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The contextualist philosophy attempts to explore what people are (Goldhaber, 2000) and advance agendas to define and shape reality (Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, 2007). Contextualism taps as its metaphor the "historic event" (Pepper, 1970, p. 232), referring to how individuals experience and understand the things that happen in life (ACBS, 2007; Pepper, 1970). To the contextualist, every behavior is a historic event that results in change (Lerner, 2002, p. 71). Contextualism attempts to understand what a person is doing and what meanings ascribe to his or her actions in relation to surrounding events (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 48).

Postmodern philosophies that fall under the contextualist lens include "Marxism, critical theory, critical multiculturalism, critical race theory, postcolonialism, queer theory, and feminist theory" (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 272). Articles from the contextualist perspective include:


While mechanism attempts to explore questions about what makes people the way they are and organicism attempts to understand why people are the way they are, the contextualist philosophy attempts to explore what people are (Goldhaber, 2000). Contextualism taps the "historic event" as its metaphor (Pepper, 1970, p. 232), referring to how individuals experience and understand the things that happen in life (ACBS, 2007; Pepper, 1970).

Falling within the Contextualist philosophical lens, lifespan developmental theory focuses on how change occurs throughout life because of reciprocal influences between the individual and the environment. In other words, individual development throughout life results from and influences the environment in which the person develops (Lerner, 2002). Understanding individual development requires a multi-disciplinary approach that considers both the individual and the context in which the individual develops.

Gisela Labouvie-Vief (1980) extended Jean Piaget’s cognitive-development theory into adulthood by offering a theory of pragmatic thought and cognitive-emotional complexity that sees adult development as an active process of constructing successively more adaptive levels of activity. As a neo-Piagetian theory, Goldhaber (2000) classified Labouvie-Vief's theory of programmatic thought and cognitive-emotional under an organismic lens. Because Labouvie-Vief demonstrated how contextual factors can influence cognitive development, Merriam (2007) classified the theory as contextualist. Seemingly then, Labouvie-Vief's theory belongs under a contextualist-organismic lens.

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Jean Piaget (1968) saw the child as a lone scientist discovering the world and applying reasoning to solving problems. A limitation of this perspective was that Piaget overlooked the influence of social interactions on a child's development. A Soviet Marxist would address this Western question by focusing on how adult interaction with children accelerates the potential of developing children (M. W. Watson, 2002).

Human Development Perspectives

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