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2007, Vol. 7, No. 3, 628 637

Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association

1528-3542/07/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.7.3.628

Frameworks for Understanding Emotions and Their Development:

Functionalist and Dynamic Systems Approaches
David C. Witherington and Jennifer A. Crichton
University of New Mexico
In recent years, both functionalist and dynamic systems approaches have assumed increasing prominence
in the study of emotion and its development, but the similarities and differences between these
perspectives remain largely unexplored and open to more systematic examination. In this article, the
authors argue that both approaches share a systems view of emotion and regard emotion in relational,
process terms. However, each approach adopts a distinct level of analysis and distinct types of
explanation for emotion and its development. Whereas the functionalist approach appeals to formal and
final causes to explain patterning in emotion at the level of organism environment relations, the dynamic
systems approach appeals to efficient and material causes to explain emotion at the specific content level
of behavior in context. Whether these approaches complement or conflict with one another depends on
the extent to which the dynamic systems approach admits abstraction into its explanatory framework. A.
Fogels social process theory and M. D. Lewis approach to emotion self-organization are discussed in
this regard.
Keywords: functionalist approach, dynamic systems approach, emotion theory

reaction against the structuralism underlying traditional emotion

theory (Camras & Witherington, 2005).
Like structuralism, functionalist and dynamic systems approaches are metatheoretical frameworks for conceptualizing emotion and its development, meaning that each approach serves as a
general ontological model, set of beliefs, or worldview about what
constitutes reality rather than as a specific theory with testable
hypotheses. Each approach thus preconditions the establishment of
actual theories and methodologies by the truth criteria it endorses
(Pepper, 1942). These truth criteria in turn guide the very collection, assessment, and interpretation of data and operate as principles, either implicit or explicit, by which empirical evidence is
judged (Kuhn, 1962; Pepper, 1942). Overton (2006) writes that
metatheories transcend (i.e., meta) theories in the sense that they
define the context in which theoretical concepts are constructed,
just as a foundation defines the context is which a house can be
constructed. . . .Theories and methods refer directly to the empirical world, while metatheories and metamethods refer to the theories and methods themselves (p. 20). As metatheories, the functionalist and dynamic systems approaches frame much of the
empirical data in the field of emotion and emotional development
(Barrett et al., 2007; Lewis & Granic, 2000; Mascolo & Griffin,
1998). To fully understand the nature of these data, one must
understand the guiding assumptions in place for their collection
and interpretation (Overton, 1994). The purpose of this article is to
establish each metatheoretical approach and the assumptions under
which it operates, thereby providing an interpretive context for the
theories and research each orientation inspires.
How closely aligned are the functionalist and dynamic systems
approaches with regard to the metatheoretical orientations they
espouse? Some emotion theorists identify themselves with both
approaches, suggesting considerable compatibility between the
two perspectives (e.g., Fischer & Bidell, 1998; Mascolo & Fischer,
1995). Other emotion theorists contend that the functionalist ap-

In the last 25 years, a paradigm shift has occurred in the

conceptualization of emotion and emotional development from a
structuralist to a functionalist orientation (Barrett & Campos,
1987; Campos, Barrett, Lamb, Goldsmith, & Stenberg, 1983;
Campos, Campos, & Barrett, 1989). The structuralist conceptualization of emotion regards emotional behavior as simply a readout
of internal feeling states or of central nervous system programs. By
this conceptualization, emotional development is little more than a
by-productan epiphenomenal consequence of maturational
and/or cognitive developmental processes. Such structuralist notions have given way to a functionalist orientation that regards
emotional behavior as functioning to establish, maintain, or alter
the relation between an organism and its environment. From the
standpoint of a functionalist orientation, emotions are multicomponent, adaptive systems of functioning in their own right (Saarni,
Campos, Camras, & Witherington, 2006). In the midst of this
zeitgeist change, applications of a dynamic systems perspective to
the study of emotion and its development have become increasingly prevalent (Barrett, Ochsner, & Gross, 2007; Fogel et al.,
1992; Lewis, 2000; Thagard & Nerb, 2002; Westin & Blagov,
2007). With its emphasis on emotion as a self-organizing system
and argument against notions of internal control systems and
developmental predesign, the dynamic systems perspective, like
functionalism more generally, stands as an alternative to and

David C. Witherington and Jennifer A. Crichton, Department of Psychology, University of New Mexico.
Portions of this article were presented at the biennial meeting of the
Society for Research in Child Development, Tampa, Florida, April 2003.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David C.
Witherington, Department of Psychology, Logan Hall, Room 112, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131-1161. E-mail:


proach does not fully embrace principles of self-organization and

emergence foundational to the dynamic systems perspective
(Dickson, Fogel, & Messinger, 1998; Fogel et al., 1992). After
briefly characterizing each approach, we will argue that both share
a self-organizing, emergent systems conceptualization of the emotion process and that the fundamental difference between the two
lies not in the systems principles they espouse but in the level of
explanation most characteristically adopted to explain emotion and
its development. We will subsequently consider the question of
whether the approaches are ultimately compatible or represent
distinct worldviews with distinct truth criteria for framing the
interpretation of data.

Functionalist Approach to Emotion and Its Development

Central to the functionalist approach is the idea that emotions
are best organized around the functions they serve, not around a set
of facial prototypes, autonomic signatures, or neurological patterns
(Barrett & Campos, 1987; Frijda, 1986; Witherington, Campos, &
Hertenstein, 2001). What distinguishes anger from fear is not a
characteristic facial expression or physiological patterning but an
adaptive, functional relationship between an organism and its
environment. Anger, for example, functions to remove an obstacle
to a goal, whereas fear functions to avoid a threat. Indices of
emotion, such as facial and vocal expression, physiological activity, and instrumental actions, are in the service of these functions
and are flexibly recruited depending on the specifics of the context
in which action occurs. As Saarni et al. (2006) write, The action
of smiling can be in the service of joy, scorn, nurturance, embarrassment, and other emotions, or stereotyped social greeting (p.
231). What the person is trying to do, not the specific way in which
it is done, constitutes the means by which emotions are most
appropriately distinguished.
The functionalist approach establishes a means for determining
whether or not an organism environment relationship is emotional: To be emotional, an event must be of significance to the
individual (see Saarni et al., 2006, for details on how significance
is established) and have implications for the organisms adaptation to that environment (Barrett, 1998, p. 110). The approach
furthermore identifies a set of functions that characterizes various
organism environment relationships and that defines distinct patterns of emotion. Anger, for example, arises when an event is
perceived as an obstacle to ones goals and one has the wherewithal to overcome the obstacle, whereas fear arises when an event
is perceived as threatening to ones well-being (Barrett & Campos,
1987; Saarni et al., 2006). The developmental implications of the
functionalist approach have been less systematically articulated.
Proponents of the approach view emotion as a complex system
comprised of multiple components, both intra- and extraorganismic (Campos, Mumme, Kermoian, & Campos, 1994; Saarni et al.,
2006; Witherington et al., 2001). Though the specific nature of the
components involved varies from theorist to theorist, these components typically include the goals or concerns of an individual,
the situational events that impact those goals, the evaluations
(appraisals) made of an events significance vis-a`-vis an individuals goals, and the instrumental and expressive actions used to
maintain or change the individuals relation to his or her environment. Emotional development, in turn, involves the changes that
take place in all of these componentsfrom the development of


new ways of evaluating events; the emerging significance of new

organism environment relations; and new means of coping to the
development of new goals, ways of enacting those goals, and
means of signaling emotion to others (Barrett, 1998; Barrett &
Campos, 1987). As a relational metatheory, the functionalist approach considers the relations that exist among these components,
not the components themselves, as being central to emotion and its
development (Witherington et al., 2001), though a more detailed
elaboration of developmental change in these relations is absent
from existing accounts.

Dynamic Systems Approach to Emotion and Its

Whereas the functionalist approach focuses principally on the
nature of emotion, the dynamic systems approach focuses principally on the nature of emotional development, on the processes by
which emotions emerge in real-time contexts and undergo change
across developmental time. By the dynamic systems approach, as
by the functionalist approach, emotions are complex systems involving multiple components or subsystems at multiple levels of
analysis and are irreducible to these components (Camras &
Witherington, 2005; Fogel et al., 1992; Thagard & Nerb, 2002).
Each subsystem (e.g., appraisals, goals, instrumental actions) is an
important part of the emotion process, but none has formative
primacy, either in the generation or development of emotion. Thus,
appraisal processes alone are insufficient to account for the emergence of an emotion, because appraisals are intimately intertwined
with an individuals goal hierarchy and with the actions available
to the individual for engaging an event, all of which must be
considered in relation to one another to begin to understand patterning in emotion. Both the emergence in real time of any given
emotion and the organizational transformation in developmental
time of emotion systems are thus multiply determined, a function
not of the systems components themselves but of the relations that
form among these parts of the system (Dickson et al., 1998; Fogel
et al., 1992; Lewis, 2000).
Fundamentally, the dynamic systems approach lends a contentfree set of nonlinear dynamics principlesprinciples that hold for
any system over timeto the study of stability and change in
emotional phenomena. Many recent incarnations of the metatheoretical perspective, for example, utilize parallel distributed processing approaches to brain functioning for modeling the emotion
process (Barrett et al., 2007; Thagard & Nerb, 2002; Westin &
Blagov, 2007). Unlike the functionalist approach, the dynamic
systems approach offers little in the way of conceptualization of
emotion itself, typically relying instead on the basic tenets of
functionalism outlined in the previous section to distinguish the
emotional from the nonemotional (e.g., Dickson et al., 1998; Fogel
et al., 1992). The emotion system, like any other complex, nonlinear system, self-organizes as a function of the cooperativeness
of the components that comprise it. System stability is maintained
through the organizational cooperation of the systems components. Change in one component of the emotion system may
destabilize the system, forcing a new level of organization in the
relations that exist among the components. For example, the developmental emergence of a new means of acting on the world
the onset of crawling and the experience attendant on itprompts
profound reorganization in the emotional life of the infant, from



the establishment of new appraisals and goals to the formation of

new forms of social relationship, such as attachment and interintentionality (Witherington et al., 2001). However, the establishment of a new developmental organization in emotion requires
consideration of all its components in interaction with one another.
In other words, crawling alone does not drive reorganization in the
emotion system; reorganization arises as appraisals, goals, the
action repertoire, and other components of the system establish
new, stable interrelations.
Thus, real-time and developmental time patterns in emotion
spontaneously emerge through interactions among the systems
components, not through a set of instructions from a control
system inherent in either the organism or the environment (Camras
& Witherington, 2005; Fogel et al., 1992; Lewis, 2000; Mascolo &
Harkins, 1998). As proponents of the dynamic systems approach
suggest, appeals to central executives and programs that precede
and control the generation of emotion and that engineer developmental transformation in emotion fly in the face of the enormous
intra- and interindividual variability evident in emotional responding (Camras, 2000; Camras & Witherington, 2005). Emotional
behavior is highly context specific in its patterning, which is
exquisitely detailed in the seminal work of Camras and her colleagues on variability and context specificity in infant facial patterning (e.g., Camras, 1992, 2000; Camras, Lambrecht, & Michel,
1996). Such remarkable context sensitivity strains the credibility of
central executive accounts, as no control system could possibly
orchestrate all of the possible permutations that arise in emotional
organization (Fogel & Thelen, 1987; Wolff, 1987). It furthermore
highlights the centrality of situational context in the organization
of any given emotion patterning (Fogel et al., 1992).

Functionalist and Dynamic Systems Approaches:

Different but Complementary Explanatory Frameworks
By virtue of its focus on establishing invariant functional relations in the emotion process, the functionalist approach does not
address specific issues of process in the real-time and developmental time emergence of emotion to the degree that the dynamic
systems approach does with its central focus on self-organization
(Camras & Witherington, 2005; Mascolo, Harkins, & Harakal,
2000). Similarly, the dynamic systems approach, unlike the functionalist approach, has relatively little to say about the nature of
emotion. Yet both approaches freely borrow from each other, with
functionalists couching emotional development in terms of selforganization (Witherington et al., 2001) and with dynamic systems
theorists framing emotion in terms of significant organism
environment relations (Dickson et al., 1998; Lewis, 2000). Both
perspectives furthermore ground themselves in appreciation of
emotion as a protean phenomenon, exhibiting considerable flexibility and versatility in its manifestation and implementation. Both
approaches also regard situational context, the social and nonsocial
events of the world that organisms actively engage, as a core
component of the emotion process (Barrett & Campos, 1987;
Fogel et al., 1992). Couched in the general systems framework of
von Bertalanffy (1932, 1968), each approach regards emotion as a
multicomponent system in its own right, as an active, dynamic
process embodied in an organisms engagement with the world
rather than as a stagnant by-product of other processes (Barrett &
Campos, 1987; Fogel et al., 1992; Lewis, 2000; Saarni et al.,

2006). Emotions are active, relational processes, not simply epiphenomenal products derived from single-cause mechanisms.
Although both approaches regard emotions as adaptive processes that regulate interchange between organisms and their environments (social and physical), some proponents of the dynamic
systems perspective contend that the functionalist perspective assigns formative priority to an emotions functionrelative to other
components of the emotion processwhen explaining what causes
emotion (Dickson et al., 1998; Fogel et al., 1992). According to
this contention, the functionalist approach fails to fully embrace
the principle of self-organization by essentially invoking function
(i.e., what the person is trying to do) as a central organizer of
pattern in emotion. In other words, an individuals goals directly
generate organization in the emotion system, driving, for example,
the individuals emotional evaluation of and action upon an event.
Certainly, the functionalist approach appeals to the functions emotions serve as a means of unifying the enormous behavioral and
situational variability inherent in the emotion process. When the
functionalist, however, invokes function as an organizational
framework for understanding emotion, what exactly is the nature
of explanation being offered? Is function being offered as an
antecedent condition, a propelling cause, for emotion? Does function dictate the generation of pattern in emotion? We argue to the
contrary that the functionalist approach operates at a different level
of explanation; the aim of the approach is to elucidate pattern in
organism environment relations, not to identify causal antecedents. In what follows, we will briefly review different forms of
explanation for understanding a given phenomenon and articulate
the different but complementary levels of analysis and modes of
explanation for emotion provided by the functionalist and dynamic
systems approaches.

Nature of Explanation
A full explanation of a phenomenon requires an understanding
of its form and its function, its material substrate and the surrounding contexts in which it is embedded, antecedent circumstances
and the processes that give rise to it, and its purpose and potential
future incarnations. This multifaceted nature of explanation is
captured in the Aristotelian framework of material, efficient, formal, and final causes. Explanations that appeal to the material
substance or substrate underlying a phenomenon are considered
material causes. When psychologists explain behavior by means of
the neurological structures associated with its production, they
invoke a material cause for the behavior. Efficient causes involve
an articulation of the antecedent conditions for a phenomenon,
those circumstances both extra- and intraorganismic that reliably
precede an outcome. Efficient causes are the classic, propelling
force kinds of causality that are considered the centerpiece of the
scientific enterprise (Bates, 1979). When psychologists explain
behavior by means of inertial forces and muscle interactions,
physiological or neurological processes, or particular stimulus
events, environmental factors, or even wider sociohistorical contexts, they invoke efficient causes for the behavior.
Material and efficient causes are concrete in their grounding.
Formal and final causes, in contrast, rely on abstraction as a means
of explanation. Formal causes abstract an organization, form, or
pattern from a specific, real-time phenomenon and treat that pattern as an explanation in its own right. Thus, pattern abstracted


from real-time actions in real settings constitutes a formal explanation because it introduces order and organization into the
domain under investigation (Overton, 1991, p. 220). When psychologists explain behavior by means of cognitive and personality
structures or mental schemes, they invoke formal causes for the
behavior. Final causes involve an explanation of phenomena in
terms of the end or purpose toward which the phenomenon moves,
that is, the reason for the phenomenon. In developmental terms,
final causes rely on ideal endpoints, final stages of development, or
directional sequences of organizational change as meaningful contexts in which to embed understanding of a phenomenon at any
given time. When psychologists explain behavior by means of the
function it serves or the goal sought and when they explain
development in terms of increasing differentiation and hierarchic
integration, they invoke final causes for the behavior or sequential
change in the organization of behavior. Final cause abstracts
pattern across periods of time, for example, directional changes in
organization over development, whereas formal cause abstracts
pattern within a given period of time, for example, organization of
behavior in 6-week-old infants.

Different Levels of Abstraction, Different Units of

Analysis: The Functionalist Approach
Despite its denotation, the functionalist approach to emotion and
emotional development adopts both formal and, in particular, final
causes in its explanatory efforts. Rather than identifying functional
antecedents of particular patterning in emotion (which is the domain of efficient cause), the functionalist approach sets out to
establish pattern in its own right. It does so by abstracting general
functional relations between organism and environment from the
particularities of specific actions in specific contexts. Barrett
(1998) captures the abstract nature of function in the approach:
The functions of emotion can and must be inferred from behaviors in context, report of behaviors and thoughts in context, or
both. Thus, functions are one step removed from what can actually
be observed (p. 113). The functionalist consequently takes as his
or her charge the identification of forms and patterns that characterize the ceaseless flux of content in real-time emotion processes.
Many different concrete events can correspond to any given emotion; tripping over a rock, locking oneself out of the house, getting
involved in a traffic jam, and having a valuable item stolen can all
constitute antecedent events for the emotion anger. For the functionalist, what unites all of these events is the abstract function
they can serve in relation to the person; specifically, all of these
events can be viewed as obstacles to goals. Similarly, morphologically distinct actions can be in the service of any given emotion;
yelling, hitting, pushing aside, stonewalling, and searching for a
stolen item can all constitute behavioral content for anger. Again,
these different actions can be united around the function they can
serve relative to an event; specifically, all of these actions can be
viewed as serving to remove an obstacle (Saarni et al., 2006). The
particular nature of the obstacle can and will vary widely, as can
the manner in which the obstacle is overcome. Such variability
yields invariant patterning at the higher order level of functional
relations, with all of the aforementioned events functioning as
obstacles and all of the aforementioned actions functioning to
remove those obstacles. Function thus operates as an invariant
relational patterning; it is relational at the level of transaction


between organism and environment. Function unites these different actions and contexts in a more all-inclusive meaning context.
Lazarus (1991) established a set of what he termed core relational themes for characterizing organism environment relations
at this level of abstraction. For Lazarus, certain commonalities
mark the goal-mediated relation between person and environment
(see also Barrett & Campos, 1987; Campos et al., 1994). Anger,
for example, involves a demeaning offense against me and mine
(p. 222), whereas happiness involves reasonable progress toward
the realization of our goals (Lazarus, 1991, p. 267). In the case of
each discrete emotion, a generalized relation between goal and
event is identified. At the superordinate level of positive and
negative emotions, events that match or are congruent with goals
are associated with positive emotions, whereas events that mismatch goals are associated with negative emotions. Frijdas (1986)
notion of action tendency or action readiness reflects a similar
effort at abstract patterning, though more at the level of the
organism itself than at the organism environment level. For Frijda, action tendency is a higher order abstraction of specific
emotional responses. One may freeze, run, hide, or close ones
eyes in response to a threat, but all of these actions serve the
function of avoidance at the level of action tendency (Saarni et al.,
2006). As Frijda and Mesquita (1998) argue, What binds the
various components together is the goal or aim of establishing,
changing, or maintaining a particular relationship with the emotional object in the specific situation (p. 275).
From the vantage point of the functionalist approach, identification of abstract organism environment relations, in the character of formal and final causes, provides an essential starting point
for the analysis of any given action in context. The abstraction of
formal and final causes establishes a conceptual frame of reference
for the study of emotiona set of foundational categories for
defining the realm of emotion, for ordering our understanding of
emotional phenomena, and for guiding specific empirical investigation in that realm. The function an emotion serves renders the
variable and context-specific flow of emotional action coherent by
heuristically organizing it, via final cause, in terms of a directional
purpose. When confronted with a predator, some organisms will
flee, some will freeze, some will hide; for those who flee, there are
many ways to do so (e.g., zig-zag vs. beeline), just as there are
many ways to hide and possibly even to freeze. In terms of a
directional purpose, all of these actions, though variable in terms
of content, serve to avoid the threat posed by the predator. The
functionalist approach gives us a big picture of things and allows
us, in essence, to maintain our view of the forest (proximity
avoidance) in the midst of analyzing specific trees (fleeing, freezing, or hiding).
For the functionalist, the interpretive framework most useful for
characterizing the emotion process is the adaptational encounter,
the functional relation between organism and environment that
revolves around what the organism is trying to do (Campos et al.,
1994; Lazarus, 1991). By the functionalist account, emotion is
adaptation, and every adaptational encounter presents unique demands, resulting in unique action-in-context processes. The functionalist approach consequently grounds its analysis of action in
context when delineating the function an action or set of actions
serves (Barrett, 1998). It is, however, at the level of abstraction
that the functionalists explanatory efforts reside. Every adaptive
effort is unique and variable at the specific action-in-context level



of analysis, but the meaning of these efforts must be framed within

a more general, invariant set of adaptive efforts, such as overcoming an obstacle to a goal, avoiding a threat, repairing a transgression, withdrawing from the environment, and preparing to engage
the environment. Essentially, the functionalist establishes an abstract level of explanation for emotion and its development that
fully acknowledges and embraces the particularities of a persons
real-time encounters with the environment but that extracts from
these particulars a set of general functional relations to provide an
interpretive framework for understanding the emotion process in
all of its complexity.
A paradigmatic illustration of research derived from the functionalist approach is found in Campos and colleagues work on the
development of wariness of heights (Campos, Bertenthal, &
Kermoian, 1992; Campos, Hiatt, Ramsay, Henderson, & Svejda,
1978; Witherington et al., 2001). Between 7 and 9 months of age,
infants undergo a transition in their affective appreciation of
heights such that 7-month-old infants typically show little evidence of fear when encountering a drop-off and 9-month-old
infants typically demonstrate robust fear of heights (Campos &
Bertenthal, 1989; Campos et al., 1992). Using complementary
research methodologies, Campos and colleagues have systematically linked this transition to experience with self-produced movement: Infants with locomotor experience, whether from naturally
emerging crawling or from artificially induced walker usage,
show fear in the context of the deep side of the visual cliff (the side
involving the visually specified drop-off), unlike their prelocomotor counterparts. The functionalist framework for this work is
evident in the converging research operations used for indexing
fear. Specifically, Campos and colleagues consider infant behavior
on the cliff in terms of its organizational quality, with an eye
toward inferring whether or not the behavior serves the overall
function of proximity avoidance relative to the threat of the cliffs
drop-off. In doing so, they adopt an interpretational strategy
whereby the general function of the behavior, not its morpohological specificity, assumes central importance in a manner comparable to the measurement strategy adopted by attachment theorists to capture organizational properties of behavior such as
avoidance and ambivalence (Saarni et al., 2006). The functionalist
approach encourages the researcher to seek out cross-situational
and cross-behavioral invariance in terms of the set of functional
invariants established in the theoretical writings of Frijda (1986),
Lazarus (1991), and Barrett and Campos (1987).
For example, infants in their first weeks of locomotor experience typically make a beeline across the deep side for their
mothers, showing little evidence of proximity avoidance. With
more locomotor experience, infants functional relationship to the
cliffs deep side changes, suggesting that it now constitutes a
source of threat for them. Some infants actively move away from
the centerboard, onto the shallow side, whereas others position
themselves in hands-and-knees crawling, prone, or sitting position
at the edge of the precipice, overlooking the glass-covered deep
side from the safety of the cliffs centerboard strip. Still other
infants detour around the cliffs deep side by pulling themselves
up using the side walls of the cliff tableto a standing position
and crossing to the mother along the edge of the deep side while
holding onto this barrier (Campos et al., 1978). Within the functionalist framework, the distinct particularities of these actions take
a back seat to the common function they are judged to serve:

avoidance of proximity to the cliffs deep side, which constitutes

a threat. Some actions involve literal avoidance of the deep side,
whereas othersthe detour behavioractually involve crossing
onto the deep side, that is, approach behavior. At the level of its
functional organization, however, detour behavior manifests proximity avoidance. Although the infant crosses to the mother, the
manner in which the infant crosses suggests that the context of
heights is appraised as a threat (Saarni et al., 2006). It is at the
more abstract level of the behaviors organization that commonality of function can be readily seen.

Different Levels of Abstraction, Different Units of

Analysis: The Dynamic Systems Approach
The functionalist approach emphasizes the critical importance
of contextualizing real-time emotional action, namely the organisms specific adaptational efforts, in terms of more general, abstracted patterns of organism environment transaction. For the
dynamic systems approach to emotion and emotional development, in contrast, contextualizing organismic action in terms of
real-time, task-specific environments is of particular concern. The
dynamic systems approach, in other words, grounds its analysis in
the concrete, task-specific assemblage of behavior, in the behavioral variability revealed during real-time encounters with everyday contexts. As Camras (1992) writes, In all versions of dynamical systems theory, contextual factors are considered to critically
determine behavioral output. . ..The task assembles the behavior
(p. 277). The dynamic systems approach thus takes as its central
goal the understanding of why a specific action emerges in a
specific context; it does so by means of articulating the various
antecedent circumstances, both intra- and extraorganismic, that
converge to produce the content of each emotional act. Consequently, it adopts primarily efficient and material causes in its
explanatory efforts. Whereas the functionalist approach focuses on
higher order patterning to organize the particularities of emotional
action in context, the dynamic systems approach sequentially and
temporally embeds any given emotion action in a concrete network
of other actions and environmental contexts as a means of explanation.
As we will detail in the next section, two distinct forms of the
dynamic systems approach pervade the developmental literature in
general (van Geert & Steenbeck, 2005; Witherington, in press).
These two forms differ fundamentally in terms of what kinds of
explanation are considered legitimate, with one form embracing all
Aristotelian causes and the other form rejecting explanation that
relies on abstraction (formal and, in particular, final causes) in
favor of explanation at the efficient and material levels. In both
cases, a premium is placed on providing explanation at the specific
level of action in context. What renders the dynamic systems
approach unique as a metatheory is its overarching commitment to
explaining real-time variability in action patterning. A systems
behavior in its own rightfluid, dynamic, and contextually
boundis the level of analysis at which the dynamic systems
approach typically explains emotion and emotional development.
As Lewis and Douglas (1998) write, Dynamic systems approaches to development emphasize that system behavior is always constituted in the moment, through the assembly of system
components in potentially novel ways on each lived occasion (p.
160). Recall some of the various actions that might arise in the


context of having ones goals blocked and that constitute the

diverse behavioral content for anger: yelling, hitting, pushing
aside, and stonewalling. Any given individual on different occasions or in different developmental periods may implement each of
these different actions in response to the same context of being cut
in front of while waiting in line. Similarly, on any given occasion,
one person may respond to the aforementioned context by yelling
whereas another person may respond to the same context by
pushing aside the offending individual. Whereas the functionalist
approach sets its sights on organizing these different actions
around a common function, the dynamic systems approach sets its
sights on explaining why a particular behavioral content (e.g.,
pushing aside vs. yelling) falls out of the dynamics of this specific
interrelationship of a given organism and context. The contextspecific diversity of real-time behavioral content, rather than the
formal unification of function, lies at the heart of the dynamic
systems approach.
This grounding of analysis in variability and context specificity
is evident in the growing literature of dynamic systems applications to the study of emotional development (Camras &
Witherington, 2005). Messinger, Fogel, and colleagues, for example, have examined morphological variation in infant smiling (e.g.,
open vs. closed mouth smiles) as a function of various socialinteractive contexts and as a function of embeddedness within
extended action sequences (e.g., Dickson, Walker, & Fogel, 1997;
Fogel, Hsu, Shapiro, Nelson-Goens, & Secrist, 2006; Fogel,
Nelson-Goens, Hsu, & Shapiro, 2000; Messinger, Fogel, &
Dickson, 1999, 2001; Yale, Messinger, Cobo-Lewis, & Delgado,
2003). Additionally, Camras and colleagues have demonstrated
how upward tilts of the head or eyes are typically accompanied by
the morphological components of the infant surprise expression
(mouth opening and brow raising) in the absence of anything
surprising in the context; simply presenting a toy above infants
lines of sight, a familiar context for infants, established brow
raises, suggesting that an upward tilt of infants heads or eyes
recruits, in muscle synergy fashion, movement of the brows
(Camras, 2000; Camras, Lambrecht, & Michel, 1996; Michel,
Camras, & Sullivan, 1992). The work of de Weerth and van Geert
charts intra- and interindividual variability in the patterning of
infant smiling and crying across three contexts of body contact
with the mother (de Weerth & van Geert, 2002; de Weerth, van
Geert, & Hoijtink, 1999). In all of this work, a fuller understanding
of the emotion process is sought through the local details of
individual actstheir fit to the specific context (Thelen &
Smith, 1994, p. 216).
Take, specifically, the work of Messinger and Fogel on different
configurational variants of infant smiling. During the initial moments of face-to-face interaction with their mothers, young infants
typically display smiles that only involve a lip corner raise; as
interaction proceeds, these smiles typically grade into Duchenne
smiles, involving both lip and cheek raise actions (Dickson et al.,
1997; Messinger et al., 1999). While engaging in mutual regard
with their mothers, infants are more likely to display Duchenne
smiles, with or without an opened mouth, when their mothers
smile at them (Messinger et al., 2001). Different types of mother
infant interaction yield different smile configurations. Smiles involving just a raise of the lip corners predominate over smiles
involving a cheek raise and open mouth during peekaboo (Fogel et
al., 2000). For tickle games, Duchenne smiles are common, espe-


cially during actual bouts of tickling in early trials. The addition of

an open mouth to the Duchenne smile becomes more likely as the
games extend in time (Fogel et al., 2000). The dynamic systems
framework for this research is evident in the works attention to
particularities of the smile morphology. Moment-to-moment
changes in how infant smiling is configured, as a function of
temporal and situational contextsthese are the contents deemed
most appropriate for study. Rather than focus on formal and
functional commonality across distinct actions (all of the smiles
serve to maintain the motherinfant interaction), the dynamic
system theorist attempts to explain the particulars of behavioral
content, by means, for example, of the contextual circumstances
that support Duchenne versus non-Duchenne smiling or open
versus closed mouth smiling.
Whereas the functionalist approach has in place a means for
hermeneutically deriving pattern from a data set, the dynamic
systems approach is more likely to consider pattern derivation a
purely empirical exercise, relying on statistical regularity in the
coordination of observable actions. Yale et al. (2003), for example,
have detailed all possible temporal sequencing patterns among
infant smiling and frowning, vocalizations, and infant gazing (toward or away from the mothers face) during play and still-face
episodes. Lewis and colleagues (Hollenstein & Lewis, 2006;
Lewis, Lamey, & Douglas, 1999; Lewis, Zimmerman, Hollenstein,
& Lamey, 2004) have introduced novel techniques, such as state
space grids, for deriving coherent pattern from a set of observable
behaviors. For example, Lewis et al. (1999) mapped five intensity
levels of infant distress expressions (from interest to intense crying) onto five levels of infant gazing (from looking to moms face
to looking 90 degrees away) by constructing a 5 5 grid for these
two variables (with one as the x-coordinate, the other as the
y-coordinate). To identify a trajectory of movement from cell to
cell, they plotted consecutive values of both variables for each
infant over the course of a real-time exchange with their mothers
. From this, Lewis et al. derived regularity of patterning for infant
distress gaze relations at the level of each infant by plotting the
duration of time that infant behavior occupied each cell and
statistically testing for the likelihood the behavior would return to
frequently occupied cells.

Complementary or Competing Approaches?

Operating largely at different levels of explanation (formal and
final vs. efficient and material) and engaging different units of
analysis (generalized organism environment relations vs. specific
actions in specific contexts), the functionalist and dynamic systems
approaches to emotion and its development can be viewed as
complementing one another. Via abstraction, the functionalist approach provides an interpretive framework, a meaningful context,
within which the dynamic systems approach can explain specific
action in context. By means of their appeal to formal and final
causes, functionalists have little to say about the particularities of
specific action in context; local variability is instead the domain of
the dynamics systems theorist, who focuses via efficient and
material causality on the task-specific context of the here and now.
However, to analyze task-specific adaptations, as the dynamic
systems theorist does, one must first establish the nature of the task
itself, the nature of the adaptational encounter. Consider the example of Driver X who is stuck behind a slow driver in traffic and



then accelerates around the slow driver. What is the nature of

relation between this event (the slow driver) and the goals of the
individual (Driver X) engaging the event? In general, the relationship is characterized by a mismatch of goal and event. Specifically,
the slow driver can be viewed as an obstacle to Driver Xs goal of
getting home quickly, that goal being inferred by the actions of
Driver X in relation to the slow driver. What function does Driver
Xs action serve given this relational context? Accelerating around
the slow driver removes the obstacle to getting home quickly. Such
a heuristic framework is the province of the functionalist approach.
Similarly, to fully appreciate the emotion process one must move
beyond the generalizations of the functionalist to an explanation of
context-specific behavioral content. For example, why does Driver
X accelerate around the slow driver in one circumstance, accelerate and honk in another, and gesture wildly in a third? Such
questions about the specificity of behavioral content are the province of the dynamic systems approach.
Whether the approaches complement one another depends on
the form of dynamic systems approach adopted. In the developmental dynamic systems literature, van Geert and Steenbeck
(2005) have distinguished their Groningen approach from the
Bloomington approachassociated with the work of Esther
Thelen, Linda Smith, John Spencer, and otherswith regard to
what level of organization constitutes an appropriate level for
dynamic systems modeling. Witherington (in press) has argued
that this distinction reflects a more fundamental conceptual divide
among proponents of the dynamic systems approach. Specifically,
some dynamic systems theorists eschew abstraction, via formal
and in particular final causality, from their explanatory framework,
whereas other dynamic systems theorists adopt an integrative
metatheoretical approach and regard formal and final causes as
integral components of explanation. From the standpoint of formal
and final causality, the orderliness that characterizes behavior at a
macrolevel (e.g., goals, appraisal patterns) is itself an abstraction
from the specifics of real-time action in context and constitutes an
explanation by means of its abstraction. For some dynamic theorists, however, such abstractions are failed substitutes for efficient
and material causes. According to the conceptualization of these
theorists, macrolevel orderliness offers nothing in the way of
explanation, because it simply redescribes the phenomenon of
interest at another level of analysis and fails to ground itself in
material and efficient causes, in the local details of action in
context. As we have already discussed, formal and final levels of
explanation, as abstractions, are one step removed from the variability and context specificity of local details. They serve to
formulate the pattern, organization, or form of the phenomenon
under study (Overton, 1991, p. 217). Such explanations, however,
by virtue of their abstraction, move enough beyond the immediacy
of the here and now to become explanatorily vacuous from the
standpoint of certain dynamic systems perspectives (Witherington,
in press). These perspectives interpret attempts at formal and final
causal explanation as examples of structural reification. In other
words, they regard abstractionssuch as goals, appraisals, personality structures, or organism environment functional relationsas
concrete objects or things in their own right. These concrete
entities, in turn, are viewed as directly causing, in efficient causal
terms, the real-time performance of an organism in a context (e.g.,
an individuals goal of being respected literally causes him or her
to hit another person). Because abstractions cannot possibly oper-

ate in this fashion, they are summarily rejected as explanatorily

The contention that functionalist approaches to emotion and
emotional development assign formative priority to the function an
emotion serves seems to stem from a misidentification of functionalisms formal and final causality as structural reification.
Consider the following argument from Dickson et al. (1998) in
regard to Fogel et al.s (1992) social process theory:
The social process theory supports the notion that emotions serve
these functions as well. However, we would argue that the function of
the emotion acts as one of many emotion constituents that interact
with other constituents to determine which emotion pattern is created.
The function of the emotion does not directly dictate the display of
emotion. The emotion process that emerges from the interaction of the
constituents determines the function of the emotion. The function of
emotion emerges from the situation and the capabilities of the individuals involved. (p. 286)

The abstract functions identified in the functionalist approach,

as formal and final causes, are not reified constituents of the
emotion process and thus do not enter into the efficient causal
framework of interaction that exists among the components that
comprise the emotion system. Proximity avoidance of threat does
not cause an organism to flee, freeze, or hide; it instead formulates
a commonality of function in the specific actions performed in
context. Dickson et al. however, regard function in concrete,
efficient causal terms and consider attempts by functionalists to
organize emotion process variability in terms of patterned functional relations between organism and environment as a kind of
structural reification. Proponents of the functionalist approach to
emotion and its development have, however, expressly repudiated
the practice of structural reification in emotion theory (Barrett,
1998; Barrett & Campos, 1987).
Fogels social process theory (Fogel et al., 1992) and Lewis
approach to emotion self-organization (e.g., Lewis, 2000, 2005;
Lewis & Douglas, 1998) constitute the principle dynamic systems
perspectives in the domain of emotional development (Camras &
Witherington, 2005). Given the interpretation of functionalist approaches offered by both Fogel et al. (1992) and Dickson et al.
(1998), it appears that proponents of social process theory, like
proponents of the dynamic systems approach who eschew formal
and final causes, regard with suspicion the admittance of higher
order abstractions, such as goals and appraisals, into the explanation of the emotion process. Fogel and his colleagues have not
explicitly repudiated explanations based on abstracted patterns.
However, their social process theory and the research it has inspired consistently characterize emotion patterning in product
terms and wed analysis to the real-time variability and context
specificity of parentinfant interactions (Dickson et al., 1997,
1998; Fogel et al., 1992; Messinger et al., 1999, 2001).
In contrast, Lewis (2000; Lewis & Ferrari, 2001) approach to
emotion and emotional development fully embraces higher levels
of abstraction in the explication of form. Lewis (2000) identifies
various levels of self-organization in the emotion process, from the
local, real-time emergence of emotion patterning in microdevelopment to the global level of macrodevelopmental organization
involving formal structures like personality (as abstracted dispositional properties of the organism). For Lewis, macrodevelopmental phenomena such as stable personality systems are a conse-


quence of microdevelopmental processes involving real-time

coalescence of various emotion system constituents. By the same
token, however, macrodevelopmental phenomena serve as a constraint, in formal causal terms, on future microdevelopmental
processes. He specifically argues for the utility of incorporating
formal levels of explanation:
The converse direction of influence is from larger scales to the
smaller scales embedded within them. This theme is ubiquitous in the
natural world, in which the structure of the tree guides the growth of
the branch, twig, and leaf; the ecosystem constrains the patterning of
its resident populations; and the self-organizing biosphere constrains
speciation in evolution. The emergence of large-scale patterns always
stipulates the parameters of self-organization at smaller scales by
fashioning the structures, contingencies, and constraints by which
order is created. (Lewis, 2000, p. 61)

Indeed, Lewis incorporates intentionality and goal-directednessas final causesinto his model of emotion process, viewing
intentionality as both emerging from lower order cognitive and
affective subsystems and constraining those very subsystems.
Lewis (2000) writes the following:
If intentions or goal states are viewed as emergent (in real time), they
could be said to cause the lower-order coordination of cognitive and
affective elements that (circularly) cause those intentions. In fact, it
seems to be this emergent intentionality that locks onto the stream of
events in real time, exchanging energy with the world and thereby
fueling its underlying coordinations. (p. 45)

Explicit in Lewis writings on emotional development is a deepseated reliance on hierarchically nested self-organizing processes (Lewis & Ferrari, 2001, p. 189) and on multiple levels of
explanation, from the concrete emergence of patterning in the here
and now to the abstraction of structures stably maintained in
developmental time. For Lewis, abstraction as a means of explanation is as ontologically real as the material and efficient causes
he also articulates (Lewis, 2005).
Whether dynamic systems and functionalist approaches complement or conflict with one another depends on the acceptance of
formal and final causes as legitimate forms of explanation. Articulations of Fogels social process theory suggest a fundamental
incompatibility between the two perspectives, resting on the nature
of explanation that functionalists adopt; Lewis dynamic systems
perspective adopts an integrative framework inclusive of the functionalist approach in which all causes are viewed as necessary but
distinct components of explanation.
When dynamic systems and functionalist approaches complement one another, as they are allowed to do in Lewis model, they
engender an explanatory scope that neither can provide alone. The
dynamic systems approach establishes a comprehensive framework for explaining emotion in emergent process terms, as a
system arising from a confluence of component subsystems in
bottom-up fashion and as a system constraining in top-down
fashion the very components that give rise to it (Barrett at al.,
2007; Lewis, 2000). The dynamic systems approach is agnostic
with regard to the ontological issue of what comprises the emotion
process, of what makes an action or context an emotional as
opposed to a nonemotional phenomenon. As Camras and
Witherington (2005) suggest, The approach offers a content free
set of principles that are most usefully applied through specific


instantiation in a content oriented, theoretical framework (p. 333).

Nothing in the approach establishes a basis for identifying any
given action event relationship as emotional. Furthermore, the
approach, which sets its sights on the task-specific assemblage of
emotion behavior, is ill-suited to abstracting patterns across varied
contexts. These critical gaps in the conceptualization of emotion
and its organization are filled by the functionalist approach, with
its focus on abstraction of pattern and on the nature of emotion qua
emotion. Similarly, the functionalist approachs gaps in detailing,
via efficient cause, the enormous contextual variability of emotions behavioral content are filled by the dynamic systems approach.
Much of the history of emotion theory has been wrapped up in
the search for a gold standard of emotion, whether it be in facial
expression, autonomic signatures, or affect programs (Barrett &
Campos, 1987; Witherington et al., 2001). Most modern articulations of the emotion process define emotion across multiple levels
of analysis, from the levels of central and peripheral psychology
and of expressive and instrumental action to the levels of goals,
appraisals, subjective experience, and organism environment relations (Gross & Thompson, 2007). In effect, the emotion process
is defined from multiple perspectives, prompting the realization
that no single perspective fully captures emotion as a whole. The
interlevel complexity of the emotion process requires an integrative orientation that can capture both the behavioral and physiological dynamics of emotion in real-time contexts and the organizational qualities of emotion at the level of organism in relation to
environment. Both the dynamic systems approach and the functionalist approach have their shortcomings as far as breadth of
focus, with each approach representing an incomplete vision of the
full emotion process. Akin to the ancient Eastern fable of the blind
men and the elephant, each metatheoretical perspective samples
only part of the whole that is the emotion process in all its
complexity. However, if they are considered as complements to
one another, both perspectives allow for a more complete view of
emotion to emerge. As such, the marriage of dynamic systems and
functionalist approaches moves the field of emotion and its development forward by establishing a broader philosophical lens with
which to frame our understanding of emotion and by maintaining
our focus on the multilevel complexity of the emotion process. In
the absence of this broader, integrative orientation, we all too
easily lose sight of emotions complexity.
Thus, the marriage of functionalist and dynamic systems approaches moves the field toward an increasingly integrative view
and exemplifies what Overton (2006) has termed a relational
developmental metatheory. Such a metatheory considers ontological differences (e.g., the real-time particulars of a given emotional
action in context vs. the functionally common, organizational
properties of morphologically distinct actions) as differentiated
polarities (i.e., coequals) of a unified (i.e., indissociable) inclusive
matrix (p. 33). Each approach, the functionalist and the dynamic
systems, constitutes a distinct yet relationally unified line of sight
or perspective. Formal and final efficient and materiallevels
of causality reflect alternative perspectives and different features
of the same whole. All causes are unified as alternative vantage
points of the same whole, each providing a meaningful context for
the others. The functionalist approach, via formal and final causality, abstracts commonality across actions and contexts, whereas
the dynamic systems theorist, via efficient and material causality,



works within the meaning frame established by the functionalist to

explain why specific actions emerge in specific contexts. Such a
unification provides a powerful framework for understanding emotion at multiple levels of analysis and explanation, both in terms of
its context-specific, variable content and in terms of its organizational, invariant forms.

Differences between functionalist and dynamic systems approaches to emotion and its development, we argue, exist at the
typical level of abstraction used to explain emotional behavior.
Both approaches regard emotion in self-organizing systems terms
and ground themselves in behavioral variability, flexibility, and
situational context. However, the functionalist approach moves
beyond the immediate content of an action in context to abstract a
more general set of organism environment relations. Functionalists rely on formal and final levels of explanation by abstracting
functional commonalities in the meaning of different actions
across different contexts. For the dynamic systems approach, evaluation of specific actions in context is the primary task of explanation. The dynamic systems theorist, in adopting efficient and
material causes, seeks to understand the processes underlying the
content of each emotional act by contextualizing the act in terms of
real-time, task-specific environments. Higher order abstractions
are indispensable to the functionalist, for they provide a meaning
context within which to view the particularities of action in context. Depending on the type of dynamic systems approach adopted,
such abstractions are either regarded as illegitimate forms of
explanation, as proponents of social process theory seem to suggest, or are regarded as important complements to the antecedent
consequent explanations of efficient and material causality.

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Received April 25, 2006

Revision received March 2, 2007
Accepted April 5, 2007