Erikson, Erik H. 1950. "Youth and American Identity" (334-337).

From the beginning of Erikson’s career, he was known for his association with children. Leading up to “Youth and American Identity” of Childhood and Society (1950), Erikson was already known for his ability to study children within a psychological frame of reference as well as use psychology for the sake of interpreting history. Hence, the consideration that Erikson was the “founder of psychohistorical studies” (Lemert 2010, 334).

Erikson’s trajectory is clear: he first establishes a basis for the youth, and then he superimposes the idea of American identity on the adults that have grown from children. In addition to children entering puberty and experiencing increasing maturity—mentally, emotionally and physically—children also begin to develop a sense of the “ego identity” (1950, 335). Referring back to Sigmund Freud’s notion of the “ego,” it is the ego that is responsible for serving as the middleman between the innate understandings of the “id” and the external world. In essence, it is a protective shield between the most intimate parts of an individual and the external stimuli of the world.

After addressing this developing separation between the adolescent self and the external world, Erikson discusses the role confusion, “falling in love” and “clannish” behavior on behalf of growing adolescents (Erikson 1950, 335). This confusion, typically oriented around “career” and “role,” can be largely circumvented if continuity can be sustained; it is disharmony between “inner sameness” and one’s perception of how others perceive the individual in question that produces the confusion (Erikson 1950, 335).

In other efforts to avoid experiencing confusion, adolescents also, according to Erikson “fal[ling] in love” (1950, 335). This experience, he describes, is used as an opportunity to gain insight into one’s identity by imposing one’s identity on another and arriving at conclusions based on that reflection—much like Cooley’s concept of “the looking-glass self.”

In concluding the basis of principles that constitute the “youth,” Erikson addresses the exclusion facet of behavior. Around puberty, individuals begin noticing differences between themselves and others, and subsequently decide to include or exclude people based on such differences, like “skin color or cultural background, in tastes and gifts, and often in such petty aspects of dress and gesture” (Erikson 1950, 335). Similar to the other mechanisms of learning about one’s self, adolescents participate in this behavior in attempts to figure and defend their identity.

Lastly, Erikson addresses the American identity—a notion that truly does exist. Similar to the conflict and confusion experienced by adolescents, he describes the over-arching contradiction that American identity embodies. Erikson states that the identity is characterized both by “extreme contrasts and abrupt changes” (1950, 336). He provides examples of how contradiction applies directly to the lives of Americans, explaining that Americans thrive on the ability to make decisions based on a multitude of options (even if they are consciously opposed to some of those options). The ability to choose individually and independently is what is significant.

Seemingly, the field of adolescents and the notion of American identity seem in disconnect. In retrospect, however, they are shown to correlate quite closely. Both adolescents and those subscribing to an American identity experience confusion, fall into contradictions and ultimately participate in things (contradictions included) that are essentially counterproductive.


  1. 1902-1944… Taught school and started analytic training in Vienne after born in Germany. Boston’s first child analyst. “Associated with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard” (Lemert 2010, 334). 1936-1939: Taught at Yale. Then, Berkeley—left in 1950. Finally, at Harvard until 1970.
  2. Founder of “psychohistorical studies” (Lemert 2010, 334).
  3. Works include: Childhood and Society (1950), The Lonely Crowd (1950), Gandhi’s Truth (1969), and Young Man Luther (1958).
  4. The transition between childhood (puberty) and adulthood brings the preoccupation (by children) with how people perceive them versus how they perceive themselves.
      1. Reminiscent of W.E.B. DuBois’ notion of a “double consciousness.”
  5. Ego identity must include “inner sameness and continuity” (Erikson 1950, 335) and confidence within that.
  6. Confusion drives young people to over-label his or her self in order to quell issues of “occupational identity” (Erikson 1950, 335).
    1. Adolescents love so they can protect proposed identity and eventually draw definitive conclusions about it and them based upon that interaction with others.
  7. In response to identity confusion, adolescents promote clique behavior—inclusion and exclusion—to grow with people of same groups and “test” outsiders (Erikson 1950, 335).
  8. As adolescents shift from child morality to adult ethics and expectations, they learn that the best people gain power (aristocracy) and having power makes best people.
      1. All within given world image—ideology.
  9. As a characteristic can be “truly American” (Erikson 1950, 336), every national identity outside of the United States is deemed “opposite” of said “truly American” characteristic.
  10. American identity is comprised of most volatile contradictions.
  11. American identity is also conducive to one’s ego and allows for each to make one’s own personal decisions.
  12. Extremes are part of an identity for the sake of “inner defense” (Erikson 1950, 337) or a feared or desired opposing extreme.
    1. Ex: individualistic/ standardized or pious/ freethinking (Erikson 1950, 336).
  13. More American contradictions ensue with two sets of lived-by truths: religious notions and “a set of shifting slogans” (Erikson 1950, 337).
    1. Ingrained perspectives and ego defenses change drastically through out the span of one’s life.
  14. Aristocracy attempts coherent thought while “mobocracy” prefers aforementioned “shifting slogans.”
  15. Although all countries’ progress is confounded by contradiction, we don’t recognize just how dangerous and counterproductive living by contradiction is.


ERIKSON, ERIK H. 1950. “Youth and American Identity.” Pp. 334-337 in Social Theory: The Multicultural Readings (2010) edited by C. Lemert. Philadelphia: Westview Press.

ERIKSON, ERIK H. 1950. Pp. 261-263 in Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton, 1963 (Reprinted: 1950, 1978, 1991)).

(See Lemert 2010, 335 for “original source” citation*)




From the first paragraph we see we have a developmental theory here — stages of life. We notice, too, that his model of the human is a Freudian one. But a new concept enters here: identity. There's resonance with Mead here: think about how "identity" is a version of the "how others see us" or, better, "how we see others seeing us."

Note that the social comes up here as a dependent variable — we identify with groups and such as a way of dealing with our not fully integrated ego-identity. Before we have our own, we try on others for practice as it were. Not having a fully formed one of our own, we try on whole identities.

Erikson's adolescent is in between childhood (society imposed) and adulthood (you are society).


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