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Identity Development Models

2011 December 1


Over the years a diverse array of theorists have developed models of different aspects of identity development.  Below are a sampling of five of such models.  They are models of the development of: 1) racial identity, 2) specifically White identity, 3) feminist identity, 4) homosexual identity and 5) religious faith.  As you read them, see if you notice any trends or themes in them.


Sue & Sue’s Racial/Cultural Identity Development Model

Conformity Stage In the conformity stage individuals exhibit a preference for the dominant cultural values over their own cultural values.  During this stage, individuals identify with the dominant group and use them as their primary reference group.  They tend to downplay and feel negatively about their own cultural group with low salience as part of their identity.
Dissonance Stage The dissonance stage is marked by an encounter or experience that is inconsistent with culturally held beliefs, attitudes and values from the conformity stage.  For instance, a minority individual who is ashamed of their own cultural heritage will encounter someone from their cultural group who is proud of his or her heritage.  In this stage, denial begins to occur and there is a questioning of one’s beliefs and attitudes held in the conformity stage.  For example, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. caused many African Americans to move rapidly from a passive conformity stage to a dissonance stage.
Resistance and Immersion Stage In the resistance and immersion stage, a minority person is likely to feel anger, guilt and shame at the oppression and racism that they previously put up with.  This stage is marked by an endorsement of minority-held views and a rejection of the dominant values of society and culture.
Introspection Stage During the introspection stage, the individual devotes more energy toward understanding themselves as part of a minority group and what that means at a deeper level.  In contrast to the intense reactivity against dominant culture in the resistance and immersion stage, the introspection stage is more ‘pro-active’ in defining and discovering the sense of self.
Integrative Awareness Stage The integrative awareness stage includes a sense of security and the ability to appreciate positive aspects of both their own culture and the dominant culture. Individuals in this stage have resolved conflicts experienced in earlier stages and have more of a sense of control and flexibility with the ability to recognize the pros and cons of both cultural groups while still trying to eliminate all forms of oppression.
Source: Vaughn, 2010, p. 27.



Sue’s White Racial Identity Ego Statuses and Helms’ Information-Processing Strategies

1. Contact status Satisfaction with racial status quo, obliviousness to racism and one’s participation in it.  If racial factors influence life decisions, they do so in a simplistic fashion.  Information-Processing Strategy: Obliviousness.
2. Disintegration status Disorientation and anxiety provoked by irresolvable racial moral dilemmas that force one to choose between own-group loyalty and humanism.  May be stymied by life situations that arouse racial dilemmas.  Information-Processing Strategy: Suppression and ambivalence.
3. Reintegration status Idealization of one’s socio-racial group.  Denigration and intolerance for other groups.  Racial factors may strongly influence life decisions.  Information-Processing Strategy: Selective perception and negative out-group distortion.
4. Pseudo-independence status Intellectualized commitment to one’s own socio-racial group and deceptive tolerance of other groups.  May make life decisions to “help other racial groups.”  Information-Processing Strategy: Reshaping reality and selective perception.
5. Immersion/ emersion status Search for an understanding of the personal meaning of racism and the ways by which one benefits and a re-definition of Whiteness.  Life choices may incorporate racial activism.  Information-Processing Strategy: Hypervigilance and reshaping.
6. Autonomy status Informed positive socio-racial group commitment, use of internal standards for self-definition, capacity to relinquish the privileges of racism. May avoid life options that require participation in racial oppression. Information-Processing Strategy: Flexibility and complexity.
Source: Sue, 2006, pp. 121-122.



McNamara & Rickard’s Stages of Feminist Identity Development

1. Passive acceptance During this stage, the female accepts traditional gender roles, sees them as advantageous to her, and considers men to be superior to women.  She is unaware of or denies prejudice or discrimination.  Male contributions to the arts, business, and theater are valued more than those of women.
2. Revelation Events involving sexism occur in a way that cannot be denied or ignored.  The individual becomes personally awakened to prejudice, becomes angry, and feels guilty at being previously unaware.  There is intense self-examination and dichotomous thinking.  All men are seen as oppressive and all women as positive.
3. Embeddedness-emanation. The woman begins to form close emotional relationships with other women.  With their help she is able to express her emotions in a supportive environment.  Her feminist identity is becoming solidified, and she engages in more relativistic rather than dualistic thinking regarding males.
4. Synthesis During this stage, a positive feminist identity is fully developed.  Sexism is no longer considered the cause of all social and personal problems, and other causal factors are considered.  The woman can take a stance different from that of other feminists and still maintain her feminist identity.
5. Active commitment The woman is now interested in turning her attention toward making societal changes.
Source: Sue & Sue, 2008, p. 477.



Troiden’s (1989) Model of Homosexual Identity Development

Stage 1: Sensitization Involves being marginalized and made to feel different from peers.  Sexuality is not yet likely to be related to a sense of “differentness.” Occurs before puberty
Stage 2: Identify Confusion Begin to recognize feelings and behaviors that could be labeled homosexual.  There is a shift in focus to one’s sexuality strategies used to cope: Denial, Avoidance, Repair, Acceptance.  Occurs usually in adolescence; average age of 18 for females at and 17 for males.
Stage 3: Identity Assumption A reduction in social isolation and an increase in contact with other lesbians and gay men.

Task is to learn coping techniques to manage social stigma such as: adopting a negative view of homosexuality but acknowledges his or her membership in this group; adopting stereotypic and often exaggerated homosexual mannerisms and behavior; passing; or group alignment/immersion.  Occurs on average for males at ages 19-21 and for females at ages 21-23.

Stage 4: Commitment Integration of homosexuality; becomes a state or way of being, rather than a description of sexual behavior.  Includes the accomplishment of a same-sex love commitment, identification as gay, lesbian or bisexual to non-homosexual individuals, and increased self-satisfaction and happiness.



Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development

Stage 0: Primal or Undifferentiated Faith

(birth to 2 years)

Characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse).  If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine.  Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine.  Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith

(ages of three to seven)

Characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the unconscious.
Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith

(mostly in school children)

Stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.
Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith

(arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood)

Characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity.  Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith

(usually mid-twenties to late thirties)

A stage of angst and struggle.  The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings.  As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

(mid-life crisis)

Acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems.  The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
Stage 6: Universalizing Faith What some might call “enlightenment”.  The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.
Source: Fowler, 1981



So what commonalities did you see in these models of identity development?

What I am struck by is how all these disparate models begin with a stage of identity development that is unquestioning of one’s surrounding social environment, followed by transitioning to a more individualized identity, and ending in a stage that integrates multiple aspects of self and other.  This pattern is strikingly similar to Kegan’s stages of Socialized, Self-Authoring, and Self-Transforming thinking.

Taking Sue & Sue’s Racial/Cultural Identity Development Model as one example, the Conformity stage seems similar to Kegan’s Socialized Mind as socialized specifically by the dominant racial group.  The Resistance & Immersion Stage also appears to be similar to the Socialized Mind but as socialized specifically by the minority racial group.  A person at the Dissonance Stage would be in transition between Conformity and Resistance & Immersion.  The next stage, Introspection, appears to be taking a perspective on one’s minority socialization, suggesting thinking similar to the Self-Authored Mind.  Finally, Sue & Sue’s description of a person at the Integrative Awareness stage is highly evocative of Kegan’s Self-Transforming Mind, allowing one to integrate multiple aspects of the racial identity of self and others without being defined by any one aspect.

On the one hand, perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  If the overall development of the mind involves developing wider and wider circles of perspective-taking, then it makes sense that smaller sub-sections of our identity would following similar patterns.  On the other hand, I find it remarkable that different theorists, with different backgrounds and interests would independently and inadvertently corroborate larger theories of development.

In describing her model of disability identity development, Gill (1997) puts it succinctly:

As a clinical developmental psychologist, I have always been captivated by the familiar plot of personality integration: the child or adult is plagued by psychological disorganization due to maturational changes or life crises; with support and time for exploration, the individual begins to make sense of jumbled feelings and perceptions; finally, disparate elements of the personality synthesize into a new, stronger, more differentiated level of personality organization allowing for improved relationships with the social environment.  In developmental psychology, integration rules! (pp. 39-40).




 Fowler, J. (1981).  Stages of Faith.  San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Gill, C. (1997).  Four types of integration in disability identity development.  Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 9, 39-46.

McNamara, K., & Rickard, K.M. (1989).  Feminist identity development: Implications for feminist therapy with women.  Journal of Counseling and Development, 68, 184-189.

Troiden, R. R. (1989).  The formation of homosexual identities.  Journal of Homosexuality, 17 (1/2), 43-73.

Troiden, R. R. (1989).  Gay and lesbian identity: A sociological analysis.  Dix Hills, NY: General Hall.

Sue, D. W. (2006).  Multicultural social work practice.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D. & Sue, D. (2008).  Counseling the Culturally Diverse.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Vaughn, L. (2010).  Psychology and culture: thinking, feeling, and behaving in global contexts.  New York: Psychology Press.


3 Responses Leave One →
  1. Andrew Conning permalink
    December 10, 2011

    I really appreciate this summary of this literature and how the different models fit together. I agree with you and Gill – the underlying process is differentiation and reintegration!

  2. Jenn permalink
    January 25, 2013

    Wow Sue & Sue’s racial identity model sounds a lot like Cross’s (1971) Nigrescence Model of racial identity. Actually, the similarities across of these stage models of identity are interesting as you already pointed out.

  3. Peter W. Pruyn permalink
    February 8, 2013

    Hi, Jennifer. Thank you very much for your comment.

    I’m delighted that you made a connection with yet another model. Yes, the dance between differentiation and integration seems to be strikingly universal.

    I invite you to add any additional comments on how the models may, or may not, influence your work.

    – Peter

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