Theoretical Perspectives Relevant to Developmental Psychology

Linda M. Woolf, Ph.D., Webster University

Various theoretical positions within the field of developmental psychology are currently being debated, and this debate is in response to primarily three factors. First, psychology as a whole has been undergoing a paradigmatic shift from a behavioral model to a cognitive model. This, of course, acknowledges the multiparadigmatic nature of psychology with much of psychology being influenced first by behaviorism and currently social cognitive or cognitive-behavioral theories. Secondly, the emergence of adulthood and aging as fields within psychology have caused the rethinking of the concept of development. Finally, the emergence of cross-cultural research within psychology has challenged many previously held beliefs and theories of normative developmental processes. These three factors have vastly changed the way that human development is researched and conceptualized.

According to Kuhn (1970) and Pepper (1942), every science is built upon a consensually agreed upon paradigm or world view, respectively. These paradigms or views constitute the basic assumptions that guide the researcher1s question formulation and methodology. As such, it is important for researchers within any field to understand the paradigmatic position from which they work, and to have an awareness of alternative positions. The field of developmental psychology is no different.

However, the concept of paradigm or world view is not static. Within any science, paradigmatic positions or world views are subject to shifts and changes over time. According to Kuhn (1970), these changes result from crises within a field; an anomaly arises. For example, the empirical data comes in conflict with the developed models and theoretical positions. At this time, what can be defined as legitimate is less clear, and much debate occurs concerning disparate theoretical positions. Kuhn states that eventually, a new core of achievement will develop and a new paradigm will emerge.

Psychology, as a science, is currently undergoing such a paradigmatic shift, thus affecting the way that developmental psychologists view, theorize about, and study human behavior and development. While it has been argued that psychology is multiparadigmatic, much of psychology has shifted from a behavioral model to a cognitive model. Paradigms however appear to be subordinate to world views. Thus a shift in paradigm may or may not result is a shift in world view. For example, if one views the primary paradigmatic shift in psychology as occurring from behaviorism to cognitive-behaviorism, there is no underlying shift in world view as both are mechanistic. However, a shift from behaviorism to a social-cognitive perspective could be described in terms of an underlying shift in world views as well. In terms of world views as described by Pepper (1942), psychology could be described as operating out of a mechanistic world view (behaviorism) which has subsequently changed to a contextual world view (social cognition). These debates and shifts have also impacted on the field of developmental psychology. Previously, much of human development was described using a structural model (stage theories - organismic world view) or a learning model (behaviorism - mechanistic world view). Now, research is rapidly being undertaken to study development from a life-span developmental perspective, and a social cognitive perspective each relying heavily on the contextual/event model to explain development. This paradigmatic and/or world view change represents the first factor that has influenced the way human development is researched and conceptualized.

The second factor leading to the rethinking of the field of developmental psychology is the increasing awareness of middle and later adulthood as part of the life cycle. Eckberg and Hill (1979) postulate that Kuhnian paradigms are rarely discipline-wide. Rather, they advocate the position that paradigms are centered within substantive areas of disciplinary research. As an area of disciplinary research, developmental psychology has been forced to undergo a paradigmatic shift (and world view shift), as defined by Eckberg and Hill, in response to the study of middle and later adulthood. For example, up until recently, the majority of human development research examined childhood and adolescence. It is now clear that developmental changes occur throughout the life-span. According to Baltes, Reese, and Lipsitt (1980), the reconceptualization of developmental psychology has been in response to primarily three factors. The first factor is the early commitment of two major universities (University of Chicago & University of Bonn) to the life-span developmental perspective. Much of the human development research conducted at those universities, most noticeably by Neugarten, Havighurst, and Thomae, has dealt with adulthood and old age from a life-span perspective. The foundation of this perspective is that development occurs at all points across the life-span, from conception to death (Baltes, 1973;Baltes et al., 1980; Baltes & Willis, 1977). Subsequently, other universities have adopted this developmental perspective. The second factor influencing the conceptualization of developmental psychology is the "coming of age" of several of the longitudinal studies begun prior to World War II. Children who were originally studied during the 1940's and 1950's reached adulthood during the 1960's and 1970's. This research has subsequently provided information concerning the relationship of childhood to the life course.

Lastly, according to Baltes et al. (1980), the emergence of gerontology as a field has had a major impact on developmental psychology. This is in part due to two trends. The first is the trend within gerontology to view old age as the end result of a life-long developmental process. Thus, many gerontologists have adopted and advocate a life-span developmental perspective. Second, the field of gerontology has raise many developmental methodological and design issues. Traditional longitudinal and cross-sectional designs have been questioned, and new, creative methodological strategies such as sequential designs, are being currently employed to study development.

Clearly, developmental psychology has undergone changes in response to paradigmatic/world view shifts within the field of psychology and as a distinct area of disciplinary research.

Finally, cross-cultural research has dramatically challenged many of the theoretical positions previously held by developmental psychologists. Cross-cultural research has demonstrated the vast diversity of human development and behavior particularly in relation to adult development and aging. Thus, theories which proposed dramatic developmental uniformity based upon genetically based structural change and evolution have been challenged. It is now clear that much of development is influenced by contextual and cultural factors interacting with structural developmental processes.

The purpose of this paper is to examine three areas of theoretical debate within developmental psychology. It should be emphasized that this paper does not represent a complete literature review. Rather, the purpose is to highlight the major theoretical and empirical contributions in each area. The impact that these three areas have upon the study of development is provided using cognitive change in old age as an example. The three areas of theoretical debate to be discussed in this paper are as follows:

  1. A discussion of the structural (organismic), information processing/cognitive (mechanistic), and life-span developmental/developmental dimensions (contextual) approaches to the analysis of age/development/life course trends. Click here to go to Theoretical Discussion.

  2. A comparative analysis of the use of such terms as development, adult development, aging, life-span, life-course, and life-cycle. What do they mean? How are they used in relation to each other? Is there consistency in use? What is the best usage? Click here to go to Terms Discussion

  3. A description of the methodological problems and proposed solutions associated with the fact that the psychology of aging must deal with age-graded, history-graded, and non-normative influences as well as with the so-called terminal decline. Click here to go to Methodological Discussion

  4. A discussion of cognitive changes associated with old age within the framework of the first three sections. Click here to go to Cognition Example

1998 copyright Linda M. Woolf

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