Theorists who have written about the human life cycle include Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Erik Erickson, and Daniel Levinson. They usually describe universal stages that people pass through during their lives and present the life cycle as one where people progress toward certain goals. Some theories, such as Freud’s, were based mainly on speculation about what “must” occur in individuals in terms of oral, anal, and phallic stages of infancy and the later latency and genital stages. The oral stage (birth to 1 year) focuses on the conflict that the infant experiences between pleasure and pain from the mouth, the pleasure of food, and the pain of its denial. The anal stage (1-3 years) looks at the anus as a source of sexual pleasure and control, and the phallic stage (3-6 years) focuses on the genitals and a love/hate relationship with the parents. The latency stage (6 years to puberty) involves redirecting sexual energy to activities of the larger society. The genital stage (puberty to adulthood) involves becoming a mature adult in a heterosexual relationship. Others theories, such as Piaget’s, were based on research on children. For example, Piaget did research on how children developed different ways of thinking. Today, the most influential of these theories is that of Erickson, who developed an eight-stage model of human development that modified Freud’s theory to work better with non-Western cultures. Erickson looked at non-Western cultures, for example, how the Sioux, who freely breast-fed children up to 3 years of age and had a relaxed method of toilet training, produced generous adults, whereas the Yurok, who breast-fed children for 6 months and had strict rules against urinating in the Klamath River, produced suspicious and miserly adults.
Although all of these theories have influenced particular anthropologists, many anthropologists have ignored them because they say such theories represent at best the Western life cycle and not the life cycles of even all members of Western society. Anthropologists who look at the life cycle are more likely to describe the four basic stages of the life cycle as birth, puberty, marriage, and death and to describe how people in different parts of the world think about these and the practices associated with them. The work of Arnold Van Gennep (1873-1957) has had a lot of influence in how anthropologists deal with the life course. In The Rites of Passage, Van Gennep described specific rituals that mark transitions in a person’s social life in various societies in terms of the life cycle rituals related to pregnancy and childbirth, birth and childhood, initiation rites, betrothal and marriage, and funerals. These rituals move people from one social position to another. People often mark these changes in age-based identities with bodily mutilations such as scarification and circumcision.
Other anthropologists have looked at age grade and age sets, where males or females move into groups of approximately the same age, sometimes according to rites of passage and sometimes not. People in each age grade or age set take on specific roles. Thus, among the Tiriki of Kenya as described by Walter Sangree, adolescent boys undergo an initiation into an age grade at puberty. The Tiriki have seven named age groups, with each involving males who were initiated during the same 15-year period. Although it has changed over the years, it had the following form in 1939. Small boys entered the first age group, which consisted of boys up to 10 years of age. The next group consisted of 11- to 25-year-olds who in the past were divided into those who were initiated or uninitiated. The third consisted of men ages 26 to 40 years and was made up of warriors. The fourth group consisted of men ages 41 to 55 years and was made up of older warriors. The fifth group consisted of men ages 56 to 70 years and was made up of judicial elders. The sixth group consisted of men ages 71 to 90 years and was made up of ritual elders. The last group consisted of men ages 91 to 105 years and was made up deceased or senile elders. Many anthropologists have written about age sets and age groups as ways for people to find help outside of groups based on kinship or marriage.
Many anthropologists in the United States dealt with the life cycle in terms of the culture and personality approach. Ruth Benedict wrote that the Japanese learn from the early years to subordinate individual desires to the needs of the group, with an emphasis on shame. Margaret Mead’s studies showed that child raising greatly influences gender roles in a society, and subsequent studies have confirmed this despite controversy about Mead’s methodology and interpretation of data. Geoffrey Goffer developed the “swaddling hypothesis” that linked swaddling to the intense mood swings of Russians in that swaddling immobilized infants for periods of time and then freed them to have intense social interaction.
John Whiting began another approach to the life cycle when he wrote an early ethnography about a life cycle of Melanesian people titled Becoming a Kwoma in 1941. It described how their culture affected the Kwoma from childhood to adulthood. He and the psychologist Irving Child then used the Human Relations Area File (HRAF), which had data on hundreds of societies, to write Child Training and Personality in 1953. In this book, they looked at differences in child-training customs in different cultures using elements of Freudian and behavioral psychology. The most impressive statistical correlation they discovered in their data was that the age of weaning and the severity of weaning had a strong correlation with people’s oral explanations of illness. However, the HRAF data often involve a judgment call, so much of Whiting and Child’s statistical data are suspect. Whiting also introduced the idea that societies where boys had a strong identification with their mothers have severe initiation rites that represented symbolic castration. However, many doubt this as well because some evidence shows that boys who grow up without a strong male figure actually act in exaggerated male ways. Later, Beatrice Whiting (John’s wife) and Child developed the contrast between dependence training and independence training. This theory states that some societies focus on training children in such a way that promotes group solidarity and working together, whereas other societies emphasize individualism and self-reliance. Positive stimulus to promote dependence training includes nursing children for an extended period of time, whereas negative stimulus includes punishing aggressive behavior toward others. Positive stimulus to promote independence includes giving children their own private space at an early age and showing toleration of aggression and competition, whereas negative stimulus includes nursing children for a shorter period of time and giving less attention to young children. Whiting and Child said that dependence training produces children who work well in groups, whereas independence training produces children who focus on individual success.
A recent approach to the life cycle draws on ideas from the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872— 1950). One of those to develop Mauss’s ideas, Paul Bourdieu, looks at life in terms of different types of capital—economic, social, and cultural. He says that these different types of capital create different opportunities for people not only in different societies but also within the same society. Those who follow this approach say that mental life is not universal but rather is influenced by cultural traditions and practices involving issues such as gender and kinship organization. Those drawing on Mauss’s writings on bodily techniques talk about how the body is a part of both nature and culture, so that culture determines how people do basic things such as sitting. They write about how birth is biological but changes people’s social roles and relationships, so that bodily events are inseparable from social ones. One’s bodily experiences within a particular culture determine one’s possible life course; one’s life cycle depends on one’s unique lived situation. Similarly, the life events approach says that people’s lives depend more on the events of their lives than on their age, whereas the life span approach emphasizes individual differences and how change can take place in many ways.
- Bock, P. (1999). Rethinking psychological anthropology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
- Hockey, J., & James, A. (2003). Social identities across the life course. New York: Macmillan.
- Mead, M. (1949). Coming of age in Samoa. New York: Mentor Books.
- Stigler, J., Shweder, R., & Herdt, G. (Eds.). (1990). Cultural psychology essays on comparative human development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1909)
- Whiting, J., & Child, I. (1953). Child training and personality: A cross-cultural study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.