On a child's wave-length

The Social Child - Entering the Child's Mind
November 13, 1998

Entering the Child's Mind examines the clinical interview with children. It stresses its importance not only as a clinical tool, but also for understanding different aspects of cognitive development in general. Herbert Ginsburg gives an example from a standard conservation task. In such a task a child is shown two glasses with equal amounts of water in them and the child's agreement is secured that the amounts in both glasses are the same. The water from one of the glasses is then poured into a tall thin glass. At this point the child is asked if there is more water in this third glass than in the remaining water-filled glass. If the child recognises that there is equivalence between the amounts of water in the two glasses despite the water level rising to a higher level in the tall, thin glass, then the child is judged to have passed the conservation task. Ginsburg argues persuasively that a problematic implication in using such a standardised technique, however, is that the child may not understand the word "more" in the same way that the experimenter does. Therefore, any mistake the child makes in the task may be apparent rather than real.

Ginsburg stresses the notion of the clinical interview as a complex form of social interaction. In this view, the child is better equipped to understand what the experimenter expects of her, and the experimenter can adjust her questions so that the child can understand her intentions. The clinical interview is based on a constructivist theory where humans construct knowledge rather than receive it. Ginsburg's thought-provoking and well-argued point is that if one really wants to understand the child's mind, then it is important to employ methods of testing that do not require that the child adopts the perspective of the adult.

In The Social Child, contributors from different areas of child development attempt to arrive at some means of explaining and theorising about the source and sequence of children's social development. This book includes contributions from those who take a nativist position, evaluating the role of evolution and behavioural genetics on social development, and those contributors who argue for the importance of the environment. This dichotomy of nature versus nurture is all too familiar, and whether nature is seen as taking precedence over nurture or vice versa waxes and wanes as a function as much of fashion as of science. What is novel here, however, is that within one book both sides of the debate are well argued without any attempt by individual authors to reconcile them.

Topics that are considered relevant to social development include evolutionary theory and peer relations, family influence versus peer groups, the role of peer relationships, the power of technology on social development, shared environments, conceptions of emotion, and the development of socio-moral understanding. David Rowe provides one of the most thought-provoking chapters in this book arguing that behavioural genetics is the grounding force in social development. Cross-cultural differences are often taken as being indicative of the force of the environment in socialisation. However, Rowe cites the work of experimenters who have demonstrated that cross-cultural differences may actually be caused by genetic factors as opposed to environmental ones. For example, he refers to the work of Tu and Israel (1995) who demonstrated that a genetic inability to break down alcohol can have a dramatic effect on the probability of drinking.

Although Campbell and Muncer are careful to point out in the final chapter some of the potential pitfalls of taking either a strongly nativist or environmental position, some of the chapters in this book are in danger of exhibiting what Heider (1958) has called the fundamental attribution error. Social development is a product of coming to understand the interaction between the self (genetics), the mind and the world. However, in attempting to find a causal explanation it is often the case that either the self, as in the case of behavioural geneticists, or the world, as in the case of social psychologists, is given priority. According to Fritz Heider, the fundamental attribution error occurs when behaviour is attributed only to internal processes, genetics in this case, rather than to situational factors - the social context. Behavioural geneticists, focusing on internal processes, may be guilty of committing a fundamental attribution error, by not giving an appropriate role to the specific social context in the child's developing social awareness. However, the converse holds too. We should be careful to obviate the other fundamental attribution error, that of attributing causes for behaviour entirely to the social context.

Ginsburg's excellent account of the clinical interview should appeal to anyone who works, or is thinking of working with children, whether or not in a clinical setting, or more generally for anyone interested in learning how to ensure that both parties in an interview are referring to the same thing. Campbell and Muncer's book is not as easy to assimilate as a whole. Nonetheless, I found the dichotomy between the nativists and environmentalists compelling and would hope it is widely read by students of developmental psychology as well as educators.

Janine Spencer is lecturer in cognition and cognitive development, London Guildhall University.

The Social Child

Author - Anne Campbell and Steven Muncer
ISBN - 0 86377 822 4
Publisher - Psychology Press
Price - £39.95
Pages - 418

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