James Marcia's Identity Theory: Understanding Adolescents' Search For Identity

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  1. 0:05 Defining Identity
  2. 1:11 Marcia's Theory
  3. 2:17 Four Identity Statuses
  4. 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Wind Goodfriend

Do you really know what you want out of life or what your political and religious beliefs are? The psychologist James Marcia suggested that there are four identity statuses, or stages, in developing who we are as individuals. These stages are achievement, moratorium, foreclosure, and diffusion. This lesson covers Marcia's theory and each identity status.

Defining Identity

Do you really know who you are as a person? What would be your ideal career? What kinds of traits do you prefer in a life partner? What are your political and religious beliefs? All of these questions relate to our view of who we are as individuals. The answers to these questions might change with time or experience. Some philosophers believe that the purpose of life is really to discover who we are. To do that, we need to explore lots of possibilities to find the answers to these questions.

The process of finding our true self results in finding what psychologists have called our identity.

Identity can be defined as an individual's combination of behaviors, preferences, thoughts, talents, and beliefs. All people have lots of different identities over the lifespan. For example, you are probably not the same person now as you were ten years ago. When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Is that the same dream you have now? Have your political and religious beliefs evolved over time? These questions of identity and how we form our identities have been the subject of research from psychologists for many years.

Marcia's Theory

Marcia believes identity is comprised of our occupations and fundamental beliefs
Marcias Identity Theory

Probably the most famous person who studied the formation of identity is a man named James Marcia. Marcia decided to interview lots of different people to ask how they developed their beliefs, preferences, and so on. He believed that identity is mostly based on two things. The first is what he called occupation, which refers to the main role one has in society. Occupation might refer to a job, like a doctor or bus driver, but it could also apply to roles such as father, student, or celebrity. The second base for identity, according to Marcia, is ideology, which refers to a person's fundamental beliefs about topics like religion or politics. Are you religious? Are you involved in politics? Marcia tried to identify different people's occupations and ideologies in order to identify their current identities.

Based on his interviews, Marcia proposed that there are four major identity statuses, or degrees to which a person has achieved a set identity. As we go through them, think about your own identity. Do you feel like you really know who you are and what you want out of life? What about your friends and family members?

Four Identity Statuses

The earliest stage of identity formation according to Marcia is called identity diffusion. If you are in this stage, you basically have no idea who you are or what you want. People in identity diffusion have no strong opinions, desires, or dreams for the future. In addition to not really knowing what they want, these people also aren't experimenting and trying things. It's almost like they're afraid to adventure into the world or make any real commitments. Think about a boat on the ocean without a compass.

It just floats around not going anywhere and none of the people on the boat seem to mind. Research on people at this stage shows that they often feel lonely and scared of the world.

The second possible stage of identity formation in Marcia's theory is called foreclosure. Foreclosure refers to people who have made commitments to beliefs and a future but without truly exploring options. In other words, these are people who believe strongly in certain ideas, such as religion or politics, but they've never really questioned these beliefs or examined them from a critical thinking point of view. They might choose a career simply because it's what their family expected of them even though they never thought about whether they would really enjoy the job. Did your parents want you to have a certain career? If so, did you simply accept this idea without considering other options? If you did, Marcia would say you're in the foreclosure stage. Think again about that little boat on the ocean. Foreclosure is kind of like that boat sailing quickly in a certain direction, but no one on the boat has really decided whether they actually want to go there!

Marcia's third stage of identity development is called moratorium. Moratorium is kind of the opposite of foreclosure, the stage we just discussed. Remember that people in foreclosure have made commitments but never really thought about those beliefs. In moratorium, people continually explore options and experiment with identities and beliefs but never make a decision or commitment. It's different from the first stage of diffusion because people in moratorium are at least trying new things and new identities; but here, they never really find something that makes them happy.

Again, think of that boat on the ocean. Moratorium would be like that boat docking in port after port and the people getting off for a day to explore the new city, but no one ever decides to stay there and start a life. It's constant experimentation without results.

The fourth and final stage in Marcia's theory of identity development is called identity achievement. People in this stage have explored many possible beliefs and selves and have made commitments that make them comfortable and happy. Research shows that people who have reached this stage are comfortable with themselves and are not dependent on acceptance from other people.

They like themselves and work hard toward achieving their dreams. Think one more time about that boat on the ocean. The people on this last boat have sailed around the world, then charted a specific course, are well on their way, and plan to move to the new destination as soon as they land!

Do you feel like you've reached identity achievement? If not, are you really trying to explore your options? You might have simply accepted what other people want for you, or maybe you never even really tried to think about it. If this is true, Marcia would suggest that you should try to really find your true self.

Lesson Summary

In summary, the psychologist James Marcia suggested that there are four possible identity statuses, or stages, in identity development.

  1. Identity diffusion refers to people who have not decided who they are or what they want, and they have also not started exploring options.
  2. Foreclosure is when people have decided what they believe and want but never really took the time to think about these decisions.
  3. Moratorium means that people are experimenting with different identities but they have yet to make any kind of decisions or commitments to life.
  4. Finally, identity achievement means that people have explored possible selves and have decided on what they want and believe.
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