I write as an outsider to the human development psychology field,
an admiring and somewhat frustrated outsider. During a long career in international development, I found that
human development psychology, especially stage theories, helped to
explain many otherwise puzzling observations. The extraordinary cultural distance between highly educated
Asians, Arabs, and Africans, and their less fortunate kinsmen, for
example, attests not only to the transformation of individuals that
occurs in the development process, but also to the rapidity with which
the transformation can occur under favorable conditions.
Yet one has the feeling that developmental psychology has yet to
contribute the significant insights to the resolution of social,
economic and political problems of which it is capable. Stage theory can supply a missing dimension to problem analysis,
without which conventional analyses frequently yield inadequate
solutions -- yet it is seldom employed by those grappling with social
problems. By now, it seems
to me, advanced societies should be formulating the policies and seeking
the organizational patterns that could best facilitate the psychological
growth of participants. Instead,
we often donít even recognize transformative settings where they
In the Sudan, for example, an irrigation scheme called the
Gezeira, launched by the British between the two Niles, succeeded as
intended in producing the cotton needed to cover the foreign exchange
costs of the colonial government. Even
more remarkable, but less noted, was the fact that the semi-nomadic
population brought in and settled on the Scheme produced half the
student body of the University College, Khartoum, after only two
generations as farmers. They had become wealthy in local terms when they
were selected to participate in the Gezeira, but soon coming to
understand that irrigation is a repressive livelihood, they undertook to
ensure that their progeny had a chance for a better life. This, to me, indicates that significant human development had
occurred in the Gezeira, yet it was not valued by conventional
Also in the Sudan, the lasting impact made upon Sudanese students
attending a junior secondary teacher training school at Bakht-er-Ruda, a
hundred miles up the Nile from Khartoum, was detectable thirty years
later when the graduates were senior figures in Government and other
happened to those boys, shielded from the bright lights of Khartoum and
subjected to Outward Bound-type character building, which set them apart
from their cohort all through their lives. And they knew it. A
group of them asked the Ford Foundation for funds to re-establish
Bakht-er-Ruda, but with Sudanese values. As the Foundationís representative, after visiting the site, I
declined the request, to my lasting regret. Although interested at the time in the work of Kohlberg and
Loevinger, I responded to the request in a conventional way.
These and other examples led me to resume reading in the area of
human development psychology after I retired. Twenty years ago, when the Ford Foundation sent me to Harvard for
a year, I had begun reading in the field. Between then and now the field has made substantial theoretical
advances, particularly in the area of adult development, but seems to
have done so at the expense of application. Perhaps from the absence of research funding, or possibly because
of the tendency of each scholar to work out her or his own stage theory,
the expansion of knowledge seems to have had little impact on the world
of affairs. True, Keganís
work helps to explain why the complexity of modern life leaves so many
in our population on the sidelines (Kegan 1995), but the pioneering work
of Alex Inkeles in exploring the changes of values, attitudes and
beliefs brought about by modernization seems to have disappeared without
succession. (Inkeles and Smith 1974)
Conventional analyses leading to interventions on social issues,
domestic and foreign, have often had disappointing results. Human development psychology may very well be the missing
ingredient in current analytical methods. By assuming a false homogeneity among people inter-culturally and
within a single culture group, interventions often fail to produce the
intended outcomes. In order
to see how a human development perspective might be applied, I have done
two preliminary papers, one (Nelson 1997) on three cases where authors
sought to apply human development concepts in their fields (management
(Fisher and Torbert 1995), faith (Fowler 1976), and education (Kohlberg
1984)). The second (Nelson
1998) is a critique from a human development perspective of Professor
Samuel Huntingtonís book The
Clash of Civilizations (Huntington 1996). The human development
perspective leads one to conclusions differing not only from
Huntingtonís, but also from his many critics, writing in Foreign
Affairs (Huntington, Ajami et al. 1996).
These exercises convince me that the surface has scarcely been
scratched of opportunities for applying developmental psychology to
other fields. Each of you
must daily have the feeling that if politicians and policy-makers
understood basic developmental principles better, they would make
different and more effective decisions. What a difference it would make if elementary developmental
concepts were as great a part of our conventional wisdom as elementary
economic concepts are currently.
The exercises also make me aware, however, that an amateur like
myself, and like the authors of some of the books seeking to apply
developmental theory to faith and management issues, are unlikely to get
beyond the shallow waters of the field without a full immersion in the
literature. At the same time it is unlikely that many professionals and
scholars in other fields will deviate sufficiently from their principal
pursuits to grasp and use the theories of your field. Most of us have become acquainted with the Piaget theories
pertaining to childhood and adolescence, and take comfort in leaving
applications to mommies, nannies and school teachers.
In short, the dissemination of knowledge of human development
theory, and its application to problems of social and global importance,
must arise from within your field. It is time for SRAD members to reach out to other disciplines and
professions, seeking collaborative relationships with other researchers
in order to break new sod in the application of developmental theory. Foundations need to be encouraged or entreated to fund
collaborative interdisciplinary research projects designed to use for
social purposes what is known only to you, the developmental elite.
To illustrate the kind of collaborative approach I am suggesting,
I put forth below the gist of a grant application I recently submitted
to a major foundation. In
doing so, I hope to elicit comments and suggestions from SRAD members
about the feasibility of the approach and about methodology.
In the research for which I requested funding, I hope to
demonstrate that a nation that consistently favors education and
training, and thus human development, can achieve its development
objectives faster than others, even those with more abundant resource
endowments. By development
objectives I mean elevated income levels, improved health and education
status, increased longevity, lower fertility rates, and a concern for
project will have primary and secondary objectives. The primary ones are to define an improved development strategy
in which a higher than usual value is placed upon human development, and
to suggest why global efforts to assist nations to develop in this way
deserve high priority.
An improved development strategy is needed because of the
environmental consequences of current practices. If the countries that remain poor, especially China and India,
develop through industrialization, with lagging education and training,
as most successful countries have done, the burden of increased
population and environmental deterioration on our planet will be
enormous. Economic growth
cannot be ignored, of course, but a growth pattern emphasizing human
development measures could, I believe, achieve lower fertility and
greater environmental concern among a population much earlier than would
be the case from the more traditional pattern. In countries the size of China and India, choice of development
paths can have major consequences for the rest of the world, including
the United States.
Singapore, fortunately, provides a successful model, albeit on a
small scale, of extraordinary economic growth and rapidly-rising
educational and health status indicators in the population. Its usefulness as a model is enhanced by the pluralism of its
population: more than half are of Chinese origin, but sizable fractions
of the remainder are of Malay and Indian extraction. It was the first country in Southeast Asia to adopt a family
planning program, and fertility dropped so rapidly that the Singapore
Government is now pro-natalist. (This is not to say that the family
planning program in itself led to the decline in fertility; increasing
incomes and educational status doubtless had much to do with it.)
Environmentally, Singapore is one of the neatest and cleanest
cities of its size in the world. True,
this has much to do with the paternalistic policies of the Government,
but evidence of the environmental concerns of the people will be sought
in the study. The authoritarian style of the Government may make the choice
of that country as a model problematical for some people. I would concur with the opinion that the current level of
government control is unnecessary, perhaps even repressive, given the
level of maturity of its people, and I will of course cite whatever
evidence of this I find in the course of the study.
An important element in the development model I am seeking is the
parallel between levels of human development and levels of
organizational development and governmental organization. That is to say that as the modal level of individuals
participating in organizations or societies increases, decision-making
devolves downward in the case of organizations, and societies become
more democratic, or at least they should for optimal effectiveness. The notion of a parallel structure ideally existing between modal
human development and organization is not commonly found in social
science literature, although authors like Ken Wilber (Wilber 1995) and
Dalmar Fisher and William Torbert (Fisher and Torbert 1995) have dealt
with it to some extent. The
implications of this concept for the proposed study are that we should
not be quick to apply our own standards of democracy and rights to other
societies and cultures without understanding their circumstances. For much of Singaporeís history, a firm hand on the tiller may
have been quite efficacious, even if the firmness should now be relaxed.
The secondary objective of the project will be to demonstrate the
utility of the human development perspective in analyzing social issues.
Human development psychology focuses of course on the individual,
and our intellectual tools for moving between the individual and the
collective are not strong. Nevertheless,
an awareness of individual developmental stages in an historical context
can be very helpful in understanding todayís problems.
Few of us recall how recent a notion it is that all societies can
achieve a fully mature level of civility, education, income and
appreciation of environmental quality. Indeed, some may still not be persuaded, but since the Second
World War, international organizations, and most importantly the United
States, have acted upon the assumption that all societies can achieve an
advanced technological and civic level if they have the will and the
opportunity to do so. In
historical terms, this is a very fresh idea indeed. But the same egalitarian impulses that led us to conclude that
universal development is possible seem to have precluded us from
carefully examining what it takes at the individual and the
institutional level to bring it about.
Abraham Maslow (Maslow 1954; Maslow 1971) pointed out that
individuals can and do improve; and that societies can and do improve. These seemingly obvious observations point to the need to
bring all the knowledge we can muster to bear on the issues of how and
why such improvement can be consciously brought about. Singapore, whatever its failings, has brought its people to a
high level of consciousness, education and productivity in a remarkably
short time. As a species we
need to understand how this can be accomplished, because the shorter the
transition between traditional high fertility / high mortality societies
to low fertility / low mortality societies, the lower the level at which
the global population will level off.
If, as I seek to demonstrate in the case of Singapore, a policy
framework conducive to the improvement of an entire population can be
designed and implemented without the egregious use of repressive power
by the authorities, it may be possible to design measures for enhancing
the development of lagging populations in societies such as our own,
where the gap between bottom and top income and social strata seems to
be widening. A human
development perspective could lead to a very different set of
interventions than those normally proposed on the basis of conventional
I intend to use the broad concepts of human development
psychology, not the measurement devices it has produced, in my study. Measurement techniques, such as Loevingerís sentence completion
exercise (Loevinger 1976), are the means of refining theory and delving
more deeply into the particulars of an individualís development. My purpose is to broaden the utility of human development
psychology at the collective level, not to deepen its understanding at
the individual level.
Consequently, I intend to study the policies of the Singapore
state as they have affected the development of its people. Education and training policies will be a central
focus. I will also examine minimum-wage legislation and other economic
made clever use of the minimum wage by raising it whenever the economy
approached full employment. This
ensured that the industries initially attracted to Singapore by cheap
labor would be forced to relocate if they could not raise the
productivity and wages of their workers. This systematic ratcheting upward of the minimum wage meant that
the technology employed in production was constantly becoming more
advanced. This in turn
created a challenging environment in the workplace, which encouraged and
rewarded more and more skilled employees. Singaporeís policy objectives may have been largely in the
economic sphere, but whatever the motivation, they seem to have had the
effect of raising the modal developmental stage of the people of
Singapore, in turn producing drastically lowered fertility rates and a
highly desirable environment.
The analysis of policies promoting education and training
presents no unusual problems, but assigning human development outcomes
to them is a stretch. I
suspect the correlation of fertility with stage of development would be
possible, although I havenít seen it done. Other attributes one would like to associate with higher
development stages include prominently environmental awareness. Even measuring environmental awareness presents methodological
problems, to say nothing of correlating it to stage of development.
Yet the attempt to make these associations seems to me worth the
effort. If a more
earth-friendly economic and social development path could be found,
especially one that appealed to the Chinese, the earth could be spared
one or two billion unwanted births.
Here, then, is the problem. Does the developmental psychology field have methodologies that
can help me with it?
Fisher, D. and W. R. Torbert (1995). Personal and Organizational Transformations: the true challenge of
continual quality improvement. New York, McGraw-Hill.
Fowler, J. W. (1976). Stages
of Faith: the psychology of human development and the quest for meaning.
San Francisco, Harper.
Huntington, S. P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New
Huntington, S. P., F. Ajami, et al. (1996). The
Clash of Civilizations? The Debate. New York, Foreign Affairs.
Inkeles, A. and D. Smith (1974). Becoming Modern: Individual change in six developing countries.
Kegan, R. (1995). In
Over Our Heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge,
Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays
on Moral Development: The Psychology of Moral Development. San
Francisco, Harper & Row.
Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego
Development. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation
and Personality. New York, Harper & Row.
Maslow, A. (1971). The
Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York, Penguin.
Nelson, C. (1997). Human Development Theory Applications.
Wells, The Fielding Institute.
Nelson, C. (1998). Progress and Global Politics. Wells, The
Wilber, K. (1995). Sex,
Ecology, Spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston, Shambhala.