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From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development
children. Dominated by the revolutionary thinking of Jean Piaget (1952) and Noam Chomsky (1965), this new generation of psychologists celebrated the role of young children as active agents in their own development and attributed early skill acquisition to the universal emergence of innate cognitive and linguistic structures that required relatively modest environmental guidance.
In the early 1980s, following the publication of Mind in Society (Vygotsky, 1978) and The Ecology of Human Development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), the pendulum swung back toward a greater appreciation of the extent to which all human development unfolds within a wide variety of cultural contexts. In his analysis of the child development research literature based largely on the findings of highly controlled laboratory experiments, Bronfenbrenner (1979:19) underscored the limitations of most empirically based developmental psychology, characterizing it as “the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time.” Subsequently, in contrast to Piaget's image of the young child as a solitary scientist, a growing subgroup of child development researchers returned to the concept of human development as a socially embedded phenomenon, thereby emphasizing the importance of culture (e.g., Rogoff and Chavajay, 1995).
Building on this evolving framework, the committee began its work with a strong conviction about the importance of culture as a highly salient influence on early childhood development. As our examination of the knowledge base progressed, we became increasingly appreciative of its complexity. In part, this complexity is related to the multidisciplinary nature of the field and its reliance on a wide array of qualitative and quantitative methods. Beyond methodological diversity, however, the committee was struck by the extent to which much of the research on the role of culture in child development is tied to values and personal beliefs.
Thus, the task of assessing the science of culture was exceedingly more complicated than assessing the neurobiology of brain development. This complexity was particularly apparent when the committee attempted to define and disentangle the concepts of culture, ethnicity, and race, and to seek greater understanding of the effects of racism, discrimination, and minority status on the development of young children. Consequently, this report presents a more bounded analysis of culture than it does of neuroscience. It is important that this discrepancy not be interpreted as an indication of the relative importance of these two domains of study. Quite the contrary, it should be viewed as a strong message both about the significant challenges that face those who investigate the role of culture in early childhood development and the critical need for ongoing methodologically rigorous research in this area.