What are the key assumptions of the major theoretical perspectives on social development? In future posts, I will refer back to several of the major constructs that have dominated the field of psychology, at one point or another. Here, then, is a short glossary.
There are six major theoretical constructs that have, at one point or another, guided research and thought on social development: psychoanalytic, behavior genetics, social learning, ecological, cultural, and ethological.
The psychoanalysts (e.g. Freud, Erikson) took a dynamic and structural approach to the self. They believed that all human behaviors emerge from the interaction of the major structures of the psyche, most of which are unavailable to consciousness. Erikson built on Freud’s original theories and focused on the social context in which a child is raised. At each of Erikson's psychosocial stages, the self evolves in its social context.
The behavior genetic approach is mainly concerned with the relative influence of heredity and environment in producing behavior. Historically, behavior geneticists (and currently, much of the lay public) operated under a deterministic assumption, that behavior proceeds from biology without any possible interaction from environment (social and otherwise). Modern behavior genetics takes a more sophisticated approach to the question, and attempts to understand gene-gene interactions, gene-brain-behavior processes, and gene-environment interactions.
Social learning theorists believe that all behavior (social and otherwise) arises from learned associations between stimuli. In this case, almost all the “blame” for behavior is placed on environmental and social context.
The ecological perspective is another context-centric approach, which is best described by Bronfenbrenner’s concentric circles model, which places the individual at the center of a set of concentric spheres of influence, each with varying amounts of influence on the behavior of an individual. One of the main problems with these environment-centric perspectives is that they generally ignore biology, or just give it a cursory treatment.
The cultural perspective claims that an individual cannot be separated from the sociocultural environment, since each individual subjectively interprets the environment in a culturally bound manner.
All these perspectives have their merits and are useful for thinking about certain phenomena, but it is the ethological that speaks most strongly to me (if you are a reader of my other blog, The Thoughtful Animal, this should come as no surprise).
The ethological perspective proceeds directly from Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Ethologists study behavior in the context of what is known about anatomy, physiology, neurobiology, and phylogenetic history. Nikolaas Tinbergen developed four questions that should be asked about any behavior, which focused on causation, ontogeny, phylogeny, and adaptation. It is critical to understand that, in some sense, humans and their social context evolved alongside each other. It is because social behavior is adaptive that it is so pervasive throughout the animal kingdom. For example, children spontaneously respond in predictable ways to their mothers’ voices and faces. While the other perspectives have important interpretations that can provide insight, ultimately, a series of anatomical and physiological responses underlie this behavior. Humans evolved with such big brains (relative to body size) that they are born well before they are able to adequately care for themselves – unlike chickens, for example, who have excellent visual and motor skills from the day they hatch and need no parental care to survive. As a consequence of the need to be delivered so early in development, it became important for infants to act in such a way that would evoke nurturing and protective behaviors from their parents. Thus the infant smile and cry. It is the evolutionary perspective which reminds us that social behaviors do not exist for their own sake, or because anything is good or right about social behavior in any universal sense – instead, they evolved because they probably conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage unto the species (or, conversely, they emerged and did not confer an adaptive dis-advantage), and insured that the individuals would mature to an age when they could procreate.
This is not to say that social behavior should not be studied, nor do I mean to explain away social behavior as being entirely bound up in anatomy and physiology. On the contrary, I believe that a full understanding of the biological and phylogenetic origins of complex social behavior can only add to the richness of the social experience.