A long time ago, when I first started graduate school, one of my primary research interests was the role the media plays in forming people’s identities.  At the time, I researched everything I could on the psychological and sociological underpinnings of identity formation, to try to understand how the media could be involved in this process.  I have not done much to follow-up on this line of thinking, as I became more interested in understanding media reception as situated sense-making.  But I do like to share my thoughts on these matters, in case they help others.  It’s rough, but the core ideas are there.

Originally conceived: February 2004

Basic Paradigm: One’s psychology is determined by the physical limitations of the brain, as determined by one’s unique genetic structure, as a depository and processor, which both shapes and is shaped by social influences and cognitive capabilities, which may be obtained via behavioral training and other learning techniques, but also serves as the platform from which higher functions can occur, such as metacognition, and from which subconscious functions of a more psychodynamic level can occur, with possibly unconscious effects. (a)


Psychology will then act as a filter through which: (b) one’s changing biology will be interpreted and evaluated, and; (c) one’s changing social/cultural environment and situation will be interpreted and evaluated.

Old Musings on Identity Formation, 2000

Psychoanalytical thought dictates that identity formation begins with the awareness that the “I” is a different object than the “You”.  That “Mother” is someone different than “Child”.  It is then through experience and interpersonal relationships that we build an image to ourself and to others of what we are, what our identity is separate from others.  That which makes us unique.  It can be as simple as answering “yes/no” questions, such as “I like” or “I hate”.

The paradox is where do these answers come from?  If the purpose of identity creation is to create a self-concept that has these answers, how does the “I” choose which answer to give?

This is a controversial paradox, full of philosophical complications and consequences.  However, one obvious solution would be that our analysis or viewpoint on our interpersonal relationships would hold the key, via the understandings of symbolic interactionism.  “I like broccoli because my parents do, and they want me to, too.”  It is through this channel that our society and our culture, which are the macrosphere in which our interpersonal relationships occur, influence the formation of our self-identity.

model 2

Basic Theory: Trait-Driven Identity Construction via Media Consumption (TDICMeC).

Psychological Temporary Traits as Time 1 (known herein as preadolescence) (a), which is caused by the temperament/environment interaction (such as quiet behavior as an infant leads to less parental interaction, resulting in shy personality) (b) leads to categorization on trait dimensions (e.g. extrovert vs. introvert), which in turn fuels certain psychological needs (e.g. extrovert/gregarious nature leads to need for affiliation) (c).

Individual seeks to fulfill these needs by exposure to possible solutions to problem of obtaining needs, whereby these solutions are presented by various socializing agents (e.g. church teaches live by morals to be liked).  If thought of as another source for socialization, mass media use can also be seen as actively seeking solutions to gratify psychological needs (uses and gratifications perspective) (d). Like other socializing agents, media use would operate in a continual feedback system, as solutions are tested in the social/cultural environment (e.g. peers, friends, crowd, clique, etc.) until a match is made for the particular need (e). Once all matches are made, and all needs for the variety of “yes/no” questions are answered, then identity formation is complete, to the extent Individual can function with core self-concepts.

To fully investigate this theory, there are at least three links that need to be investigated empirically:

  • Research Question 1: If cliques are related to youth subcultures, and if youth subcultures are related to certain media consumption patterns (that is, certain genres of film, television, music, literature, etc.), and if certain youths, due to their bio/soc/psy interaction personality, identify with certain cliques more than others, then studying the clique’s media consumption and use patterns should provide insight into their members’ identity formation process. This is due to the fact that identification with a clique, which identifies with a particular generic pattern in the mass media, could then indicate that the individual is also forming identifications to that media or some aspect of that media, to be likewise identifying with that particular clique.

A time order question comes into play: does an individual identify with the media pattern first and then identify with the clique, or vice versa? This is perhaps a redundant question, because either way, if the individual maintains an identification membership with that particular clique, then that individual is constructing their identity based on the norms of that clique, which is also providing the feedback via its other members as to how to employ those norms. Thus, understanding the media identification patterns of these cliques will illuminate the particular identity an individual is constructing.

  • Research Question 2: In relation to the first question, and a possible way of answering the question of time order, are the members of certain cliques comparatively normal across different dimensions of personality traits? That is, are the members at comparatively same levels on certain traits, such as extrovert/introvert, sensation-seeking, etc.? If members are at the same levels for traits, and they have similar identification to media patterns, then do those who exhibit the clique’s traits showing such media consumption and use prior to their identification to that clique (i.e. preadolesence)?
  • Research Question 3: If it is true that certain traits are related to certain identifications and consumption of particular media generic patterns, then what are the circumstances in which those traits arose? That is, if such traits are understood to be from the interaction of an individual’s genetically-influenced temperament and its interaction with the social/cultural environment in which the individual is raised, then is there a way to discern these two separate variables (and all the sub-variables interrelated therein) as they relate to the formation of the trait?

Research Hypothesis: Using general trait dimension popular/unpopular (see below for additional related trait dimension), as defined by levels of physical attraction (PA) and social skills (SS), where PA is generally genetically-determined that interacts with environment to foster development of certain SS:

  • H1: If popular (high PA & SS), then consume mainstream youth culture media to associate with certain cliques (e.g. jocks, populars, trendies, glams, etc.), with identifications serving to foster affiliation and SS skills.
  • H2: If unpopular (low PA & SS), two possibilities:

H2a: If rejected individuals (high on aggression), then consume alternative youth culture media to associate with certain cliques (e.g. druggies, dirties, etc.) with identifications to validate position and aggressive tendencies.

H2b: If neglected individuals (low on aggression), then consume alternative youth culture media to associate with certain cliques (e.g. geeks, gothics, etc.) with identifications to validate alienated position.

One response to “Adolescents, Media Use, and Identity Formation”

  1. Cultivation theory, media socialization and adolescents’ identity formation | Playing, With Research Avatar

    […] (Originally a class paper written in 2003, with the full paper, including references, found here.  Related thinking on this topic can be found here.) […]


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