Review of Identity: Youth and Crisis

The following review was published in the New York Times on March 31, 1968.  Review was by Mr. Robert A. Nisbet, who at the time of publication was on the faculty of the University of California, Riverside. Nisbet is author of The Sociological Tradition.

Identity: Youth and Crisis

It is the fate of a few scientific concepts to become, like soap powders, household words. In a bygone day there was a Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”; then, when the magic name of Einstein had permeated the atmosphere, it was “relativity.” After Freud had reached the American mind, it was a rare conversation that did not include “repression” and “complex.” In their popular forms these words might have baffled their makers, but their availability doubtless helped fill some of the open spaces left in popular culture by receding religions and is terminology of good and evil. Among intellectuals today “paranoid” is, of course, indispensable.

At the present time, “identity” and “identity crisis” are much in vogue, especially among young people. There are college student who will admit at the slightest urging to be suffering from one or another crisis of identity. And an extraordinary number of student derelictions and stupidities fall comfortably, in the files of deans of students, within this neat conceptual drawer.

Photo of Erik Erikson

Portrait Photograph of Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson, who is chiefly responsible for the popularity of the words “identity” and “identity crisis” in contemporary thought, scientific as well as popular, is only too aware of what has happened to his concepts. Half ruefully, half-humorously, he asks whether “some of our youth would act so openly confused and confusing if they did not know they were supposed to have an identity crisis?” Life used to follow art. Today, fittingly, if follows concept.

In Identity: Youth and Crisis, Erikson, who is professor of human development and lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard, presents us with some of his major papers, written over the past 20 years and now reshaped as chapters for this book. I do not think they are of quite the high order of essay-writing that he gave us in his “Insight and Responsibility” three years ago, and they do not have, nor do they profess to have, the range and depth of his classic “Childhood and Society” or the arresting boldness of his “Young Man Luther.” It does not matter. What is contained here is, as might be expected from the author of the earlier works, well worth attention. And, needless to say, this book is written in language that is a pleasure to read.

For nearly a third of a century — ever since he came to this country as a 32-year-old, Frankfurt-born, European-educated psychoanalyst — Erik Erikson had been one of the key figures in the American fields of depth psychology and the study of human development. Gifted with native intelligence and imagination of first rank, steeped in the classical tradition of Freud, Erikson acquired in this country a sensitivity to that paramount concept of American anthropology — culture. What followed, beginning in the 1930’s, was an effort — one that has never since flagged — to unite the essential perspective of individual psychology with those of anthropology and sociology. It is an effort that has expressed itself in clinic, in laboratory, and in the field. He served for more than a decade in the Senior Staff of the Austen Riggs Center; her participated at Berkeley and at Yale in studies of human development; he has included the treatment of children in his psychoanalytic practice; and in his two most famous works, “Childhood and Society” (1950) and “Young Man Luther” (1958), his graceful and erudite scholarship has won plaudits from social scientist and historian alike.

Over the years, in Erikson’s researches and clinical practice there gradually emerged his now celebrated concepts of “identity” and “identity crisis,” both of which figure prominently in the books named above. For those who are interested in the genesis of these concepts, in their application to areas as distinctive and different as the sources of human creativity and the Negro revolution, and in the relation of the concepts to the stream of psychoanalytic thought, “Identity: Youth and Crisis” is bound to be of serious interest. Since there is a good deal about the contexts of human achievement in the book, one can scarcely refrain from the observation that not a little of the book’s appeal lies in the light it throws on the contexts of Erikson’s own major achievement: the concept of identity crisis.

We learn that the concept was first used in clinical circumstances (par, of course, for all psychoanalytic insights into human behavior) having to do with mental disturbances of war veterans. “Most of our patients, so we concluded at that time, had neither been ‘shellshocked’ nor become malingerers, but had through the exigencies of war lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity. They were impaired in that central control over themselves for which, in the psychoanalytic scheme, only the ‘inner agency’ of the ego could be held responsible. Therefore, I spoke of a loss of ‘ego identity.'”

There is a hint in this book, though no more, that the idea of identity, including the related notion of negative identity (i.e., despised self-images) can be traced back to Freud and also to William James. But the evidence is too scanty, it seems to me, to go very far with this in either case. Erikson’s focus on identity is a part of that wider focus in American psychoanalytic thought on ego, which more than a few, especially in Europe, regard as tantamount to rejection of Freud’s main discovery, the unconscious. One can of course find in Freud, as one can in Marx, just about anything that current interest suggests.

But surely the concept of identity has, and could have, no strategic, no fundamentally explanatory, role in Freud’s work. With James the matter is a little different. There is a good deal of affinity between Erikson’s “identity” and James’ “self.” Each has social as well as individual dimensions within a single, unified theory.

Somewhere in this book Erikson says that classical psychoanalysis did not develop “terms to conceptualize the environment” (this could be the understatement of the year), and it has to be admitted that “identity” and “identity crisis” represent intrepid efforts to accomplish just this. Rereading the remarkable “Young Man Luther,” there are moments when one can only suppose that herculean efforts were required by its author to keep from making the whole vast and complex Protestant Reformation the direct outcome of perturbations in Luther’s image of himself. But, generally, Erikson did restrain psychoanalytic energies; he did communicate a great deal about European political and social history; and he wrote a book that historians and sociologists (if not orthodox psychoanalysts) can respect.

In the present book further applications of the concept of identity crisis or identity confusion are presented. In one, the problem of individual creativity is raised, with George Bernard Shaw and William James and subjects. Admittedly, Erikson’s inquiry into each is brief, tentative and exploratory. On the evidence thus far, however, I would not expect to find either exploration very successful. This is in small part the result of what night be called recalcitrance on the part of the subjects; in larger part, ambiguity in the use of “identity confusion.” It is not clear whether this concept is used to “explain Shaw’s and James’s creativity or whether, as Erikson implies at the conclusion, the biographical fragment presented to the reader are merely to provide descriptive “insight into the development of identity.”

This may be an abiding difficulty in the concept itself. That identity — like self, character, personality — exists as a subject of reflexive concern in human beings is unquestionable. Whether, however, the concept can escape the trap of tautology in its use as the key element of an explanation is something else again. I confess readily that we in sociology live in glass houses. Still, as I read Erikson’s generally fine chapter on the Negro revolution, I find myself wondering whether the concepts of identity, negative identity, and identity confusion, which he employs to throw light on the rising Negro middle class and the Negro intellectual, are, at bottom, as clarifying as are the concepts of social role and role conflict as these might be used by a Talcott Parsons or a Robert Merton. For these latter terms are clearly visible elements of a social system — a social system that has been formed by history and that is, as we well know, now being dislocated by history: political, economic, moral and social. “Identity confusion” is a graceful descriptive phrase, but I question its explanatory value in situations that are as plainly historical in inception as the continuing Negro revolution is. The sociologists’ concepts of social role and role conflict (whatever their manifest inadequacies when they are extrapolated cumulatively and genetically in time) have at least the logical superiority of being distinct from what it is we are trying to explain when we look at the Negro intellectual’s “crisis in identity” and the pragmatic advantage of being more relevant to the historical events and changes that are the effective background of the Negro revolution. But my own bias in these matters has been made clear.

Erik Erikson and Eric Berne

Dr. Eric Berne studied with Erik Erikson. ¬†Erikson’s influence played a role in the development of Berne’s Transactional Analysis as well as the book Games People Play.