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Understanding Diverse Clients Through Social Identity Development

Traditionally, counselors have understood client identity through human theories such as Erikson's psychosocial theory and Freud's psychoanalytic theory (Qin & Comstock, 2005). However, these theories do not adequately assist counselors in understanding how social, political, and cultural contexts influence diverse client identity. Social identity development models have emerged, in part, to answer this need. According to Sue and Sue (2008), racial/cultural identity models, a form of social identity development model, represent some of the most useful frameworks for better understanding and treating clients with diverse identities. This section describes a process of social identity development, identifies prominent social identity models, and discusses the utility of these models.

Identity is profoundly affected by the socially assigned designations of culture, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and class, among others. Identity, or sense of self, begins with the individual characteristics and social identity group memberships with which a person is born (Tatum, 2000). Throughout life, one's identity is influenced by family; institutions such as schools, churches, and legal systems; and the cultural environments of communities, regions, and nations. Within these contexts, social identity group memberships are valued differently. For instance, within one family males may be valued more highly than females, or within a community heterosexuality may be valued more highly than being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Each valuation may be internalized by the person to some degree as part of her or his identity. In this way, social identity development affects how people view and feel about themselves, members of their identity groups, and those in other groups (Helms & Cook, 1999).

Social identity development models emerged for the purpose of simplifying the complexities of identity development. Most social identity development models characterize individuals as having varying degrees of awareness and acceptance of their social identities. These models describe individuals' level of identification with social identity groups through the behaviors and attitudes they display (Helms & Cook, 1999). This variability validates that members of a social identity group may share characteristics and experiences but also may vary significantly in their identification with that group, which allows counselors to conceptualize diverse clients without stereotyping (Sue & Sue, 2008).

The predominant social identity development models describe minority racial, ethnic, and cultural group members' experiences as they develop within the dominant, White culture. Examples of these models are Atkinson, Morten, and Sue's Racial/Cultural Identity Development Model (R/CID; Sue & Sue, 2008) and the People of Color Racial Identity Model (Helms, 1995). These models and others share a progression of statuses from dominant culture acceptance to minority culture acceptance and, finally, to a complex state of minority culture acceptance that allows connection to and valuing of other cultures including the dominant culture.

The stages of the R/CID (Sue & Sue, 2008) provide an example of this progression. In the initial stage, conformity, minority group individuals prefer dominant culture values over those of their own groups. In the dissonance stage, these individuals become increasingly aware of racism and discrimination and experience conflict as their dominant culture values are challenged. Individuals in the resistance and immersion stage may strongly ascribe to minority values and beliefs, reject the dominant culture, and become passionate about combating discrimination against their own group. Individuals in the introspection stage may experience discomfort with the rigid views they held before, reevaluate the dominant culture, and struggle with how to integrate these with the minority culture. During the final stage, integrative awareness, individuals develop an appreciation of their own culture and the dominant culture, critically evaluate all cultures, and commit to ending all forms of oppression.

Models have also been developed to describe the social identity development of dominant group individuals. Helms's White Racial Identity Model is an example of this type of model (Helms's & Cook, 1999). The assumption that healthy identity development for dominant group members involves becoming aware of privilege and its effect on other groups forms the basis of this model. Seven stages describe White individuals as they move from ignorance of and contentment with the racist status quo (contact stage), through stages of increasing awareness, varying attitudes toward group identity, and increasing personal responsibility (disintegration, reintegration, pseudo-independence, immersion, and emersion stages). By the final stage, White individuals have developed a positive, White, nonracist identity; value diversity; and take an active stance toward combating racism (autonomy stage).

Although many social identity models are structured around race and ethnicity, other models describe the identity development process of other social identity group categories. An example is Cass's (1979) model of gay, lesbian, and bisexual sexual identity formation. In addition, Hardiman and Jackson (2007) described a generic model of social identity development that includes all target and agent groups within society. This model, like the aforementioned racial/ethnic models, moves from target and agent individuals having little or no consciousness of their group identity, to acceptance, to resistance, to redefinition, and, finally, to a stage called internalization.

Understanding clients through social identity development is complicated by the reality that each person has multiple social group memberships spanning many dimensions of diversity (Jones & McEwen, 2000). For example, a person may identify as lesbian, female, Asian American, and working class. Reynolds and Pope (1991) suggested that people experience several stages of social identity development simultaneously and thereby live a blend of social identities that result in complex experiencing of themselves and the world. Thus the person above may experience varying levels of identity development with respect to each of her identities and have disparate feelings about each aspect.

Social identity development models offer counselors several benefits. Foremost, these models allow practitioners to better understand clients' experiences, issues, and needs. Each phase of development is associated with different behavior and feelings, which may influence the process of counseling. For instance, African American clients in conformity and immersion stages described by the R/CID will likely have different feelings toward the dominant culture and different views about the role of racism in their concerns. They will have different levels of comfort with discussing issues of race and may express differing levels of comfort and trust with a White therapist or an African American therapist. All of these factors would influence the process of counseling.

Social identity development models also allow counselors to better understand themselves. Whether counselors have agent or target identities, or more likely, a combination of both, their relationships with these identities will affect how they view and interact with clients during the counseling process (Helms & Cook, 1999). Self-assessment of social identity development enables counselors to better identify their own vulnerabilities with regard to diversity and target knowledge and experiences, including counseling that may assist them in better serving diverse client populations.

Although social identity development models can be great tools for counselors, they have limitations. Reynolds and Pope (1991) cautioned against oversimplifying the use of identity development models and suggested that rigidly ascribing one identity to a client may result in an inaccurate view of client experience. Others (e.g., Kwong-Liem, 2001; Sue & Sue, 2008) have cautioned that social identity theories should not be used to stereotype clients but should be used to help understand clients in their current context.

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