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Peter J. Burke, University of California, Riverside, Department of Sociology


Identity theory (IT) focuses on the nature of identities (defining who people are) and the relationship between a person’s identities, their behavior, and their emotions or feelings. Central is the idea that behavior is premised on a named and classified world and that people in society name each other and themselves in terms of the positions they occupy in society, in organizations, and groups. These self-labels represent one’s identities and thus define persons in terms of their positions in society. These positions, conventionally labeled roles and groups, are relational in the sense that they tie individuals together. For example, with respect to roles, professor is tied to student; with respect to groups, the in-group is related to the out-group and in-group members are related to other in-group members. Thus, through their identities, people are intimately tied to the social structure,.


Central to IT is the concept of meaning around which identities are formed. What does it mean to be “father,” or “son?” What does it mean to be an “American?” An identity is defined in terms of the set of meanings applied to the self in a social role or as a member of a social group that define who one is (Burke & Tully, 1977). Identity theory takes the definition of meaning from the work of Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum (1957), which in somewhat simplified terms is a response that a person has to a stimulus; meaning is a response. From Mead, a symbol is a stimulus to which people share a common response. Thinking about myself as a professor (the stimulus) calls up in me a set of responses (set of meanings) similar to those called up in others. These responses define for a person what it means to be a professor, e.g., being knowledgeable, being supportive of students, or doing and publishing research. These common responses lead to common expectations and understandings about what a professor is and what a professor does, as well as shared understandings about the relation of professor to student and the position of professor in a university.

Identity theory distinguishes between two types of meanings that are controlled: symbolic meanings and sign meanings (Lindesmith & Strauss, 1956). Symbolic meanings are responses to arbitrary stimuli that are shared with others. These stimuli are symbols. The meaning of the symbol “pen” is understood and shared by persons in the same culture. When one person talks about a “pen,” others understand. Signs, however, are stimuli whose meanings are not necessarily shared with others, but which help us manipulate resources in the situation (Freese & Burke, 1994). Using a pen to take notes, a person feels how the pen fits into her hand and how it flows along the surface of a sheet of paper and how it makes marks with ink that are controlled to form writing. The responses that she has to the pen in its use are sign meanings. Sign meanings allow us to control resources present in the situation.

Control of Perceptions

Each identity is viewed as a control system with four components (Burke, 1991). The set of meanings for a given identity is held in what identity theory terms the identity standard -- one of the components of an identity. In addition to the identity standard containing the self-defining meanings, an identity containsperceptions of meanings in the situation that are relevant to one’s identity (which perceptions come both from the feedback from others about how we are coming across in the situation and from direct appraisals one makes of onself), a comparator that functions to compare the perceived meanings with the meanings in the identity standard, and an output function of the comparison, sometimes called an error or discrepancy that represents the difference between the meanings in one’s perceptions and the meanings in one’s identity standard. Finally, as a function of the error or discrepancy, there is meaningful behavior enacted in the situation that alters meanings in the situation. By changing their behavior, people change meanings in the situation. These altered meanings are perceived and again compared to the meanings in the identity standard. Thus, each identity is a control system that acts to control perceptions (of meanings relevant to their identity) by using any of a variety of behaviors to bring perceptions into congruency with the meanings in their identity standards.

This process of controlling perceptions of identity-relevant meanings to make them congruent with the meanings in the identity standard is the process of identity verification. If the identity is a role identity, then the behavior that brings about the changes in the situational meanings to make them consistent with the identity standard is appropriate role behavior that relates to other roles in the group. If the identity is a group or category based identity, the behavior which verifies the identity is the behavior that makes one like others in the group, that maintains group boundaries and divisions in the social structure.


Resources within identity theory are processes that sustain persons, groups, or interaction (Freese & Burke, 1994). Resources are of two types: actual andpotential (Freese & Burke, 1994). Actual resources are resources in the situation that are in use in the sense of currently sustaining persons, groups, and interaction (e.g., the pen that is writing, the chair that is supporting an individual, the idea that solves a problem). Potential resources are resources that are not being used, but have the potential for use at a future time (e.g., the pen or chair that is not in use, food in the pantry, oil in the pipeline). Sign meanings allow us to control actual resources. Symbolic meanings allow us to control potential resources through thinking, planning, and action. When an identity controls meanings relevant to the identity in the situation, it controls both sign and symbolic meanings, and through them it controls actual and potential resources.

The Bases of Identity

IT distinguishes between three bases of identities. These are role identities, what it means to be in a role such as father, social identities, what it means to be in a group or category such as American, and person identities, or what it means to be the unique biological being that one is. Identities formed on each of the different bases operate in the same way, wherein people seek to verify the identity or make the relevant situational meanings (both signs and symbols) match the meanings held in the identity standard by counteracting any disturbances. Analytically, each of these bases differs in the resources that are controlled through the control of meanings. For a role identity, control of meanings results in control of resources that sustain the role and the group within which it operates. For a social identity, control is of the resources that help sustain the group and maintain its boundaries. For a person identity, control is of the resources that sustain the individual as a unique biological being. Analytically, these differences are clear, although in practice and empirically it is often difficult to know which resources go with which since we are often all of these at once: a biological being who is a group member in a role.

Identity Hierarchy

People have many identities, one for each of the many roles they have and the groups and categories to which they belong. In IT, the multiple identities are arranged into a hierarchy of control systems in which some identities are higher than others in the sense that the outputs of those identities at the higher level are the standards of those identities at a lower level (Tsushima & Burke, 1999). Higher-level identities have their own perceptions, standard, and comparator just as the lower-level identities.

While the output of the comparator of the lower-level identities leads to behavior that maintains (when there is no discrepancy) or alters (when there is a discrepancy) meanings in the situation, the output of the comparator of the higher-level identities acts to alter the standards (identity meanings) for lower level identities. In this way, higher-level identities act as general principles that guide the programs of lower-level identities. Higher level identities include such master statuses as one’s gender, race, or class, and many person identities, the control systems of which are used across situations, roles, and groups. One may, for example, not be just a friend but a female friend; one may be not just an American, but a black American; one may be not just a professor, but a diligent professor. In each case, the master status of gender or race, or the person identity as diligent act to change the manner in which friend, American, or professor are played out.

Identity Change

The most obvious outcome of a discrepancy between the perceived identity-relevant meanings and the meanings held in the identity standard is behavior that counteracts any disturbance to the perceived meanings and quickly brings them back into alignment with the identity standard. At the same time, however, IT recognizes the less obvious outcome that identities change: i.e., the identity standard slowly changes in the direction of the situational meanings. Both outcomes occur simultaneously, but at much different speeds. If the disturbed situational meanings are restored quickly, any change to the identity standard may not be noticed. If the discrepancy persists, however, because the person cannot change the situational meanings for one reason or another, the slowly changing identity standard will continue to move toward agreement with the situational meanings and the person will come to see themselves as consistent with the situational meanings. The discrepancy has been removed not by changing the situational meanings to be in agreement with the identity standard, but by changing the identity standard to be in agreement with the situational meanings, but this generally takes a long time and most people would leave the situation rather than endure such changes to who they are.

Nevertheless, persons who have a lack of power or status and are unable to change their perceptions find their identity standards slowly change to match the perceptions. This result was shown in research that examined identity verification among status unequals (Cast, Stets, & Burke, 1999). The identities of persons with less power or status came to be more in alignment with the perceptions of meanings provided by more powerful others. The reverse was not true. Of course, children have very little power and their identity standards are strongly set by their parents who have the power.


In IT, the verification process of identities is tied to emotional outcomes that help guide the process (Burke, 1991). When the discrepancy between identity relevant perceptions and the identity standard is small or decreasing, people feel good. When the discrepancy is large or increasing, people feel bad or distressed. These consequences have been shown in research by Burke and Harrod (2005) who found that persons become distressed, angry, and depressed when their spouse’s view of them is different (better or worse) than their self-view or identity standard. Current work in IT examines the role of identity verification in the production of self-worth, self-efficacy and feelings of authenticity (Cast & Burke, 2002) and is developing predictions about the specific emotions that may be felt when identities are verified or not verified (Stets & Burke, 2005).


Burke, P. J. (1991). Identity processes and social stress. American Sociological Review, 56(6), 836-849.

Burke, P. J., & Harrod, M. M. (2005). Too Much of a Good Thing? Social Psychology Quarterly, 68, 359-374.

Burke, P. J., & Tully, J. C. (1977). The measurement of role identity. Social Forces, 55(4), 881-897.

Cast, A. D., & Burke, P. J. (2002). A theory of self-esteem. Social Forces, 80(3), 1041-1068.

Cast, A. D., Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (1999). Does the self conform to the views of others? Social Psychology Quarterly, 62(1), 68-82.

Freese, L., & Burke, P. J. (1994). Persons, Identities, and Social Interaction. Advances in Group Processes, 11, 1-24.

Lindesmith, A. R., & Strauss, A. L. (1956). Social Psychology. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

Osgood, C. E., Suci, G. J., & Tannenbaum, P. H. (1957). The Measurement of Meaning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2005). New directions in identity control theory. Advances in Group Processes, 22, 43-64.

Tsushima, T., & Burke, P. J. (1999). Levels, agency, and control in the parent identity. Social Psychology Quarterly, 62(2), 173-189.

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