Ethnic identity development includes the identity formation in an individual's self-categorization in, and psychological attachment to, (an) ethnic group(s). Ethnic identity is characterized as part of one's overarching self-concept and identification. It is distinct from the development of ethnic group identities.
With some few exceptions, ethnic and racial identity development is associated positively with good psychological outcomes, psychosocial outcomes (e.g., better self-beliefs, less depressive symptoms), academic outcomes (e.g., better engagement in school), and health outcomes (e.g., less risk of risky sexual behavior or drug use).
Development of ethnic identity begins during adolescence but is described as a process of the construction of identity over time due to a combination of experience and actions of the individual and includes gaining knowledge and understanding of in-group(s), as well as a sense of belonging to (an) ethnic group(s). It is important to note that given the vastly different histories of various racial groups, particularly in the United States, that ethnic and racial identity development looks very different between different groups, especially when looking at minority (e.g., Black American) compared to majority (e.g., White American) group comparisons.
Ethnic identity is sometimes interchanged with, held distinct from, or considered as overlapping with racial, cultural and even national identities. This disagreement in the distinction (or lack thereof) between these concepts may originate from the incongruity of definitions of race and ethnicity, as well as the historic conceptualization of models and research surrounding ethnic and racial identity. Research on racial identity development emerged from the experiences of African Americans during the civil rights movement, however expanded over time to include the experiences of other racial groups. The concept of racial identity is often misunderstood and can have several meanings which are derived from biological dimensions and social dimensions. Race is socially understood to be derived from an individual's physical features, such as white or black skin tone. The social construction of racial identity can be referred as a sense of group or collective identity based on one's perception that they share a common heritage with a particular racial group. Racial identity is a surface-level manifestation based on what people look like yet has deep implications in how people are treated.
Generally, group level processes of ethnic identity have been explored by social science disciplines, including sociology and anthropology. In contrast, ethnic identity research within psychology usually focuses on the individual and interpersonal processes. Within psychology, ethnic identity is typically studied by social, developmental and cross-cultural psychologists. Models of ethnic development emerged both social and developmental psychology, with different theoretical roots.
Ethnic identity emerged in social psychology out of social identity theory. Social identity theory posits that belonging to social groups (e.g. religious groups or occupational groups) serves an important basis for one's identity. Membership in a group(s), as well as one's value and emotional significance attached to this membership, is an important part of one's self-concept. One of the earliest statements of social identity was made by Kurt Lewin, who emphasized that individuals need a firm sense of group identification in order to maintain a sense of well-being. Social identity theory emphasizes a need to maintain a positive sense of self. Therefore, in respect to ethnic identity, this underscores affirmation to and salience of ethnic group membership(s). In light of this, affirmation of ethnicity has been proposed to be more salient among groups who have faced greater discrimination, in order to maintain self-esteem. There has also been research on family influences, such as cultural values of the family. Also, specific aspects of parenting, such as their racial socialization of youth, can contribute to the socialization of adolescents.
Relatedly, collective identity is an overarching framework for different types of identity development, emphasizing the multidimensionality of group membership. Part of collective identity includes positioning oneself psychologically in a group to which one shares some characteristic(s). This positioning does not require individuals to have direct contact with all members of the group. The collective identity framework has been related to ethnic identity development, particularly in recognizing the importance of personal identification of ethnicity through categorical membership. Collective identity also includes evaluation of one's category. This affective dimension is related to the importance of commitment and attachment toward one's ethnic group(s). A behavioral component of collective identity recognizes that individuals reflect group membership through individual actions, such as language usage, in respect to ethnic identity.
Identity becomes especially salient during adolescence as recognized by Erik Erikson’s stage theory of psychosocial development. An individual faces a specific developmental crisis at each stage of development. In adolescence, identity search and development are critical tasks during what is termed the ‘Identity versus Role-confusion’ stage.  Achievement of this stage ultimately leads to a stable sense of self. The idea of an achieved identity includes reconciling identities imposed on oneself with one's need to assert control and seek out an identity that brings satisfaction, feelings of industry and competence. In contrast, identity confusion occurs when individuals fail to achieve a secure identity, and lack clarity about their role in life.
James Marcia elaborated on Erik Erikson's model to include identity formation in a variety of life domains. Marcia's focus of identity formation includes two processes which can be applied to ethnic identity development: an exploration of identity and a commitment. Marcia defines four identity statuses which combines the presence or absence of the processes of exploration and commitment: Identity diffusion (not engaged in exploration or commitment), identity foreclosure (a lack of exploration, yet committed), moratorium (process of exploration without having made a commitment), and identity achievement (exploration and commitment of identity).
Researchers believe and have frequently reported that older individuals are more likely to be in an achieved identity status than younger people. Evidence shows that increasing age and a wide range of life experiences helps individuals develop cognitive skills. This combination of age, life experiences, and improved cognitive skills helps adolescents and young adults find their authentic selves. Adolescents with strong commitments to their ethnic identities also tend to explore these identities more than their peers.
While children in early to middle childhood develop the ability to categorize themselves and others using racial and ethnic labels, it is largely during adolescence that ethnic and racial identity develops. Adriana J. Umaña-Taylor and colleagues write about the following concepts as playing key roles during this stage:
Cognitive milestones include: abstract thinking, introspection, metacognition, and further development of social-cognitive abilities.
Physiological changes include puberty and development of body image
Social and environmental context includes: family, peers, social demands and transitions, navigating an expanding world, and media
ERI components about process:
ERI components about content:
The examples and perspective in this section deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (November 2021)
Critical race theory has explored the development of suburban "whiteness" in the United States as representing the racialized and classless fantasy of a heterogeneous white population. This work stands in contrast with earlier studies of white flight that assume a broad or homogeneous concept of "white people" who suburbanize in the post World War II era. The culture of suburbanization in Los Angeles through the 40s, 50's and 60's was represented by the icons of popular culture that were often exclusionary and became hallmarks of a "culture of suburban whiteness".
There were some improvements for African-Americans during the era of New Deal reforms, but the housing policies of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) made it a practical certainty that nonwhites would not be able to own suburban homes. The HOLC tied its calculus of property values to racial demographics with the most racially homogeneous neighborhoods being given the highest ratings. Based on this, FHA loans were directed to the suburbs, making home ownership in the city out of reach for most residents. The FHA said that loans to support urban homeowners would not be sound investments because of the "presence of inharmonious racial or nationality groups". In a 1933 report the agency acknowledged some fluidity to the concept of "white identity":
If the entrance of a colored family into a white neighborhood causes a general exodus of white people it is reflected in property values. Except in the case of Negroes and Mexicans, however, these racial and national barriers disappear when the individuals of foreign nationality groups rise in the economic scale to conform to American standards of living...
Jean Phinney’s model of ethnic identity development is a multidimensional model, with theoretical underpinnings of both Erikson and Marcia. In line with Erikson's identity formation, Phinney focuses on the adolescent, acknowledging significant changes during this time period, including greater abilities in cognition to contemplate ethnic identity, as well as a broader exposure outside of their own community, a greater focus on one's social life, and an increased concern for physical appearance.
Phinney's Three Stage Progression:
Broadly, socialization in the context of ethnic identity development refers to the acquisition of behaviors, perceptions, values, and attitudes of an ethnic group(s). This process recognizes that feelings about one's ethnic group(s) can be influenced by family, peers, community, and larger society. These contextual systems or networks of influence delineate from ecological systems theory. These systems influence children's feelings of belonging and overall affect toward ethnic group(s). Children may internalize both positive and negative messages and therefore hold conflicting feelings about ethnicity. Socialization highlights how early experiences for children are considered crucial in regards to their ethnic identity development.
More recently, Phinney has focused on the continuous dimensions of one's exploration and commitment to one's ethnic group(s), rather than on distinct identity statuses.
Social/personality models for ethnic identity, unlike the more known Phinney's model for ethnic identity development derived from Erickson's model of personality development, focus less so on the development stages of ERI and more so on their content -what it means to the person and its impact on said person (concepts typically more explored in personality psychology). Though, like Phinney's model, ethnic identity is still viewed as being multidimensional.
In the meta-analysis done by Tiffany Yip, Yijie Wang, Candace Mootoo, snd Sheena Mirpuri, the prominent Multidimensional Model of Racial Identity (MMRI) is detailed along with possible, though conflicting dimensions: the Social Identity Theory (SIT) vs. the Self-Categorization Theory (SCT). These theories differ in their suggestion of the impact high ethnic/racial identity centrality on a person's personality. Social Identity Theory (SIT) suggests that the effects of ethnic/racial discrimination (ERD) will be mediated in a person with high ERI centrality whereas Self-Categorization Theory (SCT) suggests that high ethnic/racial identity centrality may result in more negative outcomes when faced with ethnic/racial discrimination.
Research has linked ethnic identity development with positive self-evaluation and self-esteem. Ethnic identity development has also been shown to serve as a buffer between perceived discrimination and depression.
Specifically, commitment of an ethnic identity may help to abate depressive symptoms experienced soon after experiencing discrimination, which in turn alleviates overall stress. Researchers posit commitment to an ethnic identity group(s) is related to additional resources accumulated through the exploration process, including social support. Ethnic identity development has been linked to happiness and decreased anxiety. Specifically, regard for one's ethnic group may buffer normative stress. Numerous studies show many positive outcomes associated with strong and stable ethnic identities, including increased self-esteem, improved mental health, decreased self-destructive behaviors, and greater academic achievement. In contrast, empirical evidence suggests that ethnic identity exploration may be related to vulnerability to negative outcomes, such as depression. Findings suggest this is due to an individual's sensitivity to awareness of discrimination and conflicts of positive and negative images of ethnicity during exploration. Also, while commitment to an ethnic group(s) is related to additional resources, exploration is related to a lack of ready-access resources.
Studies have found that in terms of family cohesion, the closer adolescents felt to their parents, the more they reported feeling connected to their ethnic group. Given the family is a key source of ethnic socialization, closeness with the family may highly overlap with closeness with one's ethnic group. Resources like family cohesion, proportion of same-ethnic peers, and ethnic centrality act as correlates of within-person change in ethnic identity, but it is only on the individual level and not as adolescents as a group.
Ethnic identity development has been conceptualized and researched primarily within the United States. Due to the fact the individuals studied are typically from the United States, it may not be appropriate to extend findings or models to individuals in other countries. Some research has been conducted outside of the United States, however a majority of these studies were in Europe or countries settled by Europeans.
Further, researchers also suggest that racial and ethnic identity development must be viewed, studied, and considered alongside the other normative developmental processes (e.g., gender identity development) and cannot be considered in a vacuum - racial and ethnic identity exist in particular contexts.
Research considers some studies of ethnic developments cross-sectional in design. This type of design pales in comparison to longitudinal design whose topic of investigation is developmental in nature. This is because cross-sectional studies collect data at or around the same time from multiple individuals of different ages of interest, instead of collecting data over multiple time points for each individual in the study, which would allow the researcher to compare change for individuals over time, as well as differences between individuals.
Another research consideration in the field is why certain ethnic and racial groups are looking towards their own expanding community for mates instead of continuing interracial marriages. An article in The New York Times explained that Asian-American couples have been kicking the trend and finding Asian mates because it gives them resurgence of interest in language and ancestral traditions. Further research can be found and explored throughout the many different racial and ethnic groups.
Some researchers question the number of dimensions of ethnic identity development. For example, some measures of ethnic identity development include measures of behaviors, such as eating ethnic food or participating in customs specific to an ethnic group. One argument is that while behaviors oftentimes express identity, and are typically correlated with identity, ethnic identity is an internal structure that can exist without behavior. It has been suggested one can be clear and confident about one's ethnicity, without wanting to maintain customs. Others have found evidence of a behavioral component of ethnic identity development, separate from cognition and affect, and pertaining to one's ethnic identity.
Ethnic identity development points toward the importance of allowing an individual to self-identify ethnicity during data collection. This method helps us collect the most accurate and relevant information about the subjective identification of the participant, and can be useful in particular with respect to research with multiethnic individuals.