Identity, Moratorium And Biculturalism

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      This essay will seek to look at how Erikson's theory, based on Freud's school of thought, on Identity vs. Identity Diffusion, which is broken down by James Marcia's four identity statuses, is deeply influenced by social stimuli and pressures. Moratorium, a product of Marcia's concentration of Erikson's work, will be specifically targeted in how it is liable to reoccur throughout a life time. Class-room and world connections deal specifically with cross-cultural situations where people must learn to consider a number of cultures and societies to reach identity achievement, the end goal of moratorium.

Key terms:

      Libido development, Identity vs. Identity diffusion (role confusion), Moratorium, Foreclosure, Diffusion, Achievement and Intergenerational Mutuality

Within the theme of child development, it would be very tempting to approach each stage and cycle as an irreversible pillar that must be established in order to rear and educate a functioning person with an achieved identity. Adolescent moratorium, which fits under Erik Erikson's identity vs. identity diffusion theory, can easily and rigidly be approached as there are incredible pressures on identity achievement all over the world. However, as theorist James Marcia has studied, that period of moratorium occurs in many situations throughout one's lifetime in conjunction with society's pertaining pressures and stimuli on a global level.

Very little psychological research today can escape the influence of past studies and theory. The ideas of identity formation are either a reaction or a development to previous schools of thought. In this case Freud provided a helpful starting point. In conjunction with others, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) explored what he termed as the libido drive, which was basically an innate force that stimulated the individual to genital maturity. Interestingly enough, Freud described and identified it as an overpoweringly sexual drive more than anything else. Erik Erikson (1902-1994) created a much more specific and compartmentalized set of theories where our development was subdivided into eight different “specific developmental tasks.” His stages were: 1) basic trust vs. mistrust; 2) autonomy vs. shame; 3) initiative vs. guilt 4) industry vs. inferiority; 5) identity vs. identity diffusion; 6) intimacy vs. isolation; 7) generativity vs. stagnation; 8) integrity vs. despair (Erikson, 1959).

Freud's libido drive became the catalyst for these processes, which created a sense of interdependency between each of the stages. As Freud confirmed that deficiencies in the development of one stage affected the following so did Erikson establish the same for his own theory. If an infant, in Erikson's first cycle, could not find a substantial reason to trust his or her care givers for basic needs, this could evidence itself later in life and cripple the person's development in the midst of another stage. Given observations in families around me and studies in class, parents seem to posses this almost paranoid concern for appropriate and adequate perspectives with each stage in development. If the baby fails to walk at eight months old the irrational fear is that the rest of the child's life will be troubled. Parents get especially worried during adolescence.

Erikson developed psychoanalytic theories along with another psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Heinz Hartmann (1894-1970) whose theory of mutuality harmonized this psychological evolution in relation to respective social environments. He stated that “each society meets each phase of the development of its members by institutions (parental care, schools, teachers, occupations, etc.) specific to it, to ensure that the developing individual will be viable in it (Erikson, 1959, p. 15).” The theory can easily submit itself to pressures that we are heavily susceptible to socialization, each person representing a white board ready for all sorts of artwork. I have studied under professors here at Wheaton that adamantly claim we are nothing more than socialized creatures with very little biological and psychological influence. In their minds psychological development does have some influence but sociological institutions and norms overwhelmingly tend to encroach themselves onto the human mind significantly more so than anything else. Hartmann and Erikson would have that social institutions create the mold, or the rubric from which we either thrive or struggle through certain psychoanalytic cycles (Erikson, 1959).

One of those stages that have always seemed to leave an incredibly strong impression on our lives is that of adolescence. Freud marked this transition almost as the beginning of the end of genital maturation. Throughout these years, young adults seek sexual pleasure and stimulation. It is as if the libido drive has really begun to evidence itself in ways that are very apparent and often very alarming. Certainly critics and many of us students have dismissed this as incredibly strange and incomplete in its assessment of this highly complex stage. However it is quite apparent that Erikson did find value in this and formulated his own reconstruction. “Erikson's ideas grew out of an ego psychoanalytic, developmental framework. He located adolescence within the context of a life cycle scheme of development (Marcia, 2004).”

Erikson postulated that each stage was characterized by an “ego crisis”, a conflict that would determined the progression or regression of the person. It is very similar to a road that forks five miles or so where each diversion affects the development of the next. James Marcia, a psychologist and professor at Simon Fraser University, has further developed and expanded on Erikson's adolescent stage of identity vs. identity diffusion. Here in this stage, provided a healthy environment and nurture, the person has reached the point where the ego, the super ego and the sense of self have already been established. Cognitive development has already developed into the complexity that used to be lacking in previous years. However young adults still need to undergo the strenuous formation of their ego identity.

James Marcia defined it as the “sense of who one is, based on who one has been and who one can realistically imagine oneself to be in the future (Marcia, 2004).” Here there are four situations a young adult could be at with regards to this definition. The first, which is the end goal, Marcia termed as identity achievement. Here the person has reached a set of well grounded commitments and values such as religion, sexual orientation, background, cultural, interpersonal and social. Not only has this person developed these but they have also gone through a period exploration and search. Moratorium, the second status, embodies that search and quest for identity. Here the person has placed aside the ideas and beliefs they have grown up with in the hopes of testing foreign land and waters. Foreclosure, on the other hand, describes one who still lives and strongly holds to the plans and foundations their parents or primary caregivers had set and established. Very little moratorium, or exploration, has been undertaken in this situation. Diffusion, the fourth status and not an optimal one, is reflected in complete apathy towards the establishment of any set of values and a belief system. Along with this comes an equally apathetic view towards exploration and they simply wander life with little motivation.

Marcia found that the ideal road to identity achievement should start in a state of foreclosure, a very natural and healthy initiation. From here it is common to find that teenagers, as a result of the shaking effects of puberty and other pressures, will enter into moratorium, also commonly known as an ‘identity crisis'. From here they will eventually and hopefully find their way to a stronger sense of identity achievement.

It is the transition of moratorium that becomes so crucial in Erikson's process of identity vs. identity diffusion. In accordance with Freud and Erikson's concepts that the development of each stage is dependent on the previous does not necessarily hold true for moratorium. Marcia has found that it is actually something that occurs and reoccurs throughout one's lifetime, instigating numerous identity crises that stimulate further identity achievement. He also holds that it is something that can occur at any stage in life. What was slightly more shocking, or surprising, was that Marcia believed it was a process that necessarily did not have to happen at adolescence. Most people seem to be under the impression that adolescents should learn to gain a healthy exposure to the world, especially the closer they get to leaving the home. Marcia on the other hand leans toward the idea that since this intergenerational mutuality holds true for moratorium, it does not really matter how or when it works its way into the cycles. Foreclosure for maturing adolescents can be viewed as an appropriate goal given that moratorium inevitably will occur later in life. Granted, a foreclosed older teenager may generally struggle in some ways a more traveled person does not. Still, Marcia does not see this as an immediate concern given intergenerational mutuality he holds to (Marcia, 2004).

Marcia used the example of an eleven year old boy faced with the reality that he will die shortly due to cancer. Most eleven-year-olds go through very little moratorium as it usually hits children later on in adolescence. Nonetheless, little can be said against the fact that the child will and could easily reach a certain level of self establishment and security in his identity in the face of death. In another example closer to home, moratorium can be a short lived experience just like with the eleven-year old boy. My parents translate the Bible for a small group of indigenous Natives in Colombia where the teenage experience is incredibly short, nearly non-existent. Children are considered adults almost since the time they are born. This can be evidenced in the way the parents induce girls to a painful and sometimes fatal circumcision that automatically ingrains their sense of gender and marriage. In the same way, they are expected to be married by age fifteen, in accordance with the natural trend that humans are generally biologically ready to reproduce at puberty. At this age, they have been raised to take care of themselves and possibly a family as well. Agonizingly long periods of moratorium are nearly absent from their development at adolescence. However, the imposition of numerous and dominating cultures has definitely thrown Natives into the deepest stories of exploration and questioning. Just ask any native youth who is torn between joining revolutionaries and leading the hard life of the jungle.

This leads to the study of the overwhelming pressures and influences on identity formation, specifically moratorium. Numerous studies have been conducted on the influences over identity formation and researchers usually conclude that further study must be undertaken to more fully unwrap the myriad of relationships and connections. A study conducted on a small group of students in a semi-diverse high school sought to examine the impact of parents, teachers and religion had on Marcia's four statuses for identity formation, particularly in how they transitioned from moratorium to either achievement or diffusion (Hall, 2008). Not surprisingly they found that adolescents in moratorium seem to find little stimulation in politics, parents and not surprisingly, teachers. Teachers actually scored very low on the scale of influence with regards to moratorium and achievement (Hall, 2008).

The research gets even trickier when taking into consideration the other ninety-six percent of the world's teenagers outside the US facing the same psychological traumas. The reason for the task being so tricky is that are just way too many variables to take into account. It is already difficult to make the distinction between an industrial and pre-industrial nation. Nonetheless it can be safely assumed from observation that peer groups and the value of friendship are one of the major influences worldwide across developed and developing nations (Gielen, 2004, p. 266). However the amount of time spent and the level of impact and significance varied from country to country. Adolescents, especially boys, in developing nations spent more time within their peer groups than in developed nations. Not only that but they held a deeper sense of worth and connection with those peer groups, weaving their identities into the framework of those groups (Gielen, 2004, p. 264).

This gave rise to the idea of a collectivist mentality that impresses itself heavily into the formation of identity. Researches desire to further study how nationality and ethnicity, just as peer groups, form part of that process. I would argue that it is incredibly evident that minorities, especially groups living in post-colonial nations, possess an incredibly strong sense of ethnic identity that is imbedded into their own personal framework.

While I have been able to observe and actually be a part of this phenomenon overseas, moratorium, in the grander social scheme, has made itself quite evident in my experiences tutoring and teacher aiding this past year. I have been tutoring at research center where a diverse group kids, ranging from the third grade middle school, come for help on their homework. They are encouraged to read constantly. I watched John, who is in fourth grade, pick up a book on the life and impact of Martin Luther King. He is African American and he was simply outraged at the way society had segregated his people from the white majority. I was just so struck at how genuine his indignation was. He had never known this before about his own collective history and there was no doubt as to how much impact it had on the identity achievement he will reach as he continues to encounter further realities.

In a similar situation, I tend to share a special empathy for recent immigrants from Latin America. I cannot help but to get extremely excited watching these kids interact. I know that as they progress into moratorium, which will be very evident for them, they will have to face the incredible biculturalism that is such a part of their own identity. They have this enlightening opportunity to know two very distinct cultures and navigate them both. Out of this they will have to create a third hybrid culture, that personal blend between two worlds. These conclusions however do not come naturally and it is something that will reoccur throughout their lifetimes. Just as the cycle of moratorium hits with every crisis, so will these kids have to deal with it every time they are faced with such clashes.


  1. Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.
  2. Gielen, P. V. & Roopnarine J. (Eds) (2004) Childhood and Adolescence: Cross Cultural Perspectives and Applications. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.
  3. Marcia, E.J. (2002) Adolescence, Identity, and the Bernardone Family Identity: an International Journal of Theory and Research, 2(3), 199-209.
  4. Hall, S. & Brassard, R. M. (2008) Relational Support as a Predictor of Identity Status in an Ethnically Diverse Early Adolescent Sample. The Journal of Early Adolescence. Columbia University, Vol 28 #1.
  5. Berger, S. K. (2009) The Developing Person: Through Childhood and Adolescence. New York: Worth Publishers.