Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Identities and Social-Psychological Well-Being among African American College Students

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Identities and Social-Psychological Well-Being among African American College Students

Article excerpt

This study investigates African American college students to show the impact of role, social, and personal identities on social-psychological well-being, and compares the relationship between identity processes and academic achievement for black and white college students attending a large, urban, predominantly white public university. The findings confirm that student, ethnic, and personal identities influence self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-authenticity, but that relationships vary both in direction and strength. Turning to our comparison of black and white college students, the findings do not support claims that black students'self-esteem is less dependent than whites' on getting good grades or that black students' academic identity is less important to their self-esteem than it is for white students.

"Identity" refers to self-meanings situated in a role, group, or person (Burke 2004) and is one of the most widely used concepts in the social sciences. However, with its ubiquity comes the associated problem that identity is not defined in a consistent manner across disciplines. Therefore, it becomes difficult to determine the underlying identity processes and consequences. Further, although early work focused on individual identities, recent work emphasizes that individuals have multiple identities and different kinds of identities (Simon 1997; Stets and Burke 2000) and that occupancy of multiple identities has different mental health implications for members of different racial/ethnic groups (Jackson 1997).

In this research we fill two gaps between identity theory and empirical investigation of the consequences of identities. First, Burke (2004) proposed that at least three kinds of identities exist: role identities, social identities, and personal identities. We continue this inquiry by surveying a set of African American college students to investigate whether their student identity (e.g., role identity), ethnic identity (e.g., social identity), and interpersonal style (e.g., personal identity) affect their self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-authenticity. Second, following work by Steele (1997) and Morgan and Mehta (2004) on "disidentification" as an identity process that may explain black-white differentials in academic performance, we examine relationships among college student identity, self-esteem, and academic performance. We compare African American college students with a sample of white college students. Thus, we have two objectives. The first is to investigate how different kinds of identities affect social-psychological well-being. The second is to shed light on the question of how the college identities of black students on largely white campuses are related to their sense of self-esteem and academic performance.


The first aim of this study is to explore systematically the impact and consequences of identities on social-psychological well-being. Symbolic interaction theory recognizes that self is a source of agency and that individuals actively are involved in the process of preserving and protecting well-being. Gecas (1986) suggested that individuals are motivated by self-esteem enhancement, self-efficacy, and self-authenticity. Following Burke (2004), we will explore the impact of role identity, social identity, and personal identity on three indicators of social-psychological well-being: self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-authenticity.

Role Identities

Within symbolic interaction theory, identity most often has been formulated in terms of self-meanings in a role or social status (Stryker 1980). Prior research indicates that, as expected, role identities encourage well-being. Cast and Burke (2002) explored the self-verification process and found that verification had a positive effect on self-esteem and self-efficacy, and a negative effect on depression, anxiety, and hostility. Further, Simon's (1997) findings support the expectation that work, spouse, and parent identities reduced psychological distress; and Reitzes and Mutran (2002) reported that worker and parent identities have positive effects on self-esteem among middle-aged workers. …

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