Critically evaluate Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory of human development: with particular reference to identity development during adolescence

Erikson is a neo-Freudian, who chose not to criticise but to develop Freud’s ideas. Erikson extended many aspects of Freud’s ‘psychosexual stage theory’ within his ‘psychosocial stage theory’ (1975; 1968; 1963). Erikson suggested the ego as the driving force in personality development, unlike Freud who suggested this to be the id. There were originally eight universal stages of development in the psychosocial stage theory which span across an individual’s entire life; these eight stages later had a ninth stage added.

Each stage in the psychosocial stage theory is marked with a crisis. Individuals must learn to balance both the positive and negative poles of the crises by understanding each as useful; thus allowing positive outcomes to suffice. These outcomes are often referred to as ‘virtues’. Although the ninth stage of Erikson’s theory sees all previous conflicts merge. The ninth stage also sees a reversal of crises, as the negative pole now takes dominance over the positive.

Erikson’s psychosocial stages are an elaboration upon the three stages Freud proposed, which cease post-adolescence. According to Erikson failure to pass through any stage successfully in the psychosocial stage theory does not stop individuals entering into further stages. Overcoming these past failings can be achieved in future crisis resolution, according to Erikson. This is also a development upon Freud’s psychosexual stage theory, as Freud believed that failing to overcome a crisis resulted in an individual becoming fixated with the stage for the rest of their life.

The stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory which has received most theoretical and experimental interest is the fifth stage, ‘adolescence’; thus I will use this stage to provide a brief illustration of the acquisition of a virtue. This stage sees individuals coming from adolescence in to ‘young adulthood’ which is the sixth stage. The sixth stage has the conflict of ‘intimacy’ Vs ‘isolation’; with the possibility of achieving the virtue ‘love’; the sixth stage is worth noting here because it has important implications in Erikson’s beliefs about the formulation of identity.

Marcia (1980) has hailed achievement status in the fifth stage as a hallmark for maturity in individuals. The virtue of ‘fidelity’ is the achievement in the fifth stage. This is achieved by balancing the positive pole ‘identity’ and the negative pole ‘identity confusion’; which Berzonsky, (1997); LaVoie, (1994) have shown to be viable constructs. Attempts to achieve closure of this crisis is attempted by individuals via serious experimentation, this is referred to by Erikson as ‘identity achievement’.

However, closure can also be achieved by individuals without the need for experimentation, this is thought to occur a result of their caregivers smothering the; not allowing sufficient exploration, thus resulting in the individual achieving closure by simply accepting the identity offered to him/ her by their caregivers, Erikson termed this ‘foreclosure’. However, not all individuals achieve closure at this stage; in this instance an individual may be referred to as diffuse, or in a stage of moratorium (this is a state which refers to a temporary phase of development on the way to achieving identity).

If a balanced resolution (good balance of the crisis poles) is achieved at this stage in the theory an individual is confident that the sameness and continuity they have gathered in the achievement of virtues in the four previous stages are all recognised by others. This results in the individual having fidelity to their future roles (i. e. careers, family). On the other hand, poor resolution (too much of either the positive or the negative crisis poles) achieved at this stage is considered to be maladaptive for an individual; fidelity to future roles will become either too strong or not strong enough.

Cote (1996) has disputed Erikson’s and Marcia’s claims that the sameness and continuity in the adolescent stage is the distinguishing feature of a mature individual. Cote argued that a diffuse identity or even foreclosure status maybe more appropriate in certain socio-cultural contexts. A diffuse identity or a foreclosure status may even be seen as an adaptive mechanism for individuals living within a culture which is undergoing vast change and uncertainty.

This therefore suggests that Erikson’s theory of balanced crisis within this stage may be culturally dependant and thus may not always be the best outcome for all individuals. Lifton (1993) has argued that the portrayed continuity and sameness of identity is founded in traditional cultures, which holds relationships with institutions and symbols (i. e. religion) as very important. These ties with institutions and symbols, according to Lifton, have not been apparent for the majority of the late twentieth century.

There has been little research which has examined Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory as a whole. One study which has has also provided significant findings relating to the theory (Ochse & Plug, 1986). It is worth noting that the eighth stage which holds the possibility of achievement of the virtue ‘integrity’ was omitted from the results of this study due to the lack of elderly participants in the research. Ochse & Plug, conducted factor analysis research on their findings, the results of which showed identity to be an over riding factor throughout all of the stages.

This suggests that there are multiple stages concerned with a possible identity crisis (in some form or another). This would be expected by Erikson’s theory as it explains that the driving force in personality development is the ego, thus identity is considered to be developing at each stage of the theory along with the ego’s acquisition of virtues. There are further findings from Ochse & Plug’s study which support Erikson’s ideas of personality development; although, these findings can also been interpreted as highlighting possible flaws of the theory.

An example of this can be identified as the findings show that past crisis poles are strongly interrelated, which would be expected by the theory as it predicts that each stage builds upon the achievements of previous stages. However, the crises poles which have not yet been approached by an individual have also been shown to be strongly interrelated with the other crises poles. This appears to indicate that contrary to Erikson’s theory all of the crises poles appear to be running in parallel even when they have not been passed or even approached by individuals.

Further flaws in Erikson’s theory are identified as these strong inter-correlations between crisis poles were only found to be true for white European participants, and not black South African participants (Ochse & Plug, 1986). This appears to demonstrate that the accumulation of past virtues having an influence on future crises’ is dependent on ethnicity. Ochse & Plug also found that male participants showed a stronger autonomy, industry and initiative compared to female participants, which suggests that the theory is affected by gender roles.

As Erikson proposes a universal theory of psychosocial development, these results suggest that the universality of the theory is hampered by both ethnicity, and gender. Erikson’s psychosocial theory’s problem with gender roles highlighted by Ochse & Plug’s findings has been criticised, perhaps more critically, but definitely more extensively by feminists, who believe that the theory does not adequately account for the female processes of identity development (Gilligan, 1982).

Hodgson & Fischer, (1979) have also criticised Erikson for showing a lack of attention to sex differences in his formulation of the development of identity in his theory. Douvan & Adelson (1966) have shown that identity development differs substantially between males and females. This study has shown how females develop their identity via interpersonal relationships; whereas it has shown how men develop their identities via preoccupations with solitary tasks.

It has been shown that both of the masculine processes (agency) and the feminine processes (communion) are both very important in the development of human experience (Bakan, 1966). Thus in light of this evidence Erikson has received much criticism for neglecting ‘half’ of the human experience of development. Erikson has been seen to have neglected the relational processes of identity formulation (which is considered the feminine route to identity, Douvan & Adelson) due to his emphasis on agentic issues such as separateness, (which is considered the masculine route to identity formulation, Douvan & Adelson).

Morgan & Farber, (1982) have illustrated how Erikson’s theory describes how men attain their identity and later develop intimacy; and how women first need to develop intimacy to form their identity. Morgan & Farber suggest that according to Erikson women rely on men to be able to form their identity; as without a man there can be no resolution at the intimacy stage because the women’s ‘inner-space’ remains unfulfilled and therefore leaves women with no subsequent identity formation.

If, as these feminists believe, this is true, the conclusion that women do not develop their identities in the same order as men can be drawn. This has lead to a consensus in beliefs amongst feminists that the stages of identity and intimacy are encountered by women in either a reverse order to that of the order men encounter them, or are at least fused together and encountered by women as a single stage. Thus Gilligan (1982), to account for these sex differences in the order the stages are encountered, has called for a re-examination of Erikson’s epigenetic chart.

These feminist attacks on Erikson’s theory can be classified into two major criticisms. Firstly, that his work is inherently sexist; and secondly, the sequence of stages on the epigenetic chart is inaccurate for describing the development of women’s identity, which has resulted in Gilligan calling for a reordering of the epigenetic chart. The first major criticism of Erikson’s work has been suggested on two fronts, firstly it is suggested that social systems (such as motherhood, and marriage) have been interpreted by Erikson as a means to debilitate women’s development of their own identities.

However this criticism has been shown to be weak; as it has been highlighted that selective quotations have been taken out of context and misinterpreted during the formulation of these arguments, (Horst, 1995, p272-4). Secondly, it is suggested that anatomical differences between men and women have been a reason for women being unable to adequately develop their identity, free of male intervention and without social constraints. The latter critique has been shown to be more credible than the first.

As, although Erikson does explain how women can occupy male roles in society; their anatomical differences still limit their freedom to act against their sex roles imposed by society, as well as biology. However it should be remembered when noting this criticism, that there is an ambiguous cut off point to be considered when deciding where anatomical differences should be emphasised and/ or ignored; it has been shown that underemphasising sex roles can be just as dangerous as overemphasising them (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1990).

The second critique, which has called for a re-examination of Erikson’s epigenetic chart; is considered to be lacking in sufficient evidence to consider alterations to the chart (Horst, 1995). It has been noted by Horst that amongst this barrage of criticisms, there are major misconceptions regarding the process of personality development, as described in Erikson’s theory amongst the critics who have this unrequited hope for a re-examination of the epigenetic chart.

It appears apparent that the critics understand each stage of development as an acquisition by the ego of a personality quality, with the elimination of its opposite; however, this is not a correct conceptualisation of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Erikson’s actual emphasis is focused on the importance of balance within each crisis, between both the positive and negative poles; with too much off either, the positive or the negative poles being maladaptive for development. Erikson also emphasises the importance of inter-correlations between previous crises on future crises.

Thus Erikson does not depict that identity develops in the absence of intimacy, or vice versa, (as is the argument put forth by the feminists). Erikson on the other hand however describes how intimacy is also present in the process of identity development, and vice versa. Erikson explains that intimacy is developing and is identifiable simultaneously with identity development because individuals have to develop (amongst many other identity aspects), a sexual identity which is highly related to intimacy development.

Therefore critics appear to miss interpret the key concept of balance in Erikson’s stages, as well as the fact the poles of each stage are interrelated to one another (Ochse & Plug, 1986). It appears that Erikson’s theory, when understood with all of its complexity can explain female development to a more acceptable level than the feminist critiques wish to acknowledge or perhaps wish to accept.

Another feminist who is concerned with the explanation of female identity development in Erikson’s theory has not jumped on the bandwagon by criticising Erikson’s theory, but has offered a new perspective to the problems listed by her fellow feminists so far. Josselson (1987), who, like other feminists believed that women’s identity is based upon connections and relationships; is critical of other feminists who (according to Josseson) have overlooked women’s identity development, through their persuit of unnecessary research tangents.

She explains the need not to ask the question regarding females’ identity development of ‘whether’ females develop identities, as she urges feminists to ponder ‘how’ women form their identities. Josselson, conducted a longitudinal study concerned with women’s development, she used Marcia’s (1966) identity statuses to categorise the participants, although she did not (like previous researchers) simply attempt to fit women into the already existing (more masculine) categories; she instead redefined the categories to integrate women into them.

The research shows two major findings, each relating to descriptions, which could help remove some of the misinterpretations of masculine and feminine routes to identity development. The first being that individuation does not need to only be described as separation, but can also be described in terms of “becoming different and maintaining connection at the same time” (Josselson, 1987, p171.

) The second being that the female’s journey status should not be defined as crisis between occupational goals alone, it should instead describe a crisis around, either occupational goals or relationship issues, this would therefore give them more choice and thus control in relation to their identity development. From her findings Josselson concluded that Erikson’s epigenetic chart need not be altered to integrate women into the theory, because a couple of terms may just need to be better defined and made slightly broader in scope to allow more feminine issues to be incorporated into them.

The evidence provided has identified flaws of Erikson’s psychosocial developmental stages; with certain flaws being shown to be more viable than others. Both gender and ethical limitations have meant that the theory does not appear to be applicable as a universal theory. Further investigation of gender differences has lead to the theory being criticised by numerous researchers, in relation to its conceptualisation of how male and female identity is developed. Numerous researchers suggest that the theory holds a gender bias in its focus of agentic issues surrounding development; although findings from Josselson has suggested otherwise.

Hamachek (1990) has also argued that of the many personality theories, Erikson’s psychosocial stages hold the most emphasis on the resolution of ‘female’ problems such as interpersonal issues of intimacy and feelings of isolation. As this argument would assume, evidence has suggested that Erikson’s epigenetic chart adequately accounts for both male and female development. Although there have also been criticisms of Erikson’s theory regarding the use of sexist overtones in both a social and anatomical way, the social issues appear to

be overly limited themselves, thus holding no threat to Erikson’s theory. However, the anatomical differences have been shown to be a relatively stronger limitation of Erikson’s theory. Erikson’s revolutionary conceptualisation of personality development as a life long process has yet not lead to any advances in treatments, however it has been influential in the development of other theories concerned with personality, especially theories concerned with the ‘mid life crisis’, Levinson, (1978).

There are still major concerns over the way in which the theory accounts for the clear differences in how males and females develop their identities, however there now appears to be feminists who are conforming to agreement that the theory can account for feminine issue of development, although these are still addressed to a lesser extent to that of male identity development. Clarification of the issues raised will require further examination of development in both males and females to allow for full drawn conclusions to be made regarding the theory’s gender differences relating to identity develpment. Reference List

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