Urie Bronfenbrenner & Social Ecology Theory
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bronfenbrenner made several contributions to understanding the importance of the context of human development. In his 1979 book, The Ecology of Human Development, Bronfenbrenner explained the importance for human ontogeny of the interrelated ecological levels, conceived of as nested systems, involved in human development. Each of the ecological systems he described was explained to have an important impact on the child, the parent, the family, and in fact on the quality of life in society.
Together, the four components of Bronfenbrenner’s formulation of social ecology theory constitute a model for conceptualizing the integrated developmental system and for designing research to study the course of human development. Ecological approaches draw heavily from the theoretical work of Urie Bronfenbrenner (1977, 1979, 1986). Bronfenbrenner’s theory organizes social ecological influence on individuals at four different levels. Each level contains and influences the prior level and directly or indirectly influences individuals.
The four levels of systems are known as microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and macrosystems. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory provides an ideal tool to describe and examine the effects of various levels of social, cultural, political, and historical context on human development. Bronfenbrenner also denotes proximal processes as mechanisms by which genotypes are transformed into phenotypes; this occurs through patterns of interactions within microsystems that involve both the genetic makeup of individuals and the various layers of contextual influences.
Microsystems refer to systems that include the target individual directly. For children and adolescents, this might include the family, peers, the school, and the neighborhood. For an adult, microsystems might consist of the couple, the immediate family (of origin and of procreation), work, the neighborhood, and the health-care system (e. g. , in the case of chronic disease). At first, for most children, the microsystem is quite small. It is the home, involving interaction with only one or perhaps two people at a time (“dyadic or triadic interaction”) doing relatively simple activities such as feeding, bathing, and cuddling.
As the child develops, complexity normally increases: the child does more, with more people, in more places. Indeed, in Bronfenbrenner’s view, the expanding capacity to do more is the very essence of development. Love is at the heart of it. Play figures prominently in this process from the early months of life, and eventually is joined by productive labor (work). Playing, working, and loving (what Freud called the essence of normal human existence) are the principal classes of activities that characterize the child’s microsystem.
However, how much one does of those activities and how complex they are differs from person to person. One of the most important aspects of the microsystem as a force in development is the existence of relationships that go beyond simple dyads (two people). For a child, to be able to observe and learn from being exposed to other dyads (such as his mother and father) enhances development. Development is enhanced when the child is able to observe differences in his or her own dyadic experience because a third party is present. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of a child’s microsystem is the influence of other people – e.
g. , the effect of a father on a mother’s relationship with their child. So long as increased numbers in a child’s microsystem mean more enduring reciprocal relationships, larger and more complex microsystems as a function of the child’s age mean enhanced development ( Bronfenbrenner 1979). We measure the social riches of a child by enduring, reciprocal, multifaceted relationships that emphasize playing, working, and loving. Mesosystems represent relationships between the members of the microsystems in which the individual participates but which do not involve the target individual.
For children and adolescents, the primary mesosystemic relationships may involve parents’ interactions with the youth’s peer, school, and justice systems. For an adult, mesosystemic relationships might include interactions between the partner and the target individual’s parents or siblings, or between the partner and friends or doctors. Bronfenbrenner used as an example of a small mesosystem the child who goes to school on the first day unaccompanied. This means there is only a single link between home and school – the child’s participation in both.
Were this minimal “linkage” to persist, it would place the child at risk, particularly if there is little agreement and overlap between home and school in terms of values, experiences, objects, and behavioral style. Homes that do not value schooling, do not have formally educated people or books, do not involve reading and other basic academic skills, and do not use the formal language used for instructional purposes put the child at a disadvantage in school. In contrast, where all these links are strong, the odds favor the development of academic competence (Garbarino 1981).
Where the actual participation of people other than the child in both settings bolsters the similarity between the two settings, academic success is still more likely. Thus, it is an important start for the parents to visit the school, and even for teachers to visit the home. The central principle here is that the stronger and more complementary the links between settings, the more powerful the resulting mesosystem will be as an influence on the child’s development. A rich range of mesosystems is both a product and a cause of development.
A well-connected child’s competence increases, and increases her or his ability to form further connections. A poor set of mesosystems both derives from and produces impaired development – particularly when home and school are involved. What determines the quality of the child’s mesosystems? The initiatives of the child and his or her parents play a role, of course. But it is events in those systems where the child does not participate – but where things happen that have a direct bearing on the parents and other adults who do interact with the child – that play the largest role.
Bronfenbrenner calls these settings “exosystems. ” Exosystems are those systems that include a member of a microsystem but that do not involve the individual directly. For children and adolescents, exosystems may include the gang of a friend or the social support network or place of work of a parent. Both of these exosystems, through their impact on the friend (gang members support the antisocial behavior of the friend) and on the parent (the parent receives support from friends/extended family or is under stress from work), respectively, may have an indirect impact on the child.
Szapocznik (1989) suggests that this impact occurs through the interactions between the youth and the other person. For an adult, important exosystems include the support network or place of work of the partner. Both of these relationships may serve as a critical buffer or stressor on the partner that, in turn, may dramatically influence couple interactions. Exosystems are situations having a bearing on a child’s development but in which the developing child does not actually play a direct role.
The child’s exosystems are those settings that have power over her or his life, yet in which the child does not participate. They include the workplace of the parents (for most children, since they are not participants there) and those centers of power (such as school boards and planning commissions) that make decisions affecting the child’s day-to-day life. In exosystem terms, risk comes about in two ways. The first is when the child’s parents or other significant adults in the child’s life suffer in a way that impoverishes their behavior in the child’s microsystems: home, school, or peer group.
For example, Melvin Kohn (1977) has found that when parents work in settings that demand conformity rather than selfdirection, they reflect this orientation in their childrearing. The result is inflexible, rigid childrearing. Other examples include elements of the parent’s working experience that result in an impoverishment of family life – such as long or inflexible hours, traveling, stress, or inadequate income. The second way risk flows from the exosystem is when decisions made in those settings adversely affect the child or treat him or her unfairly.
Bronfenbrenner thinks of macrosystems as cultural blueprints that underlie the organization of institutions, the assumptions people make about social relations, and the workings of the political and economic system. This treatment of culture goes beyond simple description. That is, in specifying culture as the blueprint for society, we leave open the possibility that the blueprints may be “in error. ” Bronfenbrenner offers us the possibility of criticizing culture and society on the grounds that they impede human development.
While this may seem self-evident, it does represent something of a departure from the way many social scientists think of culture. Using the term “cultural relativism,” many social scientists argue that all cultures are equivalent, that one cannot and should not criticize cultures as being humanly wrong since all cultures arise as a specific adaptation to circumstances (Tulkin, 1972). Translating culture into the concept of macrosystem, on the other hand, raises the possibility that such consistencies may not be in the best interests of children and their development.
The second and related aspect of Bronfenbrenner’s definition is found in his statement that macrosystem refers to consistencies “that could exist” (1979, p. 26). The ecological approach is intimately bound up with social policy, i. e. , the decisions and principles guiding the behavior of public and private institutions. It necessitates a serious consideration of “social engineering” as a way of dealing with individual developmental problems.
Naturally, this is of special relevance in the discussion of sociocultural risk, where the focus of attention is on problems in just those “consistencies in the form of lower-order systems” that do exist and have an adverse developmental effect on individuals. Thus, an ecological approach has a “moral imperative” attached to it; it both describes and prescribes. It tells that to reduce risk at the most immediate level of the microsystem, one should consider changing things in the big picture.
This means that the topic of sociocultural risk brings together the “helping” and “describing” traditions in human development. Finally, at the broadest level are macrosystems, defined as the broad social forces and systems that have the most widespread impact, such as the law, as well as the cultural blueprints that pervade a family’s social environment. An example of macrosystems is the societal belief that individuals who do not speak English are less valuable to society because they do not speak English.
At this broadest level, cultural factors are important in the development and maintenance of problems for individuals and families, for example, the differential levels of acculturation among parents and children in immigrant families (Szapocznik & Kurtines, 1993). Over the past three decades, Urie Bronfenbrenner has refined and expanded his thinking about the context in which development unfolds many times over. Bronfenbrenner’s most recent formulation of his bioecological model of development (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998) includes the dynamic, interactive relationships among four principal components.
The components are process, person, environmental context, and time. In the process-person-context-time (PPCT) model, unlike in his earliest and still widely cited formulation of the ecological, “nested structures” model (1979), Bronfenbrenner emphasizes the construct of proximal processes. While the bioecological model lays out the relationship between genetic influences, heritability, and proximal processes as they take place in particular environments, ecological systems theory focuses on characterizing levels of environmental influence in terms of dynamic, interactive, systems of person-environment relationships.
Ecological systems theory is organized hierarchically, involving interactive systems of increasing complexity embedded in the framework of human development. Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1993) began by transforming Lewin’s (1935) formulation that behavior is a coupled function of the person and the environment; he substituted development for behavior, stating that development is also a function of the person and the environment over time. Conversely, the social address model which is the most common approach, considers only environmental factors, such as social class, family size, and other demographic variables.
The specific characteristics of the environment, activities that occur in particular environments, and the impact of these activities on individuals are all neglected in the social address model. The person-context model examines both the individual and the context but does not analyze the processes involved in development. This model is able to specify ecological niches, but it does not delineate the processes by which developmental outcomes are attained.
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, in contrast, is a process-person-context model that, like the bioecological model, highlights variability within developmental processes as a function of the characteristics of the person and the environment. Bronfenbrenner’s theory of human ecology and, later, his person-process-context-time (PPCT) model (1995) provide the necessary structure for gaining a theoretical understanding the person-environment process. According to Cairns and Cairns (1995),
Bronfenbrenner brought Lewinian life-space into the real world. … There was a pragmatic need to go beyond the person’s phenomenology to confront the real world of interactions, relationships, and contexts. Actions then lie at the adaptive interaction between the person and the environment (p. 403). Bronfenbrenner sought to explain how the larger context in which individuals function impacts the reciprocal relationship of the individuals and the dynamic properties of the immediate settings in which they live.
Within this is the concept of proximal processes: enduring reciprocal interactions between individuals and persons, objects, and symbols in their immediate environment (Ceci & Hembroke, 1995). Further, Bronfenbrenner maintained that to understand an individual requires examination of two primary constructs: ecological structures and ecological transitions. Within this is the reminder that process, or the concept of the chronosystem, underlies both (Elder 1995).
Understanding an individual, then, requires both a knowledge of how each of the ecological structures impacts the individual and an awareness of how the different levels of the ecology interact to produce both the perceived and actual environment in which the individual functions. When considering that individuals exist within several different microsystems and transition between microsystems throughout their day, understanding how the different microsystems interact and impact the individual is of additional importance.
Bronfenbrenner described the microsystem as the setting within which the individual was behaving at a given moment in her or his life and the mesosystem as the set of microsystems constituting the individual’s developmental niche within a given period of development. In addition, the exosystem is composed of contexts that, although not directly involving the developing person, have an influence on the person’s behavior and development. Finally, the macrosystem is the superordinate level of the ecology of human development; it is the level involving culture, macroinstitutions, and public policy.
The macrosystem influences the nature of interaction within all other levels of the ecology of human development. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) formulation had a broad impact on the field of human development, promoting considerable interest through the 1980s in the role of the ecological system in texturing the life course of individuals. Ecological theory provides a dynamic, contextually sensitive framework from which to analyze environments and gene-environment interactions. It can be applied to shed light on behavioral genetic theorizing.
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