6 minute read

Erik Erikson (1902–1994)

Career, Contribution

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.


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 70:321–362.

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.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: Education Reform - OVERVIEW to Correspondence course