Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Childhood and Society

Human body, human mind and society are interrelated each other. However, the scientific anatomy often fails to see those three in entity, perceiving human minds to be narrow and static. Psychoanalysts are different. Thanks to their analysis methodology, psychoanalysts overcome this pitfall and are able to see the mutual influence of soma, mind and society. They study individual human crises by becoming therapeutically involved in them, and can see that somatic tension, individual anxiety, and group panic have the same rout. Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst authored “Childhood and Society”, a brilliant work to elucidate the relationship among body, mind and society through his clinical psychological analysis of childhood.

Childhood and development of ego
Human beings have a long childhood; the more civilized the community, the longer childhood people experience. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a lifelong residue of emotional immaturity in him or her. Why?

The reasons are related to the stages of human psychological development. According to Erikson, human beings experience 8 stages in their psychological development. For more detail, see:

Each developmental stage requires children to acquire each psychological ability (virtue) for their further maturity, and there always are the challenges and potential conflicts. For instance, the first developmental stage requires that a child acquire basic trust in his or her first developmental stage, but there always is the risk of embracing mistrust. The conflicts between the confrontational values (in this case trust and mistrust) create anxiety, and one’s ego manages it through providing defensive measures with him/herself, the measures that are sometimes expressed in peculiar ways.

Erikson’s basic concept of ego is coming from Freud. Feud argued that human beings have the pressure of excessive wishes (the “id”) and the oppressive force of conscience (the “superego”). According to Freud, the id is the oldest province of human mind; it is everything which would make us “mere creatures”, such as responses of the amoeba, impulses of apes, and so on. On the other hand, the superego is a governor which limits the expression of the id by opposing to it the demands of conscience. Sometimes the superego oppresses ego too much and it is analogous to those of the blindly impulsive id: the cruelty of religious inquisition is one example. The ego dwells between id and superego, balancing them through defensive measures and thus restricting the development of anxiety.

Erikson argues that the events that children experience are designed to overcome these challenges that children face in their psychological developmental process. He argues that the society lighten the inescapable conflicts of childhood with a promise of some security, identity, and integrity. Let me mention two mechanisms for example - cultures and identity.

Cultures and identity
Erikson studied primitive cultures of Native American Tribes: Yurok and Sioux and found that the tribes use behavioral configurations to protects them from individual anxiety which might lead to panic. For instance, the Plains hunters feel anxiety over emasculation and immobilization, the Pacific fishermen feel it over being left without provisions.

“The discovery of primitive child-training systems makes it clear that primitive societies are neither infantile stages of mankind nor arrested deviations from the proud progressive norms which we represent: they are a complete form of mature human living, often of a homogeneity and simple integrity which we at times might well envy. “ (page 112)

“To accomplish this (managing anxiety), a primitive culture seems to use childhood in a number of ways: it gives specific meanings to early bodily and interpersonal experience in order to create the right combination of organ modes and the proper emphasis on social modalities; it carefully and systematically channelizes throughout the intricate pattern of its daily life the energies thus provoked and deflected; and it gives consistent supernatural meaning to the infantile anxieties which it has exploited by such provocation.” (page 185)

Take another example. Religion organizes the conflict between trust and evil, collectively cultivating trust in the form of faith and exploiting the sense of evil in the form of sin.

“Such an organization may have its era in history when it reinforces this particular ego value with a ceremonial power capable of infusing civilizations and of replenishing the communality of its followers in one form of human integrity. “ (page 277)

According to Erikson, identity based on cultures plays the central role as an anchor to keep the inner equilibrium in human minds.

“We concluded that only a gradually accruing sense of identity, based on the experience of social health and cultural solidarity at the end of each major childhood crisis, promises that periodical balance in human life which – in integration of the ego stages – makes for a sense of humanity. But wherever this sense is lost, wherever integrity yields to despair and disgust, wherever generativity yields to stagnation, intimacy to isolation, and identity to confusion, an array of associated infantile fears are apt to become mobilized: for only an identity safely anchored in the “patrimony” of a cultural identity can produce a workable pyshosocial equilibrium.” (page 412)

Erikson argues that young people now experiences difficulties in acquiring cultural identity, as the world experiences the rapid changes. At his time, the world experienced the World Wars, world-wide communication, mechanization, urbanization and so on, and the changes in milieu made it difficult for young people to have a solid cultural identity.

Although the comment may not be relevant to the very contents of the book, this book made me to think of the hint to see the entity. Human minds, bodies and society are connected, and just seeing them separately may lead to the wrong conclusion. One way to avoid this failure is to see a creature living in the entity. Karl Marx said that a product in capitalism society is reflecting all aspects of the society, and the same can be said for the analysis of minds and society.

The book also inspired me to think about the meaning of social mechanisms. Any odd system, such as old traditions, has the historical rationale of its existence. Just to laugh at the “Japanese” style corporate cultures is too easy. What is difficult but truly valuable is to find out the raison d’etre of these cultures and bring out implications and lessons for the future.

Erik H. Erikson, “Childhood and Society”, W W Norton & Co Inc (Reissue edition), 1993/08

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