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date: 22 October 2017

Communicating Personal and Social Identity in Adolescence

Summary and Keywords

A main developmental task for young people is to form a coherent and stable sense of personal and social identity. In fact, in adolescence (from ages 10 to 18), the multiple biological, cognitive, and social changes that occur stimulate young people to rethink about themselves, to reflect on the kind of person they want to become, and to find their own place in the society. Similarly, in emerging adulthood (from ages 19 to 29), young people have the possibility to explore a large array of alternatives in multiple life domains (e.g., education, work, relationships, worldviews) before enacting enduring adult commitments. Process-oriented identity models have been proposed to capture the dynamic process by which young people form and revise their identity over time, committing to relevant life domains, reflecting on their choices, and reconsidering them when they no longer fulfill personal aspirations and/or social expectations.

This dynamic process is strongly intertwined with interpersonal and group communication processes. In fact, youth identity formation does not occur in a social vacuum; rather, young people form their identity by means of continuous interactions with significant others and relevant social groups. In particular, in youth, family, peers, and school represent main social contexts in which communication processes are likely to affect young people’s identities. Thus, communication processes are crucial for obtaining identity-relevant information that might foster individuals’ reflection on themselves and processes of social comparisons. Furthermore, through communication processes young people can manage their own reputation, striving to achieve and maintain a good reputation within relevant groups. Individuals’ efforts to enhance reputation are, indeed, important for gaining symbolic (e.g., satisfaction of esteem needs) and instrumental (e.g., the likelihood to be trusted by others and becoming influential) benefits that are important for youth psychosocial adjustment and well-being.

Keywords: identity processes, identity statuses, identity synthesis, identity confusion, social identity, adolescence, emerging adulthood, communication, family, reputation, intergroup communication

A main developmental task for young people is to form a coherent and stable sense of personal and social identity. In fact, in adolescence (from ages 10 to 18), the multiple biological, cognitive, and social changes that occur stimulate young people to rethink about themselves, to reflect on the kind of person they want to become, and to find their own place in the society (Erikson, 1968; Meeus, 2011). Similarly, in emerging adulthood (from ages 19 to 29), young people have the possibility to explore a large array of alternatives in multiple life domains (e.g., education, work, relationships, worldviews) before enacting enduring adult commitments (Arnett, 2000, 2004). Various identity models have been proposed and developed to capture the dynamic process by which young people form and revise their identity over time, committing to relevant life domains, reflecting on their choices, and reconsidering them when they no longer fulfill personal aspirations and/or social expectations (e.g., Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008).

This dynamic process is strongly intertwined with interpersonal and group communication. Communication serves two important functions for youth identities. First, communication is crucial for obtaining identity-relevant information that might foster individuals’ reflection on themselves and processes of social comparisons (i.e., communication as a means to form identity). Furthermore, through communication young people can manage their own image and presentation (i.e., communication as a means to share one’s own identity), striving to achieve and maintain a good reputation within relevant groups (Emler, 1990; Emler & Reicher, 1995; Estévez & Emler, 2009). Individuals’ efforts to enhance reputation are, indeed, important for gaining symbolic (e.g., satisfaction of esteem needs) and instrumental (e.g., the likelihood to be trusted by others and becoming influential) benefits (Cavazza, Guidetti, & Pagliaro, 2015) that are important for youth psychosocial adjustment and well-being.

This chapter further discusses how these two functions of communication are intertwined with the processes by which young people develop their identities. It will mainly focus on Eriksonian conceptualizations of identity, starting with Erikson’s seminal psychosocial theory and continuing with models that have progressively increased the understanding of the dynamic process by which young people form and change their identities. More specifically, this chapter will discuss the identity status paradigm (Marcia, 1966), the identity style model (Berzonsky, 1989) until the more recent process models (the three-factor model, Crocetti et al., 2008; the five-dimensional model, Luyckx et al., 2008). We will then consider the relevance of social identity (Tajfel, 1972; Tarrant et al., 2001) and intergroup communication in adolescence (e.g., Williams & Garrett, 2012). In presenting each identity framework, we will discuss the interplay of identity and communication, focusing on the two functions of communication. Thus, the chapter will discuss how (1) communication is a means to form identity; and (2) communication is a means to share one’s owns identity.

Identity As the Core Youth Developmental Task

Facing Life Span Developmental Tasks: The Adolescent Crossroad

Erikson (1950, 1968) proposed an epigenetic theory of psychological development that embraced the entire lifespan. According to his theory, the life course can be divided into eight qualitatively distinct phases or stages. In each stage, individuals face a core developmental conflict, and the extent to which they succeed in resolving this conflict determines the likelihood of transitioning smoothly to subsequent developmental tasks.

Within the entire epigenetic chart, the adolescent phase represents a crossroad, a bridge between childhood and later adulthood. Thus, earlier experiences pose the basis for facing the core developmental conflict of this period (identity versus identity confusion). Young people who successfully face this task reach a condition of identity synthesis or coherence, in which they have combined and integrated relevant earlier identifications in a unique and personal way. On the contrary, young people who fail in coping with the identity formation task remain in a status of identity confusion, in which they have not chosen their own commitments, and they do not hold meaningful identifications that could provide them with a sense of direction.

The Interplay Between Identity Synthesis/Confusion and Communication

Erikson (1950, 1968) emphasized the importance of the context for identity formation, suggesting that positive completion of this developmental task is strongly dependent on the quality of family functioning. Recent empirical research conducted within Erikson’s framework has provided empirical support to this notion, showing the importance of communication within the family group for promoting a healthy identity development. For instance, correlational data indicated that in early adolescence parental communication was positively related to identity coherence and negatively linked to identity confusion (Schwartz, Mason, Pantin, & Szapocznik, 2008). Moreover, in a longitudinal study with high school students, Reis and Youniss (2004) found that mother-adolescent communication and support predicted decreases in identity confusion over a two-year period. Similarly, Schwartz, Mason, Pantin, and Szapocznik (2009) found that positive family functioning was associated with a decrease in identity confusion in adolescents. More specifically, during early adolescence, the directionality was characterized primarily by parent-reported family functioning predicting identity confusion. However, as participants entered middle adolescence, identity confusion began to predict both adolescent and parent reports of family functioning.

Overall, this evidence suggests that communication is an important means for obtaining identity-relevant information and, thus, for stimulating and supporting a search for a personal sense of identity. As adolescents grow up and their identity becomes better established (in terms of less confusion), the relationship between communication and identity becomes more bidirectional. Adolescents can then communicate to others, by means of their choices, attitudes, and behaviors, that they are moving forward in the process of synthetizing a personal sense of identity. The communication of this maturation is positively perceived by significant others and, therefore, it leads to more symmetric and nurturing relationships (Crocetti, Branje, Rubini, Koot, & Meeus, 2017).

In this section, we have underlined that identity formation is the core developmental task for adolescence. The extent to which young people are successful in coping with this task is represented by the degree to which they reach a condition of identity synthesis (combining and integrating relevant earlier identifications in a unique and personal way) as opposed to being in a status of identity confusion (characterized by a lack of meaningful identifications that could provide them with a sense of direction). Importantly, identity synthesis and identity confusion are significantly related to family communication, in such a way that high-quality parental communication promotes adolescents’ identity synthesis and reduces identity confusion. During adolescence, this process of influence becomes more reciprocal, so that not only communication supports identity formation but also achievement of a stable identity improves the quality of family communication.

Different Ways of Dealing With the Identity Formation Task

The Identity Status Paradigm

Marcia’s (1966) identity status paradigm is the most well-known and widely used elaboration of Erikson’s views on identity formation. Marcia shared the notion that adolescence is a period of crisis in which important commitments need to be assumed. From his clinical work, Marcia proposed, in addition to the two poles proposed by Erikson (i.e., identity synthesis vs. identity confusion), other ways, named identity statuses, of dealing with the identity formation task.

Specifically, these statuses could be meaningfully differentiated by taking into account two dimensions: exploration (i.e., the active questioning and weighing of various identity alternatives before making decisions about the values, beliefs, and goals that one will pursue), and commitment (i.e., making a relatively firm choice about an identity domain and engaging in significant activities geared toward the implementation of that choice).

Four identity statuses can be obtained by crossing exploration and commitment (Marcia, 1966): In the achievement status, adolescents have made a commitment following a period of active exploration; in the foreclosure status, adolescents have made a commitment with little or no prior exploration; in the moratorium status, adolescents are actively exploring various alternatives and have not yet made a commitment; finally, in the diffusion status, adolescents have not engaged in a proactive process of exploration of different alternatives nor have they made a commitment. Thus, Marcia (1966, 1993) conceptualized identity statuses as a combination of commitment and exploration aimed at representing an individual’s style of coping with the identity crisis.

In line with this conceptualization, research inspired by Marcia’s paradigm has sought to detect interindividual differences among youth classified into the various identity statuses. Consistent evidence has indicated that the identity statuses could be clearly differentiated in terms of personality characteristics and psychosocial problems (for an extensive review, see Kroger & Marcia, 2011). Specifically, adolescents in the achievement status are characterized by highly adaptive personality profiles: In fact, they are highly extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, and open to experience (Clancy & Dollinger, 1993); they report high achievement motivation and self-esteem (Orlofsky, 1978), high internal locus of control (Abraham, 1983), and low authoritarianism (Marcia, 1966, 1993); they use planned decision-making strategies (Blustein & Phillips, 1990) and exhibit a high level of moral reasoning (Skoe & Marcia, 1991). Regarding psychosocial problems, youth in the achievement status display a healthy adjustment characterized by low anxiety and depression and high satisfaction with life (Marcia, 1980; Meeus, Iedema, Helsen, & Vollebergh, 1999). Adolescents in the foreclosure status are characterized by personality features such as high levels of conformity and authoritarianism (Marcia, 1966, 1980) and low openness to new experiences (Clancy & Dollinger, 1993). In terms of adjustment, they report low anxiety, low depression, and high satisfaction with life, similarly to their peers in the achievement status (Meeus et al., 1999). Adolescents in the moratorium status, on the one hand, are comparable to their peers in the achievement status in terms of personality features because they are highly open to new experiences. On the other hand, they differ from identity-achieved adolescents since they report lower extroversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness (Clancy & Dollinger, 1993). A key characteristic of individuals in the moratorium status is their high level of anxiety: these adolescents are looking for satisfying commitments they cannot find, and this generates anxiety (Marcia, 1980; Meeus et al., 1999). They also report high depression and low well-being. Finally, adolescents in the diffusion status exhibit low emotional stability and conscientiousness and moderate levels of openness to experience (Clancy & Dollinger, 1993). Moreover, they report low autonomy and self-esteem (Marcia, 1966), a low sense of personal integration (Berzonsky, Rice, & Neimeyer, 1991), low levels of moral reasoning (Skoe & Marcia, 1991), and inadequate approaches to decision-making processes (Blustein & Phillips, 1990). Regarding well-being, individuals in the diffusion status report moderate levels of adjustment when compared to their peers in the other statuses (Meeus et al., 1999).

Overall, these findings point out that high commitment statuses (i.e., achievement and foreclosure) are characterized by high levels of well-being, positive adjustment, and a condition of identity stability; on the contrary, low commitment statuses (i.e., diffusion and especially moratorium) are typified by a condition of identity distress and by high problem behaviors. Therefore, commitment appears to be the core dimension able to provide individuals with a sense of stability and security (Berzonsky, 2003).

Forming and Communicating Identity: Identity Statuses and Identity Styles

As we mentioned above, identity statuses represent different ways in which individuals can deal with the identity formation task. Communication patterns play an important role in understanding differences among young people classified in these four identity statuses. In this respect, the most important contribution for understanding how individuals in different identity statuses gather information about themselves and communicate who they are to others is provided by the identity style model proposed at the end of the eighties by Berzonsky (1989).

Berzonsky (1989) postulated that at the basis of the four identity statuses there are different social-cognitive strategies or processing orientations that individuals can adopt to deal with or avoid the identity formation task: informational, normative, and diffuse-avoidant orientations. Specifically, individuals with an informational orientation are self-reflective and they actively seek out and evaluate self-relevant information; they are characterized by high openness to experience and need for cognition (Soenens, Duriez, & Goossens, 2005). Those with a normative orientation more automatically internalize and conform to the prescriptions and values of significant others; they show high conscientiousness and need for closure (Berzonsky, 2011). Young people with a diffuse-avoidant orientation procrastinate and delay dealing with identity issues as long as possible; they are characterized by pre-decisional anxiety, procrastination, and avoidance (Berzonsky & Ferrari, 1996).

These orientations are postulated to function at different levels. Social-cognitive strategies refer to the systematic behavioral and cognitive responses individuals engage in as they attempt to deal with identity-relevant issues and information. One’s identity style refers to the social-cognitive strategy that one individual characteristically uses or would prefer to use when dealing with identity conflicts and decisions (Berzonsky, 2011).

A wide corpus of evidence confirmed that identity styles are related to Marcia’s identity statuses, showing a pattern of associations that confirm the theoretical hypotheses (Berzonsky, 2011). Indeed, extant studies indicate that individuals who use either informational or normative styles are most likely to form strong commitments (e.g., Berzonsky, 2003; Berzonsky & Ferrari, 1996). However, information-oriented individuals choose their commitments after having explored various identity alternatives (thus, they are likely to be classified in the achievement identity status), whereas normative-oriented individuals are more prone to choosing their commitments based on the advice of significant others, without considering other alternatives (therefore, they are likely to be in the identity status of foreclosure). On the other hand, individuals with a diffuse-avoidant style are likely to poorly explore identity issues and to avoid commitments, thus remaining in the identity status of diffusion (Berzonsky, 2011).

Individuals with different identity styles can rely on different communication strategies to obtain and discuss information that are relevant for their identities. In this respect, prior studies highlighted that adolescents and emerging adults’ identity styles are intertwined with family communication patterns (Berzonsky, 2011). In particular, Berzonsky, Branje, and Meeus (2007) examined the role that adolescents’ perceptions of parent-adolescent interactions may play in the development of differences in identity styles and evaluated the mediating role of identity styles in the relationship between perceived parental interactions and psychosocial resources in early adolescence. The authors found that parental solicitation (referring to the extent to which parents ask children for information; Stattin & Kerr, 2000) was positively related to the informational style; open communication within the family was positively linked to the normative style; and adolescent disclosure (referring to adolescents’ spontaneous sharing of personal information) was negatively associated with the diffuse-avoidant style. Thus, this evidence suggests that different communication processes are differently related to identity styles.

In addition, Berzonsky and colleagues (2007) found that the identity styles mediate, partly (for parental open communication) or completely (for parental solicitation and adolescent disclosure) the associations between family interactions and identity commitment and self-control. In line with consistent evidence, the informational and especially the normative styles are positively associated with identity commitment, whereas the diffuse-avoidant style is negatively linked to it (e.g., Berzonsky & Ferrari, 1996). Interestingly, the normative style was positively linked to self-regulation, whereas informational and diffuse-avoidant styles were negatively related to it. Taken together, this evidence suggests that the informational style in early adolescence may be less adaptive than the normative one.

In a study with college students, Berzonsky (2004) analyzed associations between different parenting styles (Baumrind, 1971) and identity styles. He found that the authoritative parental style was positively associated with both the informational and normative styles, whereas it was negatively related to the diffuse-avoidant style; the authoritarian style was positively linked with both the normative and diffuse-avoidant styles; and finally, the permissive style was related to the diffuse-avoidant style (Berzonsky, 2004). These findings indicate that different parenting styles, promoting a more or less open communication in the context of higher or lower acceptance of the child, are related to the probability of relying on different identity styles.

This evidence points to the importance of communication for obtaining and handling self-relevant information, highlighting the role of family for adolescents and emerging adults’ developing identities. However, the social network of young people is broader and consideration of other intragenerational exchanges with family (e.g., siblings) and non-family (e.g., friends) members, as well as intergenerational contacts with family (e.g., grandparents) and non-family (e.g., teachers) adults, can shed new light on the interplay between communication and identity. In this regard, Crocetti, Cherubini, and Palmonari (2011) examined the relationship among perception of social support from significant others (i.e., father, mother, brother/sister, best friend, teacher), identity styles, and commitment in adolescents aged 13 to 20 years. The results showed that the support received from the brother/sister, the best friend, and the teacher is positively associated with the informational style; the support received from the father, the mother, and the teacher is positively related to the normative style; and the support received from the mother is negatively linked to the diffuse/avoidant style. Thus, these findings suggest that when adolescents opt for a normative style they mainly rely on support received from adults, whereas endorsement of an informational style is strongly related to supportive relationships with peers, which can provide a suitable context for experimentation of different roles and behavioral models (Sherif & Sherif, 1964). Taken together, this evidence suggests that when adolescents search for information about themselves they can direct their attention toward different targets.

So far, we have looked at identity styles in relation to the first function of communication (i.e., communication as a means to form identity). Now it is important to consider how identity styles are related to the second function of communication (i.e., communication as a means to share one’s owns identity). In this respect, consistent findings reveal that identity styles are differentially associated to the types of self-components on which adolescents rely to define their sense of identity (for a review, see Berzonsky, 2011). Specifically, individuals who adopt an informational style tend to define themselves by means of personal attributes, like “my values,” “my goals,” “my standards.” Adolescents who mainly use a normative style are inclined to rely on collective self-attributes, such as “my family,” “my religion,” “my ethnicity.” Finally, individuals with a diffuse-avoidant style have a propensity to emphasize social self-elements, like “my reputation,” “my popularity,” and “the impression I make on others” (Berzonsky, Macek, & Nurmi, 2003). Thus, this evidence highlights that young people with different identity styles tend also to differ systematically in which aspects of themselves they communicate to others.

Summing up, in this section we have underscored that identity statuses (i.e., achievement, foreclosure, moratorium, and diffusion; Marcia, 1966) represent an individual’s style of coping with the identity crisis. Each status is associated with different identity styles (i.e., informational, normative, and diffuse-avoidant; Berzonsky, 1989), that is, to specific social-cognitive strategies or processing orientations that individuals can adopt to deal with or avoid the identity formation task. Thus, individuals can differ in how they obtain and process identity-relevant information and also on the aspects of their identity that they prefer to communicate and share with others. Thus, identity styles can be understood looking at how people use communication as a means to form their identity as well as a means to share it with others.

The Dynamic Process of Forming and Evaluating Identity

In the last decades, the identity literature rooted in Erikson’s (1950) theory and in Marcia’s (1966) identity status paradigm, has undergone a substantial development, aimed at unraveling the dynamic process by which people form and change their identity over time. In fact, the identity status research has been guided by the intent of providing a classification of individuals rather than studying the process of identity development (Bosma, 1985). The identity statuses were conceived as various outcomes of the adolescent period (Meeus, Iedema, & Maassen, 2002). However, Grotevant (1987), Stephen, Fraser, and Marcia (1992), and Marcia (1993) himself recognized the importance of studying the process of identity formation rather than focusing exclusively on its outcomes.

Bosma (1985) and Meeus (1996) took up this challenge, working on the meaning and function of commitment and exploration. Specifically, Bosma distinguished between commitment making and the extent to which one identifies with a commitment. He further underlined that a commitment may contribute to a clear sense of identity only when adolescents identify themselves with that commitment. Meeus (1996) introduced a new conceptualization of exploration, in-depth exploration, which represents the extent to which adolescents actively reflect on and gather information about current commitments. Thus, whereas in Marcia’s theory exploration involves weighing up various alternatives before a choice is made, Meeus (1996) emphasized the relevance of exploration after a choice is made, which is a “sine qua non” condition to maintain and validate existing commitments.

Building upon Bosma’s (1985) and Meeus’s (1996) contributions, two extensions of Marcia’s (1966) identity status paradigm were proposed in the past decade. We refer to the three-factor model developed by Meeus, Crocetti, and collaborators (Crocetti et al., 2008; Meeus, van de Schoot, Keijsers, Schwartz, & Branje, 2010) and the five-dimensional model proposed by Luyckx and colleagues (2008). Both models proposed a process-oriented approach to identity. In fact, whereas Marcia conceptualized commitment as the outcome of exploration, these models assume that commitments are formed and revised in an iterative process of choosing commitments, evaluating, and questioning them (Meeus, 2011; Meeus et al., 2010).

The Three-Factor Identity Model

Meeus, Crocetti, and colleagues (Crocetti et al., 2008; Meeus et al., 2010), building on previous work by Meeus (1996), Meeus et al. (1999), and Meeus et al. (2002), have expanded the identity status paradigm by proposing a three-factor identity model aimed at capturing the dynamic by which identity is formed and modified over time. This model takes into account three pivotal identity processes. Commitment refers to enduring choices that individuals have made with regard to various developmental domains and to the self-confidence they derive from these choices; in-depth exploration represents the extent to which individuals think actively about the commitments they have enacted (e.g., reflecting on their choices, searching for additional information, talking with others about their commitments); and reconsideration of commitment refers to the comparison of present commitments with possible alternative commitments because the current ones are no longer satisfactory. This conceptualization of reconsideration of commitment is, on the one hand, similar to Marcia’s (1966) definition of exploration because it encompasses the investigation of possible new commitments. On the other hand, it differs from exploration in that it taps into adolescents’ present attempts to change current commitments because they are no longer satisfied with their prior choices. Thus, reconsideration of commitment represents an evaluation of various alternatives that starts from the basis of present commitments, rather than from a lack of commitment, as originally hypothesized by Marcia. In fact, in the three-factor model, in contrast to Marcia’s (1966) conceptualization, it is assumed that individuals approach adolescence with a set of commitments (generally internalized from parents or other authority figures) of at least minimal strength in various identity domains and can then decide to maintain or revise them (Meeus et al., 2010).

The three-factor model includes a dual-cycle process (Meeus, 2011). The interplay between commitment and reconsideration of commitment is at the basis of the identity formation cycle (cycle 1), in which adolescents can compare their present commitments with more appealing alternatives and start to revise their commitments when they are perceived as no longer satisfactory. The interplay between commitment and in-depth exploration is at the basis of the identity maintenance cycle (cycle 2), in which adolescents can validate their current commitments, reflecting on their meaning, and make sure that they provide a good fit with their overall talents and potentials. When in-depth exploration leads, in contrast, to a sense of uncertainty as young people start to doubt and mull over their current commitments, it is possible to go back to the identity formation cycle (Meeus, 2011).

Identity Processes and Communication

In this model, communication is of utmost importance for both the cycles of identity formation and evaluation. In fact, communication is a key component of in-depth exploration. More specifically, in-depth exploration consists of both intrapersonal processes (based on personal reflection on current commitments) and interpersonal processes (based on communication with others). In this context, communication can be used to obtain from others new information about present commitments, to know more about others’ opinions on the choices that have been done, and to share personal questions and feelings about current commitments. For instance, a psychology student involved in the process of exploring in-depth his/her educational choice might have extensive discussions with his/her friends about issues such as “What do you think about psychology?,” “Do you think that psychology is the right topic for me?,” “I strongly like this psychology area, what are your opinions about?,” etc. So, this student can communicate to others his/her choice, the meaning that this commitment has in his/her life and, at the same time, get others’ perspectives. This process can lead (1) to validate existing commitments, increasing the sense of certainty about the choice that has been done (identity maintenance cycle); or (2) to become uncertain about current commitments (back from the identity maintenance cycle to the identity formation cycle). When this latter situation happens, young people start reconsidering their current commitments, comparing them with other alternatives. Also in this context, both intragroup and intergroup communication is important for identifying and considering other identity alternatives (e.g., a new area of study).

The theoretical link between communication and in-depth exploration has been confirmed empirically. For instance, Meeus and colleagues (2002) found that communication with fathers, mothers, and peers was positively related to adolescents’ in-depth exploration of their school commitments. Furthermore, peer communication was also positively related to adolescents’ in-depth exploration of their relational commitments. In a similar vein, in a qualitative study, Crocetti and Meeus (2014) found that an improvement in the quality of communication with parents and peers was reported by young people as an important resource for navigating through the period of emerging adulthood, in which several identity choices (in the areas of education, work, love, etc.) need to be made and verified.

In addition to the importance of communication for identity development, it is worth underscoring that communication is also a means to express youth commitments. By means of their choices, attitudes, opinions, ways of dressing, etc., young people continuously communicate to others to which aspects of reality they are committed to. For instance, young people dressed up like manga characters at the Cosplay summit, communicate to others their commitment to a specific youth culture. In a similar vein, Emler and Reicher (1995) emphasized that even negative behaviors, such as deviant behaviors, can be seen as a way to communicate identity choices related to a commitment to a peer group in which such behaviors are considered the best way to express negative attitudes toward institutions (Rubini & Palmonari, 2006). Thus, deviant behaviors can be used for forming and managing a reputation that is approved within that group (Emler, 1990; Emler, & Reicher, 1995; Estévez, & Emler, 2009).

Importantly, the more individuals develop a clear and stable sense of identity (increasing commitment and in-depth exploration, and decreasing reconsideration of commitment), the more they improve their intergenerational (with parents) and intragenerational (with siblings) family relationships (Crocetti et al., 2017), which become more supportive and symmetrical and less conflictual. This further points to the transactional relationships between youth identity and interpersonal relationships, according to which youth identities are not only influenced by quality of interpersonal relationships but also play an active role in modifying those relationships.

The Five-Dimensional Identity Model

Luyckx, Goossens, and Soenens (2006) have integrated Marcia’s (1966) theory with the extensions proposed by Bosma (1985) and Meeus (1996). Thus, Luyckx et al. (2006) proposed an integrative identity model comprising commitment making, identification with commitment, exploration in breadth, and in-depth exploration. Specifically, commitment making covers Marcia’s original concept and indicates whether adolescents have made choices in relevant life domains. Identification with commitment, as proposed by Bosma (1985), indexes the degree to which adolescents internalize and feel certain about their commitments. Exploration in breadth captures Marcia’s original concept and indicates the exploration of various alternative commitments before choosing one. In-depth exploration refers to Meeus’s (1996) conceptualization and indicates whether adolescents evaluate and maintain their commitments in an active manner after choosing them.

Luyckx and colleagues (2006) integrated the four dimensions into a dual-cycle model of identity formation. The first cycle represents identity formation, in that adolescents make commitments after exploration in breadth. The second cycle represents identity evaluation and maintenance, in that in-depth exploration of current commitments serves to verify their validity and to enhance identification with commitment. Thus, the tentative order of both cycles is exploration in breadth → commitment making → exploration in depth → identification with commitment. Subsequently, Luyckx et al. (2008) expanded this model by adding ruminative exploration (thus proposing a five-dimensional model). This latter dimension captures a dysfunctional form of exploration, typical of individuals who continuously doubt and mull over available possibilities without being able to commit to any of them.

As discussed in relation to the three-factor model, also for the integrative model, straightforward links between identity and communication can be found. Also in this case, in-depth exploration, and its role in the identity evaluation cycle, is strongly intertwined with communication and young people by means of their attitudes and behaviors can communicate their identity commitments.

In synthesis, in this section we have examined recent developments of the identity literature. Process-oriented models, such as the three-factor (Crocetti et al., 2008) and the five-dimensional (Luyckx et al., 2008) models, extended the identity status paradigm focusing on the iterative process by which identity is formed and revised over time. This process can be examined considering two cycles (identity formation and identity maintenance) with communication playing a key role in both cycles. Communicating with others, individuals can gather more information about their current identity choices and evaluate in-depth to what extent these choices fulfill their aspirations and provide a good fit to their goals and talents. When identity choices are reconsidered in favor of more appealing and rewarding opportunities, communication represents a relevant strategy for identifying and examining new identity alternatives. Finally, communication is also a means to express identity commitments: by means of their behaviors, attitudes, etc., youth communicate to others to which aspects of reality they are committed to.

Social Identity and Intergroup Communication

How Group Membership Influence Self-Definition

So far, we have mainly discussed the theoretical frameworks referring to personal identity. In this last section, we shift our attention to social identity perspectives to further understand the interplay between adolescent identity and communication processes. In his seminal work, Tajfel (1972) emphasized that individuals belong to social groups and that they (partly) define themselves in terms of these memberships. Therefore, individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the groups to which they belong. Furthermore, a basic principle of social identity theory is that in order to achieve a positive social identity, individuals need to have positive evaluations of their in-group in comparison with relevant out-groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

In adolescence, young people belong to different social groups and develop their social identity (Benish-Weisman, Daniel, Schiefer, Möllering, & Knafo-Noam, 2015; Tanti, Stukas, Halloran, & Foddy, 2011). In fact, in this period adolescents become more aware of their multiple memberships to both ascribed (e.g., ethnicity) and achieved (e.g., sports or clubs) groups, increasing their social identity complexity (Knifsend & Juvonen, 2013). These group memberships have important implications for well-being, as demonstrated in a longitudinal study in which multiple social identifications (with family, school, and national groups) positively predicted later levels of adolescent self-esteem (Benish-Weisman et al., 2015). Furthermore, adolescents increase their awareness of in-group/out-group differentiation, gaining a better understanding of their similarity to in-group members and their difference from out-group members (Rubini, Moscatelli, Paselli, Graziani, & Palmonari, 2004; Tarrant, 2002; Tarrant et al., 2001).

Communication plays a key role, as by means of communication adolescents share important experiences with their in-group members and communicate who they are to members of the out-groups. Thus, also in this context it is worth focusing on the two functions of communication discussed in this chapter (communication as a means to form identity and communication as a means to share one’s own identity). For instance, prior studies (e.g., Badaoui, Lebrun, Su, & Bouchet, 2016) clearly indicated the importance of social identity for clothing consumptions (clothing and brand preferences), suggesting that group memberships create a shared notion of which is the best way of presenting oneself to others.

The Meaning of Belonging to the Adolescent Group: Youth Centrism and Intergenerational Communication

A major group to which young people belong is represented by the adolescent group consisting of people of the same age. In an in-group/out-group differentiation process this group is clearly distinct by younger (i.e., children) and older (i.e., adults) groups. This differentiation is stressed in the concept of youth centrism (Zinnecker, 1982), which originates from the notion of teenage ethnocentrism developed in British studies conducted in the 1960s by Schofield (1965). The concept of youth centrism stresses the in-group/out-group differentiation between “we” (the adolescents) versus “they” (the adults) and it is characterized by four main aspects: (a) rejection of parental influence and marked orientation toward peers; (b) criticism of adult institutions (family, school, state) and their representatives (parents, teachers, police, politicians); (c) a strong belief in a generation gap; and (d) the belief that young people can resist the influences of the adult world (Ter Bogt, Meeus, Raaijmakers, & Vollebergh, 2001). Young people with high youth centrism tend to distance themselves from adults both personally and socially, and they show this with specific communication patterns. In fact, they talk less with their parents and also offer them fewer opportunities to recount their experiences (Zinnecker, 1982).

More recently, intergenerational communication has been studied by means of an intergroup communication perspective (Williams & Garrett, 2012; Williams & Giles, 1996). In this context, it has been shown that adolescents do see their encounters with people of other ages (young adults aged 20–25 years and older people aged 65–85 years) in intergroup terms (Williams & Garrett, 2012). In this intergroup framework, scholars examined how other age groups perceive communication with adolescents and how adolescents perceive communication with other groups. Overall, a number of studies documented that adolescents’ communication behavior was viewed rather negatively by other age groups (e.g., by college students and elderly), which evaluated it as more noncommunicative, less accommodative, and more self-promotional (Thurlow, 2001, 2003; Williams & Garrett, 2002; Williams & Thurlow, 2005). Consistent with this, previous research suggests that community adults (i.e., police officers and social security and benefit officers) believe that teenagers lack communication skills (Drury & Dennison, 1999, 2000), and problems in communication become more pronounced in relationships characterized by an accentuated power imbalance (Drury, 2003). Similarly, from their own side, young people are more likely to report good communication experiences with friends/workmates and bad communication experiences with non-family adults, suggesting the importance of familiarity, equal status, and shared values in adolescents’ understandings of “good communication” (Drury, Catan, Dennison, & Brody, 1998).

Interestingly, comparing adolescents’ and others’ evaluations it is worth noting that adolescents seem to evaluate communication with other groups less negatively (Williams & Garrett, 2012) than others do. For instance, young adults distance communicatively from adolescents as a perceptual out-group, while adolescents seek to decrease the distance between themselves and young adults as a desired in-group (Williams & Garrett, 2012). This evidence points to the relevance of considering social identity and intergroup relationships as a key aspect for understanding communication patterns.

Conclusions

Developing a clear sense of personal and social identity is a main developmental task, especially for young people who face multiple biological, cognitive, and social changes that stimulate the questioning of childhood identifications and trigger their identity search. First, drawing from the identity literature rooted in Erikson’s (1950, 1968) pioneering contribution and Marcia’s identity status paradigm (1966), we have emphasized that recent models underscored that the dynamic process by which people develop their identity can be captured by the interplay between the identity formation and identity maintenance cycles (Crocetti et al., 2008; Luyckx et al., 2008). Second, we have underlined the importance of social identity (Tajfel, 1972) and intergroup processes for understanding intergenerational communication patterns (e.g., Williams & Garrett, 2012; Williams & Giles, 1996).

Thus, this chapter has discussed how young people can address the identity developmental task in different ways and examined the interplay between youth identities and communication. More specifically, the main take-home message of this chapter was the consideration that communication serves two important functions for youth identities: On the one hand, interpersonal and group communication is a key resource to gather identity-relevant information and to evaluate current identity commitments (i.e., communication as a means to form identity); on the other hand, through communication young people can express their identity commitments and manage their own reputation (i.e., communication as a means to share one’s own identity). Overall, these two functions highlight that youth identity and communication processes are strongly intertwined.

Further Reading

Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469–480.Find this resource:

Crocetti, E., Rubini, M., & Meeus, W. (2008). Capturing the dynamics of identity formation in various ethnic groups: Development and validation of a three-dimensional model. Journal of Adolescence, 31, 207–222.Find this resource:

Drury, J. (2003). Adolescent communication with adults in authority. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 22, 66–73.Find this resource:

Emler, N., & Reicher, S. (1995). Adolescence and delinquency. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Erikson, E. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: Norton.Find this resource:

Kroger, J. (2007). Identity development: Adolescence through adulthood. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Luyckx, K., Schwartz, S. J., Berzonsky, M. D., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., Smits, I., & Goossens, L. (2008). Capturing ruminative exploration: Extending the four-dimensional model of identity formation in late adolescence. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 58–82.Find this resource:

Marcia, J. E., Waterman, A. S., Matteson, D. R., Archer, S. L., & Orlofsky, J. L. (1993) (Eds.), Identity: A handbook for psychosocial research. New York: Springer-Verlag.Find this resource:

Meeus, W. (2011). The study of adolescent identity formation 2000–2010: A review of longitudinal research. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 75–94.Find this resource:

Schwartz, S. J., Luyckx, K., & Vignoles, V. L. (2011) (Eds.). Handbook of identity theory and research. New York: Springer.Find this resource:

Williams, A., & Thurlow, C. (Eds.). (2005). Talking adolescence: Perspectives on communication in the teenage years. New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

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