Adolescent Identity Exploration: A Test of Erikson's Theory of Transitional Crisis

Article excerpt

According to Erikson, exploration is at the heart of the adolescent transition. In his words, exploration is the identity crisis, although crises are not necessarily acute or severe (Erikson, 1959). The remaking of personal identity, which is necessary to complete the transition, was said to be dependent on exploration. In a similar perspective, Grotevant (1987) has referred to exploration as the "work" of the identity process.

Erikson has characterized adolescent identity exploration as being accompanied by fluctuations in ego strength. Cognitive destructuring, generally, and the view of the self, in particular, was seen to result in reduced ego strength and impairment of coping. Moreover, a variety of symptoms were said to occur with the transition; these included subjective discomfort, confusion, mood swings, ego defenses, impulsivity, acting-out, and heightened physical and somatic complaints (Erikson, 1956, 1963, 1968).

Thus, for Erikson (1968), the self in transition is vulnerable: "Each stage becomes a crisis because incipient growth and awareness in a significant part function goes together with the shift in instinctual energy and yet causes specific vulnerability in that part" (Erikson, 1959, p. 56). Under such a challenge, the experience is one of a "... split of self images, a loss of center, and a dispersion" (Erikson, 1968). These symptoms and the experience of the self as "disrupted" have been described as the "... dark and negative side of identity formation," and they are viewed as vital to the identity process (Erikson, 1975).

The present research sought to find empirical evidence concerning Erikson's view that adolescent identity exploration is associated with reduced ego strength and the occurrence of psychological and physical symptoms. While much has been written in an attempt to understand the implications of the "crisis" of adolescence generally, the empirical research has not employed identity exploration as a key variable.

The general hypothesis of the present study can be stated as follows: If exploration is the identity crisis, then one would expect an adolescent who scores higher on measures of identity exploration also to show evidence of the symptoms as ascribed by Erikson.

METHOD

The sample consisted of 82 academically superior high school students (43 males; 39 females) between 14 and 17 years of age who had completed their junior year. It was comprised of two groups of students attending the Florida State University Summer Science and Mathematics Camp during the summers of 1988 (30 students) and 1989 (52 students). The minimum requirements for admission to the program included percentile ranks of 90 or more on standardized achievement tests, as well as sustained high academic performance.

The 1988 and 1989 groups did not differ in measures of socioeconomic status (SES) (Hollingshead, 1965). The SES of the families-of-origin for both groups was middle-to-upper-middle class. The mean SES index was 47.03, with a range of 31-62 for the 1988 sample and a mean of 48.96 with a range of 29-66 for the 1989 sample (Hollingshead Four Factor Index of Social Status, 1965).

Measures

The instruments used were the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the Ego-Identity Interview (Grotevant & Cooper, 1981).

Twenty-three of the commonly used scales of the MMPI were selected to assess symptomatology. There were the nine clinical scales and the 14 Frequently Scored Scales (see Graham, 1987). (Of the ten clinical profile scales, one - Mf, masculinity-femininity - was omitted from the analysis because of its differential norming for males and females.) Adolescent norms were used for scoring the clinical scales (Archer, 1987). Separate adolescent norms were not available for the Frequency Scored Scales.

The Ego-Identity Interview (Grotevant & Cooper, 1981) was based on Marcia's (1964) operationalization of Erikson's theory (1968) regarding adolescence as a time of increased exploration and commitment. …