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Phinney Critique Paper

Laura Reiter

Loyola University Chicago


Phinney Critique Paper

Identity is a complex, dynamic construct that develops over time as individuals strive to

make sense of who they are in terms of the groups they belong to within their immediate and

larger social contexts (Phinney, 2008, p. 98). One of the earliest theorists to develop and test a

general ethnic identity development model was Jean Phinney (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, &

Renn, 2010, p. 277). Her three-stage model was so broad that many other theorists have

expounded upon or critiqued her work in the development of their own ethnic identity models

that better reflect the lived experiences of specific ethnic minority groups. Even so, the ideas

presented by Phinney have applications within the higher education profession.

Ethnic Identity Development: Stage 1

The process of identity development takes place over extended periods of time, from

childhood through adulthood, and is significantly influenced by the contexts in which individuals

live (Phinney, 2008, p. 98). Stage 1 begins with individuals who have not yet explored issues

of ethnic identity, either because they do not consider them important, or because individuals

may have acquired attitudes about ethnicity in childhood from significant others, leading to

foreclosure (Evans et al., 2010, p. 277-78).

In my own life, the only time I can recall not thinking about my ethnic identity was when

I was very young. For young children, identity begins with learning the label used to indicate

the groups they belong to. Development consists of gaining understanding of the stability of this

group membership over time and of the attributes associated with it (Phinney, 2008, p. 103). As

a child I remember identifying myself as an American since I contrasted my identity with those

of the international students living in my house. A group identity typically includes a sense of

what one is not, as well as what one is. The opposite gender or other ethnic groups can serve as

foils against which to establish ones own sense of self (Phinney, 2008, p. 103). Since national

identity was so salient in my house, as a child I did not differentiate it from race, ethnicity, or


Even so, there were some hints of my ethnic identity provided by my mother. I still

remember singing a German childrens song about a little horse and learned to count to ten in

German, but since I could not accurately contrast my own experience with that of other children,

I did not realize my friends were not learning the same things. This changed when my family

hosted a German student named Volker who effected how I saw my ethnicity and myself.

Ethnic Identity Development: Stage 2

Volker was very different from any prior international students I can recall in that he fit

in to our family dynamic so effortlessly. I remember very clearly my mom explaining that we

were ethnically German and since Volker was from Germany we shared many of the same

values, beliefs and traditions. This realization led me to experience moratorium:

When young people explore and try on various options as a step toward resolving the

issue. Instability is characteristic of the moratorium period, but exploration is expected to

lead to be a better understanding of the area of concern, such as gender or ethnicity, and

ultimately to a decision or commitment to a way of being. (Phinney, 2008, p. 102)

I continued to talk with my mom about this new revelation and learned that she had actually

lived in Germany for a time and spoke German. My maternal grandmother had grown up

speaking German in her home and shared a strong connection with her German relatives through

travel and correspondence.

My dads side of the family was not so connected to their ancestral home, but one very

important ethnic marker I got from my dad is our family name. Reiter (a last name frequently

mispronounced by telemarketers) is a German word that means rider of horses. It is likely that

on my fathers side of the family my ancestors were farmers since many as their descendants

continued in the same profession after moving to the United States.

Aside from Volker, my family also became very close to a German high school girl

named Kathrin. We hosted her when I was nine years old and I remember looking up to her and

always wanting to spend time with her. She painted a watercolor of a flower bouquet my mom

gave her that still hangs in our kitchen. I mention both these people because they have had a

lasting influence on how I have experienced German culture and identity. Volker and his family

still come to our holiday celebrations and when I traveled to Germany in 2011 I stayed in

Kathrins apartment. My relationships with Volker and Kathrin helped me seek more

information about [my] ethnic identity while attempting to understand the personal significance

of ethnic identity (Evans et al., 2010, p. 278).

Ethnic Identity Development: Stage 3

Ultimately, my visit to Germany in 2011 moved me into the third stage of achieved

identity status. Evans et al. (2010) stated, as students accept membership in minority culture,

they gain a sense of ethnic identification while being open to other cultures (p. 278). I know

within the United States I am considered part of the majority White race and not typically

acknowledged as part of an ethnicity, so my strong connection to my ethnic heritage may not be

part of the norm for many German Americans. However, I do feel like I have reached ethnic

identity achievement after visiting Germany.

In December of 2011 I was living in Spain while my cousin Kevin was living in Germany.

My uncle offered to fly my other cousin and my sister over from the United States so we could

travel around Europe together during winter break. I met up with my family at Kathrins

apartment on Christmas Eve and from there we went to a Christmas service at her church. Even

though I couldnt understand a word I felt very connected to the experience. We later went to

the pastors house for Christmas dinner and the cultural traditions of the meal and the tree

reflected my family customs. I remember feeling very at peace and at ease: comfortable with my

surroundings and myself.

Even though I had learned a lot about German culture from my mom and our German

friends, I did not fully understand what it meant to be German until I visited the country. I found

that I fit into the culture and was not stared at on the street as I had been while visiting many

other countries. Based on my experiences, I think Germany is the one country I could live in,

apart from the United States, and feel totally at home.

Evans et al. (2010) said, after moving through identity moratorium, these students

accepted their struggle and now feel confident in themselves as ethnic minority members and

accepting of others from different ethnic groups (p. 278). This aspect of Stage 3 does not

perfectly describe my situation since I am not obviously part of an ethnic minority group and so

did not face discrimination or racism experienced by other ethnic groups. I do remember hearing

that many German Americans stopped speaking German during World War II so as not to be

misidentified as Nazi Germany sympathizers. In an effort to blend in they started only

identifying as Americans and so lost a connection to their ethnic heritage. This cultural shift

impacted my dads family much more so than my moms family and is a greater legacy of

German American heritage that I experience in the present-day.

To the second part of the quote, I would say I am very accepting of people of different

ethnicities, although I think that has less to do with my own ethnic identity achievement and

more to do with my experience living with international students. I think the important role of

the social climate (Phinney, 2008, p. 100) is especially at play here and may cause students to

be more accepting of some ethnic identities than others. Intersectionality, interpersonal

relationships, and politics may also be factors that cause students to be drawn towards or shy

away from people of different ethnic identities.


The three stage model was a part of Phinneys early work and as a prolific researcher,

Phinney continues to shed light on a pivotal developmental issue for college students: the process

of ethnic identification (Evans et al., 2010, p. 279). Indeed, my own primary source article by

Phinney was from 2008 and during my research found many other articles about ethnic identity

where Phinney was either the primary author or the co-author.

In Phinneys (2008) work she discussed how over the college years, students show

evidence of increasingly complex reasoning and higher levels of integration among various

identities (p. 103). I would agree with this, although I think my ethnic identity development

started earlier due to my experience living with people of different ethnicities. That being said,

other facets of my identity were definitely explored during college much more so than during my

high school or formative years. Perhaps part of this is the process is moving out of childhood

and coming into ones own as an adult.

Phinney (2008) went on to highlight the importance of moving towards an

interdisciplinary approach: The value of interdisciplinary approaches can best be realized when

different theories and methods are combined in a single study, and this has been much less

common in the field (p. 105). Phinney (2008) recognized an interdisciplinary approach was

important even while acknowledging there has been relatively little research on group identities

that is in fact interdisciplinary [due to]. the difficulty of combining disciplines (p. 105).

Working with professionals across different fields of study to conduct research may be

logistically challenging but could provide insights and perspectives that have not yet been


Ethnic identity development does not happen in a bubble and is influenced by other facets

of individual identity and experience, which leads to intersecting identities. The concept of

intersectionality has been developed in greatest depth by theorists concerned with groups that are

doubly (or triply) disadvantaged, usually with reference to gender, class, and race or ethnicity

(Phinney, 2008, p. 106). However, the ways in which social identities intersect and

demonstrate behavioral preferences reveal a major component of shifting identity development

and are underresearched, particularly with regard to college students (Evans et al., 2010, p. 287).

The focus on using interdisciplinary approaches to move towards a more holistic

conception of identity that includes intersectionality is a positive trajectory. For example, my

White racial identity impacted my view of my ethnic identity as compared to the experience of a

person holding a target racial identity and how that would intersect with their ethnic identity.

Many aspects of Phinneys theory of ethnic identity development hinged on the unfortunate

reality that different ethnicities are viewed as less than by the dominant culture (Evans et al.,

2010, p. 278). This can create feelings of anger or embarrassment I did not encounter as part of

my ethnic identity development. Intersectionality would also acknowledge the difference in the

development model for a German American Female compared to a German American Male.

Cultural expectations of gender can vary greatly and those who fall outside the gender binary

would likely have another experience altogether. A gay or transgender German American may

find they feel more accepted in Germany than by the German American community within the

United States, which tends to be more conservative.


Student Development Professionals

For the student development professional identity development is a critical piece of the

college experience, however research on ethnic identity is in its infancy and its variations and

applications to college students are necessary to help students know themselves better (Evans et

al., 2010, p. 286). My own ethnic identity development occurred within the confines of a

Lutheran Church Missouri Synod institution; a combination of German culture with Lutheran

faith. Even though the Concordia student body and faculty were predominantly ethnically

German, I did not feel a strong connection to the community due to the focus on Lutheranism.

Even so, Luther is a part of German history and his writings influenced all Protestant Christian

denominations, so I believe that environment ultimately contributed to my ethnic identity


Within the student affairs literature, identity is commonly understood as ones

personally held beliefs about the self in relation to social groups (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion,

sexual orientation) and the ways one expresses that relationship (Torres, Jones, & Renn, 2009, p.

577). Each field locates the study of identity within its own disciplinary lens, but they share

commitments to understanding the individual, his or her social context, the influence of social

groups, and various dimensions of identity (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation)

(Torres, Jones, & Renn, 2009, p. 578). As an educator I knew that while my job might officially

be to teach my students Spanish, the more valuable and longer-lasting lessons were often not a

part of the curriculum. Guiding students as they develop into the people they are meant to be is

an integral part of education that continues on through the college experience.

Here too intersectionality provides a framework for new approaches to understanding

and researching identity and student identity development (Torres, Jones, & Renn, 2009, p. 588).

Without this approach, students can feel boxed in to one aspect of their identity development. As

higher education professionals it is important to put the pieces back together to consider the

whole student again, in all of his or her complex and intersecting identities (Torres, Jones, &

Renn, 2009, p. 590).

My own personal area of interest is working with international students who, depending

on their ethnicity, may find themselves abruptly moving into ethnic identity moratorium. This

new awareness causes students to examine the significance of their ethnic background (Evans et

al., 2010, p. 278). It is important to recognize that while it might be a moment of personal crisis

for the student, it is also an opportunity for personal exploration. Student development

professionals need to provide international students with appropriate resources and support.

Increasing internationalization and globalization of higher education and society are prompting

interesting new research on student identity development. The meaning of, for example, ethnic

and racial identities are different in the United States and in global perspective (Torres, Jones,

& Renn, 2009, p. 592). Student affairs professionals need to support international students who

are unsure of their identity within a different cultural context as they work to gain a sense of self

and join the global conversation about ethnicity, race, and identity.


Phinneys Model is a useful framework for higher education professionals but falls short

due to her attempt to outline commonalities across ethnic groups, instead of placing each

groupand their dissimilarities under a microscope (Evans et al., 2010, p. 277). This model is

a useful foundation, but if applied liberally does not end up representing any one person or group

very well. As Phinney (2008) noted, identity development is not a one size fits all model and

continued research is needed to understand how intersecting identities affect development.



Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010). Student development in

college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Phinney, J. S. (2008). Bridging identities and disciplines: Advances and challenges in

understanding multiple identities. New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development,

2008(120), 97-109.

Torres, V., Jones, S. R., & Renn, K. A. (2009). Identity development theories in student affairs:

Origins, current status, and new approaches. Journal of College Student Development,

50(6), 577-596.