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7.7: Where can meta-theories be seen most clearly?

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  • Once meta-theories become visible to us, we can see them everywhere, but one of the places that they are most evident is in the ways we choose to intervene to improve development. In order to make a positive change, we must select an “intervention lever” or strategy through which we believe we can alter the current course of development. That strategy represents our view of the most important antecedents and so is revealing about our hypothesized underlying fundamental cause of development—which is at the heart of each meta-theory. For example, if we are trying to help families who have children with serious behavioral problems, we could consider a psychopharmacological intervention, which would, because it focuses on biological causes, imply a maturational view. Or we could offer to work with the parents so they could more effectively set limits for their child. This would imply Mechanistic view because of its emphasis on environmental programming.

    One exercise that we have found useful in helping students think through the four meta-theories is to assign each student one of the meta-theories and then to answer intervention questions, like the series of questions listed in Table 7.3, from that perspective. If students have a chance to take each perspective, they begin to be able to see patterns in the answers. Some of them are surprising. For example, we tend to be slightly offended by Mechanistic assumptions that we are being run by external forces, but these assumptions are wildly optimistic when it comes to interventions, basically asserting that any change is possible as long as we are clever enough in our social programming. On the other hand, Organismic assumptions are appealing, but more challenging to apply to interventions, because the best way to induce structural shifts is not always apparent. On the third hand, Contextual assumptions seem generally to fit in with our layperson’s take on development, but when it came time to derive an intervention, it was difficult to get beyond such generalities as “all of the above” or “it depends,” leading students to wonder whether that meta-theory was going to be very helpful for optimization efforts.

    Table 7.3. Examples of Questions to consider from Different Meta-theoretical Perspectives

    1. How can we get our little girl (toddler age) to eat more vegetables?
    Examples of responses from each perspective:

    • Maturational: don't worry, your toddler will eat them when she is ready.
    • Mechanistic: model how delicious the vegetables are and then reward her with dessert once she eats her vegetables.
    • Organismic: offer a variety of vegetables and she will select the ones she prefers.
    • Contextual: wait until she is hungry and then offer a selection.

    2. Can the baby sleep in bed with us when he has a nightmare?

    3. Should we make the preschool child share his toys?

    Moving up several levels:

    4. Why are their racial differences in educational attainment?

    5. Late onset dementia—how do we best treat it?

    6. After you turn 50, should you exercise like mad or just spread gracefully?

    7. Adolescent sex offenders, should they be tried as adults?

    8. Should 16-year-olds really be allowed to drive? 85-year-olds?

    9. I’m investing in new technology for my business-- Should I fire everyone over 40 or can older workers be retrained?

    10. Are you developing now? Will you develop any more?