Identity formation is a complex and dynamic process that changes over time. Although most individuals form an identity in adolescence, many adults reevaluate their identities as result of external factors. According to the Act for Youth Center for Excellence:
Identity refers to our sense of who we are as individuals and as members of social groups. Our identities are not simply our own creation: identities grow in response to both internal and external factors. To some extent, each of us chooses an identity, but identities are also formed by environmental forces out of our control.
Factors such as family traditions, cultural or ethnic origins, race, class, sex, etc. all contribute to the construction of identity.
Individuals have both a self-identity, which refers to the way in which we understand and define ourselves, and as a social-identity, which refers to the way the individual is defined by others. Typically social identity is confined to categorical markers or broad, socially defined labels (race, sex, national origin, etc). A person’s self-identity and social-identity can sometimes be in conflict. The self-identity is more complex and nuanced; it does not usually fit neatly into the confines that social-identity thrusts upon it.
To complicate matters, since identity is formed in interaction with others and the world, different historical or political moments can reframe the way a person understands the self. An example of this might be the understanding of one’s racial identity after the election of the first Black U.S. president. In this instance a significant historical occurrence can alter the degree of positivity a person of color feels towards his or her own racial identity. Likewise, an individual who experiences racial profiling may develop a more negative understanding of his or her racial identity. The degree to which social-identity is altered as a result of shifting historical or political moments can have a significant impact on an individual’s experience and understanding of themselves
Erik Erikson, the psychosocial theorist who revolutionized developmental thought, writes, “human growth” results from “conflicts, inner and outer, which the vital personality weathers, re-emerging from each crisis with an increased sense of inner unity, with an increase in good judgment, and increase in the capacity ‘to do well’ according to his own standards and to the standards of those who are important to him…. The use of the words ‘to do well’ puts up the whole question of cultural relativity.”
Here Erikson affirms the dialectical nature of identity formation and the importance of the cultural space in which it is formed. Identity is constantly changing and is altered through its interaction with the world, hopefully in ways that enhance the individual self over time. Because of this, young people are continually renegotiating the self. This is not an egoistic or self-centered approach to understanding their surroundings as some writers might suggest but rather, a necessary method of psychosocial survival.
Insofar as young adults are developing a “vital personality” that weathers the conflicts that arise between social-identity and self-identity, teen readers are drawn to texts that reflect this struggle. As a result the unit that follows features the novel,
by Ralph Ellison, with the intent to help students investigate the historical, social and political conditions that shape identity as well as to provide opportunity for students to explore the origin and parameters of their own identities. This second goal, described in greater detail in the pages that follow, intends to reinforce the construction of positive social and self-identities. Additionally, the unit addresses the need of “non-traditional” Advanced Placement students—advocated for both access and practices addressing the social and academic barriers to success.