Jennifer Urban reports on Developmental Systems Science at the 7th Biennial Meeting of the Society
The 7th biennial meeting of the Society for the Study of Human Development was held at Brown University October 28-30, 2011. The meeting convened a diverse group of scholars interested in developmental science and specifically highlighted Developmental Systems Science.
Developmental Systems Science refers to the application of systems science methodologies (such as network analysis, agent-based modeling, and system dynamics) to developmental science questions particularly those derived from a developmental systems theoretical perspective. The phrase “developmental systems science” deliberately combines “developmental science” with “systems science” and is meant to reflect the joining together of these two fields. Developmental science is an approach to the study of human development that emphasizes multidisciplinary and systemic thinking and includes the spectrum from basic to applied forms of inquiry (Lerner, 2006). Systems science refers to a family of methodologies that enable the study of complex problems and typically involve modeling and simulation.
Developmental science is at the cutting edge of thinking and research in the study of human development (Lerner, 2006) and has for several decades, embraced a theoretical orientation that reflects a “systems thinking” approach (e.g., bioecological systems theory, Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006; developmental systems theory, Ford & Lerner, 1992; probabilistic epigenesist, Gottlieb, 1992, 1998, Gottlieb, Wahlsten, & Lickliter, 2006; dynamic systems theory, Thelen & Smith, 2006; and holistic person-context interaction theory, Magnusson & Stattin, 2006). As a class, developmental systems theories hold tremendous promise for the study of human development. However, until now, the methods used have been insufficient to support the testing of these theories. The application of systems science methodologies holds tremendous promise for the study of human development, particularly for developmental scientists who operate from a developmental systems theoretical perspective.
As an organization that is committed to leading scholarship at the cutting edge of developmental methodologies, the Society for the Study of Human Development highlighted Developmental Systems Science at its most recent meeting which included a plenary symposium and workshops on systems science methodologies and their potential utility in developmental science. Janet Okamoto (National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health) presented network analysis which refers to the study of relations among entities and focuses on the patterns of relationships between actors. Dr. Okamoto discussed the history of social network analysis, including its historical roots in sociology (Moreno, 1934) and human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1999). She also provided an overview of how network analysis relates to developmental science, how network analysis can be used in conjunction with more traditional statistical tools, and when it is and is not appropriate to use network analysis. Adam Thomas (Georgetown Public Policy Institute) presented agent-based modeling which is a dynamic, simulation-based technique that captures and models the behavior of individual agents in a system. Dr. Thomas focused his presentation on a recent study he conducted which uses FamilyScape, an agent-based model of family formation, to explore three strategies to prevent unintended pregnancies. Bobby Milstein (Hygeia Dynamics Policy Studio, Fannie E. Rippel Foundation, MIT Sloan School of Management) presented system dynamics which is a dynamic, compartmental or aggregate simulation-based modeling technique that aids in the conceptualization, description, and analysis of complex systems (Meadows, 2008). Dr. Milstein provided an overview of system dynamics as it relates to developmental science and specifically highlighted PRISM (Prevention Impacts Simulation Model) which situates medical, behavioral, emotional, and environmental factors into a single testable model as well as HealthBound which is a simplified U.S. health system that is designed to bring more structure, evidence, and creativity to the challenge of health system change.
Several symposia and posters also highlighted systems science. Ralph Levine and Lawrence Schiamberg (Michigan State University) presented a system dynamics simulation model for understanding how adolescent bully-victim relationships do or do not become public. They presented a causal loop diagram that models the bully-victim dynamic relationship and described future efforts to simulate and test possible interventions and policies (e.g., school bullying policies, parent involvement, and adolescent peer group participation). Anne Fausto-Sterling (Brown University) chaired a panel that explored the use of dynamic systems to study gender in infancy. Symposium presenters included Anne Fausto-Sterling, Cynthia Garcia Coll, Ronald Seifer and David Blanding (Brown University), Jihyun Sung (Sungkyunkwan University), Elizabeth Wilson (Emory University), Katherine Johnson, Katherine Rand, Melinda Caskey, Bonnie Stephens,Richard Tucker, and Betty Vohr (Women and Infants Hospital & Alpert Medical School of Brown University). The symposium focused on demonstrating the richness of information obtained when infant development is approached and studied as a complex system. This included the use of State Space Grids to understand the behavioral dynamics between infant sex, affectional touch, and maternal play frame.
Reflecting the Society’s commitment to a multidisciplinary, life-span approach to human development, this year’s presentations also addressed a range of topics including: the development of wisdom at different stages of the life course, perceptions of mixed-race individuals across development, the construct of resilience, racial and ethnic contexts of social relations, an examination of the multidimensionality of social relationships, predictors of well-being in late life, qualitative approaches to the study of adolescent and young immigrants, and parenting processes and parent-child interactions in Chinese immigrant families. Poster presentations also explored a range of topics including: early childhood care policy, the role of neighborhood resources in pathways to youth contribution, human-animal interaction in adolescence, traditional and nontraditional aged college students’ value for education, and the role of participation in different sports in positive youth development.
The meeting also featured a joint debate with the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood which was also meeting in Providence, RI at the same time. The debate featured Beatriz Luna (University of Pittsburgh) and Howard Sercombe (University of Strathclyde) who debated whether brain development promotes risk behavior in emerging adulthood. Despite the unexpected October snowstorm, the 7th biennial meeting of the Society of Human Development was a resounding success.
Jennifer Brown Urban, Montclair State University
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