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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2022  |  Volume : 38  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 213-220

Process of identity development and psychological functioning: A critical narrative review for the Indian context

Department of Psychology, Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission11-Jul-2020
Date of Decision27-Aug-2020
Date of Acceptance03-Oct-2020
Date of Web Publication08-Oct-2021

Correspondence Address:
D Rajagopalreddy
Don Bosco Navajeevan Rehabilitation Centre, Pragathi Nagar, Ramanthapur, Medchal, Hyderabad - 500 013, Telangana
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_202_20

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Background: Identity is a crucial milestone achievement for adolescents to become contributing adult members in society. This narrative research focused on exploring the link between identity development and psychological functioning and understanding the process of Indian adolescents' and adults' identity development and psychological functioning. Often, the Indian identity researchers use the theories of identity development conceptualized by Erikson, James Marcia and Michael Berzonsky which have been primarily conceptualized to understand the process of individual's identity development in the western individualistic cultural context. These theorists based their theories on certain essential contextual conditions, for the individuals' identity development. This review article critically explored the availability and applicability of those contextual conditions for Indian adolescents' and adults' identity development. Methods: The articles for the review were mainly collected from the online databases such as PROQUEST Research Library, Taylor and Francis, the archives of the Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry, the archives of the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, EBSCO, and Google. A narrative review method was used to examine various elements of the process of identity development conceptualized by the mainstream identity development theorists Erikson, James Marcia, and Michael Berzonsky and their applicability to the process of Indian adolescents' and adults' identity development. Results: The review found that the processes of mainstream identity development theories have some serious limitations in their applicability to the Indian context. Conclusions: This article identified alternative identity development processes and interventions that could be used to enhance Indian adolescents' and adults' identity development.

Keywords: Ethnic identity, identity development, identity interventions, psychological functioning

How to cite this article:
Rajagopalreddy D, Varghese K. Process of identity development and psychological functioning: A critical narrative review for the Indian context. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2022;38:213-20

How to cite this URL:
Rajagopalreddy D, Varghese K. Process of identity development and psychological functioning: A critical narrative review for the Indian context. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 3];38:213-20. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2022/38/3/213/327746

  Introduction Top

Erikson[1] recognized that to become happy and productive adults, adolescents need to attain their identity, as identity provides a sense of direction to the individual's life.[2] Moreover, those adolescents and adults who do not form an identity synthesis would end up in role confusion.[1] Identity development begins in adolescence, as the adolescent, who so far has been modeling oneself after the significant adults; now during the adolescence because of the well-developed intellectual abilities, needs to synthesize past identifications[3] with current experiences and with the future dreams[4] into a clear ego structure. This ego structure enables the adolescents and the adults to understand themselves, to make meaningful personal choices, to direct their energies toward intentional goals, and to attain meaning in life.[2] As a process of identity achievement, the individuals need to resolve three major identity commitment issues that affect the future course of their life: commitment to a vocation, to a set of values or ideology, and to sexual identity.[3] Commitment to an occupation enables them to make a meaningful contribution to society; to a set of values to make choices concerning social, religious, and political ideologies; and to sexual identity to form satisfying intimate relationships with other individuals.[5] Individuals who complete the process of identity development and attain identity would attain the virtue of fidelity which enables deeper loyalty to people and society.[5] Even though the process of identity development peaks in adolescence, it is never completed in adolescence or young adulthood. The process of identity development lasts throughout an individual's life,[5] and individuals are continuously engaged in the process of identity development throughout their lifespan.

  Methods Top

This review article followed a narrative review method. Unlike the systematic review, the articles reviewed in this study varied in range. This review focused on the results and conclusions drawn from various articles and established theories. The articles for the review were mainly collected from the online databases such as PROQUEST Research Library, Taylor and Francis, the archives of the Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry, the archives of the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, EBSCO, and Google. These databases were chosen to search and identify the articles related to the process of identity development, as the general reading on the process of identity development revealed that the process of identity development is influenced by the individuals' social and psychological factors as well as cultural backgrounds. Some of these databases contained articles related to the social and psychological factors that influence the process of individuals' identity development, and others contained the articles related to the social and cultural aspects of individuals' identity development. The following search terms were used: psychological functioning, identity development, identity statuses, identity processing styles, identity interventions, ethnic identity, Indian marriage, individualistic culture, collectivistic culture, caste system, poverty, and unemployment. These search terms were selected as they enabled the researchers to identify the articles related to the social, psychological, and cultural backgrounds influencing the process of Indian adolescent's identity development and to identify the popular identity development theories and their related subtopics.

Identity development theories

Taking lead from Erikson,[1] several identity researchers expanded the theory of identity development. There are many theories of identity development, some of which are limited to only one aspect of an individual's life such as professional identity development, which focuses only on the individual's profession. On the other hand, the ego identity development theories focus on multiple aspects that affect the individual's entire life. The ethnic identity development theories like the ego identity development theories focus on the individual's entire life in a given cultural context. This article focuses on the process of ego identity development and the ethnic identity development that impact the individuals' entire life. Among the ego identity development theories, Marcia's[6] identity development status model and Berzonsky's[7] identity processing styles gained many researchers' attention. These two theories were developed in the western individualistic cultural context, yet many identity researchers applied them to various populations. Along with the ego identity development theories, the ethnic identity development which can be effectively applied in the multiple cultural contexts has been attracting many identity researchers' attention. [Table 1] gives a list of some of the studies on ego identity and ethnic identity theories.
Table 1: The ego and ethnic identity development theories

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Marcia's identity statuses

James Marcia's identity status model gained a lot of attention and was applied to a wide range of cultures and populations.[34] Based on the Erikson's concepts of exploration and commitment, Marcia[6] conceptualized four identity statuses: identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium, and identity achievement.[8],[9],[10],[11] The four identity statuses are formed due to the combination of crisis and commitment.[2],[12],[13],[14] The crisis is a period of active exploration and experimentation of various available choices,[6],[35],[36] in the domains of work, values, ideology and relationships.[14] Commitment refers to a selection of clear and consistent personal beliefs and goals[6],[35],[36],[37] and to engage in activities and behaviors that would promote growth in that particular identity domain.[2],[8],[9],[10],[11]

In identity diffusion status, there is a low exploration and low commitment;[10],[34],[36] in identity foreclosed status, there is a low exploration and high commitment;[34],[36] in identity moratorium status, there is a high exploration and low commitment;[34],[36] and in identity achievement status, there is a high exploration and high commitment.[34],[36]

Berzonsky's identity processing styles

Based on Erikson's[1] identity theory and social-cognitive theory, another identity researcher Berzonsky[7] conceptualized three identity processing styles:[34] informational identity processing style, normative identity processing style, and diffuse-avoidant identity style.[8],[15],[16],[17],[18],[19] These styles indicate the way adolescents and adults use social-cognitive strategies either to involve or avoid various tasks related to their identity development.[17],[20] According to the identity processing styles theory, the adolescents and adults in Marcia's[6] identity statuses employ one of these three social-cognitive processing styles to construct or reconstruct their identities.[8],[16],[35]

Individuals who use diffuse-avoidant identity processing styles do not engage in any exploration.[38] They are reluctant to face any identity-related tasks and problems.[39] They procrastinate their identity-related tasks[17],[21] until they are under some pressure to act and decide.[15],[16],[18],[22] They lack a clear sense of self.[23] The individuals who are in Marcia's[6] identity diffused status use this identity processing style.[21],[40]

The individuals who use normative identity processing style do not engage in active self-exploration and make identity commitments based on the suggestions of the significant others.[8],[15],[16],[18],[22],[39] They easily conform to social expectations and show greater levels of obedience to authority.[8] They are generally committed, self-controlled, and goal-oriented,[20],[22] again because of pressure from significant people and society.[17] The individuals who are in Marcia's[6] identity foreclosure status use this identity processing style.[21],[40]

The individuals who use informational identity processing styles make identity commitments[38] through the process of self-exploration.[21],[41] They actively explore and evaluate relevant information[19],[39],[42] related to their identity and make an identity commitment.[15],[16],[18] Although they form realistic self-beliefs, they tend to be flexible about them.[35] This enables them to be open to the new realistic insights about who they are[35] and to incorporate those new insights into their already existing identity structures.[17],[21] The individuals who are in Marcia's[6] identity achievement and identity moratorium status use this identity processing style.[21],[40]

Identity development and psychological functioning

According to the Erikson's[1] identity theory, identity enables the individuals to become contributing members to society. Psychological functioning is an individual's mental health status that plays a crucial role in one's contribution to society. The psychological functioning can be established on a continuum from positive to negative. Individuals who exhibit positive psychological functioning would possess high self-esteem,[43],[44],[45] wisdom,[43] and internal locus of control[44] and engage in the process of self-realization and experience life satisfaction,[44] and happiness.[43] Those individuals who exhibit negative psychological functioning experience depression,[44],[46] low self-esteem, and distress,[45] they externalize the problems and experience severe anxiety and exhibit behavioral problems.[46] In the following section, this review focused on exploring the relationship between Berzonsky's[7] identity processing styles and psychological functioning. Since studies[21],[40] already established the relationship between Marcia's[6] identity development statuses and Berzonsky's[7] identity processing styles, the relationship between Marcia's[6] identity development statuses and psychological functioning is not included in this review. [Table 2] gives a brief description of each of the three identity processing styles and their impact on the individuals' psychological functioning.
Table 2: The three identity processing styles and their relationship with psychological functioning

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Diffuse-avoidant identity processing style and psychological functioning

These individuals possess low levels of self-awareness,[18] self-regulation,[35] emotional intelligence,[18],[23],[41] and low self-esteem and experience depressive symptoms.[22],[25] They have weak commitments[21],[47] and lack a sense of purpose.[47] Due to this, they are driven by values such as power, pleasure principles, and self-satisfaction[8] and show little self-control.[21],[51] They tend to be very self-critical[22] and have very low or negative expectations about success; because of this, they do not engage in serious planning and hard work[17] and waste their energy in a lot of task-irrelevant behaviors.[22],[49] When faced with external pressures, they employ self-handicapped[23],[35] and maladaptive strategies like emotion-focused coping,[22] external locus of control,[19],[21] avoidant-copying,[18] and rumination.[20] They are primarily focused on denying the reality of a stressful situation[22] or developing a lot of face-saving strategies to protect themselves from facing failures.[23] They have difficulties in forming deeper interpersonal relationships with other individuals.[47] Instead of focusing on forming deep interpersonal relationships with others, using the situational cues, they try to impress others.[23]

Normative identity processing style and psychological functioning

These individuals have a clear life purpose and set goals.[47] They have a high commitment;[47] at the same time, they are not open to any new information that would challenge their deeply held personal beliefs and commitment.[17],[22] When confronted with any information that invalidates their deeply held self-beliefs they become defensive,[49] and at times even distort or deny the reality.[22] They tend to choose performance-oriented goals[50] and perform well in structured settings. They struggle to cope with open-ended situations where they are expected to function independently.[47] They also use problem-focused coping in dealing with external pressures.[18] Yet, in moments of stress, they need reassurance and social support from significant others.[22] They find it difficult to deal with ambiguity and uncertainties and need a strong structure to rely upon.[19],[20],[21] They also engage in rumination[20] and in the activities that are not under their control and experience obsessive passions.[38] They possess prejudiced interpersonal views and respond to others in a stereotypical manner.[21] They scored low on delinquency.[52]

  Informational identity processing style and psychological functioning Top

These individuals demonstrate high emotional autonomy[41],[47] and self-discipline[21] and possess higher levels of emotional intelligence.[18] They form intimate relationships with others[41],[51] and experience generativity and psychological adjustment.[51] While they have a deep intimate relationship with other individuals, they do not over depend on others for emotional support.[18] When engaged in task completion, they evaluate all the available options and possible solutions and with an appropriate plan complete the task.[18],[22],[49] They use problem-focused coping strategies,[21],[41] and in truly uncontrollable situations, cognitively restructure the events and cope with them.[22] They are highly self-reflective and focus on understanding their mental processes.[20],[22] They possess an openness to life experiences[22] and demonstrate tolerance for others' views and beliefs.[47] They are focused on self-actualization,[18],[39] possess wisdom,[39],[48] and experience meaning and happiness.[39] They engage in mindfulness and positive savoring activities that deepen their relationship with others and with the self.[48] They are self-directed and goal oriented[47] and use mature defense styles in dealing with life stressors.[18] Milner and Ferrari[50] found that these individuals engage in mastery goals that involve challenges, alternative learning strategies, and novel activities; and the thoughts of failures or negative results do not affect them. Bouizegarene et al.[38] found that these individuals would engage in activities that are under one's control. Studies on students reveal that students with informational identity processing styles performed well in academics.[17],[47] Another study found only partial support for the relationship between the informational identity processing style and the students' success.[53]

The individuals using information identity processing styles generally have optimum psychological functioning, yet they are also susceptible to negative psychological functioning. In their process of self-exploration, some of these individuals end up making wrong choices and experience obsessive passions.[38] Courey and Pare[52] found that adolescents with informational identity processing style did not much involve in delinquency; at the same time, some of them who had low self-control engaged in heavy drug use.

From the reviewed literature, one can conclude that individuals who use informational identity processing styles would have optimum positive psychological functioning. According to the Marcia's[6] model, the individuals who are in identity achievement and identity moratorium, which is a transitional status, use the informational processing style.[21],[40] Due to this, one can conclude that the individuals in identity achievement status would have optimal positive psychological functioning.

  Discussion Top

Challenges with the theoretical application to the Indian context

Identity is an important milestone to be at least partially attained in the adolescence. Today many identity development researchers argue that identity development is rarely completed in adolescence and it lasts throughout an individual's life.[5] Both the identity theorists James Marcia[6] and Berzonsky[7] based their theories on Erikson's[1] identity theory that focused on three main elements of an individual's identity development: commitment to an occupation, to an ideology, and a relationship.[3] According to these theorists, an individual can attain identity, only after sufficient exploration of available choices in each of these identity elements, and finally committing to an identity choice for each of these identity elements.[6],[35],[36] This approach to the process of identity development has some serious limitations in its applicability to the Indian context.[54]

The Indian adolescents and adults live in a context of large population and limited educational and occupational choices,[55],[56] and the majority of the Indian families fall under the category of the middle class or below the poverty line.[54] Along with this, though all the Indians share collectivistic cultural background, many of them belong to one or the other ethnic, caste, or regional groups, each with its own distinctive ideology and value system,[57],[58] and regarding choosing a life partner, many Indians follow the norms of arranged marriages.[57],[59],[60]

The identity commitment to an occupational choice has some challenges in the Indian context. India has many adolescents and young adults and has only limited educational and occupational choices,[55],[56] and some children and adolescents do not even get an opportunity to study and are forced into child labor.[61] Many Indian adults, who completed their education, are still in search of a stable job[62] and do not find an occupation matching their educational qualifications and personal aspirations. Added to this many Indian adolescents come either from middle class or lower-middle class families,[54] which are not in a position to provide financial assistance toward their adolescents' exploration in the area of occupation.[63] Maybe a few privileged Indian adolescents and adults would not be affected by this limitation. Often, many of these adolescents and adults may not have many occupational choices to choose,[62] rather get into the available occupation, to financially support themselves and their families. A similar kind of limitation was raised by other authors about these theories' applicability to resource scarce countries.[64]

The identity commitment to values and ideology has some serious limitations for the Indian context. The mainstream identity development theories emerged from the western individualistic cultural context.[64] The individuals' search for an ideology which has its base in the western individualistic culture has limitations in its application to the Indian collectivistic cultural context.[57],[58] Unlike the individualistic cultures where the individual's goals and needs take priority over the group's needs and goals,[64] in the collectivistic cultures, the community's goals and survival take priority over the individual's needs and goals.[57],[58],[60] Due to this, any ideology that seems to cause a threat to the community's culture and existence would be strongly resisted and blocked.[64] In such situations, it is a big challenge for Indian adolescents and adults to explore various ideologies and to finally commit oneself to any ideology and still more challenging to choose an ideology that would either opposes or do not go with their community's ideology.[57] Many Indian adolescents grow up in the context of regional, ethnic, or caste cultures. Moreover, each ethnic community and caste has its own ideology which is commonly accepted by all the members from that ethnic or caste group.[55],[65] Any individual's attempts to choose alternative ideology would face strong resistance from the community. Many Indian newspapers reports often depict the harsh measures and honor killings the caste promoters used to protect their caste ideology and identity.[66],[67] In this context, only a very few adolescents and adults who are coming from liberal-thinking families may have an opportunity to engage in ideological exploration.

The identity commitment concerning forming sexual relationships also has many limitations for the Indian context. Although in India some of the late adolescents and young adults may engage in premarital relationships with the persons of the opposite sex,[68] the free dating relationship between the persons of the opposite sex is not openly encouraged in the Indian culture. Often, the family finalizes the marriage partner or is a party in fixing the life partner for the young adults.[57],[59],[60],[69] Only those adolescents and young adults coming from liberal families may enjoy the freedom to explore and choose a life partner through dating relationships. The majority of adolescents and young adults, even though some are in dating relationships,[68] often do it clandestinely. This is because of the fear of family disapproval. If the partners are from two different caste groups, then along with the family, they also face strong resistance and at times ostracization from the society.[65] Often, this happens because of the hierarchical system present in the Indian caste system.[69] Indian newspapers often report honor killings because a boy or girl from the upper caste entered into a romantic or marital relationship with the person from a lower caste group.[66] Due to this, if the adolescent or emerging adult feels that the person from the other caste is a perfect life partner, the Indian caste barriers would make it very challenging for them to pursue that relationship. With so many strong social barriers, unlike for their counterparts in the western culture, it is a big challenge for Indian adolescents and adults to enter into dating relationships and choose a life partner.

With the analysis of the three major identity commitments, one can conclude that the process of identity development theories conceptualized from the western individualistic cultural context has some serious limitations in their applicability to the process of Indian adolescents' and adults' identity development.

Many Indian adolescents and adults because of their collectivistic[57] cultural world views might give priority to the family's[59] and community's goals and needs than to their own goals and aspirations[58] because of which, unlike their counterparts in the western individualistic cultures,[64] they may not have developed clear personal goals and ideologies, and a vast majority of them may not even choose a life partner through dating relationships, rather go for an arranged marriage, which is part of their cultural heritage. If the identity development theory proposed by Marcia[6] and Berzonsky[7] is applied to these individuals, their identity scores might place them either in identity foreclosed status or normative identity processing style. In the same line of thinking, one can wrongly conclude that these adolescents and adults would show signs of positive psychological functioning only in some domains. In reality, many of these Indians are contributing members to society just like their western counterparts who are in identity achieved status or who use informational identity processing styles. Hence, the process of identity development theories proposed by James Marcia[6] and Berzonsky[7] has serious limitations in their application to the Indian context, and they can be implemented only in an ideal individualistic context and where the individuals have all the needed resources and required freedom to choose, which is hardly possible in the Indian context.

As these predominant mainstream identity processing theories have limitations in their applicability to the Indian adolescents' and adults' identity development, the Indian identity researchers could use the process of ethnic identity development to understand the Indian adolescents' and adults' identity development. While for the individualistic cultures, it is the personal goal attainment and personal fulfillment that gives optimum positive psychological functioning, for the collectivistic cultures, it is in giving value and priority to the community tasks and endeavors that enable optimum positive psychological functioning. The same has been established through studies on caste and other ethnic identity development. These studies revealed that individuals because of their identification with a particular social group enjoy healthy self-esteem and other positive psychological functioning.[65]

The process of ethnic identity development

The process of ethnic identity development begins with “positive attitudes toward, feelings of belonging to, or pride in one's group.” [24, p. 549] According to Phinney and Ong,[27] the process of ethnic identity development is similar to Marcia's[6],[33] identity development model which consists of exploration and commitment.[24],[25] During the exploration process of ethnic identity development, individuals “come to understand the implications of their ethnicity and make decisions about its role in their lives.” [26, p. 64] The process of ethnic identity exploration can be enhanced through “activities, such as reading and talking to people, learning cultural practices, and attending cultural events.” [27, p. 272] The exploration enables the adolescents and adults from that ethnic background to immerse themselves in the community's culture, its meaning and implications for the living, and eventually to make an identity commitment.[24] The individuals, through a deeper process of exploration, would understand the intricacies of their culture and ethnicity and eventually make an ethnic identity commitment. The formation of the ethnic identity, like the ego identity, would last an individual's lifetime.[33]

Studies on ethnic identity found that like ego identity development, the development of ethnic identity also enables positive psychological functioning for adolescents and adults.[28],[29] Many ethnic identity development interventions were developed and successfully implemented for adolescents coming from various ethnic groups. Most of these interventions were carried out on African–American adolescents through small group-based activities either in the school or after school settings[28] and found positive results. Some of the positive effects of these interventions were an increase in the ethnic identity resolution,[29],[30],[31],[32] increase in exploration, self-esteem, and a decrease in depressive symptoms.[29],[31] Ethnic identity interventions also contributed to an increase in global identity cohesion.[29] These studies show that through enhancing adolescents' and emerging adults' ethnic identity, one can increase their positive psychological functioning.

Since the ethnic identity focuses on building the adolescent's identity within one's racial and cultural context and enhances positive psychological functioning,[29],[31] it can be effectively promoted in the Indian multiple cultural contexts. As India is a home for many cultures and caste groups,[55] the psychologists could work toward developing ethnic identity intervention programs for each cultural group[70] and assist the Indian adolescents and adults to engage in a deeper exploration of their culture, cultural practices, and value system. It is important that the Indian adolescents and adults are given the freedom and needed opportunities to engage in a deeper process of exploration of their culture, its meaning, and ethnic practices and so on, so that eventually they would arrive at an ethnic identity commitment and attain positive psychological functioning and become contributing members in their ethnic community and in the Indian society at large.

  Conclusion Top

This narrative review found a positive relationship between identity achievement and positive psychological functioning. The identity-achieved individuals enjoy optimum positive psychological functioning than other individuals who have not completed or attended to their identity-related challenges and tasks. The other finding of this study is the process of identity development proposed by James Marcia[6] and Berzonsky[7] has serious limitations in their applicability for the Indian collectivistic cultural context.[57] This process of identity development might work for a country that has plenty of resources and a small number of populations and follows individualistic culture. The adolescents and adults from the Indian and other collectivistic cultural contexts[58] may not be going through the same process of identity development just like their counterparts in the west. India with many adolescents and adults and with limited occupational choices[55] would not be able to provide needed exploration in the area of occupation like the western countries that have a small number of individuals and many occupational choices. In the area of ideological choices and choosing romantic partners,[59],[60] the Indians who are living in a collectivistic cultural background go through a very different process than their counterparts in the western individualistic cultures. Due to all these limitations, the mainstream identity development process theories cannot be effectively applied to the majority of the Indian population; maybe a small group of Indians may be having similar privileges like their counterparts in the western countries. As an alternative to the mainstream identity development theories, the process of ethnic identity development can be applied to understand the process of identity development among Indian adolescents and adults.


The country like India with multiple languages, castes, and ethnic groups requires various identity development intervention programs. The psychologists working with individuals from a particular ethnic group need to develop an ethnic identity intervention program that enhances those ethnic group members' ethnic identity and subsequently positive psychological functioning. In a similar way, Indian psychologists need to develop multiple ethnic identity development interventions to enhance the ethnic identity and positive psychological functioning of various ethnic group members.

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Conflicts of interest

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