Identity is a complex topic which is often studied by psychologists. In order to help them to understand identity, they have produced a number of different theories. This essay will summarise two of these theories. The first theory is Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory. This approach focuses on how the development of our identities is influenced by social factors. The second theory is Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory. This approach focuses on group identities (Phoenix, 2007).
The essay will also explain how each of these approaches has been used to further our understanding of the identity of people with physical impairments. Erikson views identity as psychosocial and that the development of identity is a lifelong process. He broke down this process into eight stages, which started at birth and ended in old age. Each stage consists of conflicts or normative crises which the individual has to overcome. Erikson felt that the fifth stage, which is when young people make the transition from adolescence to adulthood, was the most important.
This is a period of identity crisis when young people may experience conflict between who they are, and what society expects them to be. However during this time it is considered socially acceptable for young people try out a number of different identities for a while, without committing to them; as they start to question who they are, and who they will become in the future. Erikson referred to this time as a period of psychosocial moratorium. He felt that because young people are able to do this then they should have a clear sense of who they are by the end of the fifth stage.
This is what Erikson referred to as achieving Ego Identity. It was observed however that some young people experienced role diffusion which is when young people are unable to achieve Ego identity (as sited in Phoenix, 2007). Unlike Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory, which concentrates on individual identities, Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (SIT) concentrates on social identities and intergroup relations. Tajfel conducted studies on artificially created ‘minimal groups’ in order to understand social identity and the processes that led to prejudice.
Tajfel found that when people categorize themselves as belonging to a group, they are prepared to discriminate in favour of the ‘ingroup’ and against the ‘outgroups’ (as cited in Phoenix, 2007). Tajfel found that the findings of the study where the same, even when the groups were randomly assigned. Tajfel argued that in order for people to create satisfactory social identities, they need to have a sense of belonging to groups that have high status in comparison with other groups.
This need leads individuals to attempt to maximize the differences between the different groups in favour of the ingroup. SIT applies the findings from its minimal group experiment to large-scale social differences in society. This is because it argues that society is composed of social categories such as ‘race’, and class, which have differing amounts of power and status with one another. SIT therefore discusses how social differences in power have an affect on identity; for example, when members of subordinate groups use social mobility in order to improve their position.
Groups may also use social creativity in order to improve the identity of its members (as cited in Phoenix, 2007). The Psychosocial Theory can help to further our understanding of the identities of people with physical impairments. Erikson argues that that the development of identity is accompanied by normative crisis, when young people start to think about who they are going to become when they are an adult (Phoenix, 2007). This helps us understand why at the age of 12 Micheline Mason started to think about what her life was going to be like as an adult.
Eriksons ideas on identity crisis also help us understand why she spent two years in a dark place full of emotional ups and downs following the sudden realisation that she was not going to be, as Micheline puts it, ‘normal like her sister’(as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p. 86). This example supports Erikson’s argument. However the majority of people, who campaign for a change in the way that society views people with physical impairments, are adults, such as Allan Sutherland.
If as Erikson argues, identity achievement is central to adolescence, then this would mean that a change in identity such as this, during adulthood, would be less possible (as cited in Phoenix, 2007). SIT findings also help us understand the identities of people with physical impairments. For example it helps us to understand why Sutherland campaigns for those who are “‘non-disabled’, to stop thinking of people with physical impairments as ‘the disabled’”(as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p. 82). This is an example of social creativity and social competition.
This is because Sutherland believes that the term ‘the disabled’ treats people as less than human. Therefore by campaigning for society to view disabled people as individuals, he is trying to positively redefine the group in order to improve the social identity of its members (Phoenix, 2007). SIT may also help us to understand why some people are prejudiced against people with physical impairments; for example when people in Nasa Begum’s neighbourhood called her ‘spastic’ or ‘bandy legs’(as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p. 87).
A reason for this could be that the people who call Nasa these things view themselves as being in the ‘ingroup’ and view Nasa as being in the ‘outgroup’, Therefore by being prejudiced and putting Nasa down, they are attempting to create a higher status for their group, in order to create satisfactory social identities. Also by Nasa refusing to, as she puts it “accept a concept of ‘normality’” in order to reclaim her identity, she could be said to be positively redefining her own social group (as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p. 7). This is what Tajfel referred to as social creativity (as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p65). As you can see Erikson views identity as psychosocial and concentrates on the individual aspects of identity where as Tajfel concentrates on group identities. Erikson argues that people achieve Ego identity by adolescence, an example of this can be seen by Micheline Mason’s account of her experience during adolescence.
However although Erikson’s psychosocial Theory supports some views on identity it doesn’t explain how some people experience a change in identity after adolescence such as if they become disabled in adulthood. SIT helps us to understand why some people who are physically impaired strive to get society to view being ‘disabled’ in a more positive light. It also helps us to understand why some people may be prejudiced against people with physical impairments.