The dynamics of agency and context in human development: Holism revisited

Document Type

Book Chapter


This paper will look at the evolving relational-developmental paradigm (Overton, 2015; Witherington and Boom, 2020) examining how individual and culture are brought together (or not) in metatheoretical discussions of human development. After a long period of the Cartesian split-mechanistic view of human development, we have increasingly witnessed a shift to more relational views. Moving beyond the separation of mind from body, organism from context, and linear accounts of human development based on additive models (all characteristic of the Cartesian split-mechanistic metatheory), the relational-developmental paradigm embraces three key factors: agency, process, and holism. It is this third area, the holistic view of the organism and environment, that is the central focus of this chapter. We will examine three approaches to individual and environment relations in discussions of holism in developmental science, with a focus on two questions. First, how does each account describe individual, culture, and their relationship to one another (the what); and second, how specifically does that interaction take place (the how)? After reviewing Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model, developmental systems theory, and sociocultural approaches, a discussion will examine how historical changes in the notion of context in neighboring disciplines will help developmental scholars move forward in productive ways as scholars embrace more holistic views of human development.

Publication Title

Culture as Process: A Tribute to Jaan Valsiner

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agency, bioecological theory, developmental systems theory, holism, process, sociocultural approaches