Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory

Using Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory (sometimes referred to as the bioecological theory) identify the major features of this theory (the 5 systems in particular) and critically apply them to your own life, evaluating how well they explain your development.

I am 48, female, married and a mother of two girls. I am educated, a scientist, a liberal socialist and involved in my community. I am an environmentalist and a teacher. I love to read, play silly board games with my family, walk my dog on the beach, spend hours in my garden and cook. I am often extrovert but can be shy. Mostly I am happy and content with life but some things make me frustrated, angry or sad. I have had many roles, lived in many places and experienced many environments. Having worked out who I am does Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory explain my development and how I came to be the way I am?

In his book, “The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design” (published in 1979) Bronfenbrenner states that his theory describes interrelating structures and processes in immediate and remote environments as they shape the course of human development. He sees development as a lasting change in the way in which a person perceives and deals with his or her environment and models his theory as a set of nested structures like Russian dolls. While his models are system based rather than about linear variables he also states that during life we go through ecological transitions where our roles and expected behaviours will change.

I will attempt to take Bronfenbrenner’s model and match it with my own development, focusing on key transitions to see if they usefully explain my own personal development.

Above is a diagram (source: edfd 127.wikispaces.com) illustrating Bronfenbrenner’s model, it shows the five layers in the nest analogy, first the Microsystem or immediate environs such as family, home school, play area etc. Second is the Mesosystem which considers the links between microsystems for example relationships between home and school. The third layer is the Exosystem – settings not experienced directly such as parent’s workplace, this is followed by the Macrosystem which looks at broader cultural contexts such as laws and national customs. Finally we have to consider the Chronosystem which looks at changes in environment over time. On the next page I have produced a table summarizing key times and important transitions in my life and listing associated elements in the Micro, Exo and Macro systems.

Table showing my life stages and related systems adapted from Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Development Model

  • Life stage Microsystems Mesosystems Exosystems Macrosystems Chronosystems /transition
  • Infant/young child Parents, sister, extended family, school friends, teachers, Parents and “aunties”, parents and school, street friends, sister and friends Parent’s work places, local council, Wilson and Heath governments (UK), the miners strike, the 11plus exam Moving house, self awareness, labeled “bright”
  • Age 11 to 18 Parents, school, school friends, teachers Parents, parents and school, school friends and home. School governors, local council, bus company, hospitals Thatcher government, exam boards Puberty, mother’s illness, moving school and house
  • 18 to 21 Parents, friends, university, boyfriends Family, friends, family of friends and boyfriends Hospitals,
  • UCCA (university entrance) Falklands war Thatcher government, City Council Gaining responsibilities, growing independence, Illnesses of mother and father, leaving home
  • 21 to late 20s Work friends, social friends, parents, workplace, boyfriends Work and me, friends, Local councils, ferry managers, unions, travel companies Government, war First Job, death of friends
  • 30s Husband, children, friends, sister, colleagues, other parents Between family, work and home, home and my children’s schools Husband’s employment Foreign governments, local councils, NZ government, international events New Zealand Immigration policy, Hospitals, international events, terrorism Marriage, emigration, becoming a mother, death of parents
  • 40s Husband, children, friends, colleagues Home and school, workplace, holiday experiences Husband’s employment, Foreign governments, local councils International events, changing government, world recession, NZ government Head of family

I have not attempted to cover everything but have focused on stages and transitions that I feel have had a major influence on my development.

Born into a working class family in industrial Birmingham, UK, my father was a factory metal worker, and a man of his time, clever but poorly educated he involved himself little in day to day family life, going to work, the pub with his mates and the Labour club on Saturday night. He rarely cuddled or hugged his children but despite of the lack of physical affection we knew we loved; warm memories include the pub garden on a Sunday with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps, being allowed to play the slot machines in the back room of the club and fish and chips on the way home.

Hands on parenting was left to Mum and the aunties – fed and clothed (laundry was a huge chore) we often visited extended family, dad was one of 14 children and mum one of 7, none moved far away so there was an endless supply of cousins, bus rides, cups of tea and playing in back yards while mothers and aunties talked for hours. Mum was warm, sensible, loving and caring. She was partially sighted and had little education, could barely read or write but she taught me string games, how to make clothes for my dolls, how to be gentle and patient and how to give thanks for what you had even if that wasn’t very much . An older sister and tight network of school friends completed the microsystem, with the mesosystem being the relationships between these small groups. This network gave me a sense of belonging, made me secure and confident, I developed language with strong local accent but also read from an early age, a skill born of necessity as my mother could not read to me

Friends were important, we were the “play outside” generation. As an infant my parent’s house was “slum cleared” and we moved to a brand new flat overlooking sculptured play areas designed for families. We were sent outside after breakfast to play – all day was spent with friends, a brief visit home at lunch time would result in a packet of greaseproof wrapped sandwiches thrown down from the flat balcony, and sometimes sixpence to buy a bottle of squash. The exosystem and mesosystem, in this case the local council and wider government provided modern housing, play space, free libraries, free healthcare, free school, all vital in my development, giving me opportunities that my parents did not have. This environment also instilled in me the “rightness” of fair opportunities for all – free schools, libraries and health care were never taken for granted by my parents, but seen as the result of a long political struggle by the post-war Labour Party.

On the negative side I had a poor relationship with my older sister who resented me and bullied me (although I soon found ways to embarrass her and “fight back”). Poverty was also an everyday reality, running out of food, wearing my sisters old clothes and shoes, never going on a holiday, although I do not remember feeling poor at the time. Micheal Cole and Sheila Cole, in their book , “The Development of Children”, discuss resilience and how strong support networks help to buffer children. I think that the security I gained from a strong network of friends, a sense of belonging and love from my mother helped buffer me against what could have been a very detrimental relationship with my sister and the effects of poverty.

Life changed at eleven, passing the “eleven plus” exam I was sent to Grammar School and we moved house. This was a major transition period when my old friends and networks were replaced by new middle class friends with different values (and much more money). The social skills developed early served me well as I quickly made new friends and adapted. Suddenly seeing myself as “clever” and seeing the potential to have an exciting job and travel away from Birmingham drove me to work hard and school became my life. This focus continued through University – I was the only child in my vast extended family to attend tertiary education. Events in the macrosystem, the Thatcher government of the time, coal mine closures, the death of the steel industry and the Falklands War all impacted on my extended family directly as they lost jobs or were wounded. This kept my politics left of center while the microsystem of University life developed my thinking skills and awareness of the wider community.

The differences between my early family life and, later, school and university has a parallel with the idea of culture and cognition. (Nisbett, Peng and Norezan, Cultures and Systems of Thought Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition. Psychological Review 108 p291-310) The authors compare European culture -using analytical knowledge to take sides in right and wrong developed from roots in ancient Greek philosophy with Asian culture based on Confucianism and Taoism which seeks a middle road and compromise. The values I grew up with were very much based on sides (us and them) with the micro and mesosystems of major importance. At school and University I learnt that life is rarely black and white and to adapt a more middle road and try to see things from other points of view and take a wider perspective.

By age 21 I was pretty much fully formed as an adult, although as Bronfenbrenner states we continue to develop all the time. Employment, marriage, parenthood, emigration, travel and bereavement were all events of major transitions as my roles in life changed and experience widened. I became more patient, slower to react and more inclined to think. I am more cynical about the world but also more hopeful and am still prepared to see the best in a situation. In writing this I was intrigued to see that at times micro and mesosystems impacted most on my development while in my twenties and thirties the wider world often seemed more relevant and a bigger driver for change.

In conclusion I think that Bronfenbrenners model is a useful tool, giving a framework to my development and an opportunity to see it as more than a series of disconnected events. A little like Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory my ability to move to higher levels of potential development depended on different levels of input from different people and events over time.