The James Marcia Identity Status Theory

Last Updated on 30/06/2024 by James Barron

James Marcia is an eminent clinic and developmental psychologist and an influential theorist who is noted for his work in psychosocial development, particularly adolescent psychosocial development. His writings expanded upon Erik H Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. This article will delve into the life of James Marcia and examine the four identity statuses that he identified, Identity Diffusion, Identity Foreclosure, Identity Moratorium and Identity Achievement.

James E Marcia

James E Marcia was born in February 10, 1937 in Cleveland Ohio and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. An only child of a middle class family, he was interested in a variety of subjects, including history, drama, English, music (piano and trombone), philosophy and tennis. Graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from Wittenburg University in Springfield, Ohio in 1959, he followed up with a Master’s degree and a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Ohio State University in 1965. He began work at the University at Buffalo, New York in 1965 as professor and director of the psychology clinic before leaving to teach at Simon Fraser University in Columbia, Canada in 1972, only retiring 30 years later in 2002. Despite the extensive demands associated with his teaching and research, James Marcia somehow found the time and energy to attend the University of British Columbia School of Music to study performance in trombone from 1995 to 1998. Since retirement he plays with symphony orchestras in Vancouver and works as a clinical psychologist in private practice.

In 1959 he worked as an intern at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts, during his time at the health center he read Identity and the Life Cycle by Erik Erikson and realised that Erikson’s writings could be applied to many of his patients. It was at this time that his lifelong interest in identity began, in fact, he made it the subject of his dissertation.

Erik H Erikson

Erik Homburger Erikson was born Erik Salomonsen on 15th June 1902, in Frankfurt, Germany. As a single parent, his mother raised him until marrying Dr Theodore Homburger, who adopted Erik in 1911. Erik wasn’t told that Dr Homburger was not his biological father for a good many years and he experienced a sense of confusion about his identity when he was eventually told the truth. It was this feeling of confusion and his struggle to fit in at school that ignited his interest in identity development and influenced his life’s work. After teaching in Vienna and earning diplomas from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute and the Montessori Teachers Association, Erik married Canadian Joan Serson and they moved to America with their children in 1933, Erik also changed his name to Erik H Erikson. Despite not having a degree, Erik was offered a teaching position at Harvard Medical School, during this time he also ran a private practice in psychoanalysis for children. Erikson went on to hold psychoanalyst positions at several respected medical institutions and taught at Yale, the University of California at Berkely and other noted psychiatric institutions, he eventually returned to Harvard and remained there until his retirement in 1970. Erik Erikson died at the age of 91 on 12th May 1994 in Harwich, Massachusetts.

Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development

Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development proposes that throughout our lives we go through eight stages of psychosocial development, from infancy to old age, these eight stages are listed below:

10-1Trust vs. mistrustTrust, or indeed mistrust, that basic needs will be met.
21-3Autonomy vs. shame/doubtChildren begin to develop a sense of independence, should this not be encouraged, they can lose confidence.
33-6Initiative vs. guiltChildren begin to assert themselves, taking the initiative in activities, which could lead to feelings of guilt if unsuccessful.
47-11Industry vs. inferiorityA sense of confidence develops when successful in their endeavours, a sense of inferiority can develop with a lack of success.
512-18Identity vs. confusionSeeking a sense of self and identity, failure to develop a personal identity may lead to feelings of confusion about their place in society.
619-29Intimacy vs. isolationSeeking to form intimate relationships with others, success results in confidence and contentment within relationships, failure can mean isolation and a feeling of loneliness.
730-64Generativity vs. stagnationGenerativity – “Making your mark” in some way, contributing to society, this can generate a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction and inclusion. Stagnation – self-centred, doesn’t care about community, this can result in isolation, wishing you’d done things differently.
865+Integrity vs. despairLiving life well will give a sense of accomplishment, peace and fulfilment. Whereas those who fail to live their lives will look back with regret and a feeling of despair at a life wasted.

James Marcia expanded and refined Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, focusing on the adolescent stage of development, Erikson’s fifth stage of psychosocial development, identity versus confusion.

Erik Erikson’s concept of identity versus role confusion is the fifth stage of his theory of psychosocial development, otherwise known as the fifth stage of ego –

512-18Identity vs. confusionSeeking a sense of self and identity, failure to develop a personal identity may lead to feelings of confusion about their place in society

Erikson proposed that during the fifth stage of psychosocial development the adolescent experiences a developmental conflict, or crisis, where they seek to discover who they are and explore their independence. He maintained that adolescents often found it difficult to answer the question “who am I?” Erikson felt that this time of confusion and uncertainty about the teenager’s place in the world and their views on their appearance, sexuality, interests, etc., was an identity crisis and that many decided to explore and experiment in a psychosocial moratorium before making a commitment to an identity.

James E Marcia’s Theory of Identity Statuses

As previously mentioned, James Marcia expanded upon Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development and focused on his fifth stage of ego, identity versus confusion. Marcia felt that this stage of adolescence did not actually involve identity confusion, instead he suggested that teenagers went through a process of crisis in the form of exploration and choice, this was followed at some point by commitment and he identified four identity statuses – identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium and identity achievement, as listed below:

James Marcia’s Four Identity Statuses

  • Identity diffusion – this is the status in which the adolescent has not explored their choices, they have not attempted to make a commitment.
  • Identity foreclosure – this is the status in which the adolescent has made an identity commitment but has not yet made any explorations, instead they have followed the wishes of others, such as parents, teachers, mentors or other role models in their life.
  • Identity moratorium – this is the status in which the adolescent is exploring their options of identity but have not yet made any commitment.
  • Identity achievement – this is the status in which the adolescent has completed their explorations and experiments and made their commitment to a self-identity.

The central point of James Marcia’s theory of identity is that our sense of identity is mostly determined by our crises, or choices, and commitments we make throughout our lives, these commitments are not fixed forever, as our identity development will continue to evolve as our life circumstances change, for example, the birth of a child, moving house, a change of career, and so on. When our circumstances change we adjust our sense of identity in order to include new choices and commitments, this is known as the moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement cycles or MAMA.

James Marcia developed the Identity Status Interview which was the first to measure the formation of identity in individuals, the interview lasted around half an hour and was based on a scoring system developed by Marcia and his colleagues. Each interviewee was assessed for crisis and commitment regarding politics, religion and occupation and the results determined their identity status, this would be either identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium or identity achievement.

The ongoing research into identity by James Marcia and the development of his Identity Status Interview expanded and enhanced Erik Erikson’s work and encouraged research into the rest of his psychosocial development stages.

Author Profile

James Barron
My first experience of teaching was in 2016, when I was asked to
deliver a talk to a group of 16-year-olds on what it was like to start
your own business. I immediately knew I wanted to become more
involved in teaching but I didn’t know where to start as I had not
previously considered a career in education. A few weeks later I
agreed to teach a class of Chinese students from the Shanghai
Technical Institute of Electronics and Information, who had travelled
to the UK to learn English and Software Engineering, after that I was
hooked. Within the next few years, I taught hundreds of students of
many different nationalities, aged from 16 to 60, and from
levels 2 to 6. I focused my time teaching with Bath University and
Bath College for several more years until I felt a change was in order.
For the last few years, I have taught remotely with several private
training organisations, provided dedicated one to one coaching
sessions, provided consultancy on teaching and assessment practices
and written about my experiences as a teacher. I plan to continue
with my current activities for the foreseeable future but I’m always
open to new teaching experiences.

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