Identity as an Adaptation

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Journal of Adolescence 1996, 19, 405–416

Identity as adaptation to social, cultural, and historical
context
ROY F. BAUMEISTER AND MARK MURAVEN
Adaptation may be the best way to conceptualize the complex, multilateral relationship between individual identity and sociocultural context, because it recognizes the causal importance of culture yet also recognizes individual choice and change. This argument is developed by considering how several historical changes in the sociocultural context (i.e. increasing freedom of choice, changed interpersonal patterns, loss of traditional value bases, and rising tension between desire for uniqueness and difficulty of achieving it) have led to changes in the nature of identity. Although identity adapts to changes in its sociocultural context, these changes sometimes create new problems, including the specially problematic nature of modern selfhood.

© 1996 The Association for Professionals in Services for Adolescents

Introduction
The purpose of this essay is to provide some basis for understanding how individual identity is related to its sociocultural context. This relationship between individual identity and society is one of the classic chicken-and-egg problems. Which causes which? Is society the sum or product of identities, or is it the source of them?

It is obvious that identities do not come into being in a vacuum. Nor do they emerge first and then merely seek out a suitable context for themselves. Thus, societies clearly play an important causal role in creating and shaping identity. Then again, it is also clear that identities are not merely created by society and foisted willy-nilly on helpless, hapless individuals. People clearly do exert considerable choice and influence on their identities. We propose that the relationship of identity to social context be understood in terms of adaptation. More precisely individual identity is an adaptation to a social context. The concept of adaptation is useful because it does not imply mere passive acquisition of identity by individuals, but it also does not overstate the scope of self-determination. History, culture, and the proximate structure of social relations create a context in which the individual identity must exist. People have individual wants and needs that must be satisfied within that context. Individuals actively choose, alter, and modify their identities based on what will enable them to get along best in that context. Our approach will be to consider several major features of society and culture that have changed over the centuries to set up the specifically modern Western cultural context. We shall then examine how these changes in cultural context have altered the nature of identity, as people seek to adapt themselves to these new social conditions and possibilities. It is important to understand that these changes did not all occur simultaneously, nor have Reprint requests and correspondence should be addressed to R. Baumeister, Department of Psychology, Case Western Reserve University, 10900 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106-7123, U.S.A. 0140-1971/96/050405+12/$18.00/0

© 1996 The Association for Professionals in Services for Adolescents

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R. F. Baumeister and M. Muraven

they stopped. They have been occurring since the Renaissance, but some of these changes have accelerated in the twentieth century. When we speak of the modern identity, we are referring largely to the post-Renaissance changes in identity. At points we also try to illustrate how changes in late twentieth century society also impact on adolescents today. By way of definition, we treat identity as a composite definition of the self. That is, we assume that selfhood exists prior to linguistic definition or social construction. Self is based on having a physical body, experiencing reflexive consciousness, having interpersonal connections and belonging to small groups, and exercising the executive functions of decision-making and...
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