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The Genetic Epistemologist

The Journal of the Jean Piaget Society

Volume 26, Number 3 (1998)

Genetic Epistemologist Homepage

Table of Contents:

  1. Identity as a Theory of Oneself (David Moshman)

  2. JPS Symposium 1999 - México

  3. Ina C. Uzgiris passed away

Identity as a Theory of Oneself
David Moshman

Research on adolescent identity formation has been dominated for the past several decades by a neo-Eriksonian framework of four identity statuses identified by James Marcia (1966; Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky, 1993). Marcia’s extension of Erikson’s work on identity formation transformed a rather diffuse psychoanalytic concept into a fruitful basis for empirical research. Despite widespread appreciation for the value of the Marcia framework and the associated research, however, there has been increasing concern among adolescent identity theorists that Marcia’s identity statuses do not fully encompass Erikson’s concept of identity, much less the diverse uses of that concept in theoretical and popular discourse. Efforts to interpret and expand identity research have thus generated a variety of proposals about what we mean, or should mean, by "identity."

Obviously, no one is in a position to dictate how the term "identity" must be used. Nevertheless, if identity meant something utterly different to everyone who used or encountered the term, there would be a serious failure of communication among theorists, researchers, practitioners, and the general public. Fortunately, although not everyone means precisely the same thing by "identity," there does appear to be considerable overlap among various uses of the term. In this paper I suggest a conception of identity that, I think, captures a core of common meaning and that can serve as the basis for a constructivist understanding of identity development.

Identity as a Theory of Oneself

What is identity? Answering this question is complicated by (a) differences among theorists in how they define identity and (b) differences within and among individuals in their various self-conceptions. No one has ever proposed a definition of identity that is universally accepted and I have no illusion that I am about to do so.

Nevertheless, having considered a variety of definitions and conceptions in the current literature, I have devised a brief definition of identity. I think it captures most of the elements highlighted by most contemporary theorists. I hope it can provide a useful framework for addressing the construction of identity in adolescence. So here it is:

An identity is an explicit theory of oneself as a person.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

Identity as a conception of oneself. Theorists of identity universally agree that identity has some relation to the self (Ashmore & Jussim, 1997; Harre, 1989). Augusto Blasi and Kimberly Glodis (1995), for example, argue that any defensible definition of identity must acknowledge the subjective awareness of self:

[C]entral to the description of identity is a special experience of self characterized by the following: a direct focus on one’s own person aimed at capturing what is basic about it; the realization of what is true, real, genuine about oneself, namely, the experience that certain aspects are indispensable to the sense of self, while others are marginal and superficial; finally, the subjective experience of unity produced by such a realization. (pp. 406-407)

Conceptions of the self become increasingly sophisticated over the course of development, moreover, and the emergence and transformation of identity may be explained, in part, in terms of such changes (Harter, 1998). Larry Nucci (1996), for example, proposes five levels in conceptions of personal issues that reflect increasingly sophisticated conceptions of the self that emerge over the course of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, with substantial individual differences in the rate and extent of development:

1. Establishing concrete self-other distinctions. The individual conceptualizes the personal domain as an observable body and an equally concrete realm of things and activities. . . .

2. Establishing a behavior style . . . . The individual extends the conception of the person to include the notion of personality, defined as a set of characteristic behaviors. . . .

3. Establishing the self as an individual defined in terms of a unique set of ideas or values. The individual begins to define the self in terms of internal cognitive processes. . . .

4. Coordinating the self esteem. The individual views control over events within the personal domain as essential to coordinating all aspects of the self into an internally consistent whole. Consciousness is understood as having depth. At the center of consciousness the individual [perceives] an immutable essence around which the self system is constructed . . . .

5. Transforming the labile self. Instead of viewing the self as an essence the individual comes to view the self as labile, as a constantly evolving product of one’s personal decisions . . . (p. 55).

Identity as a theory of oneself. An identity, then, is a sophisticated conception of oneself. Taking this a step further, a number of theorists have proposed that an identity is a theory of oneself (Berzonsky, 1993; Grotevant, 1987). Michael Berzonsky takes this to mean that an identity is "a conceptual structure composed of postulates, assumptions, and constructs relevant to the self interacting in the world (1993, p. 169)."

Two characteristics of theories are particularly relevant here. First, theories are coherent. To say one’s identity is a theory of oneself is to say that it is not just a collection of beliefs about oneself but rather is organized to generate an integrated conception.

Second, theories are explanatory. To say one’s identity is a theory of oneself is to say that it is not just a description of oneself but rather is an attempt to explain oneself. That is, an identity is a conception of the self that is structured in such a way as to enhance self-understanding. Thus an identity is not just an attempt to describe one’s typical behavior but an account of the core beliefs and purposes that one construes as explaining that behavior.

Identity as an explicit theory of oneself. Psychologists have long recognized that even young children have highly structured knowledge, including structured knowledge about themselves. It has become increasingly common to highlight the structured nature of knowledge by referring to structures of knowledge as theories. Thus, for example, there is a huge domain of research related to what is commonly referred to as four-year-olds’ theories of mind (Flavell & Miller, 1998; Wellman & Gelman, 1998).

Review of this literature, however, suggests that, although four-year-olds use what psychologists call a theory of mind, the children themselves are not aware of their theories as theories. To say one’s identity is explicit is to say it is not simply an implicit theory of self that is inferred by a psychologist to explain behavior. Rather, it is a theory known to the individual.

This is not to deny that a person’s identity is interconnected with a variety of implicit assumptions, unconscious dispositions, and socially-imposed roles. These assumptions, dispositions, and roles may even be considered part of the person’s identity, in a broad sense of that term. Unless there is an explicit theory of self at the core, however, such assumptions, dispositions, and roles do not constitute an identity.

Construing the self as a rational agent. To say one’s identity is an explicit theory of oneself as a person is to say it is a theory that construes the self as a rational agent. To see oneself as a rational agent, moreover, is to posit some degree of unity and some degree of continuity across time. Elaborating on this, I now consider the nature of agency, rationality, unity, and continuity, and what it means to construe oneself as having such characteristics.

An agent is one who acts, who engages in action and thus has (or at least attempts to have) an impact on the world. A rational agent, moreover, has reasons for his or her actions (Moshman, 1998, in press). Rational agency thus entails some degree of autonomy and responsibility. In the words of the distinguished philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), to be a rational agent is

to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer–deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them. This is at least part of what I mean when I say that I am rational, and that it is my reason that distinguishes me as a human being from the rest of the world. I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes (1969, p. 131).

Ideas and purposes, and thus the content of identity, will of course vary from person to person and culture to culture. To say that an identity is an explicit theory of oneself as a rational agent, however, is to say that identity is necessarily built around a conception of oneself much like what Berlin here describes. To lack such a self-conception, in other words, is to lack an identity in the present sense of that term. Consciousness of one’s rational agency, moreover, entails an orientation toward two additional characteristics that are much discussed in the literature of identity formation: unity and continuity.

Unity vs. multiplicity. Theorists of self have long debated the issue of unity vs. multiplicity (Ashmore & Jussim, 1997; Harre, 1989). Does the typical person show a sufficient degree of behavioral consistency across contexts to be construed as a unitary self? Alternatively, is behavior so variable across contexts that each of us is best construed as having or being multiple selves? Given evidence for both consistency and variability, there is no simple resolution to this issue.

To have an identity is not to have a fully coherent self. To have an identity is, however, to conceptualize oneself as a rational agent–that is, as a self that determines and is responsible for its actions (Craig, 1997). Identity formation, then, need not be the discovery of a pre-existing unity but does involve an effort to identify or create a sufficient degree of consistency to justify construing the self as singular. The construction of identity, then, need not begin or end with a unitary self but does take unity as a guiding ideal.

Continuity. Commitment to a unitary self, moreover, includes a sense of continuity across time. As Blasi & Glodis (1995) put it:

Unity in one’s self experience is reflected in the attempt to bring together different elements of one’s personality and to find a principle, simple or complex as it might be, by which past and present events as well as future expectations are integrated into a coherent biography. (p. 417)

To see myself as a singular rational agent includes taking responsibility for what I have done and for what I will do and thus as committed to a conception of myself that extends from the past through the present to the future (Chandler, 1997; Craig, 1997). One’s theory of oneself as a person consists, in part, of a narrative of a continuous self that extends across time (Grotevant, 1993; Sarbin, 1997).

Identity, however, is not simply any old story we choose to tell about our lives. To qualify as an identity, a story of self must have some degree of theoretical coherence and must provide a sense of oneself as a person. At the very least, it must be a story one believes in and is committed to. Many such stories may be possible. But not just any story will do.

Personhood and identity. I have suggested four characteristics of personhood–agency, rationality, unity, and continuity. At the very least, persons are rational agents extending across time, acting on the basis of their own reasons, and responsible for their actions. There may be other features necessary to any conception of personhood and additional features deemed necessary to personhood in some social or cultural contexts. Whatever constitutes personhood, however, the key point is that to have an identity is not just to have an explicit theory of oneself but to have an explicit theory whereby one construes oneself as a person.

The Reflective Construction of Identity

How does identity develop? What developmental processes account for the emergence of an explicit theory of oneself as a person?

Developmental process. More than a decade ago, when Marcia’s approach still dominated the study of identity formation, Harold Grotevant (1987) complained that "[m]ost of the identity status research . . . has focused on the correlates of the identity statuses rather than on the processes [of development] (p. 204)." That is, in their zeal to demonstrate how individuals in each of the four identity statuses differ from each other, researchers had largely overlooked the fundamental question of how one achieves an identity. As the basis for a stronger focus on developmental processes, Grotevant noted that "the identity status work has pointed to the importance of two key processes involved in identity formation: exploration of alternatives and commitment to choices (p. 204, italics in original)."

Taking this as a starting point, Grotevant (1987) devised what he called a process model of identity formation. Exploration, he proposed, is a process of gathering information and testing hypotheses about oneself, one’s roles, and one’s relationships. Consideration of multiple possibilities and consequences ideally leads to choices that represent self-conscious long-term commitments.

Grotevant discussed in detail a variety of individual and contextual factors that affect identity formation. The extent and success of identity formation depends, he argued, on (a) personality factors such as flexibility, self-esteem, tendency to monitor one’s behavior, and openness to experience; (b) cognitive competence to consider possibilities, draw appropriate inferences, and coordinate multiple perspectives; (c) characteristics of one’s social context such as cultural support for making personal choices, family communication patterns, peer reactions, educational and career opportunities, and exposure to multiple options and viewpoints; and (d) the individual’s general orientation, at a given point in his or her life, to engage in or avoid identity exploration and commitment.

Oddly, although Grotevant’s model succeeds in focusing attention on the process of identity formation, it has much more to say about factors affecting that process than about the dynamics of the process itself. Michael Berzonsky (1993) provides a model that extends Grotevant’s process orientation to highlight the internal dynamics of constructing an identity. Extending the conception of identity as a theory of self, Berzonsky suggests that we view the individual as a self-theorist engaged in a process of theorizing about the self. Taking a constructivist view of theorizing, he argues that theorizing is not simply a matter of gathering and summarizing data and testing predictions. Rather, theorizing involves an active process of interpreting one’s experiences and generating new ones. Berzonsky (1993) distinguishes three types of self-theorists marked by different styles of theorizing: (a) scientific self-theorists, (b) dogmatic self-theorists, and (c) ad hoc self-theorists. Scientific self-theorists

tend to be self-reflective, skeptical about self-constructions, and open to self-relevant information . . . . Such information-oriented individuals deal with personal decisions and identity concerns by deliberately seeking out, processing, and evaluating self-relevant information (p. 173).

Dogmatic self-theorists, in contrast, conform to "the values and expectations of significant others (including parents)." This includes

self-serving efforts . . . to defend against potential threats to their self-constructions. Individuals who utilize this protectionist approach to self-theorizing have been found to endorse authoritarian views, to possess rigid self-construct systems, and to be closed to novel information relevant to hard core values and beliefs (p. 174).

Finally, ad hoc self-theorists

react continually to situational demands. A poorly organized, fragmented self-theory leads them to procrastinate and avoid dealing with personal conflicts and decisions. If one waits long enough, situational demands and consequences will eventually determine behavioral reactions . . . . [S]ituation-specific accommodations are likely to be short-term, ephemeral acts of behavioral or verbal compliance, rather than long-term, stable revisions in the identity structure (p. 174).

Based on Marcia’s characterization of his four identity statuses, one might expect that scientific self-theorists would be most likely to be in moratorium or to have an achieved identity, that dogmatic self-theorists would tend to have foreclosed identities, and that ad hoc self-theorists would tend to have diffused identities. Berzonsky summarizes research demonstrating precisely these relationships. It appears, then, that Berzonsky’s theory is largely continuous with the earlier work of Marcia, but with a shift of focus, as urged by Grotevant, from the characteristics of various identity statuses to the nature of the processes involved in the construction of identity.

Current theory and research on identity formation extends the constructivist approach seen in the work of Grotevant and Berzonsky (LaVoie, 1994). Constructivism is, however, a very general metatheoretical orientation that can give rise to a wide variety of specific theories (Moshman, 1998, forthcoming; Phillips, in press). With respect to identity, some theorists have highlighted the creative nature of constructive processes whereas others attempt to devise rigorous psychological models of such processes. Sarbin (1997), for example, emphasizes the creative construction of narratives about our lives. The various stories we encounter in novels, plays, movies, and other art forms, he suggests, provide the plot structures for our own self-narratives. Kerpelman, Pittman, and Lamke (1997), in contrast, present a cybernetic "control theory" involving ongoing comparison of immediate self-perceptions with the self-definitions that comprise identity. Incongruities are typically resolved via behavioral changes, but if such changes are repeatedly inadequate the individual may restore equilibrium by engaging in fundamental transformations of the identity itself.

Cognition and identity. Constructivist views of identity formation all assume an individual operating at a sophisticated level of cognitive competence. Erikson himself proposed that formal operations may be a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the construction of identity:

The cognitive gifts developing during the first half of the second decade add a powerful tool to the tasks of youth. Piaget calls the gains in cognition made toward the middle teens the achievement of "formal operations." This means that the youth can now operate on hypothetical propositions and can think of possible variables and potential relations–and think of them in thought alone, independent of certain concrete checks previously necessary. As Jerome S. Bruner puts it, the child now can "conjure up systematically the full range of alternative possibilities that could exist at any given time." Such cognitive orientation forms not a contrast but a complement to the need of the young person to develop a sense of identity, for, from among all possible and imaginable relations, he must make a series of ever-narrowing selections of personal, occupational, sexual, and ideological commitments (1968, p. 245).

Formal operations includes the ability to systematically generate a framework of possibilities that are not merely direct extensions of a given reality and to use hypothetico-deductive reasoning to infer the consequences of such hypothetical possibilities (Moshman, 1998, in press). Identity formation, correspondingly, involves consideration of multiple potential selves and the consequences of commitment to a particular conception of oneself. It does seem plausible, then, that formal operations would be a prerequisite for identity formation.

Current theory and research, however, provide a complex picture of sophisticated forms of rationality far more diverse than anticipated in Piaget’s conception of formal operations (Moshman, 1998, in press). Recent research on the relation of cognitive development to identity formation has accordingly focused on identifying the specific cognitive abilities associated with the construction of identity. Given that the construction of identity raises questions of being true to oneself, one might expect conceptions of knowledge and truth would play a key role in such construction. In perhaps the most systematic approach to this issue, Michael Chandler and his associates have investigated the relation of epistemic cognition to identity (Chandler, Boyes, & Ball, 1990; Boyes & Chandler, 1992)

Boyes and Chandler (1992), for example, identified 61 high school students who could be clearly classified with respect to (a) Piagetian stage, (b) level of epistemic cognition, and (c) Marcia identity status. With respect to Piagetian stage, 12 students were classified as concrete operational and 49 as formal operational. With respect to epistemic level, 22 students showed the sort of epistemic orientation that was described in Chapter 2 as objectivist and 39 showed more sophisticated epistemic orientations of the sort described in Chapter 2 as subjectivist or rationalist, involving explicit insight into the constructed nature of knowledge. Finally, with respect to identity status, 28 were classified as diffused or foreclosed (the less advanced identity statuses) and 33 were classified as in moratorium or as identity achieved (the more advanced identity statuses).

Of central interest were the interrelations of (a) Piagetian stage with identity status; (b) Piagetian stage with epistemic level; and (c) epistemic level with identity status. Comparison of Piagetian stage and identity status suggested that formal operational thinkers may be more likely to be in one of the more mature statuses but the relationship was not statistically significant. The other two interrelationships, however, were clear and significant. Formal operational thinking was strongly associated with higher epistemic levels, and higher epistemic level, in turn, was strongly associated with more advanced identity status. A more fine-grained analysis indicated that rationalist epistemologies were most strongly associated with identity achievement.

These results indicate that cognitive development is indeed important to the construction of identity but that the traditional distinction between concrete and formal operations, though perhaps relevant, provides an insufficient account of this relationship. Epistemic cognition appeared to be a critical connecting link in the cognition/identity relationship. That is, students who saw knowledge as simple and absolute were likely either to have foreclosed identities or to be unconcerned with identity formation. Students who understood that knowledge is a subjective construction, in contrast, typically were constructing or had constructed identities. Among this latter group, moreover, students who understood the potential for rational judgment despite subjectivity were most likely to have constructed an identity.

Discovery vs. Creation. Perhaps the major critique of the constructivist view of identity formation comes from those who see identity formation as a process of discovery. Alan Waterman, for example, proposes that

a person’s search for identity is an effort to identify those potentials that correspond to the ‘true self.’ The metaphor for identity development used here is one of discovery . . . rather than one of construction . . . . According to the discovery metaphor, for each person there are potentials, already present though unrecognized, that need to become manifest and acted upon if the person is to live a fulfilled life. For many people, the task of recognizing and acting upon these potentials is not an easy one, as evidenced by the stresses associated with an identity crisis. Feelings of eudaimonia or personal expressiveness can serve as a basis for assessing whether identity elements are well-chosen. The presence of such feelings can be used as a sign that identity choices are consistent with an individual’s potentials and thus can provide a basis for self-fulfillment (1992, p. 59).

In a similar vein, Blasi and Glodis propose that identity formation consists of "the ‘discovery’ that one is, inevitably and necessarily, a certain kind of person (1995, p. 412)." It is noteworthy, however, that Waterman, in the first sentence of the quoted passage, puts scare quotes around the term "true self" and that Blasi and Glodis do the same with respect to the term "discovery." It seems clear that we do not "discover" our "true selves" in the same straightforward way that a child might find a ball that has been hidden under a couch.

Theodore Sarbin (1997), in fact, doubts that we discover true selves in any sense at all. Explaining how he came to his title "The Poetics of Identity," he writes:

My first pass at a title was ‘The Narrative Construction of Identity.’ While this title conveys my general meaning, the use of ‘construction’ carries a nuance reminding us of the precise manipulation of materials by architects and carpenters. A more apt metaphor is ‘poetics,’ a word that calls up images of a person creating, shaping and molding multidimensioned stories (p. 67, italics in original).

Thus for Sarbin identity is created, not discovered.

James Marcia sees identity formation as involving both discovery and creation, though acknowledging the difficulties this poses for both the individual and the theorist. In a discussion published as part of Berzonsky (1993), Marcia says:

[I]t seems to me that there are some elements that have the characteristic of feeling as if they emerge. There are some grooves in which you find yourself moving that feel as if this is the right place to be, and when you begin to deviate from those situations, it feels as if you are out of sync with something. Now that something, whether or not it is totally constructed or whether there is some part that is given, has a quality for me of just being given. Then there is the additional task of somehow constructing an identity, accounting for that rut- or pathlike quality of one’s life. So for me, I have got a kind of a mixed model that relies heavily on construction but with allowance for things that seem also to thrust themselves on my experience that I cannot account for by construction (p. 189).

Without denying genuine and interesting differences among identity theorists, it seems to me that part of the problem here is ambiguity about just what it means to take a constructivist view. As discussed in the Introduction, constructivism is best understood with respect to how it differs from the more traditional nativist and empiricist perspectives. A nativist view of identity formation would suggest that our identities are innate. Even if they are not present at conception, they emerge, regardless of later experience, in a manner determined by our genetic programming. An empiricist, in contrast, would suggest that our identities are imposed on us by our environments, shaped by our specific experiences in various cultural contexts.

Contemporary identity theorists agree that neither of these alternatives is adequate. At the very least, identity emerges out of a complex interaction of hereditary and environmental factors. A constructivist would go beyond this, however, to insist that individuals play an active role in generating their own identities through their actions, interpretations, reflections, and coordinations. A radical constructivist, taking this position to its extreme, might deny the possibility of any sort of real self and thus see the creation of an identity as an unconstrained act of free will.

Within the field of developmental psychology, however, most constructivists take a position I call rational constructivism (Moshman, 1998, in press). Rational constructivists assume that there exist realities outside our constructed cognitions. Thus, although such realities do not determine our cognitions, some constructions are indeed more justifiable than others. As Berzonsky puts it,

we . . . live and act within an objective reality that exists independent from our construction of it, even though we have no way of directly understanding it . . . . Objective reality does constrain the utility and viability of the constructs or theories we generate: We cannot simply make up and continue to use any "story" (1993, p. 170).

With respect to selves and identities, then, I suggest that there is a reality within us, which bears a complex relation to the reality outside us. Our efforts to construct an identity are constrained not only by external social factors but by a need to be true to ourselves. But we can never know ourselves in some direct, simple, and final sense, any more than we can know the reality outside us. We have no choice but to construct our understanding of who we are. To the extent that we focus on the identification of alternatives and on autonomous interpretations and commitments, such construction looks and feels like a process of creation. To the extent that we focus on the necessary relation of identity to a pre-existing though dimly perceived self, such construction looks and feels like a process of discovery. The actual construction of identity may sometimes partake more of creation and sometimes more of discovery but, in general, it involves elements of both. Identity, then, is a construction, but it is a construction constrained by realities without and by realities within. Having proposed the existence of a real self that constrains, without determining, the construction of identity, I hasten to add that the real self should not be viewed as an intrinsic and unalterable part of the person but is itself subject to change. The construction of identity may involve processes of reflection and intercoordination that increase the level of agency, rationality, unity, and continuity manifested in one’s behavior. Somewhere at the border of metacognition and metaphysics lies the possibility that the reflections and coordinations involved in constructing and reconstructing my identity may change not only who I think I am but who I really am.

An Example: Sexual Identity

With regard to the general question of whether identities are discovered or created, I have suggested that this simplistic dichotomy is misleading: Identity formation is neither the discovery of a true inner self nor the free creation of whatever sense of self one chooses to have. Rather, identity is constructed: It is a creation constrained, but not determined, by a complex interaction of inner and outer realities.

Sexuality is a domain in which scientific understanding has been especially hindered by unjustified and misleading assumptions that reflect the discovery vs. creation dichotomy. Part of the reason for this is political. Both supporters and opponents of gay rights often assume that the case for gay rights depends on sexual orientation being an innate and unchangeable characteristic. Specifically, it is assumed that if sexual orientation is genetically determined, there is a strong case for laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of this characteristic, whereas if sexual orientation is a free choice to engage in certain behaviors, the case for gay rights is undermined. Given this widely shared assumption, some supporters of gay rights accept flimsy evidence as a basis for strong claims that sexual orientation is genetically determined, whereas opponents of gay rights often maintain, without evidence, that people simply choose to engage in homosexual behavior and could equally well choose to be heterosexual instead. In effect, many supporters of gay rights see sexual identity formation as the discovery of one’s innate sexual orientation; many opponents of gay rights see sexual identity formation as a creation, a series of choices that society should channel in socially, morally, and religiously acceptable directions.

The association of gay rights with genetic determinism, however, is dubious. Although it is indeed true that we often forbid discrimination on the basis of innate characteristics such as skin color, it is not true that genetic determination of a characteristic is central to the case against discrimination. For example, no one believes that political or religious commitments are genetically determined, but almost everyone agrees that it is wrong to discriminate against people on the basis of their personal beliefs, religious practices, or political activities. Thus scientific conclusions about the development of sexual orientation and identity do not mandate particular positions on issues of gay rights.

Turning, then, to the scientific issues, what can be said about the development of sexual identity? Sexual identity, it appears, is constrained, but not determined, by sexual orientation. It will be useful to begin with the development of sexual orientation and then turn to the construction of sexual identity.

Research in many domains of development has convinced most psychologists that complex psychological characteristics are virtually always the result of a complex interaction of (a) hereditary influences; (b) environmental (including cultural) influences; and (c) the individual’s actions, interpretations, and constructions. Nativists stress the role of genes, empiricists stress the role of environment, and constructivists stress the role of the individual, but most developmentalists agree that all three considerations are important.

There is no reason to think that the development of sexual orientation is an exception to this general perspective. There is evidence that hereditary variations influence sexual orientation but no evidence that any gene or set of genes causes one to be heterosexual or homosexual (Bailey, 1995). Similarly, it is likely that environmental factors influence sexual orientation but there is no evidence that particular events or experiences cause one to become homosexual or heterosexual. Finally, it appears that behaviors and interpretations over the course of childhood play a role in the emergence of later sexuality but it is clear that people do not simply choose their sexual orientations.

Daryl Bem (1996) provides a developmental theory of sexual orientation consistent with this general perspective. He proposes that

biological variables, such as genes, prenatal hormones, and brain neuroanatomy, do not code for sexual orientation per se but for childhood temperaments that influence a child’s preferences for sex-typical or sex-atypical activities and peers. These preferences lead children to feel different from opposite- or same-sex peers–to perceive them as dissimilar, unfamiliar, and exotic. This, in turn, produces heightened nonspecific autonomic arousal that subsequently gets eroticized to that same class of dissimilar peers: Exotic becomes erotic (p. 320).

Bem adds, however, that the extent to which sexual orientation is organized around gender may depend on the extent to which the culture in which the child develops is organized around gender. In general, then, it appears that children in various cultures move into adolescence with varied and complex patterns of sexual dispositions and desires that result from the interactions of genetic, environmental, and cognitive influences over the course of childhood.

Sexual orientation does not determine sexual identity, however. Rather, the construction of sexual identity in adolescence and beyond is influenced not only by sexual orientation, the inner reality of one’s sexual dispositions and desires, but also by (a) the categories of sexuality fostered by one’s culture and (b) cultural attitudes toward members of these various categories. Cultural categories and attitudes, moreover, change over time and vary widely across cultures (Bem, 1996). This can be seen even within the United States in the latter half of the 20th century.

In the U.S. at mid-century, there was a widely-accepted cultural distinction between heterosexuals, who were construed as normal, and homosexuals, who were construed as pathological. Homosexuality was deemed to be at best a mental illness and at worst a sin; homosexual behavior was illegal in every state. Although this state of affairs did not by itself determine sexual identities, it restricted the potential self-conceptions of anyone whose sexual orientation did not fit the category of normal heterosexuality.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the term "gay" has become increasingly accepted for those who would earlier have been classified as homosexual. This is not merely a change of label. Although the term "homosexual" continues to be used in a neutral sense, as I have used it above, the term "gay" reflects a more positive evaluation of homosexuality and thus makes it easier for many people to define themselves positively. To be sure, simply calling oneself gay does not generate a positive sexual identity. The existence of a "gay" category, however, enhances the prospects for many individuals to construct positive theories of themselves as sexual persons and thus to construct positive identities that encompass their sexual orientations.

Even within the late 20th century United States, however, it is apparent that a simple distinction between heterosexuals and gays is inadequate to encompass human sexual diversity. Gay women, for example, without denying that they are in some ways similar to gay men, often label themselves as lesbians to highlight that they are a distinct group (McConnell, 1994). This yields three potential categories of sexual identity: heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male. But some individuals are attracted to opposite-sex as well as same-sex individuals, leading to a four-fold set of categories: heterosexual, lesbian, gay male, and bisexual (Fox, 1995). There are, moreover, transsexuals, transvestites, and others who do not fit any of these categories and who are sometimes grouped into a fifth category that is labeled "transgender." Such categories do not determine sexual identity but create a richer set of options for individuals trying to construct a conception of themselves that is true to their own pattern of sexual dispositions and desires.

The use of five categories rather than some smaller number, however, does not resolve the problems of categorization. Heterosexuals, for example, are highly diverse in their sexual inclinations and desires. At the very least, we could distinguish male from female heterosexuals; further distinctions within the heterosexual category could surely be justified. Bisexuals, to take another example, are attracted to both women and men, but this is not to say that bisexuals are attracted to everyone. Bisexual orientations may be organized on the basis of characteristics other than gender. There may, in fact, be a variety of little-understood dimensions of sexual orientation that cut across, and thus undermine, the standard gender-based categories. The transgender category gets at some of this complexity but transgenderism may itself be an umbrella for a variety of potential sexual categories.

Human beings, then, do not come in some finite number of sexual categories, nor do they choose from some universal set of such categories. The construction of a sexual identity is neither the discovery of one’s true sexual self nor the free creation of an ideal sexual self. Rather it is a creative act constrained, but not determined, by the complex interrelations of (a) one’s sexual dispositions and desires and (b) the categories and dimensions of sexuality highlighted by one’s culture.

For sexual minorities, as for ethnic minorities, the construction of identity is further complicated by social disapproval, discrimination, and oppression (Savin-Williams, 1995). To extend Erikson’s (1968) observation about the internalization of a negative image, sexual minorities may "accept the evil image they are made to represent by those who are dominant (p. 59)." This problem is likely exacerbated by the fact that children internalize negative images of homosexuals before they have any inkling of their own sexuality. As Anthony D’Augelli (1994) put it, "[i]n contrast to other groups, lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people have grown up absorbing a destructive mythology before they appreciate that it is meant for them (p. 5)."

Most individuals succeed in constructing positive adult identities. But to do this they must survive adolescence, a period when suicide is common, especially among sexual minorities (Hershberger, Pilkington, & D’Augelli, 1997). Depending on cultural reactions to their sexual dispositions and desires, some adolescents find the construction of sexual identity more difficult than others, and some find themselves in circumstances where it appears to be impossible.


In sum, a conception of identity as an explicit theory of oneself as a person provides a basis for a constructivist view of identity formation. Identity, in this view, is neither discovered nor freely created. Rather, it is a rational construction constrained but not determined by inner and outer realities.


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Moshman, D. (in press). Adolescent psychological development: Rationality, morality, and identity. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Wellman, H. M., & Gelman, S. A. (1998). Knowledge acquisition in foundational domains. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & D. Kuhn & R. Siegler (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 2. Cognition, perception, and language (5th ed., pp. 523-573). New York: Wiley.

Presented at the meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, Chicago, June 1998. This paper is adapted from D. Moshman (in press), Adolescent psychological development: Rationality, morality, and identity (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum).

Address for correspondence:

David Moshman
Educational Psychology
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, NE 68588-0345

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JPS Symposium 1999 - México

The 29th Annual Symposium of the Jean Piaget Society will take place in México City, June 2-5, 1999 in the magnificent Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso founded around 1588 and located in the historical center of the city. The meetings will be held in the beautiful amphitheatre decorated by Diego Rivera's first mural. Plenary sessions will be in both English and Spanish with simultaneous translation. Proposals may be submitted in either language. There are many hotels available for the symposium in the historic center of the city in the vicinity of the cathedral, the Zocalo, and the excavations of the Temple Mayor of the Aztecs.

More information, including the Call for Program Proposals, can be found on the JPS web site <www.piaget.org>. The site also contains electronic submission forms. Information and submission forms are in both English and Spanish.

Scholars interested in the development of knowledge are invited to participate, whatever their discipline. The plenary sessions will be organized around a general theme, but individual proposals do not have to be related to that theme.

General Theme

The Development of Knowledge: Reductionist Mirages

Plenary presentations (in English and/or Spanish, with simultaneous translation) will have as their central theme the analysis of reductionistic tendencies in psychology, the neurosciences, linguistics, sociology, and other disciplines with emphasis on their epistemologic implications.

Submission Requirements

Proposals either in English or Spanish will be accepted. Electronic submissions are preferred. Such proposals should follow the format prescribed on the web site

Se invita a participar a todos los investigadores interesados en el desarrollo del conocimiento, cualquiera sea su disciplina. Las sesiones plenarias se organizan alrededor de un tema central, pero las propuestas individuales no necesitan estar relacionadas con este tema.

Tema Central

Desarrollo del conocimiento: espejismos reduccionistas

Las sesiones plenarias (en español y en inglés, con traducción simultánea) tendrán como tema central el análisis de las tendencias reduccionistas en psicología, neurociencias, lingüística, sociología y otras disciplinas con énfasis en sus implicaciones epistemológicas.

Requisitos para el envío de propuestas

Se aceptan propuestas en español o en inglés. Es deseable el envío de propuestas por vía electronica. Éstas deberán seguir el formato que se indica en la página

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Ina C. Uzgiris passed away

"With sorrow, we announce that Ina C. Uzgiris passed away on the morning of August 2, 1998, after a two-year battle with cancer. Clark University will organize a larger memorial service in the Fall. Ina was a pioneer in the areas of infant cognitive development, mother-child communication, imitation, social-interaction, and theoretical approaches to developmental psychology (including Piaget, Vygotsky, and Werner). She was a role model for all those who worked with her, including students and faculty colleagues. She had a very high level of integrity, dignity, and honesty. We will greatly miss her. "

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Last update: 20 September 1998