Developmental psychology and the relevance of a critical metatheoretical reflection


Thomas Teo

York University


Published as: Teo, T. (1997). Developmental psychology and the relevance of a critical metatheoretical reflection. Human Development, 40 (4), 195-210.


This web-based version is based on the final pre-publication manuscript that is not identical with the published version. For access to published version please contact your library or contact author.


Address: Thomas Teo, Department of Psychology, History and Theory of Psychology, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3, Canada. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to



It is argued that developmental psychology can profit by incorporating ideas not only from other sciences but also from recent developments in the philosophies of knowledge. A resulting learning process with possible consequences for research practices is mediated by the self-reflective cognitive processes of developmental psychologists. To demonstrate the conceptual and intellectual possibilities of metatheory, the following three critical families are delineated and their potential for developmental psychology discussed: The German critical-theoretical tradition (Habermas, Holzkamp); the postmodern critique of France (Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault); and the multiple voices criticism of North America (feminism, ethnic minorities). The significance of these approaches is elaborated in terms of problematizations and questions posed to developmental psychology.


Although contemporary developmental psychology has never hesitated to embody information from other academic disciplines such as anthropology, biology, cognitive science, linguistics, sociology, and statistics, it has neglected to incorporate recent developments in the philosophies of knowledge. Textbooks of developmental psychology (e.g., Bee, 1995; Berk, 1994; Cole & Cole, 1993; Shaffer, 1996; Sroufe, Cooper, & DeHart, 1996) underline the importance of theories, usually in the first chapters, and are able in new editions to include recent discoveries or trends in scientific disciplines. However, they do not discuss "metatheoretical"[1] developments and challenges, which will comprise the focus of this paper. Miller (1993), one of the rare textbooks that includes explicitly metatheoretical positions, focuses on a traditional systematization (models, deductive theory, functional theory, inductive theory) as providing heuristics for discussing developmental theories. However, significant philosophers of knowledge, such as Thomas S. Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, are mentioned only in the final "reflections."


This lack of integration of contemporary metatheoretical thought is even more remarkable as two pioneers of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget and Lev S. Vygotsky, were particularly inspired by philosophies of knowledge. As is well known, Piaget (e.g., 1970, 1972) developed a genetic epistemology, merging epistemological thought with developmental psychology, while Vygotsky (e.g., 1962, 1978) adopted a dialectical-materialistic philosophy of knowledge as the basis for his cultural-historical psychology.


The reasons for this lack of integration of recent developments in philosophies of knowledge may be found in the history of science, at the time when psychology and philosophy, originally one discipline, separated from each other as two distinct approaches (cf. Fancher, 1996). In North America, behaviorism is, so to speak, a "troubled child" of this divorce, and has engendered the belief that traditional sciences are more significant to psychology (and to developmental psychology) than is philosophical thought. Thus, a scientific self-understanding characteristic of developmental psychologists, and a science-oriented academic socialization, both make it difficult for developmental psychologists to translate metatheoretical concepts and arguments into psychological terms and research practices. But it is not only developmental psychology that is responsible for this missing communication. A sometimes anti-psychological and anti-empiricist attitude of some proponents of philosophy of knowledge (see below) challenges developmental research as such, a situation that is certainly not helpful for mutual learning processes.


Admittedly, the level of impact of metatheory is different from that of other research disciplines. Arguments, concepts, and results from the philosophies of knowledge do not have immediate or necessary consequences for theory and method in developmental psychology, whereas, for example, discoveries in biology or anthropology affect developmental knowledge directly. Metatheoretical relevance is mediated through the self-reflective, cognitive processes of the developmental psychologist. These reflections may eventually lead to the incorporation of novel questions, the inauguration of new problems, and the construction of different meanings, and may also guide further research.


From an ideal point of view, metatheoretical reflections and empirical developmental research form a dialectical relationship. They represent a unity, ascertaining results or producing information that can be helpful for each other. Yet, they also represent a contradiction, for problems appear differently from an empirical and from a theoretical point of view. Unfortunately for both, from a factual point of view, empirical developmental research and philosophical approaches ignore each other, work without each other, and are able to exist without each other. Nevertheless, from the perspective of developmental theory, the integration of arguments of contemporary philosophers of knowledge, especially in terms of critical approaches, can be advantageous, and may allow a challenging yet positive stance on the future of this discipline.



Developments in the philosophies of knowledge



Contemporary developmental psychology understands and defines itself, as most developmental psychologists would agree, as an empirical science. According to the traditional hypothetico-deductivist approach, this discipline discovers issues and processes in empirical reality, tests hypotheses with objective methods, interprets or discusses results in a more or less neutral way, and tries to identify general laws or rules of human development. Yet, from the perspective of contemporary philosophies of knowledge, the nature of an empirical science is rather vague. Reconstructing the dominant developments in the philosophies of knowledge, it becomes apparent that all traditional normative claims and demands with regard to concepts such as objectivity, truth, empirical reality, and induction, have been reduced remarkably.


Popper (1959, 1972) has argued that the concept of induction and the search for a rational basis for this principle as developed by logical empiricists such as Carnap (1945) is untenable, and has replaced it with the rational principle of falsification. Kuhn (1962), however, identified irrational and anti-inductive moments in the development of the sciences, and demonstrated that the principle of falsification, applied in research, is nonessential.


Since then, the logic of research, the nature of science, the dynamic of theories, only to mention a few problems, have become uncertain and controversial as never before in metatheoretical discussions. In this retreat of claims by the philosophy of knowledge, authors such as Feyerabend (1978), Goodman (1978) and Rorty (1979) in an Anglo-American context, Derrida (1976), Deleuze and Guattari (1987) and Lyotard (1984) in France, Harding (1986) and Keller (1984) from a feminist position (see also Alcoff & Potter, 1993), and Collins (1991) within black feminist studies, have argued that the apparent foundations of "Western" science are neither fundamental nor strong. The emerging post-empiricist discourse argues that empirical research is theory-laden and that this characteristic not only applies to a paradigm (in the sense of Kuhn, 1962) or to a research program (in the sense of Lakatos, 1970), but also to social categories such as gender, class, ethnicity, culture, ideology, and personal idiosyncrasies. On this view, the concept of a dominance of "theory" implies that such aspects, and not the pure empirical reality, determine research.


The human sciences and psychology are in an even more vulnerable position than the traditional sciences, because the human and social sciences adopted the very metatheory of the traditional sciences, now criticized widely, to legitimate their ambiguous scientific status (cf. Koch, 1985). Thus, the criticisms put forth hit the human and social sciences much harder than they did the traditional sciences, placing them under further legitimation pressure. Further, psychology and the human sciences must deal with specific philosophical criticisms, such as those presented within a "left" discourse that has criticized the human sciences as serving the interests of certain groups (Althusser, 1984; Holzkamp, 1983), or for colluding with power (Foucault, 1977).



Coping strategies for developmental psychology



Given advances in the philosophies of knowledge, there are several ways in which developmental psychologists may deal with arguments that challenge the idea of developmental psychology as an empirical enterprise. Developmental psychologists may ignore these arguments as irrelevant for their discipline and continue to do their research as usual, abandon doing empirical developmental psychology, participate in metatheoretical discussions without giving up empirical developmental research (e.g., Chandler, 1995), or try to "assimilate" and "accommodate" these arguments in an effort to improve developmental theory, research, and practice.


The position taken here is that there are many reasons for developmental psychology to assimilate and accommodate metatheoretical thought. Due to the nature of philosophical ideas, this position cannot refer to nor be substantiated by empirical evidence, but must refer to essential problematizations, information, and the use of questions that allow reflection and understanding of the impact of critical metatheoretical considerations. Such reflection and understanding should enable a (re)conceptualization of where and how developmental psychology could improve its "investigative practices" (Danziger, 1990).


Critical approaches


Discourses of philosophies of knowledge are rather heterogeneous and difficult to summarize. For the purpose of "translation" it is heuristically useful to delineate within the philosophies of knowledge different "communities," and, within each community, different families.


The community discussed here can be labeled critical as it shares a distance from "internal" problems of knowledge production, and emphasizes external factors; it is critical in challenging the "context of justification" (i.e., the ways in which arguments, theories, and data are justified), while underlining the importance of the "context of discovery" (i.e., why and how certain arguments, theories, and data are selected). It is further critical in having a distance from empirical developmental research, yet it is qualified to allow a reflection of contexts of development as well as of developmental psychology.


Despite, so to speak, an underlying "critical" factor that unites different critical approaches, such critical frameworks possess different "internal" (theoretical) and "external" (socio-cultural-historical) backgrounds. It is useful, thus, to distinguish three families within the critical metatheoretical community, classified geographically. The first family refers to critical-theoretical approaches developed in a German context; the second family refers to the critical postmodern (or poststructuralist) approach developed in a French context; and the third family refers to North American multiple voices, which emphasize the impact of gender, ethnicity, and culture. This classification must be seen as a simplified heuristic, for these approaches are overlapping and have influenced each other.[2] Yet, as philosophical commonalties and differences, that may lead to metatheory mediation or comparison are not the goal of this article, confrontations between families and within each family will not be discussed here.


Further, one must bear in mind that there are theoretical and critical reflections within developmental psychology itself. One could argue, for example, that every criticism of a certain approach in developmental psychology is a critical endeavor. From an extended developmental-theoretical point of view, one must mention Vygotsky's (Wygotski, 1985) discussion of the crisis of psychology; the reflections of Reese and Overton (1970), showing that not only an empirical reality but also metatheoretical worldviews influence research; Riegel's (1975) introduction of ideology-critical arguments to developmental psychology; Broughton's (1981) critical endeavors that lead to the publication of an entire book on critical developmental psychology (Broughton, 1987); Kessen (1990) who declares the "fall" of developmental psychology; or Goodnow (1990) who promotes sociology in developmental theory. No doubt, there has been an increase of (meta)theoretical discussions in developmental psychology (see also van Geert & Mos, 1991), ranging from the integration of systems theory (Ford & Lerner, 1992), to detailed theoretical problems such as the pseudo-empiricist nature of developmental psychology (e.g., Smedslund, 1994). The journal Theory & Psychology has dedicated a whole issue to developmental psychology (see Bradley, 1993). Yet, the focus here is not on elucidations emanating from the discipline itself, but on criticisms that proceed on the basis of a philosophy of knowledge in the narrow sense.


The German critical-theoretical approach


Contemporary German critical-theoretical thought draws on a long, remarkable tradition, relying on philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Georg F. W. Hegel, and Karl Marx. The first generation of the Frankfurt school (see Wiggershaus, 1994) sought to establish a social science beyond the "positivist" tradition, and thus criticized the status, structure, and goal of the traditional social sciences (cf. Adorno, Albert, Dahrendorf, Habermas, Pilot, & Popper, 1969).


With regard to critical-theoretical thinking in Germany after 1945, the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the theoretical psychologist Klaus Holzkamp must be mentioned. Both theorists criticized and developed concepts in the field of epistemology, ontology, ethics, and methodology (see McCarthy, 1978; Teo, 1993; Tolman, 1994).[3] These German authors went beyond the traditional Marxist position that a ruling idea is biased by the interests of a ruling class by discussing the problems of non-reflected presuppositions in investigative practices.


(a) The "relevance" of developmental psychology. In one of his early writings, Habermas (1971) sought an epistemological foundation for a theory of society. He introduced the concept of "interest" and argued that cognitive in­terests are fundamental orientations necessary for the reproduction and self-constitution of the human, as they have their basis in the natural history of the human species. He differentiated three categories of sciences characterized by a specific underlying cognitive inter­est that guides their knowledge. Em­pirical-analytical sciences have a technical cognitive interest and seek to produce nomological knowledge in order to achieve technical control. Historical-hermeneutic sciences have a practical interest of interpretation and under­standing of social meanings. Critical theory has an emancipatory inter­est with the fundamental principle of self-reflection, which liberates the subject from dependencies, powers, and constraints. Holzkamp (1972a), inspired by Habermas, argued that in psychology, the sophistication of experimental design and measurement methodology and the progress in statistics leads to a particularization and reduction of reality in research. Thus, psychology loses technical and practical relevance. For psychology however, technical relevance would imply working for the hegemonial structure of society, if it is not tied to emancipatory relevance, which is accomplished when research helps individuals obtain enlightenment of their psychological and societal predicaments (cf. Teo, 1995).


Although these ideas are no longer new in the context of the rapid development of theories today, and although one can both challenge the notion that emancipation is a basic human interest that can be derived from evolution and doubt its status as a transcendental category, developmental psychologists still must ask themselves if they neglect the practical and emancipatory aspects of developmental psychology -- legitimate and meaningful topics when dealing with the development of human subjectivity. Even if one argues that there is already an applied developmental psychology, developmental psychologists should ask whether their research is in fact emancipatory, or whether it legitimizes the status quo. Perhaps the focus on methodological sophistication and the choice of "variable-oriented" types of research, which are unable to represent the complex societal reality of human development, has indeed lead to a greater gap between academic and applied psychology. From the basis of the concept of emancipation, developmental psychologists might even investigate new questions: How can one understand intra- and interindividual differences in the development of emancipation? How can one reconstruct the development of a liberated subjectivity cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally? How do degrees of personal liberation in a given socio-cultural context change during the lifespan? And finally, within an emancipatory framework, one cannot avoid a personal question regarding our motivation as developmental researchers: Are we more motivated in our research endeavors by the desire to contribute to the emancipation of people, or by the wish to be published in a prestigious journal?


(b) Ontology and methodology: Habermas (1988) and Holzkamp (1972b) argued that there is a difference between the subject matters of the social and the natural sciences. Holzkamp (1972b) showed that psychology makes inadequate anthropological assumptions, taking for granted that human behavior within an experiment reflects human behavior in the concrete socio-cultural world. He also demonstrated that, from an ontological point of view, research in physics can be characterized by a subject-object relationship, whereas empirical research in psychology is performed by a subject-subject relationship. Consequently, Holzkamp (1983) held that psychology in general demands a different methodology, while the concept of intersubjectivity (subject-subject relationship) lead Habermas (1990) to develop a discourse ethics.


These ideas are also testable statements, and from Piaget we know that one should not take philosophical elaborations for granted. How and in which way does the concept of intersubjectivity between a researcher and his or her research participant change over time? Holzkamp's (1983) notion that human behavior is not caused because humans have "good reasons" for their actions can also be turned developmentally, allowing one to answer the important question of at what age, in which context, and at what level it makes sense to assume that human subjectivity can be characterized through the concept of "having reasons", and when and where as being caused  (cf. Wright, 1971). And from a methodological point of view, the specific ontological intersubjective relationship between researcher and participant leads consequently to the idea that research questions and methods must be co-constructed by participants. The role of participants could be defined as ones of co-researchers (see Holzkamp, 1983), who are able to challenge developmental theories, models and research practices. This idea has been incorporated into fields related to developmental research (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991) and in feminist methodology (see Reinharz, 1992).


(c) The conceptualization of the relationship between the individual and society. Both Habermas (1984, 1987a) and Holzkamp (1983) emphasize the idea that "society" and "subject" are interrelated. This idea has been discussed in contextual and ecological approaches within developmental psychology (e.g. Bronfenbrenner, 1979). However, the more interesting ques­tion may be how one might elaborate this interconnection. Arguing from the positions of both Habermas and Holzkamp, I have concluded elsewhere that to conceptualize a subject without the society in which it lives, and without reflecting on its develop­mental status, is problematic (Teo, 1995). An abstrac­tion from these contexts in factual research leads to problems in understanding behavior, the content of cognition, emotion, and motivation.[4] To say it in a positive way: To understand the subject as a developing subject in a developing society opens new horizons for the work of developmental psy­chologists.[5]


Holzkamp (1983) developed a method to identify the relationship between the individual and society (see Tolman & Maiers, 1991; Tolman, 1994). In the evolutionary reconstruction Holzkamp identifies a "societal" nature of human beings, and demonstrates that there is no opposition between subjectivity, sociality, and nature. According to his reconstruction, human societal life production and the development of human societal nature have reinforced one another, as this implied a selective advantage. But in contrast to biological evolution the societal-historical development allowed a different and higher magnitude of effectiveness and rate of progress. The societal nature of human beings consists of the develop­mental potential to change natural reality at each societal-histori­cal stage of development. The specific and determining moment of the human consists of the participation of the individual in deter­mining the societal conditions of life. To cite an example from Holzkamp (1991): "Humans are not satisfied when they merely reduce particular momentary need ten­sions, such as hunger or sexuality; rather, they achieve a fulfilled, satisfied state only when they can anticipate the possibility of satisfaction of their needs within the prospect of a provisioned and secure individual existence" (p. 60).


Is the conceptualization of the relationship between developing individuals and developing societies in developmental research accurate? Is it not a basic problem to think that the individual is concrete while society or the notion of the societal mediatedness of the individual are abstractions (see Holzkamp, 1972b)? Think it the other way round: Is not the idea of a developmental research subject beyond context (e.g., class, gender, culture) a highly artificial abstraction? If one agrees with this premise, such an idea implies methodologically that contexts are not merely conceptualized as "variables" but as essential parts of subjectivity. Holzkamp (1993) demonstrated the heuristic value of such an approach for "learning" by developing a theory of learning that takes subjectivity into account, and by analyzing and explaining the traditionally excluded but important question of why pupils show resistance and opposition to learning and even develop strategies to avoid learning.


In summary, the critical-theoretical approach has a challenging but also a highly heuristic developmental value by providing sophisticated concepts that allow to discuss the relevance of developmental research, to reflect implicit assumptions, to understand the specificity of developing persons in changing contexts, combined with the possibility to open theoretical concepts to developmental research.


French postmodern critique


While German critiques were motivated by the goal of inaugurating "better" approaches, postmodern or "poststructuralist" approaches, such as those developed by the French philosophers Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault would challenge such an attempt as "modern" and doomed to failure (see also Habermas, 1987b, for a critical-theoretical evaluation of postmodern approaches). The French authors focus, more or less in their specific ways, on a critical analysis or a "deconstruction" of Western-type knowledge. This includes a criticism of basic assumptions of Euro-American forms of self-understanding, such as the contradiction between subject and object, logocentrism, the belief in technology, the neutrality of scientific communities, and the dominance of the principle of rationality or reason in research (cf. McCarthy, 1991).


Observers of this context may have noticed that the term postmodernism is of course "a mine-field of conflicting notions" (Harvey, 1990, p. viii), and that it is impossible to talk about postmodern discourse in a precise way (Teo, in press). The terms "postmodernity" in the sense of an age, cultural "postmodernism," and "postmodern" thought (cf. Kvale, 1992) are used differently in philosophy, architecture, literature, feminism, and politics. Lyotard (1991) himself emphasizes that postmodernism is a fuzzy concept, and that postmodernism is implied in modernity (see also Toulmin, 1990). Derrida (1993) considers himself a descendent of enlightenment, referring to Marx as a necessary step that makes "deconstruction" possible. Foucault (1985, 1986), often counted as a postmodern philosopher, can only ambiguously be subsumed under this category, for in his later works he rehabilitates "subjectivity" and "enlightenment" - core concepts criticized within postmodern thought. Thus, so-called postmodern thinkers cannot catapult themselves out of their context, which is modern philosophy.


Postmodern thought has been brought into psychology, especially into social psychology (Gergen, 1990, 1991; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988; Parker & Shotter, 1990; cf. Smith, 1994; see also Rosenau, 1992). Some developmental psychologists have also tried to integrate postmodern ideas (e.g., Bradley, 1989; Burman, 1994; Morss 1992; Walkerdine, 1993).


Due to the multiplicity, complexity, and heterogeneity of postmodern discourses, I will focus here on three central French figures: Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault.


(a) Developmental psychology in a postmodern age. Lyotard (1984) brought the term "postmodern condition" into philosophy and made it popular for the social sciences. Although Lyotard's main focus was philosophy, it is possible to transfer some of his ideas to developmental psychology. Within Lyotard's framework, theories are understood as social constructions, merely appropriate to work within a given community. Is developmental psychology more than a social construction? Do theories, methods, results, and discussions of developmental psychologists make sense beyond the "language game" (Wittgenstein, 1968) of developmental psychologists? For example, information-processing oriented developmental psychologists speak a different language than psychoanalytic oriented ones, but both refer to empirical evidence, both have a coherent system of thinking, both have made theoretical improvements in the course of their history. Yet, progress in developmental psychology seems to happen only within these paradigms, research programs, and schools, and a unification of significant theories seems an impossible goal. But what is the value of a result if it makes sense only within a certain language game, while at the same time it claims universal and exclusive objectivity (see also Febbraro & Chrisjohn, 1994)? And going beyond developmental psychology one can paraphrase Wittgenstein (1968) by asking: Are the borders of the empirically driven developmental psychological language the borders of the developmental world?


If "we" are in a postmodern time, meaning that, for example, the idea of progress through cumulative scientific research must be relinquished, and there is no linear progress in developmental psychology, then it is logical and consequent to challenge empirical developmental research as such. Under the postmodern assumption that the search for truth, objectivity, and scientific law is not the core of an empirical research program, does developmental psychology as an institution become part of the "entertainment industry" (cf. Baer, 1987)? This would imply a shift from epistemological to commercial-related criteria, and the question would be whether developmental psychology is a successful or unsuccessful branch of the entertainment business.


In his writings, Lyotard (1984) goes beyond Wittgenstein by arguing that games of research are not focused on consent or truth but rather on fighting -- fighting to win or fighting for the pleasure of the invention of a "move" (p. 10). Does not some of what goes on at conferences or in journals of developmental psychology resemble more a fight than it does the search for truth or emancipation? Consequently, Lyotard (1977) reminds developmental psychology to concern itself much more with the marginalized, with the patchwork of minorities, and thus to produce local instead of global theories and avoid generalizations of the particular to general domains.


(b) Deconstruction, arts, and ethnocentrism. Derrida's term "deconstruction" (Derrida, 1991) refers among other things, to the idea of reading a text from many different perspectives, focusing on their differences without trying to coordinate these perspectives into one dominant one, while admitting that no perspective is better than the other, and to look for blind spots. Derrida suggests (cf. Habermas, 1987b) that there is no categorical difference between literature and philosophy (and one could include science). If this is the case, then one could interpret empirical research as texts with many possible interpretations and many blind spots. Thus, one must ask, is developmental psychology really distinguishable from literature, and a research report different from a novel? It is "common sense" in mainstream psychology to suggest that psychoanalysis is like literature, but can developmental psychologists be sure that contemporary research will be considered scientific in the next millennium? Is it unrealistic or speculative to think that the way we conceptualize and investigate now the nature-nurture interaction will be considered "primitive" or absurd one day?


Derrida (1976) also criticized philosophy and science in a subtle way for their extreme ethnocentrism (he uses Rousseau as an example), using arguments which have become relevant for the multiple voices discourse to be discussed. Derrida's analyses, and the postmodern idea that one can find truth in the arts (cf. Welsch, 1995), suggests that the enterprise of developmental psychology is too focused on written and spoken language, instead of seeking different forms of expression, for example, in the fields of aesthetics, such as film, theater, music, and painting. One could argue that Derrida's ideas are too remote from what made developmental psychology a rational enterprise, but this is exactly what Derrida would suggest in such a radical science-relativizing attitude.


(c) Knowledge and power. Most remarkable for psychology and for developmental psychology, from a French perspective, are the analyses of Foucault (see also Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982). Foucault (1970) showed in the 1960s with his historical reconstructions that the establishment of the human sciences are determined by an ulterior historical a priori. With his archaeology (Foucault, 1970), he demonstrated that the emergence of the subject and the human sciences are understandable only within a certain "episteme." By taking this stance, developmental psychologists would be able to look in a different way at the history and roots of developmental psychology, a way which transcends a listing of great persons, and which avoids a presentism that interprets the past in terms of the present (cf. Danziger, 1990) -- the usual (cf. Parke, Ornstein, Rieser, & Zahn-Waxler, 1994) but not necessary approach in the history of developmental psychology.


In the 1970s, Foucault (1977) showed via a genealogy how and that power and knowledge go hand in hand, and distinguished between non-discursive and discursive practices of power. Using as an example Jeremy Bentham's model prison "Panopticon" in which the prisoner can be seen from a guard possibly at all times without knowing when he or she is observed, Foucault demonstrated how a non-discursive practice as surveillance leads to a disciplining of the body. These non-discursive practices form a marriage with the discursive practices of those sciences that produce knowledge about humans. From an historical point of view, Foucault revealed that power that used punishment as a means has changed into power that disciplines and surveys.[6] Additionally, the human sciences have their own practices of "discipline" by examining students, by controlling the channels of knowledge, by adapting people to norms and standards of a given body of knowledge, and by teaching practices. Developmental psychology is explicitly mentioned (Foucault, 1977) as one discipline that helps to distribute this new kind of power. Foucault suggests that the science-external factor discipline is part of the origin and development of developmental psychology.


The resulting question for developmental psychologists is straightforward in its scope: Assuming that knowledge and power go hand in hand, do developmental psychologists support power in their production of knowledge? Are they part of power, and is this power legitimate? Of course, detailed studies would have to examine this close connection. There have been historical studies of the emergence and function of intelligence tests (Gould, 1996), as a good example of the bond between knowledge and power, but no systematic studies about the consequences for the development of the individuals (e.g., what happened to the lives of people who were sent back from Ellis Island?).


From a liberation point of view, Foucault (1985, 1986) turned later to subjectivity, and discussed the subject's possibility to install his or her life as a piece of art. On this view, the subject has the possibility to develop an aesthetics of existence, and thus, it becomes possible to develop an individual lifestyle in the area of sexuality, body, and other forms of self-expression. Subjective life can be constructed as a piece of art; resistance can be turned aesthetically. Could this not be a meaningful research topic for developmental psychology?


In summary, the postmodern approach has primarily a challenging value for developmental research, by focusing on its deep-rooted biased and limited assumptions. Nevertheless, it is possible to derive research questions for developmental psychology. But taking it to its limits and looking at its very intention, a postmodern stance would mean giving up empirical developmental research as such.


Multiple, critical voices from North America


Feminists, members of ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups have had -- as far as I can judge -- the greatest impact in a North American context. Psychologists have already considered the claims of these groups, for example, that their reality or voice (cf. Sampson, 1993) is not represented in psychology, and that the universality claim to truth made by dominant research programs should be reduced (see also Fowers & Richardson, 1996). This critical family is also the most influential of the three families in developmental psychology; developmental psychologists have tried to do justice to such questions (e.g. Greenfield & Cocking, 1994).


Most well known (cf. Howard & Day, 1995) is Carol Gilligan's (1977) feminist criticism of Kohlberg's theory of moral development. But there have been other criticisms: Piaget's cognitive stage theory has been criticized as being socio-economically biased (e.g. Buck-Morss, 1975); Freud's psychoanalytic theory was challenged from feminist points of view (e.g., Benjamin, 1988); Vygotsky's theory has had to deal with ethnocentrism (cf. Miller, 1993); and there have been attempts to limit Bowlby's attachment theory from an African-American point of view (Jackson, 1993).


Feminist philosophers of knowledge such as Harding (1986, 1987) and Keller (1984) have presented meta-theoretical arguments, useful for all neglected groups, to show that the question of "difference" should not to be limited to the empirical aspect, but should address much more the point that the context of discovery and/or the context of justification are biased. The assumption that there are gender or race differences in moral, cognitive, or emotional development is an empirical question, and might be right or wrong; but more interesting is the idea that the formulation of a theory is biased in terms of which problems or questions and which types of descriptions and explanations are chosen by researchers and in terms of how research practices are justified.


Harding (1986) makes the following distinction among three feminist epistemological approaches. First, feminist empiricism argues that sexism derives from a bias that is nested in society, and that empirical studies can correct such biases. Thus, it makes sense to prove that there are no differences in one area of developmental psychology, and that there are differences in another area. Maccoby and Jacklin's (1974) studies on sex differences can be subsumed under this approach. Second, feminist standpoint thinking argues that the truth can only be found if it stems from the oppressed group. This would mean that a true developmental psychology of oppressed groups can only be performed by these relevant groups. Collins (1991) argues that "because elite white men and their representatives control structures of knowledge validation, white male interests pervade the thematic content of traditional scholarship" (p. 201), and favors a black feminist epistemology with a focus on concrete experience, dialogue, caring, and personal accountability as core concepts. Finally, postmodern feminism would challenge the whole enterprise of developmental psychology, as discussed above.


Still, from a less radical perspective, developmental psychologists could ask themselves whether or not the development of such groups is indeed represented by mainstream theories of developmental psychology, and why it happened that many of psychology's theories have been built on the study of "white" boys or men (see Wallston & Grady, 1985). Indeed, does developmental psychology represent the development of women, of ethnic minorities, of marginalized groups, of gay and lesbian persons? Is developmental psychology biased by a white, male, Euro-American point of view?


For example, one could ask whether the identity development of "biracial" people can be represented by traditional concepts of identity development (e.g. Erikson, 1959; Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky, 1993). And even if their identity development can be represented, do the traditional concepts address the specific character of their experiences? Does the identity development of such persons not require concepts that are appropriate for their identity development (see Root, 1992; Teo, 1994)? Indeed, does the existing research, reconstruction, and knowledge not show that developmental psychology needs new concepts to do justice to these groups?


If one agrees with such a position, then one must conclude that the development of such groups must be mentioned, that a dominant theory must be characterized as a special theory that is applicable to only a given group within a given context (Febbraro, 1994), and that traditional considerations of normality and development are limited and probably narrow-minded constructions. Of course this would have to be demonstrated conceptually and empirically for each case. Evidently, the constructive point of this argumentation is its openness to empirical investigations.


In summary, the multiple voices discourse has a challenging but highly empirical value for developmental research, by showing that developmental psychology has to be made more applicable to usually neglected groups of people and cultures. A huge variety of empirical questions can be derived.


Final comment


The presentation of the critical "families" also shows the constraints of metatheory in developmental psychology. On the one hand, developmental psychology is confronted with more questions but with no immediate technology that would enhance the research process. This is not the intention of metatheory, and cannot be its purpose. While this may be disappointing, one could argue that critical problems and questions such as those posed here, and which are abstracted from an immediate empirical process, should not be neglected if developmental psychology seeks to broaden its horizons and do justice to the plurality of subjectivities. A so-to-say introspective approach towards research, in which researchers pose such critical questions, would allow developmental psychology to become a self-reflective discipline that understands better the possibilities and limits of developmental knowledge. Given the emergence of separate scientific disciplines in the history of knowledge and the rationality behind this differentiation, it does not mean that developmental psychology must walk together with the philosophies of knowledge to their radical limits.


Based on the idea of dialectical, mutual learning processes, it is also possible to translate knowledge from developmental psychology into philosophy (e.g. Habermas, 1979, was influenced by developmental psychology). Thus, it seems appropriate to paraphrase I. Kant (1982), by arguing that developmental empirical research without critical research might turn blind, and on the other hand, that critical reflection without empirical material turns vain (to become more practical itself, critical reflection has to incorporate empirical knowledge).


Critically it must be said that neither the contradictions of these critical approaches nor their specific weaknesses were mentioned. In fact, the three critical approaches refer to different ideas regarding truth claims and can also be differentiated in terms of their normative-practical consequences. If one thinks that the ethical, moral, and pragmatical aspects of theories (cf. Teo, in press) should become more important criteria by which to evaluate these different approaches, then one must look at the ethical possibilities of these families (see also Prilleltensky, 1994), while theoretical analyses must distinguish useful and substantial concepts from idiosyncratic and arbitrary ones. To put it boldly: In the critical-theoretical line of thinking, such consequences could be summarized as "let's change the world." The postmodern critique's ethical imperative could be formulated in terms of "let's deconstruct the world." And the multiple voices discourse could formulate the ethical consequences in terms of "let the world hear our voices." Developmental psychology can be changed by critical reflection and by raising one's marginalized voice. From the perspective of a unified critical conceptual network (Teo, 1996), which integrates constructive elements of all these critiques and eliminates negative ones, these simplified statements are of course not mutually exclusive. All three critical families allow to analyze structures and functions of power, a neglected research topic in psychology, as well as in developmental psychology.




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[1] The term "metatheoretical" is used in this context with regard to critical philosophies of knowledge. Thus, the paper will discuss the issue of knowledge production and usage, but not basic theoretical issues within developmental psychology, such as the concept of development, nature versus nurture, continuos versus discontinuous development, and so on.

[2] Feminist thought may include postmodern thought (e.g. Nicholson, 1990); German thought includes developments from France and North America; there are feminist philosophers of knowledge in Europe, and so on. In contrast to one reviewer's comment that the organization of the paper is based on "outmoded categories of the 18th and 19th century nationalism" I think that the organization of this paper is adequate for several reasons: (a) It is important to accentuate the socio-cultural background, making specific differences and essentials in theory-development understandable (but discussing social history in detail is beyond the scope of this paper); (b) The heuristic, introductory, and systematic nature of this article suggests that "reduced" categories maybe more appropriate than a philosophical, intellectual-historical reconstruction (e.g., Nietzsche played a pivotal role for the development of French postmodernism); (c) The intention of the paper is certainly not nationalism but inter-nationalism, and an emphasis on the unity of the critical discourses.

[3] Furth (1983) discussed Habermas' theory from a developmental point of view.

[4] In contrast, an ab­straction from contexts may not lead to problems if one deals with unspecific levels of human subjectivity, such as "sensation."

[5] This was also the goal of Vygotsky (1962, 1978), who shares with Holzkamp similar philosophical ideas.

[6] Foucault (1978) adds later "bio-power."