Reflections on the Relationships Between Identity and Agency

Justin Koppelman, Associate Director of Student Engagement, Chapman University

December 22, 2017

The notion of civic identity has been described as an aspect of self that “leads one to take public action” (Hatcher, 2011, p. 85) and is founded upon “responsibility for society and political-moral awareness” (Youniss, McLellan, & Yates, 1997, p. 620).  Such an approach is suggestive of other definitions of identity proposed through a developmental lens.  For example, in Finding herself: Pathways to identity development in women, Josselson (1987) defined identity as “the interface between the individual and the world, defining as it does what the individual will stand for and be recognized as” (p. 8).  If civic identity is to serve that interface between the private and the public, and therefore be considered a major aspect of one’s identity. Knefelkamp (2008) argues that it must develop over time through engagement with others, be connected to intellectual and moral development, challenge one to identify with others who are different, and be deliberately chosen and repeatedly enacted.  The development of a civic identity is, then, an active and relational process.

As Haste (2004) notes, “the individual actively constructs - and co-constructs with others - explanations and stories that make sense of experience to develop an identity [located] in a social, cultural, and historical context” (p. 420).  The contextual and dialectical nature of identity development suggests that it is not only an active and relational process, but also one that is both ongoing and iterative.  It is a process of becoming, rather than an objectively finite state of resolution, located in a space between where one finds oneself and where one wants to be.  Such an identity is inextricably linked to, and reciprocally molded by, the public action it inspires one to take. 

As Youniss, McLellan, and Yates demonstrate, meaningful engagement contributes to an internalized sense of civic agency and, in turn, civic responsibility.  Haste argues that very agency requires “identification with the project; it must be an element of selfhood. It requires a sense…that action is possible and potentially effective and that the individual can personally take such action, alone or with others” (p. 430).  Moreover, such agency is informed by knowledge that has become “salient to the individual through the experience of participation in relevant action...and through incorporating narratives about values, selfhood, and national identity into one’s self-definition” (Haste, 2004, p. 433).  One’s civic identity and civic agency emerge as central to one another.

In the field of psychology, two paradigms have been used to describe agency: internalism and externalism (Sugarman & Sokol, 2012).  Internalism locates the source of agency in the individual, noting that it is within the structures and processes of the individual "by which agency is generated, expressed, and experienced" (Sugarman & Sokol, 2012, p. 1).  Externalism, on the other hand, creates space for the "developmental, contextual, and social-relational" (Sugarman & Sokol, 2012, p. 1) aspects of agency.  A third approach to agency is rooted specifically in cognitive social theory - classifying agency as interactive and emergent, Bandura (1991) transcends dualistic positions to suggest it is derived from both mental models and generative action.  One might conceptualize agency as itself an interactive process of personal reflection and social relationships that is informed by the past, engaged in the present, and moving towards the future.

The assumptions of agency, as it is reflected in the CLDE Emergent Theory of Change, are very clearly influenced by an interactive understanding of the concept.  Explained within this framework, civic agency encompasses “individuals’ self-conception as active agents shaping their world” (Hoffman, Domagal-Goldman, King, & Robinson, 2017).  Considering the development of both agency and identity to be ongoing and iterative, opportunities for identity development can also be considered important opportunities for developing civic agents, and vice versa.  Perhaps we can look to the growing number of theories pertaining to identity development as familiar windows through which we could view and better illuminate the development of civic agency. 

What do you think about the links between civic identity and agency?  Are there connections to be made, or lessons to be learned, from the identity development theories that already inform student affairs work? 


  • Bandura, A. (1991). Human agency: The rhetoric and the reality. American Psychologist, 46157-162.
  • Haste, H. (2004). Constructing the citizen. Political Psychology, 25(3), 413-439.
  • Hatcher, J. A. (2011). Assessing civic knowledge and engagement. New Directions for Institutional Research, 149, 81-92. doi:10.1002/ir.38
  • Hoffman, D., Domagal-Goldman, J., King, S., & Robinson, V. (2017, December 7). Civics unbound: Knowledge, skills, and dispositions for a thriving democracy. Retrieved from
  • Josselson, R. (1987). Finding herself. Pathways to Identity Development in Women. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Knefelkamp, L. (2008). Civic identity: Locating self in community. Diversity & Democracy, 11(2). Retrieved from
  • Sugarman, J., & Sokol, B. (2012). Human agency and development: An introduction and theoretical sketch. New Ideas in Psychology, 30, 1–14.
  • Youniss, J., McLellan, J. A., & Yates, M. (1997). What we know about engendering civic identity.   American Behavioral Scientist, 40(5), 620-631. doi:10.1177/000276429704000500

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