Searching for ecological realism

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Author: Ken Richardson
Date: Spring 2001
From: American Journal of Psychology(Vol. 114, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 4,450 words
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Evolving Explanations of Development

Edited by Catherine Dent-Read and Patricia Zukow-Goldring. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1997. 601 pp. Cloth, $49.95.

This a rich and fascinating book and I recommend it to all developmental psychologists and many others. It is full of ingenious and astonishingly variable research procedures, along with a wealth of data, interpretation, and argument, most delivered with exemplary clarity. Many chapters provide an overview of the contemporary range of theories and models, together with trenchant critiques. By reaching down to the deepest questions in contemporary cognitive developmental theory it draws issues into sharp relief. Its comprehensiveness and clarity are valuable in another sense: They leave many windows wide open for the critic.

In their introduction, the editors say that their aim has been to present overviews from theorists of different ecological approaches to serve as an undergraduate text or graduate seminar text. It is said that these approaches challenge traditional reductionist and deterministic accounts and stress the "mutuality" of organism and environment. This book follows a 1995 symposium in which contributors were asked to indicate how they see development, how their approach relates to other ecological theories, and what the future dominant issues in the ecological approach are likely to be. The volume is well organized and includes commentaries from peers designed to pick out problems and attempt some synthesis with other views.

With more than 560 pages of main text, the book is not a quick read, especially because there is food for thought on almost every page (and on some pages in every sentence). This also means that a balanced review is that much more difficult. All I can hope for is to describe main themes and major criticisms.


Much of the book is a work of strong advocacy--sometimes with the air of a crusade--for ecological realism (ER). Eleanor Gibson kicks it all off with her sharp critique of information-processing theory and asserts the key ER ideas, including the notion of affordance, stress on active perception, mutuality of the organism-environment relationship, the prospectivity of the behavior--environment relationship, and learning as change in the perception of affordances. Most chapters follow, almost ritualistically, with some initial posturing on the ecological view of development, a further litany of its key principles and their superiority over traditional views.

These chapters are organized into three parts: "Ecological Realism" (by far the most substantial, covering about a third of the book), "Dynamic Systems," and "Epigenetic Systems." Although in some cases contributors stray far from pure ER, what ties them, says Patricia Zukow-Goldring, is the mutuality of Gibsonism, which offers the only real grounds for unified developmental theory in the future. Before I evaluate this claim in more detail, let me briefly illustrate the range of empirical and theoretical riches presented.

Some themes and findings

Robin Cooper opens by challenging the currently popular idea that infants have an innate predisposition for attending to the exaggerated contours of infant-directed (ID) compared with adult-directed (AD) speech. She refers to some subtle studies that...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A442117796