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Dispersion of Identity Meanings: Exploration and Implications

  • Author(s): Cantwell, Allison M.
  • Advisor(s): Burke, Peter J
  • et al.
Abstract

Identity theory conceptualizes identities as sets of meanings individuals attach to the self (Burke and Stets 2009). Individuals seek support for their identities in situations by acting in ways to obtain feedback about the self from others. This feedback is compared to one's identity meanings in situations. If the feedback matches one's identity meanings, individuals feel good. If the feedback does not match one's identity meanings, individuals feel bad and are motivated to change the situation to bring feedback into alignment with their identity meanings. This comparison process is conceptualized as a control system.

This dissertation expands upon the control system process of identity theory by adding a measure of tightness of control of an identity to the theory. Control systems can vary in how tightly or loosely they monitor a standard (Powers 1973). In identity theory, the standard is the set of identity meanings to be compared with meanings being monitored in the situation. Individuals will vary in how tightly or loosely they maintain those identity standard meanings. A measure of tightness of control was developed by asking individuals about the various ways they define the self for the student identity dimension academic responsibility. Including tightness of control in the identity model will help researchers to better understand the identity control process because tightness of control is shown to influence how individuals experience discrepancies (what happens when feedback in the situation does not match one's identity meanings).

Key findings indicate that tightness of control of an identity influences the identity control process with respect to emotional output. Individuals with more tightly controlled identities experience more negative emotion in the face of discrepancy than individuals with more loosely controlled identities. This suggests that individuals with tighter control systems are more bothered when their identities are challenged in situations. While it is likely that a more intense emotional response would lead to a greater behavioral response, this link has not yet been established empirically. Based on past control systems research (Powers 1973), individuals with more tightly controlled identities should be more effective at correcting a discrepancy than individuals with looser control systems. Findings in the present study indicate that individuals with more tightly controlled identity meanings will express greater adjustment in behaviors to fix a discrepancy than individuals with looser control systems. This suggests a tighter control system is more effective at correcting a disturbance than a more loosely controlled system. The implications of the findings of this study, its limitations and future research are discussed.

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