Research on human development in violently and rapidly changing contexts requires innovative concepts, methods, and outcomes. Toward that end, articles in this issue focus on practice-based research in situations of adversity during and after acute phases of violent conflict. The goal of this issue is to focus on intersubjective sense-making - how children and youth in situations of violence, displacement, and other attendant consequences interact with those circumstances and with other people, especially in collectives intervening on their behalf. We explain and illustrate that research in formal and informal interventions can, in different ways, help us understand the nature of human development and gain insights to support development against great odds. This focus on collective practices highlights the systemic nature of contemporary violence and innovative dimensions to consider in human development.

Violent conflicts and their consequences have increased since 1989 as global, political, and economic organizations have changed dramatically. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, conflicts across the Middle East and Latin America, the end of numerous colonial regimes, and the creation of new international power moves are just some of these reorganizations involving violence and instability at the turn of the 21st century. In 2015 alone, “65.3 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations, 5.8 million more than in the previous year” [UNHCR, 2016, p. 2]. About half of all those millions were children under the age of 18, and 98,400 were unaccompanied or separated children in 78 countries [UNHCR, 2016]. Reports of these unprecedented and apparently worsening conditions appear daily in the popular media, and increasing numbers of researchers across scholarly disciplines are responding by working to advance our understanding beyond the statistics. Statistics are important for recognizing the human toll of political decisions, but as scholars of human development, our goal is to contribute developmentally relevant analyses of manifestations and interpretations of war and its long shadow.

The argument launching this issue of Human Development is, in summary, that, given the contemporary global situation, our developmental research can usefully focus on the interaction of children in relation to diverse geopolitical-economic structures and processes. Such a focus means employing theoretical concepts and methods to examine collective practices designed to support ongoing child and youth development within challenges and scant opportunities of political violence systems. Broadening the lens from the individual child as vulnerable and/or resilient, these papers focus on young people participating in interventions, because those practice-based contexts reveal developmental processes as well as because organizations implementing the interventions believe that they will make a positive difference in children's lives. The selection of these articles conforms to a recent urging for “… rich empirical studies that enable us to not only learn about diverse practices, but also to develop our theoretical understanding of the various aspects of practice, such as the role of objects in them or the relationship between language and embodied routines, power, and so forth” [Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks, & Yanow, 2009].

To complement the numerous scale-based studies of psychosocial effects, the underexplored field of interventions focuses on how young people are making sense of systems of violence to which they have been subjected. The focus on individual and societal interaction emerged a century ago in the context of political-economic revolution [Vygotsky, 1930/1998]. Related theoretical principles such as activity systems [Engeström, Miettinen, & Punamaki, 1999; Leont'ev, 1978], cultural psychology [Cole, 1998], cultural tools [Vygotsky, 1978], and sociocultural scaffolding [Lee, 1993] have been explored and extended, albeit only recently again to address conflict. Theoretically consistent empirical research explores young people's symbolic and material manifestations in their environments. For that reason, we focus on processes of and changes in children's understandings of what is going on around them, how they fit, and what they would like to change.

With much recent research indicating the importance of social support for human resilience in adversity [Masten, 2014], we ask about the nature of understandings in such socially supported processes. Alarm for children caught in the midst of violence, displacement, and poverty is heightened because of vulnerability, innocence, and possibly limited trajectories in the wake of adversities experienced early in life. Much of the research on how children and youth growing up during and after contemporary political violence has been devoted to creating, testing, and implementing measures of child and youth behavior, with a focus on psychosocial reactions such as trauma, externalizing symptoms, and internalizing symptoms [Masten, 2014; Zuilkowski, Collet, Jambai, Adeyinka, Akinsulure-Smith, & Betancourt, this issue]. Findings include that social supports, social acceptance, and predictable daily life routines are extremely important for resilience and ongoing development [Betancourt, Abdi, Ito, Lilenthal, Agalab, & Ellis, 2015]. Child and youth well-being and problems have also been associated with different kinds of exposure to various manifestations and consequences of violence, such as living in refugee camps [Barber, 2008]. Understandably, direct experience with violent attack, injury, abuse, separation from family, witnessing death of loved ones, and isolation have been associated with trauma, although many youth do not appear to be clinically traumatized over the long term [Masten, 2014].

The state of science regarding trauma and resilience is promising, yet “… youth resilience amidst political conflict is likely a complex package of better and poorer functioning that varies over time and in direct relationship to social, economic, and political opportunities. Addressing this complexity will complicate the definition of resilience, but it confronts the ambiguities and limitations of work in cross-cultural contexts” [Barber, 2013, p. 461]. The time to address such complexities with research examining how young people make sense of violence and violently changing environments is, thus, opportune. A parallel yet slowly emerging approach has been to study how individuals and groups continue to develop cognitive, social, and emotional capacities, in particular as formal and informal organizations, educational institutions, policy makers, and other collectives have purposefully intervened [Daiute, 2010]. Extending the idea that cognitive, social, and emotional development occurs interactively with what is going on in the environment [Vygotsky, 1978], we broaden the focus from typical psychological models.

The dimensions of many models for examining the effects of violence and displacement on child and youth development and well-being include a childhood time frame (such as “longitudinal” meaning over the course of a life or period of life such as adolescence), a recognizable time line marked by “before” and “after” acute phases of violence or displacement that are presumed to be temporary, and a progression from less to more advanced capacities and behaviors. We open the black box model of psychology by working from the premise that development involves people using their symbolic resources (language, rituals, interventionist strategies, etc.), physical resources (body size, agility, etc.), and social relations to understand, connect with, and influence their environments [Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015; Vygotsky, 1978]. Opening that box means focusing on young people's perspectives - their thought and emotion - as they interact with war and relevant consequences in families, communities, institutions, and civil society. We build on theory that child-environment interaction involves the child's active symbolic engagement with it, as Lawrence [this issue] has explained with the concept of children's “coaction” in situations where they are positioned. With a focus on coaction of children, adults, and collectives, we acknowledge and extend prior research showing that many children exposed to violence and displacement continue to develop cognitive and emotional capacities and behaviors, primarily when they are in prosocial environments.

Our focus on young people's understandings of violent and unstable environments where they are socially supported addresses the observation that there is a lack of research on interventions for children who face the large range of catastrophic adversities [Masten & Narayan, 2012].

This issue of Human Development explores foundations, goals, and findings of research on the nature of child and youth understandings and changes in those understandings as they are supported in different kinds of interventions during and after living in situations of political violence and the consequences. The focal interventions are important as much for what they indicate about meaning-making as a developmental process as for how an intervention answers the question “What works?”. In the process of social interaction and sense-making, questions include “How are young people understanding and orienting to the violent and unstable physical and social environments in which they live?” and “What kinds of more and less formal interventions offer insights about child/youth understandings and supports?” and “What can we contribute to theory, method, and practice from these studies of child and youth sense-making in situations of violence and instability?”

This collection of studies discusses rigorous practice-based research during or after acute phases of war, postwar instabilities, displacement, and poverty across several continents. Another unifying theme across the studies is that various kinds of context-sensitive collective practices function as mediators of threats and opportunities to child and youth development. The development of adults in this process is also, of course, relevant as children and adolescents depend on adults as responsive and nurturing interlocutors and codevelopers of changing environments [Lawrence, this issue].

The articles in this issue also discuss designs indicated by prior research and practice as appropriate, feasible, and potentially developmental. Nevertheless, as an expert in inquiry with children in situations of adversity has observed, “… in conditions of severe deprivation, war, or disaster, purely experimental designs may not be appropriate or feasible” [Masten, 2014, p. 1022]. The studies in this issue have generated alternative approaches to traditional experimental and other linear causal research designs, in large part as responsive to the realities of situations. In that process we are exploring new kinds of methodological rigor and outcomes. Dimensions of these approaches include novel or underexplored theoretical concepts, time and space boundaries across systems, and alternative developmental outcomes.

We draw on theories of human development that posit innovations mediating environmental circumstances [Vygotsky, 1978] and theories allowing for positive human responses even in the face of adversity [Lerner et al., 2015; Masten, 2014]. Consistent generally with sociocultural theory [Vygotsky, 1978] positing the development of cultural tools to mediate extant circumstances (threats, opportunities) and to support valued human capacities (generally and as relevant to the context), these articles focus on collective activities as social supports and potential developmental processes. The articles have, for example, designed and implemented cognitive-behavioral training consistent with the Krio language and concept of emotion in Sierra Leone [Zuilkowski et al., this issue], multiyear school-wide implementation of a civics curriculum [Freedman, Barr, Murphy, & Beširević, this issue], local adaptations of dynamic storytelling workshops in community organizations [Daiute, this issue], and environmentally connected narrative interactions and memories [Lucić, this issue].

Verbal and nonverbal symbolic interactions among individuals and society concern children, families, communities, and organizations (educational, humanitarian aid organizations, etc.) during and in the wake of violence reignited by recent police shootings of Black males in the USA [Freedman et al., this issue] and looking back from various temporal points of 8 to 15 to 20 years [Daiute, this issue; Lucić, this issue; Zuilkowski et al., this issue]. Relevant developmental concepts explored in these articles include psychosocial health, self-control, sense making, civic responsibility, relational imagining, and relational complexity.

Dynamic processes revolve around and create cultural tools, which in situations of rapid change means adopting previously existing artifacts and practices in their physical and symbolic forms toward new ends. Lucić [this issue], for example, evokes with his now adult participants who had been children in the siege of Sarajevo, “the tunnel of hope” - a lifeline between the violently surrounded city and the source of much needed supplies during the participants' childhood. Freedman et al. [this issue] offered the curriculum-based concept of “civic responsibility” as an intensive school-wide intervention interacting with high school students via macroprocesses and microprocesses. Those processes were not directly observable but posited to be involved in the focal participant, Gabriella's, social system, as the authors illustrate.

Daiute [this issue] illustrates how through interactions with quite specific cultural tools, including verb tenses (and full narratives), young people can nurture social change by expressing subtle meanings different from those of adults in the community. In a collective narrative with even grieving mothers whose children had been killed in government and paramilitary attacks in the 50-year conflict in Colombia, youth members of the indigenous community empathized with the mothers and the community plight, but they also used the cultural tools of verb tenses and time markings to express some different reactions to the tragedy. For Lucić [this issue, p. 101] “sense-making here involves a number of elements directly related to environmental affordances, such as spatial location markers... direction of movement… temporal understanding (time of day, length of passage, etc.) and causal-relational reasoning...”.

In her commentary, Lawrence [this issue, p. 152] focuses on children in self-determining positions to acknowledge “their presence and their rights, recognizing their participation, and incorporating their activities with the sociocultural and ecological environments”. Lawrence posits the concept of “coaction … as an appropriate unit of analysis for understanding children's development and as a basis for intervention and policy following violence and cultural conflict” (p. 152). With the concept of “positioning”, she provides a way to focus on children within transforming sociopolitical systems, including those organized by violence, which Daiute [this issue] argues should be considered in designing and studying the manifestations and effects of sociopolitical conflict. In summary, these articles emphasize research with young people in extremely challenging circumstances, as they participate in collectives via the use of various kinds of symbolic media.

As the importance of context has become prominent in developmental theory, research and practice must account for dimensions of time and space in ways that reflect the complexity of contemporary global systems. We consider the places and time spans with which a child would be interacting when, for example, the child escaping violence lives across very different cultural and geographic contexts, only sometimes with family, as is occurring in the catastrophe of contemporary displacement. Such an alternative to the presumption of constantly progressing development in relatively constant locations has been suggested elsewhere to account for the changing nature of childhood itself given the changing nature of physical and symbolic environments [Daiute, 2010; James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998].

Expanded contexts of time and space are required to account for the journeys of refugee families and unaccompanied children. A relevant time of instability for a child fleeing violence may span an entire childhood period of 10 years, across 3 or more national borders, or sometimes equally drastic changes of moving from lush rural lands to crowded violent cities within national borders. It is also possible that time and space may condense as when children are held captive or confined within a very narrow area in a refugee camp. Research and practice must take into account such relevant temporal and spatial dimensions to determine potential influences, objects, and interactions with which children of interest have interacted.

Developmental time dimensions include the time of exposure to war [generations, years of siege, number of displacements, intervention times (duration, follow-up, etc.)]. Consistent with those facts, rather than primarily asking children to share their stories during acute phases of conflict, retrospectives, as in several of the analyses reported in this issue, may be especially relevant to developmental inquiry. The studies in this volume orient their designs with such sensitivities to interactions of experience and memory of proximal and distal phases of violence and the consequences, such as separation from loved ones. This sensitivity is due in part to knowledge that reflections further away from acute events of violence may have more unsettling consequences [Zuilkowski et al., this issue] or retrospective narratives may bring new knowledge to bear on unsettling memories of the past [Daiute, this issue; Lucić, this issue]. We see the different interpretations of more and less recent events as Freedman et al. [this issue] explain Gabriella's reflection on being bullied in middle school.

Although comparisons across these studies are inappropriate, we can point to within-context and within-person comparisons within several of the studies. For example, Lucić's paper reports that adults who had experienced the siege of Sarajevo as children employed environmental objects to mediate memories, thereby bridging experienced time and narrated time. Daiute [this issue] reports on how young people closer to the time of conflict used diverse features of diverse narrative genres to express different knowledge and experience, thereby using those different narratives to mediate conflict experiences. She found within-group differences in the way that youth who were and were not active in postwar community organizations structured letters to public officials.

Zuilkowski et al. [this issue] use several embedded time periods to examine psychosocial responses of their former child soldier participants over different periods around the intervention. We learn, thus, that cultural tools and strategies of interventions have roles in the meaning of adverse experiences as people integrate the experiences with other aspects of their lives and over the life course.

In this special issue, “intervention” is defined as collective practices designed to create contexts and strategies with functional media, such as narrative genres, curricula, mnemonic devices, and commemorative places for collective focus and engagement toward common and individual purposes. These interventions range from extracurricular cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions administered to groups of war-affected youth in Sierra Leone, a well-established school-based civics curriculum over several years in the USA, an innovative community-based storytelling workshop adapted for circumstances of postwar former Yugoslavia and Colombia, and retrospective narrating activities by adults who had been children during the siege of Sarajevo. Although different in structure, specific intended outcomes, duration, and methods (discussed below), these interventions involve sense-making processes guided by teachers, researchers, and/or cultural media, thereby highlighting the understanding of young people rather than only their behaviors.

The intervention in each context and the developmental purpose it serves contribute to knowledge about young people's perspectives as much as to understanding specific techniques that might function across political violence systems. The research projects presented here focus on interventions as potential cultural resources, in that they evolved at least in part in relation to and with possibilities and limits, in a specific environment. Lucić's article discusses adaptations, including radio school and the tunnel, which might seem a stretch to consider as interventions [Lawrence, this issue]. In the sociocultural sense of human resilience in challenging circumstances, those adaptations are worth considering as spontaneous interventions, thereby offering insights into where future researchers can look for social change. Daiute [this issue] discusses several theoretical and methodological processes of narratives as sense-making media in relation to their specific contexts. Freedman et al. [this issue] offer an intensive qualitative case within a long-term curricular intervention adapted for the focal time and place. Zuilkowski et al. [this issue] present the “Youth Readiness Initiative, a group cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention designed to give youth in post-civil-war Sierra Leone the skills and support needed to continue their progress in school and/or the workforce to enliven naturally occurring protective processes” (p. 65). As implemented, this cognitive-behavioral therapy intervention is remarkably responsive to the local context, while also offering some definitive findings.

Such field-based research orientations have become increasingly valued and informative, as developmental science has recognized and begun to define qualities of culturally sensitive research [Lawrence, this issue]. This sense of culturally sensitive science opens the unit of analysis to the interaction of person and context and, thus, shifts a definition of culture away from a set of independent variables such as ethnicity, age, gender, and other identity-based categories to meaningful activities in extant, recalled, and imagined situations. Extending developmental theories that integrate culture as an active, flexible, and situated process makes it an amenable descriptor of practices in this rapidly changing world, even where violence is not a major factor provoking changes. Consistent with design research methods [Anderson & Shattuck, 2012; Coburn & Penuel, 2016], these interventions are responsive and developing themselves. While this dynamic notion of research in practice may seem confusing or confounded to some psychologists, it is important to make explicit that a goal of such qualitative research is to describe processes in their complexity rather than to prove a specific proposition.

The approaches discussed in this volume are, for the most part, qualitative interventions in the sense that they apply innovative dimensions of development, dimensions of time, space, processes, or outcomes to address the violent and unstable environments of the inquiry. By focusing on responsive collective practices, we can observe meaning-making and social change, a qualitative “… understanding of what is meaningful and what matters to the active young people who, through positively engaging their world, enhance themselves and make the lives of their families, communities, and societies better” [Lerner & Tolan, 2016, p. 123].

The focal studies are innovative in their proposals and examinations of research designs that occur in the context of practices and in their application of interactions, much like the work of ethnographers. Rather than interview studies that examine what young people think about their extremely challenging circumstances, the approaches in these articles work in situ with collectives actively interpreting how participants think, feel, and change in the midst of the physical crises or in the midst of their memories of crises. In this way, “… qualitative methods work[ed] in concert with theoretical transformations in the understanding of developmental processes” [Lerner & Tolan, 2016, p. 121].

“We also need rich empirical studies that enable us to not only learn about diverse practices but also to develop our theoretical understanding of the various aspects of practice, such as the role of objects in them or the relationship between language and embodied routines, power, and so forth” [Miettinen et al., 2009].

Focusing on the meaning of young lives during and after political violence involves more than interviewing and gathering stories, because, as we explain herein, meanings of war and the aftermath are relational, are fraught with challenges inherent to physical manifestations, social and political power relations, and personal motivations. Methods were based on what was sought and considered reasonable and culturally consistent in the context. Practice and research methods necessarily integrated what was already occurring and possible in the environments, while also seeking to interact with those circumstances, in ways that would allow reliable description or generalizations. Methods across the studies include participant observation, reports of rigorous analyses of naturalistic expressions (narratives, conversations, focus groups, interviews), surveys, historical records, and photographs, examined interactively to create within-situation insights about mechanisms that have not previously been identified in intervention research on political conflict and the consequences. Rather than reporting all the empirical details, these papers offer illustrative primarily theoretical arguments for consideration in fields relevant to human development.

Each of these articles offers a different complement of approaches to learn about how children were thinking and feeling in their situations and related approaches to ensuring safety and support in those contexts. Zuilkowski et al. [this issue] combine context-sensitive cognitive-behavioral therapy with trusted trainers and peers. Freedman et al. [this issue] embed their interactions and observations of young people over time in their familiar classroom contexts. Daiute [this issue] worked with community organizations over a long period of time to discuss and design context-sensitive dynamic storytelling workshops and analyzed results of field notes, narratives, and other expressive media. Lucić [this issue] met with a group of adults who had been children during the siege of Sarajevo, also plumbed, and interacted with those participants around key documents from the wartime archives.

These reports, thus, offer ecologically grounded methods to address important questions, emerging out of the specific circumstances, with relevance to other situations with similar challenges. These methods of data collection offer innovative attention to processes and dimensions of research design, for ongoing research and practice within a dramatically changing world.

Outcomes of practice-based research in situations of war and displacement include some familiar ones like “resilience” explored in a relatively new context-sensitive way and narratives explored within carefully defined political violence systems and analyzed with rigorous methods. These and other analyses contributed insights about psychosocial attitudes, social support, emotion regulation, and reduced functional impairment. Zuilkowski et al. [this issue] offered a holistic set of orientations in the context of ongoing life trajectories in the post-civil-war period: “In this context of continued aftereffects of conflict, results of the Youth Readiness Initiative (YRI) offered information about… six main focus areas hypothesized to be related to internalizing, externalizing, and functioning problems among war-affected youth” (p. 65), and went beyond with observations from conversational interviews to discuss life experiences and uptake intervention metaphors, like “pot of boiling water” (p. 71, presumed to be tools mediating the intervention).

Freedman et al. [this issue, p. 112] focused on civic responsibility as defined in Facing History “…workshops and materials stress[ing] nuanced and complex thinking about civic action as … ‘the meaning of civic participation and the critical need to promote a just society. The focus is not on participation in general, but on ethical and just participation'”.

Lucić [this issue] offers “psychological functions well suited to everyday life in circumstances of war and urban destruction” (p. 81), illustrated as “these young people were placed in situations that require a heightened process of making sense of the environment, their narratives allow us to observe how their cognitive functions directly draw on a foundation attained through perception” (p. 95). Daiute [this issue, p. 140] discussed child and youth discourse with various oral and written expressive media to illustrate the processes of “relational imagining” - defined as participants' uses of diverse expressive media to enact a range of experiences, knowledge, and goals. Cumulative opportunities for such creative imagining can develop into orientations of “relational complexity” - abilities to “…engage different realities and cultural meanings in specific challenging situations from diverse perspectives” [Daiute, 2010, this issue, p. 146]. Such perspective-taking skills are especially important in situations of war and displacement where young people benefit from understanding the mores of different environments they encounter.

Such outcomes make salient that those of us involved in research and practice in situations of political violence must account for the fact that physical and symbolic environments are changing as children change over their life spans and the fact that such changes will bring them in contact with different norms, expectations, and other people. Such relational sense-making abilities are not achieved and set but elicited in dynamic circumstances, so their examination over long periods of developmental and situational time seems worthy of ongoing inquiry.

Human development in rapidly changing and challenging circumstances is by necessity an emerging interdisciplinary endeavor. These articles offer theory and research with descriptive and analytic assessments of sense-making and other skills in social interactions during and after living in the midst of violence and displacement. By getting inside some activities and meanings in interventions relevant to current, retrospective, or future change, these papers contribute to the literature on development in violence and displacement. The articles define and illustrate disciplinary and methodological integrations and can encourage a conversation about the need for more such integrations. I hope that readers agree with Lawrence's commentary observation [this issue, p. 160]: “These papers demonstrate that research and intervention alike require appropriate positioning of children. Children interpret and participate in conflicting situations with the intentions, powers, and rights of human agents. They act in expected and unexpected ways. Their ingenuity, perceptive interpretations, and agentic actions may become hidden in violent situations, but they are not eliminated. They need to be acknowledged, positioned and incorporated in developmental analyses and programs.”

We welcome conversation following the release of this volume to interact with teams working on those projects, perhaps toward a follow-up issue in several years.

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