 44 ], p. 273. In the light of these considerations, cognitive neuroscience should focus on the fundamental difference between neurocognitive processes underlying self-representations (i.e. all representations that have the self as their object and finally result in higher-order cognition such as an “autobiographical self” [ 45 ]), on the one hand, and neurocognitive processes that are related to a “phenomenal” or “minimal self”, which is considered as a presupposed self-specific process underlying the former (differentiable) representations (of world and self experiences), on the other hand. Since, self-related or self-directed contents concerning a self-reference effect (SRE), i.e. the fact that stimuli that are related to one’s own self (e.g. a scalpel for a surgeon) show a superiority of memory recall in contrast to those that are not directed to the self [ 13 ], may not be confounded with the scope of self-specificity (the I as “representing self” not in its “self-representation”). Thus, neurobiological investigations of the minimal self in its pre-reflective identity should rather encompass studies “of the nonself-directed but self-specific perspective” than such of “self-directed but non-self-specific representations” [ 44 ], p. 275.

Identity of a person in terms of self-relatedness of characteristic attributes is focused on a self-as-content. Personality in this sense can be lost, what we experience, for instance, in the dramatic modifications of the identity of persons during the pathological processes of frontotemporal dementia or Alzheimer disease [ 46 ]. Personal identity as a (narrative) conception of oneself and as persistence is impaired in patients with dementia insofar as there are gaps in their memory, as they have, as a result of memory loss, personality changes involving, for example, a decrease in self-control. However, can we therefore say, if the gaps in memory and the changes in personality are sufficiently serious, the person has lost his or her identity and self (s. John Locke’s argument above [ 4 ])? Or does identity incorporate growth and decline, thus, identity cannot really be lost in a fundamental sense [ 47 ]?

Basically, I argue, that Patient’s suffering from dementia at least remain subjects, i.e. remain capable to differentiate themeselves from another person. Identity in the sense of self-specificity that is addressed in the sense of a phenomenal qualia-self in its first-person perspective is not affected by dementia, since: despite the loss of self-relatedness, the capacity to differentiate between self and non-self, i.e. to specify any representation (perception, sensation, feeling, cognition etc.) as my representation (“mineness”, s. above), remains, because self-specificity is not constituted “by the integration of contents that are not themselves self-specific” [ 44 ], p. 273.

Psychological and sociological considerations

In regard to higher-level, i.e. psychological and social processes of identity development in adolescents and particularly in the formation of BPD the question arises: What turns our attention to identity and its diffusion? Is it the consolidation of interests, goals, and values, which develop a degree of stability in child development and adolescence that eventually give us an inner sense of identity, a kind of a self that is emotionally committed to long-term goals and identified with social groups – a kind of biographic self? Is, therefore, identity diffusion in adolescents and young adults a result of a lack of stability in behavior and attitudes, in interests, goals, values, and aspirations?

Or, on contrary, is identity diffusion a manifestation of unstable relationships, and consequently, of unstable inner representations of self- and object relations, which undermine the sense of self-sameness, which BPD patients suffer from? As mentioned above, the DSM-4 describes (implicitly according to Marcia) identity disturbance in BPD as being “characterized by shifting goals, values, and vocational aspirations” [ 29 ], p. 651, underscoring commitment and social functioning as fundamental elements of the Ego identity status. In the initially proposed revision of DSM-5, now included in a separate area of section 3 [ 48 ], identity becomes a core construct in the diagnosis of BPD. Accordingly, in the diagnostic process first-line differentiations have to be made on impairments in self-functioning as a main characteristic of personality disorders. They are conceived as impairments in “ identity” , or they pertain to aspects of “ self-direction” (instability in goals, aspirations, values etc.). How do these two disturbances in identity (in the sense of self-sameness, the “I”) and in self-direction (in the sense of qualitative, ‘social’ identity, “me”) interfere? Does continuity in these mentioned ‘social’ terms underscore a coherent, self-reflected, by inner motives guided self (“I”) 2 ?

Focusing on the interference of “identity” and “self-direction” (as originally proposed for the DSM-5) we can ask the other way round, what can better be demonstrated in terms of identity diffusion. Wilkinson-Ryan and Westen [ 42 ] pointed out that identity diffusion seems rather to manifest itself in specific fundamental factors such as “painful incoherence” or “inconsistency” than in a “lack of commitment”, which in fact they show to be the weakest of four factors in predicting BPD: “painful incoherence”, “inconsistency of beliefs and actions”, “role absorption” and “lack of commitment” (n.b. a fundamental element of Marcia’s conception of identity). Thus, in case of identity disturbance: Is there primarily incoherence in the sense of inconsistency and particularly painful incoherence (of which BPD patients might differently be aware of and differently concerned about)?

Again the question, how do the two basic dimensions interfere?

To come to my second point: The German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in 1900 in his book “Philosophy of Money”:

“The lack of something definite in the center of the soul impels us to search for momentary satisfaction in ever-new stimulations, sensations and external activities. Thus it is that we become entangled in the instability and helplessness that manifests itself as the tumult of metropolis, as the mania for travelling, as the wild pursuit of competition and as the typically modern disloyalty with regard to taste, style, opinions and personal relationships [ 49 ], p. 484.”

It seems that already at the beginning of the 20th century the problem of identity came up, which is considered at the end of that century to be one of the main topics of late-modern Western societies. It has widely been recognized, on the one hand, that these societies show high rates of social change in values and norms. Desynchronizing and uncoupling processes in family formation, vocational education, employment, and retirement as well as falling in love, getting married and having children have been described [ 50 , 51 ]. Topoi of a lifelong learning and education process emerged. Therefore, particularly adolescents experience a lack of stability in orientation concerning these values, norms, and long-term-goals in essential dimensions of life such as family, religion, morals, vocational orientation, politics, social and national affiliation, but also sexual orientation, sexuality and gender. As a consequence, they are challenged by the task “to forge a personal identity without being able to rely on models from previous generations” [ 52 ], p. 90.

On the other hand, identity turns into a sort of “do-it-yourself-project” with a primary task for the “self-made identities” to be “ready to grasp many chances and (…) to adjust to changing necessities” [ 9 ], p. 99. Many theoreticians argued about that, like for example Anthony Giddens [ 53 ] with his term of an “embeddedness” of the self that he describes as dissolved and dismembered, with an embedded identity; or Richard Sennett, who describes a “corrosion of character” [ 54 ] caused by a flexibility pervasive in the restless dynamics of late-modern culture.

We therefore could ask, somewhat provocatively, whether men and women of the 20th century suffer from or enjoy a kind of identity diffusion. Notably, this is what Marcia aims to describe in his conception of identity diffusion as an adaptive form of identity under postmodern conditions. Do we not have to reflect on the social changes mentioned above in defining new conceptions of individual identity and its disturbances see [ 38 ]? Does identity diffusion, maybe even the borderline syndrome reflect “problems and discourses of late modern culture” [ 24 ], p. 636ff.? How do psychology (regarding individual dynamics) and sociology (referring to social changes) challenge an integrated and coherent conception of identity and self – in respect to the fundamental philosophical basis? How do sociological descriptions of ‘late modern man’ impact our conception of the “psychic apparatus”, the structure of personality with its different parts and its conscious and unconscious dynamics and conflicts [ 55 ]?

Assessing “identity”, particularly in contexts of psychopathological developments of individual persons, requires both systematically reflecting on the fundamental philosophical background of the term “identity” and a broad scope of different considerations in regard of neurocognitive research, of psychological and psychopathological phenomenology as well as of sociological developments under contemporary cultural and societal conditions.

To summarize, we have to keep in mind different levels of description in regard of definitions of the term “identity”, in regard of methodological approach investigating “identity” as well as in regard of the person in her identity that is addressed in psychotherapy. It depends on the point of view, which part of identity respectively identity diffusion is focused in research and (clinical) practice. Therefore, in respect of the concept and the diagnostics of emerging personality disorders in adolescence, in which the AIDA is engaged, the factors and mechanisms that lead to identity disturbance have to be considered as multifaceted, complex, and concerning different aspects of identity. Hence, these aspects of identity have to be addressed in planning accurate treatments and in deciding the focus of (psycho-)therapeutic interventions.

From a sociological point of view, that is concerned about collective or cultural, and social identity, the societal changes, conceived e.g. as individualization and globalization with an increased mobility and flexibility in professional as well as private, familial relations [ 54 ], might impact the development of identity because of the lack of stable models for the adolescents in terms of attitudes, interests, beliefs, and goals. And that might interfere with the development of role identity, e.g. the social adaption of an adolescent in his or her social behavior and moral development.

From a psychological point of view, that is concerned about social and personal identity, one might raise the question whether these processes of modernization result in increased challenges for individuals regulating intergenerational, interpersonal and intra-psychic relations: thus, the regulation of care taking and disallowance, caring and separation in parenthood, aggression and rivalry progressively rest on the psychosocial competences of individuals in regard to the lack of traditional collective guidelines.

From a psychodynamic point of view, which is concerned about ego identity, on might ask whether intra-psychic conflicts that are related to the human condition (such as oedipal conflicts, experiences of privation or desire) remain “stable” despite of the mentioned cultural changes. Thus, individuals have to pass through crucial phases to develop a personality with its subjective interiority and its sense of identity. Therefore, disturbances in this development of identity concern difficulties in coping with these inter subjective as well as intra -psychic conflicts.

From a neurocognitive point of view identity is addressed in a rather basic sense by differentiating higher-order cognitive functions such as working memory or executive functions, which finally concern self-representing contents, on the one hand, and self-specificity, i.e. the acquaintance of a minimal self, which comprehends a sense of “mineness”, on the other hand. Evidently, the assumption that we can directly link concrete personality traits and underlying, neurobiological mechanisms has to be carfully evaluated. Since, subjective intentionality of behavior is assumed to function on two levels of organismic organization: “a basic neurobiological one, and a derived, secondary, symbolic or psychological one that (…) in turn may influence the functioning of the underlying neurobiological structures” [ 56 ], p. 237.

Therefore, philosophically we are challenged in defining the complexity of different perspectives in their convergence respectively divergence and incompatibility. It is the question of how to (re-)construct a model of the self in its identity [ 19 ] that integrates the perspective of:

• phenomenology, which is concerned about the the essence, content and feel of a mental state, and, concerning identity, the self as implicitly, tacitly, and immediately experienced in consciousness;

• philosophy of mind, which focuses on the logical connection and systematization of our knowledge of mind;

• cognitive science, which designs models of how the mind works as basis for further empirical research, in regard to identity particularly in terms of self-relatedness and self-specificity;

• social science as well as personality psychology, which is concerned with how people regard themeselves, with their different roles in society and the interaction between both.

A philosophically reflected integration of these different perspectives in a conceptual framework will provide a basis for empirical research as well as clinical practice. Furthermore, it will help to distinguish adaptive forms of identity development that our adolescents and patients may reveal, and pathological forms in social interaction, in self-related representations, intra-psychic conflicts as well as in their neurobiological correlates – perspectives that finally may provide the key anchoring point of psychotherapeutic (and other) treatments.

1 The question connotes Kant’s reasoning of the transcendental ego: Do I must have a sense of “mineness”, that means that I know what it means that mental states, in which I am, are mine, thus I can refer them to me? Or, must a sort of continuity first has to be developed, so that I know me as the same I as before at that time in another temporal and mental state, to be able to have a feeling of what it means, that cognitions, affective states and so one are mine [ 57 ]?

2 Probably this more sociologically accented question goes parallel to the chicken-and-egg-problem of the direction of causality in cognitive theories that assume that emotional consistency and predictability over time and across similar situations are a prerequisite for the development of a stable sense of identity; whereas, in contrary, psychoanalytic theories regard the mature personal identity as an important fundament on which cognitive, affective and interpersonal functions are based on.

Competing interests

The author declares that he has no competing interests.

Author information

The author has a PhD in philosophy and is leading the department of psychotherapy in the Psychiatric University Hospital Basel as a MD.


The Article processing charge (APC) of this manuscript has been funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

I would like to thank Dr. Arnold Simmel, formerly Columbia University New York, for his critical comments on the argumentation and his suggestions for improvement of the content and the English editing.

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Identity is an intriguing concept with a plurality of applications and meanings that make it attractive but also contested. Associated with questions such as “Who am I?” all the way to “Would I sacrifice for my community?” identity reflects multiple associations and dissociations, including, while not limited to, ethnicity, nationality, social class, gender, sexuality, and religion. One of the most influential concepts across social sciences and the humanities, identity has particular resonance to media and communications, especially as it raises important questions about media power: Is identity reflected or shaped in the media? What are the implications of media representations for different groups and their identities? Do media enhance understanding or hatred toward others? These questions have enduring relevance, but answering them has become increasingly complex, especially as media diversify, exposure to proximate and distant others expands, and digital connections—asymmetrically but effectively—manage spaces of belonging within and across physical boundaries.

A concept that is malleable, identity is used in academia, as much as it is used in everyday and political contexts. In everyday life, it primarily relates to the presentation of the self to others: identity is no less than an ordinary performance, Erving Goffman argues ( 1969 ). The ways people dress in public or present themselves in social media are about performing identity and finding ways to locate the self(-identity) in the world (social identity) through acts that are socially recognized as carrying certain meanings. Thus identity is as much about self-making as it about the position individuals take in social systems. As Paul Gilroy puts it, there is a constant “interplay between our subjective experience of the world and the cultural and historical settings in which that fragile subjectivity is formed” ( 1997, 301 ). This dialectic becomes most evident when identity is mobilized to support political claims, or even to justify violence. Propaganda radio broadcasts in Nazi Germany and during the Rwandan genocide projected the “purity” of German and Hutu identities respectively against “impure” and “inferior” identities of the Other ( Appadurai 2006 ). Either in responding to or in shaping powerful narratives of identity, propaganda radio did in the twentieth century what extremist websites do at present: symbolically mark identity and difference through powerful mediated discourses and imagery.

As these examples reveal, the relationship between identity construction and media and communications is long-standing and prominent. Many argue that this relationship’s significance has grown in time, not least as opportunities for identification with communities (e.g., fans), places (e.g., cities), and cultures (e.g., celebrities) have multiplied due to the digital expansion of media technological affordances and representations. This claim gains more validity especially if we examine it in relation to three key macro-processes associated with the organization of contemporary social and cultural life: globalization, migration, and mediation. Each of these macro-processes has implications for identity, some of which are captured by three concepts that have gained eminence in analyses of identity and in relation to these macro-processes: reflexivity, hybridity, and performativity. Not unlike the concept of identity itself, these concepts—which can also be considered as conditions of identity formation—have wider and global relevance, though their particular meanings are always contextual and particular. As Stuart Hall puts it, identities “are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power” ( 1990, 223 ). Thus, questions of identity are best understood at the juncture of macro-processes that make history and society and the distinct and particular micro-processes of everyday life—what in social sciences is vividly captured through the debate of structure (given norms and limits) versus agency (individual capacity to make choices).

Debates on the relation between structure and agency raise critical questions: How much control do individuals have over their own identities? How reflexive and aware are they of their choices? Anthony Giddens (1991) responds to the binary opposition of “structure versus agency” by proposing their dialectic interdependence. Identity matters and involves a process of reflexivity : individuals make decisions based on their awareness of norms and boundaries and while mobilizing their capacity to negotiate and even resist such structural boundaries and norms ( Giddens 1991 ). Audience research has supported such arguments. David Morley’s now classic study of The Nationwide Audience ( 1980 ) demonstrates that class identities were central to interpretation of television programming, while more recent research emphasizes the role of gender, ethnic, and national identities in negotiating media norms and values ( Georgiou 2006 ; Nightingale 2014 ). These discussions also recognize that individuals’ and groups’ reflexive engagement with the media has grown in complexity at global times.

Globalization has challenged traditional societies, not least through the faster and wider circulation of information on different cultures, subcultures, and value systems. The more information becomes available to people about the particularity of their own identity visà-vis the range of other identities and experiences in the world, the more identity turns into a reflexive but also fragile project. Media constantly show their users that very little can be taken for granted as universal truths or as globally accepted norms—family life, work cultures, and lifestyles vary, and all this diversity is regularly visible to them. Identity of one’s own and of others is constantly under scrutiny, even under threat, especially as media remind their audiences of risks, such as terrorism, close by and at a distance, and of others’ constant presence on screens ( Silverstone 2007 ) and on the street, especially as a result of migration.

Yet, access to information and communication remains uneven—not everyone sees themselves and others in the media to the same extent. Unequal access to media and communications and uneven representations of different groups, especially on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, class, and location, can privilege certain groups against others. Returning to the questions of whether individuals have control over their own identities and if identities represent a global reflexive project, one might need to consider whether media power and control are directly involved in producing identity hierarchies. This question becomes even more important if we approach identities as symbolically constructed. Mead (1934) argued that different symbols allow individuals to imagine how others see them and act selfconsciously in response to that. Such symbols can be a passport or a language that represent nationality, but they can expand across a range of identifiable or subtle representations, such as media representations. Does it matter that ethnic minorities are underrepresented on national television in most countries of the Global North? Does it matter that stereotypical images of femininity are reproduced across different media? And does it matter that Internet access between continents varies enormously with both technological and content control overconcentrated in the Global North? Feminist and postcolonial scholars (see Gill 2007a ; Hegde 2016 ) have emphasized the role of the media in constructing, not just representing, identities; Teresa de Lauretis (1989) powerfully argued that cinema is a technology of gender, that media representations are the constructions of gender, class, race, not just their reflection. While media and communication scholars widely recognize these challenges, their responses vary. Some emphasize the significance of fairer and regulated representations of diversity in mainstream media as a necessity for different groups gaining recognition and respect for their cultural identities and difference ( Downing and Husband 2005 ). Others argue that digital media have changed the game altogether by diversifying identity representations; increasingly media users become producers of their own desired representations of the self and of their communities ( Bruns 2007 ).

Discussions on participatory and reflexive engagement with the media have gone hand in hand with debates on the fragmentation, multiplicity, and hybridity of identities. Digital technologies have boosted mediated mobility between spaces, but migration has enhanced physical mobility and identification with a range of collectivities and communities for much longer. A core element of global change, intensified and diversified migration has presented a range of challenges to the concept of identity, not least as this has historically been associated with the nation and bounded communities. Influentially, Benedict Anderson’s (1991) theorization of imagined communities established the close relation between the nation and the media throughout modernity. Sharing the same news and the same media within the boundaries of the nation has reproduced shared imagination of collective identities among people willing to commit and even die for the nation, he argues. Currently one in thirty-three people is an international migrant ( United Nations Population Fund 2015 ), while more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, largely as a result of mass migration. Do national media still have the power to widely and effectively circulate symbols of a community? Or do current formulations of media and culture destabilize identities that used to be dominant, like national identities, but even social class, gender, and religion?

A range of approaches respond critically to these questions, especially by problematizing the limits, relevance, and biases of the concept of identity. Kevin Robins (2001) talks against identity altogether, arguing that as a concept it has become irrelevant to the experience and imagination of people who live between different physical and mediated environments. Ien Ang (2003) recognizes the value of identity, especially in recognition of its mobilization for political projects of emancipation, as seen in the case of indigenous and ethnic minority movements. At the same time, she highlights the dangerous territory of identity, as it is sometimes mobilized within national and transnational communities to promote hostility to difference and to diversity. In response, she turns to hybridity as a concept helpful to understanding “a world where we no longer have the secure capacity to draw a line between us and them, the different and the same, here and there, and indeed between ‘Asian’ and ‘Western’” ( 2003, 141 ). Hybridity has become an attractive concept, especially in critical approaches to identity, as it opens up a space for understanding and promoting togetherness-in-difference rather than being preoccupied with identity’s separateness ( Ang 2003 ). Is the binary of togetherness/separation the inevitable result of a politics of identity, or is there space for a politics that recognizes both difference and commonality? W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness” speaks of a “two-ness,” of feeling “an American, a Negro” ( 1903/1986, 364 ), a line of thought followed by Gilroy’s (1997) conceptualization of the “changing same” in regard to diasporic identities’ multiplicity and ambivalent perspectives. Continuity comes with change and identifications with new places and people. Urban music often reflects such hybrid, complex, and ambivalent systems of identification ( Georgiou 2013 ): R&B and hip-hop lyrics and musical themes sometimes capture experiences and histories of migration and diaspora, while at the same time identifying struggles firmly grounded in urban, marginalized locales.

Music, graffiti, advertising, as well as social media currently constitute elements of mediated communication, as much as the press, television, and radio. Thus, information and symbols of identity—from world news to “likes”—are circulated widely through a range of networks including those controlled by media conglomerates, but also by communities, such as music fans, diasporas, and extremist groups. As a result and inevitably, debates on the inclusion and exclusion of different groups from media production and representation have now expanded far beyond mass media. Who speaks and on behalf of whom and with what consequences for identity is a question requiring more complex responses than in the past. Arguably, media power has grown, not least as all different elements of communication—interpersonal, community, professional, local, and transnational—are increasingly mediated. Roger Silverstone (2007) argues that mediation comes with significant changes in social and cultural environments and regulates relations between individuals, groups, and institutions. The diversification but also the ever presence of media in everyday life open up prospects for more democratic and diverse recognition of identities and difference, argue some; yet others emphasize the danger for further regulation and containment of identity—theories of performativity have been influential to both claims.

For Judith Butler (1990) , identity is more about what you do rather than about what you are . Identity is a regulatory fiction, she argues, reinforcing limits and control upon individuals. Following Michel Foucault, Butler argues that gender, like all identities, is the result of repeated performances “that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” ( 1990, 33 ). Inscriptions of identity are reproduced through the repetition of certain symbols, not least through media representations. If media’s influence in culture and society is growing, as mediation scholars claim, then important questions are raised in regard to the mediated reproduction of identity hierarchies— such as heterosexuality versus homosexuality, whiteness versus blackness, West versus East. Scholars who criticize the growing commercialization of the Internet ( Mejias 2013 ) express concerns about digital media reinforcing the status quo and current political and cultural hierarchies. Yet, others turn to performativity to emphasize the possibility for resistance to such hierarchies in digital media ( Cammaerts 2012 ). If identity is not natural, as claimed by Butler but also by most contemporary identity theorists, there is always a possibility for resistance to its inscribed substance—this is for example seen in the case of transgender identities that destabilize the binary man/woman and reveal that all identities are performed. When it comes to the media in particular, performative complexity becomes most visible in social media: for example, in cross-gender screen identities or, more importantly, in digital projects of self-making that challenge limits of identity. Onscreen performances and confessional narratives that appear on YouTube and blogs are powerful reflections of experimental articulations of the self and provide evidence of the continuous appeal of communities, though and importantly, not only of communities of origin but also of choice. Digital environments can be seen as providing the evidence of shifting spaces of identity. Yet they can be more than that: they can both reflect and construct identity in its performative and imagined dimensions. Most importantly, digital media, like all media, reveal the relevance of identity as a concept used to understand but also to express claims to recognition, as a category of emotional but also political significance that captures and reveals the always incomplete struggles of individuals and groups for a place in the world.

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What is identity (a definition), video: ​identity: definition, types, & examples.

Identity vs. Role Confusion

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Identity vs. Personality vs. Character

Types of identity.

  • Racial identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a racial group, such as Asian-American, white, etc. This identity trait remains constant throughout a person’s life.
  • Ethnic identity indicates a person’s affiliation with a specific ethnic group, such as Japanese, Malaysian, etc.
  • Geographical identity is the identity that indicates the local affiliation of a person. For instance, a person living in the United States may identify as a Mid-westerner, Southerner, New Yorker, Texan, etc.
  • Sexual orientation is an identity trait that indicates the sexual preference of an individual, such as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, etc.
  • Family identity is made up of all the roles a person plays in their family life. Typically, a person has a primary role (i.e., daughter) despite having multiple functions at a given time (such as daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin). Yet, these roles, and thus a person’s primary family identity, can change over time as new functions are added to their repertoire (such as wife, mother, aunt, mother-in-law, grandmother, etc.).
  • Ability is a form of identity that reflects an individual’s ability/disability status. Non-disabled individuals may not feel the implications of this form of identity as much as persons with disabilities. 
  • Body identity stems from a person’s body shape and size. Although some traits remain constant over time (i.e., height), others may fluctuate (i.e., weight, body shape, etc.)
  • Generational identity is also referred to as age identity. It reflects a person’s affiliation with an age group, such as child, adolescent, elderly, among others. 
  • The religious identity of a person reflects their spiritual belief system. People may be born to families that practice a specific religion. Yet, sometimes individuals adopt a different religious identity as they get older or become more or less religious. 
  • Class identity of an individual reflects the social stratum they belong to, such as middle-class, upper-middle-class, etc. A person may not notice their class identity until they interact with someone from another social class.
  • Educational identity depends on the level of education a person has or the types of schools they have attended. Examples include ivy-league educated, high-school drop-out, private school student, public school graduate, among others.
  • Career identity forms when a person selects a career path and may evolve with the changes to the person’s job titles and responsibilities. Some examples are doctor, scientist, teacher, superintendent, CEO, artist, miner, etc.

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Gender Identity

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Socioeconomic Identity

Cultural identity, political identity.

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Final Thoughts on Identity

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  • ​ Carlsson, Johanna, Maria Wängqvist, and Ann Frisèn. “Life on Hold: Staying in Identity Diffusion in the Late Twenties.” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 47, 2016, pp. 220-229.
  • Collins, R. N., Mandel, D. R., & Schywiola, S. S. (2021). Political identity over personal impact: Early US reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic . Frontiers in Psychology , 12 , 555.
  • Erikson, E. H. (1956). The problem of ego identity . Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 4, 56–121.
  • Heard, E., & Turner, J. (2011). Function of the sex chromosomes in mammalian fertility . Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology, 3(10), a002675.
  • Marcia, James. “ Identity in Adolescence.” Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, edited by Joseph Adelson, Wiley, 1980, pp. 159-187.
  • Mongan, N. P., Tadokoro-Cuccaro, R., Bunch, T., & Hughes, I. A. (2015). Androgen insensitivity syndrome . Best practice & research Clinical endocrinology & metabolism, 29(4), 569-580.
  • Schmeck, K., Schlüter-Müller, S., Foelsch, P. A., & Doering, S. (2013). The role of identity in the DSM-5 classification of personality disorders . Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 7(1), 1-11.
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Quizrise review: ace tests with ai, is paraphrasing plagiarism, what is identity definition essay sample.


Lesley J. Vos

The given prompt: In the age of digital personas and global cultures, how is individual and collective identity defined?

Identity, a term that seems so personal, yet is so deeply interwoven with external influences, has taken on intricate layers in our modern world. Traditionally, identity was often a blend of personal traits, cultural norms, and societal roles. But with the dawning of the digital age and the merging of global cultures, the contours defining identity have expanded, evolved, and sometimes, blurred.

On the most personal level, identity remains an individual’s self-conception, a tapestry of personal experiences, values, and beliefs. It’s how one sees oneself, from personality traits and passions to ambitions and life roles. These intrinsic factors shape the core of an individual’s identity, making it unique and distinct.

However, in today’s interconnected world, external influences play a significant role in molding identity. Enter the realm of digital personas. With platforms like social media, individuals have the power to curate and project a chosen identity. Filters, status updates, and online interactions contribute to this digital self. For many, this online identity becomes a significant part of their self-image, influencing not just how they wish to be seen by the world but also how they see themselves.

Yet, this digital persona might not always align perfectly with one’s offline self. The polished, often idealized online identity can sometimes be at odds with the raw, unfiltered realities of daily life. This divergence creates a unique dichotomy, where individuals navigate the intricacies of their real-world identity and the one they’ve crafted online.

Amidst this individual identity dance, there’s a grander ballet at play: the shaping of collective identity in an era of global cultures. As boundaries dissolve and cultures intertwine, collective identities, once firmly rooted in geographical regions or specific communities, now evolve. Exposure to global cultures means individuals often adopt and integrate diverse cultural elements into their identities. A teenager in Tokyo might find resonance with a musical genre originating in Africa. A chef in Italy might blend traditional recipes with flavors from Indian cuisine.

This intermingling leads to a rich, hybrid collective identity, where traditions, beliefs, and practices from around the world coalesce. While this global fusion enriches collective identities, it also poses challenges. With the blending of cultures, there’s a risk of diluting distinct traditions or overshadowing marginalized cultures.

The balance, then, lies in celebrating this global collective identity while also cherishing individual and localized identities. It’s about embracing the global, yet honoring the local. It’s about projecting an authentic digital persona while staying true to one’s offline self.

In essence, identity in today’s world is a harmonious melody of the personal and the collective, the real and the digital, the local and the global. It’s fluid, ever-evolving, and beautifully complex. In understanding and embracing its multifaceted nature, individuals not only find their unique place in the world but also contribute to the rich, diverse tapestry of global society. As the lines defining identity continue to shift, one truth remains constant: identity, in all its forms, is a celebration of individuality within a broader community.

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Research: What Is American Identity and Why Does It Matter?

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Why Does the American Identity Matter?

The most important reason for understanding American identity is related to white racial identification. It may not be prevalent in U.S. political attitudes, but it’s still an issue. A survey from 2012 asked white respondents to indicate if whiteness represented the way they thought of themselves most of the time, as opposed to identifying themselves as Americans . One fifth of the survey’s white respondents said that they preferred the term white to American when identifying themselves.

How to Analyze American Identity

  • There’s no such thing as a universal identity, especially for an omni-cultural country such as the USA.
  • Everyone has their own understanding of what it means to be American today, as citizens come from different religious, ethnic, ideological, and geographical backgrounds.
  • Explaining the concept of American identity calls for an inclusive approach based on solidarity.
  • Depending on how you discuss the concept, an academic essay may require arguments on modern-day immigration and immigrant policies. How do they fit within the common understanding of American identity?

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Identity: Definition and Analysis Essay

Identity refers to the personality, expressions, and beliefs that make a person and can be either positive or destructive. People tend to have a self-image of themselves in their minds. Identity can be shaped and influenced by culture, surrounding environments, family, personal interests, or associations. The characteristics that determine who a person is define their identity, and typically, people belong to more than one group at the same time. Everyone has different definitions of terms associated with their identity, such as caring, loving, and hardworking mother or wife.

For me, I am a caring person, and most of the people I relate to know that. There is nothing that I cannot do for my loved ones and friends. I love and cherish them so much, even though people think that I am strict. People close to me usually describe me as a kind person who is ever forgiving since I am always there to help. As for my vision, a person is caring when they continually try to ensure that others are well and happy. It is someone who gives both their resources and time to other people generously and is always considerate about others when making decisions. I have constantly been generous with my time, especially for my loved ones, as I regularly ensure that I create time for them no matter how busy I may be. I also send encouraging notes to people facing problems since it can mean a lot to them and remind them to remain strong amid challenges.

I consider myself a loving person, since in the contemporary world, love is what people need. Love is an important key to a happy and fulfilling life and according to me, being a loving person is all about showing expressions of affection to people with no form of selfishness. I chose to be a caring person to ensure that all my meaningful relationships were maintained. As a wife and a mother, I have been hugging my children, intending to comfort them and reassure the care I have for them. And whenever I reach out to my partner, I always ensure that my behaviors fulfill his desires and not mine. I compliment my husband as much as I can, and luckily enough, he usually feels acknowledged by my words since I make sure that the statements I make are more of a reflection on him. I always ensure that I do not manipulate him but offer him a genuine appreciation by valuing him for who he is.

I have been proving myself to be a loving and caring mother and wife through being hardworking. According to my definition, being hardworking is all about being willing to learn new ways to ensure growth. I always want to be the best for my loved ones, so I enjoy learning things that can work for their benefit. I am regularly punctual in waking up so that I prepare breakfast for my husband before he goes to work and then prepare my kids for school. I have never failed on this at any point since I got married. Whenever my husband sees something that I don’t know how to prepare, I always take the initiative to learn and make it up for him. I frequently have stamina and show perseverance no matter how hard things may be in my family.


On the other hand, there are those people who leave others to define their identity for them. They let people reveal to them their uniqueness based on their past, present, and future. This is done by considering one’s occupation, background, gender among others. They tend to get their self-identity from the opinion of others about them with the assumption that what they learn about themselves emanates from others. Their self-esteem is then formed from this and their confidence tends to increase when they receive positive compliments from others (Noonan). These kinds of people tend to imagine how others see and assess them and then develop their view of self from those judgments. For instance, they can only define themselves as loving, caring, and hardworking when other people view them as such.

The actions that may seem to be loving and caring for one may be perceived and described as cruel by others since people interpret things from different angles. In society, people can describe you as loving and caring based on your actions and their perception of you without considering your motivation for doing so, yet the motive is what matters. They tend to focus on the expressions one shows and do not care whether they are done selfishly or not (Devlin et al. 379). For example, they may consider you loving when they see you complementing or hugging others without wanting to know if it was for your selfish ambition or not. Others may term you as hardworking when they see you engaging in numerous activities in the name of diligence, yet that is not so for me. Diligence without the ability to learn new things is futile.

It is essential that we define our own identities in this life since when we let others do so, their description of us may be biased. Defining and analyzing our identities boosts our potential and stops us from being exposed to certain vulnerabilities. It is worth redefining who we are and identifying what we are good at and what we love doing. Characterizing ourselves boosts our esteem and motivates us to develop into better versions of ourselves.

Devlin, Michael B., and Natalie Brown-Devlin. “Using personality and team identity to predict sports media consumption.” International Journal of Sport Communication 10.3 (2017): 371-392.

Noonan, Harold W. Personal identity . Routledge, 2019.

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IvyPanda. (2023, November 1). Identity: Definition and Analysis. https://ivypanda.com/essays/identity-definition-and-analysis/

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IvyPanda . 2023. "Identity: Definition and Analysis." November 1, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/identity-definition-and-analysis/.

1. IvyPanda . "Identity: Definition and Analysis." November 1, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/identity-definition-and-analysis/.


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Cultural Identity Essay

27 August, 2020

12 minutes read

Author:  Elizabeth Brown

No matter where you study, composing essays of any type and complexity is a critical component in any studying program. Most likely, you have already been assigned the task to write a cultural identity essay, which is an essay that has to do a lot with your personality and cultural background. In essence, writing a cultural identity essay is fundamental for providing the reader with an understanding of who you are and which outlook you have. This may include the topics of religion, traditions, ethnicity, race, and so on. So, what shall you do to compose a winning cultural identity essay?

Cultural Identity

Cultural Identity Paper: Definitions, Goals & Topics 

cultural identity essay example

Before starting off with a cultural identity essay, it is fundamental to uncover what is particular about this type of paper. First and foremost, it will be rather logical to begin with giving a general and straightforward definition of a cultural identity essay. In essence, cultural identity essay implies outlining the role of the culture in defining your outlook, shaping your personality, points of view regarding a multitude of matters, and forming your qualities and beliefs. Given a simpler definition, a cultural identity essay requires you to write about how culture has influenced your personality and yourself in general. So in this kind of essay you as a narrator need to give an understanding of who you are, which strengths you have, and what your solid life position is.

Yet, the goal of a cultural identity essay is not strictly limited to describing who you are and merely outlining your biography. Instead, this type of essay pursues specific objectives, achieving which is a perfect indicator of how high-quality your essay is. Initially, the primary goal implies outlining your cultural focus and why it makes you peculiar. For instance, if you are a french adolescent living in Canada, you may describe what is so special about it: traditions of the community, beliefs, opinions, approaches. Basically, you may talk about the principles of the society as well as its beliefs that made you become the person you are today.

So far, cultural identity is a rather broad topic, so you will likely have a multitude of fascinating ideas for your paper. For instance, some of the most attention-grabbing topics for a personal cultural identity essay are:

  • Memorable traditions of your community
  • A cultural event that has influenced your personality 
  • Influential people in your community
  • Locations and places that tell a lot about your culture and identity

Cultural Identity Essay Structure

As you might have already guessed, composing an essay on cultural identity might turn out to be fascinating but somewhat challenging. Even though the spectrum of topics is rather broad, the question of how to create the most appropriate and appealing structure remains open.

Like any other kind of an academic essay, a cultural identity essay must compose of three parts: introduction, body, and concluding remarks. Let’s take a more detailed look at each of the components:


Starting to write an essay is most likely one of the most time-consuming and mind-challenging procedures. Therefore, you can postpone writing your introduction and approach it right after you finish body paragraphs. Nevertheless, you should think of a suitable topic as well as come up with an explicit thesis. At the beginning of the introduction section, give some hints regarding the matter you are going to discuss. You have to mention your thesis statement after you have briefly guided the reader through the topic. You can also think of indicating some vital information about yourself, which is, of course, relevant to the topic you selected.

Your main body should reveal your ideas and arguments. Most likely, it will consist of 3-5 paragraphs that are more or less equal in size. What you have to keep in mind to compose a sound ‘my cultural identity essay’ is the argumentation. In particular, always remember to reveal an argument and back it up with evidence in each body paragraph. And, of course, try to stick to the topic and make sure that you answer the overall question that you stated in your topic. Besides, always keep your thesis statement in mind: make sure that none of its components is left without your attention and argumentation.


Finally, after you are all finished with body paragraphs and introduction, briefly summarize all the points in your final remarks section. Paraphrase what you have already revealed in the main body, and make sure you logically lead the reader to the overall argument. Indicate your cultural identity once again and draw a bottom line regarding how your culture has influenced your personality.

Best Tips For Writing Cultural Identity Essay

Writing a ‘cultural identity essay about myself’ might be somewhat challenging at first. However, you will no longer struggle if you take a couple of plain tips into consideration. Following the tips below will give you some sound and reasonable cultural identity essay ideas as well as make the writing process much more pleasant:

  • Start off by creating an outline. The reason why most students struggle with creating a cultural identity essay lies behind a weak structure. The best way to organize your ideas and let them flow logically is to come up with a helpful outline. Having a reference to build on is incredibly useful, and it allows your essay to look polished.
  • Remember to write about yourself. The task of a cultural identity essay implies not focusing on your culture per se, but to talk about how it shaped your personality. So, switch your focus to describing who you are and what your attitudes and positions are. 
  • Think of the most fundamental cultural aspects. Needless to say, you first need to come up with a couple of ideas to be based upon in your paper. So, brainstorm all the possible ideas and try to decide which of them deserve the most attention. In essence, try to determine which of the aspects affected your personality the most.
  • Edit and proofread before submitting your paper. Of course, the content and the coherence of your essay’s structure play a crucial role. But the grammatical correctness matters a lot too. Even if you are a native speaker, you may still make accidental errors in the text. To avoid the situation when unintentional mistakes spoil the impression from your essay, always double check your cultural identity essay. 

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Home — Essay Samples — Sociology — Personal Identity — Reflection On Personal Identity


A Reflection on My Personal Identity

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Published: May 7, 2019

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Identity Reflection (essay)

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How does one define their identity? What are the most important things in life to you? Many can not answer this question. It’s a problem many people face and try to find a solution to. Everyone is born into different cultures, families and even communities but how we define our identity is from our personal attributes, our skills and abilities that we possess and even our interests and hobbies. If there’s something about you that you believe defines you in a big way, this could be considered your identity. Our identities are a complex interworking of genetics, our cultural and familial upbringing, spirituality, social circles, personal choice and taste, our community, as well as many other traits. I have an identity that specifically pertains to me. It’s been forming ever since the day I’ve been…

The question of identity has rattled the human brain for years. Many different things can help shape a person’s identity. The three most common assumptions about identity are: (1) Identity is what we’re born with, (2) Identity is shaped by culture, and (3) Identity is shaped by personal choices. The next three paragraphs will explain how each essay supports or refute one of the assumptions about identity.…

Gender Stereotypes Affecting People's Identity

Identity is who a person is. Identity is a complexly layered subject that allows people to either distinguish one from others, or generally organize a group of people who have similarities. Identity is made up of a lot of factors, but the most influential factor has to be gender.…

Oranges and Sunshine Identity Essay

An individual’s sense of identity is exceptionally complex and is quite significantly influenced by many factors. These distinct factors may be desired and appreciated or unwanted and harmful. Each of these factors has consequences that may either nurture or attenuate one’s sense of self. These notions are predominantly evident in the intensely compelling film, ‘Oranges and Sunshine’, directed by Jim Loach and the poem ‘In the Park’ by Gwen Harwood.…

Reflective Essay On Identity

My best overall trait to bring to the university community is that, by some people’s standards, my identity does not exist. In the highly sexualized world we currently inhabit, it is hard for people to understand asexuality, a term for describing someone who does not feel sexual attraction. I have had people tell me that having sex is a basic human need and that, even if I did somehow manage to not feel any sexual attraction, I must be broken. Being called broken is a common phrase heard within the asexual community. Sometimes we hear it so often that we begin to believe it. On top of that, if by some miracle someone has begun to understand, it is hard to convey that asexuals can still feel romantic attraction. And with romantic attraction…

Personal Narrative: My Identity As A Person

Identity is who a person is. It determines how you act and how people think of you. For example, a person whose identity is bad is often bound for trouble and for others to look down on them, whereas a person with a good identity is often bound for success and treated well by others. A person’s identity can be affected by many things: where he/she was born, the person’s parents, friends and other things. Through my life experiences I have become creative, spirited, and inquisitive.…


A person identity is made of moral principles, own character and personality, moreover identity is the portrait to the outside world of whom we really are.…

Teenagers and Tattoos

The goal of Dr. Martin 's argument is to get parents and adults to see the reasons why these teens are getting tattoos and piercings. His audience are the caregivers of these teens, as well as the clinicians that help families with teens. He is trying to get adults to understand the meaning behind the tattoos and piercings. For example, Dr. Martin explains adolescents see tattoos and piercings as "personal and beautifying statements" (Martin, 1998). While parents and adults see these teenager 's tattoos as "oppositional and enraging affronts to their authority" (Martin, 1998). Dr.…

Unbroken Essay On Identity

Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner and WWII hero, was quoted as saying, “However dark the night, however dim our hopes, the light will always follow the darkness,” (Louie Zamperini). In the novel Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is the story of Zamperini’s life from his undisciplined childhood to his passionate running to fighting for his life in WWII and coming home a new man. Louie finds his identity as a young adult which allows him to seek resilience with any obstacle he faces.…

Some Lessons From The Assembly Line

First off, in paragraph four, “After a particularly exhausting string of 12-hour days at a plastics factory, I was shocked at how small my check seemed” (Braaksma, 2005). Secondly, in paragraph five, “As frustrating as the work can be, the most stressful thing about blue-collar life is knowing your job could disappear overnight” (Braaksma, 2005). Lastly, in paragraph six, “Factory life has shown me what my future might have been like had I never gone to college in the first place” (Braaksma,…

Evaluate the Claim That Personal Identity Is Self-Defined

Psychologist Erik Erikson defines identity as ‘a sense of continuity over time as a being or entity that is different from others’ (Clarke, 2009, Pg252). We all have our own identities that are different than the person stood next to us, but he believed that it doesn’t stay the same identity throughout a person’s lifetime. We all go through different stages during our lifetime; babies, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and then to old age – Each forging a new identity for us not only based on past experiences but on conflicts and experiences that challenge us in everyday life and the future.…

Identity is Shaped by personal Choices

People think that identity can be shaped by different things. Some could argue that identity is shaped more by culture or simply by your personal choices. This essay will discuss how identity is shaped by your personal choices. “To understand identity we must examine the choices we make in our daily lives” (Latterell 11). Some characteristics that are made by your personal choices are the music you choose to listen, your overall appearance like your clothing, tattoos, piercings, etc. and your social group. Personal choices are a major part of your identity simply because it defines who you are and how you choose to be as a person in your day to day life. “Identity is not fixed, but shifts over time and in different situations” (Latterell 13).…

Some Lessons From The Assembly Line Analysis

As some college students spend their summers working part-time jobs and spending time with friends, this is not the case for Andrew Braaksma. He spends his summer breaks on an assembly line at a factory. Braaksma has been working in the factory since he got out of high school and he has learned some valuable lessons about life. In “Some Lessons from the Assembly Line” Braaksma comes to the realization that his choice to continue education and go onto college allows him better opportunity and experience to thrive beyond the low paying job of a factory worker with a high school education, at best.…

Identity Essay

Everyone has something that defines who they are by the exclusive things they do. There are a wide variety of activities and hobbies that surround people’s everyday life. My life revolves around spending time with family and friends, going to school, and writing poetry. Without these things, I would not be able to set essential goals and a promising future for myself.…

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Identity Definition Essay

Many students have an identity, interest, or talent that defines them and there is no denying that every student has one of those three things that define them as the person who they are. What really matters is the moment that that gave them that identity, interest or talent. The moment that defined them as the person who they are or want to become in their lifetime. For me, that moment was when I fell off a building. I was twelve years old and had a habit of going out to a building that was 3 stories high, which my friends and I called “The Factory”. With it being unoccupied during the weekends, we were free to play soccer and hit the ball around and against the walls as much and as hard as we wanted to,even if it meant to risk having the

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The Factors That Have Shaped My Student Identity In Education

The student identity is the identity one builds throughout the years of middle school through college where standardized curriculum shapes everyone individually. On the other hand, a person’s learning identity has to do with the way they learn to evolve mentally and spans a person’s lifespan. My student identity right now can be described as a VCU undergrad student majoring in biology as a pre-dental student. The factors that have shaped my student identity would be my personal interest in biology, quality of school I attended, teachers I’ve had even friends have shaped my student identity.

Identity Essay

Most people, unless they choose to be an outsider, want to be considered “cool.” Whether it’s to fit in with a peer group, or clique, or to impress someone in particular, like a member of the opposite sex, or a potential mate. Or possibly to gain something from an individual for financial or social gain (see “Scamming”).

Identity is what defines us as a person. Everyone one on earth has their own unique identity. To showcase my identity, I created a collage of images and descriptive words, called an identi-kit. This identi-kit shows what I feel like is my identity to myself and the others. My identi-kit identifies me as a mixed martial artist. The identi-kit has images of a deadly shark with mixed martial arts gloves on that say mixed martial arts on the front and fight shorts with the words competitor and warrior on them. It also has descriptive words like “killer instinct” and “fight” which describe my spirit. There are three assumptions that come to question when asking about one’s identity. The first is if you were born with this

Essay On What You Know About Yourself

Some students have an identity, an interest, or talent that defines them in an essential way. If you are one of these students, then tell us about yourself.

Identity Reflection Essay

Over the course of the semester I have crossed many boundaries that I never would have thought of. Whether that be domestically or culturally over the course of the year and with that it has changed my identity. This semester I found who I am more than anything and gave me an approach to how to live within a community that at first I do not know. With this being said I speak most likely for many that college started out scary as we knew no one and had never been away from home this long. I know personally I found my new identity that I never knew that I had because I crossed boundaries. As time goes on identity evolves when you cross domestic and international boundaries.

College Essay On Identity

My identity is something that that no one can take away from me. As I am still growing and learning, I can say that I have found many things that appeal to me. My interests will help define my personality and express myself in ways that I can’t express through words. I enjoy finding new things to do and doing my best in aiming towards my goals. I have many goals, but I know that I can only accomplish them through patience and perseverance.

Synthesis Essay On Identity

Who I am? Personally, I believe that a person’s identity can take only one of two routes. One, a person’s identity can change within that person’s life. Who I am now, is not necessarily who I was when I was younger. Experience can and will likely modify our identities. Therefore, experience can solidify our personal identification or it can weaken our personal identification. And as such, individuals and their perspectives are always evolving, or at the very least, they should evolve over time. Although there are some identities that evolve throughout one’s lifetime; there are some identities that remain consistent. Two, some identities cannot and will not change. So identities are socially and/or politically forces upon you, some identities are genetically assigned to you, and some you choose to keep. No matter the reason or reasons, these identities have been and will be consist within your lifespan. But, how you deal with them is up to you as an individual.

Defining Identity Essays

There are millions of words across the globe that are used to describe people and uncover their identity, but what is identity? How can you begin to describe something that varies so greatly from one human being to another? Can you create a universal meaning for a word describing human concepts that people often fail to define for themselves? Of course there isn't one definition to define such a word. It is an intricate aspect of human nature, and it has a definition just as complex.

The Namesake Theme Of Identity Essay

An identity is the state of being oneself. Your character is comprised of your past, present, and future. Some individuals are ashamed of who they really are and try to change themselves, or mask their identities. One of the dominant themes that is conveyed throughout The Namesake is the theme of identity. In the novels, everybody is a little lost, or a lot lost, frankly. Practically every individual struggles with his or her identity, because every person feels the tug and pull of different cultures, different traditions, and different dreams. The Namesake is about this perpetual dilemma faced by immigrants as they fight to maintain their identities while trying to shake them off at the same time while The Great Gatsby is about people

Essay on The Identity Theory

beliefs. Sober uses the example of lightning. He points out that according to the Greeks,

How Does Identity Define Identity?

Another significant sign within the music video is the characters themselves. In the video of “Ink” by Coldplay, the characters are silhouettes of a man and a woman: the man and woman do not have distinct features such as eyes and a mouth. For this reason, one important mythology that “Ink” is referencing to is identity. In particular, “Ink” is referencing how individuals define their identity. In society, race, gender, and class typically define identity. However, “Ink” defies that mythology with the silhouettes in that by not having any particular facial features, “Ink” implies that an individual’s identity is not a specific set of characteristics or traits, but an individual’s identity is any aspect of his or her life.

Personal Identity Essay

To be an American is to have traits of freedom the thing that the founding fathers counted on is to have the will to speak freely and to have the will of religion in the constitution it say that every citizen should have life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This impacts and brings everyone from different places to help create a society that is free. The founding fathers also counted for the people to speak for what is right. The reason is because this helps out on what the people want instead of the government wants this goes to show that the people matter and that is what makes a person happy and also makes a person feel like they have the pursuit to be happy.

Definition Of Identity In High School

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of identity is “the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others.” In high school, the organizations and activities that a person participates in often define the person in numerous ways. Friendships are created by having things in common. Therefore, friends participate in majority of clubs together. This tends to give some organizations the identity of “weird” or “cool.” I believe that people should participate in the things they enjoy though. My identity in high school is not found in one organization or one group of friends, but instead numerous organizations and friend groups.

My Identity Essays

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Over the course of my life I have had many life experiences which have made me who I am today. When I was in my middle childhood, most of my life revolved around playing and having fun. I did not have to put forth effort in hardly any area of my life or work hard in order to achieve specific goals. As time went on however, my own life experiences began to have an effect on me, and shape the person I am today. My life started to change the most during middle childhood when I was around the age of seven years old. At this point in my life, I had to adjust to several big changes.

Importance Of My Identity And Interests In Education

While most students may have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way, I do not. My identity and multiple interests and talents have all culminated in framing who I am, my passions, and more importantly my college and career goals.

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David French

What Is Christian Nationalism, Exactly?

A woman wearing a white and red shawl prays as she faces an American flag on a chain-link fence.

By David French

Opinion Columnist

If you’re alarmed by the rise of Christian nationalism, the single worst thing you can do is define it too broadly. If you define it too broadly, then you’re telling millions of ordinary churchgoing citizens that the importation of their religious values into the public square somehow places them in the same camp or on the same side as actual Christian supremacists, the illiberal authoritarians who want to remake America in their own fundamentalist image.

Enter the new feature-length documentary “ God and Country ,” which examines the role of Christian nationalism in American politics. Even before I knew that Rob Reiner (the director of “A Few Good Men”) was involved in the project, I agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers for two key reasons: First, I wanted to make sure that I could offer a sensible definition of Christian nationalism, one that didn’t cast aspersions on Christians simply for bringing their values into the public square. And second, I wanted to outline exactly why actual Christian nationalism presents a real danger to our Constitution.

To understand what Christian nationalism is, it’s important to understand what it is not. It is not Christian nationalism if a person’s political values are shaped by the individual’s Christian faith. In fact, many of America’s most important social movements have been infused with Christian theology and Christian activism. Many of our nation’s abolitionists thundered their condemnations of slavery from Northern pulpits . The civil rights movement wasn’t exclusively Christian by any means, but it was pervasively Christian — Martin Luther King Jr. was, of course, a Baptist minister.

Anyone may disagree with Christian arguments around civil rights, immigration, abortion, religious liberty or any other point of political conflict. Christians disagree with one another on these topics all the time, but it is no more illegitimate or dangerous for a believer to bring her worldview into a public debate than it is for a secular person to bring his own secular moral reasoning into politics. In fact, I have learned from faiths other than my own, and our public square would be impoverished without access to the thoughts and ideas of Americans of faith.

The problem with Christian nationalism isn’t with Christian participation in politics but rather the belief that there should be Christian primacy in politics and law. It can manifest itself through ideology, identity and emotion. And if it were to take hold, it would both upend our Constitution and fracture our society.

The sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead define Christian nationalism as a “cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union.” The author and pastor Matthew McCullough defines Christian nationalism as “an understanding of American identity and significance held by Christians wherein the nation is a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.” Both definitions are excellent, but what does ideological Christian nationalism look like in practice?

In 2022, a coalition of right-wing writers and leaders published a document called “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles.” Its section on God and public religion states: “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” That’s an extraordinary — and ominous — ideological statement, one that would immediately relegate non-Christians to second-class status. It’s utterly contrary to the First Amendment and would impose a form of compelled deference to Christianity on both religious minorities and the nonreligious.

But Christian nationalism isn’t just rooted in ideology; it’s also deeply rooted in identity, the belief that Christians should rule. This is the heart of the Seven Mountain Mandate , a dominionist movement emerging from American Pentecostalism that is, put bluntly, Christian identity politics on steroids. Paula White, Donald Trump’s closest spiritual adviser, is an adherent , and so is the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Tom Parker, who wrote a concurring opinion in the court’s recent I.V.F. decision . The movement holds that Christians are called to rule seven key societal institutions: the family, the church, education, the media, the arts, business and the government.

One doesn’t have to go all the way into Seven Mountain theology, though, to find examples of Christian identity politics. The use of Christianity as an unofficial but necessary qualification for office is a routine part of politics in the most churchgoing parts of America. Moreover, one of the common red-America arguments for Trump is that he might not be devout himself, but he’ll place lots of Christians in government.

But what is Christian identity politics but another form of Christian supremacy? How does Christian identity alone make any person a better candidate for office? After all, many of the worst actors in American politics are professed believers. Scandal and corruption are so pervasive in the church that when a person says, “I’m a Christian,” it tells me almost nothing about their wisdom or virtue.

Finally, we can’t forget the intense emotion of Christian nationalism. Most believers don’t follow ideological and theological arguments particularly closely. In the words of the historian Thomas Kidd, “Actual Christian nationalism is more a visceral reaction than a rationally chosen stance.” It is tied, in other words, to a visceral sense that the fate of the church is closely tied to the outcome of any given political race.

That fervor can make believers gullible and potentially even dangerous. Its good-versus-evil dynamic can make Christians believe that their political opponents are capable of anything, including stealing an election. It artificially raises the stakes of elections to the point where a loss becomes an unthinkable catastrophe, with the fates of both church and state hanging in the balance. As we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, this belief invites violent action.

Committed Christian nationalists represent only 10 percent of the population, according to a 2023 PRRI/Brookings Christian Nationalism Survey. But even members of a minority that small can gain outsize power when they fold themselves into the larger Christian electorate, casting themselves as “just like you.” That’s why we cannot conflate Christian activism with Christian nationalism. One can welcome Christian participation in the public square while resisting domination, from any faith or creed.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , X and Threads .

David French is an Opinion columnist, writing about law, culture, religion and armed conflict. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a former constitutional litigator. His most recent book is “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation .” You can follow him on Threads ( @davidfrenchjag ).


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