Childhood, Society, and Erik Erikson

Childhood and Society

by Eric Erikson
Norton, 445 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Insight and Responsibility

by Eric Erikson
Norton, 256 pp., $5.00

Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson; drawing by David Levine

The career of the distinguished social psychologist, Erik Homburger Erikson, is remarkably interesting both in its own right and as a case study of the way our society handles the problems created by an exceptionally gifted scholar whose basic concerns are virtue and human growth. Erikson was a humanist before he became a scientist, and has remained one, in a society that is not notably humane. Since we nevertheless insist that the values of our culture are humane, we have had to develop effective ways of paying appropriate homage to distinguished humanists while limiting their influence on, and, gradually, their interest in, the way society actually functions. We try to find a place for them in which, like the good children of yesteryear, they can be seen but not heard. Healers like Erikson and Albert Schweitzer, who turn from careers in the arts to practice their new art on a darker continent, and who evolve into sages through the experience of practicing among peoples whose common humanity is masked by great cultural diversity, present a particularly challenging problem.

Unlike Schweitzer, Erikson is not a physician. Born in Frankfurt in 1902, he grew up as an art student and spent his young manhood as a practicing artist. When he became interested in psychoanalysis, he enrolled in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, where he was a student of Freud. Shortly after he graduated in 1933, he came to this country and established himself first at Berkeley and in the San Francisco Bay area as a training analyst and a leading participant in studies of child growth and development then being conducted at the University of California. These studies, along with other research among the Yurok and Oglala Sioux Indians, and case material from his early clinical experience, form the basis of his first book, Childhood and Society, published in 1950.

Erikson’s psychosocial rationale cannot be summarized because, unlike that of Freud or the best of the Neo-Freudians, it is expressed in an approach to human behavior rather than in a doctrine about it. He observes at one point that all he has to offer is a way of looking at things; and this, though no reason for apology, is essentially true. It is just this way of looking at things that is valuable; and if this eludes any summary definition, it can still be characterized by some of its critical elements.

There is, first, the intrinsic psychoanalytic emphasis on the fundamental importance of developmental sequence—of having experience to grow on at the right time and in the right order. What Erikson has done is to identify the emotional polarities that are appropriate to each successive stage and to specify the developmental task that must be accomplished in each stage if the individual is to proceed to the subsequent ones without gross impediment or seriously warped growth. His most familiar piece of work, undoubtedly, is the…

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