A Conceptual Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity
Write a discussion that reflects your understanding of the readings below (use at least 3 of them). It should be around 2 pages double space, times. Reading is in the attachment
A Conceptual Model of Multiple Dimensions of
Susan R. Jones Marylu K. McEwen
A conceptual model of multiple dimensions of
identity depicts a core sense of self or one?s
personal identity. Intersecting circles surrounding
the core identity represent significant
identity dimensions (e.g., race, sexual orientation,
and religion) and contextual influences
(e.g., family background and life experiences).
The model evolved from a grounded theory study
of a group of 10 women college students ranging
in age from 20-24 and of diverse racial-ethnic
Development of socially constructed identities
has received increasing attention within literature
and research in psychology and student affairs
within the past decade. Racial identity (e.g.,
Cross, 1995; Helms, 1990, 1992, 1995), ethnic
identity (Phinney, 1990, 1992), sexual identity
(Cass, 1979; McCarn & Fassinger, 1996), and
gender identity (Ossana, Helms, & Leonard,
1992; O?Neil, Egan, Owen, & Murry, 1993) have
received primary focus. Yet, most developmental
models and related research have addressed only
a single dimension of identity, such as race or
sexual orientation. Atkinson, Morten, and Sue
(1993), in their well-known Minority Identity
Development model, do not specify type of
minority status (e.g., race or gender or sexual
orientation or disability could apply) and also
do not address how an individual may simultaneously
develop and embrace multiple minority
statuses. Although research has frequently
considered differences according to gender, age,
or other particular social conditions, the models
and research have generally not addressed
intersecting social identities. In addition to racial,
ethnic, sexual, and gender identities, college
students may have other identity orientations,
such as social class, religious, geographic or
regional, and professional identities (McEwen,
Not only have researchers placed increasing
emphasis upon identity development, but the
number of identity development models has also
increased. In terms of models regarding multiple
identities, the only frequently acknowledged
model is that of Reynolds and Pope (1991).
However, Reynolds and Pope?s model concerns
primarily multiple oppressions (not identities in
general) and possible ways that one can negotiate
multiple oppressions. McEwen (1996) has
proposed a theoretically driven model concerning
development of multiple identities, but this model
has not been empirically tested. A small number
of studies have addressed multiple identities, and
some theoretical and autobiographical essays
speak to the experience of multiple identities
(e.g., Bridwell-Bowles, 1998; Espiritu, 1994;
Moraga, 1998; Thompson & Tyagi, 1996). So,
although existing literature can inform discussions
on multiple identities, no models specifically
concerning multiple identities have been
Reynolds and Pope (1991) drew attention
to the importance of multiple identities through
their discussion of multiple oppressions. They
used several case studies to provide examples
of how individuals might deal with their multiple
oppressions and then extended Root?s (1990)
model on biracial identity development to
multiple oppressions. Specifically, Reynolds and
Pope (1991), in creating the Multidimensional
Identity Model, suggested four possible ways for
identity resolution for individuals belonging to
Susan R. Jones is Assistant Professor and Director of the Student Personnel Assistantship program, School of
Educational Policy and Leadership, The Ohio State University. Marylu K. McEwen is Associate Professor in
the College Student Personnel program, Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, University of
Maryland, College Park.
406 Journal of College Student Development
Jones & McEwen
more than one oppressed group. These four
options were created from a matrix with two
dimensions – – the first concerns whether one
embraces multiple oppressions or only one
oppression, and the second concerns whether an
individual actively or passively identifies with
one or more oppressions. Thus, the four quadrants
or options become:
1. Identifying with only one aspect of self (e.g.,
gender or sexual orientation or race) in a
passive manner. That is, the aspect of self
is assigned by others such as society, college
student peers, or family.
2. Identifying with only one aspect of self that
is determined by the individual. That is, the
individual may identify as lesbian or Asian
Pacific American or a woman without
including other identities, particularly those
that are oppressions.
3. Identifying with multiple aspects of self, but
choosing to do so in a ?segmented fashion?
(Reynolds & Pope, 1991, p. 179), frequently
only one at a time and determined more
passively by the context rather than by the
individual?s own wishes. For example, in one
setting the individual identifies as Black, yet
in another setting as gay.
4. The individual chooses to identify with the
multiple aspects of self, especially multiple
oppressions, and has both consciously
chosen them and integrated them into one?s
sense of self.
The value of Reynolds and Pope?s (1991)
work lies in their focus on the topic of multiple
identities, their attention to the possible danger
of considering an individual?s identity development
too narrowly by only using identity
development models that address singular
dimensions of one?s identity, and their attention
to identity resolution in the context of multiple
oppressions. Yet, in the decade since the
publication of Reynolds and Pope?s model,
researchers have only minimally addressed
multiple identities, contributing no application
or testing of their model and little follow-up to
McEwen (1996), drawing on her education
in mathematics and physics, considered how such
dimensions and developmental processes regarding
multiple identities might be represented. She
suggested that the interaction and intersection of
multiple identity development could be viewed
as a conical structure with varying radii and
heights. The conical structure is similar to a helix.
The increasing length and circumference of the
cone represent the greater complexity of an
individual?s development as one?s age, experiences,
education, and reflection change. A twodimensional
cross section of the cone, similar to
a circle or ellipse, would represent an individual?s
development at that particular point in time.
Thus, an examination of many horizontal cross
sections of the cone would provide a comprehensive
picture of one?s development at various
points in time. These horizontal cross sections,
however, would not provide any sense of one?s
developmental patterns over time.
On the other hand, vertical cross sections
might incorporate only one or two dimensions
of identity. However, a vertical cross section
would suggest how an individual?s identity in that
particular dimension or dimensions has developed
over the span of one?s lifetime. A vertical
?slice? would represent just one part of the
picture of an individual at multiple points in time.
Other kinds of cross sections of this conical
representation could be considered. McEwen?s
model, through various cross sections, enables
a portrayal of intersections or interactions among
identity development dimensions or between
multiple identities not seen in other models.
In addition, theoretical discussions by Deaux
(1993), a social psychologist, relate to the
conceptual model of multiple dimensions of
identity presented here. She conceptualized
identity as both defined internally by self and
externally by others, which provides a foundation
for understanding multiple identities. Other
recent research (Ferguson, 1995; Finley, 1997;
Kiely, 1997) underscored the importance of
relative salience, sociocultural context, and
overlapping identities. A strength in these studies
lies in examining multiple identities; however,
none provided a model of multiple identities nor
suggested a process by which multiple identities
are developed and negotiated.
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A Conceptual Model of Identity
In an effort to extend existing work on
multiple identities, the researchers attempted to
advance a more complex understanding of
identity and present a model of multiple dimensions
of identity development. The model
evolved from a qualitative study conducted at a
large public university on the East Coast. Using
the grounded theory approach of Glaser and
Strauss (1967), the researchers explored the selfperceived
identities and the multiple dimensions
of identity from the perspective of women college
students. The focus of the study was on students?
understandings of their own identity and experiences
of difference and of the influence of
multiple dimensions of identity on an evolving
sense of self.
Participants were 10 undergraduate women all
enrolled at a large East Coast university and
diverse in race, cultural background, and
academic major. They ranged in age from 20 to
24 and were predominantly of junior or senior
class standing. The racial and ethnic backgrounds
of participants included 5 who were White, 2 who
identified themselves as African American or
Black, 1 woman who identified herself as
African, 1 as Sri Lankan, and 1 as Asian Indian.
A variety of religious affiliations were also
represented: Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic,
Presbyterian, and Holiness Pentecostal.
Participants were drawn to the study using
?purposeful sampling? (Patton, 1990), which
emphasizes sampling for information-rich cases.
The criterion for constructing the sample in this
study was evidence of variation along identity
dimensions such as race, culture, sexual orientation,
and religion. An initial group of 5 participants
was chosen from among those who
responded to an invitation to take part in the
study and who met sampling criteria for maximum
variation and ability to participate. Consistent
with grounded theory methodology and
theoretical sampling (Strauss & Corbin, 1990)
5 participants were added as the study progressed.
These participants were identified
through snowball sampling strategies or through
responses to invitations to participate extended
at a campus leadership program. Sampling
decisions were guided by initial data analysis,
the opportunity for information-rich cases, and
a commitment to a diverse sample. Saturation
was achieved and sampling was ended when
patterns and themes in the data emerged and a
diverse sample had been accomplished.
Data were collected through in-depth, openended
interviews. The central purpose of the
interviews was to engage in dialogue with
participants to elicit their descriptions and
perceptions of themselves and their understandings
of identity development. This phenomenological
approach emphasized the importance of
providing a structure for participants to communicate
their own understandings, perspectives,
and attribution of meaning. Interviews were
open-ended to permit and encourage participants?
use of their own words in describing the internal
and interpersonal processes by which they
defined their identities and made sense of
Three interviews were conducted with each
participant. Interview protocols were developed
in response to emerging patterns and themes for
all participants as well as to pick up on experiences
and perceptions particular to an individual.
Initial questions were broad enough to create
room for individual response and freedom.
Subsequent interviews were more structured and
focused specifically on particular identity
dimensions identified in the previous interview.
Interviews lasted between 30 and 75 minutes and
all were audiotaped.
Several strategies to assure trustworthiness
of findings were employed. These included
member checking by providing participants an
opportunity to read transcripts and check initial
analysis, and the use of an inquiry auditor to
verify the work by essentially conducting a
parallel process of data analysis and comparing
True to grounded theory methodology, data
analysis was conducted using three levels of
coding: open coding, axial coding, and selective
coding. The first stage of coding involves
408 Journal of College Student Development
Jones & McEwen
breaking down data and beginning the process
of categorization. Axial coding takes initial
categories and makes further comparisons that
describe relationships between categories. Using
selective coding, saturation of categories is
examined, which means that further analysis
produces no new information or need for
additional categories. In short, all the data are
captured and described by key categories, and a
core category emerges that tells the central story
of all participants as a group. This core category
then is used to develop an emerging theory and
conceptual model that is considered grounded in
the data and reflective of the lived experiences
of all participants.
In this study, data analysis produced over
2,000 concepts from raw data, 71 categories from
initial comparison, 10 key categories, and 1 core
category (Jones, 1997). The conceptual model
was developed to provide a visual representation
of the findings from the study.
Because the focus of this article is on the
conceptual model developed from the findings,
only a brief description of the 10 key categories
is included. More detailed descriptions may be
found elsewhere (Jones, 1997). The key categories
that emerged from analysis of data from
the interviews with participants were (a) relative
salience of identity dimensions in relation to
difference; (b) the multiple ways in which race
matters; (c) multiple layers of identity; (d) the
braiding of gender with other dimensions; (e) the
importance of cultural identifications and cultural
values; (f) the influence of family and background
experiences; (g) current experiences and
situational factors; (h) relational, inclusive values
and guiding personal beliefs; (i) career decisions
and future planning; and (j) the search for
identity. The key categories represent themes and
constructs that are interrelated and when
integrated define the core category.
The core category provides an integrative
function by weaving together the key categories
in a way that tells the central story of all the
participants. In this study, the core category was
defined as the contextual influences on the
construction of identity. The contextual influences
that emerged as significant included race,
culture, gender, family, education, relationships
with those different from oneself, and religion.
The core category also reflects the finding that
identity was defined and understood as having
multiple intersecting dimensions. The particular
salience of identity dimensions depended upon
the contexts in which they were experienced.
Therefore, both difference and privilege worked
to mediate the connection with and salience of
various identity dimensions (i.e., race was not
salient for White women; religion was very
salient for Jewish women; culture was salient for
the Asian Indian woman).
A Conceptual Model for Multiple
Dimensions of Identity
The conceptual model presented here (see
Figure 1) is intended to capture the essence of
the core category as well as the identity stories
of the participants. The model represents multiple
dimensions of identity development for a diverse
group of women college students. The model is
a fluid and dynamic one, representing the
ongoing construction of identities and the
influence of changing contexts on the experience
of identity development. Therefore, the model
is illustrative of one person?s identity construction
at a particular time. The model is also
drawn to depict the possibility of living comfortably
with multiple identities, rather than
simply describing multiple dimensions of
At the center of multiple dimensions of
identity is a core sense of self. This center, or
core identity, is experienced as a personal
identity, somewhat protected from view, which
incorporates ?valued personal attributes and
characteristics? (Jones, 1997, p. 383). The core
was frequently described by participants as their
?inner identity? or ?inside self? as contrasted with
what they referred to as their ?outside? identity
or the ?facts? of their identity. Outside identities
were easily named by others and interpreted by
the participants as less meaningful than the
complexities of their inside identities which they
guarded and kept close to themselves and made
less susceptible to outside influence. The words
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A Conceptual Model of Identity
Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity
Career Decisions and Life Planning
these women used to describe their core included
intelligent, kind, a good friend, compassionate,
independent. They resisted using terms that
conveyed external definition and identity
categories to describe their core sense of self.
To these young women, labels lacked complexity,
accuracy, and personal relevancy. They believed
that labels rarely touched the core of an individual?s
sense of self. For them, individual
identity was experienced and lived at far greater
depth than such categories suggested or permitted.
Surrounding the core, and at times
integrally connected to the core, were what they
experienced as more externally defined dimensions
such as gender, race, culture, and religion.
The intersecting circles of identity in the
model (see Figure 1) represent the significant
identity dimensions and contextual influences
identified by participants in this study. These
dimensions were variously experienced and
included race, culture, gender, sexual orientation,
religion, and social class. The circles intersect
410 Journal of College Student Development
Jones & McEwen
with one another to demonstrate that no one
dimension may be understood singularly; it can
be understood only in relation to other dimensions.
For example, for all the participants,
gender was an identity dimension to which they
related. However, the description of what being
female meant to them was quickly connected with
other dimensions (e.g., Jewish woman, Black
woman, lesbian, Indian woman). For those
participants for whom culture was most salient,
family and culture were inextricably connected.
The importance, or relative salience, of these
identity dimensions is indicated by dots located
on each of the identity dimension circles. The
location of the dot and its proximity to the core
represents the particular salience of that identity
dimension to the individual at that time. For
example, if culture is particularly salient to an
individual, the placement of the dot on that
dimension is closer to the core. If sexual
orientation is not particularly salient to an
individual at that point in time, the dot is farther
away from the core. The model does, however,
illustrate that various identity dimensions are
present in each individual, yet experienced in
different ways as more or less salient. For
example, race was found to be very salient for
the Black women in the study, and rarely salient
for the White women. Similarly, culture was
salient for the Asian Indian woman and religion
for the Jewish women.
The intersecting circles and the various
locations indicating salience of particular identity
dimensions also represent that more than one
identity dimension can be engaged by the
individual at any one time. Identity dimensions
then may be experienced simultaneously as well
as more or less salient than other dimensions.
The context within which the individual
experiences multiple dimensions of identity is
represented by the larger circle that includes both
the core and intersecting identity dimensions.
These dimensions become more or less salient
as they interact with contextual influences such
as family background, sociocultural conditions,
current life experiences, and career decisions and
life planning. Participants perceived identity
dimensions as both externally defined and
internally experienced, and also influenced by
different contexts. When identities are imposed
from the outside, dimensions are not seen as
integral to core. However, when interacting with
certain sociocultural conditions such as sexism
and racism, identity dimensions may be scrutinized
in a new way that resulted in participants?
reflection and greater understanding of a
Influences of sociocultural conditions,
family background, and current experiences
cannot be underestimated in understanding how
participants constructed and experienced their
identities. The conceptual model presented in
Figure 1 is drawn to illustrate the relationship
of these factors to the identity development
process. Salience of identity dimensions was
rooted in internal awareness and external scrutiny
(e.g., race for Black women), and lack of salience
seemed prevalent among those more privileged
identity dimensions (e.g., sexual orientation for
heterosexual women). These findings suggested
that systems of privilege and inequality were least
visible and understood by those who are most
privileged by these systems. Thus, when difference
was experienced, identity was shaped.
When difference was not experienced, participants
attributed these dimensions as relevant
to others. Both privilege and difference mediated
the connection with and relative salience of various
dimensions of identity and shaped the connection
to identity dimensions by the individual.
Interest in understanding multiple identities
emerges from a growing awareness of the non
singular nature in which individual identities are
constructed and self-perceived. Extending
Erikson?s (1980) description of identity, more
recent research draws attention to the importance
of considering the influences of dimensions such
as race, culture, social class, and sexual orientation,
as well as the need for examination of
the sociocultural and sociopolitical contexts in
which identities are constructed (Trickett, Watts,
& Birman, 1994). The conceptual model of
multiple dimensions of identity presented in
Figure 1 is drawn from the words and understandings
of a diverse group of women college
JULY/AUGUST 2000 u VOL 41 NO 4 411
A Conceptual Model of Identity
students and depicts the complexities of identity
development when multiple dimensions are
considered. The model reflects an acknowledgment
that different dimensions of identity will
be more or less important for each individual
given a range of contextual influences. It also
presents identity development as a fluid and
dynamic process rather than a more linear and
static stage model.
The findings from this study and the resulting
model reflect Deaux?s (1993) conceptualizations
of identities as both defined internally
by self and externally by others. She suggested
that ?social and personal identity are fundamentally
interrelated. Personal identity is
defined, at least in part, by group memberships,
and social categories are infused with personal
meaning? (p. 5). More specifically, according to
social identities are those roles [e.g.,
parent] or membership categories [e.g.,
Latino or Latina] that a person claims as
representative. . . . Personal identity
refers to those traits and behaviors [e.g.,
kind or responsible] that the person finds
self-descriptive, characteristics that are
typically linked to one or more of the
identity categories. (p. 6)
Thus, the core identity in this conceptual model
might be described as ?personal identity? in
Deaux?s language, and the multiple identities
(intersecting circles) characterize Deaux?s ?social
identities.? Further, and particularly important to
this discussion of multiple identities, Deaux
(1993) indicated that, within the tradition of
sociology, ?multiple identities are assumed?
(p. 5). An articulated assumption of multiple
identities, however, does not seem to be the case
within theories of student development.
Despite a complex discussion of identity
development, Deaux (1993) provided no specific
attention to how multiple identities are formed.
Her research does, however, underscore the
importance of the context in which social
identities exist, distinctions between selfperceived
inside self and outside identity, and
the ongoing negotiations and relationships
between one?s personal and social identities that
contribute to the experience of multiple identities.
This model of multiple dimensions of
identity goes beyond Deaux?s work in suggesting
how multiple identities develop and change.
Although Reynolds and Pope (1991) focused
on multiple oppressions, their model suggests an
expanded understanding of multiple identities
and the idea of relative salience, as supported
by the findings of this study. The model proposed
here extends the work of Reynolds and Pope
(1991) by contributing to an understanding of
?the multidimensional nature of human identity?
(p. 179) and providing a more integrative
framework for understanding identity. Specifically,
our conceptual model addresses multiple
identities more broadly than multiple oppressions
and provides a dynamic representation of the fit
of the core self with other identities and the
changing relative salience of particular dimensions
of identity. Further, as Reynolds and Pope
suggested through their examples, this model also
incorporates the importance of contexts to how
multiple identities are formed and shaped.
Finley (1997), in a qualitative study of 6
women with multiple minority statuses, used the
Optimal Theory Applied to Identity Development
model (Myers et al., 1991) and the
Multidimensional Identity Model (Reynolds &
Pope, 1991), and found that ?multiple identities
followed overlapping, interweaving spirals of
development? (p. 3921B). Finley also underscored
both the importance of environmental
influences on identity development and the
complexity of the process. This complexity is
typically not represented in other models. The
model of multiple dimensions of identity and
Finley?s findings share an understanding of the
identity development process as dynamic, non
linear, and complex.
This conceptual model complements and
elaborates upon McEwen?s (1996) emerging
model of multiple identities by portraying how
one?s personal identity and other multiple
identities might relate at any one point in time.
Both this model and McEwen?s model suggest
the presence and interaction of multiple dimensions
of identity. This conceptual model,
however, shows how identity can be understood
and experienced differently at different points in
412 Journal of College Student Development
Jones & McEwen
time, particularly in relation to one?s personal
identity and in terms of relative salience of each
dimension. McEwen also suggested the importance
of considering and representing the
separate developmental processes of each
individual?s social identity over time.
The representation in the model of the
relationship of the dots on the intersecting circles
to the core identity suggests the evolving nature
of identity and the changing salience of the
various multiple identities. This aspect of the
model that emerged from Jones?s qualitative
study (1997) also reflects Ferguson?s (1995)
findings in a quantitative study of the relationship
of race, gender, sexual orientation, and selfesteem
in 181 lesbians of African descent.
Ferguson suggested that the women in her study
?may be in a continual recycling process in which
they retain ties with all three social identities and
communities [lesbian, woman, and African
American], but to greater or lesser degrees?
Kiely (1997), in a study of racial identity,
womanist identity, and social class variables in
Black (n = 173) and White (n = 163) women
college students, found that students? incorporation
of multiple aspects of their identity was
more common among Black women than White
women in her sample. Kiely?s research supports
the description in this conceptual model that the
relative salience of multiple identities is influenced
by those identities that are privileged and
by those that are externally scrutinized.
The conceptual model for multiple dimensions
of identity represents the researchers?
attempt to capture the complexity of the identity
development process. This model offers another
option for thinking about multiple identities and
the importance of contextual influences to the
development of identity. The model does not
portray a developmental process, although it
incorporates the importance of the interaction
and interface among one?s multiple identities and
hints at factors that contribute to the development
of identity (e.g., contextual influences). It does
provide a developmental snapshot of the most
salient dimensions of an individual?s identity,
how the individual experiences those dimensions,
and directions for the individual?s future growth
This conceptual model suggests the importance
of understanding the complexities of
identity development. Student affairs educators
must not presume what is most central to
individuals, but must instead listen for how a
person sees herself. This study underscores the
importance of seeing students as they see
themselves or as they reveal themselves to others.
The participants in this study wanted to be
understood as they understood themselves and
as the totality of who they were, rather than be
understood through externally imposed labels
and by a singular dimension. Reynolds and Pope
(1991) stated that the professional?s responsibility
is to conceptualize, ?understand and
facilitate this integration of [college students?] identity? (p. 179).
In addition, the results of this study suggest
that educators have a responsibility to help
students from majority identity statuses under-
JULY/AUGUST 2000 u VOL 41 NO 4 413
A Conceptual Model of Identity
stand the implications of taken-for-granted
identities. More specifically, student affairs
educators can encourage students who are
members of groups whose identity is not
examined to consider these aspects of their
identity. Similarly, educators must exercise
caution in making assumptions about the relative
salience of particular identity dimensions for
students in traditionally marginalized groups.
The findings of this study suggest the
importance of additional research on multiple
identities and the development of models that
depict this process. The model presented here
has not been tested or widely applied. The
inclusion of students? voices in this kind of
research cannot be understated. Although this
study was limited by a small sample, at one
institution, of women who indicated an interest
in talking about their identity development, the
presence of diverse voices and identities contributed
to the richness of the data and an understanding
of the complexity of the process. Future
research that explores this process and incorporates
Deaux?s suggestion that with ?shifting
contexts . . . people must continually work at their
identities? (p. 10) will add greater clarity to
understanding multiple identities. As one
participant in the study articulated, the process
of identity development when multiple dimensions
are considered is an ?ongoing journey of
Correspondence concerning this article should be
addressed to Susan R. Jones, The Ohio State
University, 301 Ramseyer Hall, 29 W. Woodruff
Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210; firstname.lastname@example.org.
414 Journal of College Student Development
Jones & McEwen
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