Last fall I took two online classes through the local community college as prerequisites for a graduate program that I eventually decided not to pursue. Along the way, I discovered James Marcia.
Marcia contributes the idea that as someone enters each stage of identity development they tend to move into four alternative statuses: identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium, and identity achievement.
These four alternatives are connected by the presence or absence of two characteristics: crisis and commitment. The experience of crisis, to Marcia, involves an individual exploring options as their identity develops. Commitment is the moment the individual decides to invest in one option and integrate it into to their newly resolved identity.
There are four different combinations of crisis and commitment that a person may find themselves experiencing during their development. Identity diffusion is the state of a person who has not explored meaningful alternatives and also has not made an identity commitment. Perhaps, they have been made by others to feel powerless to true exploration and commitment or it may be they are simply content and comfortable. An individual who makes a commitment without exploring options is said to be in identity foreclosure. They’ve confidently ended their journey before they even started, often accepting their received culture and path. Identity moratorium is the state of an individual who has explored meaningful alternatives, but has not yet made a meaningful, lasting commitment.
At the end of a crisis, if the person is to have developed in a new way, they will examine all of the options they have explored during their crisis and commit to the one or few that most define their identity in this new context. This is called identity achievement.
It’s certainly not a passive process. Most current research suggests that major identity shifts occur during late adolescence and early adulthood when individuals are embracing their independence and exploring on their own. In early adulthood there is an emergence of identity that is more vetted and integrated. But the process is never finished.
The final truth that I learned from Marcia, for me, is the most encouraging. He believes that in order to achieve a positive identity, most individuals go through “MAMA” cycles: from moratorium (that is, exploring without a commitment) to achievement (choosing and recommitting to your identity) and then back again. “Marcia agues that the first identity is just that—it should not be viewed as the final product.”
With each relationship, job, community, major world event, or other change in life, we are given the chance to reconsider our beliefs and identity. The MAMA cycles are healthy. That was positive news to me—as a somewhat impulsive explorer—and an affirmation that searching is healthy. We can always decide to return to what we already knew to be true, but knowing that we have explored our options will provide necessary assurance along the way.
I’ve primarily learned about Marcia through the textbook Children by John Santrock (2013). All quotes and paraphrases here are from that work.