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Summary Article: Erikson, Erik (Homburger)
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

German-born US psychoanalytic theorist who contributed to the understanding of human mental development. Erikson coined the phrase identity crisis, and proposed that the ego is not fixed at birth or during childhood, but continues to be moulded throughout life by experience and environment. He established his reputation with the influential work Childhood and Society (1950), his first major book. His research in developmental psychology led to his theory of eight psychosocial stages in the life cycle.

Unlike some of his colleagues Erikson applied his ideas to subjects of more popular interest, as can be seen in his psycho-historical studies, Young Man Luther (1958) and Gandhi's Truth: On the Origin of Militant Non-violence (1969). Among his more significant papers was ‘Ego Development and Historical Chance’, which argued that an individual could be affected at the deepest levels by the progress of history and society.

Erikson was born in Frankfurt of Danish parents. After leaving school he spent some time wandering in Italy, sketching children; he would later state that watching children at play is vital to the understanding of their personalities, for ‘whatever is in them rises to the surface in free play’. He underwent analysis with Anna Freud in Vienna in the 1920s, and graduated from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933. He then emigrated to the USA, where he held academic posts at Harvard; Yale; the Austen Riggs Center, Stockbridge, Massachusetts; and the University of California at Berkeley before becoming a professor at Harvard.

Continuing to study children, including those of the nomadic Sioux and the Yurok people of northern California, Erikson discovered that their different upbringings, in response to the demands of their ethnic groups' lifestyles, led to quite different personality traits. He proposed that the ego is not fixed at birth nor even during the first five years, so that, if there is a positive resolution to each personality conflict, the individual's mental growth and development can continue into old age. His last book, Vital Involvement in Old Age, written with his wife, was published 1986.

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