Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1902-1994) Developed an influential life span developmental theory in which identity is a central concept.

Erikson adopted from embryology the epigenetic principle that potentialities can only develop in a proper sequence. As part of the revisionist psychoanalytic movement, Erikson applied the epigenetic principle to the psychodynamic process of ego development throughout the life cycle. He postulated eight stages of development, each characterized by a dichotomous tension between two opposing potentialities. Each stage represents a psychosocial crisis, the outcomes of which prepare the way for the next stage of development. Furthermore, positively, each stage is associated with the potential to develop a unique strength or virtue, or, negatively, a pathology, defined as the antipathy of a virtue.

In the first stage of development, infancy, the tension between basic trust and mistrust are paralleled by the tendency to develop the virtue of hope or its antipathy, withdrawal. Early childhood is characterized by tendencies toward autonomy or shame and doubt, with the associated possibilities of either will (a virtue) or compulsion (a pathology). Initiative and guilt are the dichotomies characteristic of late childhood and are associated with the virtue of purpose or its antipathy, inhibition. School-age children develop the virtue of competence or its pathology, inertia, based upon the tension between industry and inferiority at this stage. Adolescence can lead to either fidelity (a virtue) or repudiation (pathology), based upon Erikson's highly influential discussion of the tension between identity and confusion that characterizes adolescence. In young adulthood, intimacy and isolation are the dichotomies that lead to the development of either love or its pathological counterpart, exclusivity. Adulthood leads to the challenge between generativity or rejectivity and is associated with either care (a virtue) or stagnation.

Finally, the last stage of development, old age, can lead to disdain or the virtue of wisdom, as one struggles with the tendencies toward the virtue of integrity or the pathology of despair and disgust at this final stage of the life cycle.

Erikson argues that faith traditions often have been the cultural guardians of virtues associated with stages of ego development. His overt sympathy to religion is reflected in his widely acclaimed studies of Luther and Gandhi and in his psychohistorical works. While Erikson's stages of development were not generated by systematic empirical research, nor have they been systematically tested, their influence remains immense and part of the literate culture of Western civilization.

Ralph W. Hood, Jr .


E. H. Erikson, Childhood and Society , 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1963 [1950])

E. H. Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York: Norton, 1958)

E. H. Erikson, Gandhi's Truth (New York: Norton, 1968)

E. H. Erikson, Toys and Reason (New York: Norton, 1977).

Eroticism see Sexuality and Fertility

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