In this assignment the case study provided is used to demonstrate knowledge of the life-span perspective and subsequently to relate the theory to practice. The life-span perspective has its basis in developmental psychology which can be considered as ‘the study of social, cognitive, affective and behavioural changes that occur over time through maturation and learning’ (Blissett, 2000 cited in Davies, 2000).

A number of different theories have been put forward to explain development and this assignment will focus in particular on psychosocial stage theories and family systems theory. The case study is concerned with a 32-year-old female of Indian origin who lived in England up until her marriage at the age of 21 and returned at around 30 years after separation from her husband with her 3-year-old daughter. Consequently concentration in the assignment will be predominantly on theory relevant to early adulthood.

The life span perspective seeks to study the process of changes in a social context and their relation to each other. Development is seen to be continuous and changes should not be seen in isolation (Lishman, 2000 cited in Davies, 2000). An assumption is made that there are common developmental tasks or stages, which are experienced in order to move through life and that through looking at these it is possible to consider where a person is in terms of their life-span development. Furthermore this can then be compared to the expectations of their chronological age in the different theories and if they are not meeting these why this is so.

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Returning to the case study, Meena has undergone a significant number of changes during her life so far – particularly from the age of 21 to her current age of 32. She has married, moved country, had a child, separated and moved back to Britain. So what impact have these events had on her development? In order to begin examining this the theories of Erik Erikson (1950) and Daniel Levinson (1978) (cited by Helms and Turner, 1995) are considered. Erikson proposed a model in which the individual passes through 8 psychosocial stages during which he said we strive for ego identity and integrity. The 5th and 6th stages are especially concerned with these issues and it is to these that we look with reference to Meena’s place in the life cycle. During the 6th stage – Intimacy v. Isolation – Erikson postulated that the young adult would seek to form an intimate relationship with another and commit to:

‘…concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments, even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises’ Erikson (1950).

Meena could be seen to have resolved this conflict through her marriage and the arrival of a child at the appropriate time. However Erikson’s theory is a stage model which assumes achievement of prior stages before one can successfully move on to the next. The previous stage in Erikson’s model is identity formation and is seen as a prerequisite for successful adult relationships, since intimacy results from the ability to fuse your identity with someone else. Evidence for this comes from a study by Kahn (1985, cited by Beckett, 2002) which found that women who had difficulty in late adolescence had usually gone on to marry but then often had problems maintaining stable marital relationships. Formation of identity involves grappling with important choices: Who am I as a man or a woman, as a sexual being? What do I want to do in life? What are my beliefs and values about the world? Similarly Levinson saw this stage or transition as he terms it as a time to explore both independence from family of origin (termination) and choices in order to achieve higher self-definition (initiation).

Although Meena leaves her family of origin she exchanges it for another which is more rigid in structure. There is a decrease in her independence and she is unable to undertake the task of initiation fully. She has little choice about her options due to the constraints of her expected role in her husband’s family and is expected to carry out this predetermined role without question. Marcia (1993 cited by Beckett, 2002) expanded on Erikson’s ideas of identity formation and suggested four different resolutions that an individual might come to.

Meena’s marriage was arranged in the Indian tradition and was preordained from when she was a year old. It is unknown as to whether Meena was allowed prior experimentation in intimate relationships and it is therefore difficult to determine the extent to which she had worked through her concept of sexual and role identity. However if we assume that her decisions were limited by the constraints of parental authority and expectations and the prior knowledge of her marriage then it is possible to place Meena in Marcia’s type of Identity Foreclosure. This is described as a state whereby the individual identifies with and accepts the values and goals of the parents (or other authority figure(s)) without questioning whether they are right for them or considering self-determined choices.

Erikson implies that once adult identity has been found this is set through life (Rayner, 1986, p174). However this is unlikely to be the case and Levinson’s model allows for reconsideration of different stages and the opportunity to work on problems in previous life stages so as to create a basis for a more satisfactory structure that will be typically created in the ensuing period. Levinson emphasises this at the age of 30 although this is not a strict boundary. Thus Meena at first seems to accept her fate and adheres to the rules laid down by her husband and father-in-law. She moves to India and then remains at home and is seen as a happily married, middle class housewife. However behind the scenes she feels devalued and restricted and states that as she grew older she began to feel she did not have an identity of her own, which is consistent with the concept of identity foreclosure.

Thus Meena seems to have returned to the Identity v. Role Confusion stage and is seeking to establish herself in her new situation. She has separated from her husband and returned to England with her three-year-old daughter. She is no longer constrained by the edicts of her husband and father-in-law and is now able to explore more fully what she wants from life. This is not, however, to suggest that she is completely free from all familial influences as she must negotiate regarding the care of her daughter and deal with the rejection from her family and the Indian community. Choices, though are now an option for her and she is actively exploring and considering different routes. Marcia called this identity status Moratorium, and while this can be an uncomfortable position to be in it is considered to be constructive and closer to complete identity achievement.

While searching for identity Meena also seems to be looking towards settling down and providing a stable environment for her daughter, a period that Erikson termed Generativity v. Stagnation. Erikson proposed this stage as a process of middle adulthood as opposed to early adulthood. However it is associated strongly with having children, which more often takes place in early adulthood.

The stage theories of Erikson and Levinson have been criticised as too linear and prescriptive – for example, they do not allow sufficiently for the experiences of women or the effect of ethnicity on development. Thompson (1998, cited in Adams et al., 1998, p308) argues that:

‘…life stages are socially constructed and are therefore subject to considerable variation according to culture and other such social factors. It is important that they are not seen as biological stages that have to be experienced in a particular way. Such an approach would be ethnocentric…’

Phinney (1989, 1990) suggests that identity establishment can present particular challenges for young people who are members of ethnic minorities but states that resolution of attitudes towards one’s ethnicity are vital to psychological functioning. He proposes a three-stage progression from an unexamined ethnic identity through a period of exploration to an achieved or committed ethnic identity. Meena would be considered to be still in the middle stage but in a state similar to Marcia’s idea of moratorium and actively attempting to move towards achievement. It should be noted, however, that achievement does not necessarily imply a high degree of ethnic involvement but simply some exploration and awareness of one’s attitude towards one’s ethnicity.

Systems theories attempt to overcome the problems of stage theories. By looking not at the individual in isolation but at their place in a wider context. This concept comes from Biological theory and assumes that the individual parts will strive towards homeostasis and thus the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts (Beckett, 2002, p155. The family life cycle is an example of systems theory whereby the family is seen as an open system in transformation, that is constantly changing in relation to internal and external pressures (Coulshed & Orme, 1998, p. 172).

Thus it is important that in reaching an understanding of Meena’s place in life-span development trends of her family and cultural influences are examined in addition to her life events. Carter and McGoldrick (1989) cited by Beckett (2002) described these trends as vertical stressors and life events as horizontal stressors. It is when these different types of stressors join and interact that problems and conflicts arise. Meena acknowledges the difficulties that these interactions have caused in her search for identity, particularly related to her lack of choice about her life when married and subsequently her feelings of isolation following separation from her husband and her return to England.

In summary this assignment has attempted to place Meena developmentally at the relevant point in the life span. However this is not a simple process and although life span psychology offers ways of making experience more intelligible it is not a universal blueprint. Individuals move through life at different rates and according to unique factors making it difficult to generalise from one individual or family to another. When all factors are taken into consideration and a non-linear approach is adopted it would seem that Meena’s development is relatively normative in spite of the difficulties she has encountered along the way. She is constructively addressing developmental issues and seeking to resolve them in accordance with the life span perspective.


Adams, R., Dominelli, L. and Payne, M. (Eds) (1998), Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, London, Macmillan.

Beckett, C. (2002) Human Growth and Development, London, Sage Publications.

Coulshed, V. and Orme, J. (1998) Social Work Practice, 3rd edn, London, Macmillan Press.

Davies, M (ed.) (2000) The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social Work, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Erikson, E. (1995) Childhood and Society (first published 1951), London, Routledge.

Helms, D. and Turner, S. Lifespan Development, 5th edn, London, Harcourt Brace.

Phinney, J.S. (1990) ‘Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: review and research’, Psychological Bulletin, 108, pp.499-514.

Rayner, E. (1986) Human Development, London, Routledge.

Robinson, L. (1998) ‘Social work through the life course’ in Adams, R., Dominelli, L. and Payne, M. (eds), Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, London, Macmillan.

Thompson, N. (1998) ‘Social work with adults’ in Adams, R., Dominelli, L. and Payne, M. (eds), Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, London, Macmillan.


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