Ongoing Work

The goal of Greenfield’s Theory of Social Change and Human Development is to show how changing sociodemographic ecologies alter cultural values and learning environments, thereby shifting developmental pathways.  Worldwide sociodemographic trends include movement from rural residence, informal education at home, subsistence economy, and low technology environments.  The former ecology is summarized by the German term Gemeinschaft (“community”), the latter by the German term Gesellschaft (“society”) (Tonnies, 1887/1957/1988).  A review of empirical research demonstrates that, through adaptive processes, movement of any ecological variable in a Gesellschaft direction shifts cultural values in an individualistic direction and developmental pathways towards more independent social behavior and more abstract cognition – to give a few examples of the myriad behaviors that respond to these sociodemographic changes.  In contrast, the (much less frequent) movement of any ecological variable in a Gemeinschaft direction is predicted to move cultural values and developmental pathways in the opposite direction.  In conclusion: 1) sociocultural environments are not static in either the developed or the developing world and therefore must be treated dynamically in developmental research; 2) both social and cognitive development are affected by the identical sociocultural forces and consequently need to be integrated into one unified theory of culture and human development.  The theory was published in 2009 in Developmental Psychology. New empirical evidence from several countries was added in a 2016 publication in Current Opinion in Psychology. The intellectual origins of the theory and its implications for empirical methodology was incorporated into a 2018 article in Developmental Review.

In 2012, Maynard and Greenfield studied the third generation of mothers and children in the Zinacantec Maya community of Nabenchauk to further explore the effects of increasing levels of commercial activity and formal education since their documentation of the cognitive effects of social change in the second generation, published in 2003 in Cognitive Development. Using the same pattern representation task, they found further development of cognitive abstraction and skill in dealing with novelty. Their results were published in 2015 in the International Journal of Psychology. These researchers have also explored the implications of social change for informal education, specifically, weaving apprenticeship, in three generations. The first two generations were published in the same 2003 article in Cognitive Development. For the third generation, they found a decline of weaving experience as girls went to school and stayed in school longer. They also found that, during sessions where girls were learning to weave, girls’ school experience was linked to more questions on the part of the learner and teacher’s (often the mother) school experience was linked to more explanations. An article reporting the changes in weaving experience across the three cohorts will soon be submitted for publication.

Our earlier research documented that working-class immigrant parents who have come to Los Angeles from Mexico and Central America bring with them an ethnotheory of development that emphasizes being part of a group, particularly the family, through encouraging social behavior that respects hierarchical and normative standards (Raeff, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2000, Greenfield & Quiroz, 2013).  We found that this ethnotheory of development often comes into conflict with European American teachers’ views that the primary goal of development in school is the fulfillment of individual potential and that their role as teachers is to recognize outstanding achievement.  We explored these conflicting cultural values through hypothetical responses to imaginary situations.  Such responses yield a picture of cultural and individual ideals concerning human development.  But ideal values are enacted and have their force on the level of everyday interactions.  It is through such interactions that basic cultural values are both expressed and instilled. (Greenfield, Quiroz, & Raeff, 2013)

It is expected that a parent and teacher cooperatively construct a symbolic child through the social process of linguistic communication.  Sometimes, however, the process of cooperative social construction misfires:  Because of their differing expectations and goals regarding child development, parent and teacher do not construct the same child.  Their constructions diverge:  There is cross-cultural variability in the social construction of the child.  Both the cooperative and the divergent modes of constructing a symbolic child are revealed through discourse processes.

We developed workshops to expose teachers who worked with Latino immigrant families to this research so that they would understand the collectivistic and familistic cultural values their children and families were bringing into the individualistic cultural environment of the school. Following the workshops, these teachers developed many new practices in their classrooms and in interactions with parents to bridge between the two cultures. These teachers became our collaborators, and many publications resulted from this collaborative effort; here is a bibliography.  We currently have a paper by Trumbull, Greenfield, Rothstein-Fisch, Maynard, & Yuan documenting the teachers’ change process under review.

Our most recent Bridging Cultures publication documents that international teachers from Asia and Latin America bring a more collectivistic value framework into the individualism of the school and the ways in which they experience this value conflict (Mercado & Trumbull, 2018).

With a small grant from the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS)  to Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado, we extended the Bridging Cultures Paradigm to first-generation Latino college students. In a focus-group study, we documented that these students experience conflicts between their home (i.e., familism/collectivism) and school cultural values (i.e., individualism) and that these conflicts lead to reduced academic achievement and well-being (Vasquez-Salgado, Greenfield, & Burgos-Cienfuegos, 2014). In the same focus groups, we also showed that these students experience cultural value conflicts with more individualistic peers and we identified cultural modes of conflict resolution (Burgos-Cienfuegos, Vasquez-Salgado, & Greenfield, 2014).

We also extended the Bridging Cultures paradigm to Latino immigrant parents in Los Angeles. We gave parents of elementary school students workshops in order to help them understand that their children’s school and teachers were expressing an individualistic value system that differed from their own collectivistic value system (Esau, Daley, Greenfield, & Robles-Bodan, 2013).

In another study, we gave workshops to parents and newly immigrated adolescents who had been separated from their parents for a number of years in the process of serial migration. We focused on cultural modes of communication and succeeded in improving parent-child communication when both parents and children engaged in a series of focus group discussions (Greenfield, Espinoza, Monterroza, Brugger, Ruedas-Gracia, & Manago, under review).

The evolutionary history of symbolic capacities is of great developmental interest.  Two great developmental theories, Piaget (1945/1978, 1962) and Werner (1948), emphasized the intertwining of phylogeny and ontogeny in symbolic development.  The evolution of a species can be seen as a sequence of ontogenies that are modified over evolutionary time.  Our research of species comparative work has utilized this perspective to compare primate species utilizing a Piagetian framework to describe ontogeny.

One approach to the evolutionary history of symbolic capacities is to investigate the ontogeny of these capacities in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus).  By using both species in a comparison with humans, we have a clade, that is, a complete set of species with a common ancestor at a given point in evolutionary time, in this case consisted of bonobo, chimpanzee and human, it is likely that the capacity for this developmental sequence was present in the common ancestor.  Herein lies the theoretical interest in comparing both bonobo and chimpanzee development to human development.

The increasing amount of time children and young adults are spending with media such as the internet, television and video games at home and school has raised questions about how the use of such technologies may make a difference in their lives- from helping with homework to causing depression to encouraging violent behavior.  Our research examines the effects of multi-media use on children and young adults physical, cognitive and social development.  Initial research suggests, for example, that access to computers increases the total amount of time children spend in front of a television or computer screen at the expense of other activities, thereby putting them at risk for obesity.  At the same time, cognitive research suggests that playing computer games can be an important building block to computer literacy because it enhances children’s ability to read and visualize images in three-dimensional space and track multiple images simultaneously.