Erik Erikson (1902-1994) has been considered, one of the most accomplished analysts and scholars on the contemporary scene. He gained psychoanalytic training under Anna Freud at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, which is where he first applied psychoanalytic thinking to educational questions (Henry Maier, 1969). Fascist Germany looming, he moved to the United States in 1933 where he obtained a position at Harvard Medical School, he later held positions at several renowned institutions including Yale, Berkeley and the Menninger Foundation.
His interests were diverse, he studied suffering identity crises and social behaviour in India, as well as child-rearing practices among the Sioux in South Dakota and the Yurok on the Pacific coast (Patricia. H. Miller, 1989). Once in the United States he began to cultivate his theories on the psychosocial development which were an extension of Freud's psychosexual stages. Erikson's theories were divergent of Freud's theories in that they encompassed the entire life cycle, and recognised the impact of social interaction rather than biology.
Whereas Freud focused on psychopathologies and the role of nature, Erikson focused on nurture and had a more optimistic view of development. For this reason, Erikson has become a prominent figure in developmental psychology and has helped to explore identity in a social sense. This essay hopes to investigate Erikson's eight stages of development and discuss whether they disregard race, gender and whether they are relevant in modern society. Erikson provides a comprehensive framework for human lifespan through a series of genetically influenced sequence of psychosocial stages.
Each stage involves a battle between contradictory resultant personalities, and each stage has either adaptive or maladaptive qualities. To develop into a healthy, mature adult the adaptive must outweigh the maladaptive. (Richard Gross, 2005). Erikson breaks away from Freud here in that he identifies the importance of social influences through his research in different cultures and also the quest for identity as a mode of development. Like Freud though, the majority of his findings were based on case studies and he lacked controlled experimentation.
According to Cole and Cole (1989) one of Erikson's preferred methods of evaluating his theory was to use biographical case studies of famous men such as Martin Luther or Mahatma Gandhi and Adolph Hitler, although this seems to be speculative. There do not appear to be many examples of concrete studies to prove his theories, rather anecdotal evidence. The problem appears to be here as it was with Freud's stages, they are observational and theoretical. He gives vague descriptions of how a child moves from stage to stage or how to resolve the crisis within each stage.
He does not state by what mechanisms an infant learns when to trust and when to mistrust, and he does not say why the resolutions of a particular stage leads to another. The conflict-resolution model does not work without detailed description of how a person develops to the next stage which he does not appear to give (Patricia Miller, 1989). However, his theory, if applied in a general sense holds validity as securing ones identity appears to be of importance all over the world. This is why 'rites of passage' are apparent in many cultures.
Although, there appears to be a lack of this in modern western society and accentuates a further criticism of Erikson's regimented stages. The question is posed 'When do I become an adult? ' this elicits a differing response from parent, police officer, doctor or teacher (Coleman, 1995). This is shown in Europe with the varying ages of sexual consent. In Spain it is 13 and in Turkey 18 which exemplifies the differing attitudes, cross-culture, of the onset of adulthood. Some people may even enter adulthood later than eighteen, and some people are perhaps entering before the age of twelve.
It is therefore, difficult to group together these ages and apply his theory to them universally. Biological factors also differ from person to person, so how can he give such specific ages for these stages. For example, some girls start menstruating at the age of nine whilst others do not start until sixteen, this can strongly alter a girls perception of when she becomes an adult. Another example of this is co-habitation, in recent years people tend to live together before they get married and marry later in life, while at the same time struggling with identity issues in the form of a career.
This also differs in respect of class, as Neugarten (1975) pointed out, middle-class men and women see early adulthood as a time for exploration and trying out different occupations after which marriage would occur. Similarly, Sheehy (1996) suggests that as childhood is ending earlier and adolescence is being prolonged into their thirties, regardless of class. In fact many people these days carry on living an adolescent lifestyle even when they do have children (Richard Gross, 2005). This is shown when adults take their children to music festivals such as 'Glastonbury', which even has a specialised 'Kidz field'.
This supports the idea that children are ending childhood earlier, as adults are prolonging adolescence. Erikson's stages appear too rigid and ridden with his own subjective experience, as were Freud's. At the time that he devised his eight stages, they were perhaps more relevant; do they however, apply in modern society? It becomes apparent that the stages can be confused when we look at famous men such as Rod Stewart or Michael Douglas, who have had many wives and continue to have children into their fifties.
Correspondingly, the case of 'baby fathers' is given to young black males who father children with various women and wear this ad a 'badge of honour' (Alibhai-Brown, 2002). Some people may simply stay as 'Peter Pan' for the majority of their lives (Beaumont, 1996). This further proves that Erikson eight stages do not apply universally. A study done by Ochse and Plug (1986) in South Africa further proves that his theory cannot be applied universally. This particular study looked at 1800 South African black and white men and women.
The findings showed that amongst whites 25-39 year old women developed a sense of identity before men, and that due to prevailing social conditions black men and women did not achieve identity until much later in life. It is evident here that Erikson's lack of empirical evidence is important. Gilligan (1982) reports that Erikson although initially applying his eight stages to both gender, he wrote another version acknowledging that the sequence is different for a female who 'postpones her identity as she prepares to attract the man whose name she'll adopt, and by whose status she'll be defined' (Erikson, 1968).
He did not however change the stages to incorporate this. This appears to be an old-fashioned view of women and does not fit in to modern western society. Today women put on hold intimacy in the search for identity (in terms of career) so perhaps his initial concept was more suited to modern life. Further criticism of Erikson has been the ambiguity of the later stages of development. From the age of twenty-five to fifty a lot can change in a person's wants and needs and even from fifty and above.
For example, many women who have children during the seventh stage may not feel generatative and could possibly feel stagnant, although he would probably argue that they had not resolved the previous crisis. Miller (1989) also points out that the words 'generativity' and 'integrity' do not have their usual meanings making it very easy to misinterpret his idea. However, he does at least give consideration to the fact the development does occur later in life and that even though many of the foundations are made during childhood and adolescence; it is an ongoing process, the search for our identity.
His theories on identity have made a huge contribution to psychoanalytic theory, especially in dealing with adolescence. He perhaps did not seek to tell people how to resolve identity crisis but to understand our lives in terms of our identity and what that means socially and culturally. Disregarding all criticism, he makes a generalisation which can be applied in such a sense. Erik Erikson has had a profound effect on the world of psychoanalysis coining the phrase 'identity crises'.
He appeared to have suffered his own identity crisis, his father abandoning his mother before his birth, his blond hair and blue eyes at temple school stood out; similarly being teased for being Jewish at Grammar school. He understood the confusion which many people face today and provided a unique framework by which we can face our crises. He has allowed us to apply psychoanalysis in a whole new sense; his stages are devoid of the class, culture and gender boundaries that Freud provided. However, it has been shown in this essay that there are also flaws in his theories.
His lack of applied evidence has attracted much criticism and has shown that although his theories have expanded on Freud's, they are still subjective of his own experiences and case studies. Although he had included a cultural and social viewpoint, his methodologies still lacked validity. Without proof, he becomes another philosopher theorising about life. Nonetheless, his views on development are unique and have influenced our views of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Soren Kierkegaard remarked 'Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards' which encapsulates Erikson's theory.