Willis F. Overton

[ Introduction | Modernity | Postmodernism | Relational Metatheory/Methodology | Conclusions ]

A metatheory is a set of interlocking rules, principles, or a story (narrative), that both describes and prescribes what is acceptable and unacceptable as theory - the means of conceptual exploration - in a scientific discipline. For example, the prevailing metatheory might prescribe that change of form (transformational change) is, or is not, a legitimate way of understanding developmental change. If the prevailing metatheory accepted the legitimacy of transformational change, then theories of development would include some type of stage concept, because "stage" is the theoretical concept that is used to describe transformational change.
     A methodology is a set of interlocking rules, principles, or a story, that describes and prescribes the nature of acceptable methods -- the means of observational exploration - in a scientific discipline. For example, the prevailing methodology might prescribe that the assessment of sequences is, or is not, critical to understanding developmental change. If deemed critical to methodology, sequential assessment methods would assume a central place as a tool of empirical inquiry.
     Metatheory and methodology are closely interrelated and intertwined. Metatheory presents a vision of the nature of the world and the objects of that world (e.g., do you accept a picture of persons as "active agents" "constructing" their known world, or as "recoding devices" that "process" information). Methodology presents a vision of the tools we can use to explore that world.

[ Introduction | Modernity | Postmodernism | Relational Metatheory/Methodology | Conclusions ]

Modernity & the Birth of Developmental Psychology

Contemporary developmental psychology was born into a curious metatheoretical/methodological world. This has been called the modern world or Modernity. The Modernity's vision asserted two fundamental claims: a). It is possible to obtain absolute certain, mind-independent, objective knowledge. Here, even probable knowledge is knowledge on its way to certainty (i.e., 100% probable). b). Achieving certainty requires dissecting or Splitting domains of inquiry into mutually exclusive categories. One category is then proclaimed to be the Ultimate Foundational Reality, called the God's Eye View by the philosopher Hillary Putnam; a second category is proclaimed to be Apparent Reality. Work is then directed at demonstrating (empirically and theoretically) at demonstrating how Foundational Reality explains Apparent Reality. The top section of Figure 1 presents a series of domains (e.g., "Science") and related bipolar categories (e.g., "Theory-Data"). The bottom section of Figure 1 presents possible solutions for resolving the relation among the categories in each domain. The two bottom left figures illustrate the idea of resolving the category pairs by taking either the bottom or top category as the Real Foundational Reality and explaining the other in terms of that Foundation. For example, the methodologies of Modernity, called Positivism and Instrumentalism, proclaimed that Data is the Ultimate Foundation and argued that Theory was merely an empirical generalization (an induction) that came to summarize data; or merely a heruistic (learning) device that allows one to move from piece of pristine, interpretation free datum to another.

Figure 1.
Metatheoretical/Methodological Problems & Split and Relational Solutions


In Modernity, science -- and psychology as a science -- made the general claim that certainty could be reached only through acceptance of the story that the bottom member of each paired category of Figure 1 constituted The Ultimate Foundation. Thus, developmental psychology was born into a bottom up (split) metatheory according to which the random movement of matter of a body, independent of any actively organized mind, behaved and perceived according to forces (causes) operating upon it (e.g., biological causes, cultural causes). Further, operating within this metatheory, certain knowledge would be attained through the methodological rule of strict observation of pristine (theory and interpretation free) data. Acceptance of this story led to the distrust of speculation, interpretation, general theories. It also led to a methodology encased by the rigid strictures of Reductionism (reduce the phenomenon of inquiry to foundational pristine fixed data points), Causality (all explanation understood as forces - antecedent variables, independent variable - operating on the data points), and Induction (the logic of induction; deriving hypotheses, theories, laws from the correlations among causes and effects).
     There is scarcely any doubt that Modernity's vision of objective certainty failed. Modernity failed both as a metatheory and as a scientific methodology. This failure has been thoroughly documented in the arena of scientific knowledge by scholars such as Stephen Toulmin, N. R. Hanson, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan, Richard Bernstein, and, most recently, Bruno Latour.

[ Introduction | Modernity | Postmodernism | Relational Metatheory/Methodology | Conclusions ]

Postmodernism & the Chaos of Absolute Relativity

Until recently the failure of Modernity was recognized only as the failure of the metatheory/methodology of absolute certainty. The story of split categories remained in place. As a result, Modernity's successor story Postmodernism, was created as a new, if often unrecognized, foundationalism. In this new foundationalism Modernity was turned on its head. The Apparent Reality of Modernity became the Ultimate Foundational Reality of Postmodernism (see Figure 1 middle solution, "top down [split]"). The foundational quality of "Interpretation" over "Observation" in some versions of hermeneutics and deconstructivism is illustrative. The general effect was to create an approach to knowledge that seemed to celebrate absolute uncertainty and seemed headed for the ultimate nihilism of a complete (i.e., absolute) subjectivism and relativism. In the context of this chaotic alternative, it is little wonder that the generation of developmental psychologists that followed the death of positivism and instrumentalism tended to cling for support to the wreckage of modernity's fading narrative. In their split world the fear of chaotic fragmentation was much worse than the fear of a fading relevance.

[ Introduction | Modernity | Postmodernism | Relational Metatheory/Methodology | Conclusions ]

Relational Metatheory/Methodology: A Synthesis of Opposites

Recently a new metatheory/methodology that seeks to move beyond the split-off absolute objectivism of Modernity and the split-off absolute relativism of Postmodernism has begun to take shape. This metatheory/methodology has been termed a Relational perspective or Relational stance. Latour refers to this as Amodernism (a denial of both Modernity and Postmodernity) or a relative-relativism. The basic idea is twofold: a). Replace all fundamental split categories (i.e., all exclusive "either/or" categories or foundational dichotomies) with relational inclusive categories as shown in the third solution at the bottom right of Figure 1. This solution is illustrated graphically in the famous ink sketch by the artist Escher titled "Drawing Hands" (See Figure 2).

Figure 2
Drawing Hands
(c) Cordon Art-Baarn-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Here, each hand (category) is drawing and being drawn (creating and being created) by the other. Hence, there can be no question of which is the absolute foundational reality; each hand is a necessary and co-acting equal partner. For example, if we were to label one hand 'Biology' and the other hand 'Culture' there could be no question as to whether biology or culture is foundational to any behavior. Nor could we ask the question of 'how much' each hand contributes to any behavior. In this relational understanding the categories become relativized to each other. b). At the same time that each category is relativized and functionally identical to its opposing category (each hand is drawing, and each hand is being drawn), each maintains it's individual distinctiveness from the other (there is a distinctively left and a distinctively right hand). Hence, categories can be distinguished, and it is possible and reasonable to conduct inquiry from the "point of view" or "standpoint" of one or the other, without asserting that a point of view constitutes a split-off absolute foundational Reality. "Point of view" constitutes the relatively stable platform or grounding from which to launch inquiry without falling into either absolute objectivism or absolute relativism.

Theory & Method in a Relational Context

Consider a few examples contrasting a foundational metatheory/methodology and a Relational stance:

(1). What changes in development? Is it an expressive system or is it instrumental behaviors? This "or" is a split understanding. From a Relational stance, exploring language acquisition from the "standpoint" of the expression of action meanings yields knowledge that is complementary to knowledge gained from exploring language acquisition from the "standpoint" of instrumental communicative action. Each represents parts of the whole that is language acquisition, neither is the Ultimate Absolute Foundational Reality.

(2). What counts as fundamental developmental change? Is it variational change (change in degree an event varies from an assumed standard), or , is it transformational change (change in form, pattern, organization, sequence)? Here is another dichotomous understanding. From a Relational stance, variational and transformational change form an identity of opposites and each represents a valuable standpoint for developmental inquiry. But neither is an absolute foundational reality that will explain the other.

(3). How to define psychological processes such as emotions, thinking, perception? Should they be understood as actively changing mental organizations, or, functionally as behaviors related to causes (antecedent biological causes, or, posterior cultural selection causes)? Currently there is a good deal of controversy over this exclusive either/or question. Why? From a Relational posture, when the focus is on producing a theory of adaptation, then inquiry will focus on the functional side of the relational matrix, when the focus is on producing a theory of the person, inquiry will focus on the structural or organizational side.

(4). Methodologically, is it appropriate to make interpretations about unseen organizations (unseen mental structures and sequences of mental changes), or, is it only appropriate to make inductive inferences about behaviors and their causes? From the standpoint of a Relational matrix, interpretation and observation are necessary co-actors in the process of science. Both interpreted patterns, and the observed correlation of cause and effect constitute coequal legitimate scientific explanations. Hermeneutic meaning, and objective assessment are the warp and woof of the fabric of a scientific developmental psychology. However, given that developmental psychology was born and raised in the home of positivism -- where only the tools or methods of reduction, causality, and induction were allowed -- it is important that methods that emerge under a Relational stance be recognized as an identity of opposites and not simply be assimilated to the old ways. For example, recent measurement models such as the Rasch model permit strong inferences about transformational sequences and about latent mental structures which cannot be assimilated to simply variational change and functional analysis. Similarly, recently developed integrated methods of assessing Score Validity (the meaning of any score), cannot be assimilated to the positivists dictum of the operational reduction of concepts to observables along with the experimental control of "threats to validity."

[ Introduction | Modernity | Postmodernism | Relational Metatheory/Methodology | Conclusions ]


The list of problem solutions, and guidelines for further conceptual/empirical exploration, that emerge from assuming a Relational metatheoretical/methodological stance is long and constitutes the research program of the Relational stance itself. Table 1 identifies examples of fundamental relational categories that serve as the grounding for this project. In general terms, the Relational metatheory/methodology represents an attempt to find a relatively stable synthesis of the best of objectivist and relativist approaches to the study of human organisms and their development. The Relational stance has a short history but a long ancestry. Precursors of this approach are found in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel, as well as in the pragmatics of Pierce, James, and Dewey. The contemporary philosophers Hans Georg Gadamer and Charles Taylor, have developed significant features of the stance as have historians and philosophers of science Richard Bernstein, Larry Laudan, and Bruno Latour.

Table 1: Some Basic Categories Joined in a Relational Metatheory/Methodology


(c) 1998
 Willis F. Overton

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 Last Modified: October 25, 1998

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