IntroductionThegoals of developmental science are to describe, explain and optimisewithin-person change and between-person differences in within-person change acrossthe life span (Baltes, Reese, & Nesselroade, 1977; Lerner, 2012).
The thirdfoci of the field, optimization, the application of developmental sciencedescriptions and explanations to policies or programmes, has been often beensplit off from these first two foci- yet almost four decades ago, UrieBronfenbrenner operationalized a theory that integrated all three loci of humandevelopment. Bronfenbrenner (2001) defined his bioecological theory as “anevolving theoretical system for the scientific study of human development overtime” (p. 6963- 6964). This conceptualisation of human development is a four-element model, involving the synergistic interconnections among proximalprocesses, person characteristics, context and time (PPCT). At its core, it modelsan active person enmeshed in an active, dynamic, social- ecological systememphasising developmental change and the individual context. A Contextualist FrameworkThetiers of the PPCT model is nested upon the metatheoretical assumptions of contextualism (Pepper, 1942). As Pepper(1942) discussed, within psychology, there are three paradigms; mechanism,organicism, and contextualism.
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On one hand, mechanists believe that in order tocomprehend something, it must be broken down into its simplest form. Inaddition, it accept the idea of environmental, genetic, biological andphysiological causes, whereas organicists and contextualists postulate thatcauses are formal, which emanate from interrelations between multiplevariables. There is, however, also a distinction between organicists andcontextualists that should not be blurred. The former, but not the latter, holdthat there are “final” causes—that is, that there is directionality todevelopment and that individuals typically go through stages in a given order(Goldhaber, 2000; Pepper, 1942). Contextualist theories, such as those ofVygotsky and Bronfenbrenner, have no such universal end point of development;rather the assumption is that competent development will vary in part accordingto situation-or culture-specific pressures. Theperson process, context and time model is rooted in the contextualist metaphorof cognitive change as a concrete historical process (Pepper, 1942). It is the conceptionof the complex and changing reciprocity in the relations between the developingindividual and the simultaneously changing world. Here, it is assumed that thesource of all knowledge lies in the continuing interactions between individualand environment, neither of which can simply impose itself on the other.
Consequentially,the resulting knowledge is not seen as an equilibrated, abstract, content-freestructure but as a concrete item in a population of interrelated concepts,always context-laden and highly subject to further idiosyncraticcontradictions. Furthermore, development does not follow a universal,predictable sequence but rather is a partially unpredictable outcome ofinteracting changes at several levels – biological, psychological,sociological, and physical (e.g., Lerner, Skinner, & Sorel1, 1980; Riegel,1979). In the PPCT model for example,Bronfenbrenner emphasises the importance of considering multiple levels ofcontexts (Bronfennbrenner, 2005) as having varying impact on development. Heargues that individuals cannot necessarily act in ways that benefit all levelsand all components of the context at all times and places (Elder et al.
, 2015),for example in different cultures. Thus, contextualism asserts that in order toachieve an adequate understanding of human development, individual x contextsrelations must be assessed cross- culturally. A Pioneer for NaturalisticResearch”Muchof developmental psychology, as it now exists, is the science of the strangebehaviour of children in strange situations with strange adults for thebriefest possible periods of time” (1979, p. 19). This famous quote aptlycaptures Bronfenbrenner’s assertion that, empirically, assessments of developmentmust be conducted with the recognition that contexts are complex, denoted by Bronfenbrenner’s(2005) notions of the micro-, meso-, exo- and macro-systems). With that said,the PPCT model has made some of its greatest contributions to human developmentresearch by acting as the impetus behind the reorientation of developmental researchtowards context into the family, peer group, school neighbourhood and widercommunity and society.
Importantly, the PPCT model was not a causal model, andwas not predictive. Rather, Bronfenbrenner advocated empirical testing inparticular instances to see cause in context. He believed that there waspotential relevance of all the factors in his model to be discovered at eachlevel of social context and encouraged researchers to extricate within anacross the various levels of his framework. Concluding that development is notas predictable and universal as once thought, he surmised that individualscannot necessarily act in ways that benefit all levels and all components ofthe context at all times and places (Elder et al., 2015). Thus, one may need totreat adaption not as a multivariate concept that is determined by theinteraction of multiple factors over time.
composed of ordinal or intervaldimensions. He also emphasised acknowledgement of the impact of culture humandevelopment. Understanding and promoting these culturally sensitive adaptivedevelopmental regulations can provide, as Bronfenbrenner (2005) argued, the knowledgebase for making human beings human. Contribution to the NatureNurture Debate Fewwould dispute the critical contributions of the PPCT model to the enduring”nature-nurture” debate and provided insight into the development of a unifiedtheory of human development (Sameroff, 2010). Before 1970, the main concerns of many researchers in the field of humandevelopment were to discover the extent of nature and nurture’s specificinfluences. The 1980’s however, saw the nurturist shift, induced by threeadvances in the social science – the war on poverty, the concept of a socialecology, and cultural deconstruction. Where behaviourist research focused onproximal connections between reinforcements and performance, scientists inother social disciplines were arguing that economic circumstance was a majorconstraint on the availability of reinforcements, such that the developmentalenvironments of the poor were deprived in contrast with those of the affluent.
Bronfenbrenner’s’model offered a more differentiated model than provided by economics alone. Bronfenbrenner(1977) identified the distal influences of family, school, work, and culture onthe availability of reinforcements to the child, providing a more comprehensiveempirical model for predicting individual differences in development. Theemphasis here was on studying how people adapt to their changing environmentswhere they grow and live (Clarke-Steward et al., 1985). His contextual model delineated the ways inwhich dimensions of experience can augment or constrain human development andthe consideration of this in research will advance our understanding of whatmakes humans human.Bronfenbrennerwas also among the first theoreticians to underscore the need to take intoaccount both the complex, reciprocal and subtle interactions among eachindividual’s biological and personal characteristics and also the significantsocial and ecological contexts that influence development (Rosa & Tudge,2013). Hehe identified the intricate interrelations between person, process,context, and time, arguing that more important than the various ecologicalsystems per se, is the transactions and synergies among them.
Furthermore, inits final adaption, process wasintroduced to the model. He discussed proximal processes as a medium throughwhich human develops. That is, progressively complex interactions between humanand other people as well as objects and the immediate environment. Sentence of twoTimeOneof the most enduring contributions this bioecological model has made to thedevelopmental field was having the idea that the human life span is marked bythe presence of relative plasticity.
This element, time, was highlightedincreasingly during the 1980s, until being formally attached to the PPCT modelin the final phase of the theory’s development, comprising three differentlayers(micro-, meso-, and macrotime). Bronfenbrennerstressed that human development involves both continuity and change (1975, 1978,1979), which signifies continuity both in the person and in the environment(1975). This is a significant contribution to the field of developmentalresearch as he understood how increasingly complex proximal and distalecological systems, including historical time, influence and expand humandevelopment throughout the life span (Tudge, Mokrova, Hatfield, & Karnik,2009). He also identified the key role played by temporal variables (both inontogenesis and throughout history) in developmental processes, highlightingthe need for researchers to carry out longitudinal studies, ultimatelytransforming the generalizability of many of the findings in developmentalresearch.
He also asserted that time ordered variation within the individualmust be assessed in order to obtain valid information about the developmentalprocess. Misused and Misunderstood?Overthe course of its development, the PPCT models roots in contextualist theoryhas been criticised by several authors. For example, Overton (Overton, 1984;Overton & Reese, 1973) has argued that contextualism, is not an appropriateparadigm for developmental science due to its’ lack of “end- point” ofdevelopment, and that in its “strictcontextualist” form, it should be linked with mechanism or linked withorganicism -“relational organicism-contextualism,” (e.g., Overton, 2013;Overton & Ennis, 2006).
Overton has thus treated the PPCT model as thoughit is a mechanistic model, although providing no direct evidence supporting hisplacement. In addition, hat Overton (2013) termed the “five defining features”of the development process are (non-linearity , order and sequence, direction, relativepermanence and relative irreversibility, and epigenesist and emergence) (p.53,originalemphasis)are not included in Bronfenbrenner’s theories and he consigned it to themechanist camp. As Tudge et al. (2009) and Rosa and Tudge (2013) made clear, particularlywith the introduction of proximal processes into the PPCT model, there is no reasonto view the theory as one of independent effects (as required by mechanisttheories).
Furthermore, Overton (2013, 2015) Misuse of Bronfenbrenner’s PPCTModelIn2009, Tudge, Mokrova, Hatfield and Karnik evaluated the extent to whichscholars were using the theory correctly and concluded that very few of thepapers published beyond the year 2000 represented the most up- to date versionsof the theory (PPCT) correctly. These findings were substantiated by theirfollow up study which revealed that out of 25 studies published between 2001and 2008, who stated that their research was based on Bronfenbrenner’s theory,only four were based on the most recent form of the theory, and most describedthe theory simply as one of contextual influences on development, completelyignoring the centrepiece of the theory in its final incarnation: proximalprocesses. It must be noted that the purpose of employing a theory as thefoundation for one’s research should be not only to determine the variables onwhich to focus and the methods to employ but also to provide some criticalevaluation of that theory. However, neither refutation nor corroboration ispossible either when the theory is misrepresented or when there ismethodological error in the design. In this instance, theories may often “fadeaway as people lose interest” (Meehl, 1978, p. 806).
Attheir core, ecological models of development are, by nature, exceedinglycomplex. They consist of a large number of diverse components, nonlinearinteractions, as well as scale multiplicity and heterogeneity (Wu & David,2002). Moreover, conducting research that is derivative of the contextualistmetatheory requires methodological approaches that incorporate change-sensitiveresearch designs, measurements and data analysis methods. This, as well as theacknowledgment that individuals actively participate in the production of theirown ontogenetic development is an essential feature (Overton, 2015). Inrelation to the PPCT model, appropriate use requires a focus on proximalprocesses, a means to show that’s these proximal processes are simultaneouslysynergistically influenced by both person characteristics (minimum of twolevels, eg high and low levels of motivation) and by the context (a minimum oftwo relevant contexts). Unfortunately, Bronfenbrenner wrote no methodologicalscript for how to translate his bioecological model into research nor did heconduct any original research himself. Rather he drew on external sources, forexample Drillen (1964) in order to illustrate how the PPCT model could beadopted and implemented.
Few would argue that satisfying this extensivespecification devoid of methodological guidance is an arduous task. The goal ofBronfenbrenner’s bioecological model is to try to understand the joint,synergistic effects of several relevant influencing factors. However, due tothe models impracticalities, as well as its idealistic nature, authors haveoversimplified this framework implying that the complexity inherent in the PPCTmodel is too often reduced to methods that while simpler to apply, are simplyinappropriate. In other words, any research that reduces Bronfenbrenner’stheory to the independent effect of context on development is misguided.