The Essential Social Science of Behavioral Disorders

By Gerber, Michael M. | Behavioral Disorders, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Essential Social Science of Behavioral Disorders


Gerber, Michael M., Behavioral Disorders


ABSTRACT. All the social sciences struggle to pinpoint and grasp those aspects of human behavior that shape and are shaped by some historical-social reality. This article discusses how and why scientific work directed toward behavioral disorders is almost a perfect metaphor for the dilemma of the social sciences as a whole. Specifically the development of individuals occurs in dynamic transaction with environments that are themselves conditioned by complex social histories. I point out that study of children with behavioral disorders is different from study of special education as a social system that defines and responds to children with behavioral disorders. I argue that, although the social character of behavioral disorders means that our knowledge is imperfect, we cannot escape responsibility for decisions we make to relieve the associated social and personal distress they cause.

A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. . . . Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? (Shaffer, 1977, p. 76)

I want to get thinkers in other disciplines to take evolutionary thinking seriously, to show them how they have been listening to the wrong sirens. (Dennett, 1995, p. 12)

In oversimplified terms, the substance of the dilemma of social (i.e., behavioral) science is that it is difficult to keep "scientific" the study of human behavior as it occurs in a social-historical world while living within and drawing language and cognitive disposition from that same world. Part of the struggle stems from the fact that the measurement of social reality is deeply entangled in how we construct meaning for that reality. This centuries-old epistemological problem of how to separate and differentiate observed from observer-or whether it is even desirable to try to do so-is central to most postmodern critiques of social science (Rosenau, 1992), including much recent criticism leveled at research in special education (e.g., Danforth, 1995, 1997; Elkind, 1998; Ferguson & Ferguson, 1997; Forness, 1988; Gresham & MacMillan, 1997a,b; Heshusius, 1989; Kimball & Heron, 1988; Kleinert, 1997; Poplin, 1988; Sleeter, 1986).

All the social (i.e., "behavioral") sciences struggle to pinpoint and grasp those aspects of human behavior that shape and are shaped by some historical-social reality. By using the word historical, I mean to underscore that human behavior is formed in a specific social milieu that is itself a product of a particular history. Thus, when we speak of a child's "learning history" we sometimes fail to recognize that, at a very fundamental level, the ontogenesis of that child is conditioned and constrained by a broader social history that determines who the child's family members are, where they live, what opportunities are afforded them, what the quality of caregiving is (Patterson & Capaldi, 1991), and what family history brings them to a particular moment in time. Still less well understood is the way in which families act as cultural prisms through which a deeper social history exerts its influence.

Everything surrounding children, in factfamily, neighborhood, society, culture-is not static, but rather moves and changes, albeit at a much slower rate than that at which individual development occurs. In fact, decades of intervention research to ameliorate developmental risk show that the environments that surround children are stubbornly stable (Sameroff, 2001) compared to the rapid-and vulnerable-changes that are the hallmark of individual cognitive, affective, and social development. The truly puzzling part of the development of behavioral disorders lies in the microdynamics that occur between the malleable child and the slow-moving social ecology that surrounds the child. What principles explain the collision of risk and resilience factors in individual development, and what determines the negative outcomes we associate with behavioral disorders (Bronfenbrenner, 1999; Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1993; Rutter, Champion, Quinton, Maughan, & Pickles, 1995; Sameroff, 1990; Sameroff & Fiese, 2000; Werner, 1995, 2000)? …

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