Thursday, October 1, 2009

Behavior, Development, and Society

In his sixth chapter of Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud focuses on the interpretation of cultural phenomena. Using analysis of the dream world as the basis of interpretation, he suggests “We want something that is sought for in all scientific work – to understand the phenomena” (p. 129). In exploring phenomena, Freud’s writings seem wholly focused on the individual as a singular entity to explore through analysis. Nevertheless, Freud expounds upon the contradictory demands of the individual and society; the interpretation, translation, and analysis of cultural phenomena are associated with the clash between the individual and society.

Whereas Freud emphasizes the conflict between the interests of society and the demands of the individual, Parsons (1954) highlights that these elements are independent, as well as interactive with each other. In other words, the individual supports society, just as society supports the individual. With an emphasis on order and cohesion, Parsons, like Freud, also believes that social phenomena can be described, analyzed, and explained. Parsons’ four-factor model of social system dimensions – adaptation, goal attainment, pattern maintenance, integration – can be used as a model for analyzing any kind of relationship. In beginning to outline his concept of structural-functionalism, Parsons proposes a theory of social action, depicting human action as a system. This system is composed of four interdependent and interaction units making up “a body of logically interdependent generalized concepts of empirical reference” (p. 212): individual, personality, social system, and culture. In Parsons’ world, theory’s purpose is to facilitate description and analysis. By description, he refers to determining verifiable answers to all the scientifically important questions. By analysis, he refers to ensuring that the conceptual structure is delineated through propositions, or building larger concepts upon smaller ones.

Erikson’s (1997) “Major Stages of Psychosocial Development” illustrates Parsons’ concept of propositions, with one stage building upon another like a developmental ladder. Erikson provides an outline of his theoretical system, from infancy through old age, as the individual “gradually becoming what one has caused to be, one eventually will be what one has been” (p. 79). At first glance, the stages alone do not seem to take into account contextual variation among individuals. Yet, the fact that the stages are general and not stringently outlined, makes it more applicable to various contexts. Erikson’s framework of psychosocial development is particularly mindful of the cultural location of the developmental tasks and of the ways in which the natural movement through development may be distorted by external forces. As a powerful external force, armed conflict disrupts the developmental processes of the individual, family, and community. In particular, the role of caregivers is compromised, as they face increasing external demands that prioritize safety and survival. As a result, developmental needs of children are compromised and movement between stages is stalled.

Are the theoretical concepts of Freud, Parsons, and Erikson relevant today? In order to address issues of human development in today’s society, culture must be considered. All individuals are participants in cultural communities, engaging with others in shared endeavors and building upon cultural practices of previous generations. Human development is a process of participation in society, while society represents the culmination of various individuals interacting with others. External forces, such as global crises, create another contextual layer through which the individual must interact and contend with.

Erikson, E. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Freud, S. (1991). Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Parsons, T. (1954). Essays in Sociological Theory. New York, NY: Macmillan Company.

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