Personal and Cultural Identity Formation in Immigrant Young Adults

Early adulthood is a time of identity exploration and formation. For individuals with generations of American heritage, there is usually only one culture to which they ascribe, thus making the identification of cultural values, goals, and career aspirations relatively uncomplicated. But for immigrants, the search for their cultural identity and personal identity can be an arduous task. Second-generation immigrants may find it particularly hard to blend their cultural and personal values as they search for their place in the world. To better understand how this process unfolds in young adults with a varied cultural heritage, Seth J. Schwartz of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Miami recently led a study that assessed how heritage affected identity development in 2,411 college students who were either first- or second-generation immigrants. The participants were selected from 30 universities to further diversify the sample.

Schwartz found that several identity statuses emerged, reflecting different methods of acculturation. The most prominent were the searching moratorium and achieved statuses and the carefree diffusion status groups. The searching moratorium and achieved groups exhibited the highest levels of cultural influences from America and their country of origin. Therefore, it is possible that even though personal and cultural identities are viewed as two separate dimensions of identity formation, they may overlap considerably. “Exploring personal identity might also mean exploring cultural identity, and vice versa, especially for individuals from immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds,” Schwartz said.

For the individuals who held carefree, diffused statuses, there was little or no association to either American or cultural identities. This could reflect the carefree attitude held by these individuals or could indicate a confused identity orientation. Individuals who are unsure of where they belong, culturally and socially, may feel rejected by both their heritage and their receiving country—in this case, America. This could create a sense of nonidentity and lead individuals to struggle with their place in the world. Additionally, having no compass by which to navigate, individuals in this group may find themselves unable to make critical moral, ethical, professional, and relational decisions. Understanding these unique identity classifications could give clinicians insight as to why some immigrant clients struggle with identity development and important life decisions.

Schwartz, S. J., Kim, S. Y., Whitbourne, S. K., Zamboanga, B. L., Weisskirch, R. S., Forthun, L. F., Vazsonyi, A. T., Beyers, W., Luyckx, K. (2012). Converging identities: Dimensions of acculturation and personal identity status among immigrant college students. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030753

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  • Milly

    December 17th, 2012 at 3:57 AM

    I think that there is still such a struggle among immigrants today, wanting to blend seamlessly into society and yet still hold onto their cultural norms and values that they find are important to them. Sadly I think that many have a difficult time with this as society as a whole wants them to homogenize if they move here and they have to deal with this real battle within to determine which things are the most important for them to hold onto.

  • Keegan

    December 17th, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    First, I have to say that I truly appreciate the sample size in this study. I really don’t like studies that have fewer than 500 people in them. At any rate, this article caused me to wonder how much personality plays into all of this. I am only drawing from personal experiences on this one, but it seems like the international students I knew in high school who had really outgoing personalities had friends with people of all backgrounds just b/c people like to be around them. The more withdrawn personalities did not have many friends outside of their own culture. But, this trend was true for natives to the country as well. Just something to think about.

  • Nolan

    December 17th, 2012 at 8:41 AM

    I have to agree with Milly. it really is to bad that immigrants aren’t more accepted and there children too. it makes me sad and i always tell my daughter to be friends with everyone . no matter where they come from.

  • Caroline Powers

    December 18th, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    Could you look at how the parents assimilate and how this affects the children? Would presume that this could play a large role in how well they adapt.

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