Observational Methods In Developmental Psychology Research Paper

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Today it goes without saying that developmental psychology is of scientific value, but looking back in history reveals that our ancestors might have disagreed with the current understanding of human development. Which sources of information can be used to find out more about our ancestors’ perceptions of the course of life? There is nothing like today’s developmental research, but there is the option to have a closer look at written documents and pictures that tell us more about how the course of life formerly was divided and how stages like childhood, youth, adulthood, and older age were characterized (Aries 2000).

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The course of life was not only described in written documents. There are many pictures, prints, and paintings that show the different stages of life, either lined up one after another, or as segments of a wheel— the wheel of life—or, since 1531, as a staircase. Most staircases are divided into 10 segments of 10 years each, arranged symmetrically with its peak between 50 and 60. The steps ascend from 0 to 50 and descend from 60 to 100. The human is led to the Last Judgment after death, where the decision is made whether he or she will go to heaven or to hell. Such pictures were not meant to be realistic; they were supposed to be a reminder of human mortality. In the twentieth century pictorial representations like this became rare and the staircase of life became a caricature of human development.

Today’s knowledge society is proud to be able to distinguish between facts and opinions, evidence and assumption, fantasy and reality about human life courses. We tend to forget that it has not always been that way. And the reason why it all changed is that people started to conduct diary studies to describe empirically the courses of development (Wallace et al. 1994, Jaeger 1985).

1. Clara And William Stern’s Diary Studies

April 7, 1900 was the date of an extremely critical life event for the university lecturer William Stern and his wife Clara. At 2 a.m. their first child, Hilde, was born. The birth of Hilde was the start of a project that was to determine the Stern’s lives fundamentally for the next 15 years. William Stern, an experimental psychologist and philosopher who had studied and graduated at the University of Berlin, became—along with Piaget and Vygotsky—one of the most significant developmental psychologists of the twentieth century. His gifted wife, who unfortunately was not able to study, became an amateur scientist. She did not just work for, but with, her husband. Both of them were pioneers.

If one wants to start a research project, it is highly recommended to get prepared long before it actually starts: formulating questions, applying for funding, hiring assistants. When Hilde Stern was born, the Sterns started a project without doing any of this. They were not aware of how intense and long-lasting their project would be. We do not know when and why they had the idea of describing their first child’s development—and also that of their two subsequent children—in the form of diaries. All their documentations are preserved. Legible duplicates can be accessed with the help of a database (Stern and Stern 1900–18).

Clara and William Stern wrote diaries for each of their children. Looking at the extent and duration of the documentations it becomes clear that the diaries are not continual documentations of development. The older the children get, the less is documented. It is also remarkable that the extent of the diaries for the three children varies. The most detailed descriptions are the ones for the first child. What were Clara and Willam Stern’s reasons for not continuing to describe the development in so much detail?

When the Sterns started the project, diary studies were common tools in developmental research. Like Preyer (1882) the Sterns tried to differentiate between observational facts and their interpretations. The scientific value of observations increases according to the ability to describe them vividly but without judgments and explanations. Balancing empathy and distance is difficult for all who conduct diary studies. In this respect Clara Stern was almost perfectly able to describe her observations—even in the eyes of her very critical husband. The Sterns changed Preyer’s approach in that that they did not observe their children at certain times, but 24 hours a day they remembered or wrote down notes about everything remarkable in the development of their children. In the evening they would sit down at their desk to write everything into the diaries. Remarkable things would be more likely to be written down than things that had become part of a routine. Those who closely observe a child’s development make up their own scale when it comes to comparing the child observed with other children. This scale is used to decide whether a development is similar or different, usual or unusual, known or unknown. This way everything remarkable is mainly reduced to what is classified as individually different.

Nobody who writes a diary functions like a machine that is doing observations. The Sterns were far from turning their home into a laboratory. Being parents they acted like parents, not like scientists trying to turn their children into guinea pigs. The children did not feel watched or studied. It was by chance that they found out about the diaries at a young age, not thinking anything of it. Unlike most other diary studies, the Sterns’ documentations decribe not only the first three years of their children’s development; some of their documentations go far beyond those years. Writing diaries about the first three years of a child’s development is quite easy because the child is housebound. If the mother is the one who is writing the diary and at the same time the one who the child relates to closely, there is almost nothing she does not know about. That changes completely once the children are able to leave the house on their own. The mother does not know what happens when the child visits other families or interacts with peers. She can only write down what the child tells her, but not her own observations.

What are the facts written down in the Sterns’ diaries? It is difficult to say because they neither tried to answer certain a priori developmental questions, nor did they categorize their observations. Many researchers think that this kind of documentation rejects all fundamental principles of scientific work. The accusation is that their unorganized observations are just a collection of anecdotes with maybe some heuristic value. The Sterns’ reason for not using standardized observations and descriptions was not only their desire closely to examine an emerging human life; arguments not to use standardized methods can also be found in William Stern’s philosophical work (Behrens and Deutsch 1991). In Stern’s view, every individual is determined by experience and the ability to experience. The Sterns decided not to turn the observed individuals into objects and individual biographies were the results. Their closeness to life, details, and vividness are still fascinating.

2. From Diaries To Paradigms

With the help of diary studies developmental psychology turned into an empirical science. Until the nineteenth century men were the ones who wrote developmental diaries. So far nobody had examined critically if the observations of those philosophers, psychologists, physicians, and educationalists really were their own, or if some of them just wrote down what mothers and nurses told them. Women entered academic psychology conducting diary studies in which they observed their own or other children of the family. By writing diaries they were able to prove that their observations were just as objective and precise as those of their male colleagues. Diary studies were most popular in the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

The differentiation between personal and scientific diaries certainly is not an easy task in the case of the Sterns’ documentations. In the twentieth century diary studies became less important in developmental psychology (Wright 1960). The reasons are obvious: diary and single case studies could not be generalized and therefore were of little scientific value. Diary studies are based on observations; language is used to write down subjective impressions. The objectivity of observations can be improved if supported technically, e.g., with a tape recorder or video camera. Diary studies are documentations of events that occur under natural circumstances which makes it more difficult to compare different children, even different stages of development of the same child. Standardized conditions like tests and experimental excercises started to be used more frequently to measure courses of development.

Due to the rise of behaviorism in psychology diaries have widely lost their earlier reputation. They were replaced by less subjective methods of observation. Developmental tests make it possible to compare an individual’s performance with that of a reference group, because test items are being selected according to empirically determined (age) norms. This approach can be applied to any contents of interest across the full life span. Developmental tests, however, cannot capture a person’s spontaneous behavior under natural circumstances. This was made possible by advancements in modern audio and video technology allowing for online registrations of ongoing behavioral exchanges in social interactions. Recordings can be made of free interactions of mother–child dyads as well as of partially standardized interactions like in the strange situation test that became the central tool of attachment research. Diary observations suffer from memory, attention, or motivation deficits of the diarist, while technical recordings do not—but they lead to other problems. Recorded material is not self-explanatory. It has to be perceived, identified, categorized, and interpreted. Observers (raters) may disagree on what is ‘in’ the material. Agreement measures, for example Cohen’s Kappa, reflect the consensus among observers. This is a way to introduce qualitative objectivity measures into the application of observational methods (Bakeman and Gottman 1987).

Beside developmental tests and recordings of naturally occuring behavior, a third category of observations became increasingly important in developmental research as in many other areas of psychology: (experimental) paradigms. They require highly standardized conditions and often make use of advanced recording technology. If one wants to rank observational methods along a dimension of situational control, a bipolar dimension will appear with traditional diaries as one pole and paradigms as the other. In contemporary developmental psychology paradigms shoot up like mushrooms. They concentrate on precisely defined, sometimes diminutive aspects of behavior. Paradigms like preferential looking, head turning, referential communication, or still face do have many advantages compared to other observational methods, especially diaries. If the technical equipment works, one can use those paradigms any time and everywhere in innumerable variations. Researchers do not have to wait for certain phenomena to appear in the natural course of development; instead they are able to provoke the phenomena they are interested in at any time under controlled conditions. Therefore paradigms can reproduce themselves by generating one more time the data asked for.

There are still many good reasons to conduct diary studies nowadays (Hoppe-Graff 1989). Working with a video camera seems to be more objective than writing diaries. A videotape is not the final result though. Observers have to start interpreting what has been taped. Exactly those kind of interpretations have led to the argument that diary studies lack objectivity. Natural observations cannot be replaced by experiments or tests. The average individual does not exist, and results from experiments do not give detailed information about whole courses of development. The Sterns’ diary studies showed that by comparing the development of three children, universal as well as individual trends could be identified. These trends can now be examined more closely. Maybe diary studies will become more important once again when psychology does not divide humans into structures and functions anymore, but rather starts to stress the combination of both in each individual person. An excellent example for modern diary studies is Mendelson’s (1990) Becoming a Brother.

Standardized observations like tests and paradigms, examining representative samples if possible, have slowly replaced natural, unstandardized observations. Developmental psychology changed fundamentally because ideal scientific objectivity was what most researchers strived for—the individual case being replaced by the representative sample, the natural observations replaced by measures of artificial paradigms. Maybe the future will neutralize the contradiction between naturalness and artificiality with the help of ‘natural paradigms’ (Deutsch et al. 2001).

3. Conclusions

Nowadays modern studies in developmental psychology do not focus on single persons, but on psychical functions. Samples, whose individuality is a negligible quantity, are used to measure specific developmental changes. Individuals only become visible if their development is unusual, e.g., it does not progress at all, as in the case of a severe developmental disorder, or it progresses much faster or slower than average.

Since statistical measures have been introduced to developmental psychology, generalizations refer to central tendencies of samples which are supposed to be as representative as possible for a certain age group or particular time. Inductive generalizations, in which case by case one has to decide where similarities to all those that already have been examined end and differences between subgroups of individuals start, are no longer very common.

Today developmental psychology is characterized by a striving for ideal objectivity oriented according to experimental psychology. That is why extensive observations of individuals under natural circumstances have been pushed to the periphery. There they mainly survive as anecdotes which do not prove anything but—at the best—can be used as illustrations. Nevertheless exceptions exist, e.g., in the field of language development. Here the spontaneous use of language cannot be reduced to tests for language development and some standardized tests that claim to be paradigms. Other areas in developmental psychology are dominated by paradigms in which almost no spontaneous data from a single being is recorded and documented.

Artificial standardizations have to meet the scientific ideal of objectivity that is oriented according to reproductivity and generalization. The value of a scientific study is not measured by its ecological validity but by its objective and reliable realization based on a representative sample of subjects. Perhaps the future of observational methods does neither belong to natural observations, nor to artificial paradigms, but to natural paradigms in which everyday life and research are no longer opponents but partners.


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  3. Behrens H, Deutsch W 1991 Die Tagebucher von William und Clara Stern. In: Deutsch W (ed.) Uber die verborgene Aktualitat on William Stern. Peter Lang, Frankfurt, Germany, pp. 19–37
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