Overview of eriksons psychosocial theory of identity

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The concept of identity can be described as an answer to the question "who am I?" Different perspectives adopted by individuals considering who they are lead them to entirely different answers. The range of possible answers reveals that identity is very complicated subject. Therefore, different theories have been devised to understand and explain identity more explicitly. This essay aims to describe one of these, the Psychosocial Theory of Identity. It then goes on to give examples of how this approach can be applied to gain the understandings of the identities of people with disabilities.

In the 1960's, Erikson developed his Psychosocial Theory of Identity from his own experience, clinical research and naturalistic observations. He viewed personal and social identity as connected because individual development is influenced by social factors, including historical and cultural facts; however his main focus was centred on the development of personal identity. He categorised eight stages with accompanying crises and outcomes and viewed that each stage was influential on the next one. Although these stages were spread out through lifetime, the period of adolescence was especially important, as here ego identity, 'secure feeling of who and what one is' or 'core identity' (Phoenix 2007, p.55) had to be achieved All significant decisions affecting individual's future were made in this period. (Phoenix, 2007)

In adolescence, young people were socially allowed to postpone choosing their final social roles. Some would even try various identities before making a firm decision. This is called the psychosocial moratorium. Although delay in reaching core identity was allowable, at the end of adolescence, identity achievement was required for good psychological health. According to Erikson, individuals able to solve their identity crisis would be well equipped to solve any future identity crises. If identity was not achieved, identity crisis and role diffusion would follow and this would sometimes lead young people to over identify themselves and try to fit in with different social groupings and adopt so called 'in-grouper and out-grouper' behaviours as a defence against losing identity (as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.56).

Subsequently, Marcia's work (as cited in Phoenix, 2007, p.57) supported Erikson's psychosocial theory. He devised a method called 'Identity Status Model' focusing on adolescence. He considered how crisis and commitments affected identity achievement by using the semi-structured but flexible interview method on college students aged between 18 and 25. These interviews are conducted in a conversational mode and the researcher asks relevant questions to obtain rich and detailed data from the participants (Phoenix 2007).

Marcia investigated what level of choice and explorations adolescents had before making commitments to specific roles in various life areas e.g. religion and occupation. He designated Identity Statuses, emphasising four levels of exploration and commitment in which he categorizes young people:

Identity Diffusion: Here, young people neither experienced any crisis nor made any commitments to social roles.

Foreclosure: Here, young people make commitments without exploring alternatives.

Moratorium: Here, adolescents experience crisis, yet have not made any commitments. They actively search their options. Marcia believed moratorium status was necessary for the achievement of identity.

Identity Achievement: Here, adolescents have ideally experienced crisis, explored their options and finally made commitments to certain roles and values. Therefore, these individuals have well developed stronger identities (Phoenix, 2007)

Like other theories, Psychosocial Theory also views the relationship between embodiment and identity. Embodiment refers to the fact that people live within and experience their bodies physically as well as socially and psychologically. Our answer to the question "who am I?" may include body related aspects e.g. "I am small, attractive etc." Our bodies are capable of causing discomfort as well as giving pleasure to us. Therefore, identities are considerably influenced by such bodily aspects (Phoenix, 2007).

When people are faced with disability, the effect of embodiment becomes most apparent. Erikson suggested (as cited in Phoenix, 2007) that our core identity makes us feel connected with past and future. According to him, when people feel their existence is continuous, this positively contributes to their identity development. However, when people feel threatened, for instance when they suffer disability, sense of continuity is interrupted and leading to identity crisis a negative sense of identity. Sense of uniqueness and sense of worth are also required for positive identity development. These can be hard to achieve when labelled as disabled by society due to associated prejudices. People who acquire disabilities sometimes respond to these challenges by attempting to change society's perception of the disabled and campaigning against prejudice. Thus they may help re-establish their own positive personal identity (Phoenix, 2007).

Disability may prevent/delay positive outcomes of crisis at each development stage. In adolescence, identity achievement is the main issue to resolve. For this, various decisions need to be made and certain life skills gained. Young people with disabilities may experience lack of control and difficulty achieving independence. This may lead to role confusion rather than identity establishment.

In the eighth stage, (old age) people face the crisis of ego-integrity versus despair, caused by the declining quality of life associated with disabilities e.g. strokes, poor mobility etc. typical of increasing age. Erikson's theory shows a way to help older people achieve ego-integrity by making them aware of their accomplishments and promoting a sense their life has been meaningful and unique. By encouraging sharing of life experiences their sense of ego -integrity is strengthened.

Erikson and Marcia (as cited in Phoenix, 2007) argued that identity must be achieved in various roles, but people develop a fixed core identity. People with disabilities claim their disability is not their sole identity and they have other important identities. Disability is not the result of their impairments, but is the result of how they are viewed by society (Peet, 2007). Psychosocial theory emphasizes how individual development is linked with social factors and our consciousness of how society views us.

In conclusion, this theory allows useful insight into the effects of disability on identity. According to the theory, for positive identity we need a sense of continuity, uniqueness and worth. All these are affected by disability. Those acquiring disabilities have their sense of life continuity interrupted and face challenges to their sense of uniqueness and worth. Those born with disabilities may have more difficulty in achieving these in the first place.

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Peet, M. (Producer). (2007). Gender [Audio Programme 2, Audio CD 2]

Phoenix, A. (2007). Identities and diversities. In D. Miell, A. Phoenix, &

K. Thomas (Eds.), Mapping Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 43-91). Milton Keynes: The Open University.



Scenario 1

Q1: To follow BPS guidelines (BPS 2006), instead of selecting randomly, James should perform a risk assessment in recruiting participants removing those who may be upset by these images. Use of the most negative pictures could cause distress and psychological harm to the participants contrary to the BPS guidelines. Researchers should ensure that participants do not suffer any psychological harm after the study. According to BPS guidelines, participants feeling discomfort viewing the images should be aware that they can withdraw at any point. As researchers are responsible for the well being of the participants post research, he should offer professional assistance if needed during debriefing (BPS 2006).

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Q2: According to BPS guidelines (BPS 2006), in order to obtain informed consent, the true purpose of the research should be explained when participants are selected. However, in James' proposal, although the subject was the effect of emotion on memory, participants were told the study was about perception. Therefore, informed consent could not be obtained. The requirement for integrity was breached as a deception was made by giving inaccurate information about the study. As deception takes place in James' proposal, according to BPS guidelines (BPS 2006), participants should be told the whole truth during debriefing and given the opportunity to withdraw if they wish. (Word count: 99)

Q3: In order to comply with BPS ethical guidelines (BPS 2006), participants should be fully informed of the process and should not be deceived. The deception used by James (use of the stooge to induce anger) breaches this. Some studies may require the use of deception "to preserve the integrity of research" (BPS Guideline 2006 1.3 (xi) p.14). until debriefing. However, anything that might influence the participants' decision to take part in the research should be disclosed at briefing. In James' study anger is induced by a deception. Some participants may not want to participate if they knew that it might cause them to feel anger and this should be taken into account by James.

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Q4: In order to comply with BPS ethical guidelines (BPS 2006);

Participants should be asked before hand whether they agree to participate in research where the true purpose and process is not revealed until its end. Those willing would be recruited. Recruits should be assessed and any who are identified as likely to be adversely effected by the study removed.

At the briefing, negative aspects (viewing negative images, possible inducement of anger) should be underlined allowing informed consent to be obtained and recorded. This includes advising them of their right to withdraw and destroy their data at any time.

Deception is unavoidable in James' study since giving precise information to the participants would change the results. A debriefing should be arranged by James to explain the nature of the deceptions used and the research aims after study completion. Any participants identified as having psychological issues arising from the study should be advised where to obtain professional help. (Word count:157)

Scenario 2

Q1: Guidelines breached include;

Informed consent (BPS 2006). This was not sought. In fact the participants had no idea they were part of a study before during or after taking part. To fully comply with the guidelines the nature and purpose of the research should be explained at the start, regarding anything that might influence their willingness to take part for instance they would be observed urinating. (Word count:62)

Right to withdraw (BPS 2006). The participants were not able to withdraw from the study as they were not aware they were part of one. They should be advised of this right at the start and reminded of it at debriefing. They should also be told they do not have to give their reason for wanting to withdraw. (Word count:57)

Reasonable observation/right to privacy (BPS 2006). In studies such as these where consent is not obtained, observations should be restricted to those where an individual would reasonably expect to be observed by strangers. Even though this is a public space, participants would not expect to be observed secretly in this way and so their privacy was invaded. (Word count:56)

Need for debriefing (as cited in Phoenix 2007, p.32). Participants should be informed of the nature and aim of the study and also be reminded of their right to withdraw at this point. This was especially significant here as the participants were not aware they were part of a study so this is the only point where they could have chosen to withdraw. This stage would also allow help to be provided to any participants adversely affected by the study. (Word count:75)

Q2: To make the study more ethical, before entering the lavatory participants should be informed a study is under way on user's behaviour. Permission to observe them should be asked as they may not want to participate. They should be told that if at any point they want to withdraw their data, they can without giving a reason. They should be invited to a debriefing after the study, and told of the nature (confederate observer) and purpose of the research, and reminded of their right to withdraw. The researcher should ensure them of the protection of their privacy and anonymity. The main breach of code of ethics in this study is the lack of informed consent combined with the nature of the observations made. When informed consent is not obtained, observations of behaviour should be restricted to ones that participants would reasonably expect to be made by strangers, unlike the secret ones made here. (DSE212 Course Team 2007, Phoenix 2007)

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Q3: This study conforms more to ethical guidelines. Although informed consent was not given, observation of urination was not secret. Thus, it is arguable that participants could reasonably expect to be observed by strangers as they were here and also there is less invasion of privacy (BPS Guideline 2006 1.3 (ix) p.13). In these circumstances, lack of informed consent may be justified. One half of the participants was debriefed and had the opportunity to withdraw (which none actually took). However, the others were not given this opportunity breaching the guidelines. They also did not receive details of the purpose and nature of the research as required. It is arguable that since none of the participants interviewed after the pilot study minded being observed or withdrew from the study it follows that the lack of consent, debriefing and right of withdrawal in the main study are less ethical problem. However, the reaction of participants should not be used to justify an unethical study.

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