Commentary: On Developmental Pathways and Social Contexts in Adolescence
Laurence Steinberg Temple University
The chapters in this volume may be viewed as a collective representation of our thinking about the study of adolescent development in the 1990s. Although the various authors approach the study of adolescence from different theoretical perspectives, and with an eye toward explaining different phenomena, each of the chapters shares two concerns: (a) an interest in studying adolescent development within the broader ecology in which young people come of age (hence the emphasis on context throughout the volume); and (b) an interest in looking at adolescence not as a discontinuous period, but as inherently linked to what precedes and follows it developmentally (hence the emphasis on pathways). The first theme reflects the profound influence of Bronfenbrenner ( 1979) and other human ecologists on the study of adolescence. The second theme reflects the important contributions of life-span developmentalists (e.g., Hetherington & Baltes, 1988).
In some regards, the chapters considered together illustrate how much the field of adolescent development has changed in the past several decades. Today, most students of adolescence take for granted the contextualistic, life-span bent represented in this volume. But it is important to remember that, even as recently as 20 years ago, neither the ecological nor the life-span approach was especially influential in the study of adolescence. Until the late 1970s, the dominant paradigms in the study of adolescence were traditional psychological paradigms that deemphasized, if not outright ignored, the social context of the period, and drew firm boundaries around adolescence as a developmental stage best studied in isolation from childhood or adulthood.