Critically evaluate Eriksons psychosocial theory

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.

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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


  1. Cowie. H, & Smith. P. K. (1996), ‘Understanding Children’s Development’ (2nd Ed), Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
  2. Rice. F. P, (1998), ‘Title Human development : a life-span approach’ (3rd Ed), London, Hall International.
  3. Santrock. J. W, (1992), ‘Title Life-span development’ (4th Ed), Iowa, W.C. Brown.
  4. Sigelman. C. K. & Shaffer. D. R. (1991), ‘Life-span Human development’, U.S.A, Wadsworth, Inc.
  5. Stevens. R, (1983), ‘Erik Erikson’, Great Britain, Open University Press.

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