Optimal Social Structures and Adaptive Infant Development
Philip J. Dunham
Given the negative developmental consequences observed in classic research on the effects of early social deprivation ( Bowlby, 1951, 1969; Spitz, 1950, 1965), most developmental psychologists readily accept the view that humans, like other altricial species, require the social input of adult caregivers for adaptive development. Over the past several decades, research concerned with early social stimulation has gradually shifted from a focus on the effects of social deprivation per se, to questions concerned with the influence of qualitative differences in our early social experiences. Indeed, much of the contemporary literature shares a pervasive assumption that various qualitative properties of social stimulation are optimal for adaptive development above and beyond the quantity of stimulation experienced.
The purpose of this chapter is to present an overview of our recent research concerned with the developmental consequences of various social structures described as optimal during infancy. The first section of the chapter is devoted to the early infancy period and a theoretical approach to those issues we have previously described as the social contingency hypothesis (e.g., Dunham & Dunham, 1990). Then, moving forward in developmental time, the second section of the chapter considers the middle and late infancy periods of development and a theoretical assumption frequently described as the shared attention hypothesis (e.g., Adamson & Bakeman, 1991). As will be evident later in the discussion, we believe that these two hypotheses typically associated with different periods of infant development can be conceptualized as variations on the same basic theme at the level of defining operations.