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People’s basic needs include the requirements for survival, health, and fulfilment: food, water, warmth and, shelter at one extreme and self-expression and self-actualization at the other. However, questions of how to understand, identify, and meet basic needs remain somewhat contested.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) proposed two primal, biologically based instincts: self-preservation and fulfilling the sexual drive to procreate (Rickman 1937, p. 85), distinguishing the need for life from the death wish, or the aggressive drive to destroy or even self-destruct (Freud 1933, pp. 133–144). Carl Jung (1875–1961) transcended Freud’s individualistic notion of instinct, incorporating historical and cultural factors that externally impel the person (Progoff 1953, pp. 33–39). Jung proposed that in later life a psychologically healthy person shifts from fulfilling more basic needs to a focus on self-realization, and this informed Henry Murray’s ideas about self-actualization (1938).
Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), influenced by Murray, developed his hierarchy of needs in the early 1940s (Maslow 1943), based on a five-level pyramid from people’s most basic physical “deficiency” needs to the most fulfilling “growth” needs, the satisfaction of each making possible the progression to the next. While deficiency needs leave the individual at rest when met, growth needs persist, continuing to motivate the person. The pyramid includes: (1) biological and physiological needs, for air, food, drink, sleep, shelter, warmth, and sex; (2) safety needs, for protection and security boundaries; (3) affection and belonging needs, for loving relationships in the family and satisfaction at work; (4) esteem needs, for appreciation by others, status, reputation, and recognition of achievements; and (5) self-actualization needs, for personal development and fulfilment. Three more levels of growth needs were added in the late 1960s (Maslow 1999), their precise origins being uncertain, however. These included (6) cognitive needs, for knowledge and understanding; (7) aesthetic needs, to create or appreciate beauty and harmony; and (8) transcendence needs, enabling other people to achieve self-actualization.
Maslow drew on anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s application of the concept of synergy in cultures where cooperation was rewarded to everybody’s benefit, applying this concept to work organizations to increase motivation, functioning, and production. He studied how to achieve synergy—that is, convergence—between the interests of the commercial organization and its employees through enlightened management based on humanistic theories about meeting people’s needs.
Maslow’s optimistic view of human nature and the satisfaction of needs informed Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y (1960). McGregor proposed two contrasting managerial theories about human nature: theory X, that people meet their basic needs by expressing their fundamental selfishness and laziness; and theory Y, that they meet their needs by expressing fundamental tendencies toward being cooperative, hardworking, and productive.
From an economic perspective, John Maynard Keynes (1930) distinguished basic or absolute needs—for food and drink, for example—which are limited because they disappear once a person is satisfied, from relative needs— for advancement and superiority over other people— which are insatiable. However, more affluent people’s needs to enjoy eating and drinking beyond satisfying basic appetites are widely recognized. Also, there are many further reasons why both absolute and relative needs are insatiable, such as the desire to improve one’s quality of life.
Perspectives on responding to basic needs have widespread application beyond psychological work with people, including social policy, counseling, health care, social care, and education. Jonathan Bradshaw (1972) distinguishes four categories of social need: normative, judged according to a predetermined norm or standard; comparative, specified in relation to the needs of other people; felt, or wants experienced by people rather than judged by others; and expressed, as stated by people in the light of their experience. The strengths perspective developed by Dennis Saleeby (2002), involves assessing people’s needs from their strengths and potential rather than simply deficits, building on their existing knowledge, skills, and resources to enable them to cope with challenges and difficulties. Person-centered assessment involves keeping individual needs at the center throughout the process of assessment and ensuring that the person’s perception of his or her basic needs is always taken into consideration at every stage. In these terms, analysis of basic needs is more holistic, assessing the needs of whole person: the stage of the life course reached, the capacity of relatives, partners, and careers to respond to needs, and the resources available in the family, neighborhood, and wider environment.
Conceptions of basic needs not only cross disciplinary boundaries but also have transnational currency, although the ways these are presented may foster an illusion of global consensus rather than reflecting the reality of the contested nature of proposed responses, including those based on human rights. Basic needs derive not just from what are held to be physical or psychological imperatives but also from socially and politically constructed statements, some of which cross cultural and national boundaries. The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights asserts that all people share rights and freedoms, irrespective of their age, race, birth, or other differences. Many such statements of rights translate directly into statements of human need. Thus, in Article 3, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” the words “basic need for” could be substituted for “right to.” Similarly, the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child implies that children, from prebirth to adulthood, have needs and rights over and above those of adults. Many children are more vulnerable to their basic needs not being met through poverty, homelessness, neglect, abuse, their own or their parents’ disease or poor health, and lack of access to education and justice.
Needs are often presented as though they are absolute, whereas in reality their social construction differs according to countries and cultures. In the late 1970s, Frances Stewart (1985) and Paul Streeten et al. (1981) developed the Basic Needs Approach (BNA) adopted by the World Bank, aiming to benefit developing countries, conditional on introducing fiscal policy changes and tax reforms—the principle of conditionality. The Capability Approach to understanding poverty has much in common with the BNA, both going beyond the possession of commodities and acknowledging that subjective experience may be at variance with people’s physical circumstances (Sen 1985, pp. 82–83).
- Bradshaw, J 1972. A Taxonomy of Social Need. New Society 30 (March): 640–643.
- Freud, S 1933. Anxiety and Instinctual Life, Lecture 32. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. 107–143. London: Hogarth Press.
- Keynes, John Maynar 1930. Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. Essays in Persuasion, 321–332. Vol. 11 of The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes. London: Macmillan.
- Maslow, A 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50: 370–396.
- Maslow, A 1999. Toward a Psychology of Being, 3rd ed. New York: Wiley. (Originally published in 1968.)
- McGregor, D 1960. The Human Side of Enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Murray, Henry, et al. Explorations in Personality : A Clinical and Experimental Study of Fifty Men of College Age, by the Workers at the Harvard Psychological Clinic. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Progoff, I 1953. Jung’s Psychology and Its Social Meaning. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Rickman, John, and trans. 1937. Instincts and Their Vicissitudes (1915). A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. Psycho-Analytical Epitomes No. 1, 79–98. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
- Saleeby, Dennis, 2002. The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Sen, Amartya 1985. Commodities and Capabilities. Oxford: Elsevier Science.
- Stewart, F 1985. Planning to Meet Basic Needs. London: Macmillan.
- Streeten, Paul, J. Burki, Mahbub ul Haq, et al. 1981. First Things First, Meeting Basic Human Needs in the Developing Countries. New York: Oxford University Press.
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