Identity Process Theory
Identity Process Theory (Breakwell, 1986, 2001; Jaspal and Breakwell, 2014; Jaspal and Cinnirella, 2010a) provides a holistic and integrative framework for examining
(i) the structure of identity, namely its content and value dimensions, and the centrality and salience of identity components; (ii) the interaction of social and psychological factors in the production of identity content; and (iii) the inter-relations between the intrapsychic, interpersonal and intergroup levels of human interdependence.
The theory proposes that the structure of self-identity should be conceptualised in terms of its content and value/affect dimensions and that this structure is regulated by two universal processes, namely assimilation–accommodation and evaluation.
• The assimilation–accommodation process refers to the absorption of new information in the identity structure (e.g. discovering the existence of antisemitic social representations in one's social context) and the adjustment which takes place in order for it to become part of the structure (e.g. becoming aware of antisemitic social representations and, thus, attenuating one's Jewish identity in order to gain social acceptance).
• The evaluation process confers meaning and value on the contents of identity (e.g. coming to view one's Zionist identity in negative terms due to perceived stigma surrounding this identity within a valued ingroup context).
The theory suggests that the two processes of identity are interrelated in that evaluation will affect what is assimilated and how it is accommodated in the identity structure, while assimilation–accommodation provides new elements for the individual to evaluate. Identity processes are in constant operation as the individual navigates through their social world, encountering outgroups, social representations and novel social contexts. Crucially, the processes of identity do not function in a random manner but rather they are guided by a number of motivational principles, referred to as “identity principles”. Breakwell (1986, p. 24) argues that “the principles specify the end states which are desirable for identity”. Thus, people tend to assimilate, accommodate and evaluate phenomena insofar as they can provide optimal levels of the identity principles. Over several years, Identity Process Theory researchers have identifi the following principles of identity:
• The continuity principle refers to the human motivation to maintain a sense of temporal continuity;
• The distinctiveness refers to the drive to establish and maintain a sense of differentiation from relevant others;
• The self-efficacy principle refers to need to maintain feelings of competence and control;
• The self-esteem principle refers to the drive to derive a positive selfconception;
• The meaning principle motivates individuals to search for purpose and
significance in their existence;
• The psychological coherence principle refers to the need for compatibility and coherence between inter-connected identity elements
These principles can be construed at both individual and group levels (Lyons, 1996). Thus, the continuity principle may refer to one's sense of continuity at a psychological, individual level (e.g. believing that one has remained the same person over time and will remain the same in the future), but also at a group level (e.g. believing that one's group has remained the same over time and will remain the same in the future).
Not all of the principles will be constantly salient at any given time but rather it is the social context (and the social representations which are dominant in that social context) which will render particular principles more or less salient. For instance, there appears to be a perception of mutual intergroup threat between Iranians and Israelis, which may in turn render salient the distinctiveness principle (construed at a group level). Conversely, it is conceivable that other principles of identity, such as meaning or psychological coherence, would be relatively less active in this intergroup context.
A core prediction of Identity Process Theory is that if the processes of assimilation-accommodation and evaluation cannot comply with the motivational principles of identity, for whatever reason, identity is threatened and the individual will engage in strategies for coping with the threat. Individuals seek to cope with identity threat because a state of identity threat is aversive for psychological wellbeing. A coping strategy is defined as “any activity, in thought or deed, which has as its goal the removal or modification of a threat to identity” (Breakwell, 1986, p. 78). Coping strategies can function at three levels:
• Intrapsychic strategies function at the cognitive and emotional levels and include inter alia denial or re-conceptualisation of a threatening stimulus, and compartmentalisation (cognitive separation) of elements which, together, could cause a threat;
• Interpersonal strategies aim to modify relationships with other people in order to cope with threat, and include inter alia self-isolation from others and “passing” (hiding one's group membership) in interpersonal contact;
• Intergroup strategies serve to modify group dynamics, boundaries and relations in order to cope with threat, and include strategically shifting between one's group memberships and engaging in group action (through membership in a pressure group, for instance).
Human beings habitually engage in these strategies as they monitor their identities
and attempt to maintain appropriate levels of the identity principles. Within the
Identity Process Theory suggests that identity is the product of both social and psychological processes. Breakwell (1986, 1993, 2001, 2014) has repeatedly acknowledged the role of social representations in determining the content of identity and the value of its components. Social representations determine how individuals assimilate, accommodate and evaluate identity components, what is threatening for identity and how individuals subsequently cope with threat. Both Social Representations Theory and Identity Process Theory acknowledge human agency in people's use and (re-)construal of social representations.
Breakwell (2011, 2014) has modelled the relationship between the individual and social representations in her model of “personalisation”. She argues that representations are used and personalised in ways which benefit identity processes. The five components of her personalisation model include:
• Awareness – individuals will have varying levels of awareness of a social representation, which can depend upon previous experience, particular personality traits (e.g. shyness; introversion) and group memberships (e.g. being a member of a group that is particularly concerned with a particular social representation). For instance, as highlighted in Chapter 1, many British Pakistanis manifest delegitimising social representations of Israel due to the belief in Israel's mistreatment of Arabs, but many are unaware of the fact that Arabs make up over 20 per cent of the Israeli population and have full citizenship rights in Israel.
• Understanding – individuals will differ in their level of understanding of a social representation, which can depend upon social and cognitive factors. For instance, many Iranians are aware of the social representation that the Holocaust constitutes a myth but do not understand the pseudo-scientific arguments presented by Holocaust deniers in order to substantiate this social representation (Litvak and Webman, 2009).
Acceptance – although individuals may have awareness and an understanding of a social representation, they will differ in the degree to which they actually believe it. For instance, Holocaust deniers are generally aware that most people do accept that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust but they do not believe this themselves and declare that this representation of the Holocaust is a “myth”. Clearly, some of the coping
• Assimilation – when individuals accept a social representation, it is assimilated to identity, as suggested by the assimilation-accommodation process in Identity Process Theory. Changes take place in identity in order to make room for the social representation and the representation itself undergoes some modification in order to become a part of the identity structure. For instance, Israeli Jews may accept the social representation that the Israeli Jewish ingroup is besieged by hostile (pre-dominantly Arab) outgroups, which in turn may alter their social representation of how they are viewed and treated by the world. This has been referred to as “siege mentality” (Bar-Tal, 2000; see Chapter 1, this volume).
• Salience – social representations will vary in their salience for an individual and a group over time. If a group, which is of phenomenological importance to an individual, decides that a social representation is important, it is likely to acquire importance for the individual as well. For instance, since 1979 the Iranian government has systematically represented anti-Zionism as a key tenet of Iranian national identity, and this appears to have rendered anti-Zionist social representations salient for Iranians since that time (Jaspal, 2013a), especially for those who identify strongly with the Iranian national group (Jaspal, 2013c).
The personalisation model integrates social representations and identity processes, because it provides a framework for understanding individual responses to social representations and how these representations may be voiced, accepted or rejected by individuals who are exposed to them. Thus, by examining the social representations that Iranians and British Pakistan Muslims have about Jews and Israel, we can gain greater insight into how these representations are related to identity processes. For instance, the social representation that Israel poses a threat to the Islamic ingroup could plausibly threaten the continuity principle of identity (construed at the group level). A key assumption of Identity Process Theory is that the threatened individual will seek to remove or modify the threat to identity by engaging in coping strategies, which can include outgroup hostility or full-blown intergroup conflict.