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6.3: What is a meta-theory?

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  • Meta-theories are sets of assumptions that underlie theories. “Meta” means “above” or “beyond,” like “meta-physics.” Other terms used to describe meta-theories are “world views,” “world hypotheses,” “models,” “cosmologies,” or “paradigms,” as in “paradigm shifts.” Explicit discussions of meta-theories are found most often in philosophy.

    What are meta-theories of human development?

    Meta-theories in human development are sets of assumptions about the nature of humans and the meaning of “development”-- what it looks like, how it happens, what causes it. An example of a meta-theoretical assumption about human development would be the idea that all development ends at 18, or that aging is a process of loss and decline.

    Why are meta-theories important?

    Meta-theories are important because their assumptions influence everything about how theories are constructed and research is conducted: the questions that are asked, the measures and methods that are used, and the interpretation of data (see Figure 6.1). For example, if researchers assume that development ends at 18, they do not look for developmental changes after that age. Or, if researchers assume that aging is a process of decline, then they never look for characteristics that might improve as people get older.