Program descriptions

Students in consultation with faculty advisors develop an area of study appropriate to their professional goals and research interests. The breadth of research in the department is illustrated in the following programs, from which students draw courses appropriate to their PhD research.

Comparative Behavioral Biology

This program investigates behavioral processes at the social, psychological and biological levels of organization in both humans and nonhuman animals. Current research is concentrated in three main areas. In the area of behavioral and reproductive endocrinology, research conducted with rodents and humans investigates the social and behavioral control of fertility and reproduction and the role of hormone behavior interactions in development throughout the life span. Specific topics of interest include mechanisms and function of estrous and menstrual synchrony, facultative adjustment of sex ratios, pheromonal communication, reproductive senescence, psychosomatics in obstetrics and gynecology, and the behavioral modulation of the immune function. In the area of comparative development, we use nonhuman primate and rodent models of parenting and development to investigate social, emotional, and endocrine aspects of mother infant attachment and infant development, with particular emphasis on interindividual variability both within and outside the normal range. Other topics of interest include affiliative and aggressive behavior, mating strategies, nonverbal communication and social cognition in rodents, primates and humans. In the area of social neuroscience, one topic of interest is evaluative processes, e.g., affective, attitudinal, or emotional operations by which individuals discriminate hostile from hospitable environments. Of interest as well is in the role of social and autonomic factors in individuals endocrine and cellular immune response to stress and illness vulnerability. Throughout, the research approach is characterized by the integration of social and biological levels of analysis.

Society, Institutions, Culture and the Life Course

The Department of Comparative Human Development has a long tradition of examining “development” not just in childhood, but over the entire life course. A basic premise of our approach is that how people change over their lives is shaped by, and also shapes, social institutions, cultural practices, material circumstances and biological potential. We are also interested in how normative models of human development become institutionalized, materialized, and potentially contested as they travel across different cultural or economic settings. Some current areas of research include the influence of families, peers, neighborhoods and economic inequality on individual trajectories and outcomes; the role of youth and generational change in contemporary social life; and how early childhood exposure to social and psychological deprivation contributes to subsequent vulnerability or resilience. A particular strength of the department is the study of how children learn in school settings and the role of gesture in learning and cognition. Faculty focused on education have unique expertise in the quantitative analysis of large data sets to distinguish the cross-cutting effects of age, cohort, and institutional context. We also seek to develop new experimental and qualitative methods that assess the relationship between cognitive competence and interaction in instructional settings. Faculty and students interested in life-course issues also engage in cross-cultural research in places as diverse as Madagascar, Mexico, India and Papua New Guinea.

Cultural Psychology, Psychological Anthropology, Immigration Studies

Coming to terms with transnational migration and defining the scope and limits of tolerance for ethnic, religious and cultural diversity in North America and Europe has become one of the most pressing concerns for states and citizens in liberal democracies in the 21st century. The Department of Comparative Human Development has long been a leading center for training in psychological anthropology, cultural psychology, culture and mental health, and the cross cultural study of human development, with special attention to what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz once called “the force and durability of ties of religion, language, custom, locality, race, and descent in human affairs.” Faculty and students investigate ethnic and cultural sources of diversity in emotional and bodily functioning, conceptions of self and subjectivity, sexuality and gender identity, moral evaluation, and social cognition. We are also concerned with the social and political production and management of social differences as well as the conflicts that arise in the context of contemporary migration. Ethnographic field work both in the United States and abroad is an important component of this program, although students and faculty use multiple methods (qualitative and quantitative, observational, clinical and experimental) to understand the similarities and differences in psychological functioning across human populations. The program encourages the comparative social and cultural analysis of what people know, think, feel, desire and value in India, Japan, China, Russia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as research on the institutions, ideologies and economic circumstances that shape the experience of minorities in places ranging from Norway to France to the United States.

Health, Vulnerability and Culture

The Department of Comparative Human Development maintains a tradition of examining health, illness and vulnerability from a variety of social science perspectives. We understand health, illness and vulnerability as experiences that are deeply shaped by inter-related social, political-economic, and psychobiological processes. We are also committed to the idea that how human beings experience distress is inextricable from the ways in which we recognize, represent and respond to it. We are thus equally concerned with the biosocial mechanisms through which health, illness and vulnerability become embodied in particular persons, as we are with the cultural and linguistic processes through which concepts such as “health,” “illness” and “vulnerability” are produced, enacted, institutionalized and contested. A particular strength of our program is the study of mental health and illness and of psychiatry as a social institution. Current areas of research include including culture and mental health; the comparative study of medical and healing systems; psychopathology and resilience across the life course; the psychosocial determinants of malignant and infectious disease; disability and vulnerability as conditions of ethical and political life; colonialism and traumatic social memory; the social consequences of the neurosciences and genetics; and illness, subjectivity and embodiment. Faculty and students employ a range of ethnographic, experimental and epidemiological methods, and have carried out fieldwork in settings including China, France, India, Madagascar, Russia, Scandinavia and the United States.

Language and Communication in Thought and Interaction

This program area supports research and training on how language and other forms of social communication support and shape individual thought and social interaction. The program encompasses three intersecting areas. First, it compares communicative modalities across species, especially among the social mammals, with particular attention to the role played by language in human evolution and development by enabling the emergence of self, culture, and conceptual thought. Second, it compares linguistic and other communicative traditions across human societies with respect to their effects on thought and interaction, with particular attention to the impact of language diversity, multilingualism, the interplay of verbal and nonverbal communication, and language socialization. And third, it compares both within and across societies the various specialized structures and discursive uses of language deployed within specialized institutional settings and ideological regimes such as education, therapy, science, religion, politics, etc. Across all three areas, there is an emphasis on bringing together a firm grounding in the formal analysis of the communicative modalities with substantive understanding of the psychological and social fields within which they operate.


An optional specialization will be available in methods. This specialization is meant to be in addition to a student's main area of study, and cannot substitute the prior program areas as a student's main area of study.

Methods in Human Development Research

Research on human development over the life span and across social and cultural contexts thrives on multiple theoretical perspectives. This research requires creation and improvement of a wide range of research methods appropriately selected for and tailored to specific human development problems. Faculty in the department employ research methods that span the full range from primarily qualitative to primarily quantitative and to strategic mix of both. Across all the substantive domains in Comparative Human Development, theoretical understanding is greatly advanced by methodology; therefore the Department pays serious attention to research design, data collection, analytic strategies, and presentation, evaluation, and interpretations of evidence. The Department has contributed some of the most influential work on psychological scaling on the basis of the item response theory (IRT), multivariate statistical methods, analysis of qualitative data, modeling of human growth, and methods for cross-cultural analysis. Current research interests include (a) assessment of individual growth and change in important domains of development that are often intertwined, (b) examination and measurement of the structure, process, and quality of individual and group experiences in institutionalized settings such as families, schools, clinics, and neighborhoods, and (c) evaluation of the impact of societal changes or interventions on human development via changes in individual and group experiences, with particular interest in the heterogeneity of growth, process, and impact across demographic sub-populations and across social cultural contexts.