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Theoretical Framework in Identity Development


Identity development occurs throughout a person’s lifetime by defining who one is. Based on the sheer scope of studies that have delved into this area of psychology research, multiple theories have emerged. Key sections of this paper discuss Erikson’s theory of identity as the traditional model of identity development and Levinson’s theory as an alternative. The moderating role of ethics and changes in the environment that bring about paradigm shifts in identity development are also highlighted.

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Traditional Identity Theory

Erikson’s identity theory suggests that people go through five different crises, characterized by conflicting forces, such as trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, and integrity vs. despair, which need to be balanced to attain a desired psychosocial identity (Walker, 2018).

Stage 1- Trust vs. Mistrust

This stage of psychosocial development involves understanding who to trust and not trust. Researchers suggest that its effects are profound on children when identifying their caregivers (Whitbourne & Whitbourne, 2020). I completed this stage knowing that parents and caregivers cannot be trusted. Studies suggest that people who have similar experiences tend to view the world as unreliable, while those who had trusting caregivers look at it as more secure (Walker, 2018).

Stage 2 – Autonomy vs. Shame

Feelings of shame and autonomy are associated with the second stage of psychosocial development because children who embrace the opportunity to be self-reliant are likely to be autonomous (Whitbourne & Whitbourne, 2020). Conversely, those who do not embrace such opportunities become doubtful of their abilities, thereby leading to shame. I completed this stage of psychosocial development by learning how to be self-reliant at an early age.

Stage 3 – Initiative vs. Guilt

Children who take initiative through self-directed behavior successfully manage this third stage of psychosocial development, which is characterized by feelings of initiative and guilt (Ozer et al., 2019). I have unresolved issues relating to this stage of development because I often sought approval from my peers or superiors before engaging in any activity. Researchers suggest that people who may not have completed the phase may harbor feelings of guilt as adults (Ozer et al., 2019).

Stage 4 – Industry vs. Inferiority

Feelings of inferiority and industry are commonly associated with Erikson’s fourth stage of psychosocial development (Walker, 2018). They often affect children aged between five and twelve years based on how well they get along with their peers (Walker, 2018). I successfully emerged from this stage feeling competent and self-aware because I enjoyed interacting with new people. However, my career experiences have dented my self-confidence because a one-size-fits approach for socializing does not apply in a multicultural context.

Stage 5 – Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage of psychosocial development is commonly associated with teenagers, aged between 12 and 18 years, based on their experiences experimenting with new roles and identities (Whitbourne & Whitbourne, 2020). Some researchers indicate that those who fail to navigate this stage of development may feel confused if they do not understand their identities (Chávez, 2016). I completed this stage of development through sibling support. Particularly, my elder siblings helped me to resolve different crises, such as how to deal with bullies, among other issues that have defined my character and personality thus far.

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Stage 6 – Intimacy vs. Isolation

Feelings of intimacy vs. isolation ordinarily affect people who are in their early adulthood – between 18 and 40 years (Chávez, 2016). They are associated with the process of developing social bonds and identities out of it. For example, marriage can define one’s identity based on the nature of social bonds developed. I completed this stage of development by maintaining close relationships with my childhood friends. Some researchers suggest that people who fail to navigate this crisis may feel isolated and lonely (Ozer et al., 2019). I believe that some unresolved issues I may harbor from this phase of development, such as doubts whether maintaining these old social bonds could be limiting me from developing or nurturing new ones, could affect how well I navigate other stages of growth.

Stage 7 – Generativity vs. Stagnation

Generativity vs. stagnation is commonly associated with how people view their contributions to the world (Ozer et al., 2019). This stage commonly affects middle-aged people aged between 40 and 65 and its associated crisis may manifest as feelings of generativity and stagnation (Ozer et al., 2019). I am going to experience this stage of psychosocial development because I am still figuring out how I can best channel my abilities to fulfilling tasks and goals that would have a positive impact on society.

Stage 8 – Integrity vs. Despair

I am yet to encounter this last stage of psychosocial development because it is commonly associated with elderly people who experience feelings of integrity, or despair, based on personal reflections of their lives (Whitbourne & Whitbourne, 2020). Therefore, those who are dissatisfied with their lives may experience despair while those who believe have had a positive impact on society may experience feelings of integrity and satisfaction.

Alternative Identity Theory

Levinson’s theory is an alternative model for highlighting different identity crises in a person’s life. It suggests that people undergo six stages of psychosocial development, including the first period when they leave their families in pursuit of educational goals and in the second stage where they enter the adult world and commit to fulfilling occupational goals (Leman & Bremner, 2019). The third stage commonly affects people aged between 28 and 33 years and is transitionary because people reevaluate choices they have made about social relationships and careers. Later, they tend to settle down in the fourth stage of Levinson’s theory, which is characterized by investments and reinvestments in work and family commitments (Leman & Bremner, 2019). The mid-life crisis emerges as the fifth stage of Levinson’s theory and is characterized by an evaluation of people’s choices, including those involving family and business. The ages between 45 and 50 years define the middle adulthood phase, which is the last stage in Levinson’s theory (Helson & Mitchell, 2020). People who undergo it tend to come up with new hobbies and commit to them.

Levinson’s theory of identity development applies to my life because it outlines what types of conflict to expect and how to overcome them. I am currently going through the third stage of development, which is transitionary because I am revaluating some of my lifestyle and career choices to make sure they align with my overall identity. Notably, I am recalibrating my goals to align them better with pursuits that help me to have a positive impact on society. This is happening gradually and I am experiencing different feelings and sentiments across each phase of development. I completed the first and second stages of Levinson’s theory through the guidance of my family and friends. Throughout the process, I evaluated lessons learned in school and selected my career choice. I am looking forward to the next stage of psychosocial development, which is settling down. It is associated with early adulthood and reinvesting in work and family commitments (Ozer et al., 2019).

Social Work Code of Ethics

The social work code of ethics, as defined by NASW (2020), outlines standards for the conduct of social workers. Two ethical principles of interest to the current investigation are informed consent and privacy.

Informed Consent

People need to take part in research studies voluntarily and with full knowledge of what they entail (Dobrick et al., 2017). I am committed to highlighting informed consent as an important ethical principle for social workers because I have witnessed a case where a researcher collected data from respondents who were paid to take part in a study and failed to disclose the fact. Dobrick et al. (2017) suggest that research participants should be allowed to take part in investigations without coercion. Cases, where incentives are available, should also be disclosed to make readers understand their implications. By doing so, researchers can generate quality data because the information obtained will be of high integrity. Comparatively, pieces of information given under duress are unreliable.

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Privacy and Confidentiality

Privacy and confidentiality issues are associated with the protection of private data from unauthorized access. Mustajoki and Mustajoki (2017) argue that this ethical principle is critical in maintaining trust between researchers and their informants. I am committed to understanding privacy and confidentiality issues in ethical practice because of the scale of private information held by third parties in today’s society (Mustajoki & Mustajoki, 2017). For example, social media platforms contain volumes of private data that could be negatively used to the detriment of the people that generate them. Given the spread and availability of confidential data loosely held by corporations and accessible to millions of people, it is important to protect the privacy of respondents.

Paradigm Thinking

People’s worldviews can change fundamentally through a paradigm shift. This shift refers to the dramatic change in one’s beliefs, values, and attitudes about life. The COVID-19 pandemic was a paradigm shift that changed my reality. For example, it revealed the extent of inequality existing in society, thereby leading to questions regarding factors that have caused this to happen and ways of mitigating them. Such deliberations have also uncovered systemic and institutionalized issues of social, economic, and political nature that have magnified the problem. This revelation upset my outlook of the world, which was previously informed by misguided beliefs about groups of people that I rarely interacted with, or knew little about. Consequently, I have been rethinking my prejudices and attitudes about people and the world.


This study has shown that human identity development is a complex process characterized by multiple forces shaping one’s identity. Age, occupation, and personal choices have emerged as having a strong impact on one’s push to move from one stage of development to the next. Ethics moderates how these transitions occur by describing protocols and considerations for involving human participants in knowledge development. I have also highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a disruptive force that influenced my thinking in the last two years. Broadly, these findings suggest that environmental and internal factors shape identity development.


Chávez, R. (2016). Psychosocial development factors associated with occupational and vocational identity between infancy and adolescence. Adolescent Research Review, 1(2), 307–327.

Dobrick, F. M., Fischer, J., & Hagen, L. M. (2017). Research ethics in the digital age: Ethics for the social sciences and humanities in times of mediatization and digitization. Springer.

Helson, R. M., & Mitchell, V. (2020). Women on the river of life: A fifty-year study of adult development. University of California Press.

Leman, P., & Bremner, A. (2019). Developmental psychology (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.

Mustajoki, H., & Mustajoki, A. (2017). A new approach to research ethics: Using guided dialogue to strengthen research communities. Taylor & Francis.

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NASW. (2020). Code of ethics. Web.

Ozer, S., Meca, A., & Schwartz, S. J. (2019). Identity processes in Ladakhi emerging adults: Testing the dimensions of identity development scale in an indigenous Himalayan population. Emerging Adulthood, 7(1), 45–51.

Walker, S. (2018). African American girls and the construction of identity: Class, race, and gender. Rowman & Littlefield.

Whitbourne, S. K., & Whitbourne, S. B. (2020). Adult development and aging (7th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

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