chapter  24
Studying the Real Child Rather Than the Ideal Child: Bringing the Person Into Developmental Studies
WithHongxin Zhao, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Sara McLanahan, Burton Singer
Pages 28

Throughout the history of developmental inquiry, tensions are evident between more case-based and more variable-oriented approaches to studying lives through time. Studying lives through time represents the heart of developmental inquiry. Although case-oriented and variable-oriented approaches have both been applied when studying individuals, the latter is the choice of many scholars. This is true even in the face of a common criticism when employing variable-oriented approaches: The person becomes lost quite quickly. As a result, as Mishler (1996) pointed out, the mean becomes reified, as “if it is the ideal child that would have been available for study in the best of all possible worlds-if it were not for all the messiness of inter-and intraindividual variation resulting from a host of uncontrolled and unknown sources” (p. 78). Many developmental scholars would protest, arguing that the focus on individual differences, on contextual influences, and on the interaction of the two, is proof of a move away from a focus on the “average child” (Lewin, 1935). However, even longitudinal, temporally linked, and process-oriented studies typically use variable-oriented statistical techniques to examine lives

(event history analyses, growth curve analyses, path analyses; Brooks-Gunn, Phelps, & Elder, 1991; Magnusson, 1988). These techniques still have as their central concern the variable, not the person. To put it another way, the study of whole lives is often missing or is fragmented.