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By Our Team, June 4, 2018


“IDENTITY” is at the heart of our research because we believe it is the most significant challenge facing young people today, especially those from disadvantaged groups. Traditional approaches consider collective, interpersonal and personal identity independently; we offer an innovative theory that is based on integration of these levels of identity. Studies on the content of the identity have confirmed our theoretical foundations: The clarity of identity of a person at one level is related to clarity of identity and self-esteem at other levels.

We propose that collective (cultural) identity and interpersonal identity serve as prototypes, or normatively defined templates, that provide a framework for young people to develop a healthy personal identity (Taylor, 2002; Taylor & de la Sablonnière, 2014). One’s culture, community, family, and close personal relationships provide the prototypes from which young people draw to internalize their own unique set of values and goals. These are the crucial elements that provide direction and motivation for the individual, allowing them to pursue goals, satisfy basic psychological needs, and build a sense of well-being. Our over-riding hypothesis is that for young people, a poorly defined sense of personal identity will be associated with lower levels of well-being, including demotivation and low self-esteem. A psychologically healthy identity, we argue, is one that involves a clearly and positively defined cultural, interpersonal and personal identity–a healthy personal identity is not possible without a clear higher order identity serving as a template, and once formed, a clear positive personal identity can reinforce and bolster cultural and interpersonal identities. We are therefore conducting several extensive studies of the processes of identity definition, particularly although not exclusively with specific populations experiencing identity disturbances, to refine the understanding in the literature about the processes linking identity and wellbeing. Indeed, identities are lived and experienced through a myriad of lenses, and we are privileged to have strong collaborative ties with groups from a wide variety of socio-cultural, social-demographic, and socio-political backgrounds. We have forged strong personal and professional relationships with a variety of cultural groups (e.g. First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Immigrant communities in Quebec, Street Kids, Somali, Indonesian, Kyrgyz) whose oppressive socio-political pasts have had a significant impact on their personal, interpersonal, and collective identities.

Given a clear template, experiences of shared reality (Hardin & Higgins, 1996) and interdependence (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959) promote the internalization of the social framework into one’s core identity (Ryan & Deci, 2003). This internalization fosters stronger endorsements of the identity, more behavioral expressions of the identity and a greater willingness to defend the identity. We are conducting a series of studies examining how shared reality increases identification via shared activities, shared beliefs and values, or shared understanding of the group or the dyadic relationship. We will also examine processes of internalizing and integrating multiple identities. In doing so, we are testing internalization and commitment to the identity in terms of both self-reports and automatic expressions of the identity.

Our theory of identity points to two major categories of breakdowns that may lead a young person to develop a less than functional self-concept. First, a confused or unclear social identity – as in the case of groups that have been colonized and had their way of life destroyed, or the case of young people whose families have not provided a secure attachment style — would mean a young person had a faulty framework or template from which to build a personal identity. Second, even where clear frameworks exist, there can be breakdowns in the internalization process due to distortions in processing social information about the self, producing low self-esteem and related problems. We conduct studies on both forms of identity breakdowns, with a view to finding constructive interventions. Testing the efficacy of such manipulations allows us to assess experimentally the validity of our process model, while pointing the way toward socially beneficial interventions.

We are grateful to the FRQSC for financial support to coordinate our research activities and foster a rich educational environment for our students as well as a collaborative scientific environment for ongoing research into these important issues.