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Identity | Jacque Eccles

A scholar and leader in research on identity for 40 years, psychologist Jacque Eccles reflects on the various ways in which “identity” can be understood and measured. She provides a variety of vivid examples on how identity or self-concept play into decisions that young people make on whether to engage with STEM or not. Eccles describes her “expectancy value frame of task choice” as a way to link identity to observable action. You can watch this short video or download the full interview transcript below.

"One can imagine oneself being a scientist or being a mathematician or that doing this activity as so much a part of who one thinks one is that it is nested within this thing we would call self-concept or identity."

Jacque Eccles, Distinguished Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine
Jacque Eccles

2017 Interview Highlights:

Tell us about your projects that focus on identity.
I’ve been studying identity for the last 40 years. I haven’t always used that term, but I think that’s the essence of what we’re studying. In each of our studies, we’ve looked longitudinally at how children come to see themselves as being capable of mastering math and science and the extent to which they want to do that. Part of the extent to which they want to master those subjects has to do with how close they think science and math are to whom they think they are or want to be.

How do you define identity?
Identity is very hard to define. I would probably avoid trying to define it in any one particular way. When people talk about science identity, the essence of it is being able to imagine that one is a scientist or a mathematician or feeling that doing this activity is so much a part of who one is that it is nested within this thing we would call self-concept or identity. Now, I think people have many identities and these are all those aspects of their lives that are very central to what a psychologist would call their self-concept, who they think they are.

How do you measure identity in your work?
We measure it very specifically and in many ways. We do ask people the extent to which they identify with science. Because I use children and adolescents, I try to come up with pretty concrete ways to do this. So for example, we might measure their reaction time when we ask them, “Is this like you or not like you?” I might show them someone working with test tubes, and I’ll see the speed with which they respond. The faster you do it, the argument is, the more likely it is that that you identify with it. I would also use a scale to ask, “How often do you think of yourself as a scientist or biologist or an astronomer?” I then would also ask self-concepts like “How good are you at tasks like this? How likely do you think it is that you’ll be able to succeed at hard problems in this area?” I ask about enjoyment. I ask about importance, and I ask some questions about “How much would doing this further the goals you have for yourself?” We’ve developed very good questions, two or three questions of that type that produce very high alpha on scales. Kids are very good at answering those questions all the way down to fourth grade and maybe even younger.

How do you feel about the way we’re advertising STEM to young people?
We do a terrible job in our country, and in most countries, of giving kids any information about what people in various occupations do, and STEM is clearly one of those areas. They see doctors on TV; they see CSI. They have this sense that it’s embedded in drama, in saving lives or in protecting the United States or finding criminals.

There was some work a while ago about who were the best science teachers to stimulate kids, and they tended to be people who had been scientists and then went back to teaching. I think if we had better science teachers, we’d have a lot more people thinking about science as a career. They might not pick it, but at least they’d be ruling it out for the right reasons, not because they don’t know anything about it. I don’t think this pertains just to STEM, it’s everything.

How are interest and motivation and attitudes connected to identity?
To me, identity has to do with how central these beliefs are about the self or how central these attitudes are to one’s own identity. I make a distinction between social identities and personal identities. Social identities are those identities that make you part of a group and make you belong. In order to belong and be welcomed into that group, you have to be what you think those other people want you to be.

Personal identities, on the other side, are the things that make you stand out. They’re the things that are unique to you, that you’re going to put time into and you’re going to perfect because that’s the way you want to be.

And the same identity can fit into either of those categories. I could become a scientist because I want to fit in with scientists, or I could want to be a scientist because I love doing science.

What kinds of measures do you use?
I have measures of ability and self-concepts across a whole variety of areas: math, the various sciences, English, athletics, a lot of skill-based areas. We also have measures of expectations for success, immediate success, future success, and success in occupations or in college. We ask “How would you do in a career?” For younger kids, you can use pictorial aids; they can understand the concepts of a little to a lot if you use bars or smiley faces. And we find that all of those things are pretty easy to measure.

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