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Critically evaluate Eriksons psychosocial theory

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    Erik Erickson is possibly the best known of Sigmunds Freud’s many followers. He

    grew up in Europe and spent his young adult life under the direction of Freud. In 1933

    when Hitler rose to power in Germany, Erikson emigrated to the United States and

    began teaching at Harvard University. His clinical work and studies were based on

    children, college students, victims of combat fatigue during World War two, civil

    rights workers, and American Indians. It was these studies which led Erikson to

    believe that Freud misjudged some important dimensions of human development.

    Throughout this essay, Erikson’s psychosocial model will be explored,

    discussed and evaluated interms of it’s concepts, theories and assumptions. The

    theoretical underpinning will be discussed with reference to the nature versus nurture

    debate and also the continuity versus discontinuity argument. It will then be shown

    how Erikson has influenced the way psychologists view the importance of identity

    during adolescents. Firstly, however, Erikson’s work will be put alongside that of

    Freud’s to establish an understanding of the basis from which it came.

    Erikson’s psychosocial model was heavily influenced by Freud, and shares a

    number of central ideas. For example, both Freud and Erikson agree that every

    individual is born with a number of basic instincts, that development occurs through

    stages, and that the order of these stages is influenced by biological maturation

    (Sigelman, and Shaffer 1992). Erikson also believes, as did Freud, that personality has

    three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. Therefore it is fair to say that

    Erikson is a psychoanalytic theorist.

    However, Erikson does argue that social and cultural influences have a critical

    role in shaping human development, and less significance should be placed on the role

    of sexual urges. Freud did note however, that social agents such as parents should be

    regarded as important, but it is Erikson who highlights the forces within a much

    broader social environment, including peers, teachers and schools which are highly

    important according to Erikson. Erikson, then, moves more towards the ‘nurture’ side

    of the nature – nurture debate than did Freud, viewing nurture as equally important in

    development. This ‘nurture’ outlook highlights the emphasis on environmental forces

    within Erikson’s model. Experiences in life, changes achieved through learning, the

    influence of methods of child rearing, societal changes and culture all have an

    exceptionally important role on human development according to Erickson.

    In addition, Erikson’s theory encompasses the whole of the human life-span,

    outlining the stages that occur, which will be looked at more closely later on. Erikson

    also regards the individual as having responsibility during each stage of development

    and that they also have the opportunity to achieve a positive and healthy resolution to

    the ‘crisis’ experienced. Erikson, therefore, puts less emphasis on the id and instead

    places more emphasis on the ego. In his view, human beings are rational creatures

    who’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are largely controlled by the ego and it is the

    ego’s development in which he is interested in.

    Before we go any further it is important to look at Erikson’s psychosocial

    model in more detail in order to understand the following evaluation.

    Erikson’s model consists of eight stage of development, with each stage

    unfolding as the individual goes through the life cycle. Each stage consists of a ‘crisis’

    that must be confronted. The term epigenetic principle was used by Erikson to describe

    the process that guides development through the life cycle. Within this it is urged that

    everything that grows has a blue print, each having a special time of ascendancy, until

    all of the parts have arisen to form a ‘functional whole’ (Siglemann and Shaffer 1992).

    It has been attained that Erikson’s psychosocial model consists of eight stages

    of development which continue thoughout the life-span of an individual. This idea of

    ‘discontinuity’ suggests that development occurs via a series of abrupt changes that

    develop from one stage to another. Presumably Erikson believes that an individual

    experiences a rapid period of change and reorganisation before being elevated to a new

    and more advanced stage of development. Continuity theorists however, would argue

    that human development is a process that occurs in small steps, without sudden

    change. Physical growth and language development, for example, show smooth,

    gradual and continuous growth. But Erikson does not totally rule out this argument.

    He suggests that experiences in the early stages have a bearing on the experiences in

    the later stages, this indicates that earlier and later development are connected in such

    away as to suggest continuity. Erikson also stresses the importance of environmental

    influences which would place the emphasises on continuous development, however, he

    also highlights the influential role of maturation in the growth sequence (as highlighted

    earlier). This suggests that Erikson did not ally himself with either extreme point of

    view. He recognised that some aspects of development are continuous, whereas others

    show stage-like characteristics. What Erikson has produced is a sequence of critical

    periods in the human life cycle. However, he did not imply that the crisis was by any

    means catastrophic, but that they represent crucial developments in which a decisive

    turn, one way or another is unavoidable (Stevens 1983).

    Eriksons psychosocial model is very generalised and he himself acknowledged

    that no attempt was made to trace the differences in ego development between the

    sexes. Erikson justifies this decision by arguing that beyond childhood there are no

    consistent differences between the development of men and women. It has also been

    suggested that the model lacks rigour (Stevens 1983), as the behaviours and

    components are not easy to specify precisely and they are often unclear. Some have

    criticised the overlapping of the stages, though this may reflect the way things really

    are rather than any inadequacy in the account. As mentioned during the introduction,

    Erikson’s model was based on his clinical work and studies of people from all stages of

    life, which provided excellent access to intimate details of their life experiences.

    However, Erikson accepted the possibility that due to this, his theory could be class or

    culture bound and actively pursued to remedy that assertion via his anthropological

    studies and seminars to discuss and compare the patterns of the life cycle in societies

    other than his own. In later writings, Erikson goes on to deepen his contribution to our

    understanding of the life cycle in two particular ways. One is represented by his

    biographical studies of the lives of specific individuals. The other, which will be

    considered next, is to elaborate in greater detail on the issue which first come to

    ‘ascendancy’ (Stevens 1983), as we become adult, identity.

    Erikson believed that adolescence was a time of major change. It was he who

    characterised adolescence as a ‘critical period in the life long process of forming one’s

    identity’ (Sileman and Shaffer pp315). The concept of identity is a consistent theme

    throughout Erikson’s work and there are several reasons why it assumes so much

    importance for Erikson, one of which is it’s significance in modern life. According to

    Erikson the nature of society will reflect in the psychological problems

    characteristically experienced by the members of that society (Stevens 1983 p59). In

    today’s society, Erikson claims, identity confusion is the most important issue.

    According to Erikson, during his ‘identity versus identity confusion’ stage, adolescents

    are faced with finding out who they are and where they are going in life. Many new

    roles are being explored and parents must allow their child to fully do so in a healthy

    manner, which will help arrive at a positive identity. However if an identity is imposed

    upon the adolescent and they are not allowed to explore for themselves, then ‘identity

    confusion reigns’ (Santrock 1992). Some individuals may withdraw or turn to drugs

    There are a number of good reasons why Erikson’s theory may be correct, and

    an individuals sense of identity may change considerably through adolescence. It is this

    period of the life cycle that physical changes occur, which will affect an individuals

    body image or sense of physical self. Also during this period a pattern of sexual

    relationships needs to be decided upon while societal expectations urge a young person

    However, this supporting evidence only highlights that Erikson’s ideas were

    not obtained via any large-scale survey’s, they were infact only based on his own

    observations, and his clinical practice. Therefore they require the evidence and support

    of empirical findings to discover when a sense of identity is actually achieved. The

    most thorough attempt to do this was made by James Marcia (1966), after he

    developed a interview technique to asses ‘identity status’. Within the interview

    questions relating to occupation, religion, political belief and attitudes to sexual areas

    would be asked, and depending upon the answers an individual would be placed into

    one of four groups. These groups are: diffusion (or confusion), where the individual

    has not yet started thinking about identity seriously, foreclosure, where a commitment

    has been made but without going through a crisis, moratorium, where the individual is

    going through a ‘crisis’, and finally achievement, where the individual has been

    through the ‘crisis’ and has reached a resolution.

    A number of studies have been undertaken using Marcia’s scheme and one in

    particular is of great interest. Meilman (1979), performed a cross-sectional study on

    12-24 year old males. It was discovered that just over half of the subjects had reached

    identity achievement at 24 years. Therefore this shows that identity achievement must

    go on into adulthood. O’Connell (1976), found similar patterns when he carried out

    retrospective interviews with married women who had school age children. These

    women described how their identity became more evident to themselves as they

    progressed though their life, from getting married, to finding a job, to having children.

    These findings suggest that identity development is not so strongly focused in

    The work on identity status and it’s attempt to pin down Erikson’s ideas has

    shown some interesting findings but can be criticised on three counts. Firstly, it is not

    the case that adolescents experience the moratorium status in different topic areas at

    the same time. It is evident that at a single point in time, one content area (e.g.

    religious belief), may be stable while another area of life decision (e.g. sexuality), is in

    crisis. Secondly, a crisis can occur at any point in time during adult life, but identity

    development is quite prominent in the early adult years (Cowie and Smith 1996).

    Finally, it has been discovered that for most young people, most of the time ‘changes

    in identity are gradual’ (Cowie and Smith 1996), and are not restricted to individual

    stage-like experiences. It would therefore appear that the status categories are not

    such a useful tool for adequately assessing identity as first expected.

    In conclusion, Erikson’s work is a direct descendent of Freudian theory. He

    does not try to redefine the fundamentals of psychoanalysis but instead enrich, clarify

    and extend it by taking into account the importance of culture and historical context’s.

    Erikson was also able to illustrate the nature of their influence on individual identity.

    However, this is not without criticism, many of which have been mentioned earlier.

    Some are relatively minor, such as the considerable similarities in the context of his

    books, but more serious is the possibility of cultural bias. Although he recognised that

    his conceptualisation of identity and the life cycle were centred in modern Western

    society, he still used them in situations where they may not have been applicable in the

    same way (Stevens 1983). So what is it then, that Erikson has produced? It is hardly

    comparable to the biological and natural sciences with their requirements of precision,

    replicability and testable hypothesis. Therefore the theory is best regarded, to adopt his

    own words, as ‘a tool to think with’ rather than ‘a prescription to abide by’ (Stevens

    References

    Cowie. H, & Smith. P. K. (1996), ‘Understanding Children’s Development’ (2nd Ed),
    Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

    Rice. F. P, (1998), ‘Title Human development : a life-span approach’ (3rd Ed),
    London, Hall International.

    Santrock. J. W, (1992), ‘Title Life-span development’ (4th Ed), Iowa, W.C. Brown.

    Sigelman. C. K. & Shaffer. D. R. (1991), ‘Life-span Human development’, U.S.A,
    Wadsworth, Inc.

    Stevens. R, (1983), ‘Erik Erikson’, Great Britain, Open University Press.

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