Deconstructing Developmental Psychology
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Deconstructing Developmental Psychology

Erica Burman

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eBook - ePub

Deconstructing Developmental Psychology

Erica Burman

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In this completely revised and updated edition, Deconstructing Developmental Psychology interrogates the assumptions and practices surrounding the psychology of child development, providing a critical evaluation of the role and contribution of developmental psychology within social practice.

Since the second edition was published, there have been many major changes. This book addresses how shifts in advanced capitalism have produced new understandings of children, and a new (and more punitive) range of institutional responses to children. It engages with the paradoxes of childhood in an era when young adults are increasingly economically dependent on their families, and in a political context of heightened insecurity. The new edition includes an updated review of developments in psychological theory (in attachment, evolutionary psychology, theory of mind, cultural-historical approaches), as well as updating and reflecting upon the changed focus on fathers and fathering. It offers new perspectives on the connections between Piaget and Vygotsky and now connects much more closely with discussions from the sociology of childhood and critical educational research. Coverage has been expanded to include more material on child rights debates, and a new chapter addresses practice dilemmas around child protection, which engages even more with the "raced" and gendered effects of current policies involving children.

This engaging and accessible text provides key resources to inform better professional practice in social work, education and health contexts. It offers critical insights into the politics and procedures that have shaped developmental psychological knowledge. It will be essential reading for anyone working with children, or concerned with policies around children and families. It was also be of interest to students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels across a range of professional and practitioner groups, as well as parents and policy makers.

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Part I

Constructing the subject

This part addresses the theoretical and practical consequences of developmental psychology’s identification of the individual child as its unit of study, exploring the implications of this in relation to the study of infancy (Chapter 2) and of social development (Chapter 3). Chapters 4 and 5 highlight how developmental psychology both draws on and feeds into dominant images of childhood.

2Researching infancy

The conflation of the technical with the conceptual and an ethical interruption

Most contemporary accounts of infancy start with the derivation of the Latin word ‘infans’ meaning literally ‘without speech’, the period which used to be taken to refer approximately to the first 18 months of life. But since developmental psychology has discovered so much about babies’ abilities, the age at which particular achievements occur is ever earlier, so that there is a continual danger that infancy research will collapse back into neonatal (first two weeks) examination, and even earlier – into foetal development or before. I will be suggesting that this dynamic follows from the earlier practices and assumptions identified in Chapter 1, alongside and in relation to more recent scientific and technological developments and their sociopolitical and subjective impacts. This chapter draws on that historical framework to trace briefly the phases and fashions of infancy research. After this broad survey, classic research studies are discussed, as paradigmatically illustrating more general features of infancy work. Some continuities are identified in research topics, which in turn raise further questions about the significance of its sustained preoccupations and also absences.

Trends in infancy research: absolute beginners?

Psychology, and in particular developmental psychology, is heir to a longstanding set of philosophical, epistemological questions about the nature and growth of knowledge, and indeed was hailed from the start as the forum in which to test out competing theories (much as computer modelling is claimed to do now). By this account, biology and epistemology meet in the study of developmental psychology. Taking a broad look at Anglo-US and European psychology of the last 150 years, general social preoccupations and moral orientations are reproduced within the history of infancy research. The child study movement of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was motivated by questions drawn from evolutionary theory, that is, comparing animals and humans, and different groups of humans, to evaluate the role of heredity. But, from the 1920s until approximately the 1960s, behaviourist ideas shifted attention away from genetic endowment to environmental history, with a corresponding preoccupation with child training. The model of the child was as a passive recipient of experience, with emphasis placed on quality of environment such that parents were seen as responsible for moulding and producing an appropriate moral character. The philosophical framework for this model of the child was empiricism, where the mind is conceived of as a blank slate (Locke) or, in pragmatic varieties, as ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ (James). Since the behaviourists were reluctant to attribute any internal structure or organisation to the ‘organism’ – consistent with their denial of unobservable mental activity or events (which was in part their ‘response’ to introspectionist approaches) – the acquisition of knowledge was held to occur through conditioning, that is, through selective reinforcement based on environmental contingencies or learning from experience.
While it would be simplistic to treat these as sequential shifts, broadly speaking the 1970s saw a change of model from an incompetent infant assumed to know nothing, to a competent infant depicted as arriving already equipped with, or at least predisposed to acquire, sophisticated skills. This change arose in part from technological developments which could attest to the complex capacities of even newborns, but it also reflected the eclipse of behaviourism and the rise of cognitive psychology. The reversal of perspective (from blank slate to preprogrammed) was evident in the moral tone of righteous indignation with which books like Stone et al.’s (1973) The competent infant are presented. The very term ‘competent’ was used ‘to stress that, from his [sic] earliest days, every infant is an active, perceiving, learning and information-organising individual’ (Stone et al., 1973: 4). Accounts of this period celebrated the achievements of modern science as miraculously transforming the understanding of infant development: ‘all at once it seemed possible to obtain empirical answers where previously there had been largely theoretical speculation and inference … in what had previously seemed to be chaotic variability of response and responsiveness took on new meaning and order’ (Stone et al., 1973: 6). Science promised order in measuring the individual via infant research, and the metaphor of comprehension becomes almost literally a process of grasping the mystery of infancy by means of new techniques. Technology was accorded a key role in revising the image of the newborn:
Still another handle was fashioned by the electronic transformation of autonomic (particularly cardiac) measures and instrumentation. … aided by measures of brain electrophysiology it became possible to determine what infants, even neonates, could see or hear, or otherwise take in . . . . new approaches and methodologies in learning have transformed our understanding of the young infant’s capabilities.
(Stone et al., 1973: 6)
While new technologies undoubtedly played an important role in generating new research, the driving force behind the ‘discovery’ of neonatal qualities was not only to do with the accumulation of more facts from the accelerating pace of infancy studies but was also due to the replacement of behaviourism by biologism and cognitivism.
The rhetoric of wonder and (self-)congratulation of the 1970s technical reports was replayed in subsequent popular accounts: ‘Born brilliant. It’s amazing what your newborn can do’ read the November 1989 cover of Practical Parenting, with the inside story starting: ‘Just arrived – isn’t he clever! A newborn baby is much more interesting than anyone could imagine. . . . Take time to study your baby, get to know him and discover the many different ways that make him unique’. A similar account read: ‘Baby brilliance – the secrets revealed. Exciting new research suggests that babies know more and learn much faster than we think?’ (Under Five, November/December 1990). Hence the modern commitment to science as progress, with developmental psychology accumulating facts on the way to complete knowledge, is reiterated within the process of documenting the individual infant’s increasing maturity.
While claims about the ‘science inside the child’, including the infant, resonate until the present day (Meadows, 2015), further technological developments such as ultrasound have rendered the embryo not only visible but also amenable to investigation (Franklin, 1997; Hepper, 2005). Increasingly the foetus, embryo or unborn child becomes a recognisable, knowable entity. Indeed, as commercial companies are now capitalising upon (Roberts, 2012), the ultrasound scan offers parents-to-be a first encounter with their offspring that reinscribes scientific authority even as it constructs the moral personhood of both the parents and the social roles of, in particular, fathers (Draper, 2002). The production of the scan, therefore, although a medicalised procedure involving technology and professional expertise, functions as a cultural ritual, involving specific social and relational practices as well as material artefacts. It is also one that relies upon the primacy of the visual, consistent with the history of the development of occidental knowledge, which as Draper points out, has shifted the domain of knowledge away from the pregnant woman’s sense of her own body and sensation, in favour of an image that is available for all to see (albeit one requiring considerable interpretation), and one whose qualities and capacities are increasingly being specified (see Lupton, 2012).
From the 1970s, as a corollary of the representation of the ever-more-able child, a new research ethos emphasised how the infant takes an active role in moulding the environment in which she participates. The ‘child effects’ work (e.g. Bell and Harper, 1977) investigated what the child elicits from her caregivers, rather than solely her adaptation to them, and began to piece together a picture of reciprocal learning histories of both caregivers and their charges: how each responded to and learned from the responses of the others. Subsequently, infancy research from the mid-1970s became the forum to test out and develop Piagetian theory, since the sensorimotor period was seen as the arena where Piagetian claims are at their most specific (e.g. Butterworth, 1980) such that even though Piaget’s particular arguments about infant capacities are largely discounted, his methods and questions remain central to discussions (along with Gibson, see Thornton, 2008).
The late 1970s to 1980s saw a diversification of research. One strand continued with an unabated cognitivism, combining the test and application of Piagetian theory with cognitive science (Leiser and Gilliéron, 1990). A second strand, influenced by hermeneutics (e.g. Newson and Shotter, 1974), tried to achieve a reprieve-by-synthesis of (cognitive) innativism and (behaviourist) environmentalism, that is, to move beyond the positions which either denied any structure in the child’s head (behaviourism) or put it all in her head (1960s–1970s cognitivism). After all, if the attributes and capacities were already there, what is it that could be said to develop? The reaction to behaviourism thereby threatened to fall back into innatism, and most developmental psychologists wanted to avoid this.
So notwithstanding the contested claims arising from neurophysiological research and evolutionary psychology (see later in this chapter), most developmental psychological claims about infant capacities waver somewhere in the space between child and the (so-called) environment, which is also the space between child and adult caregiver. The fact that this is represented as a space, or more precisely that child and adult are treated as prior categories, is itself part of the problem because these categories reproduce the divisions they strive to repair.
We will return to the ‘between’ aspects of this space in Chapter 3, and it should also be noted that attending to the spaces of early childhood has spawned not only cultural anthropologies of childhood (including infancy, see Keller, 2008), but also the new discipline of children’s geographies (Holloway and Valentine, 2004). Indeed, as we will see in subsequent chapters, the current emphasis following from this includes attention to communication, including its material, embodied, processual and performative characteristics, which (drawing on dialogical approaches) include analysis of the processes by which infant behaviour is interpreted (see Bertau, 2014). Similar ideas have given rise to a focus on adult expectations, attributions and framing of child activity which are taken up in Chapter 3. Yet alongside this infancy research has witnessed a neo-cognitive return via neuroscience that warrants a return to innatist hardwiring, albeit as located within the ‘wetware’ of the developing brain, and so this also imports an affective as well as malleable or flexible twist. But before we look at this, we need to explore how infancy research continues the theoretical frameworks that initially gave rise to it, reproducing and reworking them according to changing sociocultural conditions and concerns.

Hangovers: continuity of questions addressed by infancy research

The last 30 years have seen both an acceleration and intensification of research focused on prenatal and very early childhood, led by technological developments enabling brain imaging (fMRI), and neurochemical analysis. Notwithstanding these tumultuous changes, some strange repetitions or fixations remain in the framing of developmental inquiries.
Throughout the study of infancy, research has been organised around a recurring set of preoccupations which include: first, depicting infancy (and now embryonic development) as the evolutionary baseline; second, treating infancy as providing insight into adult development; and thereby, third, demonstrating the association between research and its application.

Infancy as evolutionary baseline

The study of infancy was explicitly undertaken to illuminate the old philosophical debates about the nature and development of knowledge: What is innate? What is acquired? What is the role of experience in the construction of knowledge? As Wordsworth put it, in his 1807 Ode, intimations of immortality: ‘But trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home:/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!’ These philosophical concerns were transformed into specific empirical, psychological questions, such as the extent of early plasticity of the nervous system, and age limits on learning capacities. We continue to see these questions in policy discussions on early intervention, where politicians make large claims about the efficacy of early interventions, in the form of education and parent training, as routes to end child poverty and promote social mobility, as Baroness Tyler put it, in a House of Lords debate on this topic in February 2015, ‘The link between early intervention and social mobility is well established. We have the evidence by the bucketload’, ( While the specific assumptions underlying such claims that link brains, employment and economic prosperity will be discussed in Chapter 6, it is worth noting how these apparently abstract, epistemological questions are translated into very material and political practices. Developmental psychology positioned itself as the testing ground for age-old epistemological preoccupations, and in so doing it took on board the nineteenth-century framework of comparative psychology, comparing rates of development or states of knowledge between different (age and cultural) groups and species. Different approaches emerged to investigate these questions. Some, now classical, research studies engaged in the experimental study of sensory deprivation in animals, from which it was claimed relevant extrapolations could be made. Examples of this work included Colin Blakemore’s report that cats raised in visual environments consisting only of vertical and horizontal stripes behaved as though they are blind to diagonals (Blakemore and Cooper, 1970) and Harry Harlow’s (1959) maternal deprivation studies with rhesus monkeys (to be discussed in Chapter 7).
A second, supposedly less interventionist, approach was the ethological study of animals (Blurton Jones, 1972), especially those designated as the primate evolutionary ancestors to humans. This comparative framework could also extend (by a worrying set of associations) to the study of human societies still living in the ‘ecological niche’ within which Homo sapiens is said to have evolved, that is, hunter-gatherer societies. Note the implied relation suggested between these two groups – with resonances of the nineteenth-century hierarchisation of societies (Gould, 1984). Ethological approaches were also applied to the analysis of infant and child behaviour in terms of observational techniques claiming to provide neutral descriptions of clusters of actions rather than preconceived interpretative categories (Hinde, 1983), so combining observation with a comparative anthropological perspective.
Later neonatal research claimed to move away from comparative evolutionary explanations. Early infant behaviours, such as the neonatal stepping and rooting responses previously designated as ‘reflexive’ (Bremner, 1988), instead became interpreted as having specific individual functions. The stepping was said to help the foetus turn in the intrauterine environment, which, it was hypothesised, in the early stages of prenatal development might prevent adhesion to the wall of the womb and later facilitate engagement of the head in the cervix in preparation for labour. The tone of this interpretation was that we have outpaced species evolution in ontogenetic development, that is, that spontaneous foetal activity arises as adaptation to the womb and that there are continuities between prenatal and neonatal behaviour. Perhaps these ideas have now entered into our commonsense everyday understanding. However, the emphasis on the function of behaviour in specific contexts still harks back to evolutionist assumptions about adaptation and survival value which structured the agenda of infancy research in particular directions. Overall, the commitment to an evolutionary framework prioritised ‘the biological’ and accounted for the heavy emphasis on physical, and especially perceptual, abilities in the early infancy literature. This ‘biological’ orientation also assumed that perception is more ‘basic’, and therefore simpler to investigate. This trend was maintained within the arena of artificial intelligence – although here the emphasis on vision and sensory research was also related to other, military, interests (Bowers, 1990).
Although evolutionary psychology has flourished from the 1990s, this lays claim to more complex forms of interactionism rather than genetic or biological determination (Buss and Reeve, 2003). Yet popular sociobiological accounts of mate preference, gendered predispositions to monogamy and polygamy an...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Deconstructing Developmental Psychology
APA 6 Citation
Burman, E. (2016). Deconstructing Developmental Psychology (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Burman, Erica. (2016) 2016. Deconstructing Developmental Psychology. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Burman, E. (2016) Deconstructing Developmental Psychology. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Burman, Erica. Deconstructing Developmental Psychology. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.