Erikson, Erik H. (1902–1994)

Erik Erikson was born of Danish parents in 1902 and brought up in Germany as the stepson of a pediatrician. His first love was art, which he studied in Munich and Florence. He came into contact with the psychoanalyst ANNA FREUD when he took up a post as a teacher in a Viennese school. He was analyzed by her and, following her example, worked with both children and adolescents as well as with adults. Erikson spent six years in Vienna, becoming a member of the Freudian community there and studying the methods of Montessori education. In response to the threat posed by the rise of the Nazi movement, Erikson moved to the United States with his wife and sons, setting up as one of the first child analysts in Boston. He carried out research on children with the Harvard Psychological Clinic and made contacts with both psychologists such as Henry Murray and Kurt Lewin and anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and MARGARET MEAD. Although he had no academic qualifications, Yale University offered him a teaching and research appointment.

In 1939 the Eriksons moved to California, where Erikson did longitudinal studies on children at the University of California, Berkeley, worked as a child and training analyst, and carried out anthropological studies. Eventually he returned to the East Coast to teach at Harvard, particularly on his theory of the cycle of psychological development throughout life. He subsequently retired to the San Francisco area, where he died in 1994.

A major focus for Erikson, as both analyst and researcher, was the study of children, and he drew together his ideas about childhood in his first major and seminal work, Childhood and Society. Here he elaborated his approach of "triple bookkeeping": that understanding a person or behavior involves taking into account somatic factors, social context, and ego development, each in relation to the other. To unpack the somatic aspect, Erikson developed and clarified SIGMUND FREUD's theory of psychosexual development. He explored the power of social context in relation to child-rearing practices and their effects on later personality through some fascinating anthropological-psychoanalytical analyses of Sioux and Yurok Indian cultures. He looked at ego development in particular through an analysis of the significance and role of PLAY. In this book, as in all his work, Erikson emphasized the need for integration: that these three processes (somatic, social, ego developmental) are interdependent, and that each is both relevant and relative to the other two.

Childhood and Society also contains an early statement of his theory of the life cycle (which he subsequently elaborated in 1959, 1964, and 1977). This extends the notion of developmental stages, each with its own character, dynamics, and conflicts, beyond childhood into ADOLESCENCE, young adulthood, maturity, and old age. For example, he placed considerable emphasis on the significance of school experience for the developing ego. Erikson took a particular interest in adolescence (e.g., in Identity, Youth, and Crisis). He was fascinated by this transitional stage where identity is being forged, and by the conflicts and turbulence that this can provoke. He became best known in the 1960s for his articulation of the adolescent "identity crisis."

In summary, then, Erikson's primary contributions to the understanding of childhood rest on his:

elaboration and modification of the theory of psychosexual development,
theorizing and case studies on the development of ego in childhood, and
anthropological and other explorations of the significance of social context, child-rearing, and cultural processes for personality development

He made a further contribution in unraveling the processes involved in the development of identity, particularly during adolescence.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology.


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

Erikson, Erik H. 1959. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press.

Erikson, Erik H. 1964. Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight. London: Faber.

Erikson, Erik H. 1968. Identity, Youth, and Crisis. London: Faber. Erikson, Erik H. 1977. Toys and Reasons: Stages in the Ritualization of Experience. London: Marion Boyars.

Stevens, Richard. 1983. Erik Erikson: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin's Press.