Bronfenbrenner's and Erikson's Theories About Human Development

Categories: Erik Erikson

Lifespan Developments Theories offer explanations of how the individual changes and develops throughout their lifetime. While this objective is constant, the focus of these theories vary. Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory adopts an intrapersonal focus, outlining nine age related stages of the life cycle while Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Stage Theory focuses on five socio-cultural stages within which the individual interacts, interpersonally, over time. This essay will focus on both these theories, their implications in the world of adult education, particularly from the perspective of experience within two South Kerry Adult Education Centres and finally the areas where these theories may concur and contrast.

Erik Erikson was a Neo-Freudian Psychologist who developed a lifespan theory identifying eight stages of psychosocial human development.

As Erikson and his wife, Joan, entered their eightieth decade, they discovered a ninth stage. Joan Erikson completed work on this stage from notes made by her husband before he died and from her own observations. In fact, Erik and Joan Erikson were co-collaborators throughout their years together as evidenced in the following statement, ‘To restate the sequence of psychosocial stages throughout life means to take responsibility for the terms Joan Erikson and I have originally attached to them’(Erikson E.

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H. cited Erikson E.H. & Erikson J. 1997,p.55). Also, while recounting a trip to Los Angeles where Erik Erikson had been invited to present ‘the stages’ to a group of Psychologists and Psychiatrists, Joan Erikson tells of her uneasiness while they discussed the presentation. At this stage, there were seven stages in their model.

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‘In a shocking moment of clarity I saw what was wrong’ (Erikson E.H & Erikson J. 1997 p.3). She had spotted that ‘We’ were missing and subsequently, they added an eighth stage entitled ‘Generativity vs. Stagnation’.

This significant contribution was made by Joan Erikson on the trip to the train station ‘where Erik could catch the Los Angeles train, and then for me to hurry back to home and the children’ (Erikson E.H.& Erikson J. 1997, p.2). Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory holds that personality develops through nine stages across the entire lifespan. ‘Personality can be said to develop according to steps predetermined in the human organism’s readiness to be driven forward, to be aware of and to interact with a widening social radius’ (Erikson 1959 cited Tennant M. 1997 p.33). Each of these stages involves challenges and conflicts which, if successfully resolved, allow the individual to develop a strength, or virtue which they bring with them into the following stage. If unsuccessfully resolved, the individual proceeds into the next stage not only without this strength but with a corresponding negative element which is likely to impede their progressive development. Erikson refers to these strengths as ‘syntonic elements’ and the negative elements as ‘dystonic elements’. For example, at ‘infancy’ the first stage, age 0-1 years, the conflict or challenge experienced by the individual is ’trust vs. mistrust’.

The syntonic element that might result is ‘hope’, the dystonic element is ‘withdrawal’. Erikson explains ‘vs.’ as standing for ‘versus’ and ‘yet also, in the light of their complementarity, for something like “visa versa”’. (Erikson E.H. & Erikson J. 1997, p.55). Erikson does not hold that that an individual’s resolved state should lay at the end of the continuum. ‘’The child also needs to develop some healthy mistrust, such as learning to discriminate between dangerous and safe situations’ (Bee & Boyd 2003, p.258). It is only in experiencing and understanding these opposites such as trust and mistrust that we can develop the relevant strength. At each of these age related stages, the individual is in communication and conflict with a significant psychosocial relationship. Again, for example, at the first stage, Erikson states that this relationship is with the mother. Others are seen in the following chart:

Erikson's psychosocial crisis stages
(syntonic v dystonic)
Freudian psycho- sexual stages
life stage / relationships / issues
basic virtue and second named strength (potential positive outcomes from each crisis) maladaptation / malignancy(potential negative outcome - one or the other - from unhelpful experience during each crisis) 1. Trust v Mistrust

infant / mother / feeding and being comforted, teething, sleeping Hope and Drive
Sensory Distortion / Withdrawal
2. Autonomy v Shame & Doubt
toddler / parents / bodily functions, toilet training, muscular control, walking Willpower and Self-Control
Impulsivity / Compulsion
3. Initiative v Guilt
preschool / family / exploration and discovery, adventure and play Purpose and Direction
Ruthlessness / Inhibition
4. Industry v Inferiority
schoolchild / school, teachers, friends, neighbourhood /achievement and accomplishment Competence and Method
Narrow Virtuosity / Inertia
5. Identity v Role Confusion
Puberty and Genitality
adolescent / peers, groups, influences / resolving identity and direction, becoming a grown-up Fidelity and Devotion
Fanaticism / Repudiation
6. Intimacy v Isolation
young adult / lovers, friends, work connections / intimate relationships, work and social life Love and Affiliation
Promiscuity / Exclusivity
7. Generativity v Stagnation
mid-adult / children, community / 'giving back', helping, contributing Care and Production
Overextension / Rejectivity
8. Integrity v Despair
late adult / society, the world, life / meaning and purpose, life achievements Wisdom and Renunciation
Presumption / Disdain Joan Erikson, reviewing their lifecycle theory (while adding the ninth stage), notes that the syntonic element is always mentioned first, before the dystonic. Stating that it should be noted that often ‘circumstances may place the dystonic in a more dominant position’ (Erikson E.H. & Erikson J. 1997 p. 106). She continues that old age is ‘such a circumstance’. For this reason, in her account of the ninth stage she places the dystonic first i.e. ‘Despair and Disgust vs. Integrity: Wisdom’ (Erikson E.H. & Erikson J. 1997, p.106) and recounts a revisiting of all the stages, this time with different virtues emerging (see chart below), ideally culminating in a state of ‘gerotranscendence’. Lars Tornstam defines gerotranscendence as a shift in perspective ‘from a materialistic and rational vision to a more cosmic and transcendence one, normally followed by an increase in life satisfaction’ (Tornstam cited Erikson E.H. & Erikson J. 1997, p.123).

Erikson’s theory highlights the need to provide age appropriate activities for the students. Also, within the field of Youthreach and VTOS programmes, particular attention might be given to stimulating identity exploration in adolescents. For example, within the Fetac Personal and Interpersonal Skills Module, helping the student explore their strengths, aptitudes, learning styles, personality types and through communication with outside agencies, encourage career exploration. Early school leavers, as is evident in one South Kerry Youthreach programme, often have experienced social and educational deprivation and as such are vulnerable to unemployment, depression and the growing number of suicides are always a concern. Very often, a single parent is the sole guardian and this parent is female, as are the majority of teachers and social workers. Positive role models, with whom the young person can identify, have been shown to help in promoting health care in young people. ‘Local role models and peers can also play an important role in actively promoting projects, and have the capacity to allay fears or embarrassment that some young men might feel about getting involved’ (Richardson N, Clarke N. & Fowler C. 2013, p.111).

Education centres can organise support from such positive role models. Regarding Erikson’s stage of Young Adulthood, Education Centres provide a social setting where people can meet, communicate and escape the isolation that often results from unemployment. Adult education provides an opportunity for ‘a kind of self- generation concerned with further identity development’. (Erikson 1998 p.67) Apparent to those involved in this field is the manifestation of ‘care’ and respect that the adult has for their new learning, a virtue sadly missing from the reluctant schoolchild of their yesteryears. As retirement age is forced forward and healthcare education promises longer active lives, there is no reason why adult education should not be available to people into their nineties. What better way to synthesise integrity and despair than using ones wisdom, sharing with others while learning new things. ‘Despair expresses the feeling that time is now short, too short for the attempt to start another life and try out alternate roads…’(Erikson 1963 cited Erikson E.H.& Erikson J.M. 1997 p.113) Adult education might just offer an ‘alternate road’. Tutors might also integrate older people in the community to come in to the centres to contribute their knowledge.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory is the scientific study of the development of the individual person as they experience the bi-directional influences encountered within the various environments throughout their lifespan. ‘Intelligence and emotion’ have been named as mediators for this development and ‘identity and competence’ has been described as the ‘outcomes’. (Garbarino and Abramowitz, 1992 cited Graham A. 2013, p.32). Two types of risks to positive change are identified. These are ‘direct threats and the absence of opportunities’. (Garbarino and Abramowitz, 1992 cited Graham A. 2013, p.32). These risks can be biological or socio-cultural.

There is interplay between these two sources and deficits in one source may be compensated by richness in the other. Bronfenbrenner categorised the environment ‘as a nested arrangement of structures, each contained within the next’. (Bronfenbrenner 1977, p.514 ). Adapting terminology from Brim (1975) Bronfenbrenner names these structures as microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, macrosystems and chronosystems. Bronfenbrenners Ecological Theory of Development


A Microsystem is ‘the complex of relations between the developing person and environment in an immediate setting containing that person’ (Bronfenbrenner 1977, p.514). This includes family, friends, neighbours, school and work. The individual’s development is affected by the beliefs, attitudes, temperament and personality of the various people within these settings, but the individual, according to Bronfenbrenner, is not a ‘passive recipient’ but is ‘ someone who helps construct the settings’. (Bronfenbrenner 1977 cited Graham A. 22013, p. 33). The mesosystem ‘comprises the interrelations among major settings containing the developing person at a particular point in his or her life’. (Bronfennbrenner U.1977,p.515).

The better interconnected the microsystems, the more consistent the individual’s development is likely to be. The exosystem is an influence system which contain both formal and informal structures ‘which impinge on or encompass the settings in which the developing person in found’ (Sugarman L.1993, p.11). The exosystem is an extension of the mesosystems. This refers to a collection of settings in which the individual does not directly interact but which affect him or her nonetheless. This would include the government, medical system, labour market, mass media and the neighbourhood. Macrosystems, the fourth of Bronfenbrenner’s layers of influence, involves the culture within which the individual lives ‘carried often unwittingly in the minds of the society’s members as ideology made manifest through customs and practice in everyday life’ (Bronfenbrenner U. 1977 p.515).

The influence of these customs and beliefs cascade down through all the other systems. The Chronosystem was later added by Bronfenbrenner and is described as a research model that ‘makes possible examining the influence on the person’s development of changes (and continuities) over time in the environments in which the person is living’ (Bronfenbrenner U. 1986a p.724). These changes are sociohistorical and are considered as occurring within the individual and also within the environment. Changes can be ‘normative’ (school, new relationships, getting a job, giving birth) or ‘non-normative’ (divorce, illness, death).

In the further education setting, Bronfenbrenner’s theory is useful in implying the benefits of helping offset risks that may apply to the student, such un-nurturing home environment, poor interpersonal relationships, violence and the absence of opportunities experienced such as lack of education to date, limited skills, poor job opportunities and lack of self- awareness. Creating experiences where the students can develop intellectually and emotionally through the academic programme as well as teamwork, outings, reflective practice and empathy building. Bronfenbrenner stresses the value of the interconnectedness of the microsystems. Within a South Kerry Youthreach programme there is typically very poor connectedness between the education centre, the families and the communities. Open days often have few or no parents attending with perhaps just a few professionals such as guards, social workers and other education officers turning up to appreciate the work on display. Also anecdotal evidence shows very poor awareness of the programme in the community.

This centre is working hard at increasing community awareness and mutual rapport by involving students in local charity events, community art exhibitions and development of a work experience programme. Many second chance education students are angry and aware that they have in some way been failed by structures such as government, medical system, labour market, media and the neighbourhood. Awareness of the ‘systems’ can be poor and many adult students lack the confidence and basic literacy skills to investigate and negotiate these systems. ‘The “dialogue man” is critical and knows that although it is within the power of men to create and transform in a concrete situation of alienation men may be impaired in the use of that power’ (Friere P. 1975 p.63). Modules such as Communications, SPHE, Personal Effectiveness and Personal and Interpersonal Skills should perhaps be regarded as a means of increasing this sense of efficacy and knowledge of the ‘exosystem’. Also inviting people who hold power within these systems to come in to centres to talk to the students may help break down barriers and increase awareness.

Cultural influences affect how we think, feel and act. In one South Kerry Youthreach centre unconscious belief systems are apparent in casual racist comments and career aspirations (childcare and hairdressing for girls, construction and mechanics for boys) or in some cases, no aspirations of employment at all in keeping with family history. A more privileged young person might perceive good group participation as a positive aspiration. However, in one South Kerry Youthreach programme it is reported that during initial interviews, prospective students, when asked how they might ‘get on’ in a group situation tend to perceive this question as ‘are you a trouble-maker?’ and answer that they intend to ignore everyone in the group and just mind their own business believing this to be the ‘correct’ answer. The work of educators here might entail helping to create positive group experience and also help to open doors that might enrich the individual’s life, create an atmosphere of curiosity and questioning of beliefs, values and culture and introduce positive and varied role models. Overtime, many changes effect the development of the individual.

This time factor may be within a lifetime, or spanning decades. Often it is a non-normative change such as marital breakdown, redundancy or recovery from illness that forces a re-evaluation and brings a person back to education. Helping the individual cope with change by creating opportunities for new identities and competencies is the work required here.

Erikson and Bronfenbrenner, both psychologists, have examined the development of the individual over their lifespan. Although Erickson organises his theory in terms of age related stages, and Bronfenbrenner in systems, neither theorist attempts to explain change and development in terms of age only. All life stage theorists look at the processes that bring about these changes and as Sugarman points out ‘’What we can say about change is determined by our research design – that is, what we choose to measure, how and why’. (Sugarman L. 1986, p.13). Erikson’s research design studies intrapersonal changes in the individual and explains that these changes occur within particular chronological age groupings, within particular social settings as a result of the resolution of tensions experienced. However, Bronfenbrenner on the other hand takes a wider socio-cultural view and has researched the changes occurring in the individual within the many ‘settings’, within the many systems in which the individual interacts. He categorised the environment as as consisting of ‘interrelated and nested structures’ (Jordan A., Carlisle O., & Stack A, 2008, p.82). Unlike Erikson, Bonfenbrenner has been criticised for paying too little attention to biological and cognitive factors although he expanded his theory to a bioecological theory later on. Erikson represents the individual’s development as ‘ordered’ and linear whereas Bronfenbrenner’s perspective is one of ‘random’ and multidirectional development. It would, however, be unfair to suggest that Erikson did not take account of the various social and cultural influences that Bronfenbrenner focused on, hence his ‘Psychosocial Theory’ . Joan Erikson states that her husband always held that ‘the individual and society are intricately woven’ (Erikson E.H. & Erikson J, 1997, p.114).

He attributes psychosocial manifestations to each of his stages and also describes the processes and experiences of the ‘soma’, the ‘psyche’ and the ‘ethos’. (Erikson E.H. & Erikson J, 1997, p.25). However, he has not ‘explicated this aspect of his theory as fully as he did the stages of individual development’. (Sugarman L. 1986 p.84). Erikson defines these social influences quite precisely as the individual’s ‘radius of significant relations’ whereas Bronfenbrenners theory allows for a more individually tailored, contextual approach. Both Erikson and Bronfenbrenner were active into their eightieth decade and remained engaged in critical reflection of their work. Erikson worked on the blueprint for his ninth stage and in 1994, Uri Bronfenbrenner renamed his theory “bioecological systems theory” to emphasize that a ‘child’s own biology is a primary environment fuelling her development’( While Erikson’s writing is artistic and literary, Bronfenbrenner’s is scientific and at times political. Bronfenbrenner advocated experimentation in a ‘real’ setting as opposed to the traditional laboratory approach, although he did not dispense with the latter as being of use and alludes to ‘the as yet unexploited power of the laboratory as an ecological contrast’. (Bronfenbrenner 1977, p.514) At the centre of both these theories is the individual. These are not opposing theories but two perspectives in search of a similar understanding. Bronfenbrenner himself make this clear ‘A variety of approaches are needed if we are to make progress toward the ultimate goal of understanding human development in context’ (Bronfenbrenner 1977 p.529).


Bee H., & Boyd D. ( 2003). The Developing Child, 10th ed. Boston: Allyn &
Bacon. Bronfenbrenner U. (1977). Toward an Experimental Ecology of Human Development [Electronic version]. American Psychologist, 32, 513-531. Bronfenbrenner U. (1986). Ecology of the Family as a Context for Human Development: Research Perspectives {Electronic version]. Developmental Psychology, 22, 723-742. Erikson E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. Erikson E.H., & Erikson J.M. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed, extended version. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. Friere P. (1975). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. Graham A. (2012). Psychology of Adult Learning, WIT, 26th March, 2012, Tralee Jordan A., Carlile O., & Stack A. (2008). Approaches to Learning: a Guide for Teachers. Berkshire: Open University Press. Richardson N., Clarke N., & Fowler C. (2013). A Report on the All-Ireland Young Men and Suicide Project. Ireland: Men’s Health Forum in Ireland. Sugarman L. (1986). Life-Span Development: Concepts, Theories and Interventions. London: Routledge. Tennant M. (1997). Psychology & Adult Learning. London: Routledge.

Module: Psychology of Adult Learning Level 6

Compare and contrast Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development with Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological model of Development

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Bronfenbrenner's and Erikson's Theories About Human Development. (2016, May 04). Retrieved from

Bronfenbrenner's and Erikson's Theories About Human Development essay
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