Theoretical Frameworks for Conceptualizing Positive Developmental Processes
Garbarino and Abramowitz (1992) suggest that the role of theory in social science is that of an “imagination machine.” Theory generates questions and steers attention to the wide range of factors and phenomena that should be considered. There are numerous theories in developmental psychology, sociology, public health, anthropology, and other fields that direct attention to a panorama of individual, community, and cultural processes that are related to positive development. In the next few pages we use Bronfenbrenner’s framework to briefly review this theoretical panorama. Following Bronfenbrenner, we focus on the multiple systems that affect development: (a) the adolescent engaged in the settings of her or his daily life (what he calls micro-systems), (b) the web of relationships that compose the community in which the child resides (meso-and exo-systems), and (c) the culture and society that provide the frame for development (macro-systems).
ADOLESCENT IN THE MICRO-SYSTEM: PSYCHOLOGY THEORIES
The central unit of development for Bronfenbrenner is the child interacting with the different settings or micro-systems of daily life (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). Jean Piaget, the most influential theorist of cognitive development, elucidated how children and adolescents are active and creative agents in these interactions and, ultimately, of their own development (Piaget, 1964). Even when they give answers to questions that an adult perceives as wrong, answers typically come from intelligent deductions using previous knowledge. Thus, we need to always ask how an adolescent is thinking about and conceptualizing his or her current experience.
While Piaget focused almost exclusively on the solitary individual interacting with an inanimate environment, other specialists in cognitive development gave more attention to the interpersonal environment in which learning and development take place. Vygotsky showed how learning was typically not solitary, but collaborative (Vygotsky, 1978). Children often don’t think in isolation: teachers, parents, and apeers provide support and scaffolding that contributes to their thinking and learning. Another very different school of developmental theory, object relations and attachment theory, emphasizes the emotional quality of the interpersonal environment in which development takes place, particularly children’s relationships with their primary caretakers. Mahler, Winnicott, Bowlby, and others have shown how the warmth and responsiveness of a child’s significant others facilitate development, particularly development of a sense of self and the capacity to engage in healthy relationships in the future. Hostility or lack of trust creates anxiety, which disrupts development (Mahler et al., 1975; Winnicott, 1975; Bowlby, 1969).
These theories suggest that people are extremely malleable, that given the right environment, children can remake themselves as they wish. Research and theory in behavioral genetics, however, suggests there may be limits on how much individuals can change—although the nature of these limits are beyond the range of current knowledge (Plomin, 2000). The development of some human traits, like extroversion and novelty seeking, appear to be significantly constrained by genes, although other traits, such as prosocial and antisocial behavior, are clearly not so constrained (Plomin, 1994). It must be emphasized that the state of knowledge about the role of genes in psychological and social development is
very limited (Collins et al., 2000). Scientists have mapped the human genome, but they know little about how it influences the development of individual differences. Research suggests that the processes may be complex: development always occurs in interaction with environments; certain environments may be more likely to bring out specific traits; genes may partly shape development by influencing the choices children make regarding the environments in which they spend time. Given the lack of knowledge, extreme caution is required in applying the ideas of behavioral genetics to real-life situations. Nonetheless, it is important to realize, as any parent with two or more children knows, that individuals are not infinitely malleable; some (and only some!) of the emotional and cognitive dispositions that they bring into a community program may not be substantially alterable, even with the greatest staff in the world.
This fact and the other theories covered above lead to another important psychological perspective concerned with person-environment fit. If individuals are not infinitely malleable, then the design of optimal learning environments requires that environments be adaptable to individuals, or it requires that individuals be selectively placed into environments that suit their dispositions. Piaget’s (1971) and especially Vygotsky’s (1978) theories also suggest that youth learn best in environments that provide information and support at a level that is at or somewhat above their current level of cognitive development (in what Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development”). These issues of person-environment fit appear to be particularly salient in early adolescence, when young people’s abilities and needs are changing rapidly. Eccles et al. (1993) show that junior high schools often fail to provide this fit to the developmental stage of young adolescents, resulting in diminished levels of interest, motivation, and learning among junior high students. They theorize that a similar lack of developmental fit often occurs in the family, accounting for the increased rates of conflict that many young adolescents experience with their parents. The message of this theory, indeed of psychological theories in general, is that positive development is most likely to occur in environments that are attentive to and matched with the dispositions and developmental level of the individual. To engage an adolescent in growth, one must engage that human being in an environment that makes sense to her or him.
In addition, to be successful programs must be developmentally appropriate and must have a developmental agenda. That is, they need to have provisions for the participants to grow and take on new roles as they mature as program members. The activities also need to relate to
the developmental agendas of the participants. For example, as adolescents mature, they should become more concerned about moving into the labor market. Organizations that take these changing interests into account in their programming are likely to be more successful at retaining participation as their members mature than organizations that do not (see McLaughlin, 2000).
THE MESO- AND EXO-SYSTEMS: ROLE OF COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIPS IN DEVELOPMENT
Bronfenbrenner stressed the importance of the meso- and exo- systems. In general, Bronfenbrenner’s approach makes the complex interactions between individuals and their social settings salient. Adolescents grow in families that, in turn, exist within a much larger social system. Adolescents also participate in a variety of settings and institutions, such as community based programs and schools, that are part of this larger social system. Finally, these institutions are part of the larger social system and consequently are influenced by a variety of forces beyond their direct control. Understanding adolescent development requires an understanding of such complexities. Both designing community programs for youth and understanding what distinguishes successful programs from unsuccessful programs also requires an understanding of such complexities.
Bronfenbrenner made an important contribution to developmental science by drawing attention to the critical role of intermediate institutions—families, schools, places of work, communities, and so forth— and particularly the interrelationships between these institutions. Bronfenbrenner introduced the concept of the meso-system, which is the interlinkages among the different settings or micro-systems in a child or adolescent’s life. Development is facilitated when there are meaningful linkages between settings, when parents know a child’s friends, teachers, and coaches, and good communication exists among them. Bronfenbrenner also introduced the concept of the exo-system, which is the larger community in which a child lives and the set of connections (outside the view of the child) that occur within the institutions of that community. Again, development is facilitated when these connections involve meaningful communications.
The work of James Comer (1988) provides a valuable illustration of the importance of these connections. He described how school outcomes for children were greatly improved if their school operated as a commu-
nity of teachers, school administrators, and parents who were in touch with each other. He also showed the negative consequences when teachers, school administrators, and parents were out of touch with each other because of differing cultural backgrounds. This lack of cohesion resulted in poor school performance among the students. He also showed that a school intervention designed to build channels of communication could both increase community and the quality of students’ work. Certainly the same interlinkages are important to the effective functioning of a community program.
The concept of social capital from sociology is one useful way of thinking about these interlinkages. Social capital refers to the resources, such as access to information and assistance, that arise from social relationships (Coleman, 1988; Fortes and Landolt, 1996; Fortes, 1998). For adolescents, the concept of social capital is particularly useful in evaluating the developmental resources that are gained through young people’s (and their parents’, teachers’, etc.) network of ties within the community (Astone et al., 1999). Through these relationships, youth gain access to educational opportunities, life skills, jobs, and support that give them an advantage in the adult world. Youth also profit from social ties in the exo-sphere: connections among their families, schools, and communities. For instance, adolescents whose parents are active in the PTA benefit from exchanges between teachers and their parents that reinforce academic activities. Similarly, youth whose parents are active in faith-based or other political or community-based organizations benefit from the social connection their parents form (Furstenburg et al., 1999). A critical point is that access to social capital is not universal. Some of the disproportionate social and economic disadvantage born by urban or poor rural children can be related to limitations in social capital available in many inner-city neighborhoods or isolated rural communities (Loury, 1977; Wilson, 1987). As the resources of communities, schools, community programs, and families are depleted, it becomes increasingly more difficult for young people to secure the support they need to make a successful transition to adulthood. Furthermore, when youth have few relationships that promote positive development, adolescents may seek social capital from groups, such as gangs, that fill developmental needs for leadership, independence, self-esteem, and autonomy. Community-based programs are an ideal place to help adolescents form long-term positive social capital.
The management perspective is another theoretical approach that helps our understanding of the interlinkages within the community that
facilitate positive development in adolescents (Furstenberg et al., 1999; Jarrett, 1997). This perspective recognizes that parents play a critical role in orchestrating their children’s daily lives, both through their daily practices and the decisions they make concerning the types of information and resources the child receives. This management includes promotive strategies aimed at creating positive experiences and helping children develop skills and interests, such as assisting with the child’s schoolwork, encouraging the development of talents and interests, enrolling the child in special classes and programs, or getting an older sibling or other relative to help the child with homework. It can also include preventive strategies aimed at minimizing behavioral risks and negative outcomes, such as careful monitoring of the child’s location, enforcing strong curfew practices, involving the child in positive protective activities, and discussing negative models. Like effective business managers, effective parents anticipate the future and take a proactive stance toward preparing for it. As children mature, other people become more central players in the process of management. Teachers, religious figures, peers, leaders of community programs, and other significant people come to influence the informational flow and resources available to the child; with guidance, adolescents themselves come to gradually assume this role of managing their lives and their developmental opportunities. Community programs for youth can play a very important role in helping adolescents learn to manage their own lives effectively. These programs can both teach these skills and provide adolescents with the information they need to make wise decisions on their own behalf.
THE MACRO-SYSTEM: CULTURAL THEORIES
No account of human development is complete unless it considers the ways that the systems just discussed differ across cultures (Schweder et al., 1998). Bronfenbrenner defines the macro-system as “the overarching pattern of micro-, meso-, and exosystem characteristics of a given culture or subculture” (Bronfenbrenner, 1994:1645). Culture provides the templates and tools for young people’s interactions with each setting. As discussed in Chapter 2, they may also specify different goals for development. Margaret Mead (1935) described how blueprints provided by culture shape development, as well as the institutions that influence development (family, religion, rites of passage, community structures). Recognizing a more active role played by the individual, other theorists emphasize that adolescents also shape settings.
Anthropologists’ definitions of culture include symbolic and behavioral components, both of which are crucial to one of the positive features of settings we identify below. First, cultures are symbolic systems of shared beliefs, doctrines, values, and, importantly, meaning. They provide underlying conceptions of “how to be” and of “the good life and how to live it” (LeVine et al., 1988; Shweder et al., 1998). Both anthropologists and sociologists (e.g. Durkheim, 1951) have shown that individuals’ embeddedness in (and sense of belonging to) a coherent cultural system is crucial to their well-being and experience of meaning. Without it, adolescents and adults experience alienation. Second, and interdependently, cultures are systems of behavior. They include practices, behavioral scripts, language—normative ways of doing things—and these are often organized around institutions (Shweder et al., 1998). In most cases, these systems of behavior have evolved over hundreds of years and provide a well-honed framework for community life. Development involves being socialized into the norms of one’s culture, learning to use the behavior repertoire to achieve culturally meaningful goals. Acquisition of this knowledge of a cultural system is sometimes described as acquisition of cultural capital: it is knowledge that allows them to function effectively within that culture.
A problem with the simplified account offered thus far is that it presents culture as singular and static. Yet even in traditional cultures there are competing cultural ideas (Turiel, 1999) and in the United States there is a noisy marketplace of multiple cultures, culture wars, and changing systems of meaning and behavior. Adolescents have to sort through and choose among numerous alternative frames of meaning and ways of acting. Furthermore, the differing institutions that deal with adolescents may operate with conflicting cultural values and norms—the relationships that constitute meso- and exo-systems can be impeded by incompatible world views (Comer, 1988). For example, LaFromboise and Graff Low (1998) illustrate how adolescent behavior that Euro-American counselors view as bad can be viewed as a sign of progress by Hopi adults.
For Erikson (1968), the developmental task of adolescents faced with this noisy marketplace is to draw on and wrestle with the issues and contradictions of his or her society and historical period. The adolescent needs to choose values, decide what cultural group to belong to, and figure out how he or she relates to other cultural groups. This process is often more difficult for individuals in disenfranchised minority groups, who may confront conflicting cultural definitions of who they are and
how they should act (Phinney and Kohatsu, 1997). Even if they acquire the cultural capital of the dominant group, they may find that members of that group have greater power to define the values and norms that are operative within a setting (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977). In other ways it may be easier, in that minority groups learn more than one culture. As society continues to become more culturally diverse, such multicultural knowledge can become an asset, provided that the individual has gained the social skills needed to flourish in the dominant culture or in multicultural niches where the ability to navigate more than one culture is critical (LaFromboise et al., 1993).
All of these issues manifest themselves in varying ways in the daily settings of adolescents’ lives, including their participation in community programs. The cultural perspective suggests a need to expand the earlier notion of person-environment fit to include cultural fit. Given that youth may be walking in the door with widely differing cultural backgrounds, knowledge, and agendas, it is essential that community programs be sensitive to how they are experienced by different youth. Taking the positive side, community programs can have an important role in assisting youth with addressing developmental issues of cultural belonging, which can be particularly acute in a changing and multicultural society.