Erik Erikson Research Paper

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Erik Erikson was born on June 21,1902 in Frankfurt, Germany to a Danish Jewish mother, Karla Salomonsen. He was eventually given his stepfather’s name (Homburger) and later christened himself, Erikson. He grew up in Germany, completed his gymnasium in Karlsruhe and in 1921 enrolled in art school. However, he soon left this and after a Wanderschaft period, he secured his first professional position in the late 1920s as a teacher, together with Peter Blos, in Vienna’s Heitzing School founded by Eva Rosenfeld, Dorothy Burlingham, and Anna Freud. The latter became Erikson’s analyst and supervisor in play therapy with children. Erikson married a Canadian dancer, Joan Serson, in 1930. In 1933, now the father of two sons, he left his incompleted studies at the University of Vienna, was voted a full member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and emigrated to the United States with his young family. He established a private practice in Boston and was made a member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society despite that body’s parochial policy of limiting membership to physicians. During the next 5 years, Erikson worked at the Judge Baker Center in Boston, the Murray Clinic at Harvard, secured a position at Yale with the Gesell clinic and Institute of Human Relations, and began an important professional relationship with the anthropologist, Margaret Mead.

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In 1938, Erikson, whose surname until this time had been his stepfather’s (Homburger), changed his name to Erikson, became a US citizen and moved to California to take a position at Macfarlane’s Institute of Child Welfare in Berkeley and established a substantial private practice in San Francisco in 1942–3. While working with returning veterans at the Mount Zion Rehabilitation Clinic, he began a friendship with the Jungian analyst Joseph Wheelwright, who broadened Erikson’s Freudian perspective. In 1949 he became a professor at Berkeley, in spite of lacking the usual academic credentials, but soon left after refusing to sign the McCarthy era loyalty oath—a ‘Here I stand’ gesture that may have prefigured his forthcoming book on Martin Luther. In 1950 he presented his and Joan’s outline of the human life cycle to a White House Conference and saw his most influential book, Childhood and Society, published. He returned to the eastern US in 1951 to join the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts as clinician and author. There he established important professional and personal relationships with ego psychoanalyst Robert Knight and David Rapaport and he completed his second major book, Young Man Luther, (1958). He published the monograph Identity and the Life Cycle in Psychological Issues (1959) expanding both on the life cycle outline and on ego identity, a concept, together with ‘identity crisis’ that was to become associated with his name in the mind of the public.

With help from David Riesman and Robert White, Erikson moved from Stockbridge to Boston and Harvard in 1960 and became a professor, but outside any particular academic department. In the midst of, and to some extent with reference to, the student unrest of the 1960s, Erikson began work on his second psychobiography, Gandhi’s Truth (1969) and for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In addition, Insight and Responsibility (1964), Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968), and a revision of Childhood and Society (1963 1985) were also completed during this period. These books reflected a growing shift in Erikson’s thinking from the development of the individual, to the social context of individuals’ development, to the moral and ethical implications of different forms of social organization for humankind. In this transition, the work of his friend, Paul Tillich, was influential. Clearly, Erikson had begun to move quite a distance from his orthodox psychoanalytic initiation by Anna Freud.

By the beginning of the 1970s Erikson had become one of the most respected and honored thinkers within the psychoanalytic developmental area, described by one reviewer as ‘the most influential of living psychoanalysts.’ He delivered two sets of honorary lectures: the Godkin at the John F. Kennedy School for Government at Harvard in 1972, and the Jefferson for the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, DC, in 1973. These eventuated in two more books, Toys and Reasons (1977) and Dimensions of a New Identity (1974). Life History and The Historical Moment (1975) occasioned significant criticism from both feminists and New Left sources who found Erikson still too politically and psychologically conservative. Erikson’s most important final writings were on the last life cycle stage of Integrity: Reflections on Dr. Borg’s Life Cycle, a commentary on Bergman’s film, Wild Strawberries, The Life Cycle Completed: A Review (1982), and Vital Involvement in Old Age (1986) written with Joan Erikson and Helen Kivnick. Erikson continued to do clinical work until 1990. He died on May 12, 1994, in Harwich, Massachusetts.

Erikson lived through the world-shaping events of the twentieth century: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the United States’ coming-of-age in Vietnam. The national and ideological strands that the Eriksons gathered up and wove into his psychosocial developmental theory were numerous: Danish, German, North American, Jewish, Protestant, classical psychoanalytic, ego psychoanalytic, and even Jungian. His literary theoretical excursions into a form of biography that he labeled ‘psychohistory’ further widened his intellectual scope to include Luther in Reformation Germany, Gandhi in pre-independence India, Hitler in pre-W.W.II Germany, Gorky in Bolshevik Russia, and Jesus Christ in biblical Palestine. Although only one of a number of psychoanalytic thinkers who left Europe for America in the 1930s, only Erikson integrated and transformed these disruptive experiences into a clinically, theoretically, and empirically useful outline of the stages of normal human development.

Erikson took a ‘configurational’ approach to children’s play therapy, wherein he considered the spatial arrangement of items chosen by the child to be as important as the items themselves or the stories linking them. He carried this configurational approach over into his psychosocial developmental chart that portrays the human life cycle as consisting of eight central developmental crises, each having its more or less specific age-related time of ascendance. The first three stages: Trust vs. Mistrust (infancy), Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt (early childhood), and Initiative vs. Guilt (play age) parallel the Freudian psychosexual stages: oral, anal, and phallic. However, in contrast to Freudian libido theory, these stages of ego growth refer not just to erogenous body zones, but to modes of behavior and senses of oneself and of the world that are shaped by the child-rearing practices of particular parents embedded within their particular culture. The description of life cycle stages after childhood constitutes Erikson’s unique contribution to psychoanalytic developmental theory. In these he outlines a sequence of ego development extending beyond childhood through the adult years: Industry vs. Inferiority (school age), Identity vs. Identity Confusion (adolescence), Intimacy vs. Isolation (young adulthood), Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood), Integrity vs. Despair (old age). Associated with each of these stages are social institutional ‘rituals’ (e.g., infancy: ‘motherhood’) as well as eventual ‘virtues’ (e.g., infancy: ‘Hope’).

The emergence of each of the eight stages in this sequence is governed by an epigenetic principle comprising a built-in developmental progression of individual physical and psychological change occurring with a social context of age-related ‘average expectable’ demands and provisions. Because Erikson located personality development firmly within the social context, he is to be credited with initiating psychosocial developmental theory. Optimal development in childhood consists of a balance between the opposite poles described above, tilted in favor of the more positive alternative. Beginning in adolescence, resolution of a developmental crisis incorporates both poles into a synthesis. For example, Identity development includes an element of Diffusion or Confusion; Generativity formation incorporates some Stagnation; and there is no Integrity without some accompanying Despair. The primarily positive resolution of each stage is considered to be crucial for the resolution of the next stage. However, consistent with Erikson’s configurational approach, there is an aspect to the design of his developmental chart that allows for remediation of inadequately resolved issues or precocious resolution of ‘future’ developmental issues. Each stage is assumed to arise during every chronological period, although the nature of that stage is shaped by the dominant issue of the period. For example, a Basic Trust vs. Mistrust crisis re-occurring at Intimacy will take a form configured by the adult nature of relationships typical of early adulthood. Because they arise again at each succeeding chronological period, previously unresolved age-specific issues can be remediated through the provision of ‘better-than-average expectable’ conditions (e.g., counseling, psychotherapy, or enriched milieux).

In the broadest view, Erikson proposes that there are crucial periods (‘crises’) of development characterizing the human life cycle, and societies have developed institutions that, more or less, furnish a matrix within which these developmental crises are resolved. Ideally, societal rewards and demands mesh with individual needs and abilities at each of these stages. Whereas Freud furnished a view of personality from the ‘inside out,’ looking to the individual’s unconscious in order to understand cultural products, Erikson, while accepting the essential Freudian dynamic principles, added a perspective from the ‘outside in,’ beginning at the level of the whole individual and describing a particular culture’s impact on human growth. Also, in contrast to Freud, Erikson saw ego growth as continuous throughout the life cycle—from infancy to old age. Erikson has been criticized from a number of quarters. Orthodox psychoanalytic theorists (e.g., Jones, Eissler) saw Erikson’s emphasis on social factors and the ego in the development of personality as paying insufficient attention to the causative role of early childhood experiences and the primacy of unconscious factors in determining later adult personality. In short, they found him insufficiently ‘Freudian.’ Early feminist critics (e.g., Weisstein, Millett) took Erikson to task for his assumption of a unique developmental trajectory for women based upon their biological differences from men—in other words, too ‘Freudian.’ Later feminists (e.g., Gilligan) criticized him for paying insufficient attention to women’s differences from men in terms of their capacities for care and relationship. Object relations theorists (e.g., Fairbairn, Winnicott) and self-theorists (Kohut) felt that Erikson was somewhat superficial in underemphasizing the importance of early mother– child interactions and discussing too much the importance of social factors in personality development. By contrast, some historians and sociologists (e.g., Kushner, Weinstein, and Platt) have found Erikson’s theory too little concerned with underlying causative social factors and questioned the universality of his eightstage model. Social critics from the left (e.g., Fromm, Kovel) thought Erikson too conservative in his apparent acceptance of the social status quo. And, finally, social scientists (e.g., J. McV. Hunt) found Erikson’s writing too imprecise to allow for empirical research. Erikson, himself, was critical of attempts to validate his theory with experimental methods, preferring more clinical and social approaches.

Erikson’s primary contribution, emerging from the smoke of all the controversy noted above, has been a comprehensive overview of the human life cycle that incorporates somatic, psychological, and social elements. The influence of his psychosocial approach has been pervasive throughout ego psychoanalytic theory, developmental psychological research, and educational counseling, although there is no ‘Eriksonian’ school of psychotherapy. Almost every psychology textbook on personality theory and developmental psychology of children, adolescents, and adults has a section devoted to Erikson. Although his descriptions of early developmental stages usually are covered, it is the identity issue at adolescence with which he is most closely associated, followed by his descriptions of adult life cycle stages. Even political theory, especially the ‘politics of identity,’ has been influenced by his approach. Erikson has amended Freudian theory to make it more understandable, ‘experience-near,’ growth-focused, researchable, and socially useful. Although criticized by classical Freudians, Erikson’s extension of psychoanalytic theory into the realm of normal, and optimal, human development, may have saved that theory from its excessive interiority and obscurantism. In addition, because of its essentially interpersonal nature, Erikson’s theory has provided a valuable link between drive-based classical and ego psychoanalytic theory and relationship-based object relations theory. From a social–political perspective, the psychosocial developmental outline proposed by Erikson is sufficiently clear and putatively universal that it can provide a guide for social programs that focus on establishing optimal conditions for human development across the life cycle. This becomes increasingly practicable in view of the research (see Kroger 2000) that is accumulating supporting the validity of measures of the Eriksonian stages of Industry, Identity, Intimacy, Generativity, and Integrity.


  1. Coles R 1970 Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of his Work, 1st edn. Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston
  2. Erikson E H 1958 Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  3. Erikson E H 1959 Identity and the life cycle: selected papers. Psychological Issues 1 International Universities Press
  4. Erikson E H 1963/1985 Childhood and Society, 2nd edn. Norton, New York
  5. Erikson E H 1964 Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  6. Erikson E H 1968 Identity, Youth and Crisis, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  7. Erikson E H 1969 Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  8. Erikson E H 1974 Dimensions of a New Identity: The 1973 Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  9. Erikson E H 1975 Life History and The Historical Moment, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  10. Erikson E H 1976 Reflections on Dr Borg’s life cycle. Daedalus 105: 1–28
  11. Erikson E H 1977 Toys And Reasons: Stages in the Ritualization of Experience, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  12. Erikson E H 1982 The Life Cycle Completed: A Review. Norton, New York
  13. Erikson E H, Erikson J M, Kivnick H Q 1986 Vital Involvement in Old Age. Norton, New York
  14. Friedman L J 1999 Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. Scribner, New York
  15. Kroger J 2000 Identity Development: Adolescence through Adulthood. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA
  16. Schlein S (ed.) 1987 A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers from 1930–1980, 1st edn. Norton, New York
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