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James Marcia and Self-Identity

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

James Marcia is another influential theorist who expanded upon Erikson's concept of identity crisis and identity confusion. His initial work was published during the 1960's but his theory continues to be refined in accordance with recent research findings. Although Marcia's theory originally conceptualized identity development in terms of a progressive developmental trend, his theory has subsequently become more descriptive and categorical, defining and identifying particular configurations of identity exploration and commitment.

Marcia's theory descriptively categorizes four main points or stations along the continuum of identity development. These stations or points describe very different identity conditions, ranging from a diffuse and indeterminate individual identity to a precisely defined and highly specific individual identity. Similar to Erikson, Marcia believed that certain situations and events (called "crises") serve as catalysts prompting movement along this continuum and through the various identity statuses. These crises create internal conflict and emotional upheaval, thereby causing adolescents to examine and question their values, beliefs, and goals. As they explore new possibilities, they may form new beliefs, adopt different values, and make different choices. According to Marcia's theory, these developmental crises ultimately cause adolescents to develop a progressively greater commitment to a particular individual identity via the process of identity exploration prompted by developmental crises.

Marcia used the term identity status to label and describe four unique developmental identity stations or points. These are: identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, moratorium and identity achievement. Each identity status represents a particular configuration of youth's progress with regard to identity exploration and commitment to the values, beliefs, and goals that contribute to identity. Though the different identity statuses are in some sense progressive (in the sense that they flow one to the next), Marcia's theory does not assume that every adolescent will pass through and experience all four identity statuses. Some youth may experience only one or two identity statuses during adolescence. Additionally, there is no assumption that a youth's identity status is uniform across all aspects of their development. Youth may have different identity statues across different domains such as work, religion, and politics. In this sense it is possible for youth to have more than one identity status at a time. Furthermore, unlike Erickson's stage theory, Marcia's theory accounts for multi-directional movement between and among the various identity statuses. For instance, youth may experience a traumatic event such as parental divorce, or a violent assault, which may cause them to re-evaluate their understanding of the world and their value system. This type of crisis may cause them to retreat to a previously enacted identity status as they integrate this new information.

The first identity status, identity diffusion, describes youth who have neither explored nor committed to any particular identity. Thus, this identity status represents a low level of exploration and a low level of commitment. These adolescents haven't considered their identity at all, and haven't established any life goals. They are reactive, passively floating through life and dealing with each situation as it arises. Their primary motivation is hedonic; the avoidance of discomfort and the acquisition of pleasure. By way of illustration, consider the example of Tyler, who stumbled his way through high school and graduated last year (but just barely). Tyler still doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. In fact, he hasn't really given much thought at all to what he'd like to accomplish. He hasn't applied to any colleges or technical schools. He still works part-time at the pizza shop; a job he started while in high school so that he could have a little extra spending money. He doesn't earn enough money to live on his own so he lives with his parents, but he doesn't pay them any rent or even pay for his own groceries. Nonetheless, he hasn't even considered applying for a better paying, full-time job. Whenever his frustrated mother asks, "What are you doing with your life?" he just mutters, "I dunno." Tyler hasn't even considered this question, and has no goals or plans of any sort.

The second identity status is the identity foreclosure status. This identity status represents a low degree of exploration but a high degree of commitment. At this identity status adolescents are not actively trying to determine what is important to them. They are not questioning the values and beliefs they have been taught. Instead, these youth obtain their identity simply by accepting the beliefs and values of their family, community, and culture. In a sense, they passively accept the identity assigned to them. While these youth are committed to values and life goals assigned to them, they do not question why they should be, nor do they consider any alternatives. For example, Jasmine, 17, is applying to the same college that her mother and grandmother both attended, and she has "decided" to major in elementary education. She really hasn't thought about whether or not she wants to go to college, or what other colleges she might like to attend. Nor has she considered any other career options besides elementary school teacher. If asked about her plans she might say, "All the women in my family became elementary teachers for a few years and then stayed home with their own children. My mom and grandma seemed to do just fine, so it seems good enough for me." Jasmine has accepted she will be just like all the other women in her family. She has not questioned whether the life path chosen by the other women in her family is acceptable to her, but simply accepts that her goal is to proceed according to the usual and customary path of the women before her.

The third identity status is called moratorium. This identity status represents high degree of exploration but a low degree of commitment. At this status, youth are in the midst of an identity "crisis" which has prompted them to explore and experiment with different values, beliefs, and goals. However, they have not made any final decisions about which beliefs and values are most important to them, and which principles should guide their lives. Thus, they are not yet committed to a particular identity. They are keeping their options open. For example, Tim, 14, may suddenly begin to argue with his parents about going to the Sunday worship service at the Methodist Christian Church, even though he has attended this service with his family since childhood. Instead, he likes to spend his timing reading about all the different world religions and plans to visit several mosques, temples, and churches around the area to see what their worship services are like. Or, he may question the logic of religion altogether, and he may even wonder whether God exists at all. It is clear that Tim is not quite certain what he believes yet, but he is actively exploring and considering what values, principles, and beliefs he wants to live by.

The final identity status is identity achievement. This identity status represents both a high degree of exploration and a high degree of commitment. Youth are said to have achieved their identity by a process of active exploration and strong commitment to a particular set of values, beliefs, and life goals that has emerged from this active exploration and examination. At this identity status youth will have decided what values and goals are most important to them, and what purpose, or mission will direct their life. Youth at the identity achievement status are able to prioritize what is important to them and have sorted through the many possibilities of who they want to be. They will have experimented with many different beliefs and values, and analyzed their pathway in life. To fully achieve this type of identity youth must feel positive and confident about their decisions and values. For example, Miranda cast her vote for the presidential election the very first year she was allowed to vote. But, she did so only after carefully researching all the different candidates and their positions on issues that were important to her. First, she gave a great deal of thought by considering her own beliefs and values system. Next, she figured out which issues were most important to her based on her beliefs and values. And finally, she determined which candidate best matched her beliefs and values on the issues she considered most important.

As mentioned, these four identity statuses describe points along a continuum moving from an initially diffuse, undefined individual identity to a highly specific and well-defined, individual sense of self. Inherent in Marcia's theory is the assumption that a mature and well-adjusted person possesses a well-defined and individually determined identity. This assumption reflects an implicit set of values common to many developed Western societies concerning the desirability of an individually defined identity; but, this set of values may not be universally shared. In contemporary Western cultures, there is a great value placed upon individual needs, rights, and freedoms. Therefore it is only natural that such societies would define maturity in terms of a highly evolved sense of an individual self. But some other cultures value the needs of the larger community over any single individual. In such cultures, maturity is defined by the ability to subjugate individual pursuits and desires in the service of the group's greater good. Ironically, these cultures would consider the importance Westerners assign to individual identity an indication of immaturity.

It is evident there can be a great deal of variation in determining an individual identity. Furthermore, the development of an identity cannot be separated from personal values and beliefs and is discussed in the following section. Emotional development is similarly related to the development of morality which is discussed in another section. Likewise, self-identity includes an understanding of ones gender and its role in determining "Who am I?" Gender Identity is discussed in the section on Sexual Development.