Identity Development and Civic Attitudes: A Person-Centered Approach to Understanding Emerging Adults' Experiences in Community Service

Date of Completion

January 2012


Sociology, Individual and Family Studies|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare




Identity development is an important maturational task during emerging adulthood; higher education institutions may be facilitative contexts for these processes. Many colleges strive to promote students' identities as engaged citizens of their communities through service activities. Prior research suggests that these experiences can positively affect outcomes such as civic attitudes, but little research has connected these outcomes with maturational tasks such as identity development. I investigated cross-sectional and longitudinal relationships between identity development and civic attitudes. Data were collected at the beginning and end of three semesters from college students participating in co-curricular service programs. I captured identity development using an extension of the identity status paradigm; civic attitudes included diversity attitudes, civic action, political awareness, and social justice attitudes. ^ The cross-sectional sample consisted of the 1034 students who completed at least one survey. Longitudinal analyses were conducted with the 382 of these students (37%) who completed two or more surveys. Consistent with prior research, a majority of participants were women who identified as White. Participants held highly positive civic attitudes (mean scores above 3.5 on a 5-point scale) with some variability based on background characteristics. Latent profile analyses indicated four profiles of identity development, all of which were characterized by some form of identity exploration or commitment (but not diffusion). I found little evidence for a relationship between identity profile and civic attitudes. ^ Longitudinally, latent profile transition analyses also identified four profiles and showed that 60 percent of the 382 participants changed profile membership. Hours of service did not predict odds of transitioning. Comparing longitudinal and cross-sectional identity analyses, however, showed differences between profiles in terms of membership assignment. Further investigation showed that cross-sectional analyses were influenced by a small group of participants with a distinct response pattern. Variable-centered analyses of civic attitudes produced evidence for change, and structural equation mixture modeling showed that these changes may be moderated by identity profile membership at Time 1. ^ Results suggest implications for the theory and measurement of the identity status model and its relationship with civic attitudes. I also provide cautions and recommendations for using person-centered techniques to study these issues. ^