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Examine psychological research into adolescence

The theory of psychosocial development (Erikson, 1968)

The theory is partly based on psychoanalysis but it departs from Freud’s heavy emphasis on sexuality. According to the psychosocial theory of development the individual develops through a series of stages from birth to death.

It basically says that we go through 8 stages of social development.  In each stage there exists a conflict/battle that must be internally fought.

  • The fifth stage concerns adolescence: identity versus role confusion. This stage of identity crisis is marked by the rapid physical growth and hormonal changes which take place between the ages of 12 and 18.
  • The bodily changes may be confusing and the adolescent has to search for a new sense of continuity and sameness. Questions of sexuality, future occupation, and identity are explored. This is called a moratorium, i.e. a time to experience different possibilities.
  • If the identity crisis is solved successfully, the adolescent will feel confident about his or her own identity and future. The danger of this stage is role confusion, i.e. uncertainty about one’s identity and future role.
  • If the identity crisis is not solved successfully, the adolescent may join a subgroup and develop a negative or socially unacceptable identity. According to Erikson, a negative identity may be preferable to no identity at all.
  • Adolescents must establish an adult personality and develop commitment to work and role (for example as partner and parent) in life to prepare for the next stage, intimacy versus isolation, where the goal is to commit oneself to another person.

A case study that supports Erickson:

Espin et al. (1990) conducted a longitudinal case study that tested Erikson’s ideas. The researchers performed a content analysis of 71 letters from a Latin-American girl to her teacher over a period of nine years, between the ages of 13 and 22. It was a very traumatic period in her life because she and her parents were arrested for political reasons. The researchers analyzed the letters and found changes of themes in the letters in relation to age. Themes of identity appeared in the earlier letters, and increased from the ages of 13 to 18 years, but then declined. This confirms that issues of identity were prominent in this period, as predicted by Erikson. Themes of “intimacy” which appear in early adult life, according to Erikson’s theory, increased steadily through the next period but became predominant after the age of 19. It was a single case study so the results cannot be generalized.

A Challenge to Erickson’s Theory:

Rutter et al. (1976)


To investigate the concept of developmental crisis in a representative sample of adolescents.


 All adolescents on the Isle of Wight (an Island off England…I had to look that up) aged between 14 and 15 (cohort) participated in the study (N=2,303). Data were collected with questionnaires and interviews from parents, teachers, and the adolescents.


Only a minority of the adolescents showed signs of crisis or conflict with parents and this was mostly related to psychiatric problems. This is not in line with predictions of the theory of psychosocial development. Only one fifth of the adolescents reported feeling miserable or depressed.


The fact that it was a cohort study, i.e. all adolescents born on the island in the same years, increases the validity of the results. The combination of interview and questionnaires with adolescents as well as parents and teachers gave credibility to the results because the data could be corroborated. There may be problems with the reliability of the self-reported data.

Evaluation of the theory of psychosocial development

  • Identity formation is perhaps not a project undertaken during adolescence alone. O’Connel (1976) performed retrospective interviews with a sample of married women with children in school. The women reported changes in identity after adolescence due to marriage, becoming parent, etc. This indicates that identity formation could be a life-long project related to experiences throughout adult life.
  • The theory is Western biased. In some cultures young people go directly into adulthood from childhood. Condon (1987) reviewed anthropological evidence on the Inuit of the Canadian arctic from the start of the 20th century. At puberty, young women were usually married and had started having children. Young men were treated as adults when they could build an igloo, hunt large animals on their own, and support themselves and their families. The difficult living conditions meant that young people had to take care of themselves as soon as possible. The Inuits did not spend time questioning their identity.
  • Erikson’s theory is a stage theory based on the assumption that development is universal, sequential, and characterized by specific developmental tasks at each stage. Today stage theories dealing with psychological development are questioned.