Identity   /   Fall 1999   /    Bibliographic Review

Identity and Social Change: A Short Review

Joseph E. Davis

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project (1969).

Points of Departure


Up through the late 1960s, a considerable body of literature was produced on personality and the self-concept, on the conflict between individual needs and social demands, and on the effects of this conflict and rapid social change for the adapting person. The principal figures during this period were psychologists, including Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and Harry Stack Sullivan; sociologists and anthropologists, such as Ruth Benedict, Erving Goffman, Helen Lynd, David Riesman, and Georg Simmel; and philosophers and existentialists, including R. D. Laing, Herbert Marcuse, George Herbert Mead, and Alfred Schutz.

In this older literature, the self-society nexus was a central problem, along with a concern over the disruptions in self-concept and personality brought about by significant social dislocations and transformations—urbanization, bureaucratization, the rise of a consumption ethic, technological advances, the decline of major institutions, and so on. For many writers, these disruptions were seen to lead to painful uneasiness and destructive alienation and instability. For others, however, the effects of change were considered more salutary, leading to experimentation with new and adaptive ways to meet social demands and efforts to break free from narrow and restrictive social roles. The following titles are a sampling:

  • Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
  • Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New  York: Norton, (1930) 1961.
  • Fromm, Erich. Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. New York: Rinehart, 1947.
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