Seasons and Stages:  Models and Metaphors of Human Development

Elizabeth Liebert
San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo,  CA  94960

The following paragraphs suggest the thesis of the essay of the same name adapted and used by permission from In Her Own Time, edited by Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, copyright ©2000 Augsburg Fortress (

When we use the word development in relation to human beings, we all know hat we mean.  Or do we?  The complete essay illumines two very different yet complementary meanings of this seemingly innocuous word development and points out the domain of each. These two meanings may be named the life-span and the structural respectively. I argue that both meanings tell us something important about human beings, and that consequently neither meaning should be dismissed. Furthermore each perspective on development has its own understanding of developmental change. To the extent that pastoral caregivers understand the dynamics of change, it enhances the possibility of assisting and accompanying a women through a developmental change. After examining the two models, I examine what we can learn about women’s development primarily from the second model, the structural model, since this model is the least understood and utilized. 

            The following principles of structural development are my own formulation derived from a synthesis of a variety of structural theories.  Chief among these theories is that of Jane Loevinger, whose constructed her theory based on research with women and girls.

            1.  Structural development highlights the formal ordering principles of personality and the way these principles function to organize a coherent outlook on the world.  By definition, structural theories deal with abstractions and must resort to a metalanguage to describe the patterns, styles, and principles out of which we act.

            2.  One’s ordering system supplies operative assumptions but is itself rarely available for conscious reflection because one looks at the world from within its perspective.  The ordering system acts as an unperceived horizon that defines what we se and how we fit these pieces  together into a coherent whole.

            3.  Stages describe qualitatively different styles of viewing reality.  Simply summing up prior stages cannot create new stages, but each stage requires an entirely new ordering axiom to account for the new configuration. 

            4.  The movement to a subsequent stage requires a “higher order of ordering” to account for the increased complexity.  Therefore, stages appear in invariant order from simple to complex. Stages cannot be skipped, but people can understand and use any of the simpler ordering systems they have already transcended.  Indeed in some situations, simpler systems provide the more elegant and commonsense solution.

            5.  People can understand the complexity of a stage that is a half to a whole stage ahead of where they are, but they will reframe any greater complexity in terms of their present stage. 

            6.  Stage progression is a dialectical movement, with each stage transforming the prior stage and preparing for the next one.

            7.  Stages are remarkably stable systems, because they represent entire systems of meaning-construction.  Change takes place in such a stable structure only when the stage no longer accommodates the contrary date it must absorb. Thus, structural theories can account for the remarkable consistency within the human personality over time.  They represent the negative feedback that any system needs to preserve it from flying apart in the fact of an unchecked and accelerating pace of change, and they moderate the pace of change to a level the system can tolerate.

            8.  In a structural system, there is no theoretical necessity for change.  Whthout sufficient dissonance to require a new structure, the person will not change stage.  Therefore, stage change does not inevitably result from advancing age.  In fact, many adults do not change structural stages after their early twenties.

            9.  When stage change does occur, it is likely to be a protracted process, and it is not at all inevitable without an appropriate developmental context.  Therefore, though simplistic attempts to move people to more complex stages will most likely prove futile, developmentally sensitive environments can create a context that encourages stage change.

            10.  Because the stage at which a person levels off will quite likely provide the from a for a person’s life outlook for a period of time, a stage also functions as a distinct personality style.  In other words, some personality traits may be accounted for by one’s developmental stage.

            11.  Real people, however, are far richer and more complex that a stage theory can reveal.  A stage is simply an abstract convention denoting the most complex meaning-system that a person uses consistently in the ordinary circumstances of life.  A developmental theory, then, ought not be mistaken for the real person, nor a real person reduced to a stage or to a single theoretical perspective.

            12.  The entire context within which a person lives caries developmental significance.  Individuals are not isolated automatons but live in complex systems of communities, all of which constantly exert developmental pulls or developmental constraints, both powerful and subtle.

Back to Elizabeth Liebert's Home Page