Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Erik Erikson: A Psychosocial Theory of Personality

In order to understand how Erik Erikson has worked
to elaborate and extend the structure of psychoanalysis
and how he has reformulated its principles
for understanding the modern world, one has to first
understand the concept of psychoanalysis as given by
Sigmund Freud. It is because Erikson himself,
persistently maintained that his contributions to the
understanding of human development are nothing more
than a systematic extension of Freud’s conception of
psychosexual development.
Erikson actually has attempted to bridge the gap
between Freudian theory of psycho sexual development
and present day knowledge about the role of social
factors in personality development.
Though he is committed to the biological and sexual
foundations of personality like Freud, yet he expanded
or socialized Freud’s schedule of development by
introducing eight stages of development. He emphasizes
the importance of interaction between biological and
social factors in the development of personality. The
stages are shown in Fig.-1.
Let us now learn about Erikson’s theoretical
formulations by considering the various stages in
human life.
1) Infancy: Basic Trust Versus Mistrust-Hope
The first psychosocial stage in the Eriksonian scheme
corresponds to Freud’s Oral stage and it extends
through approximately the first year of life. The earliest
basic trust is established during this stage and it is
demonstrated by the infant in the capacity to sleep
peacefully, to take nourishment comfortably and to
excrete relaxfully. Each day as his wakeful hours
increase, the infant becomes more familiar with
sensual experiences. Situations of comfort and people
responsible for these comforts become familiar and
identifiable to him.
Through the continuity, consistency and sameness of
these experiences with others, the infant learns to
rely on them and to trust them. Simultaneously, if
the parents display a divergent pattern of these
experiences, may be in the ways of caring for the
infant or in their role as the parents or demonstrate
a conflicting value system, it creates an atmosphere
of ambiguity for the infant, resulting in feelings of
Hope is the first psychosocial strength or virtue, which
is gained by the infant from successful resolution of
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the Trust-verses-Mistrust conflict, during this stage.
2) Early Childhood: Autonomy Versus Shame and
This period coincides with Freud’s Anal stage and
roughly spans the second and third years of life.
During this stage, the child learns what is expected
of her, what the child’s obligations and privileges are
and what limitations are placed upon her. The child’s
striving for new and activity-oriented experiences places
a demand for self-control as well as a demand for the
acceptance of control from others. A sense of selfcontrol
provides the child with a lasting feeling of
autonomy, good will and pride ; however, a sense of
loss of self control can cause a lasting feeling of
shame and doubt in him.
The virtue of will emerges during this stage. Will is
the ever-increasing psychosocial strength to make freechoices,
to decide and to exercise self-restraint. The
child learns from itself and from others what is
expected and what is not. Will is responsible for the
child’s gradual acceptance of lawfulness and necessity.
3) Play Age: Initiative Versus Guilt
This period corresponds to Freud’s Phallic stage
extending roughly from age four to entry into formal
school. This is when the child’s social world challenges
her to be active, to master new skills, and to win
approval by being productive. This is the age when
child’s facility for language and motor skills make
possible associations with the peers and older children
and thus allow participation in a variety of social
games. During this stage a child begins to feel that
he or she is counted as a person and that life has a

purpose for him. It is an age of initiative, an age of 
 expanding mastery and responsibility. Autonomy
combines with initiative to give the child a quality of
pursuing, planning and determination of achieving
tasks and goals. However, a feeling of guilt may haunt
him if his goals and tasks are not accomplished
 Purpose is the virtue or the main psychosocial strength
that emerges during this stage. The child’s major
activity during this stage is playing. The virtue of
purpose results from play, explorations, attempts,
failures, and experimentation with toys. The child
learns what the purpose of things and begins to understand, 
the connection between the inner and
outer world. Thus an imaginative and uninhibited play
is vital for the child’s development.
4) School Age: Industry Versus Inferiority
This period corresponds to the Latency Period in
Freudian theory and extends from about 6 to 11 years
of age. Here for the first time the child is expected
to learn the rudimentary skills of culture like reading,
writing, cooperating with others etc. via formal
education. This period is associated with the child’s
increased power of reasoning and self discipline, as
well as the ability to relate to peers according to
prescribed rules. During this period, the child develops
a sense of industry when it begins to understand the
technology of his culture through attending school.
That is to say that his work includes many and varied
forms such as attending school, doing chores at home,
assuming responsibility, studying music, learning
manual skills as well as participating in skillful games
and sports. The hazard of this stage is that the child
may develop a sense of inferiority or incompetence if
she is unable to master the tasks that are undertaken
or that are set for it by her teachers and parents.
The virtue of competence emerges during this stage as
one applies oneself to work and to completing tasks.
5) Adolescence: Identity Versus Role Confusion
This period is regarded as highly significant in the
individual’s psychosocial development. Now he is not
a child and not yet an adult. This period extends
roughly from 12 or 13 years to about 20 years of age.
During this age, the adolescent is confronted with
various social demands and role changes that are
essential for meeting the challenges of adulthood. It
164 Introduction to Social Work
is the time for making vocational plans. He becomes
aware of his inherent characteristics such as his
likes and dislikes, anticipated goals of future and the
strength and purpose to control one’s own destiny. It
is during this period that one defines what one is at
present and what one wants to be in future. Because
of the transition from childhood to adulthood, the
adolescent during this stage of identity formation is
likely to suffer more deeply than ever before or ever
again from a confusion of roles or identity confusion.
This state can cause one to feel isolated, empty,
anxious or indecisive. The adolescents may feel that
society is pushing them to make decisions, thus they
may become even more resistant. The adolescent’s
behaviour is inconsistent and unpredictable during
this chaotic state. During this period one may also
develop a negative identity, a sense of possessing a
set of potentially bad or unworthy characteristics.
During this stage the virtue of fidelity develops.
Although now sexually mature and in many ways
responsible, he or she is not yet adequately prepared
to become a parent. On one hand, one is expected to
assimilate oneself into an adult pattern of life while
on the other hand, one is denied the sexual freedom
of an adult. The behaviour shuttles back and forth.
During this difficult period, the youth seeks inner
knowledge and understanding of himself or herself
and attempts to formulate a set of values. The
particular set of values that emerges is what Erikson
called fidelity. Fidelity is the foundation upon which
a continuous sense of identity is formed.
6) Young Adulthood : Intimacy Versus Isolation
This stage marks the formal beginning of adult life.
This is generally the period when a person becomes
involved in courtship, marriage and early family life.  
It extends from late adolescence until adulthood i.e.
from 20 years to roughly 24 years. Now the person is
ready for social as well as sexual intimacy with another
person. Now he orients himself or herself toward,
“settling down” in life. This is the time when one
requires someone to love and to have sexual relations
and with whom one can share a trusting relationship.
The hazard of this stage is isolation, which is the
avoidance of relationships because one is unwilling to
commit to intimacy. The virtue of love comes into
being during this stage. In addition to the romantic
and erotic qualities, Erikson regards love as the ability
to commit oneself to others, showing an attitude of
care, respect and responsibility.
7) Middle Adulthood: Generativity Versus Stagnation
This period corresponds to the middle years of life i.e.
from 25 years to 65 years of age. Generativity occurs
when a person begins to show concern not only for
the welfare of the upcoming generation but also for
the nature of the society in which that generation
will live and work. Main concerns are the generating
of progeny, products, ideas and so forth. When
generativity is weak or not given expression, the
personality takes on a sense of stagnation. The virtue
of care develops during this stage which is expressed
in one’s concern for others.
8) Maturity: Integrity Versus Despair
This stage can best be described as a state which is
reached by one after having taken care of things and
people, products and ideas, and having adapted to the
experiences of successes and failures of life. There is
a definite shift in a person’s attention from future to
past life. This is a time often beset with numerous
demands such as adjustment to deteriorating physical
strength and health, to retirement and reduced income,
to the death of spouse and close friends, and the
need to establish new affiliations with one’s age group.
This stage is marked by the summation, integration
and evaluation of all the preceding stages of human
development. The essential counterpart of integrity is
despair over a series of unfulfilled opportunities and
missed directions of individual’s life cycle. He or she
may realize that it is far too late to start all over
again. He or she has a hidden fear of death, a feeling
of irrevocable failure and an incessant preoccupation
with what might have been.
Wisdom is the virtue that develops out of the encounter
of integrity and despair. Erikson believes that only
during old age does true maturity and a practical
sense of “the wisdom of the ages” comes into being.