Intersections of Identity: Using Social Identity Development Models in Teaching

Heather W. Hackman, M.Ed.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
October, 1999


Donald Schon (1987) talks about teaching as being an art rather than a vocation or occupation and in my experience that is true. The nuances of group dynamics, the complexities of various student learning styles, the ebbs and flows of student engagement, and the difficulty of making content comprehensible to learners with various degrees of preparedness and perspectives all favor teaching being described as an art form rather than a job. Amongst the multiple points of focus for educators, I would like to highlight one particular that has taught me a great deal about what I teach, how I teach, and even why I teach: the issue of social identity. This paper attempts to describe more clearly the uses of social identity models in the classroom and then utilizes a specific incident in my own teaching to highlight the impact of social identity dynamics and the importance of understanding them as the instructor of the course. The article will conclude with a discussion of how an understanding of social identity development can be a tool to help educators navigate difficult classroom dynamics. I have chosen to discuss this topic because I believe that as educators, and particularly for educators committed to inclusive, diverse and student-centered teaching, a deeper understanding of how identities intersect and what we can do when that happens is vital to our efficacy and ultimately to student success. In considering suggestions for other educators, I will freely share what I did and how I responded and, by using myself as a model to critique, will offer suggestions about what to and not to do in similar situations.

In my teaching experience I have found it critical to have a sense of where students are in terms of their social identity development and, even more importantly, to understand the implications of that stage of development for the student and the class as a whole. The developmental location of any student in the classroom can have a significant impact on the group dynamics and overall experience for a number of students in the class. Though a number of theorists (Cross, 1991; Hardiman, 1982; Kim, 1981; Poston, 1990; Cass, 1984) have discussed social identity development, I am choosing to utilize the model developed by Jackson and Hardiman (1992) As I find it to be concrete and very accessible for educators as a pedagogical tool.


In my classes students often misunderstand the term social identity and I would like to clarify that in this paper the term social identity is used to describe socially constructed identities such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation and the like. More specifically, social identity is meant to describe those identities that have connections to dominant or subordinate social groups as they relate to access to systems of power and resources in this society. In considering socially constructed racial identities, for example, the "dominant" group would be those benefitting from white skin privilege and the "subordinate" group would be people of color. Utilizing the framework developed by Jackson and Hardiman, each of these socially constructed identities, both dominant and subordinate ("white" and "person of color"), would have developmental stages that describe the individual's developmental relationship to dominant ideologies around race and racial identity. The following diagram of Jackson and Hardiman's Social Identity Development Model (SIDM) shows the various "stages" of development that individuals go through as they come to terms with their various social identities.

Passive AcceptanceActive Acceptance
Passive ResistanceActive Resistance

The "Acceptance" stage largely describes an individual's compliance and complicity with the dominant ideologies whereas "Resistance" describes one's defiance of those same, dominant ideologies. Using race as an example, the "Acceptance" stage would have an individual going along (either passively or actively) with the dominant, racist values and beliefs while at the "Resistance" stage individuals would be rejecting and actively working against racist systems and beliefs. In "Redefinition" an individual seeks to find their own sense of self outside of their relationship to the dominant ideology. Continuing with the example or race, an individual would seek to establish a sense of self not in agreement with or in opposition to the dominant ideology but rather instead of that ideology. And finally, in "Internalization" the individual has acquired a strong sense of self and seeks to build coalition with other groups to deconstruct dominant, limiting ideologies. Concluding our example, at this stage white students and students of color would work in coalition to end racism and the systems that perpetuate it.

It is important to note that much of the theory regarding social identity and social identity development examines identity in a static condition, artificially constructed for the sake of an in- depth examination of the intricate processes that comprise the formation of individual identity. These discussions, however, are not really "real" in that they do not take into consideration the dynamic, constructivist nature of power, identity, and culture. In the classroom, where students are living out these models and their ebbs and flows on a minute-by-minute basis, it becomes readily apparent that these notions of identity and identity development are a useful touchstone but once interaction begins, they provide an incomplete picture. What I am getting at is the dynamism of identity and the power (or lack thereof) associated with that. Specifically, I am thinking of a particular moment in this class where the intersections of identity were so thick and so laden with alternating waves of privilege and oppression that it was almost impossible to know how to enter.

Certainly, issues such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and age (which this incident involves all of) cannot be addressed in a "cook book" like manner because there are no pat solutions to such dynamic and context-dependent situations. Therefore, this article does not pretend to have the corner on specific "how to" suggestions and instead offers suggestions on a more reflective and pedagogical level. It is hoped that the reader will gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of the intersections of identity in their classrooms and as a result be more open, sensitive, and comfortable with them.

The Course

To understand the importance of social identity issues in the classroom I will use an incident from my own teaching experience. In the Fall of 1997 I was teaching an undergraduate video production and diversity education course in conjunction with another instructor who was presenting video production content. This class was developed through a grant from the Institute for Public Media Arts, specifically for a project called "-ISM (N)" in which students were encouraged to grapple with issues of diversity via the use of video. The course consisted of 20 students from very diverse backgrounds and varying levels of awareness regarding diversity issues and video production. Pedagogically the course was rooted in experiential, student- centered, and democratic learning. A strong commitment was made to using the multicultural group dynamics as text in the classroom. As a result, there was a great deal of space created for students to engage with the material and each other during class. The content for the course consisted of conceptual frameworks regarding oppression and social change and then individual units on sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, Jewish oppression, and disability oppression. The construction of these "isms" into separate units is an artificial one and various methods are utilized to make connections and highlight the intersections between these issues of oppression. It is exactly these intersections, in a very real and lived way, that a model for social identity development helped me understand.

An Incident

The incident I have chosen to discuss happened during the 5th week of the class and we were discussing issues of heterosexism and homophobia. I traditionally begin the class with some sort of check in where all students get to share a thought or questions and in for this class I chose to have each person share a question that they have about issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The class had already developed groundrules and worked on group development and I felt the risk level of this activity was manageable for the class. As we began to go around the room students posed questions about relationships, institutional and cultural barriers, and stereotypes about the LGBT community. After a third of the class had shared a non- traditionally aged, white, lesbian from a poor background, "Amy" (the multiple identities of all three students involved were disclosed at various points in the class) shared a thought and as she looked across the room she saw two young, black, heterosexual men from upper middle class backgrounds laughing about something. At that point, Amy stopped her sharing to direct her attention to the two men on the other side of the room. She very pointedly asked them what they were laughing about, came out to the class as a lesbian, and said that she felt their laughter was very disrespectful and that she did not feel comfortable with it.

The two men, "Dave" and "Rob", said that they were laughing at something else that had nothing to do with the activity. Their tone was light and responsive but not necessarily engaging in the way that I believe Amy was hoping. Amy responded and indicated that she did not like their dismissive tone and again said she was upset by their laughter during an activity that touched her life in an important way. After Amy's second set of comments the "charge" of the conversation escalated quickly and all three students were clearly being triggered. Dave and Rob responded again by saying that they were laughing about something else and that she needed to lighten up. They also said that they did not like her "calling them out" in front of the entire class and that if she had a problem with them she should have talked to them outside of class. She said that she felt that would not have addressed the problem and that it was still disrespectful for them to be laughing when others were trying to address a serious question and content in the class. She said it was disrespectful to not be paying attention and talked about her feeling unsafe as a lesbian in a class where people were laughing about the content. Dave and Rob responded by saying that she was over-reacting and that she needed not be so attacking.

The flow of the remainder incident followed the same, basic path with similar content. After a few moments I asked them to pause and really try to hear what was being said. I also asked them to repeat what they heard in a effort to deal with the communication gap I was perceiving. As the conversation continued the tension increased and no one was willing to listen. The confrontation ended with them agreeing to disagree about the interaction and nothing really being resolved. The rest of the class sat quietly as these three students, seated directly opposite each other in the circle, engaged with each other. The confrontation quickly elevated the tension level in the room and my impression from journal responses was that most students did not know how to intervene, felt that Dave and Ron should have said what they were laughing about if it was not at the activity, and that Amy should not have "attacked" them in the way that she did.

During the initial moments of the conflict I felt myself flinch a little at how quickly the energy surrounding the confrontation had become charged. Internally I was immediately aware there was a potential for an explosive conflict and I felt a small level of fear rise within me. I noted the social identities involved and knew that there was much more to this than a simple difference of opinion. Nevertheless, this "thought" was not enough to enable me to really help them negotiate an understanding of where the other person was coming from.

Application of the Social Identity Development Model

Amy: As stated there are a number of different identities involved here. In the first class Amy revealed that she was from a poor family and has struggled all of her life to be where she is at and to be in college. She talked about feelings of fear and anger regarding this and as such I would guess that she is in "Resistance" around this identity. When we discussed issues of sexism it was clear that Amy had been giving this issue a lot of thought for many years and has come to, as she described it, "a more settled place" ("Redefinition") with issues of sexism and who she is as a woman in this society. As we approached the issue of homophobia, there seemed to be a guarded trepidation to Amy's approach to the topic as well as some areas where she seemed to lack information or sources of support. It did not appear that she had given her sexual orientation the same level of consideration as she had her gender identity. Perhaps she could be considered to be in between "Acceptance" and "Resistance". And finally, when considering issues of race, I believe that she was at a place of "Acceptance" in terms of her lack of exposure to information that would counter the stereotypical information from the dominant culture.

Dave: I would consider Dave to be at the "Acceptance" stage both in terms of his gender and sexual orientation identity. Throughout our discussions of these issues he made a number of stereotypical comments and held onto his beliefs despite evidence from the class members and content that spoke to the contrary. He also comes from a relatively affluent background and has stated in the class that "if people work hard enough they can get out of poverty. There is no excuse for someone to be poor." In terms of his racial identity I would say that he is in "Resistance" in that he has experienced racism on a daily basis, can readily name its many facets in this society, and has a critical analysis of the systems and beliefs that keep it in place.

Rob: Rob is in the same developmental places as Dave with the exceptions of his racial identity. I believe that Rob has considered issues of racism more thoroughly as is evidenced by his analysis in class and as a result has more of a desire to work find himself despite the dominant influences and to work in coalition with others to end racism.

Lessons for Educators

As an educator I can see that there is a great deal to be learned from this experience. The language used, intensity of emotion, and perspective in relation to the issue were all cues in terms of where these students were at with respect to their social identity development. I also offer this incident as an example because it clearly displays the "messiness" of social identity and that at any given moment there are multiple identity factors playing out at the same time.

First, I can see from this example that it is imperative for an educator to consider the multiple axes of identity and social oppression that are playing out in any interaction in the classroom. In this particular interaction we had issues of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, and social class. As stated before, the students' dominant or subordinate location with respect to each of these identities was named at various points in the class and so my identification of them is based on their own sharing in the class. In first considering the issue of race, I believe there were two key ways this played out. For Amy she was unable to step out of her location and perceive any cultural differences in communication. For example, laughter may mean different things from different cultural perspectives. In addition, a public confrontation is a very "white" modality of communication and has different implications regarding respect when seen from other cultural perspectives. Likewise, Dave and Ron may not have perceived from their racial identity process that laughter was not a big deal and as a result their actions may have seemed dismissive to Amy.

Likewise, given the links between gender and sexual orientation and considering the "Acceptance" location of both Dave and Ron, they may not have been able to understand the implications of laughter when discussing an issue that is so laden with societal violence and danger for LGBT people. As a result of these multiple identity locations the lack of information and experience combined with the various modalities of communication and relating made it near impossible for these students to see eye-to-eye on this issue at this time.

Second, I feel that the consideration of social identity would have helped me to reframe the content in a way that was more accessible and took into consideration the fact that some students were in "Acceptance" around LGBT issues and therefore the information needed to begin at a more accessible and basic level. For students in "Acceptance" it is important to present information that potentially contradicts their unquestioned assumptions before one asks what questions people have. In addition, I think for students in "Acceptance" it is important to allow them to have some time to "take in" information before they are asked to make some meaning of a topic. This may seem to be common sense but when units are building upon one another, it is sometimes easy to assume that concepts about one "ism" issue can be translated to another. In this class, we had already looked at issues of sexism and how homophobia connects to that and therefore I wrongly assumed that students' ability to understand that issues would translate into their ability to understand homophobia and heterosexism in the same way.

And finally, a better sense of the social identity developmental positions of each of these students would have given me a stronger sense of where and how to intervene in the actual conflict. Knowing that Amy was possibly in "Resistance" in terms of LGBT issues and yet might be in "Acceptance" in terms of her racial identity would have helped me see that she was not taking into consideration cross-cultural communication styles when addressing Dave and Rob. Knowing more clearly that Rob and Dave have very little information or exposure to LGBT issues and seem to hold a number of stereotypical beliefs would have helped me to be more clear and offer more information in terms of how I intervened.

In short, if this interaction were to happen again I would, after letting it progress for a few moments, have done a number of things differently. First, I would have reminded people of our class groundrules so as to help provide some frame for the communication since I would have known that the stark difference in communication styles would be a key issue. I also would have asked Amy to consider her communication style and modality of presentation so as to help her discover how to speak to be heard by a broader audience. Specifically, I would have asked her some clarifying questions that were not as pointed at Rob and Dave so as to move the conversation to a slightly more indirect forum. And then I would have invited Rob and Dave to relate the laughter to their own experience at various times and to consider what they might not know about this issue and where their fear of the unknown might be playing in. And finally, I would recognize that more information was necessary to assist Dave and Rob in potentially moving through their developmental process and would have taken the class in that direction.


At first glance these alterations in teaching processes might seem automatic and elementary adjustments to make and yet when they are undergirded by a sense of social identity development it makes for a slightly clearer assessment and a greater opportunity for the educator to make an effective intervention. Other dynamics such as cross-cultural communication styles, interpersonal values and beliefs, multicultural group dynamics are also always in play in the classroom and so an understanding and use of SIDM is by no means a "cure-all". Nevertheless, to have a sense that a student's angry or all of their reaction could be connected to their social identity development gives an educator another tool in attempting to best serve the students in her class and to more effectively help students to engage with the material.


Cass, V. (1984). "Homosexual identity formation". Journal of Sex Research. Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 143-167.

Cross, W. (1991). Shades of black. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hardiman, R. (1982). "White identity development: A process oriented model for describing the racial consciousness of white Americans".University of Massachusetts Microfilms, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jackson, B. and Hardiman, R. (1992). "Racial identity development: Understanding racial dynamics in college classrooms and on campus." Promoting diversity in college classrooms: Innovative responses for the curriculum, faculty, and institutions. No. 52, Winter 1992. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kim, J. (1981). "Processes of Asian American identity development: A study of Japanese American women's perceptions of their struggle to achieve positive identities as Americans of Asian ancestry." University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, Massachusetts.

Poston, W.S. (1990). "The Biracial identity development model: A needed addition." Journal of Counseling and Development. Vol. 69, Nov./Dec. pp.152-155.

Schon, Donald. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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