Falling within the Contextualist philosophical lens, lifespan developmental theory focuses on how change occurs throughout life because of reciprocal influences between the individual and the environment. In other words, individual development throughout life results from and influences the environment in which the person develops.

Falling within the Contextualist philosophical lens, lifespan developmental theory focuses on how change occurs throughout life because of reciprocal influences between the individual and the environment. In other words, individual development throughout life results from and influences the environment in which the person develops (Lerner, 2002). Understanding individual development requires a multi-disciplinary approach that considers both the individual and the context in which the individual develops.

A key differentiation between the lifespan developmental perspective and perspectives proposed by organicism and mechanism is that lifespan theorists view development as a lifelong process, while the other perspectives essentially view development as a process that ends with adulthood. In other words, "all points of the life span may have theoretical developmental significance" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 304).

The lifespan developmental perspective attempts to integrate ideas from different disciplines to understand how individual change throughout life occurs on multiple levels, and how a change on one level influences changes on other levels. For example, viewing development from the perspective of biology can help to understand the biological changes that occur in the individual, while adding the perspective of psychology can help to understand how the biological changes might influence psychological development.

Elements of lifetime development

Summarizing various process models developed through the lifespan theorists, Goldhaber (2000) describes the basic elements that define the lifespan development perspective as follows: development is an open process, a situated process, and a successive sequence.

Development as an open process.

Regarding development as an open process, lifespan theorists see development as "an open-ended co-evolving system that reflects the interplay of the continuing processes of organic and social evolution" (p. 308). As retroactively evolving processes, the lifespan perspective argues that claims of universality from the mechanistic and organismic perspective are incorrect. Individuals structure their own social environments, allowing each individual to play an active role in developing self and environment, and allowing each generation to build on accomplishments from prior generations (Goldhaber, 2000).

Development as a situation process.

Whereas the organismic lens sees the individual as being a master of environment, the lifespan developmental perspective sees the environment as playing a more significant role in individual development. The socio-historical context not only defines the rate and level of development, but also the structure of the lifespan. Specifically, the socio-historical context imposes on individuals the roles, expectations, measurements of intelligence and wisdom, notions of normality, appropriate social interactions, and the extent society will control individual freedom (Goldhaber, 2000).

Development as a successive sequence.

While the organismic lens sees development as a progressive process, contextualists see development as successive. Progressive implies that development occurs in steps, while the contextualist's successive sequence recognizes no progressive steps, only "a unique and temporary responses in a sociohistorical context" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 310). In other words, development is situational, not universal.

Sequences of lifetime development

Baltes (1987) presents four ways that developmental sequences characterize the lifespan developmental perspective.

  1. Development is not limited to the early years of life, but is a lifelong process.
  2. Development is multidimensional
  3. Development is multidirectional.
    1. Considering items 2 and 3 together, development involves multiple competencies and dimensions that follow different paths that reflect the context in which the individual develops
  4. Plasticity provides variability and determines the potential an individual has to develop different forms of behavior.

In other words, the dynamic nature of individuals and environment creates multiple pathways for development. Baltes (1987) concludes that the developmental sequence is a succession of gains and losses, not a progressive development. For example, individuals may gain the ability to speak in a native language, while losing the capacity to speak fluently other languages.

Themes of lifespan development

Elder (1994) proposes four interdependent themes that demonstrate how the lifespan developmental perspective and contextualism differ from organicism and mechanism, as follows:

  • interplay of human lives and historical times
  • timing of lives
  • linking of lives
  • human agency

These themes place human development in time and place, emphasize the roles that cultural values and beliefs play in individual development, and highlight how context and individual assign meaning to events (Goldhaber, 2000).

Conclusion

In short, the lifespan developmental perspective proposes that development occurs in a dynamic context throughout the lifespan of the individual. Similarities in environment can produce similarities in individual development; however, the individual can still develop on multiple paths apart from cohorts. Looking for and applying universals to individual development ignores the dynamic nature of how the individual and the environment interact.

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