The Collectivistic Nature of Ethnic Identity Development among Asian-American College Students

By Yeh, Christine J.; Huang, Karen | Adolescence, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Collectivistic Nature of Ethnic Identity Development among Asian-American College Students


Yeh, Christine J., Huang, Karen, Adolescence


INTRODUCTION

Phinney and Alipuria (1987) define ethnic identity as "an individual's sense of self as a member of an ethnic group and the attitudes and behaviors associated with that sense" (p. 36). They further state that ethnic identity development is "the process of development from an unexamined ethnic identity through a period of exploration, to arrive at an achieved ethnic identity" (p. 38). According to Sotomayor (1977), ethnic identification refers to identification or feeling of membership with others regarding the character, the spirit of a culture or the cultural ethos based on a sense of commonality of origin, beliefs, values, customs or practices of a specific group of people. Thus, unlike the concept of race, which pertains to specific physical traits, the concept of ethnicity connotes cultural group membership.

For Asian-Americans, questions arise as to how they develop an integrated sense of self inclusive of their past and present cultural contexts. Since an integrated ethnic identity is believed to precede bicultural competence (Zuniga, 1988), understanding the process and components of ethnic identification is valuable; in addition, it may also help to prevent numerous psychological dysfunctions related to identity confusion (Sommers, 1960; Wong-Rieger & Taylor, 1981).

The construct of ethnic identity has been under considerable scrutiny in recent decades. In her literature review of ethnic identity, Phinney (1990) describes three theoretical frameworks of research: identity formation, social identity, and acculturation. While these frameworks overlap in their general conceptualizations of ethnic identity, they differ in the specific aspects they emphasize. As a result, the range of inquiry and focus of ethnic identity research has been broad, including self-identification, group membership, attitudes toward one's ethnic group, ethnic involvement, and cultural values and beliefs (Phinney, 1990).

Theories of identity formation parallel those of ego identity development, investigating the psychological stages through which the individual progresses in establishing an ethnic identity.

Acculturation theories focus on how an individual relates to the dominant or host society, arguing that a unified ethnic identity results from the individual's commitment to, or separation from, his or her ethnic ties (Makabe, 1979; Ullah, 1985). Such research typically investigates the extent to which ethnic identity persists over time within a dominant majority group context.

Finally, social identity theory asserts that ethnic identity is influenced by the social context and that the ethnic individual develops an identity from his or her own group as well as from the "countergroup" (White & Burke, 1987). The majority of ethnic identity studies in this framework investigate how ethnic group membership contributes to self-hatred or self-concept, as well as the solutions that "minority group" members employ to improve their social status (e.g., "passing" as a dominant group member; establishing a bicultural identity).

Very few studies of ethnic identity include social context as part of their empirical examinations. However, ethnic identity must be considered within a specific social context since the contrast an individual experiences between his or her culture of origin and the dominant culture will significantly affect the self. Further, an individual's ethnic identity may vary according to the influence of other individuals and the social context (Rosenthal & Hrynevich, 1985).

Ethnic identity research also has not typically investigated individual change - a process of exploration and decision-making related to ethnicity. Although ethnic identity stage theorists propose psychological correlates for each stage of development, this process has not been clearly defined and it has not been proven that it progresses in stages. The results of the present study suggest a model of ethnic identity formation in which the individual's attitudes and behaviors about ethnic identity continually change and develop simultaneously as issues in the ethnic group and dominant culture are encountered.

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