The origin of the psychoanalysis theory is traced back to the end of XIX – the beginning of XX century and is closely connected to the works of famous Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud. His works gave impulse to the further development of this field of psychological study. Erik Erikson, the outstanding American researcher in psychoanalysis, continued the work on the issue of personality development, motives of it development and the impact of social order on personality.
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The aim of this essay is to present a bio-sketch of Erik Erikson, to characterize his contribution to the development of psychoanalysis and the understanding of human personality.
Erik Erikson was born on 15 June 1902 in Frankfurt am Mein, Germany. His future life and scientific work would be closely connected to the story of his family and his memories from childhood. Karla Abrahamsen, his mother, was Jewish. At the time when she had already been married with Waldemar Isidor Salomonsen, she had a liaison with Danish citizen.
As a result of this extramarital relationship, she gave birth to Erik who was given Salomonsen surname. A few years later Karla Abrahamsen moved to another town where she married Theodor Homburger who adopted Karla’s child and gave Erik his surname.
In 1930s Erik Homburger met Joan Mowat Serson, a Canadian dancer, who became his wife later. The pair immigrated to the United States where Erik started his new life with the change of his surname to Erikson. In such a way, he, so to say, adopted himself. His brilliant work as psychoanalyst started in this country. Initially, his work in the field was primarily concentrated on psychological practice and later he devoted himself to the scientific work which resulted in his famous theory of identity.
Strozier (2011) mentioned that “in America, Erikson soon established his reputation as a child analyst and became acquainted with people like Margaret Mead” (Strozier, 2011, p. 31). It is important to note that he became interested in the analysis of personality and the determination of factors influencing its development far earlier, when he studied in Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Soon after graduation, Erikson together with historian George Kennon issued his essay on Hitler (Strozier, 2011).
The theory of identity is, perhaps, the most important contribution which Erikson made to the development of psychoanalysis. It is frequently argued that the essence of the theory is interconnected with the author’s own life experience.
When he was a child, he was influenced by his mother who encouraged all family members to obey all the postulates and customs of Judaism, including the regular visit to synagogue and strict observance of Jewish traditions. However, the boy appearance, his blue eyes and blond hair, told about his Danish roots. That is why it was rather difficult for a child to realize his origin. Besides, his Jewish and German classmates teased him for his roots reminding of his mental problem.
Stroizer (2011) states the following,
“Most of Erikson’s work has focused on adolescence and its concomitant crisis of identity. Some would even say that he helped create the identity crisis as almost a rite of passage for adolescents, who seem to wear their crises on their sleeves, whether Edwardian or leather” (Stroizer, 2011, p.32).
The theory of identity explains the process of personality development considering it in respect to the particular stage which the person goes through in their life. Childhood is the starting point of personality development. At this stage an individual absorbs the information about surrounding reality and the notions about what is right doing and what is wrong doing which are taught by parents. That is why the identity of personality began to develop even in the period of childhood.
Later, when being a teenager, an individual continues to develop the perception of personal identity but at this age this perception is taking the form of the own actions concordance with the attitude of others to them. It is the key in the understanding of Erikson’s theory of identity. This interpretation of the personal development conception emphasizes the fact that the personal identity is influenced not only by psychological factors but also by social ones. Erikson (1975) states
“It is a state of being and becoming that can have a highly conscious (and, indeed, self-conscious) quality and yet remain, in its motivational aspects, quite unconscious and beset with the dynamics of conflict. This, in turn, can lead to contradictory mental states, such as a sense of aggravated vulnerability and yet also an expectation of grand individual promise” (p.19).
The significance of the results of Erikson work over identity conception is proved by its broad view on the concept of personality itself. In contrast to the previous works in this sphere and the Sigmund Freud theories, in particular, Erikson’s conception uncovers the personality development as a more dynamic and complex process. Erikson gives us an idea that the mature personality is a result of hard mental and emotional process which an individual goes through. Furthermore, it is a result of the influence of social factors.
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Modern theory of psychoanalysis is based on the identity concept presented by E. H. Erikson to the large extent. Nowadays, his theory is applied to the study of the urgent social phenomena, even such as terrorism or drug abuse. In addition, the conception of identity became the scientific background for the development of the social identity theory concentrating more attention on the identity as a variable in the international relations (Hymans, 2002).
It can be stated that the field of the international politics became the sphere of the theory application. Undoubtedly, the ideas presented by Erikson motivated scholars to study the conception further, analyzing it from other perspectives. The results of Erikson’s work are applied to explain the differences in morality between people, “the control approach to the identity process”, all of which, in turn, assist in explanation of the roots of modern financial crisis, Wall Street intentions and values (Stets & Carter, 2011).
Taking into account the times when Erikson lived, we can conclude that his theory of identity was, unarguably, influenced by the historical factors. The World War II influenced his work not only in the context of the “crisis of identity” but also it “lent great impetus to national character studies” (Friedman, 2000).
In addition, Erikson’s interest in the identity of personality resulted from his own memories from childhood and adolescence. It can be said that the author developed his famous theory while being in search of himself. Friedman (2000) says that “the stepson’s identity of “mixed” and confused parentage, religion, and nationality had produced a person who felt himself living precariously “on the line” and having to navigate multiple broader crossing” (p. 49).
In summary, Erik Erikson was an outstanding researcher in the sphere of psychoanalysis. His works broadened and deepened the understanding of the identity conception and his psychological analysis of historic leaders helped to find out which factors contributed to their personalities development. Overall, Erik Erikson’s works provided a solid fundamental to further investigation of the determinants of the personal identity.
Erikson, E.H. (1975). Life history and the historical moment. New York, USA: Vail-Ballou Press.
Friedman, L. J. (2000). Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. Cambridge, Harvard University Press: Harvard University Press
Hymans, J E.C. (2002). Applying social identity theory to the study of international politics: a caution and an agenda. Paper originally prepared for presentation at the International Studies Association convention, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 24-27, 2002.
Stets, J. E., & Carter, M. J. (2011). The moral self: applying identity theory. Social psychology quarterly, 74(2), 192-215.
Strozier, Ch.B. (2011). Leader: psychological essays. Northbrook, USA: Springer.