Erikson, Erik Homburger

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Frankfurt, Germany, 15 June 1902;

d. Harwich, Massachusetts, 12 May 1994), psychoanalytic theory, psychohistory and psychobiography, child and adolescent psychotherapy, developmental psychology.

Erikson is best known for identifying eight stages of psychosocial development in the human life cycle and for his concept of the identity crisis. He expanded psychoanalytic theory to include the influence of cultural variations on individual ego development, and showed how personality development in certain key individuals can induce widespread cultural changes. For his book Gandhi’s Truth, he won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. By improving Sigmund Freud’s case-history research methods and extending their application beyond childhood to the entire life span, Erikson became the father of contemporary psychobiographical research.

Early Development . Erik Erikson entered the world in the midst of an identity crisis. Conceived in Denmark, he was born in Germany. His mother, Karla Abrahamsen, was a Danish Jew; his father was probably a Danish Gentile, perhaps an artist or photographer. She had been very briefly married to another man several years earlier, but never revealed the identity of Erik’s father. To avoid scandalizing her family, she moved from Copenhagen to Frankfurt before the birth. Baby Erik was blond and blue-eyed, resembling no one in the family. He became well aware of his differences from those around him as he grew older. On his third birthday his mother married a German Jewish pediatrician; she told Erik that the doctor was his birth father. Little Erik had his suspicions, entertaining the sort of fantasy that Freud called the “family romance”: that both his true parents must be much finer than these obvious imposters. Erik was not officially told about his adoptive status until late childhood; he remained bitter about how his mother and stepfather had lied to him, as a brief autobiography written nearly sixty years later indicates:

I grew up in Karlsruhe in Baden as the son of a pediatrician, Dr. Theodor Homburger, and his wife Karla, née Abrahamsen, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark. All through my earlier childhood they kept secret from me the fact that my mother had been married previously and that I was the son of a Dane who had abandoned her before my birth. (1970, p. 742)

Except for such questions about his true identity, Erik Homburger had a comfortable childhood, with a solid classical education at the local Gymnasium. He displayed artistic talent and was encouraged in that direction by his mother’s artist friends. His stepfather wanted Erik to follow in his footsteps as a pediatrician; Erik chose instead to pursue the wandering life of an art student from his late teens until age twenty-five. It was not unusual at that time for the sons of well-to-do German families to pursue a Wanderjahr(literally, wandering year) or a longer Wander-schaft(period of journeying). (He later wrote about such socially approved postponements of full adulthood, referring to them as “psychosocial moratoria.”) Erik’s mother provided occasional financial support, and he was able to sell or barter sketches to people he met on his travels. Eventually he realized that he was not sufficiently talented to become a full-time artist, so he returned to Karlsruhe to become an art teacher. At that point a friend of his from the Gymnasium, Peter Blos, told him of a more interesting possibility. In Vienna, Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna had become close to a wealthy American heiress, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, who needed a tutor for her four children. Erik was first hired to sketch the children, then took over their tutoring from Blos. Erik impressed the children and both women with his competence and empathy. Other members of the Freud circle, including analysts and patients, also had children who needed to be educated. Blos was invited to set up a small psychoanalytically oriented school, with himself and Erik as the faculty.

Psychoanalytic Training . In 1927, when Erik Homburger joined Blos in Vienna, he knew little or nothing about psychoanalysis. But it was an exciting time to get to know the Freuds and the ideas they were advancing. Sigmund Freud had recently proposed a new theory of anxiety, emphasizing its use by the ego to keep other parts of the personality in line. Anna Freud was beginning to develop her own ideas, building on her father’s concepts about unconscious defenses to understand how adolescents cope with inner and outer threats to their continuing psychological development. She was also analyzing children directly, rather than waiting for them to enter analysis as adults with problems left over from childhood. Other members of the Freudian circle were similarly reshaping Sigmund Freud’s earlier concepts into a more reality-oriented “ego psychology,” in contrast to the earlier “id psychology” that emphasized unconscious urges for immediate satisfaction. Sigmund Freud, who gave Anna a training analysis though she had no advanced degrees in medicine or otherwise, had begun to encourage the practice of “lay analysis” by other nonmedical psychoanalysts in Europe and America.

Anna Freud was eager to expand the practice of child analysis, whether by psychoanalytically trained psychiatrists or by analysts with talents in other directions. Recognizing Erik Homburger’s promise in the way he taught young children, she offered him a nearly free training analysis. He hesitantly accepted her offer, at first having no intention to practice as a psychoanalyst. During his four years of almost daily analysis with Anna, he often encountered Sigmund in the waiting room between their offices, but all his substantive conversations were with Anna alone. Erik was shy, and he knew that Sigmund was already suffering badly from the oral cancer that would eventually kill him, so they rarely said anything more to each other than hello. Erik learned his psychoanalytic theory and practice directly from Anna Freud, from reading Sigmund Freud’s works, and from seminars with prominent analysts at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. As Erik’s ideas about psychoanalytic theory and practice began to emerge, he offered them in a soft-spoken and thoughtful manner, avoiding the loud rebelliousness of some of Freud’s former disciples. In Lawrence Friedman’s accurate characterization, Erik engaged in a “process of embracing while amplifying and subtly criticizing” Freudian theory (1999, p. 88), not only as a student in Vienna but throughout his psychoanalytic career.

Professional Beginnings . At a Viennese masked ball in 1929, Erik Homburger met a Canadian-American teacher and student of modern dance named Joan Serson. They fell in love, moved in together, and married shortly after they found she was pregnant. Joan was Episcopalian, doubted the value of psychoanalysis, and disliked Anna Freud. But she was a believer in Erik’s capabilities, brought increased order to his life, and gradually helped him to develop an eloquence in his English-language writings that he might not have otherwise achieved. After he finished his clinical training and became a full member both of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytical Association, they decided together that it was time to leave Vienna. Erik wanted to establish his own psychoanalytic practice, somewhere beyond the tight circle around Sigmund and Anna Freud. The Nazis were gaining strength in Austria as well as in Germany, and Joan was dismayed by the thought of raising children in such an ugly political atmosphere. They left Vienna in spring 1933, going first to Copenhagen, where Erik still had a number of maternal relatives and where he hoped to find traces of his birth father. But psychoanalysis was in official disfavor there, and the Danish government refused to give Erik a work permit. Rather

than returning to Vienna, the Homburgers headed for America.

Erik had been encouraged by Hanns Sachs, an early Freud disciple who had moved to Boston, to set up a child analysis practice there. Joan’s mother also lived there and promised to help them. They arrived in fall 1933 with two small sons in tow. In spite of his limited facility in English, Erik quickly gained a strong reputation as a child analyst, achieving impressive success in treating several adults as well. Despite his lack of higher-educational degrees (or indeed any degrees beyond his graduation from the Gymnasium in Karlsruhe and a diploma in Montessori education), he was offered part-time professional positions in several Boston-area clinical settings. Most significantly in terms of his subsequent career, he was hired by Henry A. Murray to join the staff of the Harvard Psychological Clinic.

The clinic did not operate primarily as a treatment facility but as a research center, empirically testing psychoanalytic concepts and other approaches to personality. Murray quickly made Erik a member of the center’s Diagnostic Council, an elite group of experts in one or another approach to personality assessment. Murray asked him to apply a modified version of a technique that Erik had already used successfully with children, in which the child patient creates a doll family out of clay and then acts out various family interactions among the dolls, to the center’s Harvard undergraduate volunteer subjects. When the results of the center’s first major study were published in 1938 as the now-classic volume Explorations in Personality, Erik was listed on the title page as one of Murray’s coauthors, still under the name of Erik Homburger.

By that time, however, Erik and his family (now including a daughter) had moved on. His reputation as a child analyst was spreading rapidly, attracting particular attention at a campus that was active both in research on children and in the incorporation of psychoanalytic theory into academic psychology: Yale University. Erikson was offered a position there—again, not as a full-time faculty member in one department, but as a part-timer with his time split among several programs. Henry Murray was unhappy to see him go, but Erik was beginning to express ambitions that the largely experiment-oriented Harvard psychology department was unlikely to let him fulfill. The move to Yale also enabled Erik to start over again personally, by changing his last name from his stepfather’s “Homburger” to the self-created “Erikson.” He kept Homburger as his middle name, to honor his stepfather’s contributions to his upbringing; he thought of Erikson as recognizing his birth father—who, according to some Copenhagen rumors, shared the given name of Erik. Both Erik and Joan adopted the Erikson name when they became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1938, and also gave the name to their three children, who were happy that other children would not be calling them “Hamburger” any more. That was one of the reasons Erik Erikson later gave for the change in the family name.

Though Erikson was welcomed by some child psychologists at Yale, others disdained his empathic approach to understanding children. He lasted no longer there than at Harvard. By now, however, his reputation had spread as far as the West Coast, where in 1939 he was offered another package of part-time positions at the University of California’s (UC) Berkeley campus. Those part-time positions included the chance to work with samples of psychologically healthy children, rather than the disturbed ones he had mostly been observing and treating. Complementing an earlier research trip to an Oglala Sioux reservation, he also visited a Yurok tribe in Northern California, where he questioned and observed adults and children concerning tribal child-raising practices. Such cross-cultural excursions added to his own contrasting observations of childhood in Germany, Austria, and America. During World War II, he employed his cross-cultural expertise to provide U.S. government agencies with analyses of German national character, including the development of Adolf Hitler’s charismatic appeal to German youth.

Erikson’s initial appointments at UC Berkeley were not renewed, partly as a result of personal and theoretical clashes with sponsoring faculty members. During most of the 1940s he supported himself largely through private clinical practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also wrote a series of important papers, which he began to see as the foundation for his first book. His growing professional reputation and the impending publication of this book, as well as a competing offer from Yale, led UC Berkeley to offer him a tenured full professorship in 1949. That was a remarkable achievement for a man who had never earned a formal degree and who had begun to learn English only at age thirty-one. Erikson was delighted to receive such recognition from the academic establishment, and soon accepted the offer. But after a year in this prestigious new position, he joined a faculty protest against a loyalty oath imposed by the UC’s Board of Regents, resigning his professorship along with several other members of the psychology department. For several months he maintained a temporary research appointment at Berkeley, but the Northeast was calling again.

Midlife Achievement and Influence . In October 1950, three months after submitting his statement of resignation to UC, Erikson published his first and most influential book, Childhood and Society. The book was not a systematic explication of his ideas but included examples from each of the several related lines of his psychoanalytic research and writing. Four underlying themes were evident throughout: the constant work of the individual ego in mediating between the demands of biology and society; the influence of an individual’s distinctive social world on his or her psychological development; the developmental challenges faced by the individual from early childhood throughout adulthood and into old age; and the promotion of healthy psychological development rather than a focus on the neurotic struggles of the usual clinical case history. Each of these themes represented modifications and expansions in the perspectives of Sigmund Freud and his immediate followers, and were therefore controversial among orthodox psychoanalysts. But Erikson’s discussion of psychological development across the whole human life span attracted the enthusiastic attention of many readers outside Freudian circles.

Like Freud, Erikson conceptualized personality development as proceeding through a series of distinct stages, with the possibility of becoming fixated at a given stage when the individual is unable to cope effectively with that stage’s distinctive developmental crisis. But whereas Freud focused on what he called “psychosexual” stages and crises, Erikson concluded that those early developmental stages were much broader in scope, involving “psychosocial” crises as well. In Freud’s oral stage, the developmental crisis is weaning; Erikson saw the broader crisis the child faces there as whether to develop a basic sense of trust in the parents or to retain a sense of mistrust. In

Stages in the Development of the Personality
SOURCE: Table from Erikson, Erik H. “The Life Cycle: Epigenesis of Identity,” Identity: Youth and Crisis, W. W. Norton: New York, 1968, 94.
VTerporal perspective vs. Time confusionSelf Certainty vs. self ConsciousnessRole Experimentation vs. Role FixationApprenticeship vs. Work ParalysisIDENTITY vs. IDENTITY CONFUSSIONSexual Polarization vs. Bisexual ConfusionLeader-and Followership vs.Authority ConfusionIdeological Commitment vs. Confusion of Values
IV   INDUSTRY vs. INFERIORITYTask Identification vs. sense of Futility   
III  INITIATIVE vs. GUILT Anticipation of Roles vs. Role Inhibition   
II AUTONOMY vs. SHAME, DOUBT  Will to be Oneself vs. Self-Doubt   
ITRUST vs. MISTRUST   Mutual Recognition vs. Autistic Isolation   

Freud’s anal stage, the crisis is toilet training; Erikson identified the broader crisis as developing a sense of autonomy or becoming overwhelmed by shame and self-doubt. In Freud’s phallic stage, the crisis involves the child’s assertion of sexual or sensual attraction to the opposite-sexed parent and a perception of threat from the same-sexed parent; Erikson saw the issue more broadly (and not just sexually) as a matter of displaying initiative or of developing “a sense of guilt over the goals contemplated and the acts initiated in one’s exuberant enjoyment of new locomotor and mental power” (1963, p. 255). In Freud’s latency stage, the child represses Oedipal concerns while undergoing asexual cognitive development; Erikson likewise sees the stage as one where the child “develops a sense of industry. … In all cultures, at this stage, children receive some systematic instruction” (1963, p. 259), which may instead yield a sense of inferiority. In Freud’s genital stage, the crisis is one of attaining full adult sexual capabilities; Erikson sees it as just as significantly concerned with attaining a sense of one’s individual identity, in terms not only of gender but of occupational interests and other personal enthusiasms and social roles. Erikson also identified several additional developmental stages beyond the achievement of genital maturity and ego identity. In these further stages, Freud’s psychosexual emphasis recedes as the psychosocial issues of full adulthood come to the fore.

The stages of psychosocial development that Erikson diagramed and discussed in Childhood and Society’s central chapter, “Eight Ages of Man,” have become a standard feature of introductory psychology textbooks and self-help best sellers (with the latter often disguising their Eriksonian sources behind new terminology). His book was not an immediate best seller, but within less than a decade after its publication the Eriksonian psychosocial stages were recognized by many developmental psychologists and other mental health professionals as a good way to organize thinking about major turning points across the individual’s life cycle. Though Erikson’s resignation from his tenured full professorship at Berkeley was a courageous form of protest against an abridgment of academic freedom, the publication of Childhood and Society meant that he had little need to worry about getting another job fairly quickly.

Indeed, his next job offered advantages that Berkeley did not. He joined the clinical staff of the Austen Riggs Center, a private psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The center’s staff included several other distinguished psychoanalysts, who were happy to have Erikson as a colleague. He was given a light patient load, mostly troubled adolescents who provided case material for his study of identity issues, and he was allowed substantial time to write. He became a prolific writer during his Austen Riggs years, most significantly producing his first full-length psychobiography, Young Man Luther(1958). In his earlier and much briefer study of Hitler’s childhood, he traced the role of certain Germanic cultural influences as they interacted with Adolf’s particular family circumstances to produce a massively destructive personality pattern. In Young Man Luther, Erikson examined other Germanic cultural patterns in interaction with Luther’s childhood circumstances as they led to a similarly society-changing but more constructive outcome. He used Luther’s example to discuss in much greater detail than before the fifth stage of his eight-stage psychosocial schema, Ego Identity versus Role Confusion, as it culminates in an identity crisis. Martin Luther resolved his identity crisis, according to Erikson, by advancing a new concept of man’s relationship to God, thus initiating the Protestant Reformation.

Erikson also used his discussion of Luther to offer advice to other biographers on how to do psychobiography responsibly: look for the sources of the subject’s psychological strengths, not only for serious flaws; avoid “originology,” which Erikson defined as focusing only on childhood sources of adult personality without recognizing the contributions of later developmental stages; pay attention to obvious gaps in the biographical record (such as, in this case, any significant mention of Luther’s mother) and look for evidence that might productively bridge those gaps. Although some Luther scholars have criticized Erikson’s analysis of Luther, others have praised his book as insightful and as stimulating further scholarship. (See the volume edited by Capps, Capps, and Bradford, 1977, for several perspectives.) His methodological suggestions have also been seen as advancing psychobiography significantly beyond Freud’s initial contributions to the field.

After spending most of the 1950s at the Austen Riggs Center, Erikson was offered a position at Harvard University that was tailor-made for him: a full-time appointment as professor of human development—a title that he chose, with no obligations to any specific academic department, but with freedom to teach on the topics of his expertise and to associate with friendly and influential colleagues in several areas. He was also named as a lecturer in the Harvard Medical School’s department of psychiatry, though he had no medical degree. By this time, as Erikson remarked in his “Autobiographic Notes on the Identity Crisis,” he had come as close as possible to being a pediatrician (his stepfather’s original aim for him) without going to medical school.

At Harvard, Erikson taught a course on the human life cycle to undergraduates for the first time. The course was quite popular; over the years he was assigned a variety of graduate teaching assistants to help him with the large enrollments. Several of these assistants later went on to prominence in the social and behavioral sciences themselves, including Robert Coles, Kenneth Keniston, Carol Gilligan, and Mary Catherine Bateson. Perhaps in part because he gained so much satisfaction by nurturing both undergraduate students and graduate assistants in this course, Erikson focused in his next book on the seventh stage of his life cycle schema, generativity versus stagnation. (It should be noted that Stage Seven issues had earlier become painfully salient to Erikson himself after Joan gave birth to a Down syndrome child in 1944. At Erikson’s direction, the child was quickly placed in a private institution and died there in 1965 without parental contact or acknowledgment.)

Like his earlier work on Luther, Gandhi’s Truth(1969) is a psychobiography of a revolutionary figure who resolves a developmental crisis in his own life while initiating a major religious and political movement that changes the culture around him. Though Mohandas Gandhi had identity issues as a young man, Erikson saw his crucial psychosocial crisis as that of middle age: accepting or rejecting one’s responsibilities to other people. Erik-son’s carefully chosen word for the positive pole of Stage Seven’s crisis, “generativity,” most often refers to taking care of one’s own children, but it can also encompass taking care of others’ children (as in a classroom), taking care of one’s community (as expressed in political responsibilities), and in Gandhi’s case, taking care of a whole nation—initiating and guiding the cultural and political changes that ultimately freed India from British rule. Erikson gave special attention to Gandhi’s development of satyagraha, usually translated as “truth force” or (more passively) “nonviolent resistance,” which involves caring for one’s opponents as well as for one’s fellow citizens. Erikson did not judge Gandhi’s motives as altogether virtuous, however; a major point of his book was the need not only for “Gandhi’s Truth” in the form of satyagraha, but for “Freud’s Truth” in the form of self-exploration and self-criticism of one’s less conscious motives. (In Gandhi’s case, according to Erikson, these included unstated urges toward violence in addition to his endorsement of peaceful goal-seeking). Erikson also continued to elaborate his methodological advice to other psychobiographers, especially in terms of what to make of a subject’s autobiographical accounts. As he pointed out, Gandhi wrote several versions of his autobiography at different times in his life; the astute psychobiographer needs to pay attention to Gandhi’s intended audience and underlying aims when interpreting and assessing each autobiographical version.

Moving into Old Age . Erikson retired from the Harvard teaching faculty in 1970, but he hardly retired from writing. Although he did not complete any more long psychobiographies along the lines of the Luther and Gandhi books, he wrote thoughtful shorter works on Thomas Jefferson and on Jesus. With the full participation of his wife Joan, he continued to write about the later stages of the life cycle. Perhaps his most interesting treatment of the final stage, dealing with the crisis he called “ego integrity versus despair,” was a paper he had originally developed for his Harvard undergraduate course as a commentary on the Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries. The film depicts an elderly Scandinavian professor’s review of his entire life cycle on the day he is to receive an honorary degree for his life’s work—no doubt a personally resonant film for Erikson, but also an excellent medium for him to communicate to young people what it means to look back on one’s life at its end and to assess whether it has been emotionally and morally rewarding or deeply disappointing.

In his late seventies Erikson thought about writing a full-scale autobiography, perhaps as a further illustration of that final stage of psychosocial development. But he did not do it; as he moved into his eighties, his memories and his eloquence began to fade. Continuing the pattern he had followed throughout his life, he moved every few years from one part of the country to another, though by now the places he moved to were mostly returns: back for a while to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, then to Tiburon in the San Francisco Bay Area, then across the continent again to Cape Cod and to Cambridge, near Harvard. During his final years he was unable to write anything or to remember much of what had gone before. He died on Cape Cod at age ninety-one. His wife Joan continued to write about the life cycle until her own death three years later.


The primary archival collection of Erikson’s papers is in the Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.


“Dramatic Productions Test.” In Explorations in Personality, by Henry A. Murray et al., pp. 552–582. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1950. 2nd, enlarged ed., 1963.

“The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association2 (1954): 5–56.

Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Norton, 1958.

Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.

Gandhi’s Truth: The Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: Norton, 1969.

“Autobiographic Notes on the Identity Crisis.” Daedalus99, no. 4 (1970): 730–759.

Dimensions of a New Identity. New York: Norton, 1974.

Life History and the Historical Moment. New York: Norton, 1975.

“Reflections on Dr. Borg’s Life Cycle.” Daedalus105, no. 2 (1976): 1–31.

“The Galilean Sayings and the Sense of ‘I’.” Yale Review70, no. 3 (1981): 321–362.

The Life Cycle Completed. New York: Norton, 1982.

A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers from 1930 to 1980. Edited by Stephen Schlein. New York: Norton, 1987. Includes a complete bibliography of Erikson’s published work.

The Erik Erikson Reader. Edited by Robert Coles. New York: Norton, 2000.


Alexander, Irving L. “Erikson and Psychobiography, Psychobiography and Erikson.” In Handbook of Psychobiography, edited by William Todd Schultz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Bloland, Sue Erikson. In the Shadow of Fame. New York: Viking, 2005. A memoir of family life by Erikson’s daughter, who is a psychotherapist.

Capps, Donald, Walter H. Capps, and M. Gerald Bradford, eds. Encounter with Erikson: Historical Interpretation and Religious Biography. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977.

Coles, Robert. Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. A sympathetic biography by one of Erikson’s most distinguished students.

Evans, Richard I. Dialogue with Erik Erikson. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Transcripts of several filmed interviews with Erikson.

Friedman, Lawrence J. Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner, 1999. The most extensive and detailed biography.

Roazen, Paul. Erik H. Erikson: The Power and Limits of a Vision. New York: Free Press, 1976. A critical biography; Erikson privately disputed some details.

Stevens, Richard. Erik Erikson: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. A brief and clear presentation of Erikson’s life and work.

Alan C. Elms

Erikson, Erik Homburger

views updated May 11 2018

Erikson, Erik Homburger

(b. 15 June 1902 in Frankfurt, Germany; d. 12 May 1994 in Harwich, Massachusetts), psychoanalyst who theorized that psychological development is best understood in the context of social, geographical, and historical circumstances and is best known for his study of the adolescent “identity crisis” and as a founder of the discipline of psychohistory.

Erikson was the son of Karla Abrahamsen, a member of a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen, Denmark. Karla’s first husband had abandoned her four years before she became pregnant and she was sent to live with relatives in Germany for the birth of her first child. In Germany, Abrahamsen met the pediatrician Theodore Homburger, and the couple was married in 1905. Erik was told that Homburger was his biological father and carried his name beginning in 1905. Until 1911, when Erik was legally adopted by Homburger, his birth certificate listed his father as Valdemar Salomonsen, Karla’s first husband, but the true identity of Erikson’s biological father is unknown. He and his two half sisters were raised in the upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Karlsruhe. (Another child died at age two.) Erikson attended the local gymnasium, where, according to Erikson’s own account, his tall, blond, blue-eyed physical appearance often marked him as different from other Jewish children, just as his name and family marked him as different from the dominant German Gentile culture. Later in life, Erikson often noted that his early years as an immigrant and as an adopted child placed him on the margins of multiple cultural identities and prompted his lifelong concern with the nature of identity formation in individuals and groups.

Beginning in 1922, the young Erikson undertook a Wandhershaft, an extended period of wandering, reading, reflection, and journal writing typical of many middle-class European youths of his day. As he traveled around Europe, he occasionally found employment as a portrait sketch artist. In 1927 he accepted a life-changing invitation from his friend Peter Bios to work with children at the Hietzing School in Vienna, Austria, established primarily for children of the psychoanalytic patients of Sigmund Freud and associates. Erikson’s exceptional skills with children quickly caught the attention of Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, who invited the young man to enter analysis. Anna Freud’s goal was to train Erikson as one of the first child analysts in the Vienna psychoanalytic circle. At her urging, Erikson also completed Montessori training in 1932, the only official diploma he ever earned. During this period of his life, he met and married Canadian-born Joan Serson, a student of dance and crafts, on 27 September 1930. The couple settled into domestic life in Vienna while Erikson completed his psychoanalytic training with the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Their first son was born in 1930. In 1933, after a second son was born, Erik was admitted as a full member of the society, which gave him the credentials to practice psychoanalysis internationally. By 1933 the Eriksons had become wary of Adolf Hitler’s power and influence over Austria. Anti-Semitism was on the rise in the region, and the family left that year for Denmark and later for the United States.

Soon after arriving in America, Erikson opened a private practice in psychoanalysis in Boston, which provided a simple but adequate income for the young family’s basic needs. In 1938 Joan gave birth to a daughter. Erikson’s psychoanalytic practice began to grow, and he soon found himself called upon to consult with members of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and the prestigious Judge Baker Clinic. He also obtained research fellowships at the Harvard Psychological Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital’s department of psychiatry. In 1939, with the encouragement of his older children and wife, Erikson applied for U.S. citizenship, and the family name was officially changed from Homburger to Erikson.

During his long career, Erikson taught at Harvard, Yale, and the University of California at Los Angeles and served in a variety of research and clinical settings. He also had an extended clinical appointment at the Austin Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for the treatment of psychoanalytic patients. Erikson became well known among psychoanalytic practitioners in the nation as a gifted analyst with children, and they often referred their most difficult cases to him. In 1935 he began an association with Yale University, where he pioneered studies in the use of toys in the psychoanalysis of children. During this time Erikson also engaged in a number of anthropological studies with Native Americans in the American West. While at UCLA in 1951, in protest of the extremes of McCarthy era politics, Erikson refused to sign the loyalty oath required of faculty members employed by California universities and resigned his position.

In 1944, Joan Erikson gave birth to a fourth child, who was born with Down’s syndrome. The child was immediately institutionalized and his existence kept secret. It was a traumatic experience for Erikson, and the boy’s birth and absence from the home seemed to establish a backdrop and shadowy context for his work on “normal” childhood development. In 1950 Erikson published a collection of essays, Childhood and Society, which included case studies, historical reflection, theoretical constructions, and anthropological studies. Perhaps the most penetrating essay was a study of Hitler’s psychological development as a child and adolescent, in which Erikson anticipated much current thought on “gang” behavior among adolescents and adults. After the publication of Childhood and Society, Erikson gradually began to shift his emphasis from clinical work to writing, speaking, and teaching. He always gave credit to his wife as coauthor of his work. By 1970 Erikson was a well-known figure in American cultural life. In that year, his picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and his work and career were featured in numerous national publications. Erikson’s study of the sixteenth-century church reformer Martin Luther Young Man Luther, 1958) and of Mohandas Gandhi (Gandhi’s Truth, 1969) were popular among social critics of the time, and the work on Gandhi won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1973 he was selected from more than 200 nominees to present the Jefferson Lectures sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Erikson’s primary contribution to American intellectual and cultural history came through his writings. When Childhood and Society was published in 1950 it received respectable but limited attention. The work was rediscovered, however, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and again during the Vietnam War. Erikson’s mapping of the human life cycle and particular emphasis on the identity crisis struck a chord with those who saw America suffering from its own version of a collective identity crisis. New notice was also given to Erikson’s work on Martin Luther, wherein Erikson combined psychoanalysis and history in a particularly vivid fashion, sparking an ongoing interest in the use of psychology within the disciplines of historical and cultural studies. His work on Gandhi, completed shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., provided an alternative perspective on violence, political oppression, and the psychology of human freedom.

In 1975 the critic Marshall Berman published an article in the New York Times Book Review that accused Erikson of denying his Jewish heritage by changing his name and by de-emphasizing the significance of ethnic identity. While most who knew the complexity of Erikson’s personality thought the accusation was overly harsh, it did raise questions that troubled the aging Erikson deeply. He chose not to respond, aside from reminding his public that he had retained his stepfather’s name as his middle name throughout his life. It is also worth noting that Erikson’s final major literary effort was a largely unknown psycho-historical essay on Jesus of Nazareth, “The Galilean Sayings and the Sense of ‘I’” (Yale Review, 1982). In this complex essay, Erikson drew together the breadth of his psychoanalytic and historical interests, with particular emphasis on the contribution of Jewish culture in the development of a moral alternative to the mechanized violence of the modern world. Speaking from the “margins of psychology and theology,” Erikson framed a vision, informed by the disciplines of history and psychoanalysis, of a universal “table fellowship” in which human beings might find peace and mutual affirmation. In the end, however, Erikson did not commit himself in this essay or anywhere else to a particular religious or ideological position. Erikson was a sought-after speaker until frailty and illness began to lessen his vigor. He died peacefully at age ninety-two in a nursing home. He is buried in the Cemetery of the First Congregational Church in Harwich.

Erikson’s work on human psychological and social development is imbedded in the very language by which Americans and others discuss and analyze individual and collective identity formation. The subject of “identity crisis” has worked its way into countless research and therapeutic projects. His work on the stages of the human life cycle has shaped the conversation in our culture about life passages from infancy to old age. He pioneered “psychohistory” in his works on Luther, Hitler, Thomas Jefferson, Gandhi, and others. While psychohistory as a specific discipline has never flourished, it is commonplace now for historians to use some measure of psychological analysis in their writing, particularly in biographical work.

Erikson’s primary contribution to American intellectual culture was his insistence that individual psychological development should always be studied and understood in the context of human social, geographical and historical realities. He was also a subtle but radical reformer of psychoanalytic thought and practice. Although he never launched a public critique of his Freudian heritage, he quietly set about upending the Freudian emphasis on pathology. By contrast, Erikson recast psychoanalysis with a particularly upbeat American flavor that emphasized the adaptability of ego development.

Harvard University’s Houghton Library holds many of Erikson’s more important manuscripts and papers. The most accurate and authoritative biography of Erikson is Lawrence J. Friedman, Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik, H. Erikson (1999), which is also the best overview of Erikson’s writings. The Harvard psychiatrist and teacher Robert Coles wrote an extended commentary, Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work (1970), but it is limited by its lack of critical perspective. Noteworthy critical examinations of Erikson are Paul Roazen, The Power and Limits of a Vision (1976), which takes Erikson to task for lack of experimental rigor; Frederick Crews, Skeptical Engagements (1986), which charges that Erikson was a particularly subtle and dangerous representative of Freudian orthodoxy; Hetty Zock, Psychology of Ultimate Concern: Erik H. Erikson’s Contribution to the Psychology of Religion (1990), a more positive examination of the existentialist force of Erikson’s work and a summary of Erikson’s work without resorting to excessive reductionism; and Stephen Schlein, A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers from 1930 to 1980. Erik H. Eriksson (1987), a collection of important essays. An obituary is in the Washington Post (14 May 1994).

David C. Andersen

Erikson, Erik

views updated Jun 11 2018

Erikson, Erik 1902-1994


Erik Homburger Erikson was born on June 15, 1902, in Frankfurt, Germany. He died on May 12, 1994, in Massachusetts. As a young man, he restlessly traveled through Europe, attending art schools and subsequently teaching art and history in Vienna. Beginning in the late 1920s, while teaching children, he was trained by Anna Freud (1895-1982) as a child psychoanalyst at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. There he met his future wife Joan Serson. In 1933 they immigrated to the United States, where he was offered a teaching position at Harvard Medical School. While teaching, Erikson maintained a private practice in child psychoanalysis. He later held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Yale University, the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the Center for Advanced Studies of the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California, finally returning to Harvard, where he completed his career (Coles 1970).

Erikson invigorated and expanded psychoanalytic theory with concepts he drew from Freud, biology, observations of children from several cultures, and self-observations that emerged from his psychoanalysis. As a clinician and theorist, his central contributions to human development research were to understand and illuminate, not to collect data, regarding both psychopathology and normal growth and development in varied cultural and historical contexts. Among his most important contributions was his eight-stage lifespan approach to personality development, elaborated in Childhood and Society (1950). Another was his introduction of the concept of identity crisis, described in Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968) and exemplified in Young Man Luther (1958). His focus on adolescence and identity crises may have been shaped in part by his own early life stressors, youthful wanderings, and lack of direction (Friedman 1999). His Danish appearance (tall, blond, blue-eyed), inherited from his unknown biological father, contrasted sharply with that of his Jewish mother and his stepfather. His Jewish peers often taunted him at school. He terminated his formal education at the age of eighteen and began his lifetime of travel and questioning. One of his best-known books that exemplifies the individual struggle with justice and reconciliation in a social and historical context is Gandhis Truth (1969), for which Erikson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970.

The underpinning for Eriksons theory of eight stages of psychosocial (ego) personality development is the biological epigenetic principle. With the proper sequence and rate of development, each stage reaches its time of greatest salience as a healthy individual becomes ready to benefit from experiences provided by significant others relevant to the particular stage crisis. The ego, the central focus of Eriksons theory, regulates and resolves the tensions between the individuals psyche and societys expectations with the goal of a predominance of the syntonic end of the continuum, such as more trust than mistrust. Each stage builds on the preceding stages and prepares one for subsequent stages. The society is initially defined as the mother figure and expands at each stage until it encompasses humankind. Providing an optimistic view of human growth and development, Erikson described the outcome of each stage as modifiable, thus affording the opportunity for growth but also weakness, based on later life experiences. The positive resolution of each stage resulted in a virtuefor trust, for example, the corresponding virtue would be hope. The eight psychosocial stages with their virtues are:

Stage 1: Trust versus mistrust (first year) virtue: hope.

Stage 2: Autonomy versus doubt/shame (one to two years) virtue: will.

Stage 3: Initiative versus guilt (two to four years) virtue: purpose.

Stage 4: Industry/mastery versus inferiority (five years to puberty) virtue: confidence.

Stage 5: Identity versus role confusion/identity diffusion (adolescence) virtue: fidelity.

Stage 6: Intimacy versus isolation (early adulthood) virtue: love.

Stage 7: Generativity versus self-absorption (young and middle adulthood) virtue: care.

Stage 8: Integrity versus despair (later adulthood) virtue: wisdom.

After her husbands death, Joan Serson Erikson proposed a ninth stage, old age, focused on the effort not to lose ones indomitable core (Davidson Films 1995).

Because Eriksons writings were at times complex and evocative, interpretation of his theory for application to research has resulted in vigorous debate. Nevertheless, all of the personality components have been studied. Identity, a major task of adolescence, has been empirically investigated the most extensively (Kroger 2007; Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, et al. 1993). The concepts of identity and identity crisis have had a major impact on the fields of psychology, sociology, literature, and history, being applied to career, ethnicity, race, sexuality, ideologies, diasporas, and so forth.

Eriksons lifework continues to be described as one of the most important contributions to the understanding of normal personality development across the lifespan. He is identified as a major factor in the framework and expansion of ego psychology. Erikson was among the first great theorists to place extensive responsibilities on the widening circle of significant others in the context of culture and history for the healthy growth of the individual.

SEE ALSO Adolescent Psychology; Freud, Sigmund; Identity Crisis; Justice; Maturation; Personality; Psychoanalytic Theory; Psychology; Stages of Development


Coles, Robert. 1970. Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown.

Davidson Films. 1995. On Old Age II: A Conversation with Joan Erikson at 92. Davis, CA: Author.

Friedman, Lawrence J. 1999. Identitys Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner.

Kroger, Jane. 2007. Identity Development: Adolescence through Adulthood. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Marcia, James E., Alan S. Waterman, David R. Matteson, et al. 1993. Ego Identity: A Handbook for Psychosocial Research. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Sally L. Archer

Erikson, Erik (1902–1994)

views updated Jun 08 2018

ERIKSON, ERIK (19021994)

Child psychoanalyst Erik Homburger Erikson focused his research on the effects of society and culture on individual psychological development; he also developed the eight-stage model of human development. Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, of Danish parents who had separated before his birth. His surname for the first four decades of his life, Homburger, was that of his stepfather, a physician. Upon becoming a U.S. citizen in 1939 he adopted the surname Erikson.


Although Erikson graduated from a classical gymnasium where he studied Latin, Greek, German literature, and history, he was not a good student. For the next seven years following his graduation, he was a wandering artist through Europe, sketching, doing woodcuts and etchings, and intermittently studying art. In 1927, at age 25, he received an invitation from a childhood friend in Vienna to teach in a small progressive school for English and American children. While teaching art and history, he became acquainted with the Freud family and was judged an excellent candidate for psychoanalytic training. As Robert Coles observed, at that time candidates did not apply, but were chosen.

He graduated with a diploma from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1933, where he was viewed as a gifted student. He also was one of two men to graduate from the Montessori teachers association. Upon graduation, he and his wife and young son fled from the encroaching Nazi domination to the United States.

Although Erikson had no formal degree, he became the first child analyst in Boston and a research associate at Harvard Medical School. From 1936 through the 1940s, he served as a research associate at Yale, then at the University of California, finally receiving a professional appointment at the latter institution. During this period, in addition to his analytic work with children, he undertook the in-depth observational study of children in two American Indian tribes, the Sioux of South Dakota and the Yuron of northern California. These studies marked the beginning of his integration of the analytic clinical perspective with the social and economic events that influence child development.

Shortly after Erikson received a professorial appointment at the University of California, the signing of a loyalty oath became a contractual requirement for faculty. Refusing to sign the oath, Erikson resigned in June 1950. Noting that his field, psychoanalysis, included the study of hysteria, he stated he could not participate in this inadequate response to public hysteria. Erikson then returned to the analysis of troubled children by accepting a position at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1960 he was appointed professor at Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in the early 1970s.


Although trained as a psychoanalyst, Erikson's scholarship, which included fourteen books, transcended the discipline in his interweaving of culture, history, and the individual across a variety of topics. Specifically, he applied psychoanalysis in addressing anthropological, religious, and historical questions in addition to developing a comprehensive life span model of psychological development.

In his work, Erikson went beyond the Freudian focus on dysfunctional behavior to pursue the ways that the normal self is able to function successfully. His unique contribution to the applications of psychoanalysis, his inclusion of the effects of society and culture on individual psychological development, led to the designation of his perspective as psychosocial. Early examples are the study of the American Indian children, which combined anthropological observation and clinical analysis with tribal history and economic circumstances.

Erikson also applied psychoanalysis to develop richly detailed biographical histories of leaders who made a difference in society. Included are his chapter on Maxim Gorky, his lectures on Thomas Jefferson, and his books on Martin Luther (Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, 1962) and Mahatma Gandhi. The latter work, Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (1969), received both the 1970 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In these works, Erikson applied clinical analysis to develop an understanding of the ways that leaders faced with untenable situations rose above them to forge new identities for themselves and other citizens.

In education and psychology, Erikson is best known for his eight-stage model of the human life cycle, developed with the assistance of his wife, Joan. This model identifies particular goals, challenges, and concerns at each stage of life. They are the following: (1) Basic Trust versus Basic Mistrust (infancy); (2) Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt (early childhood); (3) Initiative versus Guilt (play age); (4) Industry versus Inferiority (school age); (5) Identity versus Role Confusion (adolescence); (6) Intimacy versus Isolation (young adulthood); (7) Generativity versus Stagnation (adulthood); (8) Ego Identity versus Despair (later adulthood). Further, the stages are interdependent in that unresolved conflicts at one stage influence development at later stages, as in the development of either a loving trusting relationship with a caregiver in infancy or mistrust of others.

Unlike Freud, who focused on early childhood, Erikson emphasized adolescence and adulthood. Erikson introduced the term identity and identity crisis to explain the psychological and social complexities faced by young people in attempting to find their place in a specific town, nation, and time. Adolescent development, in other words, is a complex answer to the question, "Who am I?" and requires organization of the individual's drives, abilities, beliefs, and history into a view of oneself. This focus reflects Erikson's own youthful wanderings before finding his place as a teacher, analyst, and writer.

In the 1960s Erikson focused on the seventh or "generative" stage of adulthood. In this stage, adults are obligated to care for the next generation, either one's own children or a broader group, through personal deeds and words. In the case of Gandhi, his contribution to the next generation was his militant nonviolence as a means to address social injustice. In addition Erikson described the final stage, late adulthood, as an active period that involves acceptance of self and the development of wisdom.

A third focus in Erikson's writing, ethical and moral responsibility, is reflected most prominently in Insight and Responsibility (1964). In this work, he included a set of eight virtues that correspond with his eight life stages (hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom). He also introduced the term pseudospeciation to describe the destructive mechanism that leads to human conflict, aggression, and war. Specifically, pseudospeciation refers to the "arrogant placing of one's nation, race, culture, and (or) society ahead of others; the failure to recognize that all of humanity was of one species" (Friedman, p. 357). Groups of individuals, in other words, are assigned membership in a not-quite human or pseudo-species. With this concept, as in his other writings, Erikson spoke to human psychological issues within the broader context of history and culture.

See also: Educational Psychology.


Coles, Robert. 1970. Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown.

Coles, Robert, ed. 2000. The Erik Erikson Reader. New York: Norton.

Erikson, Erik H. 1950. Children and Society. New York: Norton.

Erikson, Erik H. 1962. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Norton.

Erikson, Erik H. 1964. Insight and Responsibility. New York: Norton.

Erikson, Erik H. 1969. Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: Norton.

Erikson, Erik H. 1981 "The Galilean Sayings and the Sense of 'I."' Yale Review 70:321362.

Friedman, Lawrence J. 1998. "Erik H. Erikson's Critical Themes and Voices: The Task of Synthesis." In Ideas and Identities: The Life and Work of Erik Erikson, ed. Robert S. Wallerstein and Leo Goldberger. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Kotre, John. 1984. Outliving the Self: Generativity and the Interpretation of Lives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Margaret Gredler

Erik Homburger Erikson

views updated Jun 11 2018

Erik Homburger Erikson

Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994) was a German-born American psychoanalyst and educator whose studies have perhaps contributed most to the understanding of the young.

On June 15, 1902, Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, of Danish parents. His widowed mother subsequently married the pediatrician Theodore Homburger. Erikson first studied painting in Germany and Italy. Later, he joined Peter Blos and Dorothy Burlingham, Anna Freud's colleague, in the development of a small children's school in Vienna. This led to his training analysis by Anna Freud and immersion in theoretical seminars and in clinical work. Having also acquired a Montessori diploma, he graduated from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933.

In 1930, he had married Canadian-born Joan Mowat Serson, who was vitally interested in education, as well as the arts and crafts, and deeply shared his interest in writing. The development of their three children, Kai, Jon, and Sue, as well as Erikson's work in Anna Freud's school, may have contributed much to his eventual thinking about the "epigenetic schema" of development and the vocabulary of health, in which he described the contributions of successive psychosexual stages to ego strengths, such as trust and autonomy, initiative and industry, and identity and intimacy.

Following Hitler's accession to power, the Eriksons went to the United States, where he began private practice and a sequence of research appointments at Harvard Medical School (1934-1935), Yale School of Medicine (1936-1939), University of California at Berkeley (1939-1951), and Austen Riggs Center, Stockbridge, Mass. (1951-1960); he was visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (1951-1960). One of his later appointments was as professor of human development and lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard University. At intervals he took time off for work abroad, such as travel to India in connection with his intensive study of Gandhi.

Study of Youth

Always free from the provincialism typical of thinkers with a more static and limited background, Erikson's thinking pushed toward an understanding of the ways in which the drives dominant in successive psychoanalytically defined life stages are shaped by interaction with the persistent needs and solutions typical of a given culture. These formulations were supported by field observations made with the collaboration of anthropologists, and also by observations of children's play.

Erikson's extension of the classical Freudian psychoanalytic concept of development was published in Childhood and Society (1950). The book startled some orthodox Freudians, who viewed development as dominated solely by the sequential emergence of successively potent drives modified or exaggerated primarily by their intimate—depriving, indulging, or punishing—interactions with the parents. Erikson's broader concept of dynamics of inner-outer interactions provided inspiration, challenge, and insight to the spectrum of American social sciences concerned with child development.

Erikson's concern at Austen Riggs Center was focused on the troubled years of late adolescence and early adulthood. He emphasized the universal process of resolution of identity conflicts during this developmental phase in a profound study of the youthful Martin Luther, Young Man Luther (1958); in a monograph, Identity and the Life Cycle (1959); and in a volume which he edited, Youth: Change and Challenge (1963). His Harvard teaching and response to students' concerns with values led to two collections of essays: Insight and Responsibility (1964) and Identity, Youth and Crisis (1967). The latter is a prophetic reformulation of the relation of the concepts of ego and self, and recognition of issues of nobility and cowardice, love and hate, and greatness and pettiness, which he sees as transcending the traditional normative issues of "adjustment to society." His contribution to understanding of the problem of identity in youth at times when personal change intersects with historical change has led scores of scholars to research exploring this area. In 1969 Erikson published Gandhi's Truth. This book focuses on the evolution of a passionate commitment in maturity to a humane goal and on the inner dynamic precursors of Gandhi's nonviolent strategy to reach this goal.

Erikson's Personality

The sources of Erikson's fresh, subtle, and multimodal awareness are many: His artist's temperament and perceptiveness contribute both to sensory richness and to sensitivity to nuances of personality and behavior. His deeply satisfying family life and wide-ranging friendships, with people such as Lawrence K. Frank, Margaret Mead, A. L. Kroeber, and Gardner Murphy, support a sense of health as a potential for the development of human beings struggling with conflicts exacerbated by the pressures of a given life stage. His freedom from premature commitment to an academic discipline with rigid canons of concept formation released him for original formulations as well as new adaptations and implications of classical psychoanalysis. Erikson's shrewd "the Emperor has no clothes" type of realism and uninhibited daring in probing new areas of experience seem to draw on a never-suppressed child's penetrating curiosity.

His love of life in nature and in people of all ages and many different cultures underlies the predominantly warm and vital quality of his thinking and writing. This has evoked the resonance of students of many disciplines whom he has influenced more than any analyst since Freud.

Freud lived and worked at a time when the mentally ill were beginning to be understood and universal inner conflict needed to be understood more deeply. Erikson was maturing in a period when the fate of the Western world was threatened by violence and denigration of values—a time when health, "virtue," and strength and their origins needed to be asserted and understood. His later books anticipated the demands of youthful protesters who repudiated the falseness of politics and the materialism of the economic world and who called for sincerity, peace, love, and humane values.

Erikson died in 1994; however, his words live on— even those not familiar with his work may share his passion in language. Along with his numerous theories and plethora of information, Erikson also left educators the sound advice, "Do not mistake a child for his symptom."

Further Reading

Richard I. Evans published Dialogue with Erik Erikson (1967). A fine recent study is Robert Coles, Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work (1970). Henry W. Maier, Three Theories of Child Development: The Contributions of Erik H. Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Robert R. Sears, and Their Applications (1965; rev. ed. 1969), and Noël A. Kinsella, Toward a Theory of Personality Development: A Study of the Works of Erik H. Erikson (1966), contain biographical material as well as discussion of Erikson's theories. Jonas Langer, Theories of Development (1969), contains many references to Erikson. □

Erikson, Erik

views updated May 23 2018

Erik Erikson

German-born American psychoanalyst best known for his work with children and adolescents.

Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to Danish parents. As a youth, he 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 . 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 he is best known, Childhood and Society, in 1950, he left Berkeley to join the staff of 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.

Much of Erikson's work is concerned with the formation of individual identity, the creative operation of consciousness in a well-adjusted personality , and societal influences on child development. He differs from more traditional Freudians by assigning a significantly greater importance to development after the first few years of life, and by arguing that the ego plays a highly positive role in that development. Erikson is also noted for the illumination of his concept of the adolescent "identity crisis," a term which he coined. Erikson's theory of personality covers the entire human lifespan, which he divides into eight distinct stages, each with its own tasks and crisis. In infancy , the basic conflict is between trust and mistrust. A sense of trust is established according to the quality of the infant's relationship with its care-givers. Achievement of trust is considered especially important for development in the following stages. The crisis in early childhood , the next stage, is between the child's need for autonomy and the sense of doubt and shame brought on by learning to deal with rules and social demands for self-control, including physical control such as toilet training. Successfully negotiated, this stage leads to the emergence of independence and will power. Later in the preschool period comes the third stage, when the child begins to actively explore his or her environment . At this stage, there is a crisis over initiative and a possible sense of guilt about asserting control over his or her own activities. A sense of purpose, leading to the ability to pursue goals in spite of risks and possible failure, emerges with the resolution of this conflict. During the fourth stage, the early school years, the social context expands to include the school environment, where skills and mastery of tasks become a primary focus of attention . A conflict arises between industry, or the ability to work, and feelings of inferiority, and the former must triumph in order for the development of competence.

The goals of the first four stagestrust, autonomy, initiative, and industrycreate the foundation for the successful negotiation of the fifth stage, in which the adolescent must form a stable identity and achieve a sense of self. While social issues such as "fitting in with the group" are important at this point, Erikson emphasizes the importance of achieving an individual identity based on self-knowledge and continuity of experience. Failure to resolve the conflicts of this stage results in identity or role confusion and affects the experiences of the three adult stages which follow. In young adulthood, the primary issue is intimacy, or the ability to love. In middle adulthood, it is generativity, or the ability to be productive, whether in work, parenting, or other activities, rather than stagnating. The key quality at this stage is the ability to care for others. Finally, at maturity, the challenge is to achieve a sense of integrity and wisdom with which to overcome despair over physical disintegration and death.

Erikson's mapping of the life cycle has had a profound impact on developmental psychology , especially in the area of adolescent behavior and in the shift to a life-span perspective among students of human development. He won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his writings, which include the psychobiographies Young Man Luther (1958) and Gandhi's Truth (1969). Erikson is also the author of Insight and Responsibility (1964) and Identity, Youth, and Crisis (1968).

See also Adolescence

Further Reading

Coles, Robert. Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1970.

Erikson, Erik Homburger (1902-1994)

views updated May 21 2018


Erik Homburger Erikson, American psychoanalyst, was born on June 15, 1902 in Frankfurt-am-Main, and died on May 12, 1994, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Erikson was the son of a Danish mother and unknown father. His step-father was a German pediatrician in Karlsruhe, and after Erikson left home his mother and step-father, both Jewish, moved to Palestine. In Vienna, Anna Freud became Erikson's analyst in 1927, and he graduated as a child analyst from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933. Artistically inclined, Erikson said that he was first attracted to Freud's ideas by the magnificence of his German prose.

He entered Freud's circle in the summer of 1927, when he was working as a painter of children's portraits without any firm professional goals. An old school friend was at that time the director of a small progressive school in Vienna run by Dorothy Burlingham and Eva Rosenfeld, both close friends of Anna Freud.

Most of the children at the school were in psychoanalytic treatment, and a number of the parents were undergoing analysis. Erikson was hired to paint the portraits of the four Burlingham children. After a brief period as a tutor, Erikson was asked whether he would consider becoming a child analysta profession he had not heard of before.

By the end of 1933 Erikson had settled in Boston, Massachusetts. He worked in private practice as a child analyst, the first male in that field. He also was associated with the Harvard Psychological Clinic under Henry A. Murray, and did research at Yale. In 1939 Erikson became an American citizen, changing his name from his step-father's Homburger to the self-created Erikson. Later he moved to Berkeley, California where he became one of the founders of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Society. After a 1951 loyalty oath controversy at the height of the McCarthy period, Erikson resigned from the University of California and moved to the Austin Riggs Center in western Massachusetts. In 1960 he accepted a prestigious university professorship at Harvard College.

Always uncomfortable in academic life, since he himself was without any formal training aside from being an analyst, Erikson retired from Harvard in the early 1970s to return to California where he worked at the Mt. Zion Department of Psychiatry in San Francisco. In 1987 he returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts. where an Erikson Center was established under Harvard's auspices. Erikson's final days were spent at a nursing home at Harwich on Cape Cod, near Cotuit where he and his wife Joan had long had a summer home.

Erikson's Childhood and Society first came out in 1950, and was reprinted more than any of his other books. Young Man Luther (1958) was a study in psychoanalysis and history, as Erikson treated Luther as an innovative psychologist whose Christian teachings complemented those of classical analysis. While Identity and the Life Cycle (1959) was a collection of his papers on ego psychology. Insight and Responsibility (1964) was a set of papers on the ethical implications of psychoanalytic insight. Gandhi's Truth (1969), a prize-winning book, sought the origins of militant non-violence in Gandhi's life. Erikson also gave the 1973 Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities, which appeared as Dimensions of a New Identity (1974). Life History and the Historical Moment (1975) was another collection of essays, and so was A Way of Looking at Things (1987).

Erikson used his concept of ego identity in order to move psychoanalytic theory away from Feud's libido approach; Erickson saw society as a constructive source of ego strength. Erikson also developed the notion of psychohistory as part of his effort to bring psychoanalysis into the modern social sciences.

Paul Roazen

Work discussed: Childhood and Society.

Notion developed: Ego identity.

See also: Burlingham-Rosenfeld/Hietzing Schule; Ego (ego psychology); Identity; Principle of identity preservation; Psychobiography; Psychohistory; United States.


Erikson, Erik H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1958). Young Man Luther. NewYork: W. W. Norton.

. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press.

. (1964). Insight and Responsibility. New York: W. W. Norton, 256 p.

. (1969). Gandhi's Truth. New York: W. W. Norton.

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