ERIKSON, ERIK (Social Science)

1902-1994

Erik Homburger Erikson was born on June 15, 1902, in Frankfurt, Germany. He died on May 12, 1994, in Massachusetts. As a young man, he restlessly traveled through Europe, attending art schools and subsequently teaching art and history in Vienna. Beginning in the late 1920s, while teaching children, he was trained by Anna Freud (1895-1982) as a child psychoanalyst at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. There he met his future wife Joan Serson. In 1933 they immigrated to the United States, where he was offered a teaching position at Harvard Medical School. While teaching, Erikson maintained a private practice in child psychoanalysis. He later held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Yale University, the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the Center for Advanced Studies of the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California, finally returning to Harvard, where he completed his career (Coles 1970).

Erikson invigorated and expanded psychoanalytic theory with concepts he drew from Freud, biology, observations of children from several cultures, and self-observations that emerged from his psychoanalysis. As a clinician and theorist, his central contributions to human development research were to understand and illuminate, not to collect data, regarding both psychopathology and normal growth and development in varied cultural and historical contexts. Among his most important contributions was his eight-stage lifespan approach to personality development, elaborated in Childhood and Society (1950). Another was his introduction of the concept of identity crisis, described in Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968) and exemplified in Young Man Luther (1958). His focus on adolescence and identity crises may have been shaped in part by his own early life stressors, youthful wanderings, and lack of direction (Friedman 1999). His Danish appearance (tall, blond, blue-eyed), inherited from his unknown biological father, contrasted sharply with that of his Jewish mother and his stepfather. His Jewish peers often taunted him at school. He terminated his formal education at the age of eighteen and began his lifetime of travel and questioning. One of his best-known books that exemplifies the individual struggle with justice and reconciliation in a social and historical context is Gandhi’s Truth (1969), for which Erikson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970.


The underpinning for Erikson’s theory of eight stages of psychosocial (ego) personality development is the biological epigenetic principle. With the proper sequence and rate of development, each stage reaches its time of greatest salience as a healthy individual becomes ready to benefit from experiences provided by significant others relevant to the particular stage crisis. The ego, the central focus of Erikson’s theory, regulates and resolves the tensions between the individual’s psyche and society’s expectations with the goal of a predominance of the syntonic end of the continuum, such as more trust than mistrust. Each stage builds on the preceding stages and prepares one for subsequent stages. The society is initially defined as the mother figure and expands at each stage until it encompasses humankind. Providing an optimistic view of human growth and development, Erikson described the outcome of each stage as modifiable, thus affording the opportunity for growth but also weakness, based on later life experiences. The positive resolution of each stage resulted in a virtue—for trust, for example, the corresponding virtue would be hope. The eight psychosocial stages with their virtues are:


Stage 1: Trust versus mistrust (first year) virtue: hope.

Stage 2: Autonomy versus doubt/shame (one to two years) virtue: will.

Stage 3: Initiative versus guilt (two to four years) virtue: purpose.

Stage 4: Industry/mastery versus inferiority (five years to puberty) virtue: confidence.

Stage 5: Identity versus role confusion/identity diffusion (adolescence) virtue: fidelity.

Stage 6: Intimacy versus isolation (early adulthood) virtue: love.

Stage 7: Generativity versus self-absorption (young and middle adulthood) virtue: care.

Stage 8: Integrity versus despair (later adulthood) virtue: wisdom.

After her husband’s death, Joan Serson Erikson proposed a ninth stage, old age, focused on the effort not to lose one’s "indomitable core" (Davidson Films 1995).

Because Erikson’s writings were at times complex and evocative, interpretation of his theory for application to research has resulted in vigorous debate. Nevertheless, all of the personality components have been studied. Identity, a major task of adolescence, has been empirically investigated the most extensively (Kroger 2007; Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, et al. 1993). The concepts of identity and identity crisis have had a major impact on the fields of psychology, sociology, literature, and history, being applied to career, ethnicity, race, sexuality, ideologies, diasporas, and so forth.

Erikson’s lifework continues to be described as one of the most important contributions to the understanding of normal personality development across the lifespan. He is identified as a major factor in the framework and expansion of ego psychology. Erikson was among the first great theorists to place extensive responsibilities on the widening circle of significant others in the context of culture and history for the healthy growth of the individual.

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