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)?
Beyond Research on Children with Behavioral Disorders
Formally speaking, researchers in special education tend to hold one of two phenomenological perspectives. For example, those who publish in this journal take a general perspective that tends to lean either toward behavioral disorders or special education for children with behavioral disorders. In the former circumstance, researchers focus typically on a particular class of differences believed to be intrinsic to individuals by dint of either biology or learning history. It is true that identification of differences as disabilities usually occurs because society assigns social significance to these differences. Nevertheless, the phenomenon under scrutiny generally is the difference itself, not the society that reacts to it. When researchers--often the same researchers-investigate special education, on the other hand, their primary focus is on the organized educational reactions of the society to the behavioral disorders. The two investigative endeavors obviously are linked, but they are not the same-not in motive, method, or meaning. Even among distinguished scholars who identify themselves exclusively with the broad field of special education there is often lack of clarity about this distinction.
The Transaction Between Personal and Social Histories
In conducting early growth studies, researchers often assumed that disabilities were part of a "continuum of reproductive casualty" (Pasamanick & Knobloch, 1966), and searched for specific biological factors to explain developmental deviations. Much of the support for this endeavor came from follow-back studies that found evidence of negative perinatal and birth events in a high percentage of children with developmental disabilities. However, after a number of follow-forward longitudinal studies of large birth cohorts, it became clear that the social arrangements and context of development, summarized as environment, acted in powerful ways either to further undermine developmental potential or to protect children from long-term negative outcomes. One consequence of this body of evidence was that disabilities could no longer be simply, or usefully, viewed as a stable characteristic of children, regardless of birth history. Instead, the developmental expression of a disability appeared to be a complex product of social forces acting on the substrate of children's biological differences.
Of the many seminal programs of research that converged on and empirically validated this view, I will mention four that have had particular importance for subsequent theory, research, and social policy. These programs of research generally had in common a large longitudinal database and a failure to discover any strong and stable univariate predictors of disability. Investigators in each case identified and attempted to describe compensatory mechanisms that might account for the failure of biological risk factors to predict later disability.
Werner's longitudinal study of a birth cohort from the island of Kauai'i (Werner & Smith, 1992) is perhaps the best known of the four. Beginning in 1955, Werner and her colleagues collected a broad array of medical and sociological data on about 90% of children born on the island that year and continued to follow these children until they were into their 30s. In her early analyses, Werner proceeded to group children according to known or strongly suspected indicators of biological abnormality. However, over time, Werner discovered that no single indicator of risk for developmental abnormality substantially or even reliably predicted later psychological or mental disabilities. Instead, the evidence became stronger over time that no single perinatal or birth factor could account for variations in outcomes.
Looking more broadly at variations in early childhood status, a number of relationships became clear. First, it was the number of risk factors, rather than any specific factors, that best predicted negative developmental outcomes. Second, social factors related to family and social class were most predictive once biological risks were factored out. Third, and most striking, not every child who presented with a severe risk profile expressed these biological risks as negative developmental outcomes. On closer inspection, it was clear that, for some children, various experiences and life events occasioned by their families, neighborhoods, and schools conferred a degree of protection against the negative consequences of various early childhood indications that they were at risk.
Isle of Wight Studies
Another highly influential longitudinal study on an island, the Isle of Wight, was part of a long-term program of research on sources of serious mental and behavioral problems that was conducted by Butter and his colleagues (Butter, 1979). Rutter's data, like Werner's, showed that some caregiving environments reacted poorly to specific temperament variations in young children (essentially shaping such children toward a cycle of maldevelopment). Moreover, Rutter's continuing research supported the view that some children are unusually resilient despite substantial biological and social stressors (Butter, 1979). For some of these children, he conjectured, school seemed to be a compensating and protective factor in the absence of other familial or community supports.
In a sample of 1,689 inner-city London 10 year olds and 1,142 Isle of Wight 10 year olds, Butter and his colleagues (Berger, Yule, & Butter, 1975) found that about 19% of the London group and 8% of the Isle of Wight group demonstrated "general reading backwardness." Following psychological screening, these researchers identified 268 and 142 children, respectively, as being at high risk for reading failure. After further investigation, more than 60% of the London group and about 30% of the Isle of Wight group were identified as having "specific reading retardation." The data appeared to show clearly that social context, in this case urban London as opposed to the Isle of Wight, somehow acted to exacerbate risk for reading failure.
Approaching the problem of aggression, Patterson and his colleagues worked for decades using a very different conceptual ization and methodology, but also a long-term, highly focused program of research, including a major longitudinal study (i.e., Oregon Youth Study). Patterson's research has been singular in its empirical rigor, observation methodology, analytical sophistication, and commitment to theory building. This group's systematic investigations of development of aggression and delinquency revealed that serious aggressive behavior in children could be traced to an intricate interaction of inappropriate or ineffective family management of simple noncompliance (Patterson & Capaldi, 1991; Patterson, Degarmo & Knutson, 2000; Patterson, Dishion & Yoerger, 2000). In some families, ineffective response to noncompliance not only produced, in accelerating cycles, more seriously noncompliant, and eventually aggressive, behavior in children, but also successively more negative and counterproductive parenting behaviors. As children became less manageable, they also volunteered for relationships with peers who tutored them in patterns of behavior that edged ever closer to criminality. Moreover, Patterson and his colleagues showed precisely how the interacting problems of aggressive behavior and poor parental management increased the likelihood of family drift toward even less cohesion, integrity, and adaptiveness.
Transaction as a Mechanism of Development
One extremely influential theoretical formulation for explaining this more complex developmental course for children who eventually show disturbed and disturbing behaviors has been developed over 25 years by Sameroff and his colleagues (Sameroff & Fiese, 2000). Sameroff and associates also studied longitudinally (i.e. the Rochester Growth Study) a cohort of children and observed that disabilities did not simply unfold over the course of time. Instead, individual differences in children expressed themselves in transaction with a social-especially caregiving--environment. Sameroff highlighted the contrast between his transactional perspective on development and the strong biological causation perspective of Pasamanick and Knobloch (1966) offered some years earlier. Sameroff (1975) instead described a "continuum of caregiving casualty" (emphasis added).
Sameroff's (1975) use of the term transaction, rather than interaction, to describe the forces underlying development was deliberate and a theoretical leap. His notion of a process by which organism and environment are mutually modifying-similar to Bronfenbrenner's biobehavioral idea of "proximal process" (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1993)-predicted a now common neo-Darwinist perspective (Dennett, 1995) on evolution as a fundamental process-with natural selection its primary mechanism-of biological change at all levels, including both individual cognitive (Siegler, 1996) and neurological (Edelman, 1987) development. In Sameroff's view, consistent with those of the other researchers who pioneered risk and resilience research, children's behaviors in caregiving environments did not merely elicit response, they also acted in such a way as to alter the environment and, more powerfully still, the processes by which that environment influenced development itself.
Behavioral Disorder as Social Disorder
The scientific work directed toward behavioral disorders is almost a perfect metaphor for the dilemma of the social sciences as a whole. Human society depends on some degree of voluntary behavioral compliance with expectations. Therefore, there is a long history (and probably prehistory) of overt concern for norm-violating behavior that, in turn, has provoked voluminous reflective commentary on how and why social life occurs the way it does. in fact, how and why behavior comes to be perceived as disturbed, disordered, or deviant in a society are among the oldest and most volatile questions addressed in sociology (Pfohl, 1994). Researchers of behavioral disorders, despite their more clinical focus, can deny but cannot escape trying to assume an objective posture while totally immersed in a specific social and historical milieu.
For instance, it may appear that there is such universal consensus over the inherent ,abnormality" of some behaviors that little social negotiation of meaning is necessary. This appearance, however, is easily disconfirmed, for example, in the case of legally "justifiable" homicide. That is, there are circumstances when objectively observed behaviors are identical but are assigned vastly different social interpretations (Rubin & Balow, 1978). Beyond identification of children's behavior problems, there can be real, prolonged, and contentious disagreement about more fundamental questions: How does a behavior function in the life of the child? How has it developed? How is it best treated?
In an artistic rendering of this problem, Peter Shaffer (1977), in his play Equus, dramatized the treatment of an adolescent who has horribly and inexplicably blinded a stable of horses by focusing attention on the existential crisis of the therapist rather than the undisputed clinical facts. Shaffer's play raises uncomfortable questions, not about whether blinding horses is deviant or whether the adolescent is seriously disturbed, and not about whether there can be debate about etiology, interpretation, and treatment. At a deeper level, Equus contemplates aloud how response to behavioral deviance tests our understanding of what is "normal." The art in Equus-as art shouldraises ultimate questions. What do we gain and lose by being social creatures, by having no choice but to have a history? Beyond their obvious and practical need for clinical interventions, children with behavioral disorders force us to question not only who they are but also who we are, not only in the philosophical but also in the epistemological sense. That is, to what extent can we really draw scientific lines of demarcation between "us" (the observers) and "them" (the observed)? The (Essential) Social and Historical Character of Behavioral Disorders
These are old questions, questions that through the Enlightenment became foundational to the still-evolving concepts of disability and special education. For example, these are precisely the questions that, in 1800, ignited a young French doctor's preoccupation with a strange, parentless, noncommunicative boy with significant behavior problems (Lane, 1976). To many, special education itself began when this doctor, Jean Itard, constructed, with remarkable foresight, a strategy of experimental teaching. His intent, it should be remembered, in trying to teach the boy, Victor, to communicate (i.e., speak) arose from what, to Itard and his peers, was a social goal: that Victor would become "civilized," that he would learn to behave in a socially acceptable manner. The point is that Itard's belief that Victor was teachable (i.e., could be civilized) imbued Victor, hard, and the entire 2-year experiment with social significance markedly different from that which would have been established had Victor been sent to an asylum as an "idiot." In fact, we negotiate social significance for all behavior that we define as disordered, including behavior that seems to have no obvious social consequence. Durkheim (1951), arguably the first modern sociologist, demonstrated that a sociological analysis of prevalence yielded an array of insights on suicide that could form the basis for broad prevention strategies. Durkheim therefore conducted a social, as opposed to a clinical, study of disordered behavior and viewed his science as a basis for social policy. Social policy in this case might be thought of as the formal legal process by which society negotiates the social significance of deviance.
Self-injurious behaviors, for example, gain attention ultimately because of the social valuation that attaches to the children exhibiting such behavior. Injurious behavior also has emotional, social, and economic consequences for parents and others in the surrounding community. Not only do all behavioral disorders have such an inherently social character, they also exist in a social space and may be characterized generally in ways that abstract away from specific individual cases. That is, our concern for children with behavioral disorders extends beyond our legitimate humanitarian concern about the pain, anguish, or suffering of specific children and their families; it also extends to our historically received and culturally reinforced concern for social order. This is not so abstract as it seems, because it manifests itself practically as concern about the safety of our neighbors, the disturbance of teachers, and the distraction of classmates. Leaps of Imagination
Whatever that evolutionary force may be that shaped us both as organisms and as social beings, the power of mind that imagines it is splendid to contemplate. Two great 19th century thinkers, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, produced revolutionary theories that forever changed and are still changing social science. Both produced theories that aim to explain the observable world as emergent and as a function of historical processes. The construction of both theories required a leap of imagination beyond conventional wisdom. Marx and Darwin each tried to specify, respectively, the fundamental principles of change in social and natural history. Both theories were immediately controversial, and neither theory could be verified or disconfirmed by empirical experiment. Both have been widely, sometimes purposely, misunderstood and used to justify oppressive social policies. Neither Marx's theory of history nor Darwin's theory of evolution can be reviewed here in detail. Instead, I offer a few comments as foundation for some conclusions about social context as it relates to developmental theories of behavioral disorders. Marx on Intervention
Marx constructed a powerful theory of the forces he thought shaped and generated social history. He attempted to explain how wealth and political power tended to accrue to whoever controlled the means of production. Economic power created the basis for political power. Owners of the means of production, according to Marx, acted to protect and maintain their economic advantage, resulting in political systems that enacted and enforced laws favorable to these interests.
However bankrupt were the political forces that subsequently expropriated Marxism as a rationale for antidemocratic policies and institutions, there is no doubt that Marx's secular analysis of society in history was a significant milestone in the development of social science.
What is important from our present perspective, though, is that Marx was among the first to view history not as an inevitability but as the consequence of a dynamic array of forces that were generated by humans themselves, not as ultimately determined by an "invisible hand." He suggested not quite rhetorically that the method for understanding the complex interplay of forces in society was to attempt to change it. Taking some liberties, we might interpret this approach to mean that just as you can only uncover the complex components of a social system when you try to alter it, you can only understand the complex relationship between individuals with behavioral disorders and their environments when you try to change it.
Darwin on Development
Charles Darwin attempted a new explanation of species variation against the pressure of the conventional wisdom that variations in forms of life were, if not wrought by a Creator, then simultaneously emergent. His observations led him to a theory of natural selection in which naturally occurring variations within species tended to be either preserved or eliminated by changing environmental circumstances. Genes mutated, individuals adapted, and species evolved. It was an elegant and powerful explanation that threatened-still threatens-to change everything that was believed about the destiny of human beings and the inevitability of progress. Darwin's theory of evolution, in one stroke, removed the notion that humanity was preordained to continually progress and replaced it with a sobering appreciation of how our species had benefited from plain dumb luck. It also opened a window onto the value of heterogeneity and how complex order can emerge from chaos. Ironically, though, one of the first impacts of Darwin's theory of evolution on social science was an answer to Marx and an apologia for social stratification and privilege. The wealthy and powerful became so because they embodied characteristics better adapted to the demands of a social environment. The pernicious corruption of Darwin's ideas could be said to represent the dark side of what otherwise was a serious scientific debate: whether humans as social beings were the product of nature or nurture. Social Darwinism, of course, was a gross misreading of natural selection to "explain" and justify differences in social advantage, just as Adam Smith's "invisible hand" (i.e., market forces) was misapplied to explain away the social injustices that often accompanied the tremendous wealth-creating engine of capitalism.
As a social, rather than biological, dynamic, a mechanism like natural selection may indeed be at work when better maternal and child health care, nutrition, caregiving, educational opportunity, access to the dominant culture, and safety, for example, -confer a competitive survival advantage on those who come from wealthier families, communities, and schools. Such advantages have physical and psychological consequences for individual development as well as for general socioeconomic standing. It is with regard to individual development or maldevelopment that the concept of evolution may prove to be a particularly powerful basis for consistency, if not consilience, between the physical and behavioral sciences.
Bronfenbrenner and Ceci (1993) theorized, for example, that the range of social environments that impinge on development are complex in nature and not merely assemblies of more or less proximal or distal influences. Siegler (1997), using evidence from microgenetic studies of cognitive changes in mental arithmetic, also argued that individual cognitive development is best described as an evolutionary process. In Siegler's view, evolutionary processes are not merely good metaphors for development, but also are accurate depictions of the actual mechanism driving cognitive development. These general contextualist views of individual development are fully compatible with Vygotskian theories of development (Vygotsky, 1986). For Vygotsky, an idealistic Marxist, social history expresses itself as both a guiding and constraining force on development through the agency of competent others (e.g., caregivers). Vygotsky proposed that language is a strong mediator of cognitive development. But this fact should not so impress us that it eclipses his more fundamental notion that broad social history produces different language resources across social classes. For example, Hart and Risley (1995) studied the language development of newborns through age 2 in welfare, blue-collar, and professional families. Among their findings was strong evidence that vocabulary size is a monotonically increasing function of the amount of language to which infants are exposed. More striking, though, is the finding that the relative amount of language to which infants were exposed also was an increasing function of social class.
Findings from studies conducted on mothers from lower socioeconomic classes and their children since the 1 960s may make Hart and Risley's (1995) findings seem obvious. The negative outcomes for children from poorer families are amplified by overt forms of social segregation and discrimination. However, Hart and Risley's data are unique in portraying empirically the cumulative power of initial small deviations in individual development.
Current theorizing imagines development as a game in which odds for any given set of negative outcomes change contingently, but not necessarily predictably, over time. Prevention and treatment of behavioral disorders are now seen to depend critically on an accurate assessment of relative risk and resilience over time and changeable circumstances.
Such assessment, whether in the case of an individual or an entire population, requires tools that capture critical features of the social ecology surrounding children, but also an appreciation of how the transactions that occur between children and their various social ecologies evolve over the course of development. The implication is that educators, however child oriented, cannot meaningfully address behaviors of greatest concern to them without making some assumptions about the social settings, roles, and expectations that contextualize these behaviors. Even if we seek to locate the root cause of behavior in biological differences, it is only with respect to the shaping forces exerted by a social world over developmental time that these differences acquire ultimate meaning. More often than not, these behaviors-in-context require overt and explicit analyses and certainly acts of judgment fraught with the same potential for error that is present in all the social sciences. Improving Children's Lives with Imperfect Knowing
That knowledge of behavioral disorders is social, conditional, and imperfect is well understood and accepted by researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in this field. We persist in addressing the problems of (and caused by) students with behavioral disorders because of the possibility that their lives-and ours-can be improved despite epistemological risks.
There is tacit acknowledgment in disciplined special education research, as in all social science, that some interpretive process and subjective judgment is required, not only in identifying but also in treating behavioral disorders. Epistemological critics argue that these processes at the very least must be made explicit and, at the extreme, constitute such a fatal flaw that all pretense of knowledge should be dropped and current forms of professional practice abandoned.
However, those who work with real children whose behavior is demonstrably harmful to themselves or others are motivated by a desire to end or avoid suffering and to promote individual opportunity and self-determination. These professionals, although indisputably part of and (one might hope) disciplined by professional cultures, are not much inhibited by the claim that our ability to understand social phenomena is limited or unavoidably flawed. They believe instead that real lives can be improved by application of even imperfect knowledge. While it is almost certainly true that those who live and work in so-called professional cultures may think, speak, and act in ways that tend to preserve authority and legitimization of "privileged" knowledge, it is difficult to see how any other culture can avoid the pitfalls inherent in all social knowing. It is precisely in the presence of such ultimate epistemological uncertainty-when only error is sure-that professional cultures of all kinds persist in a disciplined and admittedly conservative attempt to establish confidence intervals around estimates of what is true. Picking Apart a Conundrum
What makes this entire exercise a conundrum for researchers is that, while underlying biological mechanisms Have not varied substantial ly during several thousand years of scrutiny, human society has been continually transformed. Although it is oversimplified, this discussion seeks to make the point that social research has to contend with an unavoidable need to reconcile formal, academic specification with social interpretation. On the other hand, it is possible to build better-specified models of the social systems that contain and create individuals just as we specify models of individual differences.
At least one history of human knowledge is a story of how Fact dances with Theory, how the tenacious products of empirical observation and experimentation inform and are informed by imaginative speculations about what they may mean. Without both, we would sink into a bottomless epistemological despair. The profound-but still resisted-implication for research _'n behavioral disorders of Darwin's theory of natural selection is that if human beings have any special significance in the universe, it is entirely of their own making and in their own minds. Logical corollaries of this statement are that (a) we cannot hope for a God's-eye view of the universe or our life in it, and therefore (b) we will have to settle for tentative, almost certainly imperfect truths in lieu of an ultimate and universal Truth.
It does not necessarily follow that all such truths are equal or that we should despair that knowledge of our situation in the world is impossible. It does follow, though, that our responsibility is far greater. All attempts at understanding social phenomena such as behavioral disorders exist on this precarious perch between things that are unknowable in any absolute sense and the unavoidable responsibility imposed on us for what we choose to do about them. ,apt-l to*,Apcepta*snce. W001 ORWA4c4ftme: ' 9/200i
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Michael M. Gerber
University of California, Santa Barbara
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Publication information: Article title: The Essential Social Science of Behavioral Disorders. Contributors: Gerber, Michael M. - Author. Journal title: Behavioral Disorders. Volume: 27. Issue: 1 Publication date: November 2001. Page number: 12+. © Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders Feb 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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