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On Merging Identity Theory and Stress Research

Peggy A. Thoits
Social Psychology Quarterly
Vol. 54, No. 2 (Jun., 1991), pp. 101-112
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2786929
Page Count: 12
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On Merging Identity Theory and Stress Research
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Abstract

In this paper I develop and discuss the concept of "identity-relevant stressors." Identities refer to individuals' conceptions of themselves in terms of the social roles that they enact (e.g., spouse, parent, worker, churchgoer, friend). An identity-relevant experience is one that threatens or, alternatively, enhances an identity that the individual values highly; identity-irrelevant experiences occur in roles that the individual does not value highly. This concept can help solve a problem in the stress literature, namely the inability of stress theory to account parsimoniously for social status differences in psychological distress. I propose that 1) individuals' identity structures (their hierarchical identity rankings) should vary systematically by social status; 2) because of differential resources, lower-status individuals should be exposed to proportionately more identity-threatening stressors and higher-status individuals to more identity-enhancing experience, and 3) variation in exposure to identity-relevant experiences should explain status differences in psychological distress more fully than conventional measures of life events and chronic strains. To illustrate the potential utility of this theoretical approach. I discuss gender and marital status differences in psychological distress as cases in point.

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