The Modern Origins of Developmental Psychology
Numerous ancient religious and philosophical texts refer to children, upbringing and education. The term psychological development, however, has not been used in its contemporary meaning until the early modernity. Psychological development implies a normative understanding of time as leading to predefined outcomes that apply to everybody in quite a universal way. The scientific subdiscipline that studies psychological development – developmental psychology – emerged in parallel to the establishment of the modern education system and its modern origins have been closely linked to evolution theory. Developmental psychology became the discipline that generated the required knowledge on child development, so that mass schooling could effectively be organised according to children’s needs and abilities. This change happened in the early days of industrialisation, when rural populations left the countryside and moved to newly established urban areas as to work in factories. Learning-by doing i.e. acquiring skills related to farming and agriculture gave then its place to mass education i.e. to learning in the classroom how to read, write and calculate.
Beginning with England, the Elementary Education Act commonly known as Forster’s Education Act, set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales in 1870. It established local education authorities with defined powers while authorising public money for schools and teachers. Seven years later in 1877, the English biologist, Charles Darwin, best known for his contributions to evolution theory, published the first modern developmental psychological publication: “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant” (Mind, 2, 285-294). In England in the Middle Ages, development was the act of unfolding or unwrapping the linen strips in which a baby was enveloped for their arms and legs to grow straight, according to the popular beliefs of that time.
Psychological development, in modern times, signified the inner unfolding of natural forces and predispositions until certain outcomes have been achieved. The emerging scientific discipline of psychology defined these outcomes as well as provided formalised knowledge on how to best support and streamline development in modern, mass educational settings for these outcomes to be achieved. A variety of subareas of developmental psychology have been established focusing on infancy, childhood, adolescence; atypical development; parenting; peer interaction; teaching and learning, language, cognitive, emotional and moral development, respectively.
Even if the day to day work of taking care of, nurturing and teaching children has often been left to women, so-called big white men had the power and rigor to establish developmental psychology as a scientific subdiscipline. What exactly typical or healthy psychological development should be, has not been much questioned or debated upon; certain forms of being and becoming have been taken for granted thereby reflecting Northern-European cultural values and social norms. Dividing children in typically and atypically developing aimed to optimize positive development as well as to prevent or minimize problematic outcomes. At the same time, this normative knowledge promoted European and masculine tropes of development as universal and rendered all other forms of being and becoming as underdeveloped, pathological and abnormal.
Critical developmental psychological approaches have questioned the normative understanding of development as progress that applies to everybody and leads to predefined outcomes in quite a universal way. In the 1980s, critical psychologist Klaus Holzkamp (1927-1995) criticized classic developmental psychological approaches for colonising childhood, as developmental psychology does not envisage childhood in its own right, but as an intermediate stage leading to adulthood. In the 1990s, feminist developmental psychologist Erica Burman (1960-) in her seminar publication Deconstructing Developmental Psychology, interrogated the relations of power, the assumptions on gender, family life and parenting as well as the practices surrounding the psychology of child development and provided a critical evaluation of the role and contribution of developmental psychology within social practice.
Nature vs. Nurture
While most modern developmental psychological thinking shared the focus on ideal developmental outcomes as universally valid, there has been much disagreement on the primacy and the interplay of nature and nurture in determining human psychology. To mention only a few prominent figures: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and Jean Piaget (1896-1980) have founded opponent schools of thought in this frame.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) envisaged the unconscious forces underlying psychosexual development as prevalent. He conceptualised human development as the outcome of innate drives of aggression and libido processed through five stages. The oral stage, from birth to year one, is when the infant’s greatest satisfaction derives from the stimulation of the mouth and lips. Freud believed that inappropriate oral stimulation could lead to oral fixation in later life. Oral personalities engage in oral behaviours particularly when stressed i.e. smoking, nail biting and thumb suckers. At the anal stage from years 1-3, the greatest pleasure for the child is gained from control. The child desires tend to be in conflict with the reality of the outside world, signalling the development of the ego. Fixation in this stage results in anal-explosive personalities that result in the adult being messy, disorganised and rebellious. The phallic stage, years 3-6, is when the child becomes aware of the anatomical differences between the sexes. This awareness sets in motion the conflict between erotic attraction, resentment, rivalry, jealousy and fear which is called the Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls. Both these sub-stages are resolved, according to Freud, through the adapting to characteristics of the mother for the girls and father for the boys. In the latency stage, years 5-6 to puberty, sexual drives become dormant, the focus instead becomes play with other children of the same gender. Genital stage, from puberty to adulthood, is when the individual engages with sexual experimentation which is eventually resolved with a loving one-to- one relationship with another person of a similar age.
Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) emphasised, on the contrary, the role of external stimuli (such as rewards and punishment) in shaping human behaviour, explaining development as a product of nurture. Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments involved learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus enabling a particular response with a new conditioned stimulus, so that the new stimulus brings about the same response. For example, Pavlov’s salivating dog experiment identified three stages in the development of behaviour: before conditioning, during conditioning and after conditioning. Before conditioning, food is the unconditioned stimulus, with salivation being the unconditioned response. The bell is rung, with no response elicited. During conditioning, however, the bell and food become the unconditioned stimuli, with salivation being the unconditioned response. After conditioning, the bell becomes the conditioned stimulus and the salivation the conditioned response. In a quite similar way, according to this classic school of thought, human behaviour is established and can be scientifically explained.
In a yet different perspective, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) explored the development of mental functions such as abstract thinking or memory as resulting from biological maturation. Piaget’s understanding of cognitive development is different to previous developmental theories as the child is an active agent through continual interaction with their environment supported with biological maturation. Piaget describes four stages of cognitive development. Sensorimotor stage (birth to 1 years) is when the child become aware that an object still exists even if it hidden known as object permanence. The preoperational (2-7 years) stage is where the child communicate to others through their ‘language’ of symbols. Concrete operational (7-11 years) is the beginning of the child’s process to thinking logically, being able to understand that something can stay the same despite a change in appearance. The final stage of formal operations (11 years and over), is when the child can begin to think about abstract concepts. According to Piaget’s classic works, these stages are natural and rather universal in human development.
Different methods and approaches have been employed in developing the above-mentioned theoretical approaches, which, in turn, resulted in the establishment of distinct schools of psychological thinking: unstructured oral accounts resulted in psychoanalysis, experiments in behaviourism, tests, interviews and measurements in cognitivism. The emergence of each distinct paradigm has often rendered the previous dominating one obsolete or forgotten – unfortunately with very little dialogue taking place between the different approaches. Over the course of psychology’s history more complex and synthetic approaches have of course been developed such as the school of cultural-historical psychology founded by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). The nature vs. nurture debate underlies contemporary research with cognitive neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga (1939-) attributing psychological states to brain mechanisms while constructionist and discursive psychologists such as Kenneth Gergen (1935-) and Jonathan Potter (1956-) emphasize the primary role of language and social construction in human psychology.
The “Individual” as Unit of Analysis
Developmental psychology has commonly focused on the individual as the primary unit of development commonly understanding the ideal adult as balanced, coherent and accountable. The word individual seems to refer to its Latin etymology: an unbreakable unit; the collective is often described as being more than the sum of the individuals involved in it – without however that it is always made explicit how the collective and the individual may be linked.
When focusing on individual children as the interchangeable participants randomly allocated to an experimental condition or a survey in developmental psychological research, the specificities of the child are not at the centre of the researchers’ attention, because the researchers are interested in the abstract properties of children in general or the average effect of some intervention on learning and development, and not in a child’s own historical and idiosyncratic individuality. As an example, Piaget’s classical three-mountains task was used to measure the age in which children move beyond thinking egocentrically to decentred thinking i.e. begin to recognise that there are more viewpoints then their own and crucially recognise others. The three mountains task would begin with the child sitting at a table and be presented with a model of three mountains that were different in appearance. Once the child had returned to their seat a doll would be placed at one of the mountains. The child would then be asked to select from 10 pictures that show different views, the child would have to select the view the doll would have. Children of 7 years were the only age category to do this correctly showing decentred thinking.
In research based on interpretative interviewing and ethnographic observations, individual children are often referred to in the role, in which they are positioned, while they are being interviewed and/or observed, e.g., student, daughter, patient, member of a specific community etc. In this case, the individual child is often seen through the “eyes” of a specific institution or the profession. This is often marginalising and devaluing the voice of the child, still reinforcing the societally constructed hierarchy of adult then child.
Theory and method remain in all cases integrally linked, as different methods lead to different results, and have even led to different paradigms of psychological thinking, as mentioned above. Relational approaches to developmental psychology have more recently focused on activity systems, institutional relations, and communities of practice as to move beyond the individual as a unit of analysis and explore learning, development and social interaction as contextualised and interlinked psychosocial processes. In previous work (Kontopodis, 2014), we have explored links between individual and collective human development in a wide range of educational and community settings around the globe. We introduced a differentiation between two discrete modes of human development: individual development (as in classic developmental psychology) and development of new societal relations, which is at the same time individual and collective. Exploring the links between individual and collective developments in open-ended ways is of particular importance especially when referring to the education and social integration of vulnerable children from minority communities, who have often been placed in the margins of developmental psychological research as well as in the margins of society.
Psychological Knowledge, Values & Positionality
Developmental psychology has often been criticised as the science of the white, heterosexual, adult, middle-class men and has sometimes even been explicitly racist – especially in its early phases. Historically formal testing i.e. examination, assignments, practical’s, questionnaires, scientific research, and especially intelligence quotients (IQ), developed by Alfred Binnet (1857-1911), was used as a way to ‘scientifically’ support white supremacy. Although IQ testing is less popular in modern day, formal testing through examination and assignments within British Education is a way segregation is still practiced today with formal testing beginning at age 6. This initiates early segregation between more or less abled children creating a hierarchy of groups determining their path of progression based on their intelligence.
Significant efforts to reflect on the values, contexts and limitations of classic developmental psychological theories and propose alternatives to these from feminist, LGBTQ, post-colonial and other critical standpoints have indeed taken place in the second half of the 20th century. Prominent female psychologists such as Carol Gilligan (1936-), Valerie Walkerdine (1947-), Anna Stetsenko (1958-) and Erica Burman (1960-) and have emphasised the significance of care, social justice, equality and relationality in human development as well as questioned the norms underlying classic developmental psychological theories. LGBTQ theorists (from beyond the discipline of psychology) such as Judith Butler (1956-) have introduced plural ways of understanding gender, sexuality, race, health, and disability while a variety of movements to establish so-called “indigenous” or “postcolonial” psychologies have taken place around the globe – beginning with the seminal “Black Skin, White Masks” published by African scholar Frantz Fanon (1925/1961) in the 1960s.
More recently, Beverly Daniel Tatum (1954-) developed psychological theory and research with a focus on the development of racial identity. She introduced a specific method of confronting racial stereotypes, the so-called three F’s: felt, found and feel. For example, if one would be confronting another person’s racial stereotypes, one would use the ‘three F’s’ in the following way: “I felt that the words you used were harmless; but I found out that those types of words reinforce stereotypes and create a divide. I feel that it’s really important to let you know that I don’t think those words are appropriate to use.” Such a method of positive confrontation is in opposition to classic psychological research, as it does not overlook history and preconceived cultural norms, but takes these as points of departure in attributing responsibility and encouraging agency with the explicit aim of tackling racism in society.
Taking a reflective stance towards classic psychological research, one could argue that there are multiple ways of being, becoming and developing. How one understands and evaluates development depends on one’s epistemological, ontological and theoretical presumptions as well as on the methodologies, techniques and values involved in studying development. Researchers are not neutral entities external to the research procedure, but choose the focus of their research and contribute (not always consciously) to the complex dynamics of institutional and cultural continuity and change when producing, applying and disseminating developmental psychological knowledge.
The question poses itself in this frame, why shouldn’t children themselves participate actively in the production of developmental psychological knowledge, as well? Children are indeed commonly seen by psychologists as the recipients of the universally valid knowledge and the intervention programmes that adults design for them. Contemporary sociologists and anthropologists of childhood have recently achieved significant outcomes in making research with diverse children and not only about or for them. With the use of visual technologies, it is not difficult nowadays to employ innovative means of communication and enable diverse children to express themselves, to experiment with different possibilities of organising their institutional everydayness and to participate actively in the production of knowledge on themselves and their realities. Such participatory research could inspire new advances in developmental psychology, too – most importantly: it could enable developmental psychology to overcome its Euro- adult- and male- centredness. Will participatory methodologies indeed transform the future of developmental psychology? Will developmental psychology, as a scientific subdiscipline, move beyond its contested cultural history? We leave this question open and look forward to the answer, which imminent developments in science and society may stipulate.
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