Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Bridge concept shared between intrapersonally oriented psychological approaches and interpersonally oriented sociological traditions in the social sciences. The former are less precisely operationalized and typically investigated by clinical procedures; the latter are more clearly operationalized and investigated by mainstream empirical methodologies of the social sciences.

Popularized by Erik Erikson (1959, 1968) as a central psychoanalytic concept, identity is a characteristic defining one's sense of self. It represents a continuity in the ego's integrating functioning that must be achieved; it is not simply a defining attribute of the ego. A stable identity is deemed to be optimal for psychological health; failure to achieve ego identity results in ego diffusion, a failure in optimal psychological development. Ego identity is largely unconsciously determined and thus difficult to operationalize and measure. In Erikson's theory, the process of identity formation reaches a head in adolescence when identity versus identity confusion is the dichotomous challenge in the fifth of his eight theoretically specified developmental stages. Adolescence is a likely period of identity crisis. The tendency to identify prematurely with cultural heroes or groups in adolescence makes the virtue of fidelity, seen as the cornerstone of healthy identity formation, impossible. While three of Erikson's defining characteristics of identity are largely intrapsychic (a sense of uniqueness, a feeling of continuity over time, and a sense of ego completeness), his fourth characteristic demands identification with the ideals of some group that affirms the sense of self that is the final achievement of a healthy sense of identity. It permits a free and continuous commitment to group values and persons that characterizes fidelity.

In nonpsychoanalytic traditions, interpersonal processes in identity formation are emphasized. Memberships in organizations or collectives that serve as reference groups are typically emphasized as integral to the process of identity formation. These socially based identities provide potential sources of identity for the individual. What factors determine which groups an individual uses as sources of identity formation is an empirical issue variously addressed and tested by these theories. Most findings suggest that identity is seldom restricted to one group. Sources of potential identities are as varied as the ideologies of the groups with which the individual identifies. Thus individuals may have a variety of identities or subidentities, each supported by group memberships.

These identities are often conceived to be hierarchically ordered, merely compartmentalized, or differentially activated based upon situational factors. Yet in all cases, a sense of self or personal continuity is maintained by an awareness of group memberships that helps to define and create the person. This process emphasizes interpersonal dynamics in which individuals reflexively define themselves by the same labels used by the groups with which they identify. Various psychological factors may predispose individuals to accept or reject certain groups as sources of identity. Religions often serve as key reference groups and are particularly likely to provide the claim to a single universal identity or to an identity seen as highest in a hierarchical scheme. In the broadest sense, one can then speak of a collective identity, often seen to be one's true or ultimate identity. Thus identity becomes a crucial concept in linking individuals to both the maintenance and the transmission of cultures, as it is both socially bestowed and sustained.

Beit-Hallahmi (1985) has been most instrumental in linking interpersonal and intrapersonal theories of identity as applied to religion. He identifies three levels of identity. Collective identity is created by religious communities by both conscious and unconscious processes. Social identity in turn may include a religious identity among one of several subidentities formed by conscious commitments to different groups. Finally, a collective religious identity or a religious subidentity may be a source for support and integration of ego identity. Through this three-tiered structure of identity concepts, Beit-Hallahmi links both intrapersonal (psychoanalytic) and interpersonal (social) traditions of identity research in a single theory applicable to religion.

Empirical consequences derived from diverse interpersonally based identity theories largely support the general thesis that religious identity is predictive of many social variables. This is especially true when religious identity is operationalized in terms of denominational affiliation. In addition, if psychological factors such as high and low ego involvement are introduced, the differential effects of religious identity can be empirically assessed with added precision. High ego involvement is often equivalent to making religion highly salient and thus empirically relevant to a variety of predictive situations. Low ego involvement is often equivalent to making religion of minimal salience and hence not predictive in situations where religious factors would otherwise be predictive. In addition, ego involvement and saliency may vary situationally such that religious identities are differentially predictive even with a given individual. Religious socialization attempts through rituals and other means to foster high ego involvement in one's religious identity and thus make religion salient in many situations. This is most effectively achieved when one's collective identity and one's ego identify are united in communities that are able to sacralize identity both in ritual and myth that assure ego involvement and in a sense of the transcendent.

Ralph W. Hood, Jr .


B. Beit-Hallahmi, Prolegomena to the Psychological Study of Religion (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1989)

A. Dashefsky, "And the Search Goes On," Sociological Analysis 33(1974):239-245

E. H. Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle (New York: International Universities Press, 1959)

E. H. Erikson, Identity (New York: Norton, 1968)

H. J. Mol, Identity and the Sacred (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976).

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