IN THE WAKE OF MICHAEL BROWN AND ERIC GARNER: APPLYING DEVELOPMENTAL SCIENCE TO PROMOTE SOCIAL JUSTICE

Richard M. Lerner, Elise M. Harris, Jennifer P. Agans, Miriam R. Arbeit, and Lisette M. DeSouza

Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development

Tufts University

Richard M. Lerner, Elise M. Harris, Jennifer P. Agans, Miriam R. Arbeit, and Lisette M. DeSouza

Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development

Tufts University

Developmental science seeks to describe, explain, and optimize the lives of individuals and groups across the human life span. Today, there is converging theory (models derived from the relational developmental systems metamodel; Overton, 2015) and research, for example, from fields such as epigenetics (Meaney, 2010; Misteli, 2013), evolutionary biology (Bateson, 2015; Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Keller, 2010), and social genomics (Slavich & Cole, 2013), indicating that there exists relative plasticity (the potential for systematic change in the relations between individuals and their settings) in human development. The presence of plasticity across the life course means that optimism is warranted that means may be found to optimize the lives of diverse individuals. We can devote our science to changing the mutually influential relations individuals have with their contexts, relations that constitute the fundamental process of development across the life span. This optimism is being furthered by important innovations in developmental methodology that enable the relational developmental system to be studied in an integrated, change-sensitive way (e.g., Molenaar, Lerner, & Newell, 2014; Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2014, 2015).

Optimism is warranted, then, that developmental science may contribute positively to addressing the challenges facing our nation’s diverse youth, families, and communities, underscored now in the wake of the events surrounding and following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This optimism is reflected well in the statement made by Jamaal Matthews, Julie Maslowsky, Velma McBride Murry, and John Schulenberg in the SRA President’s Blog. We believe that the membership of SRA and developmental scientists more generally should be grateful to these colleagues for reminding us that there is hope in the face of our frustrations, outrage, and deeply-felt fears for the well-being and developmental pathways of Black and other racially diverse youth and families, for the communities of America, and for the institutions of American democracy, civil society, and social justice.

We should also be grateful for their message that our hope is not predicated on just optimism that things will (have to) get better but, more important, on the agency that resides in the knowledge and skill sets of developmental scientists. We have the ability to apply our scholarship in manners that may contribute to understanding and enhancing the lives of youth who face challenges to thriving that have been brought into high relief by the events our nation has experienced as a consequence of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and by what appears to many Americans as the egregious failures of our justice system. The ideas of Matthews, Maslowsky, Murry, and Schulenberg provide a vision for not only addressing the challenges facing the lives of young people of color in our nation but, even more, for addressing the challenges facing all Americans wishing to live in a nation marked by social justice.

The ubiquitous potential for plasticity in human development means that what we currently see as characterizing civil society in America – continuing racial, ethnic, social class, sexual orientation, and gender disparities; unequal life chances predicated on unjust allocation of rights and resources; the psychologically “suffocating” burden of living under conditions of prejudice and discrimination; and the growing divides of privilege, power, and life potentials – need not characterize the future of our nation. Developmental scientists of our nation can contribute mightily to addressing these injustices and, as well, to promoting not only reconciliation, but also opportunities for cohesion and collaborations that both span and, eventually, dissolve the plethora of divides that detract from creating an America that lives by its vision of liberty and justice for all.

We, as developmental scientists, have it in our power to both heal and enhance our people and our institutions. We can – and we believe we should – therefore go beyond our interests or inclinations to describe and explain human development. At this time in our nation’s history we should all become applied developmental scientists, and work with our colleagues, students, neighbors, and family members to enhance the lives of all Americans by contributing to social justice. The time for this work is now, and the places for such actions are our homes, workplaces, schools, faith institutions, and communities.

References

Bateson, P. (2015). Ethology and human development. In W. F. Overton & P. C. Molenaar (Eds.), Theory and method. Vol. 1. Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 208–243). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
 
Jablonka, E.,&Lamb, M. J. (2005). Evolution in four dimensions: Genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 
Keller, E. F. (2010). The mirage of a space between nature and nurture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
 
Meaney, M. (2010). Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene x environment interactions. Child Development, 81(1), 41–79.
 
Misteli, T. (2013). The cell biology of genomes: Bringing the double helix to life. Cell, 152, 1209-1212.
 
Molenaar, P. C., & Nesselroade, J. R. (2014). New trends in the inductive use of relation developmental systems theory: Ergodicity, nonstationarity, and heterogeneity. In P. C. Molenaar, R. M. Lerner, and K. M. Newell (Eds.), Handbook of Developmental Systems and Methodology. (pp. 442-462). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
 
Molenaar, P. C. M., & Nesselroade, J. R. (2015). Systems methods for developmental research. In W. F. Overton & P. C. Molenaar (Eds.), Theory and Method. Volume 1 of the  Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (7th ed.). (pp. 652-682). Editor-in-chief: R. M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
 
Overton, W. F. (2015). Process and relational developmental systems. In W. F. Overton & P. C. Molenaar (Eds.), Theory and Method. Volume 1 of the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (7th ed.). (pp. 9-62). Editor-in-chief: R. M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
 

 

Slavich, G. M., & Cole, S. W. (2013). The emerging field of human social genomics. Clinical Psychological Science1, 331-348.