Study Materials for Religious Education

Section B5: Further research perspectives on the nature and psychological development of personal identity
Attention is given here to various psychological theories about the development of identity, as well as to a range of issues that have some bearing on the way personal identity is developed.

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.

Introductory video to this section
Click here for alternative mp4 version of the video file

1. Introductory video giving an introduction to the content covered in this section. Click the icon to view or download the introductory video (wmv format).
Click for wmv file
Click for mp4 file

Brief overview of content of this section

Consideration of issues in the development of personal identity.
Only brief attention is given to noting the wide range of theories about personal identity. A table shows the different types of theories of identity, including a note on Paul Ricoeur's idea about narrative identity and C H Cooley's idea of “the looking glass self” where you learn something about yourself from the reactions of the reflections you get back of yourself through interaction with others.

Making use of film study as a way of exploring the notion of personal identity – an example of different individuals in the one family looking for a particular slant or emphasis to incorporate into their personal identity – the individual stories from the film Once were Warriors .

Attention to some Issues to do with identity formation. Consideration of self-esteem with its two components:- the image of the self that is understood; and the way in which the individual feels about that image. Note the problems with research and curriculum materials on self-esteem where there has been a tendency to work on this more as a measure of self assertiveness than of self-image and feeling about the self.

Status anxiety and potential problems with national identity are examined, together with a note about how media generaly, and social media in particular, may have a shaping influence on the identity of some.

It is followed by a link to the chapter from Reasons for living that gives more detail on research insights into identity.

Audio mp3 file lecture of this section
Click for alternative wma streaming audio
2. The audio file lecture presents the content for this section. This is the main presentation and principal source of information on the topic. The audio lecture ( 50 minutes) will refer every now and again to particular parts of the accompanying text below that will easily be identified -- here you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text. At times you will also need to pause the audio to look at particular sub-presentations such as video clips and powerpoint presentations. The audio lecture and the text go together. Click the icon to hear or download the mp3 audio lecture.

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 50 minutes duration)

Young people make their lives by using various resources, especially those drawn from trusted relationships, to create storylines about who they are and where their lives are leading. The results of their narratives, or ‘storying' are visible over time: different understandings shape the way individuals engage in the world, the way they engage shapes experience, and experience, in turn, shapes understandings.
Richard Eckersley et al., 2006

Psychological theories of identity: from the perspective of 'identity health'
Personal identity: interaction between the individual and cultural identity resources
General ideas about identity development: A film study segment showing how different personal identities emerged in the one family
Relationships between personal identity and self-esteem
Congenital personal identity deficiency??
Personal identity and status anxiety
Social media and personal identity development
Relationships between the state, media and national identity

6.2  Psychological theories of identity: From the perspective of ‘identity health'

There are ideas about personal identity, at least implicitly, in the work of quite a number of developmental psychologists. While we will not give formal attention to that in this section, if you are interested, in the resource chapter linked at the end of this section, there are a couple of pages summarising ideas about identity in the work of psychologists like Piaget, Erikson, Fowler and Kegan.

In addition to this more general thinking about identity, there are quite a number of psychological theorists who have given special attention to the nature and function of personal identity – leading to a range of psychological theories of identity.

Only very brief attention will be given to the range of psychological theories of identity to show their scope and their points of focus. They were considered with the following questions in mind. The theories noted in the table are just for quick scanning -- no detailed attention will be given to them.

  • What is their principal focus as regards identity content and competencies?
  • How do they attend to the interaction between inner psychological factors and external cultural factors?
  • What interpretations of ‘identity health' do they seem to imply.

For any progression from psychological theory of identity to practical care of youth, the professional needs some notion of identity health (which includes a moral component) to guide the translation. Criteria are needed for deciding whether an identity was good for the individual (and for others), and respected people's freedom, uniqueness, rights and responsibilities. The notion of identity health implies a view of the nature of the human person. While the theories usually do not address identity health specifically, they suggest directions that desirable personal development might take, and by implication the reverse directions that could lead to ‘identity sickness'.

The summary of theories in Table 6.1 shows whether or not they are referenced to internal categories such as a sense of continuity of personal identity over time, and to external or cultural categories concerned with social roles. The theories are grouped into major types. This analysis was drawn from a review paper on identity by the European psychologist Professor Bert Hermans, with some additions from other sources.

Table 6.1  Theories of identity from the perspective of identity health (Do not worry about the references. if you are interested in any, they can be found in the linked chapter at the end of this section)

Types of theory of identity and self

Particular theories of identity and self

Any major focus on internal categories (psychological construction with continuity over time)

Any major focus on external or cultural categories (social roles, public features, cultural reference points)

Preliminary ideas on the notion of ‘identity health' implicit in, or related to, the theories

A. Public, social features

Identity as a public feature


Social roles

When the individual is comfortable with the social roles taken; the appropriateness of social roles needs evaluation within a framework of values.


Multiple social identities (Rosenberg and Gara 1985)


Description of identity in terms of multiple social roles and cultural reference groups

Ability to take on an idiosyncratic combination of social roles which satisfy the needs of the individual.

B. Psychological constructs with continuity over time

Erikson's developmental tasks (1963)

Presumes a continuity of personal ‘identity proprietorship'; finds evolving answers to the question ‘Who am I?' in a sequence of developmental tasks that the individual has to negotiate across the life cycle.

Experimentation with social roles, together with an attempt to harmonise these internally.

Satisfactory completion of developmental tasks, e.g. achieving ‘ego integrity', ‘intimacy', ‘interdependence', ‘autonomy'. Building a meaningful self-understanding and worldview with successful resolution of psychological conflicts.


William James (1890)

I and Me as components of self – as ‘knower' and ‘self-known'.

Involvement in roles becomes part of the self as ‘known'.

Maintenance of sense of continuity over time. Satisfactory development of distinctness and volition, together with meaningful material, spiritual and social ‘constituents'.


Robert Kegan's stage theory of development of the self (1982)

The evolution of self through a series of structural-developmental stages where self-understanding operates in modes distinctive of each stage. Stages include ‘incorporative' self, ‘impulsive' self, ‘imperial' self and ‘interpersonal' self.

Social interaction and finding roles within the community are part of the raw materials for self-development.

As the individual matures and develops personal competencies, he/she negotiates change progressively from stage to stage. Satisfactory progression through stages of development towards a more interdependent self.


Self-esteem theory (1970s, see Kohn, 1994)

An undifferentiated notion of self-regard which may be high or low. Self-concept (self-image) which is positive or negative.

Self-esteem is influenced by social interaction.

Achievement of high self-regard and self-assertiveness.

C. Psychological constructs with a dynamic multiplicity of components and a focus on ‘organisation of knowledge' as a key factor.

Complexity of images (Rhodewalt & Morf 1995)

Self interpreted in terms of multiple images.


Collection of images which satisfy the individual.

These theories address the ways individuals process and organise information in the interpretation of self.

Mental representations (Kihlstrom & Cantor 1984)

Self interpreted in terms of mental representations.


A self-description which is found satisfying and which meets personal needs.


Facets (Marsh 1986)

Self interpreted as a combination of different facets (aspects which embody qualities and action).


An individually satisfying combination of facets. Facets need to be comprehensive to cover all aspects of life.


Goals (Brandstädter & Rothermund 1994)

Self interpreted in terms of life goals to be achieved. Self is motivated by aims for life.

Goals will include some social roles.

The achievement of particular life goals.


Tasks (Sheldon & Emmons 1995)

Self interpreted in terms of multiple developmental tasks.


Satisfactory completion of particular developmental tasks.


Possible selves (Markus & Nurius 1986)

Self interpreted in terms of interactions between different possible expressions of the self.


A satisfying sense of self achieved through combinations of attributes from different possible selves.


Private, public and collective selves (Triandis 1989)

The self interpreted in terms of interaction between understandings of the individual, his/her public expression and the identities of the groups in which the individual participates.

The public and collective selves can be reference points for the individual's sense of identity.

A satisfying sense of self derived from internal and external representations.


Actual, ought, and ideal selves (Higgins 1987)

Self interpreted in the light of perceived discrepancies between different expressions of the self. Difference between the ideal self and what appears in practice.


The satisfying resolution, to some extent, of discrepancies between perceptions of the actual self, the ideal self and the morally desirable self.

D. Psychological constructs with a dynamic multiplicity of components and a narrative perspective.

Narrative theory of identity (Bruner 1986; Cohler 1982; Gergen & Gergen 1988; Hermans 1996a,b; McAdams 1993; Sarbin 1986; Thomae 1988; Tomkins 1987)

The world and personal experience are given meaning as parts of a narrative or autobiographical structure. A history of ‘episodic' events influences self-understanding.

Cultural elements contribute to the experience of individuals and stimulate narrative interpretation.

A sense of satisfying meaning is derived from narrative understanding of self and experience.


Paul Ricoeur's narrative perspective on identity

Identity development is an autobiographical process; it is derived psychologically from personal reflection – primarily a process of interpretation (hermeneutics).

The individual interprets identity through interaction with community narratives.

Achieving an ongoing, satisfying narrative which helps interpret the individual's sense of self and experience.


The narrative perspective of the polyphonic novel as proposed by Bakhtin (see Hermans & Kempen 1993).

Going beyond the I as ‘author' and me as ‘actor' to a plurality of relatively independent narrative perspectives.


Allowing multiple ‘voices' to have a say in understanding the narrative of the self.


The dialogical self (Hermans, Kempen & Van Loon 1992)

Self is understood and expressed through a dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous ‘I positions' which interact through dialogue.

Dialogical relationships for identity can extend to others.

Through dialogical relationships (mainly internal) the individual's identity achieves a ‘multivocal' quality. A number of distinct and semi-autonomous voices are allowed to have a say in the self-expression of the individual. Success in dialogue between the different identity voices. This would also include conflict that is not always resolved.

E. Psychological constructs which emphasise the influence of culture or others on the development of identity

CH Cooley's idea of the ‘looking glass self' as developed in the symbolic interactionist school of sociology (Cooley 1998,from work written at the turn of the century; see also Blumer 1969)

The image of self is in part derived from reflections of the self that an individual encounters through interaction with others.

Social interaction has a major influence on self-understanding. How individuals are viewed and treated by others has a significant bearing on their acquisition of values, beliefs, and sense of self.

Achievement of a satisfying image of self that is in harmony with the culture.

A common initial reaction to a summary like the one in Table 6.1 is perplexity at seeing so many theories of identity – and this is not a complete list. As Hermans noted, the contemporary situation is characterised by ‘increasing multivoicedness in self and society, a development unprecedented in the history of the human mind'. People find themselves awash with a multiplicity of proposed ways of ‘being yourself', all of which seem to have easily accessible resources for helping them achieve it.

Yet, in spite of this apparent cultural richness, there is evidence of alarmingly high levels of alienation and lack of meaning. The problem is not so much the multiple voices per se, but the way people respond to the contemporary situation. Hermans felt that dialogue was the crucial element for finding meaningful relationships between ‘unity' and ‘multiplicity'; he rightly pointed out that a retreat towards unity and ‘fixed-ness' of identity, and away from multiplicity was not an appropriate solution for the times. We suggest that dialogue is important, but not enough; what is also needed is the evaluation of what is proposed for identity. But this cannot be done in a value-free way, hence the importance of establishing a baseline position on what constitutes identity health.

Within the limitations of this exercise, issues are raised by questions about what constitutes identity health within the different theoretical frameworks. Most of them appear to say little explicitly about identity health – we make this judgment tentatively because we have only a elementary knowledge of many of the theories. However, most of them seem inclined towards a notion of identity health that is more concerned with the successful engagement in psychological processes than with the acquisition of desirable identity content. By content is meant qualities of self that can be evaluated in ethical terms – that is, an evaluation of how identity meets individual needs and how it might impact on others. At first sight, most of the theories seem to presume a value-free position as regards the content dimension to identity health.

Even where social interaction was an influential factor in the theories, the focus was predominantly psychological and on the individual. Hence, when interpreting what each theory might imply for identity health, it was difficult to avoid using the phrase ‘satisfying for the individual' as the ultimate criterion. In one sense this ultimacy is natural, because it is the province of the individual to make such judgments. However, this may lean towards narcissism if identity health were to be judged exclusively by what pleases individuals or meets their personal needs. Other more objective, community-related values are also needed for the moral evaluation of identity.

Personal identity: Interaction between the individual and culture

Here are some brief comments about theories of identity that focused on relationships between the individual and culture.

6.3.1  A social psychological view of identity (Symbolic interactionism)

The writings of the early sociologist CH Cooley (1864–1928) proposed the idea of the Looking Glass Self: the image of self is in part derived from reflections of the self received from others. This thinking was developed by sociologists in the symbolic interactionist school like Herbert Blumer; they considered that social interaction had a major influence on self-understanding and that external cultural reference points were important for identity. How individuals were perceived and treated by others had a significant bearing on their acquisition of values and self-image. This thinking was important in self-esteem theory (6.4) and was also consistent with theory about the social construction of reality, as evident in the work of Berger and Luckmann.

6.3.2  A narrative structure to identity

As noted in the quotation from Eckersley at the beginning of the chapter, and in the research listed in Table 6.1, section D, a narrative structure for identity helps interpret the place of the individual in the world as part of an interactive personal journey. This approach is represented strongly in the Australia 21 Research Report (2006) Flashpoints and Signposts: Pathways to success and wellbeing for Australia's young people. It considered that:

A body of work has emerged around narrative, exploring the increased importance of story in the multiple and changing ways in which people make sense of their lives and identities in a now complex and changing world (E.g. see Bruner 1987, Gergen and Gergen 1988).

the capacity to hold strong personal narratives also allows young people to negotiate chaos, hardship and crisis.

The category story or narrative is a central one for meaning and spirituality. In addition, it is a key category for interpreting the spiritual and moral influence of film, television and social media (addressed in the unit EDRE623).

Grimmitt's account of the role of education in personal identity formation regarded individuals as ‘actors' in their own personal stories which unfold in the context of, and through interaction with, the larger cultural story or cultural history. The role of education is to help the young become more aware of the historical cultural origins of their identity, as well as opening up new identity horizons. In the light of new options, they can change the direction of their own identity stories or personal histories.

General ideas about the development of identity: An example from a film study of how different personal identities emerged in the one family

This film study of identity is useful in that it explores how five individuals in a family sort personal identity each going in different directions.

The French sociologist Bourdieu wrote about ‘life structure' as a way of looking at people's lived-out identity. Observation of behaviour gives insight into people's self understanding – there is congruence between the two. This principle is useful in the interpretation of film narratives. Characters' identities are inferred from their behaviour and dialogue.

Other identity principles are prominent in the film looked at below:-

  • Individuals draw on various cultural elements (external identity resources) to shape and sustain their sense of identity.
  • Other identity resources are more internal and personal (values and commitments).
  • Healthy identity is firmly grounded in personal, internal resources.
  • Identity problems can occur when individuals are too dependent on external identity resources. This is particularly the case where the identity resources to which the individual turns are physically and psychologically damaging both to themselves and others.

The New Zealand film Once Were Warriors (1995) has a level of graphic violence that would be grounds for caution about showing it at school – even though the novel has been studied in some senior classes. However, for adults, the harrowing story of the urban Maori family of Jake and Beth is a useful one for film study of identity issues. The approach to interpretation illustrated here can be applied to other films. In this film, identity can be used as a lens for exploring the thinking and behaviour of the main characters. From this perspective, Beth and Jake, and their three eldest children Nig, Grace and Boogie, are all searching for personal identity in different ways, drawing on different resources as they do so.

Film clips from Once were warriors illustrating the different trajectories and reference points in the family members' quest for a sense of personal identity

IMPORTANT NOTE: Before you look at the six video clips, read the short biographical information that you need to know for each before you look at the particular clips -- watch after reading each description below.
Look at six short video clips on how the film Once were warriors shows examples of how different members of the family seek to develop some sense of identity by referencing to different ideas (cultural meanings) Note the final key point in video 6 – Boogie says you “wear your patch (tattoo) on the inside” – the suggestion that it is internal identity resources that are so important.

Identity 1. Jake the Mus

Jake the ‘Mus': For Jake his self-understanding and self-expression seemed embedded mainly in interactions with his drinking mates. He liked to see himself reflected in the fear that other men showed when confronted by his aggression and awesome capacity to fight, and as the affable centre of attention when he hosted his hotel friends to after hours parties and sing-alongs in his home. The fearsome temper that was aroused when his macho image was questioned by his wife, Beth, suggested that no matter how much he might protest the opposite, he was not really happy or secure in the way he had become defined as ‘Jake the Mus'. When drunk and antagonised, he brutalised his wife, but he seemed to avoid any acknowledgment that ‘wife beater' was a component of his identity – this he could choose to ignore when he thought of himself as a genuine family man.

Identity 2: Beth (Mother)

Beth: Beth appeared to love Jake and was happy when things were going well. But her experience of his brutality and his apparently greater commitment to his drinking mates than to his own children made her wonder whether she needed to break away from him and seek support elsewhere – perhaps within a traditional Maori community.

Identity 3: Nig (eldest son)

Nig: Jake's oldest son, Nig, found the social situation of the home revolting – particularly his father's behaviour. He left to seek some self-definition away from the family. But he found it hard to break away from the image of being ‘the son of Jake the Mus'. He did find an alternative identity of a type, but it was with a tough fringe group called the Brown Fists, with their studded leather vests and highly tattooed bodies and faces; its identity was heavily invested in distinctive clothing, personal appearance and ritualised behaviour. His initiation ceremony involved a beating at the hands of the group and getting a ‘patch' – a tattoo across his face. Jake is of course unimpressed with the tattoo.

Identity 4: Boogie (younger son)

Boogie: Jake's younger son, Mark (known as Boogie), was removed from the family into the custody of welfare – fallout from his seeking identity with youth involved in petty crime, stealing car radios. The failure of his badly beaten up mother to make a court appearance was the factor that influenced the juvenile court decision that nothing could be done to rehabilitate Boogie if he remained in the family home. Despite periodic fractious behaviour, Boogie learned something valuable from the supervisor of the remand home, who became a mentor for his troublesome young brood. He showed them that the future of the deprived ‘once were warriors' Maoris lay in cultivating an internal warriorship of the spirit. He encouraged the boys to ritualise their interior strength and courage in fearsome hakas – war dances as impressive as any by the legendary All Blacks. But he insisted that their energy had to be channelled into ‘inner resources', otherwise it would be wasted and misused in the spiralling violence that was already devastating the Maori community.

identity 5: Grace (daughter)

Grace: Jake's 13-year-old daughter, Grace, came across as perhaps the most attractive personality in the family. She was gentle and friendly. She was traumatised by the brutality in the family but seemed to remain optimistic about life.

Identity 6: "Wearing a patch on the inside"
When Nig suggested to him that he too should have his face tattooed, Mark replied with self-assurance in words which were like an icon for identity and the key principle, or climax statement, in the film: ‘I wear mine on the inside'. Inner strength was the belief or mantra that could give direction and meaning to his life and some sense of healthy personal identity.

The rest of the story

This philosophy of 'warriorship of the spirit', drawing on the Maori heritage, gave Boogie some sense of worthwhile identity and something to believe in. It helped him interpret the frustration in which his own family was tragically caught. It helped him cope with trauma when Grace committed suicide. She had been sexually abused by her uncle, one of Jake's regular drinking mates, during the all-night parties. Overwhelmed, she hanged herself from the tree behind the house before her mother returned from an unsuccessful search to find her.

Heartbroken, Beth regretted not following earlier her intuition to leave Jake and take the family (including Poly, Abe and the baby Huata) to a Maori traditional community in the country where she felt there were the spiritual resources that would give them more dignity and purpose in life. Later, both Beth and Jake discovered the abuse of Grace, with inevitable recriminations.

Beth then left Jake and with the remainder of the family set off for the Maori community. Jake remained unchanged in his established identity as ‘the Mus'. Mark identified with the emerging spiritual strength in his mother.

When Nig suggested to him that he too should have his face tattooed, Mark replied with self-assurance in words which were like an icon for identity and the key principle, or climax statement, in the film: ‘I wear mine on the inside'. Inner strength was the belief or mantra that could give direction and meaning to his life and some sense of healthy personal identity.

The film portrayed the struggle of individuals for a satisfying self-understanding, self-expression and sense of self-worth in a subculture of brutality and oppression. The character Mark articulated one of the messages coming through the film: confronting moral degradation needs inner strength and values; like spiritual principles, they help with interpretation of the problem as well as providing the courage and motivation needed to take action to change the situation.

6.4  Relationships between identity and self-esteem

Self-esteem is a construct intimately related to ‘self' and ‘identity'. In both clinical and educational practice, this construct has been useful for interpreting people's behaviour (particularly for children and adolescents) and for promoting personal development. Practitioners regard it as a fundamental and influential aspect of people's psychological makeup. Many personal problems flow from low self-esteem. Negative behaviour, particularly attention-getting, often indicates poor regard for the self – people who feel unloved and unlovable. This may also reflect the poor way in which they were treated by significant others, but this is not always the case. In some instances, where young people have realised that they were affected by a syndrome of poor self-esteem, and where they began to imagine themselves more positively, there was a dramatic turnaround in their behaviour. Acknowledging that low self-esteem had triggered negative behaviour was a psychological watershed. It enabled them to start their lives anew with more self-confidence, and with a sense of being freed from destructive behaviour patterns into which they had been locked.

While the construct self-esteem has been valuable psychologically, there are some problems with the way it has been conceptualised in research, and in the way it has been used in education. In these two areas, use of the construct can give the impression that self-esteem is like some undifferentiated, ‘quantitative' component of personality – you have ‘lots', or ‘some' or ‘none' – and this has consequences for wellbeing and behaviour; some negative behaviour is attributed to low levels of self-esteem. Therefore, the idea that increasing self-esteem must be good for individuals is widely accepted and not contested.

But the interpretation of self-esteem as an undifferentiated, quantitative element of identity does not readily accommodate the situation where self-esteem is not unconditionally positive. For example, some individuals have a sense of self that is arrogant, intolerant and aggressive – and they are comfortable with this self-image; technically, they have high self-esteem! Self-esteem needs to be understood as more than the level of good feelings about the self. Self-esteem has a ‘content', and this content – the self-image – has a moral value and should be open to moral evaluation. The construct self-esteem needs to include something about the ‘quality' of self-image and identity. While the general principle of being respectful of all identities is an important one, this democratic ideal has limits protected by law – we should not be equally tolerant of identities that clearly compromise the rights and freedoms of other people. This principle is also important when examining relationships between identity and violence.

Hence we propose a need for greater differentiation within the construct self-esteem to make it less ambiguous. It needs to include scope for evaluation of the self. A step in this direction would be to identify two dimensions to self-esteem, content and affect. In this way, self-esteem can be interpreted as the dynamic link between what individuals think about their personal identity and how they feel about it. This interpretation has both descriptive content (the image of the individual's qualities as a person) and an affective dimension (how comfortable or satisfied they feel with that image). For example, people may feel more or less comfortable with their self-understanding, and about how they are perceived by others; or they may have a lingering, vague feeling of doubt about their value – they may feel that if others only knew what they were really like, they would find them unattractive and undesirable.

While it may be transparent to a perceptive adult that a particular young person feels he or she is unloved, this may be something that the young person is not able to comprehend or admit. Adults, teachers and counsellors periodically make diagnoses of this condition in young people; but it is not an easy one to change. It is not just a matter of telling the young person that he or she has a problem. Neither is it readily resolved by a dose of what has been called ‘unconditional affirmation' – or by telling them they are ‘special'. It can be a psychological difficulty that individuals carry throughout their lives, often a cause of distress to themselves and to those close to them.

Therefore it remains an issue for the community to work out how best to address the problem of low self-esteem in youth. A first valuable step is to understand the problem. What is usually described as low self-esteem has two aspects:

  • The image of self that individuals with low self-esteem have is often harsh and unfavourable; it is usually not an accurate picture, but for them it represents reality.
  • Despite any outward show of self-confidence, they feel unhappy with their self-image.

Therapeutic efforts to redress the problem, as well as any generally informative educational process, need to focus on both these aspects. This means looking at the degree of satisfaction individuals have with their perceived self-image or identity, as well as proposing a self-evaluation of its humanness. Highlighting this evaluative dimension can help address limitations in the self-esteem movement in education; it has operated out of an oversimplified understanding of self-esteem, and also out of questionable empirical measures.

The empirical research on self-esteem needs critical interpretation. There seems to be a disjunction between the way counsellors and educators make good use of the construct as a psychological theme for interpreting behaviour and the way it has been conceptualised and operationalised in empirical research. In turn, there are ambiguities in self-esteem education that draws on this research. Few would oppose the idea that education should help improve students' perceptions of their own worth, but what this means in practice needs to be more carefully articulated.

Coopersmith, one of the earliest self-esteem researchers in the United States, understood self-esteem with an evaluative emphasis: ‘a personal judgment of worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes the individual holds toward himself.' However, when it came to the development of self-report questionnaires for ‘measuring' self-esteem, the evaluation of personal characteristics (a complex and sensitive process) was understandably not prominent. As a result, many instruments for measuring self-esteem were concerned mainly with subjects' responses to questions about how favourably they felt about themselves. What was being measured was not necessarily the same construct that educators and clinical psychologists were using – the research seemed to be measuring ‘self-assertiveness' and not ‘self-esteem'. It was the latter more complex construct that had such an important influence on behaviour. Some people are very self-assertive, but this may indicate a low self-esteem that is unacknowledged or kept well concealed. Also, there was a problem in that the research findings might say more about how individuals wished to appear than about what they really felt about their ‘true' self – presuming that this could be accurately known anyway. The self-esteem research reported on confidence and self-satisfaction, but not about what sort of a person the individual was. Hitler would probably have scored well on self-esteem scales!

Some researchers suggested that those who scored highly on self-esteem tended to be the ones who demonstrated ‘a willingness to endorse favourable statements about the self as a result of an ambitious, aggressive, self-aggrandising style of presenting themselves'. With conceptual difficulties like this, it is not surprising that research studies linking educational programs with gains in self-esteem (or research linking behavioural problems with low self-esteem) have, in the main, shown no significant correlation – and therefore questionable evidence of causation.

The ambivalence and inconclusiveness of this psychological research does not seem to have inhibited the educational interest in fostering self-esteem, as informed by these studies. The main focus of curriculum materials concerned with self-esteem that appeared since the 1970s has been on unconditional student affirmation – telling students ‘how special they are' and encouraging self-assertiveness. (See for example the titles Self Esteem: A family affair, and Self Esteem, a classroom affair: 101 ways to help children like themselves.)While no doubt such student materials may have been helpful to the limited role that classroom teaching might have in fostering self-esteem, they did not try to explore the complex personal processes through which self-understanding, self-image and self-valuing develop.

There are two potential dangers in the ‘I am special' approach: First, it can trivialise the importance and complexity of the construct self-esteem as far as student personal growth is concerned. Second, its focus on the individual is yet another aspect of education and culture that could encourage self-centredness and self-preoccupation. An approach to self-esteem education that focuses too narrowly on psychological self-enhancement might end up being narcissistic; it might distract attention from social and community aspects; it could overlook the importance of analysing economic, political and social factors that have an influence on how people are valued and devalued. These ‘structural' identity aspects might be having more influence on self-esteem than any educational self-analysis procedures.

The idea of linking education with the fostering of self-esteem is not in question; the point being made here is the need to acknowledge first that self-esteem is a complex but vital factor in identity and psychological health; second, that self-esteem education should not be thought of in clinical psychological terms, but rather as studies that can contribute to young people's understanding of self-esteem as a component of identity. It is likely that the quality of the personal relationships between teachers and pupils will be more important for student self-esteem than the formal curriculum.

6.5  Congenital identity deficiency?

The discussions here about identity development could incline one to the view that people have a congenital identity deficiency, and that this is a normal part of being human. Or at least it means that their identity will never be complete or perfect. Of particular importance is the way relationships with others enter into the complex process of self-understanding. Other animals do not have this problem. They are not so dependent as humans are on social interaction as a constitutive part of their development. As noted in Section A1, people are born human but they become persons through social interaction.

This has significant implications for a notion of identity health. Reflections of the self from others can become an important part of self-understanding and feelings of self-worth. But at the same time, this makes the individual vulnerable to the judgments others make of them – while positive judgments are always encouraging, negative judgments can be harmful – and it could also amount to a slavery to the views of others. This is the root cause of ‘status anxiety' , where constant comparisons with others can be a continual source of dissatisfaction with one's lot. Hence, while acknowledging the identity-building potential of social interaction, a mature identity needs independence from outside threats to its integrity. While being aware of what others think of you is always healthy, this needs to be weighed up in the internal forum to judge whether or not one needs to change to accommodate new insights. To be able to do this requires fairly secure internal identity resources and a capacity to evaluate fresh identity inputs.

This thinking suggests that the mature, healthy identity has a consolidated bank of internal resources that forms the basic identity infrastructure. External identity resources, in culture and in social interaction, are also important for informing identity development, but they should not have an unquestioned dominance. Hence a generalisation about identity health should presume that it depends primarily on internal resources (values and beliefs) and not on externals (fashion, or the commendation of others), while there should be a balance between internal and external identity resources.

5.6.1  Identity and status anxiety

Until the post-World War II period in Western countries, few people had the lifestyle options and freedoms that are so readily taken for granted today. In those times, most people had little choice or variety in their choice of clothing and leisure entertainment. But even though they did not have the opportunities open to the rich, and even if they were painfully aware of social and economic inequities, they had a sense of a stable station in life that was not in question and that helped to make their lives purposeful and relatively enjoyable, even in difficult circumstances. Now, both rich and poor alike have the good life presented to them on television in most vivid and attractive formats.

In addition, there is the subtle suggestion that it is not only available to all, but that all have a right to it – as the pop lyrics say, ‘I want it all. And I want it now!' And both rich and poor have internalised the message. For example, research studies in North America have shown that both rich and poor children had ‘an equal and unslakeable thirst for designer clothes'. Seeing the plethora of commodity and lifestyle opportunities put before them every day, they feel they should be able to have them. But for many it will never happen. As a consequence for these same people, the disparity between desire and reality is always present. It generates a low level of anger and anxiety simmering in the background of their consciousness that occasionally erupts. More anger and envy is caused by what their peers have and they do not. No longer are people satisfied with the station in life they were born into, and their lifestyle aspirations can have a significant bearing on their behaviour, and on their happiness and wellbeing.

As far as beauty is concerned, the discrepancy between self-perception and the perfection constantly portrayed in the advertising models can be depressing – and not just for the young. If great store is placed on apparent attractiveness and social status according to television standards, then it is understandable that a low sense of self-worth will depress a significant number of teenagers.

The problem is called status anxiety. And it has much to do with the way that consumerism and advertising enter into the dynamics of identity development, particularly as regards the identity vulnerability of youth. In his book on status anxiety, de Botton highlighted the identity slavery that dependence on the judgments of others can entail.

The attentions of others might be said to matter to us principally because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value – as a result of which, what others think of us comes to play a determining role in how we are able to view ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgments of those we live among.

He pointed to a level of vacillation about self that is common. Addressing the problem would seem to be an important step towards identity maturity.

We would, in an ideal world, be more impermeable [to the judgments of others] … If we had carried out a fair appraisal of ourselves and decided upon our value, another person's suggestion of our irrelevance would not wound us. We would know our worth. Instead, we appear to hold within ourselves a range of divergent views as to our characters. We have evidence of both cleverness and stupidity, humour and dullness, importance and superfluity. And in such wavering conditions, it typically falls to the attitude of society to settle the question of our significance. Neglect highlights our latent negative self assessments, while a smile or complement as rapidly brings out the converse. We seem beholden to the affections of others to endure ourselves … There is something sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are cheered by attention and damaged by disregard.

The issue is significant for identity health and for youth identity dynamics, as will be explored in the next sect ion.

Social media and personal identity development

In section A3, some attention was given to the way in which the social media was having an influence on the way people shape their personal meanings. It is probable that social media have become very significant for personal identity development. A number appear to be looking at their everyday lives from the perspective of "How can they report this on Facebook? How will I look? And how many likes will I get for it?" It could well be that people are putting a lot of time and energy into projecting a particular self-image. And all of this effort can have a shaping influence on identity development; and it can also be an underlying cause of a low level of anxiety amongst young people. A number of young people have reported that concerns about their projection on social media are a constant source of anxiety and stress. Time and energy spent on social media may also be having a negative influence on people's capacity to be fully present to other people in face-to-face relationships.

Some of the issues related to preoccupation with mobile phone use, especially for social media and Internet and texting are illustrated in the PowerPoint. Download and then play back.

Some issues with respect to use of mobile technology and social networking This version has links to the videos. If you want to download a larger file (155M) with embedded video click for the embedded version.

If you have the time and inclination, the following is an interesting research article with a lot of detailed attention given to the way in which people are making use of Facebook in their personal identity development.

Research article (in pdf format) on Facebook profiles and their role in personal identity development.

Relationships between media, the state and national identity

The influence of a sense of national identity on people's self-understanding and self-expression will vary considerably from individual to individual. It can operate like a taken-for-granted identity background that provides a basic cultural context in which people live. It will have a different feeling and a different force in a country at particular times. It comes into play when individuals make comparisons with other national identities; it happens when people travel; when they advert to different ethnic and religious groups in their community; and it surfaces strongly during international sporting competitions. National identity can be a powerful influence on attitudes and behaviour (and hence on spirituality); as already noted, at times it has been used to fuel ethnic hatred, violence and war.

Some of the questions about national identity that need consideration:

  • National identity is like a ‘cultural given' that arises physically out of the geographical location of birth or ethnic group. But it is not physically genetic – it is cultural inheritance, constructed and maintained by social interaction, and therefore it should be open to analysis and evaluation.
  • How much overt nationalism is appropriate in a healthy personal identity? How can it include acknowledgment of national origins, a sense of national belonging and community, while not being xenophobic and closed to social interaction with people of other nationalities?
  • To what extent will the mass media, particularly film and television, with their global village capacity for communication, affect national identities?

An article by Shields (1996) proposed that the globalisation of media is pertinent to these questions. He noted that the current struggle among giant media corporations for power and profit was being waged ‘on a planetary scale'. The small number of transnational media companies (such as Sony, AOL Time Warner, Disney and News Corporation) were manoeuvring to be able to deliver television and audiovisual products across the globe's geographic and social space (China was like the last frontier of relatively unconquered territory). Shields labelled it as ‘cultural imperialism at a new level'. In particular, it seemed to be spreading a worldwide ‘Americanisation of culture'.

Could this lead to a homogenisation of world culture with consequent erosion of regional and national identities that are not perceived to be as relevant as they were formerly? Would the continued globalisation of communication markets affect national integration?

These questions seem to assume that a large public ingestion of international (Americanised) television will erode identity and reduce cultural diversity. It may do so in some respects; it may not in others. The comparisons people make through such international exposure, in spite of the cultural borrowings and homogenisation of some aspects, may well reinforce basic differences and therefore reinforce national identity.

The media-centric argument that national identities will be eroded seems to exaggerate television's social significance and social influence. Even though there is evidence of a growing world cultural imperialism in television, there is equal evidence of a growing world education through the same medium. The claim that television will weaken national identity does not seem to understand adequately the complex social forces that shape national identity and the wider national integration enterprise. National identity should not be thought of as just a non-contested natural fact; neither should it be considered exclusively as something that groups might construct to secure their position of dominance in their society; it has both natural and constructed aspects. Remember the questions raised about national identity in the film about the stolen Polish children in World War II, as considered in the previous section.

Because sources of differentiation exist within nation-states (for example religion, language, ethnicity), multiple collective identities or even other national identities will coexist cooperatively or subordinately, or perhaps antagonistically within the official national identity. The most serious threats to national identity usually come from within the country itself rather than from the outside. Also, waves of nationalist fervour, such as the neo-Nazi movement in Germany and white supremacist movements in the United States and elsewhere, need to be understood within the particular social and economic situations in which they take root. In these instances, nationalism is fuelled by widespread unemployment, poverty, social change and social inequalities. Such understanding does not diminish the problem, but it may be a starting point for addressing it.

On the other hand, if television helps towards even a mild softening of national distinctiveness and a greater openness to an international cultural perspective, then it will have achieved something for the wider sense of human community. Healthiness in national identities would seem to  need a balance between international and local perspectives; just as there is a need to preserve genetic and species diversity in the animal world, the global human community needs to preserve national and ethnic cultural heritages – as well as religious heritages – in ways that maintain social harmony.

Additional resource and reference
click here to download the follow-up resource text: Research perspectives on the nature and psychological development of personal identity, chapter 6 from the book Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality. Or download it from the section on Reasons for living.

Click icon or click here to return to ASMRE home page