The future does not fit in the containers of the past

This is a companion piece to my article for the Developmental Forum that I wrote on standing down as the British Journal of Developmental Psychology (BJDP) editor. I wrote this part to go a little deeper into my reflections on the field of developmental psychology, perhaps academic science in general, in the context of my experience of that role.

To be upfront about things, I cannot claim to have thought up the title for this blog myself. The title is a quote from businessman Rishad Tobaccowala. Clearly, it’s about change. But developmental psychology is, fundamentally, about a certain type of change so I don’t apologise for appropriating it. In fact, I think I am conserving (in the truest sense) the message and accommodating its use to one that I hope will resonate for developmentalists. Conservation is not preservation.

I wrote before about how I enjoyed editing BJDP. I think I learned a lot from it and the role certainly it gives privileged access to an overview of the field of developmental psychology. I would say three things, on reflection, from that vantage point: first, in terms of outputs and studies developmental psychology is thriving (growing) and brilliant empirical work has the potential to do tremendous good around the world to promote children’s and adults’ well-being, learning, and development; second, we need to do more to bridge the gap between research and policy, impact and influence across society; and third, I worry that the theory and process of development is getting lost in a world where career academic success appears in conflict with high quality science and genuinely new ideas. I worry that we are in danger of losing what makes developmental psychology, well, developmental, and constraining research to a narrow set of questions that are often prescribed from other sub-disciplinary areas or limited to certain groups of researchers and a small set of “ideas”. I need to explain that last point a little more…

Today, I’d argue, developmental psychology is rather thin on theory. There are plenty of “theories” floating around but these tend to be local and specific to certain research questions, or derived from those in another (sub-)-discipline. But development is so much more than whether children grasp particles of speech in one order or another, or the cognitive science of the impoverished (incomplete) mind: it is about fundamental processes of psychological change. Having written (and just revised) a text book in the area it is noticeable that many of the overarching developmental theories date back well into the previous century. Maybe our understanding of child development has moved on, but if so it feels as if it has moved on elsewhere (in neuroscience, anthropology and social theory). It would be good to see more space in our journals to accommodate big theory, or maybe more books. Sadly, neither of those outlets are likely to play well in UK academia at present.

As I said before, the pleasure in editing the journal comes from the “bird’s eye” view you get of work across all areas of developmental psychology. As editor, I read every submission before deciding whether to move it forward to an Associate Editor for the review process to begin. The over-riding decision about whether to progress a paper lies in the extent to which it has potential to make a contribution to the field. All science advances by respectful discussion and debate, sensitive observation and careful experimentation, and rigorous analysis of sound data. But, to be honest (which I probably shouldn’t be), after a time the more conservative, incremental, sometimes glacial studies typically felt less ambitious and less important. If intellectual ambition is realised only by adding an increasing number of variables to an established paradigm the prospects for meaningful advances are meagre. We should know, as developmentalists, that we assimilate and accommodate. Revolutions are messy, but sometimes they are essential.

A strong contribution depends on many things including accuracy, insight, impact (topicality) and clear communication. But, when all is said and done, it is new ideas that inspire. And, to its credit, BJDP is full of those: over the years we have received submissions ranging from the brilliant to the bizarre, from the unexpected to the unfathomable. Rarely, and this is true, are they bad – the quality of submissions has, almost without exception, always been of a high standard. Meeting the bar for publication, with so many submissions and so little space to publish, is another matter. So interesting and inspiring work includes papers that ultimately don’t get accepted for publication either because they fell short methodologically or didn’t really fit the journal’s aims and scope. It probably disproportionately includes papers from researchers in developing nations who are seeking to solve important problems but maybe without the finesse or resources that many in established research science nations have. (Often, in such cases, I spent time feeding back on how they could improve the study for publication.)

This last point is an important one that is often neglected in an academic world that appears to be drifting towards a sort of intellectual protectionism. It is detectable in the narrowing of research into ever decreasing sub-fields in the name of specialisation. Specialisation is no bad thing in itself, of course. And it is probably a good strategy, in these days of REF, H, and IF, for a careerist academic to limit themself to writing “safe” papers that will likely be reviewed by a tightly knit group of (familiar) reviewers with a similar, narrow focus.  It is evident too in the ways in which methodological diversity is being overtly and covertly constricted such that it can sometimes feel that the method is more important than the subject matter or topic under examination. We should embrace diversity in all forms: methodologically, intellectually, in terms of discipline areas, as well as diversity in terms of who is conducting the research and who the research is about or for. If we look back across the history of science and perhaps particularly psychology, the track record on promoting a diverse science (and diverse scientists) is not good! That needs to change. Diversity is not just a matter of morality; diversity brings new and fresh perspectives and ultimately makes science better.

It is an exciting, if challenging, time for Developmental Psychology. While we may rebottle what we have done before, we also need to reimagine it. Because the future certainly does not fit in the containers of the past. We (developmental psychologists) need to make that future.