Published on February 22, 2014
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY UK_PHIL VEIT © All rights reserved Evaluation of the claim that conflict is ‘the motor for identity change’. The German psychologist Erik Erikson was a pioneer in the study of psychosocial development in the 1950s. Erikson coined the term identity crisis claiming that conflict is the principle that shapes identity transition. Conflicts refer to any difficulty or 'tension between wishes or between events that makes the flow of life less smooth, less even, less effortless' (Holloway, 2009, p.252). Centred on the issue of identity change, this essay aims to make an appraisal of the effectiveness of the argument by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of Erikson’s claim. It starts by explaining his argument and looking at a case study of becoming mother for the first time. It will then look at different theories and evidence that will reinforce the claim. The final part will conclude this evaluation by summarising the different ways of thinking about and understanding identity change as showed in the previous sessions. The theory of psychosocial development produced by Erik Erikson stated that changes on a person’s identity occurs in the course of life time, being not restricted to the period of the first childhood as suggested by Sigmund Freud who defended the idea that identity is shaped in the early stages of life. Based on an expansion of Freud’s study, the theory of Erikson provides the idea that identity change is the result of conflicts experienced in different phases of life. The transitions from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood are examples of life stages mentioned in Erikson’s study. According to his theory, these phases are surrounded by conflicting situations which represent important challenges to be faced. But how his claim can be sustained? The next sessions will assess Erikson’s theory from other perspectives by looking at the study of the sociologist Wendy Hollway (2009) which provides a broader view on the issue of identity change. One characteristic of Erikson’s claim is that it focuses in the single aspect of change over the life course. For Hollway, there are other ways to look at identity change which suggests that Erikson’s claim would be more in depth explored. On her approach, identity change is influenced by relationships and by what she termed ‘moment by moment activities’ (Hollway, 2009, p.253). These activities and relationships are determined either by biological events such as ageing process or by choices eventually made to repair or adapt to a new situation. Connected to this, another way in which identity change can be studied is through the process of identification which relates to the act, conscious or not, of accurately imagining oneself in another’s place (Hollway, 2009, p. 255). Hollway’s point of view clearly 1
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY UK_PHIL VEIT © All rights reserved places the issue of identity changes being driven by conflicts into a wider perspective than the one used by Erikson revealing a weaken point in his theory. However, it is clear from both views that identity change motivated by conflict despite genuine is rather complex. Different approaches are necessary in the process of studying identities, and researching identity is a great source of information for social scientists like Hollway who was involved in a large research program sponsored by the UK Economic and Social Research Council in 2003. The experience of becoming a mother for the first time was explored using the research method of ‘One-‐to-‐one’ interviews and aimed to investigate identity and related issues. Using qualitative methods, the research into motherhood seems to be appropriate to address the question that conflict is what propels identity change as it marks one of the most life-‐changing events in a woman’s life. With the analysis of a particular case in which a woman referred as Silma was interviewed, it is possible to identify evidence to positively support Erikson’s claim. The arrival of Abeedah, the first baby of the young Silma was a remarkable event in her life, and this is not only because of the family’s excitement observed by the interviewer, but mostly due to the new identity Silma would have to assume. As a member of a family originally from Bangladeshi and living in a district where another people from her country and religion are massively present, Silma have in the community an extension of her family. In the presence of so many people around to see her baby, she can now call herself as a mother and being no longer a young woman. She now has responsibilities that she used not to and the relationships with another ‘experienced’ mothers are shaping her new identity. The concepts of practices and new relationships defended in Wendy Hollway’s study are clearly present on Silma’s new life. She now assumes new tasks such as feeding and nappy changing and sees herself in the same position of more experienced mothers. This process of identification observed in Silma’s case clearly works as an evidence to support the claim about identity being changed due to conflict. However, the method of ‘One-‐to-‐one’ interviews may not completely address the question. Despite providing in-‐depth information while personally hearing the stories from the main parts involved, this method does not achieve many individuals and it is uncertain that it gives evidence over a long period of time (DD101, Online Activity 40). Looking at the three concepts used by Wendy Hollway where she places ordinary conflict, identification and practices and relationships as processes of identity change, is just another form of addressing the issue elaborated by Erikson. The method used on Hollway’s research which focused in individuals may be complemented with other views from social psychologists who specifically study social groups. Michael Billig (cited in Hollway, 2009, p. 274) studied the influences social groups may have over the identity of an individual. And this is what could be observed on Silma’s case while she was part of a group with shared backgrounds and common qualities. From Billig’s view, 2
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY UK_PHIL VEIT © All rights reserved another way of studying identities and identification is provided by psychoanalysis which is based on the idea that many of our motives are not available to conscious thought or control (Hollway, 2009 p. 274). This means, in Silma’s case, that she developed a motivation, yet unconscious, to become more open to the relationships with ‘older’ people. Contrary to what she used to think, the proximity with another mothers are now a comfortable way of expressing her new identity generated by the conflict of moving from a young to a mother status. Similarly to Wendy Hollway, this complementary view on identity changes offered by Billig reinforces Erikson’s theory. Another way to understand identity change and find evidence to support Erikson’s claim is provided by how biologically given skin colour shapes identity through dominant social meanings. Following Billig’s concept of groupings shaping identity, another example that can be used as evidence that agrees with the theory of Erick Erikson is provided by racial difference and black identity. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952, cited in Hollway, 2009, p. 278), the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon uses his own experience of being a black man moving to Europe to explain how he felt among white people. By placing himself in the group of black people as part of a ‘schema’ in which white people is seen as ‘superiors’, he declared that ‘the significance of skin colour is not about biology but about how this aspect of biology is treated and experienced in social relationships’. This argument from Fanon can be linked to Erikson’s claim that identity is constantly changing over the life course. Like in Silma’s case where she had to adapt to a new identity while becoming mother for the first time, Fanon have also experienced a conflicting situation when facing ‘the white man’s eye’s’ (Hollway, 2009, p. 278). From Hollway’s work, it is not stated whether Fanon had to assume a new identity, consciously or unconsciously as psychoanalysts would suggest. However, another case based on racial difference shows a black young man facing the conflicting aspect of moving from the status of a student to a job seeker. While role playing an imaginary conversation with a potential employer, Anthony places himself as someone inferior in the preference of the employer due to its skin colour and how he imagine white people sees him. This ‘inferiority complex’ showed by Anthony is clearly an identity crisis empowered by the fact that he needs to change his social status. In this sense, Erikson’s theory is present in Anthony’s example as he is in a moment of his life where changing is necessary. To conclude, in such complex subject that is Identity change, this essay tried to show that in order to evaluate Erickson’s claim it is necessary to look at other perspectives other to concentrate on the single argument that identity changes in the life course. The research project narrated by Wendy Hollway by mentioning Silma’s case while having the first baby provided an insight that identity changes are resultant of a set of concepts of ordinary conflict, identification and practices and relationships. The theory of Michael Billig was used to support Erikson’s claim by offering a view that identity can be influenced by groups. 3
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY UK_PHIL VEIT © All rights reserved Finally, the study on racial difference has shown that the ethnicity issue was a factor of conflict competing against a tangible event that was the moving of Fanon to Europe and the new social status of Anthony. These three major examples helped to support Erikson’s argument that conflict is the motor for identity change. 4
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY UK_PHIL VEIT © All rights reserved References Hollway, W. (2009) ‘Identity change and identification’ in Bromley, S., Clarke, J., Hinchliffe, S. and Taylor, S. (eds) Exploring Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Open University (2009) DD101 Exploring Social Lives ‘Online activity 40, Social science evidence 9: ways of collecting evidence’ [online], https://learn2.open.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/660046/mod_resource/content/2/html/40_4.html (Accessed 17 April 2013) 5
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