Randal G. Tonks

Camosun College, Victoria, B.C.




This account of self and identity is presented within the context of the hermeneutical tradition of Wilhelm Dilthey, who recognised the intimate relationship between these two fundamental aspects of being human. The psyche (mind or personal consciousness) is considered in relation to the polis (social or cultural world) as they mutually influence each other in the formation of self and identity. This paper begins with an overview of several hermeneutical notions of self and identity as articulated by psychologists and philosophers on the nature of identity in a cultural milieu. This discussion culminates with a consideration of the hermeneutical psychology of Erik Erikson. It is pointed out that throughout Erikson's psychosocial model of the person, the psyche and polis are central to his conceptualisation of identity, a notion that is also common to the hermeneutics of Dilthey, Taylor, Gadamer and Habermas. Fundamental to their accounts of self and identity rests Dilthey and Erikson's ontological and methodological hermeneutics. Their ideas are examined in terms of the notions of bildung and phronesis as they apply to their conceptualisations of self and their methods for understanding the lived experience of human beings. Finally, an appropriation of their methods is applied to a contemporary context in constructing biographical narratives built upon historical consciousness, facticity, the fusion of horizons and disciplined subjectivity. In closing, this chapter outlines a brief narrative sketch of the lived experience of Canadian youth as an example of the “grounded history making” of a cultural psychology of identity.




“Know thy self” is a dictum often quoted to illustrate the importance of critical self-reflection (Hodges, 1952; Paranjpe, 1998; Taylor, 1989). Proposing this task, however, raises several ancillary questions like “What is the nature of this self that is to be known?” “What impact does such self knowledge have on one's everyday life?” and “How does one actually come to understand the self?” From these grounding questions have sprung an abundance of answers regarding the self, human life, and living a good life.

Beginning with a brief examination of these questions, this account considers the role of self and identity in the hermeneutical tradition. Special attention is paid to the nature of psyche and polis within several theories of self and identity, including the works of Charles Taylor and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Against the backdrop of their work on such issues as agency, historical consciousness and bildung, a comparison of the works of Wilhelm Dilthey and Erik Erikson is made. Drawing from grounded theory, a hermeneutical model is presented, based upon Erikson's work on identity and his methods for understanding it. This is followed by an application of this hermeneutical approach, as a form of cultural psychology, for understanding the lives of young Canadians living in the nexus of cultures at the dawn of a new millennium.



As pointed out by Paranjpe (1984,1998), the self and identity have been explored extensively throughout the ages, and in many traditions from the east and the west. A recent survey of the literature on self and personhood across cultures garners numerous indigenous and universalistic perspectives from every continent of the globe (Tonks, 1994). These views on the self also arise from a variety of academic traditions, ranging from psychology and anthropology through to linguistics, sociology and biology (Carrithers, Collins & Lukes, 1985; Heelas & Lock, 1981; Paranjpe, Ho & Reiber, 1988; Rosenberger, 1992).

Beyond their specific disciplinary perspectives, these numerous accounts of self and person also arise with attachments to the “weltanshauungen” or worldviews of natural and human science. Tonks (1997) provides an overview of several important features of these foundational worldviews and their impact on “scientific” psychology. Central to the division between these views are attitudes towards praxis or practical knowledge, the identities and roles of scientists/observers and the role of history in knowledge and understanding. Natural science, on the one hand, can be characterized by the pursuit of a technological orientation to applied knowledge, seeking control over nature by obeying the laws of nature. Natural scientists also tend to idealize the “objective” observer who maintains a division between scientific and personal roles or identities in the pursuit of trans-historical knowledge. On the other hand, human science can be characterized as a discipline holding an emancipatory ethico-moral interest in taking action through the application of knowledge or understanding to everyday life and living. Human scientists also tend to recognise the need for continuity between personal lived experience and the observational roles we play as scientists seeking historically grounded understanding.

Adopting an ego-analytical interpretation of self and identity, Alan Roland (1988, 1996) indicates that self-knowledge in Asia and America may take on vastly different manifestations of several important features to the self. He suggests that blends of individualized, familial or “we,” and spiritual selves are present. These facets of the self are understood to emerge through interpersonal and cultural action and are informed by myth, custom and tradition. While seemingly universal in origin, the specific blends unfold within the given socio-historical context (ethos) in which the self (psyche) grows and develops.

According to Paranjpe (1998), one of the most important and pervasive notions of self and identity is the “Trilogy of Mind.”  This trilogy lies central to numerous contemporary and antiquated notions of self, identity and personhood. In contemporary times, the trilogy of cognition, conation and affect lies central to forensic and civil notions of self and personhood.  

Paranjpe, like Roland, recognises this situated or grounded notion of the self or person in an everyday cultural world, identifying how the common features of self and identity vary across intellectual traditions and personal interpretations. What we see here is a blend of both natural and human scientific interests where there are “universal” aspects of the self and society, yet the specific manifestations are indeed “particular” to life experience and circumstance.

Charles Taylor (1985b, 1989, 1994) also has carefully examined the nature of person, citizenship and society. He contends that the self or person is literally informed by the moral topographies or social traditions in which the life is lived (Taylor, 1988). Taylor refers to the “inescapable frameworks” that form the basis of all psychological experience or self. These moral ontologies provide an intuitive “background picture” for self and personhood by informing the person of the right, good, or just action or behaviour. Within an everyday cultural world, the self and person are constructed as experiential and societal identities in a dialogical process of moral informing through the recognitions we give to and receive from others (Dumont, 1985; Mauss, 1985; Taylor, 1985b; 1994).

While Taylor goes into considerable detail on the specific sources of the modern and contemporary self, he indicates that “to think, feel, [and] judge within such a framework is to function with the sense that some action, or mode of life, or mode of feeling is comparably higher than others which are more readily available to us” (1989, p.19). Agency and the recognition of the significance of possible actions is what Taylor recognises as the crux of identity, an idea that is also shared by Erik Erikson (1964, 1970). Agency, along with a sense of “significance,” is imbued into the self through growth and development but the characteristics that agency involves, or our understanding of it, changes with the ever-changing “background picture” of society and culture. Thus, the psyche or personal/experiential self is in part influenced by the polis or social and cultural world (weltanshauung) that is itself a process of ever-changing collective thought and action.

Citing Emerson, Gutman (1994) indicates that people of every polis must “read their own books” and know themselves, first and foremost. She contends that Taylor, too, supports this idea that is built on the notion of human fulfillment that comes with the “ideal of authenticity”. This ideal supports the concept of individualized identity and a commitment to being in touch with our moral feeling. Taylor indicates that, within this ideal of authenticity, there lies the need for fulfillment of the moral sense in order to “be true and full human beings” (1994, p. 28). He also contends that the “völk” or polis of a people has an equivalent need to be “true to itself.”  Together, these inherent needs reveal the “fundamentally dialogical” nature of human identity. Thus, according to Taylor (1994), we engage in a process of the negotiation of our identities through the “crucial feature” of human life, language and dialogue with others, both overt and internal. Not only does identity hinge upon immediate psychosocial processes, it also depends upon the historical conditions that lead the current social world to unfold.

            Paranjpe and Taylor share this view of self along with recognition of the great importance that practical knowledge of selfhood and identity entails. In knowing “thy self” one must develop an awareness of the socio-historical conditions of the self. In doing so, one can then come to understand and emulate that “right,” “good” or “just” life that is most fulfilling for his or her human condition.



Since the earliest times of recorded human thought and history, intellectual civilizations have given consideration to knowledge of living the right life or knowing how to live a life worth living (Paranjpe, 1998; Taylor, 1989). Prescriptions abound as human beings have advocated one or another perspective on self and the application of self-knowledge to everyday life. As Taylor (1994) points out, these ideals of authenticity and moral sense arise through the social histories in which we live that offer a substantive moral commitment for us to make to the “Good Life” as we understand it. Within recent history, the ideal of bildung or character development emerged as an important characteristic for human fulfillment. Accepted by many from the Germanic human science tradition, bildung is central to identity and one's place in society (Erikson, 1970; Haeberlin, 1980; Leahey, 1994). Through the acquisition of a sense of personal and social identity, one moves through the process of bildung and fulfillment of the ideal of authenticity; becoming one's own self. Another process closely related to bildung is phronesis or “ethical-know-how”.

Richard Bernstein (1988) provides a comprehensive account of the notions of practical knowledge that are commonly evoked in the natural and human science worldviews. Contrasting the natural science notion of techne, or technical control, with the human science notion of phronesis, Bernstein outlines the importance of knowledge enabling ethical action, as seen in the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

According to Bernstein, Gadamer's appropriation of Aristotle's phronesis involves a requisite “intellectual virtue” for the acquisition of “ethical-know-how” that mediates and codetermines the universal and particular, the “natural law” and the specific interpretation of the ideal law. Thus, phronesis is a mode of moral judgement that is grounded in tradition and is constitutive of the ever-changing unfolding identity of our being or dasein. Bernstein continues by stating that “given a community in which there is living, shared acceptance of ethical principles and norms, then phronesis as the mediation of such universals in particular situations makes good sense.” (1988, p.157, italics original). Ethical reasoning (phronesis) is thus something to be engaged in within an “acting situation” where one is “obliged” to take some form of action.  This is in contrast with the notion of techne, a skill that can be learned or forgotten. For both Gadamer and Bernstein there exists a dialectical relationship between techne and phronesis, however Bernstein cautions against attempting to play the prophet or engage in “planning reason” since it can lead into “dogmatism—and even terror” (1988, p. 159).

The way to avoid such disastrous situations is through self-understanding that involves two central features: effective historical consciousness and a fusion of horizons. Effective historical consciousness involves the emergence of an explicit awareness of one's historical “affinity or belongingness,”

[where] true historical thinking must take account of it's own historicity. Only then will it not chase the phantom of an historical object which is the object of progressive research, but learn to see in the object the counterpart of itself and hence understand both. The true historical object is not an object at all, but the unity of the one and the other, a relationship in which exist both the reality of history and reality of the historical understanding. A proper hermeneutics would have to demonstrate the effectivity of history within itself. (Gadamer cited in Bernstein, 1988, p. 142).


Gadamer's notion of the fusion of horizons involves the recognition of “vantage points” that each has their own boundaries or limits of view or horizon. For each situation or circumstance that one can be found in, Gadamer's notion of “facticity” involves an ever-changing perspective that may potentially fuse with another resulting in an enrichment or enlargement of one's own view. Such an event is essentially dialogical or linguistic, where an “ideal speech situation” that enables genuine dialogue plays a facilitative role. Such a situation would be expected to arise in a community in which a variant of phronesis is realised, synesis, involving friendship and solidarity (Bernstein, 1988).

It might be summarised, then, that each of us is enculturated into a view with a horizon where we are able to affect change in ourselves and those around us through self-understanding. Such self-understanding involves the appreciation of our historical facticity in our viewpoint along with the fusion or enriching of our horizon of self-understanding with that of others for the mutual purposes of ‘ethico-practical’ action. In situations where one is part of a genuine linguistic community, an understanding (and articulation) of one's moral ontology and its impact on one's identity is possible.

Regarding the potential impact of such historical understanding, there has arisen a debate over whether or not emancipation from such historical trappings is possible. According to How (1995), Gadamer's ontological hermeneutics places tremendous power on the role of social tradition. He recognises that our traditions or horizons limit self-knowledge through the binding prejudices they instil upon us. By being “thrown” into a tradition, identity and self-understanding unfold through the action or “play” of bildung (Wallulis, 1990). For Gadamer, bildung or self-formation (cultivation) involves understanding the “event structure” of the social historical context into which one is thrown. Acquiring a sense of historical belongingness, self-understanding is enabled through the playful process of bildung, grounded in “the historicity of experience” (Gadamer cited in Wallulis, 1990, p. 39) and “the substantiality of tradition (p. 43). However, the impact of the ethos or social tradition appears to be so powerful that complete self-understanding may very well lie beyond our capacities. It is only insofar as we can fuse our horizon with another's that some degree of understanding and articulation of our social ethos or polis is possible. Wallulis points out that Erik Erikson shares such a commitment to the historical thrownness (event structure) of Gadamer's community history that both enables self-understanding and provides potentially permeable limits for it.

How (1995) points out that Habermas contends that it is possible to achieve emancipation from one's tradition through personal insight and achievement, as is typical of the psychoanalytical tradition. Walullis (1990) describes Habermas's action structure of personal achievement as something Erikson also shares, something clearly evident in his life-span model of identity fulfillment. He describes Erikson's blending of Gadamer's interest in historical belongingness and Habermas's interest in emancipatory personal achievement in articulating his model of psychosocial identity. Erikson (1964) is clear that identity hinges on the social-cultural milieu in which one lives as well as one’s ability to be full agentic. As such he recognizes the importance within the clinical setting for clinicians to facilitate the transformation of the passive patient into an active agent. While the relative impact of polis on psyche varies among these scholars, it should be clear that they all adhere to a dialogical model of psyche and polis.

            A variation on this debate over determinism and emancipation is endemic to contemporary psychology, as clearly seen in the perspectives of Erik Erikson and B.F. Skinner (Paranjpe, 1998; Taylor, 1985a; Tonks, 1997). Paranjpe identifies Skinner's natural scientific view of obeying the laws of nature as standing in contrast to Erikson's emancipatory humanism. These two individuals stand as exemplars of their respective “sensibilities” that arise from the positivist-classical scientific and humanistic hermeneutical perspectives (Taylor, 1985a).



Human science has often stood in contrast to the views of natural science insofar as natural science has been criticized for failing to recognize agency and meaning in human lived experience (Paranjpe, 1998; Taylor, 1985a). Elsewhere, it has been pointed out that hermeneutics as a western intellectual tradition has long been interested in notions of the self and identity (Bruns, 1992; Ferrais, 1996; Tonks, 1999). In contemporary times, hermeneutics has taken on a number of perspectives loosely clustered around the issues of critical evaluation, ontology and methodology (Woolfolk, Messer, & Sass, 1988). Wilhelm Dilthey is widely recognised as the father of contemporary hermeneutics, primarily through his articulation of the distinction between the natural and human sciences on the basis of methodology.

In developing a model for human science, Dilthey (1962) pointed to biography and autobiography as the most suitable methods for understanding the lived experience (erlibnis) of a person or group of people. To understand a person's life, one must understand the socio-historical context in which the life was lived. As with Gadamer's historical effectivity and throwness, Dilthey's (1883/1989) acknowledgement of the actual life lived existing as psyche (part individual and personal) and polis (part social and historical) forms a primary dialectic for his ontology.  This feature is also shared in common with Erikson's model of identity.

The essence of the hermeneutical circle and the methods for human science that Dilthey advocated require that methods be sensitive to the context in which the understanding develops (including the cultural and interpersonal contexts of history making). Such a human science perspective recognises that the method interfaces with the medium it understands. Turning to the medium, Dilthey's view maintains emphasis on revealing the phenomenality of lived experience, where “our awareness of facts of consciousness is prior to reflective questions of [natural] scientific objectivity” (Owensby, 1994, p. 32). 

This ushers in his ontological hermeneutics that considers the nature of the historical object (human life) as being inextricably bound to the social-moral tradition with which it is codetermined. Thus psyche and polis together form the “I-world” nexus as the subject-object interface that makes up the foundation for psychology as an understanding of lived experience. Knowledge is grounded in the psychological and social domains of the person and his or her culture. Thus, “the world” and the consciousness of the person are seen to meld in a form of mutual dependency, something akin to Erik Erikson's notion of wirklichkeit or mutual activation (Erikson, 1964, 1970; Hodges, 1952;). Focussing on the social and the psychological interface or nexus, Dilthey suggested a grounded understanding of biography in both the context of its occurrence (as experienced) and the context of its later interpretation as a historical case study (Owensby, 1994).

Dilthey and Erikson shared this interest in biography, both emphasising the psychosocial, volitional, and temporally situated nexus of lived experience or “psychosocial” identity (Tonks, 1999). The phenomenal experience (psyche) of the “subject” is understood against the context of its social milieu (polis), recognising the identity of lived experience as grounded in the practical life nexus of communicative relations. For Dilthey, self-understanding involves an awareness of the categories of life as lived, with an explicit recognition of the phronesis of life. In this context, a person's life involves bildung, or the development of character and a practical sense of value and action, “knowledge in the service of life” (Owensby, 1994, p.1). Likewise, for Erikson, the development of identity involves enculturation (internalisation in psychoanalytic terms) through the ritual play of bildung, enabling self-cultivation and self-understanding as part of the historical process of psychosocial life (Erikson, 1970; Wallulis, 1990). He states that:

A sense of identity means being at one with oneself as one grows and develops; and it means, at the same time, a sense of affinity with a community's sense of being at one with its future as well as its history—or mythology. (1974, pp. 27-28, italics added)


This grounding of identity in communal culture reflects Gadamer's effective historical consciousness and Taylor's dialogical self.

Not only did Erikson and Dilthey share worldviews on the nature of human living; these two scholars each pioneered methods in understanding humanity through the construction of narrative accounts of identity. Owensby (1994) points out that Dilthey recognised the “doctrine of Besserverstehen,” where the interpreters are able to achieve knowledge superior to that which the subject has of him or herself. Likewise, Wallulis (1990) and Erikson (1968) himself have also drawn attention to Erikson's psychoanalytic roots, seen in his recognition of the emancipatory influence of the clinician on the client in constructing a historical case of the client's agentic life.

Dilthey (1962) further recognised that “autobiography is the highest and most instructive form in which the understanding of life confronts us” (p. 85) yet he also recognised that all understanding is grounded in the experience of both the author and the reader of the biography. According to Dilthey, biography invites one to understand “from different points of view, creat[ing] a coherence in that life which he [sic] is now putting into words” (1962, p. 86). Erikson (1968) also acknowledged the historical stance of the writer of the narrative, and elsewhere he states “the way you ‘take history’ is also a way of ‘making history’” (1974, p. 13). For Dilthey, the goal of historical understanding is to reveal the meaning of human life, where “the past is not fixed” but constructed through a working backwards to find significant events and then forwards in producing a coherent collection of events (Owensby, 1994). Such biographical events are related to the context of their narrative reflection as an expression of the individual and communal dimensions of human lived experience. For Erikson, the “making of history” involves the construction of “cases” where:

‘under observation,’ he becomes self-observant. As a patient he is inclined, and as a client often encouraged, to historicize his position by thinking to the onset of the disturbance, and to ponder what world order (magic, scientific, ethical) was violated and must be restored before his self-regulation can be reassumed. He participates in becoming a case, a fact which he may live down socially, but which, nevertheless, may forever change his view of himself (1964, p. 54, italics original).


They are thus putting into words, making a case of one's life, coming to see the world order and the life having meaning, coherence, and clarity when standing as figure and ground to each other.

Erikson further articulates his method stemming from the fact that the lives of the clinician and the client merge as they engage in “disciplined subjectivity” and work to develop “shared insight” in the achievement of emancipation or “cure” in psychotherapy. It is through a careful self-reflection of their own experiences that they can share their feelings and notions of identity, acquiring new contexts of meaning and new understandings of their lives. Through the ongoing process of self-reflection and sharing of insights (fusing their horizons), the two people reveal and re-interpret their understanding of themselves, their personal histories, and their cultural traditions. Each partake in the other's life (as any two people do), through mutuality or the “cogwheeling” of the virtues of life accompanied by the transference and counter-transference that is expected in a therapeutic relationship (Erikson, 1968). Through this sharing of experience they “put into words” their thoughts and feelings about experiences they have had in creating the historical case study. One might say that they are negotiating troubling points from the past through present narrative construction, transforming and shaping, smoothening and refining, making harmonies and contrasts into a new identity that is carried into the future. This reveals the same dialogical character of identity that is seen in the hermeneutical writings described above (Gadamer, 1982; Habermas, 1973; Taylor, 1985a, 1985b, 1989, 1994).

Revealing the lived experience of the person often also forces the historian or clinician to become “inexorably drawn into the super-personal history ‘itself,’ since he, too must learn to conceive of, say, a ‘great’ man's crisis and achievement as communal events characteristic of a given historical period” (Erikson, 1968, p. 696). Psycho-history making involves the meaningful construction of the private and public spheres of life (revealed in the life of Gandhi), as they unfold together (Erikson, 1968). For Dilthey, the diachronic coherence of life is achieved through reflective narration of lived experience that is elicited from life and not imposed upon it; having been a “call for narration” that carves out the life-story (Owensby, 1994). Any understanding of the importance and significance of the events must be understood against the context of the life as lived itself and as it was recorded and interpreted. For Erikson, it is through the “worldview” in which the life is lived that the meaning must come in order to fulfil the liberation and cure. Like Freud's “talking cure,” the putting into words of psychohistory making provides meaning in many ways: personal, social, historical, cultural.



Interest in understanding the relationship between psyche and polis is central to the burgeoning field of cultural psychology. Various images of cultural psychology have been expressed, ranging from Vico and Herder's accounts of Völkseele and Völkgeist (Berlin, 1976), through to Lazarus's and Steinthal's folk-history and psychological ethnology as Völkerpsychologie (Jahoda & Krewer, 1997). Wundt (1916) also provided an extensive account of the historical ages of “mankind,” as we can understand the thoughts and emotions of individuals across cultural contexts.

More recently, Shweder (1990) has articulated his view of cultural psychology, as involving an understanding of the dialectics of the subject-object / person-“constituted” social world. Against this backdrop, understanding personal and collective identity involves the “thinking through” of language, value and customs as they are expressed and interpreted with others. Cole (1996) also recognises the practical activity and mediation of experience through “tool making” in a fashion that resembles Shotter's notion of “joint action.” The everyday practical activity of our cultural lives serves as the foundation of shared knowledge, common sense or perhaps “group mind.” Cole identifies enculturation in historical traditions as the fundamental human activity, not unlike the playing of language games in the making of linguistic tools (Shotter, 1993).

Elsewhere, Ratner (1997) has outlined his view of cultural psychology in opposition to the atomism, quantification and operationism of positivistic cross-cultural psychology; he reveals Dilthey's influence on his work. Ratner rejects the absolutist stance of natural science based cross-cultural psychology and offers his vision of cultural psychology that is built upon verstehen or understanding cultural experience against the historical context in which it arose. Ratner also suggests that the interpretation of behaviour and verbal statements can reveal the “objective” common cultural activity as well as the “subjective” personal psychological experience. By interpreting personal experience against the context of the collective, a dialectical relationship between the experience and social activity is revealed. This revelation is a glimpse at the meaning of human life as understood in a historically situated account.



The application of these hermeneutical ideas may provide a qualitative understanding of the lived experience of young people living in Canada. Grounded Theory, as articulated by Rennie (1998), enables a rich and rigorous approach to human science, one that he shares with Straus & Corbin (1990). Rennie points out that they recognise a broad framework for the application of axiomatic schemata of social processes, where the investigator's recorded experience and other “outside” information play an important role in the interpretation of data and hypothesis testing. Rennie has also identified the grounded theory of Glaser (1978) as important to a hermeneutical psychology. He advocates the development of a commonality of emic perspectives through pluralistic meaning-making. Rennie (1998) summarises the role of grounded theory as examining the nature of categories and the conceptualisations that we make through a method of “theory memoing” or the keeping of a diary of notes about one's prejudices and observation biases. This practice affords the investigator the possibility of the fusion of horizons, where prejudicial assumptions can be “bracketed” and articulated through alternative perspectives or discourses.

Theory memoing in the present account has involved consideration of the biases invoked by the use of questionnaires for the assessment of identity and acculturation in the pilot studies for this account (Tonks, 1998). These questionnaires were derived from the research programmes of James Marcia (1993) and John Berry (1997), where numerous Likert responses are tabulated to the categories seen in figures 1 and 2 (Adams, Bennion & Huh, 1987; Berry et al., 1989). 

While it is possible to construct quantitative accounts of identity, such approaches do not do justice to the subtleties and nuances of identity that occur (Tonks, 1998). Detailed analysis of the concepts and biases of these nomothetic, largely natural science, models of identity and acculturation is beyond the present scope, however, a brief critique is presented. Marcia's work on ego-identity has not given adequate attention to cultural issues where the focus has been largely North American with a relatively fixed developmental sequence of statuses. Furthermore, while Marcia's paradigm does recognise diversity in identity, it still assumes relatively invariant categories of identity that are presumed to be homogeneous. More seriously, however, Adams et al.’s (1987) questionnaire, the EOMEIS-II, fails to distinguish between moratorium and diffusion, making interpretation of the data very difficult.

Berry's approach to acculturation is also flawed where he tends to view culture merely as a variable, somewhat static and homogeneous for an externally labelled “culture” group. His questionnaire methods also make use of confounded statements whose independent appeal is unknowable. Based upon these and other concerns from my past research in this area, a semi-structured interview was constructed, being based upon the dialogical strengths of Marcia's paradigm for providing an idiographic account of the subjective experience (psyche) against its cultural context (polis).


FIGURE 1  Berry's Scheme of Acculturative Attitude Styles (Berry, 1997, p. 10)


Is it considered to be of value to maintain
cultural identity and characteristics?

  Is it of values to maintain positive relations with others?











Marginalisation /



FIGURE 2  Marcia's Scheme of Ego-Identity Statuses (Marcia, 1993, p. 11)


Is there, or has there been, commitment to identity alternatives?

  Is there, or has there been identity search?













  In appropriating Erikson's method of History Making, the present account offers a brief biographical excerpt from a narrative case history of lived experience. Several narrative accounts (excerpts presented here) arose through the (less than ideal) speech situation of the semi-structured interview, however, the notions of mutuality and dialogical production are present. The recognition of identity is essential to the interview and narrative process to produce authentic expressions of identity through the fusion of horizons and disciplined subjectivity. Along with these interests, there is also some discussion about bildung, the development of phronesis and the understanding of one's own social-moral world. In the collection of interviews conducted there were many common themes and numerous variations on each theme that emerged, such as crisis and confusion, comfort and stability, and go with the flow. Presently, discussion will be limited to a focus on issues of crisis and resolution in the case of “Sarah,” a 28 year old woman who is the daughter of a Chinese-Native-Irish father and a “radical ex-hippie” white mother, principally because of the call for narration that her life invites. Growing up in poverty, washing her clothes in the “creek,” and later bouncing from foster home to foster home while her alcoholic mother tried to sober up, she experienced many challenges in life. She reports having grown up with feelings of alienation from the other Natives while at powwows with her “white” mother. She states:

When we were out in Native gatherings with our white mother we were shunned by the Natives, and then, but when I was at school without my white mother I was shunned by the non-Natives.


Feelings of cultural alienation are common to many young Canadians, hence, the following quotes reveal a common theme of alienation. However it takes on many different forms across their views, as in the case of “Catherine,” the daughter of a former bush pilot-fur trapper, who was forced to leave her “culture” behind, as the Hudson’s Bay Company stopped buying furs, ending a tradition. Catherine states:

I grew up where there would be beaver skins, on the kitchen floor. Fur trapping that is a native American and French Canadian culture, . . . . And we have a legacy of logging, trapping, fishing, these kinds of things that people don't like anymore, and my father worked for the Hudson's Bay Company, they just shut down, they laid him off at the very beginning of the recession, he was one of the first victims of that, Greenpeace and all that stuff, just as loggers now are. So that's probably why, any cultural things we have in our history are things that aren't politically correct anymore, so we don't want to bring them to the forefront, don't want to take pride in killing little animals, you know.


            “Jennie” also felt alienation, as a new immigrant to Canada from Hong Kong. She replies to the question of whether or not she feels Canadian by stating:

I am not white, I am not born here. . .[She continues ] . . . I'm going to become a Canadian citizen next week, but it's just the right that I can live here…but I'm not [Canadian], I'm Chinese, just look at me, everyone can tell. Even if I have the Canadian citizen, passport, everyone would say “ah, you're Chinese,” what's the point?


“Johnny” too felt alienation with respect to being Canadian but he experienced it towards “Americans” who represent (and are represented by) his estranged father. He reports that:

Being Canadian is being anti-American and everything American that influences Canadian life I dislike and I really dislike the States, and entirely all-American view and in anything Canada is heading towards in an American lifestyle…. I just dislike the fact that the States are based upon the fact that everyone can carry a gun…. um I dislike the fact that the States is like the bill of rights and that they just back into this bill of rights to cover themselves up. The people in Canada just seem to be more caring of each other. And like everybody here, even our most conservative governments, we still care about one another, we still have our welfare system, and the welfare state and healthcare and everything that goes along with it. And the States doesn't. And I get the feeling that it's more like every person for him/her-self and that's what the States are built on.


Johnny is talking about Canadian and American culture, but he is also revealing facets of his personal experience and meaning. These are a few examples of the “putting into words” of their feelings, often coming from their semiconscious or unconscious experience. As another person, “Rochelle” reported there were many issues and ideas that came up through the interview, things she had not thought of before. By talking about some things, they were made clear for her, and she felt somewhat liberated in receiving a copy of the discussion that led to the fusion of her horizon with another which enabled her to better understand herself. Talking about past events also appears to offer the possibility of coming to grips with difficult situations. Sarah talks about her youth when she had negative experiences of being Native. She says:

In the seventies when I was in elementary school, the Native image was very negative. In grade four my teacher asked me to ask my mother, as a child I was so poor, never had any lunch, there was no doubt that that child was Native, asked me if she could come to our class to talk about the culture with the class as a project. Sure, I was all excited. Went home and asked my mom and she said sure, and when that day came I couldn't wait for her to get there, my mother showed up, then the teacher went to the door and she had a few words with my mother and then she left. I didn't figure it out until I was an adult, we just went on and no one explained it. Cause a week later another mother came in with long black hair and some baskets and she talked about basketry and jewellery, and my mother wanted to talk about the way the government was treating Indians.


How did that make you feel at the time?


Oh, Devastated, I left the room and I went to the Safeway and I stole some Certs and I was caught.


At the time, unable to verbalise her feelings, she turned to deviant action as a way to express her self-depreciation. Now, as an adult, she is able to verbalise her earlier experiences, in part reliving them, in part reconstructing them against the context of her present self-understanding. She is now developing a more positive sense of identity but that is not without a struggle. Even though she says “what it means to be Native to me means to be extremely confused,” she continues to say that “Native Indians in a group feel a lot of pride, but once we disperse into society that is quickly stripped.” 

This reveals some of the polis in which her identity has emerged, where the history of our country, Canada, is marked by the forced assimilation of natives to Christian European culture, forced marginalisation and segregation, the languages, traditions and family practices having almost been wiped out. Nowhere is the negative impact of Europeans on natives more clear than in the residential schools that Canadians are now coming to grips with, putting into our own words as we come to initiate the healing process following generations of enculturative disease. For many Canadian Natives there is a new dawn on the horizon, as more power, respect and authority is being given back to the first nations peoples, including a new territory, land claim settlements and the recognition of native justice, healing, and cultural systems in mainstream Canadian life. As a collection of peoples we share a common legacy, bad and good, that can be seen in microform in the particular life of one person. Now turning back to Sarah's life, one can recognise the collective struggles of identity and history as they are played out in the life of a young woman. Sarah reports finding her tradition in the following passage:

Well there was a lot of pride in being a first nations restaurant, with BBQ salmon and bannok, deer, and especially at EXPO, it was the first time I truly felt pride in my culture. It was set up on the EXPO site and I was myself was amazed by the Native artwork, and the lineup, they would line up forever. I couldn't believe that outside of my reserve that there were people who were intrigued, other than my mother, by Native Indians. And that they didn't look at us as drunks. That there were people out there that saw us as a culture that had something to share. Something to be respected.


She is able to now grasp at the cultural world-view, including its value system in developing her own sense of strength and bildung or character. As seen in her involvement in the above shared activity, sharing her culture with the world, she develops the virtues of her ego (Erikson, 1964), developing fidelity to a way of life. Everyday practical activity of identity (phronesis) is the process through which one is member of a culture sharing the socio-moral order that defines them as persons within that tradition (Paranjpe, 1998; Taylor, 1988; 1989). Sarah’s developing historical consciousness has enabled her to understand herself more fully, offering her some degree of emancipation from the horizons of her (personal and collective) past identities. In reaching her goal of becoming a native counsellor, Sarah will be able to continue to develop her pride and comfort in being native, helping others in her community become more settled in their identity and taking part in the re-emergence of traditions and reconstruction of collective identity and history. Charles Taylor (1994) contends that it is this recognition of identity that emerges through the dialogical negotiation of psyche and polis that is crucial to achievement of the ideals of personal and social achievement and authenticity.



Growing from the hermeneutics of Taylor, Gadamer, Dilthey and Erikson, this account of identity and ethnicity is a mere snapshot of the lived experience of these people. Constructing a rich and detailed biography or historical case study would require several hundred pages and much more time and space than is presently afforded. This brief sketch was written to provide a glimpse at the method of history making in application to a particular psychosocial case. While concern over the editing and rendering of a life lived into quotes and commentary provides only limited insight into the human experience, it offers one of many possible accounts of the experience of culture and identity as captured on paper, magnetic tape or living in real time.

Nonetheless, a number of characteristics of self and identity have been articulated and illustrated through excerpts as a hermeneutical account of identity. Whether or not this account “passes” the criteria for a scientific or qualitative account is perhaps another matter that can be considered by the reader or in another account. Elliot, Fischer and Rennie (1999) provide a number of criteria, including owning one's perspective, situating the sample, grounding in examples, coherence and resonating with readers, that may prove to be useful in evaluating this and other similar accounts of identity.



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[1] An abridged version of this account was presented at the International Society for Theoretical Psychology meeting, Calgary Alberta, Canada, June 7th, 2001.