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Social Identity Theory, Self-Categorization Theory, and The Transracial Adoption Paradox Shawyn C. Lee Ph.D.

Student University of Minnesota School of Social Work

Over the past handful of years I have been exploring my own identity as a Korean adoptee. For years, without even thinking about it, I figured I was a white kid like everyone else around me in my family, in my schools, in my churches, and in my neighborhoods. It hasnt been until well into my adulthood that I began to start understanding what being a Korean adoptee has meant in my life. Through a variety of personal journeys and events, and even more currently now, as a Ph.D. student interested in doing research on international adoption from South Korea, I have thought much about identity development and some of the common trajectories of adoptee experiences in terms of identity. Relying on my own personal journeys, as well as the stories I have been told by other Korean adoptees, I became interested in how the adoptee identity impacts the overall psychosocial functioning as adoptees move through various life stages. In particular, I am interested in social groups that we belong to, and how, or if, those groups change over time in their composition of various identities. Research continues to emerge pertaining to the racial, ethnic, and cultural identity development of internationally adopted individuals from South Korea. This invaluable information has shed new light into understandings of the crucial importance of social culturalization practices by adoptive parents in helping to shape and influence an adoptees sense of self. While most research is psychologically based and identifies effects on developmental processes, attachment, and adjustment, so far very little has been fully grounded in a social psychological theoretical foundation. Social Identity Theory (SIT; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and Self-Categorization Theory (SCT; Turner et al., 1987) provide conceptual frameworks for understanding the interplay of self-identity and social group membership. Pairing these theories with the transracial adoption paradox (Lee, 2003), which suggests that adoptees are racial/ethnic minorities in society, but they are perceived and treated by others, and sometimes themselves, as if they are members of the majority culture (i.e., racially White and ethnically European) due to adoption into a White family (pp. 711), will provide a new direction of insight into how concepts of self, in terms of ethnic identity, impact an adoptees own self-identity, and thus, social group membership. A review of the literature pertaining to ethnic identity development and cultural socialization illustrates the factors necessary for Korean adoptees to form a strong sense of their own unique and diverse identities, and how identity development influences psychosocial adjustment and well-being. Particular to Korean adoptees adopted into White homes, as transracial adoptees, they must be deliberately exposed to ethnic and racial groups other than the dominant one if they are to experience cultural socialization (Lee, Grotevant, Hellerstedt, Gunnar, & The Minnesota International Adoption Project Team, 2006). In my own upbringing, my sister (also a Korean adoptee) and I were the only people of color in our family, two of just a handful of kids of color in our schools and neighborhoods, and the only two kids of color in our churches. All of our friends have primarily been white, and both of us have dated only white people. Similarly, some

of my adoptee friends report similar upbringings in terms of demographics, as well as past and current relationships. Cultural Socialization. Cultural socialization refers to the ways in which parents negotiate racial, ethnic, and cultural experiences within the family and seek to promote or hinder racial and ethnic identity development in the child (Lee et al., 2006). This is certainly true for Korean-born adoptees in that it is related to adoption identity exploration and development (Huh & Reid, 2000). Yoon (2004) found that a more positive parent-child relationship and greater collective self-esteem acquired through parental support of ethnic socialization predict greater subjective well-being of adopted children. Basow, Lilley, Bookwala, & McGillicuddy-DeLisi (2008) found that both ethnic identity and adjustment to adoption predicted psychological well-being. Additionally, the researchers found that cultural socialization experiences were related to personal growth (one of the measures of psychological well-being), but the association was mediated by the strength of ethnic identity. Johnston et al. (2007) found that the more association that adoptive mothers had with Asian Americans as a group, the more likely they were to emphasize cultural socialization to their adopted children. Of the adoptees I know, myself included, most have not had much, if any, by way of Korean culture integrated into their home lives as children. It has only been in adulthood that a few of us have been able to, or been interested in, exploring our Korean identities. Social Identity Theory & Self-Categorization Theory. A review of the literature pertaining to Social Identity Theory and Self-Categorization Theory discuss the importance of the two theories related to identity development and conceptualization, as well as functioning within in-groups. Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1981) posits that individuals strive to create a positive, well-adjusted self-concept by means of a positive social identity. Self-Categorization Theory (Turner et al., 1987) postulates that the self can be categorized into different levels depending on context, which determines which level is most salient at any particular moment (Yzerbyt & Demoulin, 2010). According to Basow, Lilley, Bookwala, & McGillicuddy-Delisi (2008), if a minority social group is considered inferior by the dominant group, feelings of embarrassment or shame could be incorporated into the individuals social identity. This may result in the development of a negative self-image (Bhugra et al., 1999; Phinney, Ferguson, & Tate, 1997; Tajfel, 1981). A strong ethnic identity is important for minority group members to develop positive self-esteem (Phinney & Chavira, 1992). Grotevant (1992) suggests that in order to achieve an integrated self-concept, an individual must explore all aspects and components of their identity and the different groups to which they belong. Development of a positive ethnic identity is an important developmental task that begins in early childhood, becomes salient during adolescence and young adulthood, and is continually negotiated and sustained throughout ones lifespan (Grotevant, 1997 as cited in Song & Lee, 2009). Ethnic Identity. Ethnic identity refers to the part of an individuals self-concept. The self-concept is comprised of identification with ones ethnic group, a sense of belonging to ones ethnic group, and positive feelings and attitudes about ones ethnic group (Phinney, 1992; Lee & Yoo, 2004). Ethnic identity for Korean adoptees can be best understood as an active developmental process whereby adoptees seek to define themselves relative to their Korean heritage and their adoptive culture (Bergquist, 2004). Understanding ethnic identity in my own life is very much a process that is still unraveling itself. In 2010 I traveled back to Korea for the first time in 32 years since

being adopted. I remember vividly having this feeling that my body knew it was home even though my mind was still processing and trying to wrap itself around what it all meant to be in my birth country. Upon my return home, it took many months initially to readjust to a life I had been familiar with all my life. It took 2 weeks in Korea to flip that completely upside down. Now, almost two and a half years since that trip, while the extreme saliency has worn off, I am still trying to figure out my ethnic identity. The majority of research that considers ethnic identity in Korean adoptees indicates that adoptees are culturally non-Korean, meaning that their affiliative behaviors are predominantly reflective of their White middle class upbringing (Bergquist, 2000; Kim, 1978; Meier, 1999). Many Korean adoptees tend not to practice Korean cultural traditions, do not speak Korean, and most cultural activities occur outside of the home while attending adoption community functions or events. Similarly, the majority of their friends and acquaintances are White, and most adoptees do not live in highly racially and ethnically integrated communities. Along these lines, several studies (Fiegelman, 2000; Huh & Reid, 2001; Yoon, 2004) reveal that mere exposure to diverse ethnic groups, regardless of whether or not they match the race and ethnicity of the adoptee, is beneficial in contributing to ethnic identity formation of adoptees because interactions with diverse communities plays a crucial role in developing nonwhite or minority group identity. Feigelman (2000) found that adoptees living in communities that included Whites and nonwhites experienced less discomfort with their appearance than transracial adoptees living in predominantly White communities. The transracial adoption paradox is an interesting representation of the complex and confusing processes that exist as a continuous backdrop throughout a persons different psychosocial developmental stages. As a transracial adoptee, one must negotiate the inherent contradiction between their privileges associated with living in a White household and their treatment in society as a racial minority (Lee, 2003b). Additionally, transracial adoptees experience the loss of their birth culture and the subsequent assimilation into a White dominant culture (Lee, 2006). These complex transracial and transnational challenges, as well as the immutable physical differences and the lack of shared ethnic heritage between White adoptive parents and their adopted children, can complicate ethnic identity development (Song & Lee, 2009). Song & Lee (2009) sought to investigate the past and present accounts of cultural experiences across four developmental periods (childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood) as reported by adopted Korean American adults. Findings suggest that exposure and engagement in specific types of cultural activities during certain developmental periods are related to ethnic identity specifically, living in diverse communities, developing an awareness of what it means to be a racial and ethnic minority and an adopted individual, and visiting Korea and searching for ones birth/foster families were positively correlated with ethnic identity. Because this article fuses together ethnic identity development in Korean adoptees and the theoretical underpinnings of SIT and SCT in terms of group membership, this section will discuss the theories from a group-based perspective, and integrate these theoretical approaches with notions of self-identity and group membership for the specified population. Research stemming from SCT has demonstrated that individuals are typically more influenced and persuaded by messages from their in-group than by messages from the out-group (Wyer, 2010). Smith and Henry (1996) suggest that

information about our in-groups can become a part of our own self-concepts. They argue that characteristics of the in-group are actually stored as part of ones representation of the self. According to SCT, the perception that one is interchangeable with other group members occurs through a process of depersonalization. Depersonalization involves the perception of similarity between oneself and the in-group (Wyer, 2010). Research within the social identity and self-categorization traditions has established that factors such as in-group identification (McGarty, Haslam, Hutchison & Turner, 1994; Terry & Hogg, 1996), salience of in-group/out-group distinctions (Oakes, 1987), majority versus minority status (Martin, 1988), and uncertainty (Hogg, 2000) influence the likelihood that ones attitudes, judgments, and behavior are driven by social (rather than personal) identities. In testing the role of categorization meaningfulness in the in-group persuasion effect, Wyer (2010), found that participants expressed attitudes that were consistent with those advocated by their in-groups, but not their out-groups, when there was a fit between the group and the issue being addressed. Furthermore, when self-categorization is meaningful depersonalization is likely to occur. I remember a couple of times during high school when I would be with my friends and I would ask them if they realized I didnt look anything like them. Many of their replies were things like, Oh no, youre just like one of us. Or Not at all, were all the same. And in high school, where the last thing most kids wanted as to stick out, I was grateful for their inclusion of me as one of their own. It has only been recently that I realize the messages of invisibility that were offered in those reassuring responses to my insecurity-driven question. In terms of in-group dynamics, especially in terms of competition, Schmitt, Branscombe, Silvia, Garcia, & Spears (2006) conducted two experiments examining how people respond to upward social comparisons in terms of the extent to which they categorize the self and the source of the comparison within the same social group. From a SIT perspective, upward in-group comparisons can lead to acceptance of shared categorization because a high-performing in-group member enhances the in-group identity. Group identification, or an individuals emotional attachment to the in-group (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), is an indicator of the extent to which a person accepts a grouplevel categorization. Findings from the Schmitt et al. (2006) study confirmed the prediction by Mussweiler et al. (2000) that individuals threatened by an outperforming other would decrease closeness with the other person by de-emphasizing shared social category memberships. Social Identity Theory suggests that the consequences of an individual in-group members performance for ones personal identity are less important than the implications of the in-group members performance for the in-group identity as a whole. Upward in-group comparison can lead people to embrace rather than reject shared category memberships with an outperforming comparison target (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). The results of this study are also consistent with SCT and the assumption that the self can be defined at different levels of inclusiveness. Motivational pressures toward a positive identity operate differently depending on what level of identity is activated by the context (Turner et al., 1987). In this particular study, SCT can account for the differing effects across the experimental conditions because it assumes that the comparative context alters the means of self and thus shapes the meaning of the social comparisons (Schmitt et al., 2006).

As Bergquist (2000) asserts, most Korean adoptees belong to peer groups that are predominantly homogenous in racial and cultural composition that is, most friends and acquaintances are White. As discussed earlier in this article, the importance of cultural socialization by the adoptive parents has been shown to be effective and beneficial for the exploration and development of ethnic identities in Korean adoptees. Because of where an adoptee lived, and sometimes because adoptive parents were not intentional about cultural socialization practices, consequently, some adoptees have never had any contact with members of their own racial group and/or no exposure to an Asian ethnic culture of any type (Huh & Reid, 2000; Johnston, Swim, Saltsman, Deater-Deckard, & Petrill, 2007; Mohanty, Keoske, & Sales, 2006; Westhues & Cohen, 1998). Pertaining to ingroup identification, uncertainty reduction (an epistemic motive that reflects a need for meaning, knowledge, and understanding of self and the social world) (Hogg, 2000) and self-enhancement (a motive to maintain or increase the positivity, or decrease the negativity, of the self) (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) are critical components in understanding how Korean adoptees may identify themselves in terms of identities and which ones they may desire to hold salient. Reid and Hogg (2005) found that people identify more with a group under uncertainty if they are prototypical of the group good self-group fit increases the ability of the group to reduce uncertainty because the groups prototype is more self-relevant, and good self-group fit probably enhances perceived group entitativity (p. 816). Given the subject matter of this article, Reid and Hoggs study begs the questions: to what extent does uncertainty reduction and self-enhancement affect Korean adoptees sense of self, and thus the types of peer groups they seek out and feel they belong to? Which identities are seen as positive and which are seen as negative? Is being Asian, Korean, Asian-American, or Korean American salient enough to be considered a strong identity of the self? Or, is being American or White salient enough to be considered a strong identity of the self? Which identities are reinforced, and why? In applying SIT and SCT to the transracial adoption paradox in terms of ethnic identity and group membership, it is hypothesized for the purpose of future research, that SIT and SCT will be the theoretical bases for reinforcing the maintenance of dominant cultural identities to the detriment of the exploration and formulation of ethnic identities in a Korean adoptee sample across three developmental stages (childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood). The conscious attention paid to dominant cultural identities, and the stifling of ethnic identities, will negatively impact an adoptees sense of self, thus influencing group membership that may reinforce negative concepts of self in terms of an ethnically diverse individual. References Basow, S. A., Lilley, E., Bookwala, J., & McGillicuddy-DeLisi. (2008). Identity development and psychological well-being in Korean-born adoptees in the U.S. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78, 473-480. Bergquist, K. J. S. (2000). Racial identity and ethnic identity in Korean adoptees. Unpublished Masters thesis. Norfolk State University: Norfolk, VA. Bergquist, K. L. (2004). Exploring the impact of birth country travel on Korean adoptees. Journal of Family Social Work, 7(4), 45-61.

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