Erikson’s Theories of Psychosocial Development



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Erikson’s Theories of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson was a psychoanalyst. Piaget split human development into two strands: psychological and psychosocial. Piaget, of course, explored the former strands in his research while Erikson pursued the latter. Erikson ultimately divided human psychosocial development into eight stages, which have become widely accepted. Psychosocial development is concerned with the development of the individual person in the larger context of society and culture.

A complete understanding of human development is dependent on three separate, related developmental processes according to Erikson in his 1983 book The Life Cycle Completed. In this, he differs from Piaget who only mentioned two. The first is the biological development, called soma, which concerns the growth of organs and bodily mechanisms. The second is psychological development, called psyche from the Greek word, which Erikson understands from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The third, called ethos, is the, “communal process of the cultural organization of the interdependence of persons” (pp. 25-27). This third developmental idea is the main focus of psychosocial development. It focuses on how people depend on each other and how they learn to interact with other people on the social, cultural, community, or family levels.

Erikson is quick to point out that although the focus of his research is psychosocial development, it is impossible to study one developmental process in isolation of the other two. Physical, psychological, and psychosocial development are all completely interrelated and interdependent. For example, if there is a problem or abnormality with the body, such as a physical handicap, that can have adverse internal and external effects on both the psyche and the individual’s standing in and understanding of society (1982, p. 26).

Psychosocial development is an epigenetic process. This term is borrowed from embryology and has a very specific connotation. What it implies in this context is that all of the stages of psychosocial development build on the previous stage. Therefore, whatever strength or competency is developed during the course of an individual stage, will be available in and further developed during all of the proceeding stages. Inversely, any strength or competency that will be developed in later stages is present in an immature, underdeveloped state before it reaches the time when it can grow. Erikson’s stages in many ways parallel Piaget’s; just as no stage can be passed over in regards to a child’s cognitive development, neither can any stage in psychosocial development be skipped (1982, pp. 26-29).

While Erikson’s stages do have similarities to Piaget’s, Erikson’s are much more complicated in that there are many more criteria that must be met to describe a stage fully. There are eight stages ranging from birth through old age. Each stage has eight different criteria. The first criterion is the psychosexual stage of the individual, such as anal-retentive for example. The second is the psychosocial crisis that defines the stage. This is probably the most important factor as the search for a resolution to the crisis guides the individual through the stage. Then, there is the inclusion of the important relations in the individual’s life, which is important psychosocially because it illustrates the individual’s changing relationship and interdependence with others. Fourth, there is a basic strength that is supposed to develop to allow the individual to solve the crisis. For each strength, there is an antipathy, or reverse reaction, that can develop depending on how the individual reacts to the aforementioned crisis. The last two criteria appear to be similar; they are binding ritualization and ritualism. They similar in sound, they are quite different. The former refers to the individual taking part in a rite of passage, such as raising a family, while the latter is a perversion of that, such as ruling a family in an authoritarian manner (1982, pp. 32-33).

The first stage is infancy. The stages are named by their chronological, epigenetic order, but they are defined by the psychosocial crisis that must be solved by the individual. The crisis that must be solved is “Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust.” This relates to the infant learning to depend on other people, primarily the maternal figure, in the first year of life. Should the infant’s need not be met on a regular basis, the infant will not develop the trust necessary to proceed to the next stage and will have developmental problems, both psychosocially as well as psychologically. Hope in the future is the strength that allows the infant to be able to trust (Erikson, 1982, pp. 78-79).

The next stage is early childhood and the defining psychosocial crisis is “Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt.” The struggle in this stage revolves largely around the child learning to control his or her muscles, particularly those related to bodily functions. Autonomy develops as the child learns to control the muscles while shame or doubt become present when a child fails at this either because he or she is not ready or because he or she is prematurely pushed into the struggle by the parents. As the child successfully completes the crisis, he or she develops will, a strength that allows for self-control. When a child is prematurely pushed into controlling his or her muscles, compulsive and impulsive behaviors develop as opposed to the self-will that develops when the child is able to complete the crisis and move on to the next stage (Erikson, 1982, pp. 77-78).

The third stage is the play age; this is fitting because, as Bruner also stated, young children learn the society and the culture through play. The problem that the child now has to deal with is “Initiative vs. Guilt.” According to Erikson, during this stage, the child develops sexual feeling the parent of the opposite sex. This can cause guilt in the child which will inhibit his or her play, and thus get in the way of learning and growing. However, the child uses initiative in play; “play liberates the small individual for a dramatization in the microsphere of a vast number of imagined identifications and activities” (1982, p. 77). This shows that the child is able to initiate activities that relieve guilt. Play provides a safe atmosphere for experimentation without judgment.

The school age, the longest stage so far, occurs from the beginning of formal schooling through adolescence, usually around 13. This can be a difficult stage for children, especially if they did not successfully, healthily complete the previous stage. This is really where children are introduced to work roles in the sense that they have specific objectives that they have to complete at given times. The conflict that children go through, which becomes markedly more pronounced with the beginning of schooling, is “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Children develop a sense of inferiority when they are not able to complete the tasks set for them by the adult authority figures, whether they are parents, teachers, or someone else entirely, or when they complete those tasks but are not recognized for doing so. As they are completing this stage, they begin to develop a sense of competence, or a “sense that in the growing human being must gradually integrate all the maturing methods of verifuing and mastering factuality and of sharing the actuality of those who cooperate in the same productive situation” (Erikson, 1982, pp. 75-76). It can be seen that children are learning how to learn as well as how to interact with others. Also, the epigenetic nature of psychosocial development can be clearly seen because children would not be able to develop competence or complete tasks if they did not possess the strengths of initiative and will that were previously developed and that continue to mature.

Adolescence, the fifth stage, is arguably the most pivotal of the stages because the way that an individual proceeds through adolescence directly relates to the person that he or she will become for the duration of adult life. “Identity vs. Identity Confusion” is the simple name given to a complex struggle. The adolescent struggles greatly to understand who he or she is. The process of developing through adolescence has two intrinsic patterns. First, the adolescent must determine, either consciously or not, which of his or her childhood ideas and ideals are to be kept and internalized and which are no longer useful and need to be abandoned. Second, the adolescent must come to terms with how society identifies young people. This varies by culture, but when adolescents internalize the ideas about how they are supposed to be and act that are put forth by the media and society, it can be dangerous to them as those images are often unattainable or are not acceptable outside of the moratorium given to adolescents. Fidelity is the strength that emerges during this period. The need for guidance is still present in the adolescent, but it shifts in part from parental figures to other mentors, teachers, and leaders. The adolescent is likely to develop strong ideals during this period; lacking the development of those ideals, he or she will either become indifferent or defiant. Both of those qualities are very common in today’s schools. As the adolescent progresses out of this stage, he or she should have a clear sense of self and identity (Erikson, 1982, 72-75).

The final three stages of psychosocial development are very interesting because Erikson is one of the few theorists who examine the whole spectrum of human life when developing theories of human development. Not only does he study adulthood, he actually recognizes three distinct stages in the broad, ill-defined idea of adulthood: young adulthood, adulthood, and old age. As with all of the stages, a precise chronological date cannot be given as the transitions between stages vary with both culture and the individual person. Young adulthood is defined by the crisis of “Intimacy vs. Isolation.” This is often where an individual will make the decision to commit to another. In adulthood, people struggle with “Generativity vs. Stagnation” where they feel the need to create, to contribute, and, most importantly, to care for. Care can take many forms, whether it is providing a safe environment, providing emotional support or guidance, and providing those things that are necessary to live, among others. Lastly, in old age, the crisis is “Integrity vs. Despair.” During this struggle the individual tries to cope with his or her physical and mental deterioration, as well as the comparable lack of responsibility and generative activity (Erikson, 1982, pp. 66-72).



These stages provide a general framework by which the paths an individual may take through psychosocial development may be charted. The journey is unique to each person, but all follow basic archetypal patterns and go through the stages in the same order. Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development when combined with Piaget’s stages psychological development provide a much clearer picture of how the whole person develops throughout life than either could do alone. Paiget’s and Erikson’s theories do not seem to be in conflict with each other and an acceptance of one does not necessitate a rejection of the other. Erikson was correct in asserting that psychological, psychosocial, and physical development cannot really be separated. Any one studied in isolation will give only an incomplete picture; it takes interdisciplinary study to gain a fuller understanding.
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