Free «The Role of Social Support in Identity Formation: A Literature Review» Essay Sample


Social support plays a major role in the development of personal identity of individuals especially during their adolescence. Social support involves interpersonal relationships. This paper is a literary review on the topic concerning the role of social support in personal identity development. This review closely examines the role of family and peers in personality development. The early years of a child’s life are to a great extent shaped by the family where parents are the role models. The child adopts the behaviors and follows whatever is practiced by the parents. On the other hand, the later stages of life are mostly influenced by peers, who influence the development of personality, habits, and attitudes of a child. Peer pressure plays an important role in identity formation. Though a number of researches have been conducted on identity formation, many areas are yet to be explored. Therefore, this paper also discusses the limitations as well as presents suggestions for future research.

The Role of Social Support in Identity Formation

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Identity formation is dependent on many factors which include physical, sexual, social, vocational, moral, ideological, and psychological characteristics (Rice, 1999). The process of identity development of an individual starts during the period of adolescence and often extends beyond that to adulthood. During the periods of adolescence and adulthood individuals start exploring their identity, moral values, beliefs, and the path they choose in life. Psychoanalyst Rangell believes that identity is “determined by our parents, then unconsciously chosen, and further elaborated by ourselves” (Bosma, Graafsma, Grotevant, & de Levita, 1994). One of the most influential researchers of human identity Erik Erikson describes identity within the framework of ego psychoanalytic theory. He views it as the epigenetically based psychosocial task, distinctive, but not exclusive to adolescence. Identity formation can be defined as “the problem%u2010solving behavior aimed at eliciting information about oneself or environment in order to make a decision about an important life choice (Bosma & Kunnen, 2001, p. 52)”.

 Erikson (1950) was the first person to recognize that identity formation was a major task facing any person during the period of adolescence. He has also outlined stages of psychosocial development and has clearly stated that an identity crisis occurs during the teenage years when people struggle between feelings of their own identity versus numerous roles imposed on them by a society. He believed that all adolescents go through the identity crisis, which implies a period of distress and confusion during which people experiment with various options open to them before finally deciding on their beliefs and values. At the end of this period Erikson (1950) outlines two possible outcomes: either positive, resulting in the formation of a positive identity, or negative, leading to confusion of adult roles.

 Researcher James Marcia (1966, 1976, 1980) expanded Erikson’s initial theory and proposed a model of identity development based on four different conditions: achievement, moratorium, diffusion, and foreclosure. Identity achievement in Marcia’s model is similar to the positive outcome in Erikson’s model .Achievement occurs when an individual commits himself to certain set of values after exploring different identities. A person is in moratorium state when he is actively involved in exploring different identities, but has not yet made a commitment to either of them. A person in the foreclosure state has made a commitment to certain beliefs without exploring other possible alternatives or identities. Finally, identity diffusion occurs when there is an absence of identity crisis and the person does not make a commitment to any values or beliefs.Marcia’s model has become the dominant model of identity development in adolescence (Bosma & Kunnen, 2001).

Early researchers believed that identity development begins in adolescence. Contemporary researchers, however, say that the formation of identity begins during the period of emerging adulthood.During the past half-century, the transition to adulthood has become increasingly prolonged in virtually every postindustrial society (Arnett, 1998; Shanahan, 2000). The younger people belonging to these societies now remain in school for a longer period, marry at an older age, and have their first child later than their predecessors (Arnett & Taber, 1994; White, 2003).The transition to adulthood can last from the late teens up to the mid 20s. These years are now considered to be a new and distinct developmental period, called emerging adulthood, i.e. the period between adolescence and adulthood. Use of this term is becoming increasingly widespread and more scientists are attempting to understand developmental peculiarities of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000; Ehrsensaft et al., 2003; Hagan & Foster, 2003). In the view of a delayed transition to adulthood, some people tend to postpone the explorations and commitments related to identity development until the stage of emerging adulthood. Most of the literature on identity development, however, focuses on adolescence. Therefore, this paper also focuses on the adolescent life stage in its review of relevant literature.

Various factors are responsible for identity development. Some researchers suggest that support and prospects offered by an individual’s environment play a vital role in shaping his identity (Luyckx, Goossens & Soenens, 2006). In this paper we review one of these factors, namely the role of social support in the process of identity development.

Social Support and Identity Formation

Social support is the help one receives from others in times of difficulties. It can be defined as “the individual belief that one is cared for and loved, esteemed and valued, and belongs to a network of communication and mutual obligations (Cobb, 1976)”. In other words, social support refers to the supportive relationships with others (DuBois, 2002). These relationships help the adolescents to find their place with the society. Strong positive interpersonal relationships are beneficial to the adolescents as they provide them with care, warmth, and safety throughout the period of life changes that occur during this stage of development (Kenny, Gallagher, Alavarez, Salvat & Silsby, 2002).

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            Family and peer groups are two most important sources of support that influence an individual. Family is the first and typically the most powerful agent of socialization. No other source possesses such a cumulative edge in exposure, communication and receptivity (Moore, Wilkie and Alder, 2001). However, as child matures, peer groups become more and more influential. Beginning in early adolescence peers influence the development of an individual’s personal identity as well as help in the search for autonomy that characterizes this life stage (Moschis, 1987).Thus both family and peers play an equal role in the identity development of an individual. Studies show that an individual is likely to face difficulties in adjusting to life in society when the sources of social support are imbalanced between peer-oriented and adult-oriented domains (DuBois, 2002). This statement proves that both family and peers are equally important in identity development of an individual.

Family Support

Relationship with the family is the first relationship that an individual experiences. Therefore, it is the foundation for identity formation. Family plays an important role in identity development of adolescents. Although some scientists affirm that family does not matter (Harris, 1998), family structure provides an important environment in which identity development occurs (Archer & Waterman, 1994). Family relationships help children to build up personal identity and acquire culturally valued skills, knowledge, and behaviors. This notion is supported by the statement that “Parents and other members of the family are normally the major conduit through which young children are able to realize their rights (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2005)”.

Cultural characteristics of the family and community have a significant impact on the identity of children. Family practices and beliefs regarding child rearing create a different psychosocial environment for children. This helps to promote “individuality”, “collective identity”, and “individuality within connectedness”. When parents provide food, shelter, and security to the child in the early stages of life they are actually helping him/her build up a sense of trust and comfort. Similarly the family members foster independence, responsibility, and initiative in children when they allow children to make decisions on their own. Since family members play a crucial role during the early stages of child’s life, it is obvious that familial support plays an important role in the identity development of an individual. A child who receives strong family support in the early stages of life develops a strong identity in his/her adulthood.

Adolescents are exposed to the strong values and beliefs of the family. These values form the base in their exploration of other morals and values. The quality of the interaction between the family and individual influences the development of identity (Meeus, Oosterwegel & Vollebergh, 2002). During childhood and adolescence the family is a particularly important medium of socialization (Elder, 1968). According to developmental scholars, the basic identity content develops from the experiences that an individual receives from his parents, and as they grow older they incorporate new ideas and concepts into their identities (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Eccles, 1993; Erikson, 1968). Trustful and warm relationships lead to increased levels of competence in adolescents (Kenny, 2002). In their turn, competent individuals are able to explore the options and take decisions about their beliefs and values better than incompetent individuals. Therefore, supportive, strong, and secure relationships with family members have a positive impact on identity development of an individual.

Peer Support

Peer support is an equally important source of support that influences an individual. Friendships give children an opportunity to explore and modify their identity. Friendships help children to adjust to the transitions and changes that occur in their identity .They create positive feelings and make children feel secure and comfortable in vulnerable situations. “Peer culture” can make a child develop positive as well as negative perspectives on himself/herself and on others. Socializing with the peers helps them to explore the “big issues” of life. Peer connections become even more important in cases where the family support is weak.

Friends influence children’s attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics (Berndt ,2004). Peers influence an individual’s attitude about school, teachers, and studies. Every individual wants to get along with his peers and hence tries to adopt the beliefs and values of his peer group. Their identity is greatly influenced by the values and beliefs of their friends. The same way a family influences the identity of an individual, friends also play a vital role in identity development of any person. An individual learns such important social practices like cooperation and adjustment through interaction with friends.

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 Research suggests that the quality of friendship affects the nature of the impact of peers on an individual (Bagwell, Schmidt, Newcomb & Bukowksi, 2001). High quality friendships have a positive effect on the children (Berndt, 2002). Berndt says that positive friendships lead to higher self esteem, self confidence, and greater involvement in school activities. Greater involvement in school and social activities in its turn encourages identity exploration i.e.  moratorium in an individual. Exposure to diverse ideas gives them more opportunities to test new values and encourages identity development. On the other hand, if a child has negative interactions with friends, they usually tend to have negatively impact child’s identity (Berndt, 2004).  Adolescents who have stable friendships are less likely to show signs of maladaptive behaviors. They also achieve better academic results and participate more in extracurricular activities (Carlo, 1999).  Negative aspects of friendships, such as conflicts, lead to loneliness, disruptive school behaviors, decreased classroom activity, and affinity for school (Berndt, 2002).  A child who perceives himself as a social outcast often displays aggressive behaviors and engages in delinquent and antisocial practices (Mash & Barkley, 2003).   

            The time spent with peers also influences child’s behavior (Haynie & Osgood, 2005; Laird, Pettit, Dodge, & Bates, 1999).  If an adolescent spends his time with peers who engage in antisocial activities, they are also more likely to commit antisocial acts (Berndt, 2002; Carlo, 1999; Mash & Barkley, 2003). Adolescents who associate themselves with positive peer groups become more successful in school, are more career-oriented, and have greater inclination towards education and training (Carlo, 1999). Peer interactions give the children an opportunity to engage and practice rules and norms of their social culture and allow them to make self evaluative statements (Mash & Barkley, 2003).  A positive interpersonal relationship with peers is, therefore, a valuable resource for individual in the process of identity formation.

Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Research

Numerous researches and studies have been conducted on identity formation. Researchers have offered many different models of identity formation. Erikson’s (1950) and Marcia’s (1966) models are the most widely accepted ones. Research studies on these theories suggest that the process of identity formation is complex and multi dimensional (Schwartz & Montgomery, 2002). Many factors influence the identity development process, and social support is one of them. Two types of social support: family support and peer support affect an individual’s identity formation to a great extent. The basic values and beliefs are adopted by an individual from the family. Peer groups can affect an individual in both positive as well as negative ways.

            In spite of the fact that a lot of research has been done on identity development, it is quite astonishing that one can find very little empirical findings on the role of interpersonal relationships in an individual’s identity development. The existing researches do say that the two are interrelated, however, they do not examine the specific mechanisms behind these relationships. Due to this most of the literature on identity formation is based on assumptions.  

Research suggests that positive interpersonal relationships encourage favorable adjustments among adolescents (DuBois, 2002). This idea implies that favorable adjustments promise a successful identity resolution. Adjustment might be related to identity development, however, the literature reviewed for this paper could not provide valid evidences to prove the causal relationships between these two factors.

Likewise, literature assumes that competency levels and identity development are closely related. Research shows that family support can increase competence levels (Kenny, 2001), but it does not show that competence is related to the commitment and exploration involved in identity development. Research also shows that friendships lead to higher self esteem of an individual (Berndt, 2002) and that higher self esteem promotes identity achievement. However, it does not give any specific evidence for this assumption.

            It has also been assumed that the role of family and peer support is equally important in emerging adulthood as well as in adolescence. However, as time passes there are possibilities for changes in the importance of family and peer support. During individual’s life span one is likely to become more important than the other. The current literature does not address such potential changes.

Modern literature considers the identity statuses of achievement and moratorium as positive statuses, and diffusion and foreclosure as negative. However, this may not be the case for all people. One person may have the desire to achieve moratorium in his search for identity, while another might be satisfied with diffusion. Thus it is not possible to generalize identity development and thus there is a need to consider individual differences too.

Yet another limitation to the existing research concerning social support and identity formation is that it does not discuss cultural differences. There is little research done to address the issue of diversity and multi-culturalism especially in the studies of peer influence. The influence of family and peers in identity formation in different cultures is still unknown. Often collectivist groups tend to value interpersonal relationships and encourage the qualities of cooperation, sacrifice etc. However, collectivist cultures focus more on group identity rather than on individual identity. There is a need for future research on individual identity formation and the influence of family and peers in collective cultures.

Marcia’s model of identity formation has been questioned by many researchers as it is not a developmental model (Bosma & Kunnen, 2001). Critics argue that this model does not totally capture the process of identity formation .They believe that more theoretical development is required in future research on identity formation. More empirical evidence would provide an illustration of the role of interpersonal relationships in identity formation.

In spite of all these limitations it is possible to conclude that family and peers’ support influence identity formation to a great extent. Individuals with strong and positive interpersonal relationships with family and peers tend to progress towards moratorium and achievement identity statuses. On the other hand, people with negative or weak interpersonal relationships remain in the diffusion and foreclosure identity statuses. Differences in individual identity can be understood better if the link between positive interpersonal relationships and identity formation is realized.

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