Struggling with Complexity: The Handbook of Child Psychology at the Millennium

Struggling with Complexity: The Handbook of Child Psychology at the Millennium

(Draft of a Review to appear in Human Development --Comments Welcome)

Michael Cole
University of California, San Diego

It seemed like a natural thing to do at the time. I was beginning what I imaged to be a year of work revising our introductory child development textbook and the new Handbook had just been published. Since I was going to have to read most of the Handbook anyway, why not write a review of it?

This idea especially appealed to me because, while reading Bill Damon's prefatory chronicle of the history of the Handbook , I encountered Leonard Carmichael's description of what he thought the Handbook was intended to accomplish, a view, I believe, shared by the editors and authors of the current edition. In 1946, writing for the third in the series of volumes, which he titled the Manual of Child Psychology , Carmichael declared that his purpose as editor was to produce an "advanced scientific manual to bridge the gap between the excellent elementary textbooks in this field and the scientific periodical literature (quoted by Damon, 1998, p. xi). The idea of an introductory text as a synthesis of empirical journal articles and research monographs on the one hand, and authoritative summaries of the field by experienced researchers on the other, appealed to me. As a textbook writer its impossible to check everything out when scouring the published literature for "what's new" in developmental psychology. Synthetic reviews of the field like the Handbook might not provide a "how to manual" for conducting theoretically guided research in any of the many topics under consideration, but they certainly could be used as beacons for discovering what appeared to have lasting value in the welter of new, and often contradictory, findings according to recognized experts So, there seemed a natural convergence betwen my interests as a textbook writer and my abiding fascination with the process of human development.

Well, a little behind schedule, the new edition of our textbook has been completed, but the review had not been written. So, over the past few days I have been re-reading through the 4, 800 pages of text, thick with citations, that represents the "next level up summary" of the field from the one which we had just completed for undergraduate students with some background in psychology, and their professors, some of whom chose the text out of approval or interest, but many of whom are assigned the text a week before the class begins and may have no general grasp of the field. As I read, I could not help noticing important findings that I had marked down but failed to include the text. After a few chapters I began to turn to the next chapter with a certain sense of trepidation; what did I miss this time? It was a humbling experience. There are a lot of theories and mountains of new data out there, even after judicious selection!

But what of more general interest than the limited capacities of textbook writers can one say about such the enormous undertaking that is the current Handbook of Child Psychology ?

Bill Damon, who organized and supervised this mammoth enterprise assessed the overall result in these terms:

The result in my opinion is yet more glorious profusion, but perhaps contained a bit by some broad patterns...

Among the formidable models and approach that the reader will find in this Handbook are the dynamic systems theories, the life-span and life-course approaches, cognitive science and neural models, the behavior-genetics approach, person-context interaction theories, action theories, cultural psychology, ecological models, neo-Piagetian and neo-Vygotskian models (p. xvi).

These different approaches, he comments, appear to have reached a new level of sophistication and specification which render them more effective tools for research. The evidence from the Handbook clearly substantiates this conclusion: the amount of research conducted under one or another of the flags that Damon identifies, and some he does not, is really staggering in its quantity. The many authors of the individual chapters did yeoman service in providing the "gap filler" between the research articles and introductory texts that Carmichael had identified as the raison d'etre of the Handbook. . I learned a lot from using the book as we sought to report the news, and learned a lot upon rereading it for purposes of this review.

However, as a textbook writer and someone who is fascinated by the process of human development, I was especially interested in seeking to ferret out general trends. And there are some.

Re-reading the volumes without a writing deadline squeezing me I was impressed by such an issue that Damon does not comment on, but is obvious from the cross - referencing between many chapters in the four volumes of the Handbook: the extent to which there appears to be a growing consensus on the potential complementarity of presumably different perspectives. Richard Lerner, who edited the volume on theory, identifies this tendency when he notes that contemporary theoretical models "stress the dynamic synthesis of multiple levels of analysis, a perspective having its roots in theories of biological development" (p. 2)which he refers to as a "developmental systems perspective. This same theme is repeated, often using

somewhat different in the chapters by Cairns, Overton, and Valsiner in their interesting articles on the history and conceptual foundations of the study of human development.

The same perspective appears in every volume of the Handbook , although individuals certainly think differently about the workings of this bio-cultural-historical social -ecological synthesis that is the developing child.

A corollary of the idea of development as being a process of change within a long evolutionary and cultural-historical framework of which ontogeny is but one moment, is that the theorist and hence the researchers are driven toward breaking the boundaries of the scientific disciplines. Here the title of the Handbook does not serve it well. While it is true that the bulk of the authors identify themselves as psychologists the call for interdisciplinary work, and with it, changes in the methods used to gather evidence relevant to theories of development is encountered throughout these volumes. Psychology does not hold a privileged place in this undertaking, as several authors point out. It seems that human development, not child development is the topic.

A systems approach is also hostile to the dichotomies that have organized the field since well before its inceptions, including, conspicuously, the division of nature and nurture, environment and organism, cognition and emotion, subject and context, basic versus applied research, etc. Consequently, it is little surprise that several authors exhort us to adopt a relational interpretation of persons and environments, whether one is using the methods of developmental neuroscience applied to development of brain cells, behavioral genetics applied to the development of personality, or micro-analysis of mother-child interactions applied to the problems of childhood depression. I personally applaud this idea, but Its not a new idea and its not an easy one to put into regular practice. In a prior millennium, Gregory Bateson, himself no slouch as an evolutionary-biological thinker, argued hard for a relational-ecological approach to human mind, but also admitted:

Let me say I don't know how to think that way. Intellectually, I can stand here and I can give you a reasoned exposition of this matter; but if I am cutting down a tree, I still think "Gregory Bateson" is cutting down the tree. I am cutting down the tree. "Myself" is to me still an excessively concrete object, different from the rest of what I have been calling "Mind"

The step to realizing - to making habitual- the other way of thinking- so that one naturally thinks that way when one reaches for a glass of water or cuts down a tree is not an easy one.(Bateson, 1972, p. 472).

The difficulty other developmentalists share with Bateson in this regard are in plentiful evidence in the Handbook , for despite knowing better. For example, in their stimulating and thoughtful discussions of what they refer to as the dialogue between nativism and empiricism, where they favor the view that a phylogenetically coded, highly canalized set of core capacities provide the building blocks for the development of culture specific skills, Spelke and Newport slip into asserting that these capacities occur "independently of experience (Vol. 1, p. 321). None other than the arch-maturationist, Arnold Gesell, knew that kind of statement has problems:

The heredity and environment of an organism can be completely separated only in analytic thinking, for in actual nature such separation would lead to instant death of the organism, even though the philosopher making the anlaysis might himself survive (Gesell & Thompson, 1934, p. 293)

What Spelke and Newport mean, of course, is that core or skeletal capacities are highly canalized and likely to emerge within a broadly available range of environments, such that no culturally elaborated processes are required to arrange for their emergence. But the slip reveals the ease with which even the most expert of us fail to think relationally, despite our theories and good intentions.

This same slippage is seen in the ongoing saga of infant precocity where either/or thinking seems particularly appealing. In the previous handbook, it was considered important news that Piaget had underestimated the cognitive capacities of 4-5 year olds with hints that some capacities thought to mark the end of infancy and the onset of symbolic thought (deferred imitation, for example) might be present at or near birth. When the most recent edition of the Handbook was undertaken, it was becoming close to dogma that a very large number of "core capacities" were present as early as they could be test for using techniques such as preferential looking that placed minimal requirements for action on the young infant. As a consequence, it is probably only natural that a great many chapters in Volume 2 on cognitive development focus on infancy, with a heavy emphasis on cognitive mechanisms conceived of as innate in the strong sense: present at birth and continuous throughout childhood (and presumably adulthood as well).

The focus "downward" on infancy and its complement, relative lack of attention to development later early and middle childhood, is a trend I found not only in the Handbook, but in the major journals as well. My suspicion is that by the time the next Handbook appears, the pendulum may well have swung "upward" again. Marshall Haith and Janette Benson end their chapter on infant cognition with what were then new studies calling into question the empirical claims of early, domain specific, infant precocity and offering plausible interpretations in terms of elementary mechanisms of learning and memory. In the past two years, a considerable number of such studies have been added to that set. Moreover, even the claims for the presence of precocity in early childhood have been challenged on methodological grounds. As a student of development I have been fascinated by this turn of events; as a teacher of development whose undergraduates want a "one true story" its a nightmare. How can we and our students learn to think in terms of "and/but" in place of "either/or" when it is so hard for us to do it ourselves?

Another general feature of a broad, bio-socio-cultural-ecological systems approach that is strongly in evidence in this volume is a preoccupation with context, the proximal environment of development. However, once the reader gets beyond articles on theory the notion of context is frequently used in the sense of a "container" circumscribing human experience or as an independent variable that influences behavior (e.g., "peers versus adults as sources of adolescent self esteem"). As a result, there is a tendency to treat development in causal terms that begin from the "top down" -- from larger to more proximal levels of the environment. This mode of thinking (as Bateson, 1972, also pointed out) is incompatible with a bio-sociocultural-ecological paradigm. An example where this problem is explicitly addressed is the chapter by Bronfenbrenner and Morris who point out that the biological human individual is very much an active constituent of any context it inhabits. This way of theorizing emphasizes that context is inherently relational and that human life is part of an open system, characterized by indeterminacy and the creation of novelty.

One consequence of acknowledging the ever-present co-construction of organism and context and the open systems nature of all life is that theorists are likely to reject prediction and control as the goal of the scientific study of development and opt instead to seek for explanation of the processes of change. This is a theme sounded across a wide variety of articles in all volumes, from cognitive science to life-span approaches.

This shift in scientific goals relates to a final dichotomy that comes in for criticism from the kind of systems perspective found throughout the Handbook , the division between theory and practice. A key linking concept here is that of ecological validity. Once one begins to take a relational perspective seriously, including the relational co-constitution of persons and contexts, the fact that so many of the key methods used to generate the data of developmental studies are systematically un like the environments to which we wish to generalize our findings is recognized as a fundamental problem, not an avoidable nuisance. In fact, it begins to seem unusual when such research actually appears relevant to practitioners. I found Volume 4, devoted to the issue of the application of research in practice particularly interesting in this respect. Clear recognition of methodologically engendered chasm between theory and practice is voiced over and over again by authors who, so to speak, work both sides of the fence.

Moreover, the disconnect between theory and practice is often exacerbated by institutional barriers many layers thick so that one must go well beyond the confines of laboratory studies of individual children, or even design experiments in classrooms, to ferret them out. One simple example is provided by Herb Ginsburg and his colleagues, who describe how the process of text selection and procurement distorts the theory to practice process, even before one encounters the realities of rundown classrooms where the teachers are under-educated, the children are chronically ill-fed, and the turnover rate approaches 100% of the class each year.

Which brings me to a point of potential disagreement with Bill Damon's conclusions about the fruits of his and his colleagues' heavy labors. After noting the emergence of a number of maturing new theoretical approaches, Damon comments that another characteristic of the chapters in the Handbook is the presence of a good deal of reflection about the concept of development itself. He attributes this increased self-reflection to a period of doubt (presumably in connection with political events in the 1960's and 70's):

We have just passed through a time when the very credibility of a developmental approach was itself thrown into question. The whole idea of progress and advance, implicit in the notion of development, seemed out of step with ideological principles of diversity and equality (p. xvi).

Acknowledging that the field is better off as a result of this period of reflection, because it has achieved a deeper appreciation of "diverse developmental pathways" Damon concludes that "the field's center of gravity has returned to the study of development.

After all, the story of growth during infancy, childhood and adolescence is a developmental story of multifaceted learning, of acquisitions of skills and knowledge, of waxing powers of attention and memory, of formations and transformations of character and personality, of increases in understanding of self and others, of advances in emotional and behavioral regulation, of progress in communication and collaborating with others, and of a host of other achievements that are chronicled in the Handbook. (p. xvi).

My first reservation is theoretical. If development is a life long process, it is necessary for our theories to go beyond the early years of life when words like "waxing" and "progress" seem attractive to include some form of the "selective optimization and compensation" framework that Baltes has championed with great effectiveness. This shift seems required by the developmental systems approach which appears to be emerging as the shared paradigm in the field. Explicit acceptance of the heterogeneity of developmental pathways, and principle that development involves loss as a part of the same process that creates gains, is more congenial to my way of thinking.

My second reservation is more general. I understand the human good will expressed by Damon's statement of faith in the virtues of development-as-progress, and I share his desire that a scientific understanding of human development be of benefit to human kind. But if we are to judge by the contents of this Handbook , the field has only taken the barest beginnings of the long and difficult task of incorporating the full diversity of human developmental processes as a core task. I am not nearly so optimistic as Damon about the progress that has been made on this front, despite the increased recognition of culture as constituitive of development. If diversity has really been integrated into the field, how are we to interpret that fact that the last chapter in the volume on theory is not a theory chapter in the sense of those that precede it, but instead is devoted to "The study of African American and Latin American children and youth?" And when we read that chapter, there is trouble spelled out on almost every page. It starts with the daunting statistics on childhood poverty among these populations and continues through a chilling, but realistic, discussion of the racial suspicion and mistrust that render highly problematic the idea of conformed consent from parents who are afraid their children will be hurt by the research. The resulting tensions place researchers who believe that developmental research must incorporate the full range of human diversity in a bind: the populations that have historically been marginalized in research through researcher indifference are now often inaccessible even to highly motived researchers because of active mistrust on the part of those being studied. One unhappy result of this situation is that some researchers have resorted to the ethically unacceptable practice of using "passive consent" forms in which children are included in studies when their parents are sent a letter saying that they should respond only if they do not want their children participate. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The same issues come up again in Volume 4 on applications of developmental theory. For example, Vonnie McLoyd who has spent many years documenting the debilitating impact of chronic poverty on children's development in the United States, reminds us of what we already know: poverty and racism are not conducive to achieving the kind of progressive development that Damon sees as the center of gravity of the field. The difficulty is that with rare exceptions (some to be found in other chapters in the Handbook) , these populations are treated, in one way or another, as problems. This orientation generates research funds and justifies the interventions of good hearted psychologists. The difficulty is that those psychologists approach their task using data derived from ecologically invalid research and with ludicrously inadequate resources with which to ameliorate the lives of the children and families they study.

In the age of globalized hyper-capitalism and eroding ozone layers, one has to be very careful about declarations of what constitutes developmental progress. In the favella's of Brasil, it is the infant with the feisty temperament who is likely survive. In my home town, a feisty temperament is a risk factor in development, predictive of difficulties in school and a low income as an adult.

We have a long way to go to achieve the goal of a developmental science that promotes the welfare of all the world's children. Some of the barriers are intellectual and technical. We need better ways to study development over time and both across and within "levels of context." But the really pervasive difficulties of improving the lives to children are economic and political, giving a whole new meaning to "taking context seriously."

Consideration of these factors make me suspect that Damon is being hasty in thinking that the challenges to the paradigm of development-as-progress which emerged in recent decades is now behind us. Such challenges are all around us. It will be interesting to look back a decade or so from now to see how well they have been addressed.


Bateson, G. (1972).Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Gesell, A., & Thompson, H. (1934). Infant behavior: Its genesis and growth. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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