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The Dynamics of Independence and Interdependence in Chinese Children's Development

Final Report Summary - IIDEV (The Dynamics of Independence and Interdependence in Chinese Children's Development)

In my project, I investigated the dynamics of independence and interdependence in relation to child development in China. The project brought together methods and approaches from anthropology and developmental psychology, to produce empirical knowledge that is based on in-depth ethnographic understanding of children’s learning environments, but also includes systematic elements that enable comparisons with other social and cultural environments. I carried out ethnographic fieldwork and field experiments in two communities in Jiangsu, China. My research focused on 7 to 9-year-olds. I was therefore based in two primary schools, while also conducting participant observation in the communities. The two communities shared many characteristics, the majority of families had one child; grandparents significantly contributed to early child care; and the two schools followed the same curriculum. The communities differed from each other in two significant ways: one was an upper middle-class community in an affluent suburb while the other was a semi-rural working-class community; in the middle-class community most families were migrants from around China with limited social networks in the area, while the working-class community comprised of long-term residents of the surrounding countryside, with extensive local networks of kinship and friendship.

During the initial training in the methods and approaches of developmental psychology, human cooperation was deemed as an appropriate theoretical framework for this study. During the first 6 months of fieldwork, different aspects of cooperation (e.g. helping, sharing, reputation management, punishment) were observed in comparative terms. On the basis of this research, I collaborated with psychologists at Harvard University to design experiments that systematically compared patterns of fairness, sharing, competitiveness and self-regulation in the two communities. The data analysis is still in process, but some of the main findings can be reported at this point:

The cultural, social and socioeconomic elements in children’s learning environments influenced the patterns of cooperation, inter-dependence and competitiveness in complex ways. The children of the working class community had more opportunities to interact freely with both peers and with community members of different ages. They took part in the community life and adult activities in addition to their own school work. The children of the middle-class community spent most of their time in activities designed by adults specifically for children, and under the direction or supervision of adults. The working-class community children were very skilled cooperators and managed varying interests, situations and personalities in their group in subtle ways. The middle-class children struggled to cooperate without adult direction. For example, joint activities often involved conflicts that could escalate into fights. Children in both schools were equally motivated by competition, but their mode of competitiveness was different. The elite school put great emphasis on competition, and children focused on the result, i.e. only enjoyed competition if they won. Competitive atmosphere was not prevalent in the regular school, and children were motivated (i.e. their performance improved) by competitive settings and enjoyed competitions regardless of the outcome.

The interdiciplinary field of human cooperation starts from the premise that the patterns of cooperation are shaped by the evolved dispositions of our species, by their ontogenetic development during life course, and by cultural-historical processes and institutions. Therefore this project has high potential to yield further significant results after cross-cultural comparative research has been carried out. This is in progress via two lines of inquiry: (1) the results of the Inequity Aversion experiment are being analysed and compared with the results from other countries, the publications are expected in 2017. (2) I have received a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship to expand this research into a cross-cultural comparison with the UK. This further research will focus on the dynamics between cooperation and conflict, and it will involve further training in the psychology of cooperation at the Harvard University, Department of Psychology.