Identity: a Psychological Perspective
An introductory paper by David Beswick
Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne
Prepared for the seminar: Christian Identity and the Public Square
17 March 2007
The origins of the concept of identity lie deep in our cultural history, including notions of soul, body, and social belonging in biblical and classical literature. Its presence in various forms throughout our history is discussed in detail in a recent book by Raymond Martin and John Barresi entitled The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity (Martin and Barresi 2006). In modern psychology the topic of the self has received a great deal of attention over the past 50 years or so, and identity has been a sub topic in this field especially since Erikson’s work in the post-war period on the working out of one’s personal identity as a particular challenge of adolescence (Erikson 1968). In the years since that time of focus on the youth culture in Western society, it has become a much broader topic in understanding how people of all ages see themselves and cope with developmental challenges. Perhaps in these times of rapid social change, globalization, geographic and social mobility, unstable relationships and uncertainties in many aspects of life, what was once typical of adolescence has become more characteristic of the threats and opportunities which come to people at all stages of life.
In any case the broad field of identity, both social and personal, has gained richness of insight and conceptualization with the recovery of such concepts as personal meaning and purpose following the cognitive revolution in psychology from the late fifties onward, together with the decline of doctrinaire behaviourism and the accumulated insights of professional practice in clinical and counselling psychology. Now, although computer modelling and neuropsychology are very much part of the discipline, and valuable aids to psychological understanding, and while many psychologists in this field are frankly materialists, it is thankfully possible again and to speak respectably of matters of the mind and consciousness. Identity is a matter of the mind. We know it directly from our own consciousness and can recognize it in others. One should not try to avoid this subjective language although it is dangerous ground and must be covered with great care. We know what it is from direct experience, but there is much about it that cannot be discovered simply through introspection, and we now have the benefit of several decades of psychological research.
The title of this seminar refers to a particular kind of identity, “Christian identity”, and to particular circumstances of “the public square”. I think I know the kind of tension this topic addresses: what is the peculiar character of “Christian” identity as distinct from other kinds of identity; how do Christians present themselves, their lives and beliefs in public as opposed to the private sphere; how should they be true to their Christian identities; and how can they participate effectively in the public life of a nation or community without compromising their own or others’ understanding of who they are? On a different occasion, if it were not for the fact that I prefer these days to avoid public controversy, I might be a willing participant in debate on such matters. Today I have accepted the invitation to go back behind these particular questions of witness and service to examine the nature of identity itself as it is understood psychologically. I might hint at some of the practical implications for mission and survival with integrity in a Christian life, but others in this seminar will I am sure provide plenty of stimulus in those respects, and I will try to cover in summary form some of the basics of a psychological perspective on the nature of identity. So I will try to give some of the psychological theory and research findings which could be useful in thinking about applications others make of their understanding of “Christian Identity” as it is or should be found in “the Public Square”. Note that in this introduction I have already made some essential points on identity: that identity has a base in cultural history, that it varies throughout the life cycle, that it has to do with how we see ourselves and cope with developmental challenges, that it is sensitive to changes in social circumstances, that it is directly experienced by conscious minds and that it can be recognized by others.
There is a general distinction in the psychological literature between personal identity and social identity. Personal identity is defined as a unitary and continuous awareness of who one is (Baumeister 1998; Ellemers, Spears et al. 2002). I need to say something about each of these aspects: the apparent unitary character of our personal identity and the sense of continuity, and I will deal briefly with each of them separately, but first it is advisable to note that the two kinds of identity, social and personal, are inter-related and depend to some extent upon each other.
A good example of the interdependency of the social and personal aspects of identity appears when we begin to ask whether we are the same person today as at some time in the past. It is an ancient puzzle, appearing in Greek drama as long ago as the Sixth Century BC (Martin and Barresi 2006), but we know from common experience that, however much one might change, we can and do recognize each other as continuing entities. For example, people who go to a school reunion, where they meet former classmates whom they have not seen for decades, will soon identify each other. They will acknowledge with a name and memories of defining characteristics people whose faces might not be recognized immediately and whose life stories are now largely unknown. That recognition of identity is more personal than social. It may be affirmed and reinforced socially, but it is carried forward in our own memories and in the memories of others by our being thought of as individuals much more than in the recall of the groups and classifications of persons with which we might have been identified. It may well be relevant in the establishment of our identities in such a context to tell when meeting an old friend of former years a little of what has happened since we last met and even of significant changes in group memberships and the classes of persons of which we have been members or to which we now belong ‑ married, divorced, liberal, conservative, changes of nationality or religious affiliation; but only part of the sense of who we are comes from knowing where we belong, and old acquaintances will remember important things about us which are independent of group affiliations and social categories.
It is certainly true that we understand ourselves to have a continuing identity through time, and some contemporary philosophers and psychologists have attributed a personal sense of identity primarily to just that quality of continuity. Alasdair MacIntyre, said in a philosophical work, in regard to the narrative concept of selfhood, “I am the subject of a history that is my own and no one else’s, that has its own peculiar meaning.” (MacIntyre 1984) pp 216-217). He gave an example of someone contemplating suicide who has made a complaint that his or her life is meaningless. MacIntyre says that typically the complaint is that “the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement towards a climax or a telos” (pp 217-218.) Note here the purposive nature of intelligibility: personal stories that are meaningful move towards a goal or end (telos); we will come back to this as an important aspect of personal identity. Daniel Dennett, another philosopher, but one who has written a good deal on psychology and the brain, took the view that consciousness should be understood as consisting of narrations, produced by the brain, the point of which is to interpret objects and events in some coherent way (Dennett 1991). Note that the brain is assumed to have an inbuilt capacity to make stories, which I would suppose to be one of the ways in which it functions to integrate disparate experiences. Unity joins continuity at this point in Dennett’s account of consciousness.
Coherence in a narrative form is one type of integration of the whole person as a distinct entity which has both the unity and the continuity attributes of personal identity. Jerome Bruner, a noted cognitive psychologist from the 1950s who is still publishing in his nineties (Bruner 1990; Bruner 2003), has in his later work given a good deal of attention to how people use narratives as a way of making sense of disparate elements of experience in an integrated and meaningful life. See, for example, his book “Acts of Meaning”. In this work Bruner put his emphasis on the cultural base through which narrative forms are learned, rather than on innate brain functions relied upon by Dennett, although both are necessary. For example, in reference to children learning a language and a reflexive self understanding at an early age:-
While we have an “innate” and primitive predisposition to narrative organization that allows us quickly and easily to comprehend and use it, the culture soon equips us with new powers of narration through its tool kit and through the traditions of telling and interpreting in which we soon come to participate (Bruner 1990).
In more recent work Bruner has written of storytelling as a means of constructing personal identity (Bruner 2003). That must be to our advantage in living a life with purpose and meaning, but it also leads us into fancy and falsehood. Indeed, it seems that we can tell a story that will make sense even of the most bizarre events in our lives; we often don’t see the sense of something we have done, in the context of our lives as a whole, until we reflect upon it later. We have a great capacity for rationalizing and justifying things for which we were responsible but which do not fit well with our view of ourselves. Much of the research on cognitive dissonance demonstrates this last point with many examples of ways that people can distort memory, self-perception and understanding of others to maintain consistency with one’s self-identity (Festinger 1957; Festinger 1964). So, morally and socially, there are positive and negative aspects to this powerful capacity to make narrative sense of our lives. For our purposes in psychological theory it illustrates the conjunction of unity and continuity as aspects of personal identity, and the importance of basic processes of integration which seems to be given in the way the brain works and is developed early in our learning how to share in a culture.
There are other forms of integration besides narration in which we experience our identities as a unity. We see ourselves as complex personalities with diverse traits, yet unitary whole beings, as single entities, distinct from others and organised in a coherent whole. We seek and hold onto such a unity even if we might have apparently contradictory characteristics such as being both but orderly and open to novel events which disturb old patterns – highly curious people for example are both open and orderly. We hold traits together, sometimes in tension, in ways that make sense in our own understanding or who we are. Such a sense of unity is a personal Gestalt that is seen as a figure that stands out from a background. Although not a simple figure, this Gestalt of our personal identity, or whole self-image perceived as a unit, makes sense to us as a single entity which is different from the sum of its parts. While seen as a whole, there may be in our thinking various cognitive elements corresponding to different aspect of ourselves. We may have cognitive schemata representing our emotionality, intelligence, social preferences and life style, indeed a wide range of traits, which we think of as typical and perhaps essential to understanding who we are, and these schemata will be organised into a meaningful whole in our perception of ourselves. We might say that we have a conceptual self as well as a self organised in narrative form, giving us the unity and continuity of personal identity.
The conceptual self contains other cultural elements, often in narrative form, that may be regarded as essential to an identity, but are not derived directly from our personal histories. Our personal stories appear to extend back before birth, while a continuing sense of identity has led people from the earliest prehistory of which we have evidence to look forward to life after death. Genealogies and origin myths, hopes and shared eschatology are powerful identity symbols which can be merged with contemporary and recent images of who we are. These are part of our conceptual selves, but integrated in ways that make our personal stories part of a bigger story of family, nation and faith community. Looked at in this way, group identifications are part of our personal identity, but there is another approach in which social or collective identity is treated as a separate topic in which regard the question is not so much whether personal or social identity is more important, but the conditions under which social identity might have more influence on perceptions, emotions and behaviour (Ellemers, Spears et al. 2002)
It is obvious then that to get the full picture of identity we need to take social identity into account together with the personal. Indeed people sometimes go to the opposite extreme from personal identity and define themselves completely in terms of a group membership which gives central meaning to everything about them. To be black or female or Muslim or Christian might for some give this kind of single focus to an identity. There is another form of sharply focussed group identity. The centred symbolism type of social identity around which personal identity is organised is not the same as a community sense of self although it is similar in some of its effects. In the latter respect, there are strong cultural differences in regard to a communal sense of self. While in the West one might perhaps tell only a personal story and have a largely individual conception of who one is, in other Asian and Pacific societies it is not possible to make sense of who a person is except in the context of membership in a real life community, that is defined not in terms of a social category but in organic membership of real life group (Ellemers, Spears et al. 2002), as for example in Anne Becker’s report on research in Fiji:
In Fiji the collective appropriates, shares and diffuses personal bodily experience… In Fiji, the body, self and collective are intimately connected …The Fijian self is located in a community as much as in a body. (Becker 1995), pp.133-40.)
While a sharply focussed group identity might operate in parts of Western society, for the most part, a more diffuse and multi-centred type of social identity is common in our society. We might have different perceptions of ourselves in relationship to different groups of people and there will be a question of which group identity is more relevant in particular situations.
It has been observed by reviewers of social psychological research in recent years that much of the function of identity in social relationships is still governed by the dynamics of personal identity, but there is a separate set of research findings on social or collective identity. A social identity approach subsumes both social identity theory (Tajfel 1978; Tajfel and Turner 1979; Tajfel 1982) and self-categorization theory (Turner 1987). In this approach one looks for the interaction between social identity as a factor in a person’s perception of the situation which may direct attention to different aspects of the self (or different social selves), and the social context that makes those different aspects one’s social identity salient in that context. For example some situations might call out our concerns about our identities as members of a church and another might make our identity as a family member the prime concern. In this sense we might be said to act in accordance with different social identities according to the demands of the situation. How we respond is a function not only of the relevance of our identification with various groups, but also of the strength of our commitments to different groups. In addition, along with the range of groups with which we might identify and the degree of commitment we might have to each of them, one needs to take into account also the kind of concern about those groups which the situation brings forth in us. Those concerns are likely to appear under condition of threat. When the groups with which we identify or we as individuals are threatened in a social context our primary concerns and motives are likely to be revealed. Ellemers and others (Ellemers, Spears et al. 2002) have set out the results of research according to these factors. A brief summary of some of these results follows but it does not cover all conditions.
If we consider, for example, a set of conditions in which there is high commitment to a group that is under threat, people who identify with it are likely to respond with group affirmation; whereas if there is low commitment, the likely response will be individual mobility. None of this is simple. For example, when group boundaries are impermeable and it is difficult to leave one likely outcome is personal acceptance of inferiority when the group is devalued. (I think we see that to some extent in ministers whose view of ordination and commitment to the church is confused, weak or ambivalent.) Members who care least about their group are most likely to experience negative feelings about their group membership when the group is under threat. When it is the individual rather than the group that is threatened, then in cases of high commitment to the group their concern will be acceptance by the group. That is in contrast to people in the same conditions who have low commitment to the group: they may feel that to be categorized as a member of the group is a threat to them personally and they will tend to experience the group as an out-group and seek to establish their individual uniqueness. (I think we see examples of this also in the church.) When there is no threat and high commitment people will tend most willingly to express their identity with the group, so that their perception of the social situation will increase their feelings of relevance in regard to that group.
Returning now to the significance of group identity experience for understanding personal identity, we might tend to speak of different identities in different social situations derived from different sources of self knowledge, but we cannot live with that idea of separate selves. However difficult it is to make sense of our whole stories and varied characteristics we do not rest easily with separate selves. Indeed the fact that we feel some tension in regard to diverse perceptions that might otherwise suggest separate social selves, brings out the psychological importance of our apparently inbuilt need to integrate such differences in a unified understanding, even if it is always incomplete. Yet this is the point at which there are some strong differences of opinion in the research literature in recent years. Some, especially some contemporary philosophers, have claimed that when our understanding of who we are is analysed in scientific psychology and in philosophy the unified self recedes and becomes a very questionable concept. Some psychologists say that we are many selves so that when we see that we function differently in different situations we have many different identities, e.g. Neisser, for example, described five different mechanisms of self-knowledge which might be considered “five kinds of self”: ecological, social, private, extended, and conceptual (Neisser 1988; Neisser 1993; Neisser 1997). Martin and Barresi argue that this amounts to a discrediting of the idea of a unified identity (Martin and Barresi 2006), taking a hard line on the illusory nature of “folk psychology”, but they concede that in practical living the “folk” suppositions of a unitary and continuous identity are morally, socially and legally indispensable. (There is much more to be said about Martin and Barresi’s attack on what they represent as Christian beliefs about the soul, and its modern substitute, the self, in that what they have dismissed in post-modern theory on the basis of the “receding” view of identity as a unity, is not the biblical concept of self as a living body but the pagan Greek conception of an immaterial and immortal soul. Christian identity is not tied to any such mythology. The argument about that will have to await some later treatment, and it well deserves serious attention, but for our purposes today it does not detract from the position taken by many psychologists in regard to personal and social identity as unified, although incomplete.)
It is often in the study of the social aspects that lack of unity comes into focus. It is important in this context to see how the individual person remains the locus of the different mechanisms of self understanding. When we speak of such things as membership groups and reference groups we are speaking of qualities that do not exist apart from what particular individual people perceive, think, feel, remember, and value. A naïve observer might see a number of people in a field of view, but they constitute a group only in the minds of people, whether members of the group or external observers. There might be groups but they are not membership or reference groups without concepts of membership and reference groups being ideas in one’s mind. Just the idea of various categories of people depends upon systems of belief about different classes of people, or cognitive maps of our social worlds. These ideas are often normative or canonical and reflect accepted social theories and implicit personality theories in folk psychology (Bruner 1990). We see ourselves and our social worlds in terms we have learned as we have learned to live in our culture. So, although for good reason we often have individualistic conceptions of our identities we understand who we are socially and personally in culturally derived terms.
In political and religious contexts it is especially important to keep in mind when we identify with groups or categories of people, and understand who we are partly in those social terms, that we also see ourselves and others as unique individuals with our own personal histories which cannot be fully understood in terms of groups, classes or categories of people to which we belong. We and others are not only members of various groups like a church or a football club or family or a local community; and we are not only men or women, Australian or another nationality, we are not only adherents to a particular shared belief system, nor are we either clearly distinguished as good or bad, strong or weak, hopeful or depressed, outgoing or withdrawn, or well defined in terms of any categories of human differences. Indeed, while we all tend at times to identify ourselves in terms of groups or categories that are important to us, especially when the relevant reference group is under threat or when it is being celebrated in some way, we know nevertheless that there is more to our identities than those group or class identifications. Most people are aware of the seriously disruptive consequences of group identities which exclude other understandings of ourselves and others. We see dangers in appeals to exclusive and passionate national or religious group identifications. Identity politics has been played with assertions and denials of claims made by groups seeking social and political advantages or rights on the basis of such defining characteristics as race, religion, nationality, place of residence, occupation, education, gender and sexual preference. National, religious, ideological and party political leaders have played upon the identification of people with their communities in terms of tribe and nation, blood and soil, race, colour, class and beliefs. Such identity politics has dangerous consequences as the history of the twentieth century demonstrates with horror; and it is a game that is still being played as if its dangers were not known. It is important to see that identity can be understood in other terms.
There is an awakening concern that in some respects in recent years in the West, we have regressed in this respect. After centuries of struggle to recognize individuals as possessing certain basic rights by virtue of their common humanity regardless of such group identity distinctions as race, nationality, class and religion, we have moved again towards policies and practices in which approved actions are once more based upon group identities. It has been a constant struggle in the social, political and legal processes of liberal democracies, and it is seen now in more challenging forms in international, communal and global religious conflicts. Identity politics is based essentially on theories of class memberships and of relations between classes of people. But most people know that who they are is more than the sum of their group memberships.
Identity then has both personal and social dimensions and there is a difference between the way social identity works and the dynamics of personal identity. But that is not all. Besides the personal and social aspects, there is also the sense of agency or an executive function in which a person acts and is not merely acted upon. There have been thousands of articles published on the social psychology of the self and its extraordinary complexity and varied forms, but as one recent reviewer (Baumeister 1998) pointed out throughout the whole literature there appear to be just three important roots of selfhood. These are reflexive consciousness, interpersonal being and executive function. I have not mentioned reflexive consciousness explicitly so far, but our being both the subject and the object of our self perceptions is implied in what we discussed about awareness of the unity and continuity of who we are. The interpersonal aspects in Baumeister’s definition are included in social identity and the social traits and memories of the conceptually integrated personal self, not all of which will necessarily be included in an individual’s conscious sense of identity. The concept of self is broader than the notion of identity, so that for example the interpersonal aspects of our being include the ways in which we interact with others as well as our group identifications, but the sense of being an active agent, the origin of actions, is essential to our conception of personal identity. In both personal and social respects the self might at times be regarded as passive, as an observer of what we have done, or of what has happened to us and where we are in the world. But every conscious person is aware that he or she is not merely the locus of interacting forces. Even the most deterministic psychologists know that they are responsible for their own behaviour, that they can purposely pursue aims in their research or their professional practice, and in their private lives, aims which they have chosen and which they will by their own deliberate actions seek to achieve. People have a sense of agency in which they originate action and cause things to happen. Indeed if we are ever so dispossessed of personal power as to lose all control over our destinies, we become so alienated from life that our sense of self tends to disappear. Research on intrinsic motivation has pointed in many ways to the critical importance of this sense of agency. I want now to relate it particularly to the way that a sense of identity functions in the development of the whole person.
What has happened to us personally and socially in the past and our knowledge of how we have acted as responsible agents has helped to form our identities, but our sense of identity does not depend only on memory. I know myself to be the person who made this or that choice, who deliberately acted in a certain way. That is, if you will, the existential self which gains personal meaning from deliberate responsible actions, as described by Victor Frankl, originally in From Death Camp to Existentialism (Frankl 1959). Our sense of identity is intimately related to the commitments we have made, and we know that not only by looking back to what we have done in the past. One's sense of identity is formed from the experience of becoming who we are more than from remembering who we were, it is dependent to a degree on whom we see ourselves becoming and are not yet. There is a future aspect to it that is essential for purposeful behaviour and central to the sense of agency.
As Gordon Allport wrote fifty years ago on his little book Becoming: Basic considerations for a Psychology of Personality,
To understand what a person is, it is necessary always to refer to what he may be in the future, for every state of the person is pointed in the direction of future possibilities. (Allport 1955 p.12).
Just as we know ourselves to be whom we have become as we are now, we also know that our identities are not limited to the present outcome of our histories and group memberships, for who we are includes a sense of becoming who we have the potential to be. Every living person is a work in progress. Purposive behaviour in a global personal sense is intimately tied up with a sense of identity which has a past, a present and a future, as well as a social context.
Knowledge of our own identity gives rise to a range of possible strategies which we can conceive as solutions to personal problems. We learn how to manage our own growth and development with purposive behaviour which constructs new possibilities out of formerly unintegrated shards of experience. We tend to do this not by anticipating possible new states of being which we might attain, although we might have some specific aims of that kind, but rather we conceive of ways of moving towards new possibilities which are consistent with who we are and who we are becoming. We know that the outcome of developmental processes is often unpredictable. If the task is well done, the result may well be a surprise, a cause for wonder, associated with a sense of health, wholeness and well being.
It should not be surprising that we cannot conceive, picture or fully anticipate the nature of the resolution of personal problems or challenges which result in personal growth, and which are so important in our sense of who we are. After all, something new has happened; we have reached a point in our life's journey where we have never been before. Just as every person is unique, so every step in personal development is unique. Personal history is like the history of societies. It consists of a series of unique events. As there has never before existed exactly the same state of affairs, neither the person concerned nor an objective observer can know in advance how the new Gestalt of the personality will manifest itself. So if there is purposive behaviour directed toward the establishment of a new order of personal being, the best that a person can do towards that end is to implement some strategies which should lead in the preferred direction but which cannot completely determine the outcome. For this reason, the notion of self‑determination, much loved of popular psychologists and some recent theoreticians such as Deci and Ryan (Deci 1980; Ryan and Deci 2000; Deci and Ryan 2002), must be somewhat misleading. Determination is the wrong idea, even if it is self‑determination. It implies a degree of control and foreknowledge that we do not have. The wonder of a new creation, even in oneself, is enjoyed in part because the result is a surprise. It is the kind of surprise in which we delight and which is intrinsically rewarding. We are delighted to engage in it for its own sake without knowing exactly what it will be like.
This conception of the self as becoming what it has the potential to be is more dynamic and less restrictive than ideas of self determination, it is more open to the future and offers better hope of satisfying and purposeful integration of experience than what might be called the more self‑centred theories Those theories imply a view of self that assumes identity is fixed or given, so that people seek to discover who they are and to maintain that understanding of themselves. A different and more satisfying outcome is more likely if, instead, we understand our identities as always in the process of becoming. The self is a project not yet completed; it is only finished when we are dead. Accepting the not‑yet‑completed character of one's identity means that one is much more likely to learn constructively from experiences which do not fit well with previous or present conceptions of who we are. A new order is developed out of the old through the acceptance of new experiences which are inconsistent with the old self. This is the same process at the level of the organisation of the whole person as the cognitive processes of curiosity at the task level when a strange, unexpected or novel event disturbs our cognitive map of the world (Beswick 1971; Beswick 2004). It should not be surprising if the same things happen in the understanding of ourselves, for we are after all most interesting objects of our own curiosity. And when it is done there is the same sense of wonder.
In summary then, identity has social and personal aspects. Personal identity is seen in the unity and continuity of our sense of who we are. We integrate diverse experiences which draw attention to different aspects of our selves in narratives of our personal history and in conceptions of ourselves as whole entities with a range of traits. Different social situations will call forth different concerns depending upon the relevance of various groups with which we identify and the level of commitment we have to those groups. Those different social identity experiences may be integrated into a personal narrative and a concept of a single self, but the integration is likely to be incomplete and open ended. That points to the importance of our identities being defined not only in terms of past experience and present conception, but of who we are becoming, for our sense of identity has a past, a present and a future. We see ourselves as moving with purpose and meaning into a future that is at least in part of our own choosing and which we strive to bring about as active agents who are the origin of acts which help to define who we are and through which we are becoming what we have the potential to be. It will be interesting now to see how much of this basic theory is applicable in understanding what people have to say about the specific qualities of “Christian identity”, especially as it is found in “the public square”.
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