Psychology Of Ethnic Identity Research Paper

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Ethnic identity is a dynamic, multidimensional construct that refers to one’s identity, or sense of self, as a member of an ethnic group. An ethnic group can be thought of as a subgroup within a larger context that claims a common ancestry and shares one or more of the following elements: culture, race, religion, language, kinship, and place of origin. Ethnic identity is a central defining characteristic of many individuals, particularly those who are members of minority or lower status groups (Liebkind 1992, Phinney 1990).

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Ethnic identity has traditionally been most salient in immigrant-receiving countries like the USA and Australia, but it has become an increasingly important issue throughout the world, as social and political changes have increased the amount of contact among people from different ethnic groups and, in some cases, have led to ethnic conflict. Social scientists have attempted to understand ethnic identity from a variety of perspectives. This research paper examines the development of ethnic identity and the ways in which ethnic identity changes over time and contexts. It concludes with a discussion of the implications of ethnic identity.

1. The Formation Of Ethnic Identity

1.1 The Beginnings Of Ethnic Identity

An ethnic identity is developed and modified as individuals become aware of other groups and of the ethnic differences between themselves and others, and attempt to understand the meaning of their ethnicity within the larger setting. Ethnic identity may have its origins in the infant’s attachment to caregivers and the fear of strangers that is experienced early in life. The family provides the initial bases for feelings about what is normal and comfortable, and these feelings are generally supported in the immediate community. In homogeneous settings, familiar practices are not recognized as ethnic.

Once children encounter others who are different in appearance, language, behaviors, or attitudes, they begin to categorize themselves and others. Frances Aboud (1987) has shown that children learn their ethnic self-label between the ages of four and seven years, although the age varies with the group and the amount of contact with other groups. By eight or ten years of age, children develop an understanding of ethnic constancy (the fact that their ethnicity does not change over time or superficial changes). Cognitive developmental level influences the way in which children understand ethnicity. Young children understand ethnicity in literal and concrete terms, defined by food, customs, and language. With increasing cognitive competence, children begin to develop a group consciousness and to understand ethnicity in terms of norms and values (Quintana 1998).

Socialization plays an important role in the content and meaning children attach to their own ethnicity. Children acquire knowledge about their ethnic culture through the process of enculturation (Bernal and Knight 1993). Children’s feelings about their ethnicity are influenced from an early age by the family and community. When families provide strong positive images of their ethnicity, children’s early feelings about their ethnic group are likely to be positive. A vital ethnic community also provides a context in which children can form a positive sense of their group.

Children are influenced as well by messages from other groups and the larger society. When a group is held in lower esteem or is disparaged by others, these negative messages may become internalized. Children may then hold conflicting or negative feelings about their ethnicity and express the desire to belong to another group. However, in childhood ethnic identity remains largely unexamined; that is, children have not thought through for themselves the meaning of their ethnic group membership (Phinney 1989).

1.2 The Search For A Meaningful Ethnic Identity

Beyond childhood, the process of ethnic identity development becomes more complex. During adolescence, identity formation is a critical developmental task, particularly in complex modern societies. Like ego identity, the process of ethnic identity has been conceptualized in terms of stages, with an individual moving from the unexamined attitudes of childhood, through a moratorium or period of exploration, to a secure achieved ethnic identity at the end of adolescence (Phinney 1989). The moratorium period begins for adolescents as a result of their increasing cognitive ability, their growing understanding of social and historical processes, and in some cases, personal experiences of discrimination. As ethnic identity becomes a salient issue, many youths, especially those from ethnic groups with lower status or power, question the meaning of their ethnicity and its place in the larger context (Phinney 1989).

This search for a meaningful ethnic identity can lead to a wide range of emotional reactions, both positive and negative. Individuals may become deeply involved in learning about their ethnicity. This process may lead to exaggerated claims about their group. It may result in constructive and creative actions aimed at affirming the value and legitimacy of one’s group and establishing a positive basis for a group identity (Tajfel and Turner 1986).

Conversely, the process of examining and dealing with the social implications of one’s ethnicity may lead to feelings of insecurity, confusion, or anger. Individuals who are confused or ambivalent about their ethnic identity are likely to react more strongly to perceived threats to their ethnicity (Worchel 1999). They may experience strong negative feelings toward other groups, particularly in cases where a group has been the victim of negative or exploitative intergroup behaviors or where group members feel that their needs and aspirations are being thwarted. Such attitudes can lead to violence when legitimate means of ethnic affirmation are seen as ineffective. Much interethnic violence results from feelings of threat to one’s ethnic identity. This process is assumed to be relevant primarily to disadvantaged minority groups, but it can apply as well to members of a dominant group who feel threatened by changing demographics, for example as a result of large-scale immigration.

1.3 The Achievement And Internalization Of Ethnic Identity

The optimal outcome of the ethnic identity formation process is the achievement of a secure and confident sense of one’s ethnicity. This mature sense of self as an ethnic group member is assumed to include positive feelings about one’s group and to be a source of personal strength and positive self-evaluation (Phinney 1989, Tajfel and Turner 1986). Feeling secure about one’s own ethnic identity is also assumed to be associated with more positive attitudes toward other groups. An achieved ethnic identity may be related to the ability to assume the perspective of other groups, to adopt a multicultural perspective, and to see the place of one’s own group in a larger perspective.

2. Ethnic Identity Across Time And Contexts

Although developmental processes underlie the formation of ethnic identity, ethnic identity may be renegotiated throughout life in response to individual, contextual, and historical changes. Ethnic identity varies in the short term over differing contexts, with strong ethnic feelings emerging in settings where ethnicity is highly salient, such as traditional ethnic celebrations, and receding in settings which deemphasize ethnicity. Many bicultural individuals experience variation in the strength of their group identities as they move between ethnic and nonethnic contexts, such as home, school, and workplace, and change their language and behaviors to suit the context.

2.1 Ethnic Identity And Immigration

Group identity issues are raised most dramatically when individuals and groups move across national and cultural borders, or when political borders change around stable groups. As migrants, refugees, guest workers, and other travelers come in contact with other cultures, questions of identity are raised both for the mobile groups and for the societies where they settle. These processes are highly dependent on the environmental context, including the size and structure of ethnic communities, the history and current status of ethnic groups in the larger society, and attitudes of other members of the society toward diversity.

For immigrants, changes in ethnic identity over time depend on a number of influences, including age at time of immigration and generation of immigration (that is, whether one is an immigrant, child of immigrants, grandchild of immigrants, etc.). Adult immigrants typically retain a strong identity with their culture of origin without identifying strongly as members of the larger society. Children who migrate at a young age adapt more quickly than their parents to a new setting and are likely to become bicultural, identifying with both the ethnic group and the larger society.

2.2 Retention Of Ethnic Identity

For later generations of immigrants, that is, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and for stable ethnic groups within larger societies, the retention of ethnic identity depends both on factors within the ethnic group and on the broader societal or historical context. Ethnic group members differ in the extent to which they desire to retain their culture and the degree to which they wish to become part of the larger society. Societies differ widely in their relations with minority groups, their policies toward ethnic groups, and the attitudes of members of society toward immigrants and minorities.

As a result of these varied influences, ethnic groups and their individual members may adopt different group identity modes, similar to modes of acculturation (Berry 1990). When individuals or groups wish to retain their ethnic identity and maintain their ethnic language and customs, and when ethnic institutions support such activities, ethnic identity can remain strong over long periods. If they also develop a sense of belonging to the larger society, they become bicultural or integrated. If they retain a strong ethnic identity and do not become part of the larger society, either by choice or because of nonacceptance, they may be described as separated. On the other hand, individuals and groups who give up their ethnic identity and become identified with the larger society are assimilated. Finally, those who give up their ethnic identity but do not become part of the larger society are seen as marginalized.

The ways in which these patterns play out over time is highly variable. Ethnic communities may be maintained over many generations and can be revitalized when circumstances permit. Groups that are culturally or phenotypically different from the larger society, or that experience prejudice and discrimination, may remain separated over many generations, as in the case of gypsies in Europe or African Americans in the USA. For these groups, ethnic identity typically remains strong and salient over time. In contrast, when distinctive cultural or phenotypic markers are absent and when there is little desire to maintain one’s ethnic culture, assimilation is likely in the third and later generations, as has been the case for most European Americans in the USA (Waters 1990).

3. Implications Of Ethnic Identity

Because of the centrality of ethnic identity for group members, together with social and political processes that support or threaten such an identity, ethnic identity can have positive or negative implications for the individual and for the larger society.

Most psychological research has shown that ethnic identity is positively associated with psychological well-being, but the relationship is complex, and the impact is likely to depend on the particular aspect of ethnic identity being considered. A widely used measure of ethnic identity (Roberts et al. 1998) suggest two distinct components of ethnic identity: an affective component, comprising a sense of belonging and positive feelings about one’s group; and a developmental component, involving the extent to which one has explored and resolved ethnic identity issues (Phinney 1990). The affective component shows a consistent though modest correlation with self-esteem; those who feel more positive about their own ethnicity have higher self-esteem and lower levels of depression. Conversely, internalized negative feelings about one’s own group are related to negative feelings about oneself. The developmental component has a weaker relationship with psychological well-being, perhaps because of the variability of attitudes that occur during development. Nevertheless, the attainment of a secure and confident identity appears to be the basis of positive feelings about oneself and others.

Feelings of belonging to the larger society also contribute to well-being. Research with immigrants has shown a bicultural identity to be the most adaptive, and a marginal identity to be the least adaptive (Berry 1990). When individuals and groups have the freedom to express their values and practice their ethnic customs, ethnic identity can be the basis of powerful positive feelings. Societies that thwart the desire of ethnic group members to affirm and express their group identity may experience turmoil and violence (Worchel 1999).

The study of ethnic identity is relatively recent in psychology. The knowledge that we have is based on a limited amount of research, and there are many areas in need of study. Longitudinal studies are needed to provide deeper insight into the processes by which ethnic identity changes over time. Links to other aspects of identity need to be explored, to determine the extent to which ethnic identity is similar to or different from national, racial, cultural, or other group identities. Research has focused on relatively few groups and situations; future research should extend the range of groups studied and the national and regional settings that provide contexts for ethnic identity development and expression. Increased collaboration among researchers from different countries would be valuable in exploring whether the current findings apply to the wide diversity of ethnic groups in the world. Finally, because the study of ethnic identity remains fragmented, there is need for conceptual models that can integrate research across different settings. Because of the growing importance of ethnicity throughout the world, it is imperative for the behavioral sciences to gain a better understanding of ethnic identity and its implications for society.


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