Applying Developmental Science in the 21st Century: International Scholarship for Our Times

Richard M. Lerner; Celia B. Fisher, and Richard A. Weinberg

Too many of our faculty, in all of our disciplines, are far too insulated, too isolated, and in fact and perception seen as indifferent to worlds other than their own.

C. Peter Magrath, President, National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, 1993, p. 4.

Applied developmental science (ADS) is scholarship that seeks to advance significantly the integration of developmental science and actions that address the pressing human problems of our world. As such, a key goal (intended impact) of applied developmental research is the enhancement of the life chances of the diverse individuals, families, and communities served by such scholarship. The recent increase in applied developmental science scholarship comes at a propitious time in the history of international concern with the quality of human life and development.

The Contemporary Social Context of Human Development

The latter part of the 20th century has been marked by public anxiety about a myriad of social problems—some old, some new—affecting the lives of vulnerable children, adolescents, older adults, and their families (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1995; Schorr, 1997). For instance, nations around the world face a set of problems of historically unprecedented scope and severity: Issues of economic development, environmental quality, health and health care delivery, and risk behaviors across the lifespan challenge the current resources and future viability of the social systems in both developed and developing countries.

Indeed, across these nations, infants, children, adolescents, and the adults who care for them are dying—from war and criminal violence; from drug and alcohol use and abuse; from unsafe sex; and from hunger and poor nutrition (Dryfoos, 1990; Hamburg, 1992; Hernandez, 1993; Huston, 1991; Lerner, 1995; Lerner & Fisher, 1994; Schorr, 1988, 1997).

And, if people are not dying, their life chances are being squandered— by school failure, underachievement, and dropout; by crime; by teenage pregnancy and parenting; by lack of job opportunities and preparedness; by prolonged welfare dependency; by challenges to their health (e.g., lack of immunization, inadequate screening for disabilities, insufficient prenatal care, and lack of sufficient infant and childhood medical services); and by the sequelae of persistent and pervasive poverty (Dryfoos, 1990; Huston, 1991; Huston, McLoyd, & Garcia Coll, 1994; Lerner, 1995; Lerner & Fisher, 1994).

Scholarly Responses to the Problems of Human Development

Although poverty, child abuse, hunger, violence, discriminatory practices, educational underachievement, health-related problems of later life, and crime have unfortunate histories and devastating contemporary manifestations in many nations, recognition that innovative action must be taken to stem the growing tide of conditions threatening the development of our younger and older generations has been slow to develop in academe. The university in the Western world has been dominated by an emphasis on the development of the disciplines (Bok, 1992; Bonnen, 1986; Boyer, 1990; Lerner & Simon, 1998; Votruba, 1992, 1996).

For instance, American universities have been modelled on the 19th- century German university—wherein community-disengaged, independently working scholars pursued “ethereal” knowledge (i.e., knowledge that was seen as not contingent on the extant sociocultural context pertinent at a given historical moment; Lynton & Elman, 1987). Historically, the more decontextualized the knowledge, the higher its value (Bonnen, 1986).

However, across the world, contemporary intellectual and, as well, societal forces are moving university scholars—whether they are in the role of teacher, researcher, and/or administrator—to consider ideas about the existence or validity of decontextualized knowledge, and about the legitimacy of the disciplinary and sociocultural isolation associated both with such knowledge and with actions predicated on it. These issues have been discussed in diverse scholarly fields and have involved the elaboration of concepts related to systems. Examples of these discussions have occurred in:

  • 1. the physical sciences—involving concepts such as quantum mechanics (Zukav, 1979), chaos (Gleick, 1987), and dissipative systems and entropy (Prigogine, 1978);
  • 2. evolutionary biology—involving concepts such as exaptation (Gould & Vrba, 1982), self-selection (Lewontin & Levins, 1978), and behavioral neophenotypes (Gottlieb, 1992); and

3. the social and behavioral sciences—involving concepts such as individual- environment dialectics (Riegel, 1975, 1976); the ecology of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979); developmental systems (Ford & Lerner, 1992; Sameroff, 1983; Thelen & Smith, 1998; Wapner & Demick, 1998); developmental contextualism (Lerner, 1991); and the home economics/human ecology vision of integrative (community- collaborative, multidisciplinary, and multiprofessional) scholarship (Lerner, De Stefanis, & Ladd, 1998; Lerner, Miller, & Ostrom, 1995; Miller &: Lerner, 1994).

Together, these concepts have provided intellectual grounding for calls for the application of developmental science (Fisher et ah, 1993; Fisher & Brennan, 1992; Fisher & Lerner, 1994; Fisher & Tryon, 1990; Lerner & Fisher, 1994; Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 1997), have created a burgeoning interest in linking scholarship and outreach (i.e., in fostering “outreach scholarship”; Kennedy, 1999; Lerner & Simon, 1998; Schorr, 1997), and have fostered a scholarly challenge to prior conceptions of the nature of the world (Cairns, Bergman, &: Kagan, 1998; Overton, 1998; Valsiner, 1998). The idea that all knowledge is related to its context has promoted a change in the typical ontology within current scholarship (i.e., a focus on “relationism”) and has helped advance the view that all existence is contingent (Overton, 1998) on the specifics of the physical and social cultural conditions that exist at a particular moment of history (Pepper, 1942). As a consequence, changes in epistemology have been associated with this revision is ontology: Contingent knowledge can only be understood if relationships are studied. Accordingly, any instance of knowledge (e.g., the core knowledge of a given discipline) must be integrated with knowledge of (a) the context surrounding it and (b) the relation between knowledge and context.

Thus, knowledge that is disembedded from the context is not basic knowledge. Rather, knowledge that is relational to its context—for example, to the community, as it exists in its ecologically valid setting (Trickett, Barone, & Buchanan, 1996))—is basic knowledge. As such, social/behavioral scientists must learn to integrate what they know with what is known of and by the context (e.g., of and by the community, Fisher, 1997a, b). We believe this view implies that a co-learning collaboration between scholars and community members must become a part of the knowledge generation process (Higgins-D’Alessandro, Fisher, & Hamilton, 1998; Lerner & Simon, 1998).

The Emergence of Applied Developmental Science

The significant change that has occurred in the way in which social scientists have begun to reconceptualize their roles and responsibilities to society is in no greater evidence than in the field of applied developmental science (Fisher & Murray, 1996). Human developmental science has long been associated with laboratory-based scholarship devoted to uncovering “universal” aspects of development by stripping away contextual influences (Cairns et ah, 1998; Hagen, 1996; Youniss, 1990). However, the mission and methods of human development are being transformed into an applied developmental science devoted to discovering diverse developmental patterns by examining individuals within the multiple embedded contexts in which they live (Fisher & Brennan, 1992; Fisher & Lerner, 1994; Fisher & Murray, 1996; Horowitz & O’Brien, 1989; Morrison, Lord, & Keating, 1984; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989; Sigel, 1985).

A Definition of Applied Developmental Science

A definition of the scope and activities of applied developmental science (ADS) was first formally articulated by a group of over 50 developmental researchers who convened at Fordham University in New York City to begin to chart a course for graduate education in the applications of developmental science across the lifespan (Fisher et ah, 1993). According to the conferees, ADS involves the synthesis of research and applications to promote positive development across the lifespan. Applied developmental scientists use descriptive and explanatory knowledge about human development in order to provide preventive and/or enhancing interventions. The conceptual base of ADS reflects the view that individual and family functioning is a combined and interactive product of biology' and the physical and social environments that continuously evolve and change over time. ADS emphasizes the nature of reciprocal person—environment interactions among people and across settings. Within a multidisciplinary approach, ADS stresses the variation of individual development across the lifespan— including both individual differences and within-person change—and the wide range of familial, society, cultural, physical ecological, and historical settings of human development.

The conferees also identified three conjoint emphases of applied developmental science. The applied aspect of ADS scholarship reflects its direct implication for what individuals, families, practitioners, and policy-makers do. The developmental aspect emphasizes a focus on systematic and successive changes within human systems that occur across the lifespan. This assumption stresses the importance of understanding normative and atypical processes as they emerge within different developmental periods and across diverse physical and cultural settings. The science aspect stresses the need to utilize a range of research methods to collect reliable and objective information in a systematic manner to test the validity of theory and application.

The conferees concluded that the convergence of these three aspects leads to a fostering of the reciprocal relationship between theory and application as a cornerstone of applied developmental science where empirically based theory not only guides intervention strategies and social policy but is influenced by the outcome of these community activities. Furthermore, it calls for a multidisciplinary perspective aimed at integrating information and skills drawn from relevant biological, social, and behavioral science disciplines.

Developmental Systems and Diversity in Human Development

At its core, then, applied developmental science adopts a developmental systems view of human development (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998; Fischer & Bidell, 1998; Ford & Lerner, 1992; Gottlieb, Wahlsten, & Lick- liter, 1998; Magnusson & Stattin, 1998; Thelen & Smith, 1998; Wapner & Demick, 1998). A developmental systems perspective involves the study of active people providing a source across the lifespan of their individual developmental trajectories (Lerner, 1998). This development occurs through the dynamic interactions people experience with the specific characteristics of the changing contexts (including the historical context; Elder, Modell, & Parke, 1993) within which they are embedded (Brandtstadter, 1998). These person-context relations provide both opportunities for, and constraints on, change across life, and thus constitute a basis for relative plasticity in development across the lifespan (Lerner, 1998). This stress on the dynamic relation between the individual and his/her context results in the recognition that a synthesis of perspectives from multiple disciplines is needed to understand the multilevel (e.g., person, family, community) integrations involved in human development (Fisher et al., 1993). In addition, to understand the basic process of human development—the process of change involved in the relations between individuals and contexts—both descriptive and explanatory research must be conducted within the actual ecology of people s lives.

Accordingly, the cutting edge of theory and research in human development lies in the application of the conceptual and methodological expertise of human development scientists to the natural ontogenetic laboratory of the real world (Lerner, 1998). Multilevel, and hence, multivariate, and longitudinal research methods must be used by scholars from multiple disciplines to derive, from theoretical models of person—context relations, programs of “applied research”; these endeavors must involve the design, delivery, and evaluation of interventions aimed at enhancing—through scientist- introduced variation—the course of human development (Birkel, Lerner, & Smyer, 1989).

Accordingly, as greater study has been made of the actual contexts within which children and parents live, behavioral and social scientists have shown increasing appreciation of the diversity of patterns of individual and family development that exist and comprise the range of human structural and functional characteristics. Such diversity'—involving racial, ethnic, gender, national, and cultural variation—has, to the detriment of the knowledge base in human development, not been a prime concern of empirical analysis (Fisher, Jackson, & Villarruel, 1998; Hagen, Paul, Gibb, & Wolters, 1990).

An Applied Developmental Science Research Agenda

Accordingly, a new research agenda is necessary. This agenda should focus on diversity and context and at the same time attend to commonalities of individual development, family changes, and the mutual influences between the two. In other words, diversity should be placed at the fore of our research agenda. Then, with a knowledge of individuality-in-context, we can determine empirically parameters of commonality, of interindividual generaliz- ability. We should no longer make a priori assumptions about the existence of generic developmental laws or of the primacy of such laws, even if they are found to exist, in providing the key information about the life of a given person or group. Simply, integrated multidisciplinary and developmental research devoted to the study of diversity and context must be moved to the fore of scholarly concern.

In addition, the multilevel, integrative research prototypic of applied developmental science that is promoted by a developmental systems view of human development should have at least two key foci. Research in human development that is concerned with one or even a few instances of individual and contextual diversity cannot be assumed to be useful for understanding the life course of all people. Similarly, policies and programs derived from such research, or associated with it in the context of a researcher’s tests of ideas pertinent to human plasticity, cannot hope to be applicable, or equally appropriate and useful, in all contexts for all individuals (Fisher, 1993; Fisher & Tryon, 1990; Laosa, 1990). Accordingly, developmental and individual differences-oriented policy development and program (intervention) design and delivery must be a core part of the research agenda of applied developmental science.

The variation in settings within which people live means that studying development in a standard (e.g., a “controlled”) environment does not provide information pertinent to the actual (ecologically valid), developing relations between individually distinct people and their specific contexts (e.g., their particular families, schools, or communities). This point underscores the need to conduct research in real-world settings, and highlights the ideas that (1) policies and programs constitute natural experiments (i.e., planned interventions for people and institutions, Lerner, 1995); and (2) the evaluation of such activities becomes a central focus of the research agenda envisioned here (Fisher et al., 1993; Higgins-D’Alessandro et al., 1998; Ostrom, Lerner, & Freel, 1995).

In this view, then, policy and program endeavors do not constitute secondary work, or derivative applications, conducted after research evidence has been compiled. Indeed, on the contrary, policy development and implementation, and program design and delivery, become integral components of the present vision for research; the evaluation component of such policy and intervention work provides critical feedback about the adequacy of the conceptual frame from which this research agenda should derive.

To be successful, this developmental, individual differences, and contextual view of research, policy, and programs for human development requires collaboration across disciplines, and the innovative and triangulated use of quantitative and qualitative methodologies that afford sensitivity to time, place, and person (cf. Elder et al., 1993; Fisher et ah, 1993). In addition, multiprofessional collaboration is essential. Colleagues in the research, policy, and intervention communities must plan and implement their activities in a synthesized manner in order to develop successfully and extend this vision. All components of this collaboration must be understood as equally valuable, indeed, as equally essential. The collaborative activities of colleagues in university outreach programs, service design and delivery, policy development and analysis, and academic research are vital to the success of this applied developmental science agenda. Moreover, such collaborative activities must involve the communities within which such work is undertaken (Lerner et ah, 1995; Miller & Lerner, 1994; Schorr, 1997; Trickett et ah, 1996).

Sensitivity to the contextual nature of human development and the need to apply the knowledge and methods of developmental science to practical problems facing the world’s young and old fosters increased attention to the need to understand the influence of communities not only on psychological welfare but on actively engaging community members as partners in forging a new knowledge base and new ways of conducting the science and practice of psychology (Fisher, 1997a, b; Fisher & Fyrberg, 1994; Fisher, Higgins, Rau, Kuther, & Belanger, 1995; Lerner, 1995; Lerner & Fisher, 1994; Melton, Levine, Koocher, Rosenthal, & Thompson, 1988). Accordingly, to address adequately issues intimately tied to the hopes and dreams that individuals hold for themselves and their families, applied developmental scientists must develop ethical sensibilities that enhance both scientific and social responsibility, and that frame in collaborations with community members useful understanding of the forces that shape their development (Fisher, 1993, 1997b; Fisher & Tryon, 1990). These collaborations must engage policy-makers to ensure that community goals can be achieved and sustained (Fisher et al., 1993; Fisher & Murray, 1996). Put simply, a scholar’s knowledge must be integrated with the knowledge that exists in communities in order to understand fully the nature of human development and, based on this coconstructed knowledge, to develop and sustain ethical actions that advance civil society.

In short, to enhance the ecological validity of our scholarship, and to provide empowerment based on increased capacity among the people we are trying to both understand and serve with our synthetic research and intervention activities, we must work with the community to co-defme the nature of our research and program design, delivery and evaluation endeavors. We must find ways to apply our scientific expertise to collaborate with, and promote the life chances of, the people participating in our developmental scholarship. Here, the key challenge is to collaborate with community partners to include scientifically rigorous evaluations—that include formative, outcome/impact, and empowerment components—as part of the day- to-day operation of programs (Fetterman, Kaftarian, & Wandersman, 1996; Jacobs, 1988; Ostrom et al., 1995; Weiss 8c Greene, 1992). Such action will facilitate the blurring of the distinctions between science and practice that is envisioned in the applied developmental science approach to developmental systems theory; moreover, such research will provide needed vitality for the future progress of the field of human development and, we believe, for the very viability of the academy (Lerner & Simon, 1998).

Enhancing Applied Developmental Science Across the Lifespan

We believe that a significant component of the future scholarly and societal significance of our field lies in building a scientific enterprise that includes efforts to help envision, enact, and sustain effective policies and programs promoting the positive development of people across the lifespan. The prominent inclusion of such a focus within the repertoire of the scholarship in our field is a logical and inevitable outcome of the growth and progress we have experienced as a scientific community (Lerner, 1998). Key conceptual themes involves in contemporary theories in our field lead us to embrace a focus on: (a) ecologically embedded research; (b) testing our notions of person—context relational systems; and (c) relative plasticity'—in order to appraise whether theoretically predicated changes in the nature and course of the relations individuals have with the proximal and distal features of their context can alter in salutary ways the trajectories of their development.

In other words, the concepts of development embraced in our field may lead us to test our theories through intervention/action research. We believe, then, that this conceptual frame for scholarship about human development can make basic research and applied research synthetic, indivisible endeavors.

The conceptual perspective embodied in applied developmental science leads us to believe that if we are to have an adequate and sufficient science of human development, we must integratively study individual and contextual levels of organization in a relational and temporal manner. And if we are to serve the worlds people and their families through our science, if we are to help develop successful policies and programs through our scholarly efforts, then we must accept nothing less than the integrative temporal and relational model of the person and of his/her ecology that is embodied in the developmental systems perspective that frames applied developmental science.


The field of human development has an opportunity through the publication of its applied developmental science research to serve both scholarship and the communities, families, and people of our world. By integrating policies and programs sensitive to the diversity of nations, their communities, and their people, by combining the assets of our scholarly and research traditions with the assets of our people (Benson, Leffert, Scales, & Blyth, 1998; Leffert et al., 1998; Scales & Leffert, 1999) we can improve upon the often-cited idea of Kurt Lewin (1943), that there is nothing as practical as a good theory. We can, through the application of developmental science, serve our world’s citizens and demonstrate that there is nothing of greater value to civil society than a science devoted to using its scholarship to improve the life chances of all people.


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11 Using Positive Youth Development to Predict Contribution and Risk Behaviors in Early Adolescence

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