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Changing Organism–Context Relations as the Basic Process of Development: A Developmental Contextual Perspective

Richard M. Lerner

Gottlieb (1991b) pointed to compelling evidence that genes do not directly (i.e., in and of themselves) produce any structural or functional characteristics of an organism. That is, Gottlieb indicated that the action of genes (genetic expression) is “affected by events at other levels of the [developmental] system, including the environment of the organism’’ (p. 5). “All levels of the system may be considered potentially equal” (p. 6), and therefore this is why “genetic activity' does not by itself produce finished traits such as blue eyes, arms, legs, or neurons. The problem of anatomical and physiological differentiation remains unsolved, but it is unanimously recognized as requiring influences above the strictly cellular level” (p. 5). Thus, intraorganism variables making up the proximal context of the gene, as well as extraorganism contextual variables, are shown in Gottlieb (1991a, 1991b), as well as in the literature he cites (e.g., Edelman, 1987, 1988; Grouse, Schrier, Letendre, & Nelson, 1980; Kollar & Fisher, 1980; Uphouse & Bonner, 1975; see also Lerner, 1984), to exist in a reciprocally influential relation with genes.

Simply, then, just as genes influence these contexts, the contexts influence genes. Moreover, no less is true of the organism within which genes exist (cf. Ford, 1987). The developmental systems framework of Gottlieb (1991b), termed elsewhere the “developmental contextual” perspective (Lerner, 1986), indicates that all organismic characteristics (e.g., genes, cells, tissues, organs), as well as the whole organism itself, function in a bidirectional, reciprocal, or “dynamic interactional” (Lerner, 1978) relation with the contexts within which the organism is embedded. Gottlieb’s (1991b) examples of these dynamic interactions iiwolved, most often, integrated, multilevel exchanges of material (e.g., nutritional, hormonal) or energy (e.g., light) variables. Lerner’s (1978, 1979, 1984) examples of these interactions have most often involved integrated, multilevel exchanges of “informational” (i.e., psychological and behavioral) variables (Ford, 1987). Although the two types of examples refer to exchanges having contents which are fundamentally (i.e., qualitatively) different, their structure and function can be integrated within a common model, such as the developmental systems or the developmental contextual model (see Ford, 1987; Tobach, 1981, for other examples).

The depiction of dynamic interactional organism—context relations in such models means nothing less than the fact that developmental psycholog)' as a field must reach a new understanding of what constitutes the basic process of change: Because changes in the organism always occur in dynamic connection with changes in the context (and vice versa), then changes in organism—context relations are the basic change process in development. Moreover, this revised understanding of the basic process of change must be coupled with two rather far-reaching sets of conceptual and methodological alterations for the field of developmental psychology, especially for research pertinent to human development.

First, as a field, we should formulate different research questions: We should ask questions involving intra- and extraorganism contextual relations. For instance, questions about the connection between cognitive and neural functioning, on the one (intraorganism) hand, might be coupled with concerns about the bidirectional connections between person and context that the cognitive—neural relations afford (e.g., see Bullock, 1983; Bullock, Liederman, 8c Todorovic, 1987). Second, as a consequence of such revised research questions, we must as a field conduct our research with considerably greater sensitivity to issues of contextual variability and diversity in human life and development. Such sensitivity will allow our scientific data base to more adequately reflect, first, the vast array of individual differences in developmental patterns that exist across all of the human life span and, second, the contextual variation (in, for instance, families, communities, societies, cultures, and historical periods) that is both a product and a producer of human diversity across life.

To explain the bases for these two alterations in developmental psychology, I first detail why organism—context relations should be the unit of study in a field devoted to the understanding of systematic change in human life. I then suggest some specific issues (e.g., relating to the timing of interactions) that should be studied as a consequence of a focus on changing organism- context relations, and I indicate some approaches or models that could be used. Finally, I point to implications for the nature of the samples of people we study and for the ways in which we study them.

A Revised Understanding of the Basic Process of Development

Events that impinge on the gene, on the cell, and, indeed, on the whole organism—events related to the gene, to the cell, and to the organism (i.e., connected to them) in terms of physical avenues or temporal propinquity— influence the structural and functional outcomes of the developmental system of which genes (or cells or organisms) are only one part (Lerner, 1984). Thus, the most basic process of development is a relational one. Scientists who study only a component of this relational system are appraising, then, only a partial and incomplete subprocess. In other words, in the analysis of basic processes in development, the only approach that suffices is relational analysis. However, by definition, this relation involves change. As Gottlieb (1991b) notes, “Developing systems are by definition always changing in some way |and thus] statements of developmental causality must also include a temporal dimension describing when the experience or organic coactions occurred" (p. 8).

Simply, it is the nature of living matter to alter over time. In addition, this organic matter is bidirectionally related to an inexorably changing physical ecology and a virtually inevitably changing social one. This linkage means that changing organism—context relations constitute the basic process of development. Thus, multilevel, multivariate, and longitudinal views of these relations are absolutely necessary features of “basic research” in developmental psycholog)'; only through such appraisals can we capture accurately the coaction of variables at organismic and contextual levels as they change interdependently across time.

Moreover, because events in both the proximal and distal contexts of the organism influence the structure and function of the cell (e.g., Diamond, 1967; Krech, Rosenzweig, & Bennett, 1963), as well as the structure and function of the gene (e.g., Edelman, 1988; Grouse et al., 1980; Uphouse & Bonner, 1975), the core, superordinate process of development is one involving the changing relations between the organism and its multilevel context. A focus on either element in this relation (in other words, on either, separate level of analysis) is simply inadequate to understand this process. The elements of the relation whose loci lie within the organism (e.g., genes, cells, tissues, organs) can influence the context; the elements of the relation whose loci lie in the multileveled context (e.g., other organisms, features of the physical ecology, proximal social institutions such as the family, more distal social institutions such as those pertaining to politics and social policy) can influence the organism. The presence of this mutuality of influence is why the organism—context relation should be understood as a bidirectional, indeed a reciprocal or “dynamically interactive” (Lerner, 1978, 1979), one. Indeed, it is through this dynamic interaction, this “transactional” (Dewey, 1896) relation, between organism and context that development happens. “The cause of development—what makes development happen—is the relationship of the . . . components, not the components themselves” (Gottlieb, 1991b, p. 7).

Given, then, that multiple levels of the organism (e.g., gene, cell, organ) and multiple levels of the context (e.g., significant other, family, social policies) exist in a dynamically interactive relation, one must approach the study of the organism—context relation using what Schneirla (1957) termed a “lev- els-of-integration” notion. In other words, to adequately study the basic, relational process of development, one must eschew reductionism; one should recognize the multiple levels of analysis of the organism and the context as qualitatively distinct and yet simultaneously dynamically interactive—and hence as “fused” (Tobach & Greenberg, 1984) or as “synthesized” (cf. Riegel, 1975, 1976)—over the course of the life span.

As a consequence of the integration of these levels of organism structure and contextual organization, one should adopt a multidisciplinary approach to the study of development. It is important to be very clear as to what such an approach actually entails. Obviously, the study of one function of the organism (e.g., cognition) in isolation is not adequate for an analysis of changing organism—context relations; such a focus is not aimed at understanding the basic developmental change process. Rather, no matter how formalized or experimentally elegant such a focus may be, it represents incomplete attention to the core, basic process of life and development. Similarly, the study of this one function would be inadequate if it were approached by a collaboration of scholars from multiple disciplines (e.g., cognitive scientists, linguists, and computer scientists), although such a collaboration would be better than the former, isolationist approach. Only when one studies both intraorganism—context relations (e.g., when cognitive functioning is studied in relation to emotional functioning) and interorganism—context relations (i.e., when the organism is studied in relation to the social group) and does so in a change-sensitive (i.e., multivariate—longitudinal), integrated, and multidisciplinary manner, will knowledge of the basic, relational change process of development be gained. The neurocognitive and contextual modeling involved in adaptive systems research (e.g., Bullock, 1983; Bullock et al., 1987) is an excellent illustration of the sort of research for which I am calling.

Revising the Research Questions Within Developmental Psychology

Given the complexity and enormity of any of the numerous subareas in the field of developmental psychology', no scientist can hope to be a first- rate, productive scholar in any more than a small subset of these subareas. It would seem obvious, then, that the time and motivation needed to maintain expertise in one’s chosen subareas would preclude the opportunity to become a credible and productive scholar in a discipline distinct from one’s own. 1 believe that this is almost always the case. Nevertheless, one must overcome such scholarly limits and attempt to work in a collaborative, multidisciplinary milieu if one is to contribute to a better understanding of the basic developmental process.

The means through which to do this do not, however, involve a rejection of a focus on one’s disciplinary background and training. Rather, one should work to reorient the approach taken in one’s discipline to formulating the questions deemed most important to address. Simply, one should ask change-oriented, relational questions, questions that bridge levels of analysis and that require multidisciplinary collaboration for their answers.

Such an approach is admittedly conceptually complex, methodologically and collaboratively difficult to implement (Nesselroade & Bakes, 1979; Nes- selroade & von Eye, 1985), and—in regard to any one program of research— inevitably limited to reflecting only a small portion of the dynamic interactions that integrate intra- and extraorganism levels of analysis. Nevertheless, scholars from all disciplines involved in the study of human development must begin to ask integrative, change-oriented, relational questions if advances are to be made in understanding the temporally varying linkages between developing people and their changing world.

Established scholars must simply begin to reorient their own work. In addition, educators in each of the disciplines involved in the study of human development must begin to train their students differently (Birkel, Lerner, & Smyer, 1989). An appreciation of change, context, and relations must be the cornerstone of future graduate education.

Moreover, because the organismic and contextual components of the causal, dynamic interactions constituting the basis of human development will not occur in the same way or at the same exact ontogenetic time across all people, lawful individual differences in developmental pathways, and not a generic developmental trajectory, characterize human life. Thus, we must instill in future scholars a greater appreciation of the importance of interindividual differences in the timing of causal, dynamic interactions—for the development of human diversity and for the contextual variation that is both a product and a producer of it (Lerner, 1982; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981).

Furthermore, it is important to add that university tenure and promotion committees evaluating scientists studying development must be urged to begin to value multidisciplinarily collaborative, and hence multiauthored, publications even more than within-discipline, single-authored products. We cannot train future cohorts of developmental scientists to engage productively in the multidisciplinary collaborations requisite for advancing understanding of the basic process of development and then not reward and value them for successfully doing so. Similarly, if we are to take seriously the need for change-oriented (and hence longitudinal), multilevel (and hence multivariate), and multidisciplinary research, we must recognize the need to educate government agencies and private foundations about the time and financial resources that should be given to such collaborative activities.

Most important, we must begin to attend more to the development of empirically generative theoretical models that link integratively developing people with their contexts across life. For example, the developmental contextual perspective (Lerner, 1986; Lerner & Kauffman, 1985) has been forwarded as one means to understand the reciprocal link between the developing child and his or her developing parent, a relation moderated by the intraindividual interactions (e.g., among biology, cognition, affect, and developmental status) pertinent to each person, as well as by the social networks, the community, societal, and cultural contexts, and the changing historical period within which this dyad is embedded. Figure 5.1 presents an illustration of this developmental contextual perspective.

As implied earlier, the developmental contextual model of person-context relations depicted in Figure 5.1 cannot be studied in one research effort. Nevertheless, this model has proven empirically useful in several important ways. First, it serves as a guide to the formulation of the person-context relational questions that I have argued are critical to forward if knowledge about the basic process of development is to be furthered. Second, the model serves as a limiting frame for the generalizations that a scholar should see as appropriate to make on the basis of any one empirical effort; the model depicts the complexity of the intra- and extraorganism relations that, together, assure human diversity. Thus, this model leads us to question whether or how we can generalize our findings to people developing in distinct familial, community, cultural, or historical settings. Third, the model serves as a guide for the collaboration of scholars from the several disciplines involved in the study of human development; by asking particular relational questions, a developmental psychologist may seek collaboration, in regard to a given research effort, with scholars whose disciplinary bases could range from molecular biology to macrosociology or history. Fourth, the model serves as a general template from which “reduced,” more directly empirically testable models may be derived.

One such model would itwolve the relation between a specific characteristic of the child’s organismic individuality (e.g., physical attractiveness or temperament) and a characteristic of the parent pertinent to the characteristic (e.g., expectations, preferences, or demands regarding temperament). These child and parent characteristics would be studied not only in relation to each other but also in relation to the child’s and parent’s interactions with contexts (e.g., the school) distinct from the family. Finally, within this reduced model, the person—context relations would be studied within a given community (and hence societal and cultural) context and, because both people and context change over time, all components of the model would be appraised longitudinally.

The empirical utility of such a developmental contextual model has been presented in several articles, chapters, and books (e.g., Lerner, 1987; Lerner & Lerner, 1989) describing the changing person—context relations involved in early adolescents’ transition to junior high school. Similarly, other developmental contextual-oriented models—for instance, those of Bakes (1987), Featherman (1985), Ford (1987), (Magnusson, 1988; Magnusson & Oilman, 1987; Stattin & Magnusson, 1990), and Perlmutter (Dannefer & Perlmutter, 1990; Perlmutter, 1988)—have been shown to be empirically quite useful, as have related, developmental ecological models (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Indeed, research from several disciplines—appearing in articles, in numerous edited volumes (e.g., Brim & Kagan, 1980; Hetherington, Lerner, & Perlmutter, 1988; Kreppner & Lerner, 1989; Lerner & Foch, 1987; Magnusson & Allen, 1983; Nesselroade & von Eye, 1985; Sorensen, Weinert, &

Changing Organism-Context Relations 109

t A developmental contextual model of person-context interaction (Lerner, 1984, 1986)

Figure 5. t A developmental contextual model of person-context interaction (Lerner, 1984, 1986).

Sherrod, 1986), and in the annual advances series Life-Span Development and Behavior (e.g., Baltes & Brim, 1985; Bakes, Featherman, & Lerner, 1988; Featherman, Lerner, & Perlmutter, in press)—has attested to the current empirical value and continued scientific importance of studying the relation between a developing individual and his or her changing context. Indeed, the appreciation of human interindividual variation (or diversity) and of contextual differences that this work has brought to the fore constitutes the second key arena of reorientation required in developmental psychology as a consequence of the recognition that changing person—context relations constitute the basic process of human development.

Enhancing Sensitivity to Human Diversity and Contextual Variation Within Developmental Psychological Research

To this point in the history of developmental psychology', neither human diversity nor contextual variation have been adequately appreciated or understood. Indeed, one might infer from reading the pages of the leading research journals in the field (e.g., Child Development or Developmental Psychology) that to understand development it suffices to study, almost exclusively in laboratory-experimental situations, White, middle-class, school-age, American children (Fisher & Brennan, in press; Hagen, Paul, Gibb, & Wolt- ers, 1990). In fact, in an analysis of randomly sampled articles published in Child Development over the course of more than 50 years, Hagen et al. (1990) found that, among the studies that informed readers of the demographic characteristics of the children sampled, the preponderant majority of the investigations did indeed appraise groups having these characteristics. However, Hagen et al. (1990) also reported that most of the Child Development articles in their sample reported neither the race nor the socioeconomic status of the children. Fisher and Brennans (in press) analysis of this journal, as well as of other developmental ones, confirmed the findings of Hagen et al. (1990).

Thus, scholars publishing in the best journals in the field of developmental psycholog)' have as a group acted either (a) as if they were studying the “generic child,” a child whose context was of such little importance that even mention of some of its general characteristics (e.g., socioeconomic status) was not necessary or (b) as if the only demographics worth mentioning were White, middle-class ones. It may be deemed by some as impolite or impolitic to remind us, as a field, of this shortcoming. However, such lack of sensitivity to human diversity and contextual variation cannot continue. Obviously, the absence of this sensitivity is morally repugnant to many people. In addition, however, such lack of sensitivity is simply bad science. The revised understanding of what constitutes the basic process of human development brings to the fore the cutting-edge importance of continued empirical focus on individual differences, on contextual variations, and on changing person—context relations. Nothing short of these emphases can be regarded as iiwolving scientifically adequate developmental analysis of human life.

Conclusions

The basic, causal process governing human development involves a changing relation between an individually distinct person and the specific features of his or her physical and social context. The substantial evidence supporting the presence of this relational process means that developmental scientists can no longer say “show me the data supportive of the relevance of these organism—context relations for what I study.” First, Gottliebs (1991b) article, and the data from the several sources he cites, provide solid biological and psychosocial evidence for the centrality of these relations in structural and functional developments across life. In addition, there are several data sets that provide evidence converging with that presented by Gottlieb (e.g., see Hetherington et al., 1988; Lerner, 1984; Magnusson, 1988; Magnus- son & Oilman, 1987; Sorensen et al., 1986); together, these data sets point compellingly to the importance of changing person—context relations across ontogeny. The presence of this body of information means that “show me” statements such as the one above reflect, at best, an ill-informed knowledge of the nature of the contemporary scientific data base.

Second, it is clear that scientists who have been seeking “the” developmental trajectory in their research or who have been pursuing knowledge of the nature of human development through the study of the acontextualized, generic child have been asking the wrong questions and conducting the wrong sort of research. The data derived from such work cannot be used to argue against the need to bring attention to diversity and context in our future research. It is difficult to find evidence that diversity' in developmental patterns is the rule in human life and that context matters when assessment is made only of White, middle-class, American school-age children studied in small-sample, laboratory-experimental iiwestigations. It is hard to demonstrate the importance of sensitivity either to individual differences among humans or to contextual variation when, in the majority of articles published in the field’s leading journals, there has been no mention of either the race or the socioeconomic status of the humans being assessed.

Gottliebs (1991b) article, and the large and rapidly growing biopsycho- social literature of which it is a part, indicated convincingly that diversity' and context do matter centrally. They are the core of what human development is all about. As Gottlieb (1991b, p. 7) argued as well, ideas to the contrary “have provided impediments to thinking clearly about the need for conceptual and empirical analysis at all levels of the developmental systems hierarchy.” By' remaining focused on changing organism—context relations as the basic process of development, our field may begin to overcome these impediments to good science. As our science improves, we will be in an increasingly' better position to use developmental knowledge to enhance human life in the full grandeur of its diversity.

Acknowledgments

This article was supported in part by' National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant HD23229. I thank Jordan W. Finkelstein, Donald L. Ford, Claire B. Kopp, Jacqueline V. Lerner, John R. Nesselroade, and Alexander von Eye for comments on previous versions of this article, and I am especially grateful to Ethel Tobach, whose work inspired much of the thinking presented in this article.

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