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Adolescence and Identity Formation according to Marcia and Erikson. Astrid´s Character Development in "White Oleander"

Hausarbeit 2018 15 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Komparatistik




Erik Erikson and James Marcia's Theories on Adolescent Identity Formation
Adolescence in Erik Erikson's Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development
James Marcia's Four Identity Formation Statuses
Identity Achievement
Identity Diffusion

Astrid's States of Identity Formation in White Oleander




The character of teenage daughter Astrid in the movie White Oleander is a perfect example of how an individual's identity is con- and reconstructed throughout the age of adolescence. James Marcia's model of the four identity formation statuses, as well as Erik Erikson's theory on identity formation during adolescence, is evident throughout different stages of her story. As a child of a manipulative mother, Astrid develops from a mirrored copy of her mother to a self-determined, independent adult, despite being confronted with different obstacles and troubles along her way.

In this paper, I aim to reflect on psychosocial theorists Marcia and Erikson's ideas about identity formation in adolescence and prove the validity of their theories with help of the movie. I will point out that individuals can go through all of the statuses Marcia proposes in his theory, namely foreclosure, moratorium, and identity diffusion, in order to reach an identity achieved.

I will show that, apart from adolescence being a time of extreme change and conflicts by itself, being confronted with different lifestyles in Astrid's case of different foster families, and the ultimate abandonment of parental ideologies and values will lead to an independent identity.

As it would go beyond the scope of this paper, I will not go into further detail about critical views on Marcia and Erikson's concepts. Especially Erikson who has published his theory of the different stages of the life cycle during the 1950s to the 1980s, was critically reviewed by feminist theorists, object relations theorists and orthodox psychoanalytic theorists. Generally, his theory was criticized for being “too Freudian” as the basis for his concept is Sigmund Freud's concept of ego, superego, and Id and excludes non-male perspectives.

A much more strong emphasis in order to analyze White Oleander though, will be drawn upon James Marcia's identity formation statuses, a theory developed in the 60s which is build up on the foundation of Erikson's theory. After introducing both of the theories, I will apply them to Astrid's character development.

Erik Erikson and James Marcia's Theories on Adolescent Identity Formation

In order to fathom the complexity of the Identity Status Development Theory of James Marcia, it is necessary to understand Erik Erikson's concept of psychosocial development stages. For the later extent of this paper, adolescence marks the most important stage of an individual's discovery of identity and therefore, will be explained in further detail.

Adolescence in Erik Erikson's Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development

In 1933, ego psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson emigrated from Germany to the US due to the uprising power of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Together with his wife Joan Erikson, he developed the theory of the life cycle which is marked by eight stages and emerging crises in ego growth throughout infancy to a person's old age. Eriksonian ego psychoanalytical theory links Sigmund Freud's intrapersonal theory and social-contextual approaches to the context of personality development. He puts a strong emphasis on strengths gained by the individual in context of social institutions and rituals hence, the way in which social factors affect personality development (Marcia 2015, 934). Every stage is already present at one's birth, but they only begin to unfold during the time of growing up and the upbringing of a person to form their identity. Furthermore, identity in Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, as the name already implies, is not one fixed core concept of personality, but something that forms and changes throughout life. Hence, ego growth is continuous throughout the life cycle and determined by inner and outer conflicts.

In each stage of Erikson's model of the life cycle, an individual is confronted with a challenge, conflict, or crisis of biological and socio-cultural forces, that needs to be solved in order to successfully complete the stage and move on to the next one. James Marcia describes that according to Erikson: [t]he emerge of each of the eight stages in this sequence is governed by an epigenetic principle compromising a built-in developmental progression of individual physical and psychological change occuring within a social context of age-related 'average expectable' demands and provisions. (2015, 935)

In case the conflict is not solved, the individual will face problems caused by disresolution of the conflict in future life stages. It is, however, possible to proceed to the next phase without mastering a preceding conflict and to solve conflicts in later stages. All in all, the mastering and failing of the conflicts during life stages and the resulting effects on future life can be seen as a whole chain of causes and reactions/results.

Taking a closer look at the stages of psychosocial development within an individual's lifespan, Erikson points out the following eight phases and the conflicts the individual faces in the mentioned stage:

1. Infancy: Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust
2. Early Childhood: Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt
3. Play Age: Initiative vs. Guilt
4. School Age: Industry vs. Interiority
5. Adolescence: Identity vs. Identity Diffusion
6. Young Adulthood: Intimacy vs. Isolation
7. Adulthood: Generativity vs. Stagnation/Self-Absorption
8. Old Age: Integrity vs. Despair

(Marcia & Josselson 2013, 618)

The stages of the life cycle additionally carry a schedule of virtues gained from the successful resolution of the phases. For the fifth stage which marks the one particularly important for this paper, the virtues gained throughout the age of adolescence are identity and competence.

Between the age of 13 to 19, identity plays a role for the first time in Erikson's concept. He portrays late adolescence as a period extraordinarily important as it is the stage of transition from childhood to adulthood. It is the first time that expectations by society and by adolescents themselves are clashing and pressuring the individual to commit to an occupation and ideologies. Marcia who reworked Erikson's views on adolescence summarizes its role as:

especially important within Erikson's theory for two reasons: It is the transitional period between childhood and adulthood, and it is the time during which a fourth personality structure is added to the previous structures of ego, self, and superego. (Marcia 2002, 201)

This fourth structure he mentions is namely the structure of identity. In this stage of life individuals face the psychosocial crisis between finding one's identity and being trapped in a state of role confusion. Adolescents are concerned with questions of self-identification and individual fulfillment. Therefore, the personal peer group, as well as role models play an immense part on their path of finding their identity during that time. Through puberty and growing pressure of entering the world of adulthood, a sense of sexual, occupational, and ideological identity ideally is developed by the adolescents. They have to find out what role they will take on in their future lives and in what way they will fit into society. In his work Youth and Crisis Erikson himself summarizes and reasons the task of the adolescent in order to complete this stage of identity development as the following: “the adolescent mind becomes a more explicitly ideological one, by which we mean one searching for some inspiring unification of tradition or anticipated techniques, ideas, and ideals.” (1968, 130) Thus, teenagers or adolescents are torn between the ideas they have known from childhood, taught by their parents, teachers, or other guiding figures, and their own challenging of these ideas.

Furthermore, Erik Erikson is well-known for coining the term 'identity crisis'. In the teenage years, the crisis possibly occurring is marked by a clash of the person one has become as to the point of present being and the kind of person one is expected to become by society. In case an individual is hesitant, or reluctant even, to commit to a role, hence unable to 'find' themselves, the problem of role confusion is caused which means that the individual does not know which role they have to take on to fulfill their lives and expectations. Erikson mentions that especially the inability to settle down on an occupation is a main course of adolescent identity crisis (1968, 132). Therefore, an individual needs enough space and possibilities to experiment and explore their own identity provided by society. Erikson continues to outline the causes of role confusion:

On the other hand, should a young person feel that the environment tries to deprive him too radically of all the forms of expression which permit him to develop and integrate the next step, he may resist with the wild strength encountered in animals who are suddenly forced to defend their lives. For, indeed, in the social jungle of being alive without a sense of identity. (1968, 130)

According to him, adolescent rebellion and resistance towards restrictions of personal development and experimentation are necessary in order to liberate themselves and build their identity. Compared to the preceding stages where identity is shaped by what is done to a person, identity is now shaped by a person's own actions and decisions. Identity is discovered by the negotiation and struggle with social interactions, 'fitting in' to society, and the development of an individual's sense of morality and right and wrong.

Erikson puts a strong emphasis on the role of peers and idols during that time of identity search. He says that “to keep themselves together they temporarily overidentify with the heroes of cliques and and crowds to the point of an apparently complete loss of individuality.” (Erikson 1968, 132) On a sidenote, this kind of overidentification carries a danger of guiding a way for extremist opinion leaders and ideologies to be especially appealing to youth. Erikson continues by pointing out that “[a]dolescents not only help one another temporarily through such discomfort by forming cliques and stereotyping themselves, their ideals, and their enemies; they also insistently test each other's capacity for sustaining loyalties in the midst of inevitable conflicts of values.” (1968, 133) Consequently, adolescents exclude and repel people, mindsets etc. that differ from their own ideals as a kind of defense mechanism against identity loss. As teenagers strongly long for a sense of group identity, simple and crude totalitarian doctrines, again, strongly appeal to them.

To avoid an identity crisis, hence role confusion and following negative behaviors in future life, Erikson's theory demands a balance between a unique, individual identity, and the role to 'fit in' society. An unfavorable balance, though, causes role confusion and symptoms of “delinquency, cynicism, apathy and inability to settle on an occupational identity.” (Poole & Snarey 2011, 601)

Ultimately, the virtue gained through successful mastery of this stage of adolescence and its conflict is the virtue of fidelity. It means that the individual has committed to a sense of a value system chosen by themselves, unbothered by the contradictions of other value systems (Poole & Snarey 2011, 601). Hence, the adolescent has become faithful to an ideology, career choice, and/or religious beliefs. Finally, the stage is completed and leading over to the next conflict, which is Intimacy vs. Isolation. The individual is now ready to share oneself with others without the fear of losing their own identity.

James Marcia's Four Identity Formation Statuses

James Marcia built up his own theory about adolescent identity formation on Erikson's basic concept of the life cycle. He again states that identities are always formed within a social and interpersonal context (Marcia 2002, 199). He additionally exaggerates the role of adults in the identity formation processes of adolescents as a “position of generativity, of caring for, of helping to 'grow'” within their society (Marcia 2002, 199). Consequently, it is the adult's task to provide an environment for teenagers full of possibilities to enable this capacity to 'grow' as a person.

The core of Marcia's concept of adolescent identity contains the four identity statuses. As a determiner to achieve finding a sense of identity, the individual's personal growth is defined through two criteria: exploration and commitment. Exploration in that sense portrays the active search among alternatives of lifestyles, ideologies etc. and commitment encompasses the demonstrated investment in important areas of life, such as career choice, religious and political ideologies, and ideas about relationships (sexuality, gender roles etc.) (Marcia and Josselson 2013, 619). David Valdez who did further research on Marcia's theory, adds that each dimension of identity formation state “is characterized as being either high in attainment or low in attainment” of exploration and commitment (Valdez 2016, 28-29)

According to Marcia, during their search for identity, adolescent individuals can enter four states of identity formation, namely Identity Achievement, Moratorium, Foreclosure, and Identity Diffusion, all of them which will be explained in more detail in the following subchapters of this paper.

Identity Achievement

Identity achievements encompass already constructed identities. Individuals in that state have already explored all of the possibilities for their life choices to the fullest and ultimately committed to an occupation, ideology, etc. Erikson describes “Individuals achieved” as “self-aware, possessing an inner world and a sense of self, having adequate defenses against overwhelming anxiety” (Marcia & Josselson 2013, 620).

In respect to their world views and values, they still remain somewhat flexible and open towards new opinions, but are not easily influenced or pressured. They stay in their self-chosen direction of life despite obstacles. As for other individuals who have not reached this stage yet, they portray a source of strength because of their self-sameness and continuity in character (Marcia & Kroger in Schwartz, Luyckx and Vignoles 2011, 35).

As the result of further behavioral studies on psychosocial problem behaviors of the identity statuses, Jane Kroger points out identity achievements' secure attachment in their relation and ability of coming close to other individuals without any fear of being rejected or abandoned (Kroger 2017, 13).

However, Kroger adds that it is important to notice that 50% of individuals being examined in her study only reach the state of an identity achieved within the age span of 30 to 36 (Kroger 2017, 15).


In the moratorium state, adolescents are trapped in the stage between being a child and the adult they want to become. In fact, they are neither of both (Marcia 2002, 202). They are caught up in the exploration period and struggle to reach commitment (Marcia & Kroger in Schwartz, Luyckx and Vignoles 2011, 34). Therefore, they feel anxious or guilty, thus the ability to think clear in the period of exploration is clouded or blocked. Moratoriums are currently suffering from an identity crisis (Marcia & Josselson 2013, 620).

However, Marcia writes that this internal struggle is very common, and even necessary for identity development. This kind of crisis needs to be contained and explored, but still if the individual is not able to find a way out of this state, it can lead to depression and anxiety (Marcia & Josselson 2013, 620).

Individuals in a moratorium state are being described as lively, engaging, conflicted, charismtic, morally sensitive, ruminators, and tiring to be around sometimes. They try to draw others into their own identity-exploration project with the purpose of temporal relief of their internal struggle (Marcia & Kroger in Schwartz, Luyckx and Vignoles 2011, 35).


Individuals in the state of identity foreclosure have experienced little to no exploration yet. Admittedly, they are strongly committed to their identity positions. However, those have been unquestioningly conferred upon them, or have been adapted from authority figures (Marcia 2002, 202). At the beginning of an identity formation process during adolescence, foreclosure is the typical way to start. Those childhood views, though, should be challenged and some individuals find themselves never being able to escape these views which leads to an identity crisis.



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Institution / Hochschule
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
identity theory american studies white oleander



Titel: Adolescence and Identity Formation according to Marcia and Erikson. Astrid´s Character Development in "White Oleander"