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Using Developmental Theory: When Not to Play Telephone Games

Author(s): Sara Nora Ross

Journal: Integral Review
ISSN 1553-3069

Volume: 4;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 31;
Date: 2008;
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Keywords: applied developmental theory | behaviors | classifications | Commons | communication ethics | developmental theory | Institute for Applied DevelopmentalTheory | knowledge-building | Model of Hierarchical Complexity | Richards | stages | Wilber

As a powerful way to help understand the behaviors of people and socialgroupings of all kinds, developmental stage theory attracts attention and use outside ofpurely academic environments. These uses take the form of written materials and manykinds of interventions. The level of accuracy of developmental theory informationgenerated and used outside of academe demonstrates wide variety. This variety isreflected in materials and interventions. The information used in materials andinterventions becomes increasingly distorted as it becomes further removed from originaltheoretical sources. This has major implications for the ethics and expertise issues that areinherent in applied developmental theory. A classification scheme of information-usebehaviors, many of which contribute to distortion processes, is used to code actual casesof creating and disseminating distorted developmental theory information, invoking themetaphor of telephone games. Case evidence indicates that casual, illustrative figures in a2006 book by Wilber were used by others for various serious and theoretical purposes,and resulted in major distortions of developmental theory. Wilber’s figures representproblematic issues and errors, including distortion of theory, if they are used—as theyindeed were—for any purpose more serious than his original purpose. Stemming fromthose issues and errors, a highly distorted picture of cognitive development and a pseudoversionof Commons and Richards’ Model of Hierarchical Complexity theory emerged,telephone game-like, in the cases discussed. Errors were widely propagated on theinternet. Because outside of academe, specialized expertise in developmental theory isdifficult to acquire, the sub-field of applied developmental theory requires not onlyaccurate information but also strong communication ethics to govern behaviors ofinformation providers. Such providers need to protect themselves at the same time theyprotect and inform consumers of their information. This process of knowledge sharingand knowledge building can be shaped by adopting guidelines and a basic operatingprinciple proposed here. Guidelines and principles, without institutionalization, areinsufficient support. A new Institute of Applied Developmental Theory could provide thesupports, standards, and effectiveness the sub-field of applied developmental theoryneeds if its power to address 21st century challenges, which sorely need it, is to berealized.
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