Jan. 20, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 8

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    Committee on Human Development again becomes autonomous within Social Sciences

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Established in 1938 as a freestanding, degree-granting committee, the Committee on Human Development has operated within the Department of Psychology since 1973, providing a home for scholars pursuing research in life-course development, cultural psychology and mental health for more than 60 years.

    That work will be further advanced this year, when the Committee on Human Development once again becomes an autonomous unit within the Division of Social Sciences. After more than two decades as part of the Department of Psychology, the committee now will function independently with its own core of faculty members, in a way similar to the Committee on Social Thought.

    It will have the ability to hire its own faculty members and create its own agenda. Susan Goldin-Meadow, Professor in Psychology, Education and the Committee on Human Development, is currently serving as Chairwoman of the committee.

    Members of the Committee on Human Development will continue their interdisciplinary scholarship with faculty from other University departments, arranging foreign-field study for students interested in studying psychological issues and providing clinical training in psychology for students preparing to do their own research. Bertram Cohler, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division and a member of the Committee on Human Development, heads the clinical training in psychology program, which prepares students to study mental health in the context of culture.

    “For example, we have a student who is studying the Native-American church on a Navajo reservation at the same time he is working at a mental-health clinic there,” said Cohler. “His work enables him to understand the interplay between the cultural setting of the people and their mental-health issues.

    “This program is the only one of its kind in the country. Research is shaped by the questions students raise,” Cohler continued. “They get a chance to do scholarly research and writing in a setting that has enormous flexibility. Our goal is to have students be comfortable in both worlds—as scholars and also as respected professionals who deliver mental-health services.”

    John Lucy, Professor in Psychology and a member of the Committee on Human Development, said, “The purpose of research in the committee is to take a holistic perspective. Behavior is influenced by a number of factors, such as the individual characteristics of the person studied in psychology, cultural influences studied in anthropology and the small-group dynamics that are explored in sociology. What we try to do is bring ideas from different disciplines together in accounting for human action.

    “There are few other interdisciplinary committees of this kind in the country. I think the work of the committee is a real testament to the strength and quality of interdisciplinary research done at the University,” Lucy said.

    Goldin-Meadow added, “One important function that the committee serves is to give students training in and a respect for a variety of methods, such as knowing when and how to conduct an experiment or how to observe as a participant. This training is an essential step in preparing young scholars to conduct top-notch interdisciplinary research.”

    Members of the committee also provide a bridge between the social sciences and the biological sciences, Lucy added. “Martha McClintock (the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and a member of the Committee on Human Development), for instance, looks at psychological behavior to understand how behavior changes biology,” he said. “That approach would not necessarily be taken by someone working in isolation in either discipline.”

    In 1938, Ralph Tyler, who was Chairman of Education, established the committee as a way to expand the work of the Committee on Child Development, which did not grant degrees. The Committee on Human Development accepted Ph.D. candidates and awarded its first Ph.D. degrees in 1946.

    Among the first recipients of the degree were Bernice Neugarten and William Henry, who became early faculty members on the committee. Their scholarship integrated three components of the Human Development program—life-course development, cultural psychology and mental health.

    The committee became well known nationally and internationally and attracted leading scholars to the University to pursue innovative fields of knowledge. “Part of its recognition stems from the many famous studies and several intellectual movements that have had their origins in the committee,” said Richard Shweder, Professor on the Committee on Human Development.

    Over the years, faculty have pursued a broad range of research topics that include person-centered community studies, client-centered and existential psychotherapy, aging and life-course development, the psychoanalytic study of culture and society, neonatal temperament, stages of moral development, the study of “flow,” gay and lesbian life-course experiences, communicative uses of nonverbal behavior and how language is learned and created.

    The committee’s path-breaking work in cultural psychology flourished during the 1980s. It sponsored two international conferences on cultural and human development in 1986 and 1987. Committee faculty edited and contributed to the volume Cultural Psychology, which was published in 1990 and has become “one of the central texts for the re-emerging field,” Shweder said.

    The unique nature of the research agenda for faculty members on the Committee on Human Development prompted its recent reorganization.

    “It became apparent over the years that students are attracted to the committee because they want to study psychological functioning and the mental life, but they do not want to do it the way it is done in most psychology programs,” Shweder said.

    “They want to study people as socially situated, cultural beings,” Shweder continued. “In its study of the mental life of people, the research agenda of the Committee on Human Development has always been connected to research agendas in the social sciences in a way that is unparalleled by departments of psychology around the world.”

    Two new faculty members are expanding this research agenda. John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology, is a highly respected expert on attitudes and behaviors as well as social influences on the brain and health. Dario Maestripieri, Assistant Professor on the Committee on Human Development, is an expert on parenting and infant development in humans and nonhuman primates.

    As the Committee on Human Development begins to function independently, its faculty members will offer a variety of areas of specialization to students, including work in life-course development; mental health, personality and emotion; psychological anthropology and cultural psychology; biosocial psychology; and professional education in clinical psychology.