Erik Erikson was born near Frankfurt, Germany, and went on to make several important contributions to the field of life span development. After graduating from high school, Erikson traveled around Europe and studied art in Germany. At the age of 25, he was invited to Vienna to teach children whose parents were studying with Sigmund Freud. There he was trained in the psychoanalytic tradition under prominent psychoanalysts including Anna Freud. After failure to obtain Danish citizenship, Erikson emigrated to the United States in 1933 because of Fascism. Despite having no formal education beyond high school, Erikson taught at several preeminent institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley.
Although trained as an orthodox psychoanalyst, he extended psychoanalytic theory in several significant and important ways. In contrast to Freud, Erikson conceptualized personality as a life span phenomenon in which personality develops from infancy through old age. Erikson divided the development of personality into eight separate stages across the life span, with each stage characterized by its own crisis and two possible outcomes: (1) trust vs. mistrust, (2) autonomy vs. shame and doubt, (3) initiative vs. guilt, (4) industry vs. inferiority, (5) identity vs. role confusion, (6) intimacy vs. isolation, (7) generativity vs. stagnation, and (8) integrity vs. despair. Erikson paid particular attention to the role that identity played in the adolescent period and beyond.
Erikson referred to the eight crises enumerated above as psychosocial stages of development, emphasizing the important role that social and cultural factors play in personality development (this contrasted with Freud’s emphasis on psychosexual factors). According to Erikson, conflicts in each stage arise because societal and maturational factors engender new demands on individuals, and each conflict or crisis must be resolved before individuals are prepared to proceed to the subsequent stage. Based on his work with the Sioux and Yurok Indians, as well as other groups, Erikson believed that the sequence of psychosocial stages was invariant across cultures, but the means by which individuals from various cultures met each of the conflicts varied. Furthermore, he highlighted macro-level factors that affected development including the unique time and historical factors of the larger society.
In sum, Erikson was a synthetic thinker who made several contributions to the study of life span development. Despite the fact that many of his ideas have been difficult to test empirically, Erikson’s life span approach and his work in adolescent development have made a lasting impact.
- Cramer, , Flynn, B., & LaFave, A. (1997). Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development. Retrieved from http://facultyweb.cortland.edu/~ANDERSMD/ERIK/welcome.html
- Erikson, (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Erikson, (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.