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Development of ethnic identity during adolescence Term Paper

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Updated: Dec 8th, 2019


Ethnic identity is an important aspect of life of an adolescent today. To be more specific, skin color is a crucial factor in terms of ethnic development of an adolescent and this paper will explore development patterns of young adolescent of different ethnicity in the American setting which include Americans of the following origins; Africa, Latinos and Europe.

From this group of adolescents, two variables of ethnic identity were examined namely esteem and exploration. This paper will discuss ethnic identity during development of adolescents (Marcia, 1966).

Past times

There are enormous changes that are happening annually in a nation’s population in terms of ethnicity and people of different colors and backgrounds interacting. As a result, people are finding it an issue understanding ethnic identity in terms of historical and practical components.

As times goes by, children of different colors are born and their numbers grow very fast with a possibility that they would defeat the indigenous population in the near future. The issue of social identity had earlier been researched by Clark in the mid 1950s when he examined racial partiality among black adolescent Americans (Clark & Clark, 1950).

These studies had a great impact in the way the society perceived issues of ethnic identity and legislations such as inclusion of black children in public schools. In the traditional years, before people intermingled, there was no struggle among people to find ethnic identity.

People were satisfied with their state of being and they had nothing to compare themselves with. The adolescents had a smooth transition in the quest for ethnic identity, unlike today when they face a lot of competition and polarized growing environment.

Some communities who see themselves as leading innovators in the globe have their adolescents group esteem kept high creating superiority complex (Jones, 1997).

Theories of ethnic identity

Generally speaking, the period of adolescence is a critical period where almost all forms of identity are acquired in life including ethnic identity. Even though many researchers appreciate that this period is an important time of shaping identity, little effort has been made to study theories of identity during adolescence.

There are a number of theories that have been proposed which explain ethnic identity among adolescents today, even though most of them have not been practically tested. By using these research theories, the issue of ethnic identity is explored in two ways which are group esteem and exploration.

These two behaviors are observed over a specified period of time during which behavior is observed and quantified. In addition, these theories are not rigid but are subject to change over time depending on societal changes (Rosenberg, 1962).

In trying to understand ethnic identity development during adolescence today, a number of theories will be used. It is psychologists of identity development that conducted research findings in this area and came up with several theories that explain ethnic identity in adolescence.

As studied earlier by Erickson, the stage of adolescence is a period of crisis where the youth strive to identity their identity. He further argued that during this period of development, adolescents come to realize themselves by considering all the identities that they have been obligated to by the family and the community members.

When an individual puts into consideration all this factors, they practice them in manner that they bring satisfaction and a feeling of confidence in their lives. A satisfied identity as a result of exploration is an important aspect in creating a mentally healthy individual (Verna & Runion, 1985).

On the contrary, social psychologists perceive identity differently; they argue that the need of belonging to a group and benefits one gets as a result of attaching himself or herself to that group.

Social psychologists have deviated slightly from a developmental approach of identity and focused on what members of the society perceive in an individual person in a group. They argue that people who are in groups of highly valued individuals don’t have to change their identity.

Conversely, when an individual in a group feels that he or she does not have any value, they might struggle through a process to find out their identity.

Marcia (1980) suggested three processes through which people can deal with low morale in a group. The first strategy is that an individual leaving the group physically and gaining membership of another group.

If an individual chooses to remain in the same group while the conditions of the group remain rigid, the person may stop identifying himself with the group.

The second strategy which the group can use to fight devaluation in a group is social creativity. Through social creativity, the members of the group choose to redefine their membership by identifying themselves with the best practices in community or by displaying the practices of the group as positive.

The third approach is by use of social competition where members of a group battle out with the existing practices to fit the members of a group.

This approach corresponds with the fact that, in the same manner a person feels good and holds high esteem, there is collective high self esteem among members of a group that hold good values.

Thus, the third strategy which is social creativity can be used to describe development of ethnic identity because it is the procedure of identifying constructive identity where individuals look for their identity without necessarily relying on the society to define for them (Waterman, 1982).

According to research findings, development of ethnic identity is an essential process during adolescence. In the United States, people of other colors like African Americans and Latinos who have been socializing since they were kids to acquire high self esteem and to be aware of racism.

These theories that explain ethnic identity have similarities. In the initial stages of ethnic identity, the models propose that all individuals begin in a state of innocence where they don’t hold any attachments of belonging to any ethnic community.

Psychologists suggest that people develop their ethnic identity through two processes which had been stated earlier and are exploration and self esteem (Clubb, 1998).

From the discussions above, ethnic identity among the adolescents will mostly rely on exploration and self esteem as suggested by psychologists. These two approaches to ethnic identity are closely related because they follow the same trend.

From a study of adolescents of different racial groups in the United States, it was found out that self esteem of the groups was observed to rise among the groups of early and mid adolescents. On the contrary, the level of exploration was found to rise among groups of middle adolescents. An important fact about development of adolescent’s ethnic identity is exploration.

For any person to achieve identity, they must have passed through the process of exploration (Phinney, 1992). From a study of the same group of adolescents over a three year period, the levels of self esteem rose to some unexpected levels though the rise was not attributed to exploration.

The two models of ethnic and racial identity may have good feelings to members of another group during the pre encounter stage that heavily relies on the family values that one comes from but not exploration (Clubb, 1998).

The role of schools and transitions

High school students in the United States had a large diversification of students from all ethnic groups. A study of schools that had a big representation of students from all ethnic groups was chosen in order to have a wide representation.

Young adolescents that were promoted from elementary schools to junior high schools experienced knew environments because of the diversity of students that they met in junior high schools. The situation changed as learners moved to senior high schools which had an overly diverse group of learners from different ethnic communities (Marcia, 1980).

When learners are at junior high schools, they begin to group themselves in categories of their ethnicity. This is according to adolescent learners who study in integrated schools. Due to the fact that adolescent learners who were being investigated were from a homogenous school, there was no option for them to segregate themselves.

Phinney (1989) argued that, it was expected that the students would not encounter any change due to the composition of the ethnicity of the school and that there was less racial conflicts expected from the students. The change which is progressively encountered by the learners is purposely expected so as to stimulate learners to look for their ethnic identity.

Therefore, there was little manifestation of exploration as learners transited to junior high schools. It was also noted that individual learners self esteem grew significantly during the transition year. From the above discussion, it is clear that learner’s ability to explore their identity is highly likely to happen in a diverse environment where ethnicity is domineering (Phinney, 1992).

Whereas some learners experienced ethnic composition earlier, majority experience it during the transition period to join senior high schools. For this group of learners, this is a time for interaction and search of racial identity.

Some research findings imply that a change experienced by adolescents during the transition period to senior high schools exhibit more exploration than when it was to junior high schools.

As a result, there is increased group esteem which might be attributed to a rise in exploration. Despite the fact that society is diverse, adolescents in their early stages and who live in cocoons of their ethnic groups might not display exploration (Waterman, 1982).

The process of exploration starts when adolescents leave the environments which they were brought up and start mingling with people from different ethnic backgrounds. This assumption does not render exploration useless when individuals hold positive group esteem.

Neither does it imply that other groups should explore ethnic groups of other members. However, unpleasant feedback from group members of other ethnic groups will stimulate the interest of one finding out the meaning of their ethnic groups (Fine, 1997).

To understand ethnic development in adolescents, psychologists investigated whether entry to a diverse school triggered any development related to ethnic identity development. In addition, they investigated whether there are special conditions that can stimulate ethnic identity in a diverse setting.

From their study, psychologists argue that adolescents in harsh schools exhibited negative characteristics compared to those in friendly school environments. Moreover, learners who were exposed to more diverse environments reported more instances of unfairness. According to some researchers, it is this mistreatment that stimulates the process of exploration.

To further understand ethnic development among adolescents, it was important to study the smaller groups amongst the big racial groups. United States has a rich history of several racial groups.

According to Erikson (1968), “these racial groups are classified to two similar categories that are defined by color which include the whites who are Italians, Greeks and Americans of British origin while the blacks are African American and Caribbean Americans.”

Although the learners identified with respective ethnic groups, they shared their status of either being black or white respectively. The objective of this grouping was to combine diverse ethnic groups for initial stages of the investigation.

During the early stages of the study, development of ethnic identity was centered towards individual members of ethnic groups. The investigation mainly revolved around people who were non white because they felt that they had low value in the society due to the fact that their ethnic identity was susceptible.

The group of people identified placed more emphasis on ethnic identity. Therefore, it necessitated the need for studying ethnic identity among individuals of all ethnic groups. Americans of African and Latino origin showed big steps in gaining group esteem over the test period of three years.

Group esteem of American adolescents from European origin showed steady improvement in group esteem which was observed to be stable because they started on high note and maintain the same status (Jones, 1997).

Even though previous arguments place group esteem of adolescents of European origin at a lower level, these adolescents displayed high levels of group esteem. The chances that they would have high levels of group esteem were expected due to the fact that they came from an ethnic community that had dominant people in the society.

According to proponents of social identity theory, adolescents of African origin in the United States had low group esteem in their initial stages of adolescence. Chances are that they have taken their identity negatively and are psychologically separating themselves from their groups.

Over time, group esteem increases drastically implying that they have changed their strategy to constructive social strategies where they want to improve the manner in which the group is perceived. This is a clear indication that adolescents develop group esteem from low to high over time.

On the contrary, early adolescents are putting less effort in identifying their identity because they don’t engage in exploration activities. Development of their group esteem is widely dependent on manipulation from peers, media and secular activities. Unlike the past years, these mediums of influence minimally influenced the behavior of the youth (Rosenberg, 1962).


Exploration and group esteem took different dimensions as regards development of adolescents. Development esteem is favored as compared to exploration.

Immediately after initial stages of adolescence, there are high chances of exploration among the adolescents. There was an indication that group esteem rose among the Blacks and Latinos. This supports the idea that ethnic identity is most important among people of color than for other Americans who are white.


Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1950). Emotional factors in racial identification and preference in Negro children. Journal of Negro Education, 19, 341–350.

Clubb, P. A. (1998). Contexts for development and longitudinal patterns of violence among African-American adolescents. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis (1st ed.). New York: Norton.

Fine, M. (1997). Witnessing whiteness. In M. Fine, L. Weis, L. C. Powell, & L. M. Wong (Eds.), Off white: Readings on race, power and society (pp. 57–65). Florence, KY: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Jones, J. M. (1997). Prejudice and racism (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551–558.

Marcia, J. E. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology (pp. 159–187). New York: Wiley.

Phinney, J. S. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity development in minority group adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, 9, 34–49.

Phinney, J. S. (1992). The multigroup ethnic identity measure: A new scale for use with diverse groups. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7, 156–176.

Rosenberg, M. (1962). The dissonant religious context and emotional disturbance. American Journal of Sociology, 68, 1–10.

Verna, G. B., & Runion, K. B. (1985). The effects of contextual dissonance on the self- concept of youth from a high versus low socially valued group. The Journal of Social Psychology, 125, 449–458.

Waterman, A. S. (1982). Identity development from adolescence to adulthood: An extension of theory and a review of research. Developmental Psychology, 18, 341–358.

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