Erik H. Erikson

Erik H. Erikson the author of Childhood & Society was one of the most influential psychoanalysts of the 20th century.

Erikson’s legacy

Erikson’s best-known work is his theory that each stage of life is associated with a specific psychological struggle, a struggle that contributes to a major aspect of personality.

His developmental progression—from trust to autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity—was conceived as the sequential reorganization of ego and character structures. Each phase was the potential root of later health and pathology.

By focusing on the social as well as the psychological, Erikson’s stages represented a quantum leap in Freudian thought, which had emphasized the psychosexual nature of development.

While much of his theoretical work has since been challenged, Erikson’s basic developmental framework—conflict negotiated in the context of relationships—continues to illuminate our thinking, as does the concept of the identity crisis, the confusion of roles that Erikson first identified.

Human development in a social context

Another lasting contribution is Erikson’s emphasis on placing childhood squarely in the context of society. He advanced the idea that children are not simply biological organisms that endure, nor products of the psyche in isolation. Rather, they develop in the context of society’s expectations, prohibitions, and prejudices.

Personality is shaped over the life span

Another major contribution of Erikson’s work is the notion that personality is shaped over the life span, which implies that experiences later in life can heal or ameliorate problems in early childhood.

New education of children

Finally, Erikson powerfully advocated for a “new education of children” based on self-knowledge and a complex world view that scorned “immediate diagnoses of health or sickness, judgments of goodness or badness, or advice on ‘how to’.”