Evaluate the claim that conflict is 'the motor for identity change'.
In order to evaluate any kind of claim, not only do we need to consider this claim's empirical adequacy, coherence and its comprehensiveness but, what is even more important, we need to make sure that we have a good understanding of the claim itself. This particular claim, that 'conflict is the motor of identity change' has both its supporters as well as its opponents, however, the two sides of the argument are not quite as obvious. First of all, there are different views at the very concept of identity itself. Types of identities and the nature of their changes have always been a subject to thorough studies that often resulted in completely opposite outcome, due to the type of identity that was being studied, the type of conducted research (qualitative or quantitative) and often due to the identity of a researcher himself. Also, the word 'conflict' does not have a straightforward outcome, depending on what aspect of it we want to deal with - it can have positive or negative consequence, leading to either expansion and progress or bringing regression and division, respectively.
Identity, according to Longman Dictionary, is "the qualities and attitides that a person or group of people have, that make them different from other people". However, this definition only seems to focus on the characteristics determining who or what a person or people think they are, therefore to understand the complexity hidden behind the concept of identity one would need to dig a lot deeper. At least as deep as to 1950s to discover the works of Erik Erikson, a German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who became famous for his studies on human identity and how its changes occur over the course of our life. Erikson defined identity as "a sense of one's continuity over time as a being or entity that is different from others". (Bromley et al., 2009, p.252) Moreover, he claimed that identity is not something given that we are all born with but instead it is transformed due to various stages we all go through during our lifetime. One of Erikson's greatest innovations was to postulate eight stages of development known as "The Eight Ages of Man", as opposed to five psychosexual stages introduced earlier by Sigmund Freud (later on in his life Erikson added a ninth stage in his book "The Life Cycle Completed" ). The most significant fact about Erikson's studies on stages of development is that he believed that the movement from one stage to another not only wasn't smooth but also it involved series of 'identity crises'. Although the word 'crisis' mostly evokes negative connotations (such as 'drama' or 'disaster'), according to Erikson, the ordinary conflict brought about by inevitable changes did not have to be huge or dramatic to be significant. Nevertheless, it was something that propelled identity transition. Erikson claimed that this exact principle of conflict could be "applied to identity over time for everyone, even though there will be differences in the extent of conflict at different times of life and some people will experience greater changes than others." (Bromley et al., 2009, p. 253)
Erikson's focus on conflict was very accurate and there are many studies confirming its role in the process of identity change. Every sudden or more subtle event in our life is accompanied by a conflict that is no more than a simple oscillation, moving back and forth between two different stages of identity change. We can almost sense the presence of different forces competing for influence within a person.
Research on first-time mothers shows very clearly the presence of this conflict and its enormous impact on the identity change occurring in young women. Silma, one of the participants, is torn between her former life of a single woman (represented by staying up late, wearing jeans, her sister's company) and her new identity as a mother (almost naturally followed by gaining more respect from others, change of her wardrobe and feeling more comfortable in the company of her aunts). Another example of conflict inevitable leading to identity change is presented in the interviews conducted among men facing the disappearance of mines and the loss of their jobs. Both masculine and feminine identities thirty or forty years ago were clearly related to the life revolving around men's workplace - for men it was all about danger and camaraderie, for women, about 'making sandwiches' - now both these identities are changing due to the conflict caused by the loss of the jobs. ('Changing identities', 2009, Track 2). Becoming unemployed, just as well as getting a promotion, changing a school or moving from school to the employment marks a very significant change in a person's life and it is always accompanied by a conflict or an identity crisis.
Conflict, however, doesn't seem to be the only motor for identity change. Not all changes are caused by external circumstances, like losing a job, moving out, having an accident or simple aging. A movement in identity can for instance be caused by identification (i.e. an act of imagining oneself in somebody else's place). Identification is studied by Wendy Hollway, while conducting the research about first mothers, just as well as by Vron Ware talking about young people trying to "manage their sense of identity through the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, other sorts of social cultural activities that they get involved in" ('Changing identities', 2009, Track 2). Hollway gives an example of Liyanna who, just by looking at the photo of her mum holding her baby sister, goes through a transformation herself. Although the transformation is mainly caused by the fact that Liyanna has become a mother, the very fact of looking at the mentioned above picture evokes certain avalanche of emotions connected with understanding the process that has just occurred in her. Also Silma, another first-time mother, notices her "whole persona slowly starting to change" (Bromley et al., 2009, p.260) when she begins to identify herself with her aunts more than with her sister - even despite the bigger age gap and no sense of connection to them prior having a baby.
Another aspect to look at is change of practices - when life changes force us to adjust our everyday routines and habits. Here, not only new first-mothers go through a significant change in their everyday routine. Interviews about men and women facing the closing of mines present a very detailed image of the whole group of people facing the change of their daily routine, which consequently affects the change of their individual identities.
Also very significant to the process of identity change is the relationship change. Very often our identities are built on the way others see us, therefore, our identities can change with the change of relationships in our life and the way we are perceived by people around us.
When analysing different views on identity and its transformations, it is very important to draw attention to the ways of gathering data. Method of collecting evidence used by Hollway in her mothers' study, namely a 'qualitative research', produces data that often include the researcher's reflection on his own identities within the research process (research reflexivity). Therefore, qualitative data, although more in-depth and detailed due to being gathered over a longer period of time, lacks the impartial factor characteristic to the quantitative data obtained mostly by surveys and therefore limiting the manipulation of final results by the researchers. (Online activity 40).
Methods of gathering and evaluating evidence are very important in analysing various approaches to identity changes. Different types of studies produce different types of evidence; consequently, the very choice of research (qualitative or quantitative) may result in producing completely unrelated evidence to the same case study. What is more, qualitative data does not speak for itself:
"…different analysts could well come up with different accounts of what is going on here. The extract and what is known of its context afford evidence but what that means is not set in stone" (Bromley et al., 2009, p.280)
Given the complexity of the world today, it is difficult to expect any theory to be comprehensive. Some theories, however, can be naturally stronger than others. Erikson's research give very coherent and logical results, nevertheless, we must remember that supported by him claim that conflict is the motor of identity change is only a partial explanation to the notion of identity changes. Erikson in his studies focused both on idea of conflict and personal development. Although three different sites of identity change presented by Hollway - bodies, practices and relationships - focus on movement that could be more or less smooth, ordinary conflict seems to be present regardless in all of them. Whether we consider aging, change of hair colour, illness, losing a job, promotion, getting married, divorce, becoming a mother, or migrating to a different country - all these transitions, sudden or slow, bring about inner conflict that causes an inevitable change in our identity.
'Changing identities' (2009) Exploring Social Lives [Audio CD 2], Milton Keynes, The Open University
Hollway, W. (2009) 'Identity change and identification' in Bromley, S., Clarke, J., Hinchliffe, S., and Taylor, S., (eds) Exploring Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University
Summers, D. (et al.) (2005) Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Pearsons Education Limited, Harlow, England