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madamekJournalmanagerVol.8No.1Osborne152-168.pdf

madamekJournalmanagerVol.8No.1Osborne152-168.pdf

Life Span and Resiliency Theory: A Critical Review

Alexa Smith-Osborne

Abstract: Theories of life span development describe human growth and changeover the life cycle (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 2006). Major types of develop-mental theories include biological, psychodynamic, behavioral, and social learn-ing, cognitive, moral, and spiritual, and those influenced by systems, empower-ment, and conflict theory. Life span development theories commonly focus on onto-genesis and sequential mastery of skills, tasks, and abilities. Social work scholarshave pointed out that a limitation of life span and other developmental theory islack of attention to resilience (Greene, 2007; Robbins et al., 1998).

The concept of resilience was developed to “describe relative resistance to psy-chosocial risk experiences” (Rutter, 1999b, p. 119). Longitudinal studies focused ontypical and atypical child development informed theory formulation in develop-mental psychopathology (Garmezy & Rutter, 1983; Luthar, Cichetti, & Becker, 2000)and in an evolving resilience model (Richardson, 2002; Werner & Smith, 1992).Research on resilience has found a positive relationship between a number of indi-vidual traits and contextual variables and resistance to a variety of risk factorsamong children and adolescents. More recently, resilience research has examinedthe operation of these same factors in the young adult, middle-age, and elder lifestages.

This article examines the historical and conceptual progression of the two devel-opmental theories—life span and resiliency—and discusses their application tosocial work practice and education in human behavior in the social environment.

Keywords: Life span, resiliency theory, life cycle, critique

Theories of life span development describe human growth and change overthe life cycle (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 2006). Major types of develop-mental theories include biological, psychodynamic, behavioral and social

learning, cognitive, moral and spiritual, and those influenced by systems,empowerment, and conflict theory. Life span development theories commonlyfocus on ontogenesis and the sequential mastery of skills, tasks, and abilities.

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Alexa Smith-Osborne, Ph.D. is assistant professor at The University of Texas at Arlington School of SocialWork, Arlington, TX 76019.

Copyright© 2007 Advances in Social Work Vol. 8 No. 1 (Spring 2007) 152-168.Indiana University School of Social Work.

The major theories address the entire life cycle, from prenatal or birth to death,but they often focus in-depth on particular age periods, referred to as life stages.Some theorists within this field have focused more exclusively on a single lifestage (Vaillant, 1993) or on a macro-level view of developmental traits that char-acterize an age cohort with defined ranges of birth dates or historical/culturalperiods of primary influence on development (Strauss & Howe, 1991). For pur-poses of this paper, only a segment of life span theory can be addressed.Therefore, this paper focuses on personality and psychosocial theories, whichform the historical foundation for much of the other life span theories.

Resiliency theory is an emerging theoretical perspective that has been devel-oped within developmental psychopathology and ecosystems perspectives and isinfluenced by stress and coping theories. Although this theory has not beenexplicitly developed as an outgrowth of life span theory, it is developmental infocus, and theory-driven research typically examines a specific chronological lifestage as a starting point. This theoretical framework addresses health develop-ment of at-risk populations, and overcoming stress and adversity to achieve func-tional outcomes either during a life stage, a specific trajectory (e.g., educationalor deviancy), or throughout the life span. The initial focus of theory developmenthas been on childhood and adolescence and associations of traits and events atthese life stages with outcomes later in life. Some recent research in this field hasapplied resiliency constructs to adults at risk (Daining, 2005; Smith, 2003; Smith-Osborne, 2006).

Historical Context

The notion that life can be understood as a series of significant and sequentialstages can be traced to the earliest human civilizations and has appeared consis-tently in literary, religious, and philosophical writings throughout history(Erikson, 1968; Robbins et al., 1998). The scientific approach to human develop-ment throughout the life cycle was stimulated by the emergence of evolutionarytheory at the turn of the century (Darwin, 1872), which led to the development ofbiologically focused maturational and psychosexual perspectives, such as thoseof G. Stanley Hall in 1904, Sigmund Freud in 1905, and Arnold Gesell in 1925.These seminal theories challenged the Victorian (and earlier) conception of chil-dren as little adults, and childhood as a time of relative stability, while the chil-dren were simply waiting to grow physically (Colby, 1970; Karl, 1964).

These theories also established the conceptualization of human development asoccurring in a series of essentially stable stages, with periods of instability duringtransitions between stages and the mastery of stage-specific skills or conflicts asthe foundation for progress to the next stage (Hoffman, Paris, Hall, & Schell, 1988).

Freudian theory came to dominate much of human development theory andclinical practice in the early 20th century, with several of Freud’s students, notablyJung and Erikson, expanding on his concepts on the basis of their own clinicaland cross-cultural experiences. These amplifications of Freudian theory occurredagainst the backdrop of the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, and World War II. Theoriginator of what is now called the life span approach to human psychologicaldevelopment, Erik Erikson, had been a student of Freud’s and trained as a psy-

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choanalyst in Germany. Erickson fled Nazi Germany in 1939 to immigrate toAmerica, where he expanded Freud’s stages to apply to the entire life span,emphasizing psychosocial, rather than biological drive theory.

Resiliency theory, in contrast, originated on the basis of prospective longitudinalresearch on cohorts of children at risk (Garmezy, 1993; Rutter, Quinton, & Hill,1990; Werner & Smith, 1982, 1992), rather than on the basis of individual clini-cians’ observations and case studies. Such studies were informed by preventionscience (Greene, 2007) and the application of the epidemiological concepts ofimmunity and resistance to disease to human development and psychopatholo-gy (Thoits, 1983). In particular, Werner and Smith’s longitudinal study of 698infants, many of Hawaiian and Asian descent, provided a major empirical basisfor the inception of resiliency constructs and hypotheses for further testing, asdid Rutter’s work with early onset mental disorders and with institutionalizedRomanian children (e.g., Rutter, 1983; Rutter et al., 1990). Resiliency theory’s salu-togenic orientation has been heavily influenced by the Hawaiian study’s focus onthose in childhood adversity who overcome the odds by the time they reachadulthood. The initial formulation of theoretical concepts and constructs basedon this research proceeded within the developmental psychopathology frame-work in psychiatry (e.g., Rutter, 1987) and developmental psychology (e.g.,Garmezy, Masten, & Tellegen, 1984) and within family stress and adjustment the-ory (e.g., McCubbin & Dahl, 1976; McCubbin & Patterson, 1983) in social work.Much of the seminal research in this field was begun in the late 1950s (e.g., Werner& Smith began their study in 1955) and initial findings were reported in the 1980s.Thus, this early theoretical development was situated historically in the post-Vietnam War and the post-colonial era of globalization, and it often focused onidentifying factors in overcoming trauma and adverse events, such as war-induced family separations. Later, as social work educators and researchers gavemore attention to salutogenic, strengths-based (Saleebey, 1997) theoretical mod-els for practice, resiliency constructs were further developed within the ecologi-cal perspective (e.g., Fraser & Galinsky, 1997; Gilgun, 1996) in social work theory,rather than in life span theory. Social workers have continued to draw on resilien-cy theory constructs and empirical findings in research (e.g., Herrenkohl, Hill,Chung, Guo, Abbott, & Hawkins, 2003) and in human behavior and practice texts(e.g., Haight & Taylor, 2007; Johnson, 2004; Thomlison, 2007), either within theecological perspective (e.g., Haight & Taylor) or, more commonly, outside a spec-ified theoretical frame of reference. Furthermore, some social workers haveexplicitly identified and used resiliency theory as a theoretical framework, inde-pendent of other perspectives, for education (Greene, 2007) and research (Smith-Osborne, 2005a, 2006; Ungar, 2004).

THEORETICAL CONCEPTS AND CRITICAL ANALYSIS

Life Span Theory

Life span theory utilizes the central concept of ontogenesis, the chronologicalunfolding of human development (Gunnar & Thelen, 1989; Thelen & Smith,1994), which includes both change in size and change in the complexity and dif-ferentiation of function (e.g., the change in motor reflexes at various stages in

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life). Some theorists include deterioration or diminishment in size and function,particularly if the focus is on aging and the adult life cycle, as well as accretion oraugmentation ( Jung, 1965; Newman & Newman, 1975; Santrock, 1989).

Erikson (1950) proposed the concept of “epigenesis” to convey that humandevelopment unfolds from part to whole, with elements of the chronologicallyappropriate ability or personality feature gradually emerging in a prescribedsequence until the functional whole was achieved. The term has since been usedwithin the developmental psychopathology theoretical perspective to also applyto the chronological unfolding over the life span of the disease process, such asschizophrenia (e.g., Cannon, Rosso, Bearden, Sanchez, & Hadley, 1999). He sawthis emergence as occurring within an interactional and adaptive framework,within which the individual develops through interaction and adaptation to theimmediate social environment as well as to the larger society, culture, and histor-ical context. Thus, Erikson postulated that mutual responsiveness on the part ofboth the individual and society was necessary for optimal development.

Another key life span concept associated with the work of Freud and Erikson isthe life stage. The life stage is seen as an age-related period of life characterized bypredictable features, tensions, and changes and leads into a subsequent stage.Erikson formulated the notion of the psychosocial crisis, a period of tension anddisorganization centered on a stage-specific theme, the resolution of which wasthe goal of the transition phase from one stage to the next. Freud and Eriksonconceptualized stages as prescriptive, in that their sequence was unvarying anddefined optimal mature development, was associated with specific tensions/con-flicts, and was prerequisite, in that each stage must be worked through and theassociated conflicts resolved before successful transition to the next stage couldbe accomplished. Freud’s and Erikson’s life stage models are presented inHoffman et al. (1988, pp. 30 and 32).

Erikson (1950) moved beyond Freud’s life stage constructs in proposing that egodevelopment in childhood is a process of identification, which he defined asinternalization of another person’s values and standards in an attempt to becomelike that person or parts of that person. It was in adolescence that Eriksonobserved (1968) the identity was formed through a process of:

repudiation and mutual assimilation of childhood identifications andtheir absorption in a new configuration, which in turn, is dependenton the process by which a society (often through subsocieties) identi-fies the young individual, recognizing him as somebody who had tobecome the way he is and who, being the way he is, is taken for grant-ed. (p. 159)

In Erikson’s theory, then, the concept of the mature ego identity as a complexsense of self, comprising societally-defined life roles as well as aspects of person-ality, is crucial. The “identity crisis” in adolescence is normative and revolvesaround issues of personal sameness and historical continuity, which serve as alink between the individual and the larger society. Prolonged adolescence, inErikson’s schema, provides a psychosocial moratorium in which the sexuallymature individual engages in free role experimentation, sanctioned by society, in

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order to find a defined niche in society, while postponing adult sexual roles.Erickson saw this as a second period of delay in the life cycle, with the first beingFreud’s psychosexual moratorium of the latency life stage, which permits theyoung to learn the basics of society’s work situations before embarking on maturesexual roles, such as spouse and parent. Erikson used the term identity diffusion,and later the term identity confusion (1968), to describe the state of mild confu-sion commonly experienced by adolescents in the process of identity formation.James Marcia (1980) developed this concept further to apply to adolescents whoare not in an identity crisis, because they are not committing themselves to occu-pational or ideological goals and are not concerned about the situation.

Based on the mature and socially acceptable ego identity, the young adult, inErikson’s schema, could then take up the mature sexual role in seeking a spouseor intimate partner. In the middle adult stage, the individual was seen as transi-tioning to the ego strength made up of procreativity, productivity, and creativity,such as in forming a family and mentoring future generations on a personal, soci-etal or even global level. The last stage of life was that of ego integrity, whichinvolves the older adult’s acceptance of his/her own live as meaningful andcoherent, and the perspective that one has handled life’s tasks in the best waypossible under given circumstances.

Contemporary theorists have proposed expanded models, particularly in theadolescent and adult stages. Two such models, proposed by Vaillant (1993, p. 145)and Newman and Newman (1988, p. 45).

Erikson (1982, 1986, 1988) built on his earlier work in the last life stage, as he andhis wife reflected on their own adult development in later life, conceptualizingaging in terms of revisitation of earlier stages of development within his Stage 8 ofIntegrity vs. Despair.

Erikson and other psychodynamic theorists, such as Vaillant (1993), acknowl-edge developmental influences such as culture, race, and gender, but tend to viewintrapsychic and biological factors, including IQ, as being more important todevelopment.

Other theorists conceptualize human development as being more fluidthroughout the life span, rather than the product of invariant and chronological-ly sequential stages, and as being more heavily influenced by social roles(Goffman, 1959; Neugarten, 1985), demographic variables, such as gender, race,or socioeconomic status, culture and historical “moment,” and even the recipro-cal, interactive effects of the immediate physical/social environment (Gunnar &Thelen, 1989).

Resiliency Theory

The concept of resilience was developed to “describe relative resistance to psy-chosocial risk experiences” (Rutter, 1999b, p. 119). It has been further defined as“a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of sig-nificant adversity” (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000) and “the process of copingwith adversity, change, or opportunity in a manner that results in the identifica-tion, fortification, and enrichment of resilient qualities or protective factors”

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(Richardson, 2002, p. 308). Research on stress reactions and recovery from stress,with implications for education, has also informed this theory (Benotsch et al.,2000; D’Imperio, Dubow, & Ippolito, 2000; Dubow, Schmidt, McBride, Edwards, &Merk, 1993; Dubow, Tisak, Causey, Hryshko, & Reid, 1991; Fontana, Schwartz, &Rosenheck, 1997; Garmezy & Rutter, 1983; Golding, 1989; Keenan & Newton,1984; Lazarus, 1993; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Thus, resilience is conceptualizedas relative resistance to psychosocial stressors or adversity. Although varyingmodels of resiliency have been tested, researchers and theorists agree that theconstruct is salient in the context of stress and adversity and is not operative inthe absence of environmental stressors ( Jew, Green, & Kroger, 1999; Rutter, 1999).

The central constructs of the theory include risk factors/mechanisms, vulnera-bility factors, and protective factors/mechanisms. Risk factors and mechanismshave been conceptualized in alternate ways in the literature: either as 1) theevents or conditions of adversity (for example, poverty) themselves for whichthere is empirical evidence of association with psychopathology, illness, or dys-functional developmental outcomes or as 2) factors that operate to reduce resist-ance to stressors/adversity. Vulnerability factors are traits, genetic predisposi-tions, or environmental and biological deficits (such as cognitive impairments)for which there is empirical evidence of heightened response, sensitivity, or reac-tion to stressors or risk factors. The constructs of vulnerability factors and risk fac-tors are sometimes used interchangeably in the literature. Protective factors andmechanisms are traits, contextual characteristics, and interventions that operateto enhance or promote resistance, or which may moderate the effect of risk fac-tors, and for which there is empirical evidence of association with health andfunctional developmental outcomes. Rutter (1987) suggests that protectivemechanisms may operate in one of four ways to allow overcoming odds in theface of adversity: by reducing risk impact, by reducing negative chain reactions torisk factors, by promoting resiliency traits (i.e., the opposite of vulnerability fac-tors, such as self-efficacy and optimism), and by setting up new opportunities forsuccess. Reducing risk impact can occur not only by way of buffering events andsocial networks, but also by inoculation due to successful coping with earlier,milder stressful events. Protective and risk mechanisms have been found to varyaccording to the type of adversity, type of resilient outcome, and life stage underanalysis; risk factors in one context may be protective in another (Rutter, 1999;Smith-Osborne, 2006; Ungar, 2004).

Research on resilience among children, adolescents, and young adults hasfound a positive relationship between spirituality, social support, social capital,income, and personal/family traits (e.g., hardiness, coherence, social compe-tence and self-efficacy, normal attachment, healthy attributions, active stressappraisal, and coping), and resistance to a variety of risk factors, including psy-chiatric disorders and school failure/drop-out (Daining, 2005; Garmezy, 1991;Luthar et al., 2000; Masten & Coatsworth, 1998; Richardson, 2002; Rutter, 1999a;Smith & Carson, 1997; Werner, 1992). Research on military families dealing withwar-induced separation and trauma has found associations between resilienceand similar protective mechanisms (Benotsch et al., 2000; Lavee et al., 1985;McCubbin & Dahl, 1976; McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, Benson, & Robertson, 1976;

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McCubbin, Hunter, & Dahl, 1975; McCubbin et al., 1980; McCubbin & McCubbin,1996; Patterson, 2002; Sutker et al., 1995; Thoits, 1983).

Units of Analysis

Life span theory is most commonly applied to the individual and family as theunits of analysis (McCubbin et al., 1980). However, Erikson (1962, 1968, 1969) pro-posed that this theory could apply to humanity as an entity, thus not being limit-ed to one’s interactions with individuals, groups, or specific environments/insti-tutions.

Subsequent theorists, such as Coles (1990, 1991, 1997) and Strauss and Howe(1991), have focused on the more macro-level implications of Erikson’s concepts,for example, in investigating human development within generations and reli-gious reference groups.

Like life span theory, resiliency theory has been most commonly applied toindividuals and family units that are consistent with these theories’ shared devel-opmental focus. More recent investigations of specific risk and protective factors,however, have shown a trend toward the examination of macro-level or contextu-al variables (Herrenkohl et al., 2003; Schafft, 2006; Smith-Osborne, 2005, 2006;Ungar, 2004), such as neighborhoods (e.g., disorganized, residentially unstable)and institutional policies.

Aspects of Human Development

Rapid advances in the knowledge base about the biological underpinnings ofhuman development tend to lend support to conceptualizations of the life stagesthat are more fluid throughout the life span, rather than invariant or even neces-sarily sequential (Robbins et al., 1998; Thelen & Smith, 1994). Incorporation ofthis new knowledge is seen most clearly in researchers who focus on adult devel-opment and aging. George Vaillant (1993), for example, pointed out that:

If adult development is to be conceived as a psychobiological processthen it must conform to biology, and neither to social mores nor tochronological age. This means that, as with shaving and menstruation,not everybody will reach a given stage at the same chronological age (p.166).

Similarly, Sharon McQuaide, in her research on “Women at Midlife” (1998),examined biological and cohort variables to add to life span theory. She foundthat “The generation of women now entering midlife differs from previous gener-ations” (p. 21), and that women who were “’blocked from being in the world’(through disability, poor health, involuntary unemployment, limited spendingpower)” (p. 29) were less likely to achieve well-being and other indicators of gen-erativity, Erikson’s designation for the midlife stage issue. Life span theory, then,has the flexibility to address various aspects of human development throughoutits stages.

Resiliency theory has, from its inception, been remarkable for encompassingthe broad biopsychosocial aspects of human development, as well as for cross-referencing empirical findings on normative or healthy human development withfindings on pathological development (Cichetti & Cannon, 1999). Early develop-

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ment of the theory gave more attention to individual characteristics and to fac-tors present in childhood, which were associated with adult outcomes, thus priv-ileging enduring traits from earlier life stages. Although recent cross-sectionalstudies have begun to offer more possibilities for developing an understanding ofresiliency in middle and later adulthood, this theory’s current utility is, in itsapplication to the broad aspects of human development, from infancy throughearly adulthood.

Philosophical Underpinnings

The life span theory philosophical underpinnings, most of which have beennoted previously in this paper, include: a health and adaptation orientation,rather than a medical illness-oriented orientation; a special interest in the earlierstages of life; an ontogenetic perspective with emphasis on predictable and dis-continuous life stages; a transition period between stages, which may be charac-terized by increased tension and disorganization (Erikson’s “psychosocial crises”);an intrapsychic focus and an interactive focus; and lifelong development. Asnoted previously, the life span theorists who built on Erikson’s work have gone farin addressing the limitations of many of these philosophical underpinnings, aswell as the biases built into the original theory. Resiliency theory is characterizedas similarly salutogenic, but with a philosophical orientation toward the linear,cumulative connections between earlier life stages and adulthood for those atrisk. Resiliency research to date has been largely conducted by Western scientistsand has had a linear, positivistic paradigm. Thus, it has been criticized as hege-monic and, thereby, limited in its scope in accounting for diverse resiliency expe-riences. Philosophically, resiliency theory is more heavily focused than life spantheory on interactions between the environment and person in terms of environ-mental adversity and personal protective traits. As with life span theory, morerecent work in resiliency theory has tipped the balance philosophically more inthe direction of contextual protective variables, often operationalized as socialgroups and community and institutional characteristics.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The evident strengths of life span theory include its expansion of understandingof personality development through the life span, its utility across a variety ofhuman service settings and functions, and its “generativity,” to borrow Erikson’sterm and reapply it to theory-building. Life span theory gave rise to a rich pletho-ra of human development models, not only to increase understanding of specificlife stages or the entire life cycle, but also to address intermediate and macro-levelentities, such as families, family-run businesses, social movements led by “great”personalities, faith communities and religious reference groups, and entire gen-erational cohorts. In so doing, this theory has been applied to disciplines beyondthe human service domain. For example, the sociological concept of the bour-geois bohemian (Brooks, 2001), the theological concept of Gen X religiosity(Beaudoin, 2000), and the economic concept of style as a form of self-expression(Postrel, 2003), all owe their origins ultimately to life span theory.

Several of the most cogent points of criticism of life span theory weaknesseshave been noted above: the Euro-American, middle class, male bias; the rigidity

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of the life stage concept; and the notable lack of empirical support. Another, lessfrequently discussed weakness is the theory’s failure to address or adequatelyexplain the sources of the stage shifts (Haroutunian, 1983; Oyama, 1985) and theapplication of those stage shifts across domains (Thelen, 1987). Concomitantly,the theory has been targeted by critics for failure to account for the emergence ofnew forms in each stage (e.g., why do immobilized Hopi babies start walking atthe same age as mobile WASP babies) in the context of the nature versus nurturedichotomy.

Resiliency theory shows promise as an emerging theory, which extends life spantheory in offering predictive and explanatory constructs relevant to healthydevelopment in the face of adversity. Its constructs and models have been usedflexibly by social workers in concert with other theoretical perspectives, such asthe ecosystems perspective (Fraser, 1997; Gilgun, 1997), systems theory (Ungar,2004), the differential resiliency model (Palmer, 1997), and the social develop-ment model (Herrenkohl et al., 2003). Furthermore, this theory has demonstrat-ed that it offers both a viable platform for developmental research and a concep-tual framework capable of elegant and parsimonious evolution based on thatresearch. Resiliency theory has the advantage of being empirically based from itsinception and of thereby incorporating ongoing findings and constructs frombiology and neuroscience, such as neuroplasticity (Rutter, 1999b). It has begun todemonstrate utility in application across human service settings and practicemodels and across life stages and trajectories (Greene, 2007).

One important limitation of resiliency theory is its restriction to applicationonly to populations in adversity or populations experiencing trauma or highstress levels. Theoretical constructs may be misapplied in research or practice tonormative life cycle issues or moderately stressful events. The constructs them-selves have been criticized as tautological and are inconsistently defined acrossstudies, thus limiting validity and reliability of the research. Considerable efforthas been made by leading resiliency theorists, particularly in the last decade, toclarifying and standardize these definitions. This theory has also been criticizedfor its positivist research paradigm to date, with consequential bias towards lin-ear explanatory models based on predictable, hierarchical relationships betweenprotective and risk factors (Ungar, 2004). This tendency may limit its utility inapplication to diverse cultures and populations. On the other hand, the originalempirical basis for the development of the theory consisted heavily of studies ofcross-cultural and ethnic minority populations, which may be evidence to count-er this criticism.

Empirical Support

Life span theory has been criticized as lacking an empirical base of support, muchlike psychodynamic theory in general has been criticized. It is true that many the-orists in this perspective use clinical case and cross-cultural observation (Erikson,1968; Coles, 1990; Greenspan, 1992) and, in some instances, examination of thelives of great men and women, as their primary methodology for generating thetheory. For example, Erikson studied the lives of Luther and Gandhi (1962, 1969),while Vaillant looked at Florence Nightingale’s life in his analysis of women’s adultdevelopment (Vaillant, 1993). Coles is robust in his defense of these clinically ori-

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ented methodologies in generating rich, contextually-based theoretical con-structs, and is critical of the biases and limitations he finds inherent in empirical,quantitative methodologies (1990, pp. 22-39).

However, Vaillant’s longitudinal study of adult men (1977), his follow-up studyof male adults from a different socioeconomic group (1993), and recent quantita-tive studies of adult development (McQuaide, 1998; Norman, McCluskey-Fawcett, & Ashcraft, 2002) have provided empirical support both for the life spanconcepts derived from ego defense theory and for life stage concepts.

In general, the life span theory has maximal utility when used to describe andexplain the human development of individuals and, at a probabilistic rather thanprescriptive level (Robbins et al., 1998). Erikson indicated his general concur-rence with this summation in his discussion of the misapplication of his conceptof the psychosocial crisis (1968, pp. 15-43).

As previously described in this paper, resiliency theory has been conceived onan empirical basis, with two examples being Werner and Smith’s study of infantsin Hawaii and the English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team’s investigation ofinstitutionalized children who were later adopted (Rutter, Quinton, & Hill, 1990;Rutter & ERA, 1998). Resiliency theory-based empirical findings have been usefulin refining important practice modalities used in social work. For example, suchfindings suggested a shift in the focus on family therapy to include assessment ofthe differential impact of family communication patterns on different familymembers, depending on individual vulnerability factors and peer group influ-ences (Rutter, 1999b; Greene, 2007). Richardson (2002) has suggested that therehave been three waves of resiliency research: the first wave focused on identifyingresilient qualities in person and environment, the second wave focused on spec-ifying resilient processes effective in overcoming the odds, and the third and cur-rent wave in identifying innate transformational processes. Empirical testing ofresiliency constructs and models is ongoing in several disciplines, includingsocial work (e.g., Finkelstein et al., 2005; Hrabowski, Freeman, Maton, & Greif,1998, 2002; Kennedy, 2005; Wright, Fopma-Loy, & Fischer, 2005).

IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL WORK

Consistency with Social Work Values

Despite its lack of empirical evidence, life span theory has enjoyed widespreadacceptance, not only among social workers, but among the wide range of humanservice disciplines, particularly those with a psychodynamic theoretical perspec-tive regardless of discipline. Thus, part of its appeal has come from its expansionof Freudian theory and its correction of some of the limitations and biases of thattheory. Its optimistic, strengths-oriented perspective, and its applicability tosome domains other than the individual (McCubbin et al., 1980) have shown con-sistency with social work values. The utility of its concepts and theoretical con-structs has been amply demonstrated by the variety and magnitude of applica-tions that have been made to practice issues (e.g., Streever & Wodarski, 1984;Snow, 2003; Smith-Osborne, 2005b), to theory building (e.g., Elder, 1998; George,1993; Ingersoll-Dayton, Krause, & Morgan, 2002; Vaillant, 1993), and to popular

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understanding of the nature of human life (e.g., Sheehy, 1976). The psychody-namic life span theorists deemphasized the biological determinism of strictFreudian theory, and their theoretical concepts focus on successful negotiation ofthe life stage transitions as a normative, not as pathological process. These factorsare seen as consistent with social work values, such as client self-determinationand strengths-based practice.

Contemporary social workers are cautioned to be mindful that the originatorsof this theory base operated almost exclusively within a Euro-American middleclass framework, which limits the utility of the theory for application to diversecultures and classes. The male bias inherent in the original theory base has beenpartially addressed through research and additional theory formulation on thedevelopment of women through the life span (Gilligan, 1978, 1982, 1991; Friedan,1963, 1977; and 1993; McQuaide, 1998).

The social work emphasis on person-in-environment is a good fit with life spantheory’s perspective of human development as proceeding interactively. The lim-itations of the theory in taking macro-level influences into account, and theexpansion work in this area by Strauss and Howe and others, is noted above.

Resiliency theory shares with life span theory the excellent fit with social workvalues detailed above, while avoiding the cultural, class and gender biases thathave been noted in life span theory. Its focus on vulnerability and populations atrisk makes it particularly useful to the social work mission. This theory has beencriticized as being less consistent with social work values than it could be, due tothe hegemonic tendencies inherent in its positivistic philosophical underpin-nings; however, new qualitative and mixed methods research, undertaken withina constructivist paradigm, may develop this theory so as to correct these tenden-cies.

Next Steps for Theory Progression

The current status of life span theory within social work remains that of wide-spread, even uncritical acceptance in its application, in a variety of human serv-ice settings, from child welfare agencies to parent education classes. Social work-ers who practice or conduct research with specific age groups are informed bythis theory in understanding the unique aspects of that age group or birth cohort(e.g., McQuaide, 1998; Norman et al., 2002). In social work education, it is taughtin theory and human behavior classes at all levels of social work preparation. Theconcept of developmental stages has been applied to student developmentthrough the field instruction process in social work, as well as in counseling andpsychology (Deal, 2000, 2002). The utility of this theoretical perspective and itsvalue-fit with the social work profession are likely to ensure its continued placewithin the discipline. In order to enhance its viability as a foundation for bestpractices, life span theory must take the next steps in theory progression bystrengthening empirical support for both its micro and macro levels across lifestages, including the incorporation of recent advances in human neuroscienceevidence. Further development of models for middle and older adult life stages,differentiated by gender and ethnicity, is also needed. Continued attention mustbe paid to the dissemination of updated life span theory development by socialwork educators, text writers, and researchers.

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The current status of resiliency theory in social work is that of an emerging the-ory; its main constructs are used more often than the entire, articulated theoreti-cal framework, both in social work research and education, while frequency ofpractitioners’ use of this theory and its evidence base is unclear. Since it repre-sents an extension of more well-established life span theory and shares many ofthat theory’s strengths and acceptability for the profession, it is likely that resilien-cy theory will become more widely used in social work education the near future,as indicated by its use in at least two recently published texts in the HumanBehavior in the Social Environment curriculum (Greene, 2007; Haight & Taylor,2007). The next steps for progression of this theory should include cross-section-al studies to elucidate applicability of the known protective mechanisms to youngadult, middle adult, and older adult life stages, and to generational cohorts.Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies are needed to examine the operation ofprotective and risk mechanisms for particular resilient outcomes, such as educa-tional attainment, health disparities and perceived level of wellness, quality oflife, and vocational achievement, to build on results of the most common, previ-ously studied outcome of psychopathology versus mental wellness. Qualitativeand mixed methods research designs must be applied to extend theory develop-ment to diverse cultures and perceived operationalizations of resiliency withinthe lived experience of persons across the life span and across conditions ofadversity. Further discussion is needed in the literature to refine the operational-ization of this theory’s constructs and models and to promote common usage ofthe same in research. Articulation of practice applications of the theory, followedby empirical testing of related interventions, is necessary to integrate this theoryinto our understanding of human behavior in the social environment and to addto the evidence base for practice with populations in adversity.

Resiliency theory offers a rich opportunity for social work to refine evidence-based developmental theory for the vulnerable populations it is our unique priv-ilege to serve.

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Author’s Note:

Address correspondence to: Alexa Smith-Osborne, Ph.D., assistant professor, The University of Texas atArlington School of Social Work, 211 S. Cooper, Box 19129, Arlington, TX 76019, USA. e-mail:alexaso@uta.edu.

168 ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK

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