Book review of The Ecology of Human Development (1979) by Urie Bronfenbrenner

Subtitle; Picking Sides: Psychology versus Sociology in Social Work

By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset (31.07.20)


A challenge in social work is being taught both sociology and psychology. There can often be a tension between these two disciplines, with each making the case that the level of analysis in their respective fields is the most appropriate one. As a result, I have often found myself ‘yo-yo-ing’ between different perspectives, focussing in on one at a time. I have searched, in vein, to find one complete and final framework that will enable me to understand and help the children and families I work with. Underlying this endeavour is the presupposition that the different perspectives are incompatible with one another and therefore unable to be integrated.  

To generalise and perhaps caricature, sociology considers social and cultural factors to be the predominant influences in the development of the individual. Psychology is therefore too restrictive and places disproportionate responsibility on the individual to resolve issues borne out of social inequality and injustice. Psychology (and especially psychoanalysis) consider intrapsychic (thoughts, feelings, unresolved trauma) and interpersonal (relationships) functioning at the level of the individual to be crucial, using variation between individuals’ psychological functioning in similar environments to illustrate this point. As such, the individual can mould her/his experiences, for better or worse. To simplify this dichotomy further, society shapes the individual versus the individual shapes her/his experience and the environment. 

Your theoretical predilection, whether sociological or psychological, will influence how you frame the behaviour of a child, a parent or family, and how you attempt to deal with that issue that requires your professional attention.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory provides a conceptual framework integrating both disciplines, and indeed, he powerfully illustrates that to understand the development of human behaviour, this is necessary. Bronfenbrenner’s theory is an excellent one in of its own right, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a decidedly helpful over-arching theory – a meta-theory that provides a conceptual framework to incorporate all other theories.

The Ecology of Human development: 

To understand human development, according to Bronfenbrenner (1979), you need to understand the individual’s phenomenological perspective, psychological functioning, and the social contexts in which they are situated in and connected to. Bronfenbrenner (1979) emphasized the environment doesn’t solely influence the developmental outcomes of the individual in a unidirectional manner, rather the developing person is ‘a growing, dynamic entity that progressively moves into and restructures the milieu in which it resides’ (1979: 21). In other words, the individuals shape their environment as much the environment shapes the individual. Further to this, the relationship between the various contexts that the individual operates within, is as equally important, as the contexts themselves. Development, therefore is complex, integrative, and involves multiple bi-directional processes. Bronfenbrenner (1979) argued that research had been disproportionately focused on periods of life ‘characterized by rapid and readily detectable biologically mediated changes’ (1979: 232) such as early childhood and old age and he hoped his ecological theory would advance research exploring development in the middle years.

A summary of the main concepts: 

The microsystem refers to activities, various roles, and relationships within a particular setting. For example, a child’s home constitutes their microsystem, and this includes the type of home and the available toys as well as their roles within the home (e.g as a mother or father’s child, a younger or older sibling). Bronfenbrenner emphasised the importance of the meaning the developing person attributed to the microsystem and all its elements (i.e. phenomenological perspective), positing that the ‘…the perceived is viewed as more important than the actual, the unreal more valid than the real’ (1979: 23). 

For the developing infant, the microsystem is the first context in which dyadic relationships develop, for example between the child and mother or the child and father. Bronfenbrenner (1979) considered this dyadic relationship as interactive and bi-directional. Each developmental phase of the infant is no less significant for the parent as it is for the child, because ‘if one member of the dyad undergoes developmental change, the other is also likely to’ (p.65). Furthermore, the nature of the relationship established by the dyad is influenced by the existence and nature of other dyadic relationships, both within the household (microsystem) but also from other persons outside the immediate setting (exosystem). To illustrate, a study detailed by Bronfenbrenner (1979) which involved parent-child observations with and without the parent’s partner present, found that the presence of the partner substantially increased the positive interaction between parent and child.   

An unnecessarily complicated diagram (I devised when attempting to make sense of Bronfenbrenner)

This diagram attempts to illustrate how relationships can be understood within a triad from a phenomenological perspective, that is, the subjective meaning given by the individual to other individuals, activities, and roles within a given environment. Within this triad:

  • The child has a representation of 1) the relationship with the father, 2) the relationship with the mother, 3) the fathers’ relationship to the mother, 4) the mothers relationship to the father
  • The mother has a representation of 1) the relationship with the father, 2) the relationship with the child, 3)  the fathers relationship with the child 
  • The father has a representation of 1) relationship with the mother, 2) relationship with the child, 3) mothers relationship with the child

The representation an individual develops in a dyad is co-constructed; although each representation is different. The degree to which the child is enabled to co-construct the relationship will of course be contingent upon the parent’s ability to facilitate that process. In any given interaction, a representation is formed in the present and this guides the behaviour of each individual, but the present representation is predicated, to a large degree, on representations formed during past interactions.

The mesosystem is different from the microsystem and the ecosystem as it is not a setting per se. Instead, it is the relation between two or more settings the developing person actively participates (such as, for a child, the relations among home, school, and neighbourhood peer group; for an adult, among family, work, and social life) (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In other words,

‘a mesosystem is… a system of microsystems’ (1979: 25). 

Bronfenbrenner (1979) identifies several ways in which relations between settings can exist: Primary Link; The developing person that participates in more than one setting: Supplementary Links; Other persons who participate in both settings: Inter-setting communications; messages from one setting to the other: and Inter-setting knowledge; information that exists in one setting about the other (Bronfenbrenner 1979: 210).

Closely linked to these clusters of ideas is ‘ecological transition’, which is the terminology used by Bronfenbrenner (1979: 26) to describe an individual’s transition from one setting into another or a dramatic change within a setting (i.e. birth of a sibling). It was Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) contention that the experience and developmental potential in one setting is greatly facilitated by multiple and effective forms of linkage between the settings. He argued that ‘the least favourable condition for development is one in which supplementary links are either non-supportive or completely absent when the mesosystem is weakly linked’ (1979: 35).

To give an example, research has shown that children whose parents have little involvement with their school setting are likely to do less well, socially, behavioural and educationally, than those who have parents heavily involved (Goodall et al, 2010). To use Brofenbrenner’s (1979) terms, attending parents evening (i.e. ‘supplementary links’), reading newsletters / child’s school diary (i.e. inter-setting communications), and/or facilitating the child to invite a friend from school to home one evening (i.e. creating a ‘supplementary link’) all help a child’s learning and development within school (Goodall et al, 2010).

If these are the effects of communication between settings for children in school, imagine the effect of communication, or lack of it, between settings for children in care?

The exosystem refers to one or more settings in which the developing person is not within but events that occur within those settings affect what happens in the setting containing the developing person. For example, the parents’ experience within a work setting can have a significant effect, for better or worse, on the child’s experience at home. Perhaps a parent has unexpectedly been called into a performance meeting or been informed of redundancy thus effecting the child indirectly through parental strain and/or financial difficulty. Equally, a parent’s experience with their child or partner can have effects on their experience within their work setting.

The macrosystem is comprised of values, customs, government and laws. These are often referred to rather vaguely as culture or sub-cultures. The effects of the macrosystem insidiously pervade and influence the interactions in all the other systems. These effects can be subliminal, tacit and subtle or overt and profound. Brofenbrenner adapts Einsteins metaphor of Special Relativity Theory (what ever that is!) to illustrate the relationship between the macrosystem and the developing person: 

‘development takes place in a moving train, and that train is what we may call the “moving macro- system.” 

He then asks ‘If there are two trajectories, one embedded within the other, what is the relation between them? Is the individual simply caught in the current of history, or does he exhibit a momentum of his own? How much lag is there? Does the past leave its mark on the present? And for how long?’ (p.264). 

In a powerfully illustrative example, Bronfenbrenner (1979) draws upon the research of psychologist, Luria (1976) who collated observation material ‘in 1931-32, during the Soviet Union’s most radical restructuring: the elimination of illiteracy, the transition to a collectivist economy, and the readjustment of life to new socialist principles’ (1979: 261). I will use Bronfenbrenner’s (1979: 263-265) lengthy quotation, which is a direct quote of Luria (1976:161-164): 

‘The facts show convincingly that the structure of cognitive activity does not remain static during different stages of historical development and that the most important forms of cognitive processes-perception, generalization, deduction, reasoning, imagination, and analysis of one’s own inner life vary as the conditions of social life change and the rudiments of knowledge are mastered. Our investigations, which were conducted under unique and non-replicable conditions involving a transition to collectivized forms of labor and cultural revolution, showed that, as the basic forms of activity change, as literacy is mastered, and a new stage of social and historical practice is reached, major shifts occur in human mental activity. These are not limited simply to an expanding of man’s horizons, but involve the creation of new motives for action and radically affect the structure of cognitive processes … Closely associated with this assimilation of new spheres of social experience, there are dramatic shifts in the nature of cognitive activity and the structure of mental processes. The basic forms of cognitive activity begin to go beyond fixation and reproduction of individual practical activity and cease to be purely concrete and situational…Whereas before the dynamics of thought occurred only within the framework of immediate, practical experience and reasoning processes were largely limited to processes of reproducing established practical situations, as a result of the cultural revolution we see the possibility of drawing inferences not only on the basis of one’s own practical experience, but on the basis of discursive, verbal, and logical processes as well … All these transformations result in changes in the basic structure of cognitive processes and result in an enormous expansion of experience and in the construction of a vastly broader world in which human beings begin to live … Finally, there are changes in self-awareness of the personality, which advances to the higher level of social awareness and assumes new capabilities for objective, categorical analysis of one’s motivation, actions, intrinsic properties, and idiosyncrasies. Thus a fact hitherto underrated by psychology becomes apparent: sociohistorical shifts not only introduce new content into the mental world of human beings; they also create new forms of activity and new structures of cognitive functioning. They advance human consciousness to new levels’.

Of course, caution should be adopted when inferring meaning from such a study, especially in the context of the UK, as the socio-economic context is vastly different, both then and now. Nonetheless, Lurias’ thesis illustrates that changes at the systemic, political, and social level (macro-system) can have profoundly important implications for the individuals’ psychological, cognitive and emotional experiences. Attributes that are typically assessed within children’s services when considering parenting capacity.  

Another study drawn on by Bronfenbrenner was by Elder (1964) and was undertaken during the Great Depression. I will not explain the study in any detail here, but point out that the effects of the Great Depression were different for older children than it was for younger children and different for boys than girls. Furthermore, the effects were not always apparent until many years later, illustrating a sleeper effect. Early adversity can manifest in later periods of your life, especially during ‘ecological transitions’. Finally, not all the effects were negative, there were some positive consequences for some children, thus illustrating that adversity (or trauma) is not defined by an experience, rather how the individual deals with the experience in the context of their unique social system.


Towards the end, Bronfenbrenner (1979: 290) highlighted concern with a  ‘deficit model of human function and growth’, which may resonate with criticisms that are levied towards practice within child protection and will summarise his perspective nicely: 

‘Such a model [the deficit model] assumes that what we view inadequacy or disturbance in human behavior and development – even, or perhaps especially, when it is not the product of organic damage-reflects some deficiency within the person or, from a more enlightened but fundamentally unaltered perspective, within that person’s immediate environment. One· begins with the individual, looking for signs of apathy, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, defense mechanisms, and the like. If this attempt is not successful, one knows just where to look next. If the source of the deficiency is not to be found within the child, it must lie with the parents: they aren’t providing the child with enough cognitive stimulation, they haven’t worked through their relationship to one another, or their personalities are still fixated at a preoedipal level. (The possibilities are endless; the chief target of our social service programs across the land is multi- problem families.) And if the source of difficulty remains elusive, the ethnic or social group to which the family belongs can always be blamed. There must be something wrong with somebody, and somebody usually turns out to be the person or group having the problem in the first place’.

In conclusion, Bronfenbrenner (1979) invites us to conceptualise human development at multiple levels simultaneously. This is challenging. Due to the complexity of human development, we create mental short cuts and heuristics. For example, we have ‘a penchant for binaries’ (Melnikoff and Bargh, 2018: 1). We think of perpetrators and victims, self and other, good and bad, psychology and sociology. The reality however is these dichotomy’s fail to deal with complexity. Perpetrators were almost always victims in the not so distant past, and often still are in some sense; we are individuals (self) but we do not know who we are without others (others); we are all a mix of good and bad; and most pertinent to this blog, our psychological functioning is inseparable from our social context and our social context is shaped by our psychological functioning. 

To end, Nora Bateson, in Small Arcs of Larger Circles (2016: 157) wrote: 

‘To think in terms of systems is to suspend the version of reality of the wise scholar who looks through his binoculars or microscope and classifies parts of nature he objectively sees. This arcane character is replaced with another sort of scholar, one who is willing to look in several directions, seeking patterns of interaction’. 

Bronfenbrenner’s theory, in my opinion, provides a framework for looking ‘in several directions’ and ‘seeking patterns’, both within and between different systems.

**Note: After reading his 1979 book I learned that Bronfenbrenner updated and revised his theory in important ways, and I am therefore going to write a part 2. In Part 2 I will explore the developments to his theory and attempt to apply his ideas in a practical way. If you are interested you may want to sign up by scrolling to the bottom of this page and adding your e-mail. 

By Richard Devine (31.07.20)

P.s. I haven’t had anyone proof read this, so if you notice any typo’s please do get in touch – also, if I have mischaracterised Bronfenbrenner’s ideas in any way I would love to hear from you so I can learn.

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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