SUMMARY OF CULTURAL IDENTITY THEORY 

To sum up, events and experiences that sever young people from normative ideals and positively sanctioned statuses create feelings of alienation or social isolation within them and earn them undesired statuses and treatment from important others (personal marginalization).  Social marginalization, i.e., an individual’s relative economic, employment, educational, and cultural deprivation compared to those around them, works in a similar fashion to provide a second source of alienation from mainstream society.  These two types of marginalization lead to an extreme discomfort in how individuals feel about who they are (ego identity discomfort).  This discomfort, coupled with a strong sense of not being able to construct a definition of themselves (because external sources are exerting too much control) that will be positively sanctioned (lost control in defining an identity) motivate them to identify with  alternative social groups (identification with a drug subcultural group).  These groups provide opportunities to resolve identity problems.

Economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and popular culture set the stage for the appearance and growth of drug subcultural groups and help define the substance of the identity-based solutions such groups will offer to those who are motivated to participate in them.  Their effects on identification with a drug subcultural group are mediated by social marginalization.  Consequently, identification with a drug subcultural group reduces young people’s ego identity discomfort or helps them, in the short term, to solve their identity problems.  Drugs are sought as the solution because they provide, for the abuser,  material symbolism, affect control, and identity creation.  It is through this process that young people change from non-drug users to drug abusers.


Differences by Race, Gender, and Class.  Scholars today increasingly note the importance of centering basic elements of social organization (race, ethnicity, gender, and social class) in theory and research.  Discussed below are some preliminary observations about how these phenomena might alter the cultural-identity theory.  Researchers studying the leading etiological theories have attempted to evaluate the explanatory power of their models across population sub-groups (i.e., testing for differences between certain groups as an external validity question), but few have considered how the “substance” of the concepts or variables which comprise their models may differ by the same (an internal validity question).  The cultural-identity theory attempts to address both matters. 

Consider, for example, the 14 experiences which currently characterize the “actual” component of personal marginalization.  It may be that Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, males, females, lower and middle class individuals experience them differently.  For instance, Anderson (1998b) recently found that personal marginalization for Black females stemmed largely from the pre-adolescence assumption of adult-like responsibilities, sexual and physical abuse victimization, and birthing a child and/or becoming a substitute parent for younger siblings.  White females’  personal marginalization pertained more to parental loss (divorce or death), repeated geographic moves by the family, and the assumption of various adult responsibilities.  Black males most frequently linked their drug use to the assumption of various adult-like responsibilities, which reportedly marginalized them from typical and more desirable childhood experiences.  For White males,  personal marginalization resulted from heavy adult responsibilities or rigid parental expectations.   Anderson (1998b) also found that Blacks were more likely to experience personal marginalization at school than their White counterparts, which may imply an increased likelihood of ego identity discomfort among Blacks and greater risk for drug abuse.  


Anderson (1998b) also found gender differences in the ego identity discomfort concept.  Ego identity discomfort came from the perceived departure from gender scripts, i.e., not acting masculine or feminine enough, or not doing the things a girl or boy was supposed to do.  Since a fundamental aspect of the socialization process is the acquisition of sex-appropriate social identities, i.e., gender identities, it makes sense that problems in or resistance to this process may be a source of ego identity discomfort that results in later drug use.  The same might also be expected for race/ethnicity and social class.

Regarding the theory’s macro-level concepts, Anderson (1998c) found that the composition of the drug subcultural groups differed between Blacks and Whites.  Blacks described neighborhood and high school-based groups.  These groups secured one an improved social status and reputation.  For many, such groups provided a necessary source of protection from a sometimes “tough” (i.e., aggressive/violent) environment and the people located therein.  Marijuana, cocaine, crack, and alcohol were commonly used drugs by them during early drug use.  Later on, crack cocaine dominated.  The use and sale of such drugs often gave Blacks an impression that they could improve their material well-being in addition to gaining an important source of peer acceptance and a new identity.

Anderson (1998c) found that the drug subcultural groups reported by Whites differed.  They were located at nightclubs, bars, college and high school, and around the neighborhood.  Some of the drug subcultural groups were “other” activity oriented (e.g., college groups or the entertainment industry) and had a very strong interest in drugs.  Whites reported using many different drugs, i.e., alcohol, cocaine (powder), marijuana, heroin, PCP, and LSD.


It’s important to point out possible structural roots of these race-related differences.   Formal social control policies, such as Federal and State Government anti-drug strategies may shape the creation and activity of drug subcultural groups and identification with them.  In addition, economic trends that worsen and perpetuate racial disparities in income can also help define such groups (Anderson 1995; Anderson and Laundra 1995). 

Anderson (1998c) also found that both Whites and Blacks linked drug use and identification with drug-using groups to some sort of socio-economic status-seeking.  Such status-seeking was largely symbolic for Whites.  They reported experiencing increased prestige and social worth by having expensive drugs or associating with publicly-esteemed friends.   For Blacks, it was a different matter.  They  reported that participation in the drug world initially promised to alleviate financial stress and promote material well-being.  Poverty at home and in the neighborhood and a lack of legitimate opportunities helped create a climate conducive to the flourishing of an illicit crack trade. 

These differences by race and gender may, therefore, alter the meaning of each of the theory’s eight concepts and the overall explanatory power of the theory across race and gender population subgroups.  Future theorizing and empirical investigation of the ideas discussed here should explore this diversity.  Furthermore, although no empirical evidence exists to date, differences by social class also likely alter the theory and should, therefore, be given similar attention.