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Research Summaries

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Personal and Ethnic Identity, Values, and Self Esteem Among Black and Latino Adolescent Girls

Original article authored by Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus, Steve Dopkins, Nuria Sabate, and Marguerita Lightfoot

The content of this journal article includes:


In this study, the authors examine the effect of school environment, ethnicity, and grade level on personal and ethnic identity development, values, and self-esteem among African American, Latino American, and White American adolescent girls. Their conclusions lead them to question whether current theories of adolescent identity development are applicable to girls and non-European ethnic groups.


Definitions and Categories

Personal Identity

The formation of personal identity is seen as "the exploration and commitment to roles and social identities." These identities influence political, religious and vocational choices, and ethnic and gender reference-group selection. Eric Erickson, a leading psychologist, hypothesizes that identity formation is one of the adolescent’s main developmental tasks.

Erickson’s work has been central in guiding research on personal identity development, and James Marcia (1966) has developed a framework that facilitates research on the subject. Marcia recognizes six domains in which adolescents search for identity:

  1. vocational plans
  2. values and preferences
  3. religious beliefs
  4. gender roles
  5. ethnic identities, and
  6. political affiliations and beliefs

He has also identified four identity status, or states of development:

  1. Diffuse: having not yet explored reference groups or roles

  2. Foreclosed: having chosen a role without first exploring alternatives

  3. Moratorium: in the process of exploring roles and reference groups

  4. Achieved: having explored alternatives and committed to roles and a reference group

Ethnic Identity

Ethnic identity includes such factors as ethnic awareness, self-identification, attitudes, and reference group selection. According to Stromquist (1964), African- and Latino-Americans have defined three categories of ethnic identity:

  1. Mainstream: alignment with white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant norms and traditions

  2. Strong-ethnic identification: alignment with the traditions and values of the culture of family origin

  3. Bicultural: identification with two ethnic groups within one society, such as that of the mainstream and that of one’s own cultural group

These definitions and categories were utilized in this study to compare adolescent females attending two working-class neighborhood high schools in the northeastern U.S.


Description of School Contexts and Students

School One had a more "traditional" context. For example, there was a dress code and an academically inclined staff and student body. Although it was clean, the school itself was overcrowded, and the building was fairly old and relatively small. Although the grounds of School Two were about four times larger than those of School One, it too was overcrowded and the building dilapidated. Teachers appeared stressed by these conditions.

Both schools were ethnically diverse, cross-ethnic contact was common, and staff ethnicity reflected that of the student body. All students were approached to participate in the study, but a higher level of student and parental involvement at School One resulted in a 100% participation rate at that school, compared with a two-thirds participation rate at School Two.

Assessments for this study were completed in three days and consisted of responses to videotaped situations, questionnaires and interviews. Both boys and girls completed the questionnaires, but interviews were conducted with girls only.


Contrasts in Personal Identity, Ethnic Identity, Self-Esteem, and Values

Personal identity was measured by qualitative and quantitative assessments of gender roles, vocational plans, religious beliefs, and political ideologies. Students rated statements in each of these domains and for each of the four categories (diffuse, foreclosed, moratorium, or achieved).

A higher score indicated a strong match between the statement and the student’s beliefs or attitudes, while a low score meant the statement did not match beliefs or attitudes. Significant differences by gender were not found for this measure. As girls at School Two strongly endorsed statements from all four categories, questions were raised as to the validity of this measure for this school.

For ethnic identity, two self-report measures were used. The first assessed attitudes, feelings and roles regarding one’s ethnicity, using the same categories as with personal identity (diffuse, foreclosed, moratorium, achieved). The second was the students’ self-labeling as "mainstream," "bicultural," or "strongly ethnically identified." In this study, girls were more likely than boys to label themselves as "strongly ethnically identified" and scored higher than boys on the "diffuse" status.

Girls scored lower on measures of self-esteem than their male counterparts, a finding consistent with previous research. Older girls, African-American girls, and those who self-labeled as "strongly ethnically identified" scored highest on this measure.

To assess values, students were asked to rate themselves along four dimensions. A higher score on each dimension indicated more "traditional" values. Those who self-rated as "traditional" were characterized as cooperative, emotionally expressive, and having a group or family orientation, and respect for authority. Girls scored higher on each dimension, indicating more traditional values than boys.

Qualitative interviews examining vocational plans, ethnic identity and gender roles were conducted with ninth- and twelfth-grade girls at both schools. Interviewers classified girls’ reports as one of three processes:

  • Exploration: having explored beliefs or choices, or not having considered alternative beliefs

  • Crisis: having experienced conflict with others or between choices when considering alternatives

  • Making a Commitment: having chosen a set of beliefs and behaviors
From the interviews, girls appeared to be the most clear on vocational goals. The aspirations of students at School One were higher than at School Two. However, interviewers were surprised by the relatively low aspirations of students at both schools.

Students reported very few incidences of racism and held traditional gender role beliefs. After further examination of the girls’ experiences, the interviewers concluded that many had committed to their ethnic and gender roles before examining their feelings, beliefs, or alternative choices in these arenas.

Girls were also asked to rank the effects of influences and role models in their lives. Students rated their parents and other family members as influential in identity development, gender roles and ethnic identity. However, neither parents nor other influences such as church or the media were seen by students as affecting their vocational choices.


Implications for Theories of Girls' Identity Development

In examining the results of these interviews, the authors were lead to question current accepted theories of identity development. These theories are heavily based on such Northern-European values as independence, self-direction and autonomy, which contrast the more typically Latin and Asian values of a family-oriented focus and harmony with the universe. Ironically, White-American girls are still more socialized towards this latter set of values. Thus, popular development theories may not be applicable to girls and ethnic minorities.

Perhaps even the process of identity development is different for girls than for boys. It has been noted that girls’ identity is often heavily influenced by their interpersonal relationships. As suggested by the girls’ interviews, their search for identity may be more about allowing their identity to unfold and losing one’s boundaries in social groups than about actively seeking out an identity and individuating oneself from others. Definitions of identity development, and the process by which it is achieved, must expand beyond culturally bound hypotheses.

Rotheram-Borus, M.J., Dopkins, S., Sabate, N., and Lightfoot, M. Personal and Ethnic Identity, Values, and Self Esteem Among Black and Latino Adolescent Girls. Urban Girls: Resisting Stereotypes, Creating Identities. New York University Press, 1996, 35-52.