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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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3.3 Stage theories and the life course

This is a photograph of a crowd of people in a city.
Figure 11

Erikson (1965, 1968, 1980) is one of the few theorists who provide a stage theory illustrating how development is moulded as a continuous process encompassing the whole life span. His theory proposes that at different points in their life, individuals have demands placed upon them that provoke conflict or crisis. Confronting and resolving each conflict provides the individual with strength that can be carried and used in the future. Erikson (1965, 1968, 1980) also proposes that individuals who have difficulty resolving a particular conflict may be stuck. In some cases social workers may help people who have yet to resolve a developmental conflict.

The following table illustrates the ages/stages in Erikson’s (1965) theory. The columns on the right of the table indicate important events at each stage, and the likely positive outcomes if the stage is negotiated and achieved successfully.

Table 1 The ages/stages in Erikson’s theory
Age Stage/conflict Important events Positive outcome
1 Infancy Trust v mistrust Feeding, physical affection Child has feelings of goodness that leads to development of trust
2 Preschool Autonomy v shame and doubt Muscle control, toilet training, exploration Agreed (parents and child) understanding of boundaries
3 Ages 4–6 Initiative v guilt Beginning to reason and deduce Child initiates some events
4 Primary school 6–11 Industry v inferiority School and home life, widening relationships Successfully balances competing demands
5 Adolescence Identity v role confusion Loosening of attachments Developing a sense of self/testing out others
6 Young adulthood Intimacy v isolation Intimate and trusting relationships Feeling useful and a sense of achievement
7 Middle adulthood Generativity v stagnation Creating and nurturing the next generation Feelings of accomplishment, avoidance of stagnation
8 Maturity Ego integrity v despair Reflecting on past accepting one’s individual self, fear of death Sense of fulfilment and wisdom

However, while the stage theory is helpful in encompassing the entire life span based on your own experience, you might want to reflect on its applicability to real life. It is a theory that may be very difficult to test out in the real world and it sheds no light on how or why development occurs between the stages. The eight stages when linked to specific ages may not necessarily fit with the norms and practices found across all cultures.

Nevertheless, for social workers engaging with people at different points in the life course it may prompt them to empathise and reflect on the types of issue that may be significant. The theory is particularly helpful at highlighting how problems encountered by a person in the later stages may be attributable to unresolved conflicts and issues during earlier stages of the life course. When, for example, a social worker is seeking information about a person’s life history, the stages in Erikson’s theory could serve as useful prompts.