Seeing human development through a contextualist lens
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
While mechanism attempts to explore questions about what makes people the way they are and organicism attempts to to understand why people are the way they are, the contexualist philosophy attempts to expore what people are (Goldhaber, 2000). Contextualism taps the "historic event" as its metaphor (Pepper, 1970, p. 232), referring to how individuals experience and understand the things that happen in life (ACBS, 2007; Pepper, 1970).
The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science defines contextualism as "a world view in which any event is interpreted as an ongoing act inseparable from its current and historical context and in which a radically functional approach to truth and meaning is adopted". An individual's understanding of an event includes a "sense of the purpose, meaning, and function of the event," all depending on past events or the historical context of the present event (ACBS, 2007, p. 1).
In other words, individual behavior depends on the continuously changing context of society and history. This means that every behavior is an historic event that results in change (Lerner, 2002, p. 71). Contextualism attempts to understand what a person is doing and what meanings ascribe to his or her actions in relation to surrounding events (Goldhaber, 2000).
The contexualist model of human development assumes constant change and "embeddedness" (Lerner, 2002). Constant change means nothing is uniform; "change is a given" (Lerner, 2002, p. 72), and the only constant is change. "Embeddedness" means that all levels of analysis are dynamically interrelated. The constantly changing organism exists in a constantly changing environment. The dynamic interaction between organism and environment causes changes in both the organism and the environment.
A critical sociology
As a postmodern philosophy, pure contextualism is anti-positivist, seeing mechanistic and organismic lenses as tools "serving to maintain the status quo within a society" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 302). Not surprising then, contextualism focuses its attention on how "developmental models treat traditionally disenfranchised groups" (p. 302) in Western societies.
While organicists embrace progress toward personal and societal potential, contextualists "question the very concept of progress" (Goldhaber, 2002, p. 297) as a Western construct that benefits a ruling class in industrialized nations at the expense of others. The contextualist considers objective reality an illusion; there is no universal truth, no right or wrong, no objectivity, and no facts. Everything is relative to time and place. Individuals will behave differently in different settings. Contextualists also question whether change is beneficial, proposing that society should be able to sustain its ways indefinitely.
Goldhaber (2000) identifies four key contributions of contextualism to the human development theory, an emphasis on practical and immediate, individuals are active meaning makers in social settings, human development is open-ended, and scientific inquiry is a human endeavor, as follows:
An emphasis on practical and immediate.
Contextualism sprouts from the roots of philosophical pragmatism, which rejects absolutes, foundational truths or assumptions of the universe (ACBS, 2007). Since they believe there is no universal condition to observe and since they reject the concept of objectivity, contextualists focus on the practical and immediate as "active participants and critics" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 52) shaping the human condition.
According to Wartofsky (1986), theorists should not be involved in determining norms but "have the responsibility to engage in the criticisms of these norms… They are, moreover, responsible to recognize the historicity or situatedness of these norms and to come down on the right side" (p. 125). This "right side" means that the field of human development should be "a branch of social ethics" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 55) that advocates global, collectivist, anti-Western perspectives that liberate the disenfranchised while implementing postmodern perspectives like "Marxism, critical theory, critical multiculturalism, critical race theory, postcolonialism, queer theory, and feminist theory" (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 272). The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (2007) summarizes this concept by saying that the purpose of contextual theory is not to reveal truth, but "to aid in the achievement of some goal" (para. 3) or agenda.
Individuals are active meaning makers in social settings.
While all developmental perspectives view people as interdependent with their environment, contextualists use a systems approach to understand the relationship among all elements in a system. Viewing the sum of elements plus the sum of relationships allows contextualists to "say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that the meaning of a person and context is to be found in the relationships among the elements rather than solely in the elements themselves" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 52). Systems tend to self-stabilize and self-reorganize, with a change in one area likely to cause change in other areas.
Human development is open-ended.
Mechanists view human development as progressive behavioral change, while organicists see a series of development stages toward an ideal purpose. Contextualists, however, see many possible developmental paths. Since universals do not exist, no path is any better than is any other; the individual developmental pattern simply is what it is, "an interdependent system functioning within a specific sociohistorical context" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 53). This becomes what contextualists call an argument of liberation, which finds "no basis to argue the value of one culture's accomplishments over another, the level of civilization of one culture over another, or anything else for that matter" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 54). Each culture and each person is a unique expression of a system within a sociohistorical context.
Scientific inquiry is a human endeavor.
While mechanists and organicists attempt to practice objective inquiry into human development, contextualists argue that objectivity is not possible; observations filter through the researcher's personal lens. Rather than attempt objectivity, the contextualist places the researcher at the center of the research, engaging in what Bentz and Shapiro (1998) call a "biased" approach to research that "may contribute to social action and be part of social action" (p. 7). Important to emphasize here is that scientific inquiry is not about understanding reality or revealing thruth but about advancing an agenda.
Next: Classical theory through the contextual lens