The Priority of Description in Developmental Psychology

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The central argument of the paper is that serious descriptive work needs to be done in developmental psychology. Insofar as the most basic agenda of the discipline is to describe the child's mind and how it changes, then there are significant ways in which neither Piaget nor many of his successors have carried out this agenda. Piaget aimed to carry it out, but instead imposed an adult grid on the children's behaviour and introduced other arbitrary assumptions about how they think. Contemporary research seems, on the other hand, to address the next stage of analysis. It seeks to establish when specific pregiven competencies really do first appear and through what mechanisms they might develop. Alternative guidelines for research are proposed that, although not replacements for existing practices, aim more directly at identifying essential constituent features of the child's mental reality. These guidelines are organised around the observation and analysis of developmental change, an emphasis absent from much of contemporary work, although present in Piaget. By contrast with Piaget (and contemporary research), however, the guidelines build in fewer presuppositions about where development is headed and the categories in terms of which it is to be viewed. These features are, rather, the outcome of investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)391-414
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1987

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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