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  • Identity Development Theories in Student Affairs:Origins, Current Status, and New Approaches
  • Vasti Torres (bio), Susan R. Jones (bio), and Kristen A. Renn (bio)

Enhancing the development of students has long been a primary role of student affairs practitioners. Identity development theories help practitioners to understand how students go about discovering their "abilities, aptitude and objectives" while assisting them to achieve their "maximum effectiveness" (American Council on Education, 1937, p. 69). The tasks involved in discovering abilities, goals, and effectiveness are part of creating a sense of identity that allows the student to enter adult life. Identity is shaped by how one organizes experiences within the environment (context) that revolves around oneself (Erikson, 1959/1994). Across academic disciplines, the view of how individuals organize experiences takes on varying definitions. Within the student affairs literature, identity is commonly understood as one's personally held beliefs about the self in relation to social groups (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation) and the ways one expresses that relationship. Identity is also commonly understood to be socially constructed; that is, one's sense of self and beliefs about one's own social group as well others are constructed through interactions with the broader social context in which dominant values dictate norms and expectations (see Gergen, 1991; McEwen, 2003). Examples of these broader social contexts include both institutions such as education and work, as well as systems of power and inequality such as race, social class, and gender (Anderson & Collins, 2007).

Social construction of identity occurs in different contexts on campus such as in how student organizations are created and which students are drawn to them, or in the social identities among those in leadership positions and those not, as well as in issues of institutional fit within access and retention. One of the components of identity development that arises quickly on most campuses is the process of students learning how to balance their needs with those of others (Kegan, 1982, 1994; Kroger, 2004). In working to create community and mutual respect on campus, student affairs professionals help students to understand this balance between self and others as well as expose students to the varied nature of what is encompassed in the "other." A common program used to illustrate this process revolves around diversity issues. These programs often focus on exposure to other social groups and an understanding of how history supports society's view of these groups. This influence of the other contributes to the social construction of identity; in other words, the context and interactions with others—including other people, societal norms, and/or expectations that evolve from culture—influence how one constructs one's identity (Jones, 1997; McEwen, 2003; Torres, 2003; Weber, 1998). In addition, several researchers embrace a developmental approach to describe the shift that occurs when students [End Page 577] move from accepting simple definitions of self based on external factors to more complex understandings of self within context (e.g., Baxter Magolda, 2001; Pizzolato, 2010; Taylor, 2008; Torres & Hernandez, 2007).

This article focuses on understanding how identity development is conceptualized in student affairs. The need to understand the person, context, and interactions between the two advances identity theories as relevant to student affairs practice. The more practitioners understand how students make meaning of their identities, the better they are able to assist in promoting student learning and development in higher education institutions.

Although much of the research on college student development that informs student affairs practice originated in psychology, other disciplines contribute different lenses that can add to a more nuanced understanding of how identity evolves. Identity is often conceptualized as a developmental construct, and this conceptualization persists in current identity research. However, newer conceptualizations in both psychology and other disciplines resist the notion of identity as a developmental and linear process, instead emphasizing the fluid, dynamic, and performative nature of identity. Performativity illuminates the more contingent nature of identity and suggests that individuals create and recreate identity through their actions, which are constantly shifting (Abes & Kasch, 2007). The review that follows includes both of these perspectives on identity. In addition, because identity is influenced by students' many roles, expectations, and beliefs, we also address the intersectionality of...


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