“Today We Leave These Halls As Adults”

Posted by: John Stewart on May 22, 2012 4:33 pm

       John and I have been talking about different theories regarding how identity is formed. In the social sciences identity can have many meanings including references to the idiosyncratic things that make a person unique, the mental image one has of self, and the mental capacity for self-refection and self-awareness. Mark Savickas defines it is “an individual’s understanding of self in society” (Savickas, 2011, p.17).  Savickas’ explanation of how the identity forms, considered here a few weeks ago, is dependent on how we construct and understand the experiences of our youth in the process of creating a narrative.  The difficulty with this, from the perspective of a practitioner looking for strategies to foster effective identity formation, is that, to a great extent we don’t control the number or variety of experiences of our youth.  In our last entry John described a structural stage approach to identity formation that focuses on intrapsychic structures that change over time, and help one to have an increasingly complex way of making sense of experiences. With this theory, even if we could control the number and variety of experiences the stages appear to be more deterministic and one is subject to the changes that come with the identified stages.  I think that the quotation in the title of this blog, taken from the concluding thoughts of the valedictory speech at a recent convocation ceremony that John and I attended, straddles the line between identity being the product of, on one hand, the understanding and self-awareness we have our experiences and, on the other hand, the natural progression through identifiable stages of development.

      There is no question that the attainment of a sense of identity has a significant impact on the ease with which one makes and implements decisions about vocation.  We would suggest, in fact, that the establishment of a unified and conscious identity should contribute to ease in all kinds of examples of decision-making.  From cognitive psychology we know that thinking about and talking about memories helps to consolidate them in long-term memory and our network of schemas and that pre-existing knowledge provides a framework for organizing new information and serves as a point of comparison against which to check the plausibility of recalled sequences.  As people get older they have access to a greater store of content knowledge that they can bring to bear on understanding new situations, and this greater store of knowledge helps in making decisions about what subsequent information to focus on. Repeated experiences lead to generalizations that enhance memory and lead to the establishment of self-constructs that are embodied as part of the identity.  This raises the question of why, if all children and adolescents have experiences to reflect on, do some remain in states of identity diffusion or confusion?  And what is it about university that contributes to the achievement of a stronger sense of identity?

      The literature suggests a few factors that I find interesting enough to want to explore further. One important element in the establishment of identity is the synthesizing of childhood identifications, a task that is difficult when one still views oneself as a child. University provides opportunity for social contact, another avenue for identity formation, but, in contrast to high school, social contact at this level comes with greater demands for decision-making and thus greater risk and more tangible rewards. Young adulthood brings increasing occupational and ideological commitment via the demands to make decisions about how one will establish their career and how they will view the world that the chosen career will play out in.  Autonomy, crisis and hardship all appear to contribute to the formation of a strong sense of identity and one might hypothesize that all three represent starting points for serious decision-making. While childhood and adolescence is characterized by a lack of agency on the part of the individual, university for the most part necessitates significant personal exploration as one is faced with increasingly more important decisions. The ability to call on sufficient experience (or episodes from memory) accompanied by effective cognitive skills in differentiation, integration, assimilation and accommodation, are the building blocks of identity formation. But we believe that we don’t naturally engage in the reflection that is necessary until forced to. Decision-making situations create that impetus for engaging in identity making.  This suggests a circular relationship between identity formation and decision-making – decision-making fosters the establishment of identity and a well-formed identity ultimately results in more effective decision-making.

Savickas, M. (2011). Career Counseling. Washington, D.C.: The American Psychological Association.

BY: Jeff Landine and John Stewart




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