Erik Erikson

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Erik Homburger Erikson (June 15, 1902May 12, 1994) was a German developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on social development of human beings, and for coining the phrase identity crisis.


Erik Erikson's lifelong interest in psychology of identity may be traced to his childhood. He was born as a result of his mother's extramarital affair and the circumstances of his birth were concealed from him in his childhood. His mother, Karla Abrahamsen, came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen [1], which traced its origin to the northern German lands [2]. Her father, Josef, was a merchant in dried goods; her mother Henrietta died when Karla was only 15. Karla's older brothers Einar, Nicolai, and Axel were active in local Jewish charity and helped maintain a free soup kitchen for indigent Jewish immigrants from Russia [3].

Erik Erikson believed that every human being goes through a certain amount of stages to reach their full development. According to his theory, there are 8 stages, that a human being goes through from birth to death. (Childhood and Society-Erik Erikson)

Since Karla Abrahamsen was officially married to Jewish stockbroker Waldemar Isidor Salomonsen at the time, her son, born in Germany, was registered as Erik Salomonsen. There is no more information about his biological father, except that he was a Dane and his given name probably was Erik. It is also suggested that he was married at the time that Erikson was conceivedTemplate:Fix/category[citation needed]. Following her son's birth, Karla trained to be a nurse, moved to Karlsruhe and in 1904 married a Jewish pediatrician Theodor Homburger. In 1909 Erik Salomonsen became Erik Homburger and in 1911 he was officially adopted by his stepfather.

The development of identity seems to have been one of his greatest concerns in Erikson's own life as well as in his theory. During his childhood and early adulthood he was known as Erik Homburger, and his parents kept the details of his birth a secret. He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed boy who was raised in the Jewish religion. At temple school, the kids teased him for being Nordic; at grammar school, they teased him for being Jewish.

As a youth, Erikson was a student and teacher of art. While teaching at a private school in Vienna, he became acquainted with Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud. Erikson underwent psychoanalysis, and the experience made him decide to become an analyst himself. He was trained in psychoanalysis at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute and also studied the Montessori method of education, which focused on child development.[1]

Following Erikson’s graduation from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933, the Nazis had just come to power in Germany, and he emigrated with his wife, first to Denmark and then to the United States, where he became the first child psychoanalyst in Boston. Erikson held positions at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Judge Baker Guidance Center, and at Harvard’s Medical School and Psychological Clinic, establishing a solid reputation as an outstanding clinician.

In 1936, Erikson accepted a position at Yale University, where he worked at the Institute of Human Relations and taught at the Medical School. After spending a year observing children on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, where he was affiliated with the Institute of Child Welfare, and opened a private practice as well. While in California, Erikson also studied children of the Yurok Native American tribe.

After publishing the book for which Erikson is best known, Childhood and Society, in 1950, he left the University of California when professors there were asked to sign loyalty oaths.[2] He spent ten years working and teaching at the Austen Riggs Center, a prominent psychiatric treatment facility in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he worked with emotionally troubled young people.

In the 1960s, Erikson returned to Harvard as a professor of human development and remained at the university until his retirement in 1970.

Erikson's greatest innovation was to postulate not five stages of development, as Sigmund Freud had done with his psychosexual stages, but eight. Erikson elaborated Freud's genital stage into adolescence, and added three stages of adulthood. His widow Joan Serson Erikson elaborated on his model before her death, adding a ninth stage (old age) to it, taking into consideration the increasing life expectancy in Western cultures.

Erikson is also credited with being one of the originators of Ego psychology, which stressed the role of the ego as being more than a servant of the id. According to Erikson, the environment in which a child lived was crucial to providing growth, adjustment, a source of self awareness and identity.

His 1969 book Gandhi's Truth, which focused more on his theory as applied to later phases in the life cycle, won Erikson a Pulitzer Prize and a U.S. National Book Award.

Erikson's theory of personality

Although Erikson always insisted that he was a Freudian, he is better described as a Neo-Freudian. Subsequent authors have described him as an "ego psychologiststages of development, spanning the entire lifespan. Each of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development are marked by a conflict, for which successful resolution will result in a favourable outcome, for example, trust vs. mistrust, and by an important event that this conflict resolves itself around, for example, meaning of one's life.

Favourable outcomes of each stage are sometimes known as "virtues", a term used, in the context of Eriksonian work, as it is applied to medicines, meaning "potencies." For example, the virtue that would emerge from successful resolution. Oddly, and certainly counter-intuitively, Erikson's research reveals with breath-taking clarity how each individual must learn how to hold both extremes of each specific life-stage challenge in tension with one another, not rejecting one end of the tension or the other. Only when both extremes in a life-stage challenge are understood and accepted as both required and useful, can the optimal virtue for that stage surface. Thus, 'trust' and 'mis-trust' must both be understood and accepted, in order for realistic 'hope' to emerge as a viable solution at the first stage. Similarly, 'integrity' and 'despair' must both be understood and embraced, in order for actionable 'wisdom' to emerge as a viable solution at the last stage.

The Erikson life-stage virtues, in the order of the stages in which they may be acquired, are:

  1. hope- Basic Trust vs. Mistrust
  2. will- Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
  3. purpose- Initiative vs. Guilt
  4. competence- Industry vs. Inferiority
  5. fidelity- Identity vs. Role Confusion
  6. love (in intimate relationships, work and family)- Intimacy vs. Isolation
  7. caring- Generativity vs. Stagnation
  8. wisdom- Integrity vs. Despair

Ego Identity Versus Role Confusion - Ego identity enables each person to have a sense of individuality, or as Erikson would say, "Ego identity, then, in its subjective aspect, is the awareness of the fact that there is a self-sameness and continuity to the ego's synthesizing methods and a continuity of one's meaning for others" (1963) Role Confusion however, is, according to Barbara Engler in her book Personality Theories (2006), "The inability to conceive of oneself as a productive member of one's own society" (158). This inability to conceive of oneself as a productive member is a great danger; it can occur during adolescence when looking for an occupation.

Scientific Support of Erikson's Theories

Most empirical research into Erikson's theories has stemmed around his views on adolescence and attempts to establish identity. His theoretical approach was studied and supported, particularly regarding adolescence, by James Marcia [3]. Marcia's work extended Erikson's; distinguishing different forms of identity, and there is some empirical evidence that those people who form the most coherent self-concept in adolescence are those who are most able to make intimate attachments in early adulthood. This supports Eriksonian theory, in that it suggests that those best equipped to resolve the crisis of early adulthood are those who have most successfully resolved the crisis of adolescence.


Major works

  • Childhood and Society (1950)
  • Young Man Luther. A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958)
  • Gandhi's Truth: On the Origin of Militant Nonviolence (1969)
  • Adulthood (edited book, 1978)
  • Vital Involvement in Old Age (with J.M. Erikson and H. Kivnick, 1986)
  • The Life Cycle Completed (with J.M. Erikson, 1987)


  • Identity and the Life Cycle. Selected Papers (1959)
  • A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers 1930-1980 (Editor: S.P. Schlien, 1995)
  • The Erik Erikson Reader (Editor: Robert Coles, 2001)

Related works

  • Erikson on Development in Adulthood: New Insights from the Unpublished Papers (Carol Hren Hoare, 2002)
  • Erik Erikson, His Life, Work, and Significance (Kit Welchman, 2000)
  • Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson (Lawrence J. Friedman, 1999)
  • Erik H. Erikson: The Power and Limits of a Vision, N.Y., The Free Press (Paul Roazen, 1976)
  • "Everybody Rides the Carousel" (documentary film) (Hubley, 1976)
  • Erik H. Erikson: the Growth of His Work (Robert Coles, 1970)

See also


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