When used in a broad sense, development can describe any economic or social change that improves people’s lives and opportunities. In economic terms it can refer to a nation’s wealth, education, healthcare and standard of living – commonly classified using HDI (human development index) or GDP (gross domestic product). The term is often used in a political context to distinguish the ‘developed world’ from the ‘undeveloped’ world. However this is problematic because there is a lot of variation in wealth between nations with similar incomes and there are many ways to measure human well-being that are not based on money.
The field of development, also known as lifespan development, investigates both change and stability across the multiple domains of psychological functioning – physical and neurophysiological processes, cognition, emotions, language, personality and morality. This is a multidisciplinary field that uses the theories, research methods and knowledge bases of numerous academic disciplines.
A key assumption is that development is embedded in the many historical and cultural contexts in which it occurs. Lifespan theorists believe that people are active participants in their own development, shaped by both biological and environmental factors and are open to change throughout their lives. They also hold that development is a process, not an event and that it takes place in different patterns at different times. Development must be sustainable, equitable and balanced – a goal that is still very challenging to achieve.