Movie Analysis Paper

Reconceptualizing the Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity:
The Role of Meaning-Making Capacity in the Construction of Multiple

Abes, Elisa S.
Jones, Susan R.
McEwen, Marylu K.

Journal of College Student Development, Volume 48, Number
1, January/February 2007, pp. 1-22 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/csd.2007.0000

For additional information about this article

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Reconceptualizing the Model of Multiple Dimensions
of Identity: The Role of Meaning-Making Capacity in
the Construction of Multiple Identities
Elisa S. Abes Susan R. Jones Marylu K. McEwen

We reconceptualize Jones and McEwen’s (2000)
model of multiple dimensions of identity by
incorporating meaning making, based on the
results of Abes and Jones’s (2004) study of lesbian
college students. Narratives of three students who
utilize different orders of Kegan’s (1994) meaning
making (formulaic, transitional, and founda-
tional, as described by Baxter Magolda, 2001)
illustrate how meaning-making capacity interacts
with the influences of context on the perceptions
and salience of students’ multiple social identities.
Implications for theory, research, and professional
practice are discussed.

Recent scholarship in the area of college
student identity development has begun to
address the complexities of the relationships
among three primary domains of development:
interpersonal, intrapersonal, and cognitive
(e.g., Baxter Magolda, 2001; King & Baxter
Magolda, 2005; Torres & Baxter Magolda,
2004). Within the intrapersonal domain, the
model of multiple dimensions of identity
(Jones & McEwen, 2000) provided one of the
first conceptualizations of relationships among
social identities (e.g., race, gender, social class,
sexual orientation), as well as between personal
identity and social identities. Although
acknowledged as a contribution to a more
complex understanding of identity (e.g.,
Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, & Mallory, 2003;
Davis, 2002; Stevens, 2004), the model does
not incorporate other domains such as cognitive

development. Abes and Jones (2004), however,
in a study of lesbian identity development and
meaning making, applied the model of
multiple dimensions of identity in conjunction
with constructivist–developmental theory. The
purpose of this article is to propose, based on
Abes and Jones’s study, a more complex
conceptualization of the model of multiple
dimensions of identity that integrates inter-
secting domains of development.
Because the focus of our work is on
developing a more complex conceptualization
of the multiple identities model, we position
this study within contemporary theorizations
of multiple and intersecting identities. To do
so, we provide an overview of identity as social
construction, feminist and postmodern
conceptualizations of intersectionality, and the
model of multiple dimensions of identity. We
then explore Kegan’s (1994) theory of lifespan
development and Baxter Magolda’s (2001)
research on young adult development toward
self-authorship, which is incorporated into our
reconceptualization of the multiple identities


Weber (1998) identified social constructionism
as a common theme within scholarship
exploring relationships among race, class,
gender, and sexuality. A social constructionist

Elisa S. Abes is an Assistant Professor, College Student Personnel, Department of Educational Leadership, at Miami
University (Ohio); Susan R. Jones and Marylu K. McEwen are both Associate Professors, College Student Personnel
Program, Department of Counseling and Personnel Services at the University of Maryland, College Park

2 Journal of College Student Development

Abes, Jones, & McEwen

perspective on identity challenges the essen-
tialist position that reifies dominant–sub-
ordinate binaries presumed to be grounded in
biology (e.g., White–non-White, men–women,
heterosexual—homosexual; Weber). Instead,
social constructionism considers identity to be
socially, historically, politically, and culturally
constructed at both the institutional and
individual levels (Omi & Winant, 1994;
Weber). The meaning of social identities
cannot be fully captured as they change with
evolving contexts and relationships (Omi &
Winant). Although essentialism provided the
basis for much of the earlier research and
resulting theoretical perspectives on student
development, contemporary student affairs
researchers are increasingly relying on social
constructionism as they explore the meanings
of identity (McEwen, 2003).

Feminist Conceptualizations

Much of the theorizing on multiple identities
developed in women’s studies literature, often
through personal narratives (Weber, 1998). A
significant body of this literature grew out of
Black feminist scholarship that challenged
feminism’s Eurocentric assumptions (e.g.,
hooks, 1984; Smith, 1982). This feminist
literature introduced a “framework of inter-
sectionality” that recognized how socially
constructed identities are experienced simul-
taneously, not hierarchically (McCann & Kim,
2002, p. 150). Collins (1990) termed this
framework a “matrix of domination” and
explained that viewing relationships from an
intersecting perspective “expands the focus of
analysis from merely describing the similarities
and differences distinguishing these systems
of oppression and focuses greater attention on
how they interconnect” (p. 222).
Autobiographical narratives from two

feminist scholars, Lorde (1984) and Anzaldua
(1999), illustrated a wholeness associated with
integrating multiple identity dimensions
within a matrix of domination. Lorde, a “Black
lesbian feminist socialist mother of two . . .
and a member of an interracial couple”
(p. 114), explained that her “fullest concen-
tration of energy is available . . . only when I
integrate all the parts of who I am . . . without
the restrictions of externally imposed definition”
(pp. 120-121). Discussing her experiences as
a Mexican American lesbian, a mestiza,
Anzaldua offered her theor y of mestiza
consciousness, or her ability to bring together
multiple identities into a new, integrated
identity where “the self has added a third
element which is greater than the sum of
its severed parts. That element is a new
consciousness” (pp. 101-102).
Despite its complex explorations of
boundary-crossing identities, a conundrum
exists within this feminist literature. By
studying how aspects of identity, such as race
and social class, create differences within
women’s experiences, an unintended presump-
tion of unity arises within the categories
introduced to demonstrate differences
(McCann & Kim, 2002). Just as feminists have
urged that there is not a singular meaning
associated with the experiences of women, so
too there is not a singular meaning associated
with the experiences of women by nature of
the socially constructed categories of race,
social class, or sexual orientation. To fully
embrace individual experiences, it is necessary
to explore differences within each aspect of
identity as each is influenced by the simul-
taneous experience of the other dimensions
(McCann & Kim).

Postmodern Conceptualizations
The impossibility, due to difference, of
capturing all experiences associated with
identity categories is at the heart of a post-


Reconceptualizing Model

modern theorization of multiple identities.
Postmodernism abandons “grand narratives”
because they ignore the influence of social,
political, and cultural power in people’s lives
(Tierney & Rhoads, 1993, p. 315). In their
place, postmodernists stress “differences
between and within groups—race, class,
gender, and sexual orientation, for example”
(Tierney & Rhoads, p. 315). Informed by the
writing of French philosopher Jacques Derrida,
a postmodern conceptualization of difference
suggests that this construct cannot be easily
“dismantled” into “oppositional predicates”
and is “neither this not that; but rather this
and that” (Kearney, 1984, p. 110). Grounded
in these principles, a postmodern critique of
identity challenges the stability of identity
Of particular relevance to our reconceptu-
alization of the model of multiple identities is
the postmodern perspective of queer theory,
which suspends the classifications of lesbian,
gay, bisexual, masculine, and feminine (Tierney
& Dilley, 1998). Principles of queer theory
disrupt traditional identity categories based on
the suppositions that identity is performed and
therefore unstable (Butler, 1991) and comprised
of fluid differences rather than a unified
essence (Fuss, 1989). Fuss explained that the
failure to study identity as difference implies
a unity in identity that overlooks variations
within identity, such as race and class.
Categories are insufficient because differences
within those categories cause them to have
“multiple and contradictory meanings” (Fuss,
p. 98).


Much of the recent literature on multiple
identities in student affairs scholarship
references Jones and McEwen’s (2000) model
of multiple dimensions of identity (e.g.,

Chavez et al., 2003; Davis, 2002; Love, Bock,
Jannarone, & Richardson 2005; Miville,
Darlington, Whitlock, & Mulligan, 2005).
The model (Figure 1) offers a conceptual
depiction of relationships among college
students’ socially constructed identity dimen-
sions, recognizing that each dimension cannot
be fully understood in isolation. Building on
the work of Reynolds and Pope (1991) and
Deaux (1993) and based on the results of
grounded theory research with women college
students (Jones, 1997), the model of multiple
dimensions of identity describes the dynamic
construction of identity and the influence of
changing contexts on the relative salience of
multiple identity dimensions, such as race,
sexual orientation, culture, and social class.
The model portrays identity dimensions as
intersecting rings around a core, signifying
how “no one dimension may be understood
singularly; it can be understood only in rela-
tion to other dimensions” (Jones & McEwen,
p. 410). At the center of the model is a core
sense of self, comprising “valued personal
attributes and characteristics” (Jones, p. 383).
Surrounding the core and identity dimensions
is the context in which a person experiences
her life, such as family, sociocultural conditions,
and current experiences. The salience of each
identity dimension to the core is fluid and
depends on contextual influences (Jones &


Constructivist–developmental theory considers
intrapersonal, cognitive, and interpersonal
domains of development as part of a single,
integrated mental activity and describes the
interrelated development of each domain from
simple to complex (Kegan, 1994). Kegan’s
integrated theory consists of five “orders of

4 Journal of College Student Development

Abes, Jones, & McEwen

consciousness,” representing increasingly
complex “meaning-making structures,” which
are sets of assumptions that determine how an
individual perceives and organizes one’s life
experiences (Kegan).
In her extensive longitudinal research,
Baxter Magolda (2001) explored Kegan’s
(1994) work in the context of college students
and young adults. Baxter Magolda (2001)
suggested that Kegan’s third order of conscious-
ness is the most prevalent meaning-making
structure among traditional-aged college

students. The third order is characterized by
making meaning through concrete relation-
ships to which one’s own interests are
subordinated (Kegan). Relationships define
identity, and no process exists for negotiating
conflicting relationships. Baxter Magolda
(1999a) described this as “formulaic” meaning
making. Fewer college students make meaning
at the fourth order, or “foundational” meaning
making (Baxter Magolda, 1999a), which is
characterized by self-authorship. Requiring
complexity in all three domains (interpersonal,

Figure 1. Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Jones & McEwen, 2000).








Family Background
Sociocultural Conditions
Current Experiences
Career Decisions and Life Planning

Personal Attributes
Personal Identity

FIGURE 1. Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Jones & McEwen, 2000)


Reconceptualizing Model

intrapersonal, and cognitive), self-authorship
occurs through “an ability to construct
knowledge in a contextual world, an ability to
construct an internal identity separate from
external influences, and an ability to engage
in relationships without losing one’s internal
identity” (Baxter Magolda, 1999b, p. 12).
Students making a transition between formu-
laic and foundational meaning making are at
a “crossroads” (Baxter Magolda, 1999b, p. 38).
During this transitional period dominated by
tensions and unresolved conflicts between their
developing internal voices and external
influences, students gradually question formu-
las increasingly incongruent with developing
internal values.
Little research has been conducted explor-
ing self-authorship in the context of how
students make meaning of their socially
constructed identities, such as race and
sexuality. No published research has explored
a relationship between self-authorship and
intersectionality of social identities. Torres and
Baxter Magolda (2004) offered evidence of the
role of cognitive complexity in the development
of ethnic identity among Latino/a students.
Results of their longitudinal study indicated
that increased cognitive complexity related to
less reliance on stereotypes, authorities, and
the approval of others to shape their ethnic
identity. King and Baxter Magolda (2005)
developed a conceptual framework for inter-
cultural maturity grounded in the integration
of cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal
development. The intrapersonal dimension of
their framework presents a relationship be-
tween Kegan’s (1994) orders of consciousness
and theories of social identity development.
In the only study to consider the relationship
between college students’ meaning-making
capacity and perceptions of relationships
among their multiple social identity dimen-
sions, Abes and Jones (2004) simultaneously
considered Kegan’s constructivist–develop-

mental theory and the model of multiple
dimensions of identity (Jones & McEwen,
2000). The purpose of this article is to analyze
the results of Abes and Jones’s study in the
context of the model of multiple dimensions
of identity and offer, based on this analysis, a
reconceptualized model that more aptly
captures the complexity of intersecting domains
of development.


The purpose of Abes and Jones’s (2004) study
was to explore how lesbian college students
perceived their sexual orientation identity and
its interaction with other dimensions of
identity, such as race, religion, social class, and
gender. The design and rationale of the study
are detailed in Abes and Jones; we provide an
overview here.
Abes and Jones’s (2004) study was
grounded in a constructivist theoretical
framework, which assumes that knowledge is
mutually constructed between the researchers
and participants (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000).
To understand how the participants made
meaning of their identities, this study utilized
narrative inquiry methodology. The purpose
of narrative inquiry is to understand the
wholeness of human experience through data
collected in the form of stories (Clandinin &
Connelly, 2000; Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, &
Zilber, 1998). This methodological approach
is well suited to identity studies because stories
offer revealing glimpses into inner selves
(Lieblich et al.; Riessman, 2002). Stories not
only reveal, but also shape identity because
identity stories are “told, revised, and retold
throughout life. We know or discover ourselves,
and reveal ourselves to others, by the stories
we tell” (Lieblich et al., p. 7).
Purposeful sampling was used to obtain
information-rich cases (Patton, 1990). All 10

6 Journal of College Student Development

Abes, Jones, & McEwen

participants, ages 18–23, attended a large,
public research university in the Midwest. Five
were students of color (one Black, one Latina,
one Puerto Rican-Caucasian, one Trinidadian-
Caucasian, and one African American-Cau-
casian); five were Caucasian. There were two
Jewish women, one Agnostic, one Pagan, one
Agnostic Pagan, one Christian, one Catholic,
and three who did not identify with a religion.
Eight identified as female, two as androgynous.
Six women identified as middle class, one
temporarily poor, one working class, and two
upper-middle class.
Data were collected through three open-
ended interviews with each participant. During
the latter part of the second interview, each
participant was asked to map her identity onto
the model of multiple dimensions of identity
(Jones & McEwen, 2000). For data analysis,
Abes and Jones (2004) used primarily a
categorical content approach, which utilizes
constant comparative analysis (Lieblich et al.,
1998). Results of the analysis were used to
construct much of the participants’ narratives.
Abes and Jones also considered the structure
of the participants’ stories, including “the gaps,
the silences, the tensions” (Ritchie & Wilson,
2000, p. 21).
Results of Abes and Jones’s (2004) study
suggested that meaning-making capacity
served as a filter through which contextual
factors are interpreted prior to influencing
self-perceptions of sexual orientation identity
and its relationship with other identity
dimensions. How context influenced these
perceptions depended on the complexity of
the meaning-making filter. Participants with
complex meaning-making capacity were able,
more so than those with less developed
capacity, to filter contextual influences, such
as family background, peer culture, social
norms, and stereotypes, and determine how
context influenced their identity. Complex
meaning making also facilitated the ease with

which sexual orientation was integrated or
peacefully co-existed with other dimensions
and the extent to which participants’ per-
ceptions of their identity dimensions were
consistent with the sense of self they hoped to


Revisiting the model of multiple dimensions
of identity through the results of Abes and
Jones’s (2004) study suggests that incorporat-
ing meaning-making capacity into the model
would more thoroughly depict the relationship
between context and salience (and self per-
ceptions) of identity dimensions, as well as the
relationship between social identities and the
core of identity. The reconceptualized model
(Figure 2), unlike the original model, portrays
in two dimensions the interactive nature of
the relationships among components of the
identity construction process: context, meaning
making, and identity perceptions. Contextual
influences are drawn in Figure 2 as arrows
external to identity. The social identity
dimensions are represented similarly to the
Jones and McEwen (2000) model. Meaning-
making capacity is drawn as a filter. How
contextual influences move through the filter
depends on the depth and permeability of the
filter. The depth (thickness) and permeability
(size of openings) of the filter depend on the
complexity of the person’s meaning-making
capacity. To illustrate complex meaning
making, the filter would be drawn with
increased depth and smaller grid openings; less
complex meaning-making capacity would be
illustrated through a narrower filter with wider
grid openings. Regardless of differences in
meaning making, context influences identity
perceptions; differences in the depth of the


Reconceptualizing Model

filter and size of the grid openings incorporate
contextual influences in qualitatively different
Through narratives of three research
participants, we offer possibilities of how their
identity perceptions might be illustrated
through the model with meaning-making
capacity integrated into it. The three partici-
pants, Amy, Carmen, and Jacky, provide
examples of formulaic, transitional, and
foundational meaning making. The selections
from the narratives describe these participants’
perceptions of relationships among their
multiple identity dimensions. These selections
represent only small parts of a much more in-
depth analysis of these three women’s detailed
narratives, which allowed us to assess meaning-

making capacity (Abes, 2003).

Formulaic Meaning Making and
Multiple Dimensions of Identity
Because minimal filtering occurs in formulaic
meaning making, contextual influences and
perceptions of identity are closely connected.
Participants infrequently saw relationships
between or among their multiple identities.
For instance, they perceived their sexual
orientation as separate from their ethnicity if
that was what they learned from their family;
they perceived their sexual orientation as
incompatible with their religion if this is how
religious leaders taught them to interpret the
major teachings of their religion; and they
perceived their gender as either too masculine

Figure 2. Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity.

Contextual Influences, such as
peers, family, norms, stereotypes,
sociopolitical conditions

Meaning-Making Filter
Depending on complexity,
contextual influences pass
through to different degrees

Self-Perceptions of Multiple
Identity Dimensions, such as
race, social class, sexual
orientation, gender, religion

FIGURE 2. Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity

8 Journal of College Student Development

Abes, Jones, & McEwen

or too feminine if that is what friends and
stereotypes told them.
Amy’s Story. Amy, a 23-year-old senior, who
prides herself on her unwavering opinions and
“flaunts her individuality,” exemplifies formu-
laic meaning-making capacity. Amy, who
explained that there are two types of lesbians,
“coffee shop lesbians and bar lesbians,” and
never the two shall mix, appeared to un-
knowingly define her identity in direct
opposition to stereotypes, which laced her
stories. A self-described bar lesbian, Amy
refused to be like the people who attend gay
and lesbian student organizations, whom she
described as “the same kind of people that are
like save the world. . . . I refuse to be anywhere
near that.” Amy’s story demonstrates that
formulaic meaning making might result in an
identity that is constructed in direct and seem-
ingly unanalyzed opposition to stereotypes.
Even though Amy did not construct her
identity in a manner consistent with stereo-
types, stereotypes still dictated how she
perceived her identity. Amy defined herself
through who she is not, rather than through
who she is.
Believing she was rejecting stereotypes,
Amy announced she “flaunted her originality,”
which meant rejecting most environmental
influences. She explained:

I don’t put myself into one group of
people. I consider myself one of a kind
and that’s it. I’m me. I’m my own class,
group, genre, everything, like that’s how
I look at things. . . . I don’t seek to relate
to other people. I don’t because I’m me,
I’m myself.

One implication of her desire to be unique
was that she denied the possibility that aspects
of her identity, such as sexual orientation, race,
and social class, affected who she was as a
person. As a result, she saw few relationships
among her identity dimensions. Because

connections with other people were not a
primary concern, Amy did not allow her
family’s expectations to influence how she
thought about being gay. For instance, Amy,
who was Trinidadian-Caucasian, felt that some
of her Trinidadian family members disap-
proved of her sexual orientation because it did
not meet their cultural expectations. She
rejected their opinions, not because of internal
meaning making, but because she rejected
other people’s opinions in general, explaining,
“I’m not that close to other people . . . and I
don’t really care. I was like, whatever, it’s who
I am.”
However, not seeming to realize the
influence of stereotypes on her thinking, Amy
described a relationship between her social
class and sexual orientation. Explaining her
generally unwavering opinion about the social
class of lesbians, she observed:

I think lesbians are poor in general. . . .
The ones that are wealthy, they’re few and
far between. You usually see lesbians who
are bar flies, UPS delivery workers, or the
lesbian that’s the construction worker. You
see the lumberjack. You never see the
lawyer or the doctor in these bars. You
never see the professional lesbian. . . . I
think it’s because the lesbians I’m in
contact with are young. They’re all just
out of college or in college. And then the
other ones you see at the bars are the old
tired lesbians that are really gross and old
in their 40s and 50s and sipping on their

Although Amy wanted to achieve a higher
social class than the women she saw in the bars,
these stereotypes had a relatively unfiltered
influence on how she understood the relation-
ship between sexual orientation and social
Amy’s Model. When Amy depicted her
identity in relationship to the model, she
placed most of the dimensions, including


Reconceptualizing Model

culture, race, sexual orientation, and gender,
approximately the same distance from her core.
Social class was further from her core. Religion,
which she described as “hooey,” was not
relevant to her identity perceptions. Always
defining her identity in opposition to stereo-
types, she was adamant that none of these
social identities influenced who she was as a
person. Depicted on the reconceptualized
model, Amy’s meaning-making filter would be
relatively simple. Contextual influences would
pass through the filter without Amy making
her own meaning of them.

Transitional Meaning Making and
Multiple Dimensions of Identity
Several of the participants were making a
transition or on the brink of a transition
between formulaic and foundational meaning
making. Their stories reflected tensions and
conflicts within their identity. As their meaning
making grew more complex, these participants
were starting to realize the limitations of
stereotypes, feel frustrated by identity labels
insufficient to describe how they made sense
of whom they were, and challenge other
people’s expectations that caused difficulties
integrating multiple identity dimensions. Still,
they relied on comfortable formulaic ways of
knowing at the same time that they started to
see some of the shortcomings of doing so. For
instance, they simultaneously believed that it
was acceptable to pass as straight when their
sexual orientation clashed with their ethnicity
and that there was no reason why their
ethnicity and sexual orientation needed to be
separate; and they believed, but with lingering
doubts as a result of stereotypes, that lesbians
could achieve upper-class economic status.
Carmen’s Story. Carmen, a 19-year-old
Puerto Rican-Caucasian sophomore, whose
meaning making appeared to be at the
crossroads between formulaic and founda-
tional, defined her identity though external

influences at the same time that she started to
realize the limitations of doing so. Although
increasingly frustrating to her, she still allowed
relatively unfiltered influences from her family,
stereotypes, and social norms to determine
relationships among her sexual orientation,
gender, religion, and culture.
Carmen, for whom identifying with
Christianity was important, explained that she
did not allow her family’s insistence that she
would go to hell for being gay influence her
attitude about her sexual orientation. She
thought it hypocritical to use religion, which
teaches the importance of loving everybody,
as a basis for disapproving of gay people and

God made me this way. . . . even if it is a
flaw . . . …

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