The Development of Cognitive Abilities and Social Identities in Children: The Case of Ethnic Identity

Katheryn A. Ocampo, George P. Knight, Martha E. Bernal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


The literature on the development of social identities in children has largely adhered to a cognitive developmental framework. However, to date, there has been little or no direct empirical demonstration of cognitive developmental levels associated with age accounting for variations in the expression of social identities. The current study directly assessed this hypothesis within ethnic identity. Ethnic identity in school-age children was assessed with the components outlined by Bernal, Knight, Garza, Ocampo, and Cota (1990), whereas level of cognitive ability was measured with an adaptation of Piaget's conservation and classification tasks. It was hypothesised that cognitive ability would account for age differences in the components of ethnic self-identification, ethnic constancy, and to a lesser extent, ethnic knowledge. The results demonstrated that level of cognitive ability did not account for the age differences in ethnic self-identification or ethnic constancy. However, they did account for differences in ethnic knowledge. It is possible that the age changes found in ethnic and other social identities may be caused by other age-related changes in development, such as changes in learning through socialisation. This would imply that other phenomena hypothesised to be caused by changes in cognitive ability, such as the development of in-group pride and prejudice in children, may be altered by changes in the way young children are socialised by familial and nonfamilial agents. Research on social identities may benefit from a departure from cognitive developmental theory and from increased attention to other theories, such as socialisation theory, in understanding the development of ethnic identity and other social identities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)479-500
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Development
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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