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VI Developmental Theory and the Promotion of Social Justice

Civil society rests on integrative actions by all sectors and institutions of a nation in support of social justice (Lerner, 2004). Such contributions to civil society would assure that there is both a “level playing field” for individuals to pursue lives marked by equality and positive and healthy contributions to self, family, and community and, as well, freedom from long and pernicious histories of inequities, indignities, and brutalities. To maintain and perpetuate such actions, social functioning that supports civil society must be transformed into policies and programs promoting thriving across the life span.

The probabilistic epigenetic, relatively plastic, and embodied developmental changes that characterize individual<4>context relations within the dynamic, relational developmental system provide a rationale for, and optimism that, developmental scientists can make useful contributions to such transformation and, as such, be resources in societal efforts aimed at promoting thriving and social justice for all people (Lerner & Overton, 2008). However, as I hope I have convincingly argued throughout this book, the success of such works rests upon conducting and strategically disseminating good science that counters the scientifically flawed nature, and potentially destructive societal implications of, genetic reductionism (e.g., Lerner, 2015, 2017). The good science I have tried to champion in this book, and across my career, involves enacting developmental science within models framed by dynamic, relational developmental systems-based concepts (Lerner, 2018).

If this approach to scholarship is pursued, what, then, may be the future trajectory of developmental science, especially when the future may be more uncertain than it has been in the memory of most people living at the time of this writing? That is, as I write these words, the United States and the world is confronted with a pandemic of a magnitude not encountered for at least 100 years. The pandemic is coupled with the almost complete eroding of respect for and reliance on the United States as a positive force for democracy and social justice in the world. Both of these calamities are occurring with a third one: The continuing history of injustices and inequities, within and across the health care system, kindergarten through Grade 12 education, higher education, business and industry, and politics, that have been brought into stark relief by the continuation of the indignities and brutalities shown to, and the murders of, Black youth and adults, perhaps especially by police

(supposedly sworn to protect and serve all citizens). The press of societal forces to change the systemic and interpersonal racism that has pervaded U.S. society' for, now, hundreds of years has spread to nations around the world.

Given the nature of the historical moment, it might be easy, and even quite reasonable, to regard as a Sisyphean task appeals for the application of developmental science in the service of promoting equality and social justice for all people. However, although not blind to challenges and in many cases, horrors visited upon individuals of color, I believe we cannot abandon pursuing social justice through the application of developmental science. If we exit the stage of working for social justice, we leave only the hopelessness of genetic reductionism as a frame for the public and politicians to follow.

If developmental scientists can marshal the intellectual humility to conduct their science in full collaboration with the youth and families of communities most burdened by these disparities, and if the results of this work create new and compelling evidence for how to address disparities in life opportunities, safety', education, and health, then there is an opportunity to focus societal attention and political will to engage—and integrate—human and financial capital in a world-wide effort to promote thriving across the life span for the diversity of humanity (Lerner et ah, in press).

We live each day in an always-uncertain future. Nevertheless, we can act as producers of our own development, and commit ourselves to write the history we, and our next generations, will live. A commitment to actions reflecting good science should be coupled with good character, marked by virtues such as hope, generosity, and humility. Such coupling will enable developmental scientists to collaborate with diverse individuals, families, and communities of their nation and world in turning the tides of racism, white supremacy', white privilege, and vacuums in competent leadership, and help create a world where there is liberty and justice for all.


Lerner, R. M. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among America’s youth. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lerner, R. M. (2015). Promoting social justice by rejecting genetic reductionism: A challenge for developmental science. Human Development, 58, 67-69.

Lerner, R. M. (2017). Promoting positive development, health and social justice through dismantling genetic determinism. In K. Bogard, V. M. Murry, & C. Alexander (Eds.), Perspectives on health equity & social determinants of health (pp. 57-76). Washington, DC: National Academy of Medicine.

Lerner, R. M. (2018). Concepts and theories of human development (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lerner, R. M.. Lerner, J. V, Murry, V. M., Smith, E. E, Bowers, E. P., Geldhof, G. J., & Buckingham, M. H. (in press). The study of positive youth development in 2020: Diversity' context, and the promotion of social justice. Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Lerner, R. M., & Overton, W. F. (2008). Exemplifying the integrations of the relational developmental system: Synthesizing theory', research, and application to promote positive development and social justice. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23(3), 245-255.

18 Exemplifying the

Integrations of the Relational Developmental System

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