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Eriksons Psychosocial Theory and Tajfels Social Identity

Eriksons Psychosocial Theory and Tajfels Social Identity

Part I.

This essay provides concise descriptions of two paradigms used to explore identity, Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory and Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (SIT). It then explores how each theory has been used to develop understanding of identity. A psychological approach is a theory formed by a psychologist, providing an explanation of a topic from a particular view point. No individual approach is correct nor can be substantiated. Theories may be modified or rejected and are required to exceed commonsensical information with supporting scientific evidence. Identity is a multifaceted concept, subject to substantial interest and research aiding humans to understand sense of self and what makes each individual unique.





Theory DevelopmentThe cycle of enquiry provides a foundation for the process of theory development, underpinning the theories described here and illustrating the constant cycle producing new questions and evidence to further study and understanding.


(The Cycle of Enquiry, Pheonix & Thomas, p6)

Erickson was the main proponent of the psychosocial theory. He explored identity from a personal perspective as a personal development process consisting of eight stages throughout a person’s life. He claimed that identity is formed by psychological make-up and social interaction. He emphasized the requirement for an “ego identity” (core identity) to be attained during adolescence. Erikson believed that this was an experimental time (moratorium). For many however, this is a period of identity crisis whereby difficulty arises in discovering a specific identity, thus delaying achievement identity which he termed Role Diffusion. Erikson acknowledged identity as a continuous process borne from life experiences. Identity for Erikson was “development of a stable, consistent and reliable sense of who we are and what we stand for in the world that makes sense for us and for our community”. (Pheonix 2007, pg 53).

James Marcia followed Erikson’s work developing this paradigm. Maintaining focus on adolescence he extended adolescent age as 13 to 25 and constructed innovative, flexible Identity Status Interviews. These interviews were semi-structured; some questions were formulated in advance. The purpose, to extract as much information as possible. Interviews were recorded, transcribed and listened to several times before analysis. This produced qualitative data. Commonalities were noted and converted into quantitative evidence. This process is time consuming therefore only small samples were interviewed. Marcia adopted the outsider viewpoint to analyse inner experience dependent on exploration choices and commitment. He created four identity statuses.

Levels of Exploration








Neither exploring nor committing to values/ goals.


Searching for an identity to commit to



Making commitments without exploring options


A stronger identity, achieved after Moratorium

Marcia proposed that having resolved normative adolescent crisis, the ideal path was from moratorium to achievement. However, achievement implies that once identity is achieved it becomes fixed. Difficulty can arise when determining relative data and the insider’s viewpoint could be misinterpreted by the researcher as an outsider. The psychosocial theory is “explicitly concerned with bodily aspects of identity since the body affects the psychosocial issues we face.” (Pheonix 2007, pg 82)

The psychosocial concept furthers knowledge of identity, offering explanations for various aspects of life and current social issues, for example bullying. Erikson argued “young people may over identify with cliques and crowds. As a defence against feelings of loss of identity” . (Pheonix 2007, pg 56). He explains this could lead to clannish behaviour.

The second theory is Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (SIT). Henri Tajfel, after surviving the Holocaust, he sought to identify the minimum conditions necessary for the formation of group identity and understand the effects of prejudice amongst groups. He used the experimental method to instigate SIT. Tajfel arbitrarily divided 14-15 -year-old boys into groups, to create artificial ‘Minimal Groups’ and leading the boys to believe allocation to a group was due to artistic preference. These boys were given tasks of allocating points individually to pairs of or boys in their “own” group (the ingroup), pairs of boys in the “other” group (the outgroup) and one member of each artist’s group. The boys were unable to allocate points to themselves. The use of a complete outsider viewpoint throughout analysis the unambiguous results demonstrated that the boys despite having nothing to gain exhibited ingroup favouritism whenever the opportunity arose. The findings of this and later experimental methods repeatedly exemplify the prevalence of intergroup discrimination.

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Tafjel’s theory deduces that there are two components: social and personal. Social identity produces subjective psychological benefits such as sense of security and belonging, by self-categorising into a group, principally if the chosen group depicts a high status and positive image. This group comparison can create discrimination and hierarchy. Therefore, considerably impacting on the personal identity, affecting thoughts about others and the way in which one person relates to another. Humans endeavour to achieve, preserve or increase social status and self-worth via social competition, creativity and mobilisation. Tafjel’s paradigm proposes possibility of numerous group identities. Fluidity of SIT is evident in ownership of multiple social identities and the process of social mobilisation, competition and creativity. SIT also considers disability as significant to identity “importance of embodiment is implicit in its concern with intergroup discrimination” (Pheonix 2007, pg 82). This permits the consideration of those with disability and discourse analysis aids understanding to why society deems those individuals/groups to “suffer” with disabilities and how this concept has been formed.

Both Erikson and Tafjel’s paradigms have been developed by others to increase understanding of identity. Marcia understood the importance of adolescence when considering identity, however Marcia extended the age for the categorisation of adolescence, when normative crisis generally occurs. He constructed semi-structured interviews gaining an enhanced insight into a person’s choices and commitments and drew correlation between them. The paradigm explores a person’s life experience and possibility of inner conflict due to these experiences, furthering knowledge the upheaval of adolescence the knock-on effect of life experiences both positive and negative. Tafjel’s paradigm explores the identity achieved through group relationships and furthers understanding of discrimination, through the need for power and status. These theories also aid understanding of social issues such as bullying and disabilities. Used together these theories further understanding of identity on a personal and social level and illustrates that no person has one fixed identity, they also aid us to understand how an identity may change when considering a person who suddenly finds them self disabled . Both methods embrace the cycle of enquiry and both methods portray diversity in furthering our understanding of identity and demonstrate that several paradigms co-exist.

(1080 words)


Pheonix, A. (2007). Identities and diversities. In Miell, A. Pheonix, & K. Thomas (Eds), Mapping Psychology (2nd Edition., pp.45-92). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Part II.

Question 1.

(a) i. Roger could use deception, providing he could justify there is not an appropriate alternative and it as essential to the research to a committee of peers. The BPS Guidelines allow for deception in “exceptional circumstances to preserve the integrity of research or the efficacy of professional services” (BPS, 2009b. 14 (xii) (a) p.7). Roger would need to gain consent from the children and informed consent from parents/guardians and explain their right to withdraw. He would need to debrief the children on the true nature of the study and further explain why they were deceived, in appropriate language for their age. (100 words)

ii. Roger’s study expects children to become aggressive after viewing the clip this indicates harmful effects. Roger has a responsibility to protect the children from physical and mental harm.In the debrief will need to discuss with the children, the experience of the study and monitor any unforeseen negative effects, however “in some circumstances, the verbal description of the nature of the investigation would not be sufficient to eliminate all possibility of harmful aftereffects”. (BPS 2009a p.1). (75 Words)

iii. In order to observe the children in the school playground Roger should seek ethical approval from an appropriate body, for example a teacher. “Unless those observed give their consent to being observed, observational research is only acceptable in situations where those observed would expect to be observed by strangers”, (BPS 2009a 9.1 pg5). It would not be expected that strangers would observe the school playground. Roger should also gain consent from the parents/guardians of the children. ( 76 words)

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(b) Roger would need to ensure autonomy of the children, they must not feel pressurised into the study . He would need to explain their right to withdraw. He is obliged to not to breach their confidentiality (unless it is for their own safety for example child abuse). The children also have a right to be told the results of the study and he must ensure these are anonymous. Roger is expecting the children to become aggressive with one another. This places the child/ren at risk of physical and/or mental harm. A child (or group of) may uncover the real nature of the investigation and could act aggressively in order to gain Roger’s attention. A child (or group of) may discover enjoyment in being aggressive thus continuing subsequent to the study. If a child/ren comes to any harm or it is foreseeable that they may Roger should terminate this study. (149 words)

Question 2.

(a) i Informed consent was not obtained for the true study at the outset. However, due to the nature of the study it was necessary to deceive the participants. Therefore it would not have been possible to gain informed consent. A thorough debrief was given and no participants raised concerns in reference to the study. (53 Words)

(a) ii The researchers conducted an “extensive” debrief at the earliest opportunity in accordance with the BPS guidelines. During that debrief the researchers should have explained to the participants the right to withdraw at this stage. A participant can withdraw at any time. “In the light of experience of the investigation, or as a result of debriefing, the participant has the right to withdraw retrospectively any consent given, and to require that their own data, including recordings, be destroyed.” (BPS 2009a 6.2 p.4). (81 words)

(a) iii The risk of physical harm was no greater than in normal life. However , participants could sustain mental harm when they learn of the results as they may learn that they are not an altruistic person, this may have a negative impact on self-worth. Furthermore, the study stated that the many of the participants who did not stop appeared “aroused and anxious”. Due to the set up of the experiment an ambulance may have been needlessly called. (77words)

(a) iv. Although reference is made to “divinity students at Princeton University” this could not sufficiently narrow it down to the exact result of one particular individual. Nor could it narrow it down to the exact sample of individuals who participated in the study. The violation of confidentiality is not substantial.

(49 Words)

(a) v. The study states an “extensive” debrief was given. Due to the issue of deception and the true nature of this study, the debrief needed to be thorough. The text states that the reason for deception was explained and none of the participants showed unease. Providing that participants were also explained to their right to withdraw, right to confidentiality and consented there should be no significant problem with the debrief. (69 words)

(b) The research objectives may not have been satisfied if the participants had not been deceived. However, deception is considered as a violation of autonomy. Therefore, if the debrief is not thorough, the consequences of the study could cause participants to suffer long-term psychological harm. This is because when the participants learn the results they may learn that they are not an altruistic person which could have a negative impact on their sense of self. Furthermore it could lead to resentment of the researchers and destroy any trust in the scientific community. Whilst deception is admissible it is only if there is no other method to obtain the experiment results and “Debriefing does not provide a justification for unethical aspects of any investigation” (BPS 2009a 5.2 p.4).Although

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