Dynamic Systems Theory and Human Development: A Cognitive Journey through Intellectual State Space

Date of Completion


Document Type

Open Access Capstone

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

First Advisor

Carol Smith


This synthesis addresses the issue of human development theory from a first-person exploratory perspective. In this work, I focus directly on my experiences, education, and thoughts on human development as an intellectual case study or journey through theoretical and methodological issues in the formal study of human development. In addition, I review classical and contemporary human development theories and research approaches in order to establish my understanding of the “state of the field”. Finally, I attempt to lay the groundwork for possible future research and to develop a better personal understanding of what a synthetic, comprehensive, predictive theory for understanding human development might look like. The content herein is a synthesis of what I bring to this endeavor from my past experiences and education, and what I have acquired over the past year. The guiding framework of this synthesis is a series of questions I have encountered while studying and contemplating human development. These questions include organic questions that I have developed on my own, and borrowed questions that have previously been explored by others and of which I have become aware through others’ work. This synthesis is balanced between explaining the critical and creative thinking process I have undertaken to develop this work, and explaining human development theory and research in their own right. Regarding past, present, and future work in the field of human development I divide the discussion primarily between classical theorists (e.g., Piaget, Erikson), and contemporary theorists (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, Thelen). The discussion around contemporary theories is based heavily on systems theory in general, with dynamic systems theory being a prominent topic. Dynamic systems theory is discussed both as a facet of systems theory, as a historical culmination of developmental theory and research, and as a guiding paradigm for future human development theories. I do not intend this synthesis to be an exhaustive review of all the relevant topics in creating human development theory. Rather the content serves as broad summaries of key concepts in dynamic systems approaches that I think have special promise and as “placeholders” from which further study can take place.


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