Identity Theory Essay

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Identity Theory is a social psychological theory based on structural symbolic interactionism. The theory posits that identities are embedded in social structures, i.e. that what it means to be someone (or something) is directly affected by one’s relationship and interactions with others. It assumes society is stable — the result of repeated, patterned behaviors of individuals. Identity theory is aligned with George Herbert Mead’s theory of self concerning the reflexive nature between self and society, and conceives the self as comprised of multiple identities which determine how an actor behaves when alone, while engaged in a role, or when part of a group.

An identity is an internal positional designation which defines who one is in relation to others in the social structure. There are different types of identities: role identities, social identities, and person identities. Role identities (e.g. student, worker) are a combination of shared and idiosyncratic meanings actors attribute to themselves while performing a role. These meanings emerge from socialization and through culture, and from the unique, individual assessment of what playing a role means to an actor. Social identities (e.g. Republican, American) represent one’s identification with a group. Social identities operate as an in-group/out-group dynamic, with in-group members categorized as similar and out-group members categorized as different. Social identities allow actors to create and maintain a sense of unity with others under a common theme and provide meanings to act in ways expected and approved by other in-group members. Person identities (e.g. moral, competitive) are unique characteristics that define an actor as an individual. Person identities can be viewed as master identities as they are often invoked and influence a wide range of behavior. All three types of identities can potentially operate simultaneously to influence perceptions, behavior, and emotions during social interactions.

There are three lines of research which have emerged within identity theory, following the work of Sheldon Stryker, Peter J. Burke, and George J. McCall and J. L. Simmons. Stryker’s hierarchical approach to identity seeks to explain how an actor will behave in a situation based on how often and strongly identities are invoked. Behavior is a function of how salient and committed identities are for actors as they interact with others in the social structure. Identity salience refers to the probability an identity will be invoked in social situations; identity commitment refers to the degree to which actors’ relationships to others depend on playing specific roles and maintaining identities. Stryker’s work emphasizes how one’s identity salience hierarchy determines behavior: the higher the identity is in the hierarchy, the higher the probability the identity will be activated, and the more the identity will impact behavior across contexts.

Burke et al.’s work in Identity Theory addresses internal dynamics of the self that influence behavior and emotions. Early work focused on how identity and behavior are linked by common meanings — by knowing an individual’s identity meanings one can better understand the meanings of an individual’s action. For Burke, the identity process is a perpetual control system where identities serve as standards that influence behavior. The perpetual control system is a circular process that explains how an actor’s self-defined identity meanings are reflexively attached to experiences in the social structure. Basically, when an identity is activated in a situation, an internal feedback loop comes under an individual’s conscious control. Actors seek to verify their identities by controlling perceptions of self and others during an interaction. Actors feel positive emotions when they verify their identities; they feel negative emotions when they cannot verify their identities. Burke’s version of identity theory is also referred to as Identity Control Theory.

McCall and Simmons’s (1978) version of identity theory mostly concerns role identities — an actor’s subjective interpretation as an occupant of a social position. Role identities have a conventional dimension, which refers to expectations actors internalize concerning social positions within the greater social structure, and an idiosyncratic dimension, which regards the unique interpretations actors have for specific roles. McCall and Simmons define an identity prominence hierarchy which represents one’s ideal self. An identity’s location in the prominence hierarchy depends on the degree of support an individual obtains from others for an identity, the degree of commitment an individual has for an identity, and the rewards one receives by invoking an identity. As with Stryker, McCall and Simmons also identify a salience hierarchy, which reflects more the situational self rather than the ideal self. An identity’s location in the salience hierarchy is a function of the identity’s prominence, need for support, an actor’s need for the kinds and amounts of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards achieved by the identity, and the perceived degree of opportunity for its profitable enactment in the situation. Actors have expectations for their roles as well as the roles of others; when interchanges go smoothly relationships are maintained and prominence hierarchies are supported.

Research in Identity Theory incorporates both quantitative and qualitative methods. Surveys and interviews have been used to examine identity meanings, identity commitment, and identity salience. Such methods allow researchers to discover the importance a subject places on an identity and how often an identity is salient for an actor across situations, and to measure the amount and type of people a subject is connected to through an identity. Laboratory experiments have also been used to measure identity processes. The corpus of work produced by scholars from all areas of identity theory has furthered the understanding of micro-level phenomena, both within sociological social psychology as well as sociology in general.


  1. Burke, P. J. (1991) Identity processes and social stress. American Sociological Review 56: 836—49.
  2. McCall, G. & Simmons, J. S. (1978) Identities and Interaction, rev. edn. Free Press, New York.
  3. Stets, J. E. (2006) Identity theory. In: Burke, P. J. (ed.), Contemporary Social Psychological Theories. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA.
  4. Stryker, S. (1980) Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural    Benjamin/Cummings, Menlo Park, CA.
  5. Stryker, S. and Burke, P. J. (2000) The past, present, and future of an identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly 63: 284—97.

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