Identity Status Theory (Marcia)

Summary: Refining and extending Erik Erikson’s work, James Marcia came up with four Identity Statuses of psychological identity development. The main idea is that one’s sense of identity is determined largely by the choices and commitments made regarding certain personal and social traits.

Originators: James Marcia, Canadian developmental psychologist and Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University.

Key terms: identity status, diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, achievement.

Marcia’s Identity Statuses

Based on Erik Erikson’s groundbreaking work on identity and psychosocial development in the 1960s, Canadian developmental psychologist James Marcia refined and extended Erikson’s model, primarily focusing on adolescent development. Addressing Erikson’s notion of identity crisis, Marcia posited that the adolescent stage consists neither of identity resolution nor identity confusion, but rather the degree to which one has explored and committed to an identity in a variety of life domains from vocation, religion, relational choices, gender roles, and so on. Marcia’s theory of identity achievement argues that two distinct parts form an adolescent’s identity: crisis (i. e. a time when one’s values and choices are being reevaluated) and commitment. He defined a crisis as a time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined. The end outcome of a crisis leads to a commitment made to a certain role or value.

Upon developing a semi-structured interview for identity research, Marcia proposed Identity Status of psychological identity development:



  • Identity Diffusion – the status in which the adolescent does no have a sense of having choices; he or she has not yet made (nor is attempting/willing to make) a commitment
  • Identity Foreclosure – the status in which the adolescent seems willing to commit to some relevant roles, values, or goals for the future. Adolescents in this stage have not experienced an identity crisis. They tend to conform to the expectations of others regarding their future (e. g. allowing a parent to determine a career direction) As such, these individuals have not explored a range of options.
  • Identity Moratorium – the status in which the adolescent is currently in a crisis, exploring various commitments and is ready to make choices, but has not made a commitment to these choices yet.
  • Identity Achievement - the status in which adolescent has gone through a identity crisis and has made a commitment to a sense of identity (i.e. certain role or value) that he or she has chosen

Note that the above status are not stages and should not viewed as a sequential process.

The core idea is that one’s sense of identity is determined largely by the choices and commitments made regarding certain personal and social traits. The work done in this paradigm considers how much one has made certain choices, and how much he or she displays a commitment to those choices. Identity involves the adoption of 1) a sexual orientation, 2) a set of values and ideals and 3) a vocational direction. A well-developed identity gives on a sense of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and individual uniqueness. A person with a less well-developed identity is not able to define his or her personal strengths and weaknesses, and does not have a well articulated sense of self.

To better understand the identity formation process, Marcia conducted interviews with young people. He asked whether the participants in his study (1) had established a commitment to an occupation and ideology and (2) had experienced, or were presently experiencing, a decision making period (adolescent identity crisis). Marcia developed a framework for thinking about identity in terms of four identity statuses.

For more information, we recommend:

  • Marcia (and others’) book: Ego Identity: A Handbook for Psychosocial Research.  This useful book contains an integrated presentation of identity theory, including literature reviews that span hundreds of of research studies, a discussion of the techniques of interviewing for psychosocial constructs, and model Identity Status Interviews and scoring manuals for a variety of age groups.

  • Schwartz and others’ book:  Handbook of Identity Theory and Research [2 Volume Set].  This impressive handbook brings “unity and clarity to a diverse and fragmented literature.” presenting perspectives from many different theoretical schools and empirical approaches:  psychology (e.g., narrative, social identity theory, neo-Eriksonian) and from other disciplines (e.g., sociology, political science, ethnic studies).