History Of Developmental Sciences Research Paper

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Prior to the nineteenth century, most efforts to understand human development were not associated with scientific theories of human development (Dixon and Lerner 1999). Instead, many models of human development were derived primarily from philosophical, literary, or theological domains. From Aristotle (384–332 BC) through St. Augustine (354–430) to William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), many important thinkers wrote about the ages or stages of human life, often speculating on their unique needs and purposes. It was not until the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, however, that these theoretical perspectives were attached to systematic empirical investigations.

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The nineteenth century has often been viewed as a formative period in the emergence of scientific models of human development, for example, as in the field of developmental psychology (Baltes 1983, Cairns 1998). A key influence in the development of such models was Darwin’s (1959) theory of evolution. For instance, Dixon and Lerner (1999) have argued that historical and evolutionary theories—and particularly Darwinism—provided key intellectual bases for five different theoretical systems in developmental psychology. These systems include, first, the influence of nineteenth-century evolutionary thought on the organismic model; this influence may be traced from the work of G. Stanley Hall, James Mark Baldwin, Pierre Janet, and Arnold Gesell, to the still influential work of Jean Piaget and Heinz Werner. Second, the related psychodynamic model developed in a less direct fashion from the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to that of Erik Erikson. Third, Wilhelm Preyer and Sir Francis Galton, some of the later aspects of the work of G. S. Hall and John B. Watson, contributed to the development of the mechanistic model. The dialectical model, influenced by G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, was later developed more specifically by Lev S. Vygotsky and Klaus F. Riegel. Contextualism derived from the turn-of-the-century American pragmatic philosophers, most notably William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and G. H. Mead. Contextualism has evolved— through integration with probabilistic epigenetic ideas (Gottlieb 1997)—to exist now as developmental systems theory (e.g., Ford and Lerner 1992, Gottlieb 1997, Thelen and Smith 1998), for example, as illustrated by developmental contextualism (Lerner 1986).

In addition to the influence of evolutionary theory, several other contributions to the scientific study of human development occurred in the nineteenth century and, as well, in the late part of the eighteenth century. Important contributors include: Dietrich Tiedemann (1748–1803), who, in 1787, produced the first psychological diary of the growth of a young child (see Murchison and Langer 1927); Friedrich August Carus (1770–1808), who endeavored to develop a comprehensive age-oriented science; Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869), who argued for the application of the developmental method to a broad range of psychological issues (Kohler 1985); Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874), who produced highly advanced methods to disentangle the multiple influences on the course of human development; and Johann Nikolas Tetens (1736–1807), who argued for natural scientific methods to guide the search for general laws regarding human development from birth to death (MullerBrettel and Dixon 1990).

In addition, in the nineteenth century numerous ‘baby biographies’ began to appear. Such ontogenetic

 observational studies often took the form of diaries written by scientist-parents describing the successive achievements of a child (often their own). For example, Darwin kept such a diary of his infant son’s growth during the years 1840–1 (Dixon and Lerner 1999). Many other baby biographies appeared around the turn of the century (e.g., Hall 1891, Sully 1903).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, and continuing through at least the beginning of the 1940s, much of developmental psychology was descriptive and normative. Instrumental in promoting this emphasis was the research of Arnold Gesell (1880–1961). Gesell (e.g., 1946) emphasized that maturationally based changes unfold independent of learning, and his research stressed the need for the careful and systematic cataloguing of growth norms. His work provided the field with useful information about the expected sequence for, and normative times of, the emergence of numerous physical and mental developments in selected groups of infants and children (who were from predominantly European American, middle class families). Conceptually, Gesell’s work is related to one side of what has been a continuing debate in the history of developmental psychology: The nature– nurture controversy (Overton 1998). This controversy pertains to a consideration of where the sources of development lie, whether in inborn (or hereditary) mechanisms or in acquired (or learned) processes. By stressing that maturation rather than learning is the prime impetus for developmental change, Gesell (1946) was taking a ‘nature’, as opposed to a ‘nurture’, stance. Historically, other terms associated with the nature position are preformationism, nativism, and innateness; some terms associated with the nurture position are learning, conditioning, experience, and socialization.

Although Gesell’s (1946) work emphasized the descriptive and normative nature of the field, there was indeed work occurring in other areas of psychology that countered Gesell’s emphasis (White 1970). For example, some experimental psychologists stressed the applicability of learning principles to the study of childhood (e.g., Horowitz 1994, Miller and Dollard 1941). One consequence of this activity was to provide evidence that nurture-based learning phenomena, as opposed to nature-based maturational phenomena, could account for some features of children’s behavior and development. These learning psychologists emphasized less the facts of development per se (e.g., ‘What is the age at which an infant sits, stands, walks, or has a two-word vocabulary?’) than the explanation of those facts (e.g., ‘What mechanisms— nature or nurture—need to be referred to in order to explain these facts?’).

This alternating emphasis between nature and nurture was furthered in the 1940s by events leading up to and including World War II (Lerner 1986). Nazi persecution led many Jewish intellectuals to flee Europe, and many sought refuge and a new start for their careers in the United States. Many of these refugees were able to secure positions in American universities and associated institutions, despite the fact that they often brought with them ideas counter to those that were typical of the American scene (e.g., behaviorism and learning theory). For instance, although Freud himself settled in London (and died there in 1939), many psychoanalytically oriented psychologists, some trained by Freud or his daughter Anna, emigrated to North America (e.g., Peter Blos and Erik Erikson).

One reason that so many psychoanalytically oriented professionals were able to secure faculty positions in America may be related to the fact that the federal government was contributing large amounts of money to universities to support the training of clinical psychologists. Such psychologists were needed to test soldiers for both psychological and physical fitness (Misiak and Sexton 1966). This infusion of psychoanalysis in American academe resulted in the introduction of a nature-based perspective into numerous psychology departments, some of which had been dominated by nurture-based theorists (Gengerelli 1976). Nevertheless, the psychoanalytic orientation represented just one of many different theoretical accounts of human functioning—accounts that stressed either nature or both nature and nurture as sources of behavior and development—that were now making inroads into North American thinking.

For similar reasons, nativistic ideas about perception and learning, introduced by psychologists who believed in the holistic (integrative) aspects of behavior, began to appear more frequently on the North American scene. The gestalt (meaning ‘form’ or ‘shape’) views represented by some Europeans (people like Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Kohler, Kurt Goldstein, and Kurt Lewin) were shown to be pertinent also to areas of concern such as brain functioning, group dynamics, and social problems (Sears 1975). European perspectives relevant to human development also were being introduced. For the most part, these views also emphasized maturational (nature) components and, to some extent, clinical, nonexperimental methods. Werner (e.g., 1948) and Piaget (e.g., 1970) were especially influential.

The outcome of this cross-fertilization of ideas about development was to reinforce, if not redefine, the evolving ideas about development in North America. Any given behavior, pattern of behaviors, or systematic change in behavior could be explained by a number of different theories, and these various theories were advanced by respected advocates often working in the same academic contexts (Gengerelli 1976). Thus, in American departments of psychology, developmentalists were now confronted with a range of perspectives, ones that advanced explanations of development that varied in their reliance on purportedly nature and/or nurture processes.

Indeed, in an early review of the history of developmental science, Bronfenbrenner (1963) noted that from the 1930s to the early 1960s there was a continuing shift away from studies involving the mere collection of data, and a shift toward research concerned with abstract processes and constructs. Some books and essays published during this period epitomized this trend by calling for the study of developmental processes and mechanisms (e.g., Harris 1957). Accordingly, describing the status of the field, Bronfenbrenner (1963) wrote that ‘first and foremost, the gathering of data for data’s sake seems to have lost favor. The major concern in today’s developmental research is clearly with inferred processes and constructs.’ For example, this concern with the pluralism of ideas about developmental processes and constructs is exemplified in the now-classic publication, The Concept of Development, a collection of chapters pertinent to theoretical and conceptual issues in development that was edited by Harris (1957).

In turn, in a review almost a decade after Bronfenbrenner’s analysis, Looft (1972) found a continuation of the trends noted by Bronfenbrenner. Looft’s review, like Bronfenbrenner’s, was based on an analysis of major handbooks of developmental psychology published from the 1930s to 1972. Looft noted that a shift toward more general concerns about integrating theoretical ideas occurred after World War II, and that the trend continued through 1963 (Bronfenbrenner 1963) to 1972. As a case in point we may note that the editor of the (third) 1970 edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology, Mussen (1970), pointed out that: ‘The major contemporary empirical and theoretical emphases in the field of developmental psychology, however, seem to be on explanations of the psychological changes that occur, the mechanisms and processes accounting for growth and development.’ Mussen’s observation may be equally apt today, i.e., the last two decades of the twentieth century served to underscore and extend Mussen’s (1970) analysis.

For example, in the fourth edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology (Mussen 1983), the first volume was devoted to historical, theoretical, and methodological issues, topics not even juxtaposed in a single section of previous editions. In the most recent (fifth) edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology (Damon 1998), the first volume featured developmental theoretical content, including attention to such enduring issues as conceptions of process, how structures function, and how functions are structured over time (Lerner 1998). Other prominent collections, such as the Advances in Child Development and Behavior series (edited by Hayne W. Reese), and the Life-span De elopment and Behavior series (edited by Paul B. Baltes, Orville G. Brim, Jr., David L. Featherman, Marion Perlmutter, and Richard M. Lerner) illustrate similar trends.

The interest in explanations and the conceptual issues pertinent to them generated considerable scholarship during the last three decades of the twentieth century about the different philosophical, or meta theoretical, bases upon which individual development is studied and interpreted (e.g., Lerner 1986, 1998, Overton 1998, Reese and Overton 1970). Following the work of such philosophers as Kuhn (1970) and Pepper (1942), Reese and Overton (1970) identified two major philosophical positions—termed the organismic and the mechanistic models—that provided the basis for many extant assumptions about human development and influenced lower-order theoretical and methodological statements.

The organismic position stresses the qualitative features of developmental change and the active contribution of the organism’s processes in these changes. The theories of Piaget (e.g., 1970) and Freud (e.g., 1954) are examples of such organismically oriented approaches. In contrast, the mechanistic position stresses quantitative change and the active contribution of processes lying outside the primary control of the organism (e.g., in the external stimulus environment) as the major source of development. The behavioral analysis theory of Bijou and Baer (1961) is a major example of such mechanistically oriented approaches.

Elaborating on this interest in the philosophical bases of developmental theory, Reese and Overton (1970) initiated a discussion concerning the ‘family of theories’ associated with models of development. For instance, although there are differences among theories in the organismic family (Freud emphasized emotional development and Piaget emphasized cognitive development), there is greater similarity among the theories within a family (e.g., the common stress on the qualitative, stage-like nature of development) than there is between theories associated with different families (e.g., mechanistically oriented theories would deny the importance, if not the reality, of qualitatively different stages of development).

Since the early 1970s, recognition of the philosophical differences between the family of theories derived from the organismic and the mechanistic models, respectively, resulted in several discussions about the different stances theories from one or another family take in regard to an array of key conceptual issues. Examples are the nature and nurture bases of development (e.g., Lerner 1986, Overton 1998); the quality, openness, and continuity of change (Brim and Kagan 1980); the extent to which theories of development may be inextricably linked to particular content domains (Lerner 1998); the extent to which the developing individual is viewed as a biological, psychological, or sociological entity versus as an integrated aspect of dynamic contexts or systems (e.g., Lerner 1986); the methods that are appropriate to the challenges of studying human development (Baltes et al. 1977); and ultimately, the alternative truth criteria for establishing the ‘facts’ of development (Overton 1998, Reese and Overton 1970).

From the 1970s to the end of the twentieth century, this awareness of the philosophical bases of developmental theory, method, and data contributed to a consideration of additional models appropriate to the study of psychological development. In part, this consideration developed as a consequence of interest in integrating assumptions associated with theories derived from organismic and mechanistic models (Overton 1998). For instance, Riegel (1976) attempted to apply an historical model of development that included some features of organicism (e.g., active organism) and some features of mechanism (e.g., active environment).

In turn, there was an interest in continual, reciprocal relations between an active organism and its active context (and not in either element per se) and with these relations as they exist on all phenomenal levels of analysis. These interests were labeled in different ways in the human development literature. For example, such terms as dialectical (Riegel 1976), transactional (Sameroff 1975), dynamic interactional (Lerner 1986), and person-environment, or holistic, interactional (Magnusson 1996, 1999) have been used. In a similar way, a number of theorists have explored the application of contextual (Rosnow and Georgoudi 1986) and integrative, developmental systems notions about human development (Ford and Lerner 1992, Gottlieb 1997, Magnusson 1996, 1999).

Overton (1998) has explained that these relational theories of human development arose at least in part because of the recognition that differences in approaches to, and interpretations of, behavior, prevalent between World War II and the 1970s, were limited due to their having been framed as Cartesian splits. In addition to the nature-nurture issue the controversies of continuity versus discontinuity, stability vs. instability, and constancy vs. change are cases in point (Lerner 1986). Overton argued that these issues remained controversial precisely because they cast development unnecessarily into a split frame of reference, into a categorical either or form (Overton 1998). The early formulation and promulgation of such conceptual controversies had the ironic outcome of keeping the field focused on diverse interpretations of behavioral change.

However, more recently, developmental scientists have presented alternatives to such ‘split’ conceptions. These ideas have stressed the systemic integration, or fusion, of levels of organization ranging from the biological to the sociocultural and historical (e.g., Ford and Lerner 1992, Gottlieb 1997, Magnusson 1999, Thelen and Smith 1998). They have encompassed the entire life span (Baltes et al. 1998), and thus have engaged the action of individuals as an active source of their own development (Brandtstadter 1998, Lerner and Busch-Rossnagel 1981).

Indeed, the majority of the chapters in Volume 1 (Lerner 1998) of the above-noted most recent, fifth edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology (Damon 1998) reflect such developmental systems notions. By the end of the twentieth century these integrative notions had replaced either mechanistic and reductionistic nature (e.g., sociobiology, behavior genetics) or nurture (e.g., learning or behavior analysis) theories as the preferred frame for research and application in the scientific study of human development (Lerner 1998).


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