EPSY 430, section 4
April 10, 2008
Case Study Analysis: Identity Development in Joan and Ann
Adolescence could be considered by some to be the most chaotic and tumultuous stage of
the human life cycle. Change is occurring in every aspect of adolescents’ lives: biologically,
socially, cognitively, and emotionally. With these various changes comes the need to shape one’s
identity, to become someone with distinctive and distinguishable characteristics. Working with
the definition of identity as “a fairly stable sense of who you are that seems to be shared by
significant people in your life and is expressed in various roles” (Ryan), I will examine two
adolescents, Joan Garcia and Ann Smith from Patricia Hersch’s case studies in A Tribe Apart,
and the ways in which their identities are created, supported, and fostered through their
environments and their social networks. Although Joan and Ann share similar influences in their
lives, expressed through their shared interest in the school newspaper and their turbulent home
lives, their identities are uniquely shaped by their personal experiences and coping strategies.
Joan and Ann know each other from working on the school newspaper together.
Although they are not necessarily friends, they work well together to meet their deadlines, and
they both have a passion for the newspaper. Ann’s passion comes from within: “it is something I
feel really strongly about: reporting what happens. People have a right to know what’s going on.
I want to be a part of that’” (Hersch 112). Ann’s enthusiasm for the newspaper represents the
psychological aspect of identity development, having a “stable sense of who you are” (Ryan), as
Ann knows what she is deeply interested in and she pursues it actively. The same is true for Joan,
though her passion for the paper has more to do with feeling a sense of place and belonging
within her school and being able to express her thoughts and opinions publicly (Hersch 112). As
both of these girls develop their interest in the school newspaper, they are also developing a part
of their adolescent identities by taking control and exploring their interests. As members of a
collaborative newspaper team, they (as well as the rest of the newspaper staff, and especially Mr.
Ward, their journalism teacher) nurture each other by providing support to develop this interest,
since they are sharing this experience. They both understand the pressures and thrills of working
on the newspaper and are able to both commiserate and celebrate their pitfalls and triumphs
Another key similarity between Joan and Ann is represented in their home environments.
Because they both have younger siblings and they both have caregiver relationships with their
siblings (Arnett, “Family” 190), Joan and Ann often have adult responsibilities such as knowing
where their siblings are and that they’re safe as well as household chores such as cooking and
cleaning. This affects their identity development because it forces them to “grow up” at a much
quicker pace, imposing more changes than are usual for adolescent development, which is
already a stressful enough time as it is. When it comes to their parents, Joan and Ann both have
authoritarian parents who have exceedingly demanding expectations of their daughters, showing
little support or affection (Arnett, “Family” 194). Ann is luckier, however, as she has a second
family consisting of her father and stepmother, though they live far away, who actually do
support and care for her. Even though the two girls hold these characteristics in common, Joan
and Ann develop unique identities, owing to their personal experiences as individuals.
Joan lives with her father and younger brother, moving to Reston after her mother
abandoned the family when Joan was only ten years old (Hersch 210). From this point, “Joan
was expected to become the woman of the house, to clean, cook, and take care of her little
brother” (Hersch 210). Her father kept her isolated in the house, not allowing her to go out with
friends, and busied her with household chores that were meant for women (Hersch 210). Her
father not only expected Joan to come home after school to take care of her brother and the other
household duties, but he also did not offer her any encouragement or affection. As a key player
in her identity formation, Joan’s father took a backseat in supporting his daughter and instead
relied on her to support the family in various ways. Because her mother was also absent, Joan
had no adult family member to go to with her stresses and problems. Therefore, as Joan was
negotiating the multiple and complex aspects of her emerging identity, she only had herself as a
support system, which is certainly not enough considering the amount of change she was going
Joan’s early adolescence was spent in isolation when she most longed for friends. In fact,
“friends become increasingly important people during adolescence—the source of adolescents'
happiest experiences, the people with whom they feel most comfortable, the ones they feel they
can talk to most openly” (Arnett, “Friends” 225), but Joan was not able to develop this type of
intimate relationship. Her peer influences on her identity consisted of acquaintances she had at
school, people she could not open up to and people who she felt separate from. By not having
this normally positive adolescent experience, Joan missed out on having that support from close
friends in forming and fostering her identity. Because she relied on herself, Joan had to learn
how to cope with her situation.
Over time she came up with a solution. The problem, as she saw it, was that she
had taken whatever life dished out. No more. She decided she was going to fight
back. When she was twelve, she moved to Reston with her father and brother. ‘It
was an opportunity for me to make a whole new person of myself.’ (Hersch
Her solution, however, was not the most productive nor the most well-adjusted response to her
situation in life. She lashed out her anger at people, bullying kids at school, and starting fights.
She put on a “tough girl” attitude and no one dared mess with her. For a time, Joan tried on the
identity of this hard, carefree, violent girl, which represents the behavioral aspect of identity, that
which is “expressed in various roles” (Ryan). But after an incident with a boy at school where
she pushed the limits of how much she could hurt people, Joan had a change of heart and decided
to cast this bad attitude aside and begin exploring who she really is because “if adolescence is
about trying on different identities, maybe it was time for her to be someone else” (Hersch 212).
During this time, Joan enlisted the support of an old friend from middle school, who “became a
lifeline” and “got her through her transition” (Hersch 213-4). Joan finally had someone in her
life who would care for, support, and nurture her in her pursuit of figuring out her true identity.
What, then, was the outcome of this early adolescent’s identity searching process?
In the last months of her freshman year, the real Joan began to emerge. She
started dressing in long skirts and Indian tops. She changed her hairstyle […] She
stayed true to herself, communicating in kinder ways, smiling more, doing things
for people, and pretty soon she developed a new set of closer, more gentle friends.
It seems as though Joan has successfully navigated her identity voyage and become the person
she wants to be. I will note briefly, however, that Joan’s journey does not in fact end here and
instead takes her through a whole new set of rollercoaster rides, with a bout of depression and
attempted suicide, common to teenage girls in her circumstances (Steinberg 464). For the sake of
this analysis’ purpose, though, I will move on to Ann’s identity process.
Ann’s home life is just as stressful as Joan’s. Instead of an absentee mother, Ann has a
control-freak of a mom. Her parents are divorced (and both remarried), but her father lives in
Florida, so Ann doesn’t get to see him as often as she would like. Her mother, like Joan’s father,
has high expectations of Ann, not allowing her to be on the cross country team because her
grades weren’t good enough (Hersch 313). Ann also has to constantly worry about her younger
sister Courtney, also in high school, because her mom expects her to know her whereabouts at all
times. She has never received any encouragement from her mother and is either being neglected
or put down. She is not given any freedom but is supposed to assume adult responsibilities. In
regard to Ann’s identity development, “in the optimal situation, parents will reinforce and
stimulate this process of growing autonomy, self-determination, and independence” (Eccles et al.
97)—it is clear, however, that Ann does not live in this ideal environment. Her home
environment is best described in this passage:
Theirs is a home where everybody lives together separately, the lines of
demarcation drawn by the parents. They generally eat individually […] The house
is staked out into territories for the children and the adults […] There is no place
they feel at home except their bedrooms, and even there their mom feels free to
intrude and snoop at will. (Hersch 201-2)
Suffice to say, Ann’s family, the people who she lives with, is not supporting Ann’s identity
development in any positive way, if only to provide an example of who not to be.
This is puzzling, though, because Ann actually has a very strong personality and seems to
know exactly who she is and who she wants to be. She has firm opinions and wonderful
nurturing qualities that her mother certainly doesn’t have—where did they come from? Ann
“thinks she learned to be loving and nurturing from her grandparents” (Hersch 203), and she also
has a great relationship with her dad. She has a steady boyfriend, Ron, of two years, who has
been a source of conflict with her mom because of his race, but mostly has had a positive impact
on her life because he is someone she can talk to and be intimate with (Hersch 195). Because
Ann does not like to be at home, she spends much of her time babysitting and has developed
good relationships with the parents of the children she sits for, who offer her encouragement and
kind words (Hersch 322). Ann also has several good girlfriends, most notably Linda, “who’s
been with her through thick and thin,” consoling her when her home life was unbearable and
offering solace to her worries (Hersch 322). With all of these supportive influences in Ann’s life,
it is no surprise that she has developed a clear sense of who she is: nurturing, dependable, strong-
willed, caring, and outspoken. Looking at the behavioral aspect of Ann’s identity, that which is
“expressed in various roles” (Ryan), we can see these traits evidenced in her diligence and love
for babysitting, her willingness to help her friends in any situation such as scheduling an abortion
(Hersch 196-200), and her work on the school newspaper.
After reviewing the psychological and behavioral aspects of these two girls’ identities, it
is time to look at the social aspect, that which is “shared by people in your life” (Ryan). Because
the girls know each other and are a part of each other’s lives, I thought to demonstrate this
concept by showing what each girl thinks of the other. When Ann describes Joan, she says that
a very nice person, and great listener. She is extremely sweet and nonjudgmental.
That is why everybody finds it easy to get along with her, although, she is a little
environmental and that bothers people after awhile, but that is just one of her
quirks like we all have. (Hersch 105-6)
Joan comments that Ann “didn’t take bullshit from people and told it like it is,” which is close to
how Ann thinks others see her (Hersch 106). Although these are only small bits of the girls’
identities, they seem to be stable enough that they are being conveyed to the people in, even
those on the outskirts of, their lives.
Identity development in adolescence is a complex process, intertwined with the
everydayness of adolescent development and influenced by anything and everything important to
adolescents. Joan and Ann shared many of the same influences in their lives, but they grew as
two separate individuals, coping with their situations differently and growing into two very
different adolescent girls. From the shared interest of being on the school newspaper and similar
home environments, Joan and Ann branched out into their own worlds and dealt with different
situations, contributing to their process of identity formation. Because Ann had more positive
influences in her life, namely more positive people to nurture and support her, her identity
seemed to flourish and then stabilize throughout the course of this case study. Unfortunately,
Joan experienced a bit more turbulence in her life, and even though she did reach a point where
she could learn to be herself, she did suffer from depression, unable to cope with the changes in
her life. The process, however, does not end at the close of this study. Identity development, I
believe, is an ongoing practice, as identities fluctuate and naturally, people change. After all, it is
the process and the influences in our lives which make us who we are.
Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. “Family Relationships.” Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A
Cultural Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. 185-200.
---. “Friends and Peers.” Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach. Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. 225-236.
Eccles, Jacquelynne S., et al. “Development During Adolescence: The Impact of Stage-
Environment Fit on Young Adolescents’ Experience in Schools and in Families.”
American Psychologist. 48 (1993): 90-101.
Hersch, Patricia. A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence. New York:
Ryan, Allison. Identity development lecture. Mumford Hall, University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. 14 Feb. 2008.
Steinberg, Laurence. “Psychosocial Problems in Adolescence.” Adolescence. New York:
McGraw Hill, 2008. 434-469.