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Essay: Ecological systems theory

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  • Published: 27 November 2022*
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Social work is a field that revolves around helping others. It is an eclectic practice and to those not familiar, a field that can be hard to distinguish from any other philanthropy. To separate itself from other areas of altruism, social work relies on theories to guide practice. Many theories are involved in making social work the profession it is today, but one particular theory was developed to help focus on individuals and the effects of his or her surroundings. This theory is known as the ecological systems theory.

Theorist Behind Ecological Systems Theory & Context

The mind behind the ecological systems theory was Urie Bronfenbrenner. Bronfenbrenner, a developmental psychologist with a history of teaching in the department of Human Development at Cornell University, was determined to make child development a much more understandable subject so as to influence policymakers and inspire other child psychologists (Shelton, 2018). According to Rosa & Tudge (2013), Bronfenbrenner designed the ecological systems theory as a way to advance research in child development as well as to aid in the creation of policies for children’s welfare. Shelton (2018) states Bronfenbrenner felt children were not adequately understood, and further development of research was necessary to guide effective practice. Bronfenbrenner did not think the then-current practice with children was realistic and wanted to develop a more practical approach to development in a child (Rosa & Tudge, 2013). His main concern was focusing on outlying factors in a child’s life such as the family of the child or the neighborhood the child lived in (Rosa & Tudge, 2013). Shelton (2018) pointed out Bronfenbrenner’s childhood as a main contributor to his desire for an ecological approach to assessment. Bronfenbrenner’s theory plays a pivotal role in emphasizing the uniqueness of each individual as his or her environment is explored.

Tenets of the Theory


The ecological systems theory unwraps many layers of outlying factors that affect individuals. Shelton (2018) emphasized Bronfenbrenner’s use of “system” in each of his tenets because in order for one unit to work effectively, it must have other factors that influence its process. Bronfenbrenner’s theory starts with an individual as the focal point of study. The immediate environment that has a direct relationship with the individual is called the microsystem (Neal & Neal, 2013). For example, if a child were to be the primary individual, a unit that could be considered in the microsystem would be the mother of the child. This is because the mother and the child will interact with each other, creating a direct relationship. The microsystem is an important aspect to understanding the immediate environment. Each of these microsystems in the individual’s life has his or her own microsystem, and according to Bronfenbrenner’s theory, some of those microsystems can intertwine. These connections between microsystems bring life to the mesosystem (Shelton, 2018).


The mesosystem, as defined by Rosa & Tudge (2013) is the interaction between an individual’s microsystems. A good example in terms of child development would be through a child in a school system. A child has a direct connection with a teacher as well as his mother; these demonstrate the microsystems of the child. However, if there were a parent-teacher conference, the interaction and connection between the mother and the teacher would demonstrate the mesosystem. Shelton (2018) explains this idea well in stating that each individual has only a singular mesosystem that connects every primary interaction of the individual. According to Shelton (2018), these connections play part in helping thoughts develop by acknowledging the different themes that each microsystem presents. While the mesosystem initiates the direct influence of connections among microsystems, it is also important to understand that some microsystems have connections that are not directly linked to the focal individual. The exosystem was designed to understand the outside connections to the individual.


Bronfenbrenner (1994, as cited in Shelton, 2018) defines the exosystem as:

The linkages and processes taking place between two or more settings, at least one of which does not contain the developing person, but in which events occur that indirectly influence processes within the immediate setting in which the developing person lives. (p. 91)

To summarize this statement, one could say that someone that has no direct interaction with the individual could still play a role in the development of that individual. To explain this, the use of a child in a school system executes nicely. If the child were to exhibit behaviors of a learning disorder, the teacher may refer to the special education teacher for advice on how to effectively combat these behaviors. While the child does have a direct interaction with the teacher, he does not have a direct connection to the special education teacher; but because of the influence of the special education teacher on the interaction between the child and teacher, the special education teacher becomes an exosystem of the child’s development. The exosystem is an ever-evolving part of the ecological systems theory, as a connection can be made with the exosystem, thus causing it to become a microsystem with the developing individual (Shelton, 2018).


The system that works apart from all other systems is known as the macrosystem (Shelton, 2018). Rosa & Tudge (2013) state that the macrosystem plays part on how institutions and culture affect an individual at the focal level. Bronfenbrenner (1977b as cited in Rosa & Tudge, 2013) states the macro system plays largely in part to the effects of every level of development. A study by Nesdale & Naito (2015 as cited by Lee, 2011) shows that culture can play a large role in the way an individual’s development is affected. This study showed that a more collectivist culture such as the one in Japan had a significant effect on bullying of individuals (Nesdale & Naito as cited by Lee, 2011). Because the culture plays on a much higher level than the individual, but still has an effect on the development of an individual, this culture is considered the macrosystem. The macrosystem can also be applied to the school example that has been used in previous systems. If a school system creates a policy that changes the dynamic of the child’s learning, such as a policy that allows a child to join a special education class only if he or she meets the requirements for a learning disability, this can affect the effectiveness of a child’s learning in a school system. The school’s policy had no direct interaction with any system in the individual’s life, but still played a role in his learning. This institutional interaction demonstrates the macrosystem.

Macrochronological System

The macrochronological system, or chronosystem refers to the changes that can happen throughout any system in an individual’s life (Shelton, 2018). The macrochronological system is always at play, and refers to any change that happens over time, whether that change is fast or slow (Shelton, 2018). These changes can happen at any level. For example, if a child’s mother grows ill and over time her condition worsens, the child may have to become a caretaker for his mother. This is change that happened over a period of time, and as time changed, so did the environment that surrounded the child.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Theory


The ecological systems theory has several strengths that help guide social work practice. The first being its ability to understand change in human nature. The entire theory was developed because Bronfenbrenner was angry at the way children were portrayed through development (Rosa & Tudge, 2013). By creating this theory, Bronfenbrenner strengthened the ability to focus on the ever changing client. Another strength, as reported by Darling (2011) is the continuous development of the theory throughout the years. New findings within this theory are constantly being produced and growing as the cultures grow and change (Darling, 2011). Rosa & Tudge’s (2013) article covered the three phases of change that Bronfenbrenner’s theory went through up until 2006. Another strength that can be recognized is the uniqueness of the theory to every individual. Darling (2011) noted that Bronfenbrenner recognized that each culture and environment will pose a different effect on each person as they develop. In social work, it is a primary guiding principle to individualize the client (Sheafor & Horejsi, 2012). Sheafor & Horejsi (2012) stated that social workers should strive to understand where the client is in development, and Bronfenbrenner focused on that exact point. His macrochronological system supports all of these claims, as it takes into account the change that is possible in an individual’s life and how it can affect his or her development (Shelton, 2018).


While it is so important to recognize the strength in this ever-changing theory, it is also important to understand that developing theories have their weaknesses. Because this theory has changed so many times, it can create a disruption in research by researchers not using the up to date methods of the theory (Tudge et al., 2016). Researchers also fail to appropriately use the theory in terms of development (Tudge et al., 2016). Tudge et al. (2016) stated that there are instances when the researcher will intentionally use the older theories, but many times authors will not state that they are using the out of date methods and it can skew the effectiveness of their research. Another weakness that could be found involved the individualization of the ecological systems theory. Lee (2011) stated in his article that a limitation to his research of bullying among middle school students was the uniqueness of each individual’s systems. He stated that because everyone’s microsystems and mesosystems were different, it made accuracy of the research difficult (Lee, 2011). While this is a good theory to use when understanding the individual and his or her surroundings, it makes sense that it can be difficult to apply to many variants of research.

Usefulness in Practice

While Urie Bronfenbrenner was not a social worker, his genius promoted so much growth for the field. The ecological systems theory allows for the design of many other models in the field of social work. Neal & Neal (2013) state that by using the ecological systems theory, you can network the activity of individual’s development. Eco-maps play an important role in the development of bio psychosocial assessments, and the ecological systems theory creates a base for designing that eco-map (Neal & Neal, 2013). Langer & Lietz (2015) states the ecological systems theory provides a more holistic approach to social work. It is important to look at the person-in-environment when practicing, and Bronfenbrenner’s theory does exactly that (Langer & Lietz, 2015). By using this theory, Langer & Lietz (2015) mention, social workers can uphold the dignity of individuals by understanding the environment that surrounds them and the factors that influence their development. The National Association of Social Worker’s Code of Ethics (2008) states in the preamble, “Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.” This statement holds a lot of strength and adds value to Bronfenbrenner’s theory. The Code of Ethics (2008) also holds a core value of the importance of human relationships. The ecological systems theory was developed in order to connect an individual to the environment that surrounds him or her, and this speaks to the core value. Because of the connection of systems, social workers can visualize the relationships that individuals uphold, and recognize the roles that each system plays. The Code of Ethics (2008) is a guide for social workers, and by utilizing the ecological systems theory to individualize the client, social workers can uphold the standards that are set by the National Association of Social Workers.

Implications for Policy Development

Because Bronfenbrenner’s theory focuses on children’s development, it can be beneficial to utilize his theory in the formation of policies in education systems. Cross (2017) states that increasing an individual’s microsystems by creating relationships among peers in the classroom can greatly affect developmental outcomes in the individual. Cross (2017) suggests that a way to increase these interactions and develop new relationships would be to have a curriculum that encourages group involvement. Lee (2011) believes that by using the ecological systems theory, one can identify the motives behind bullying in a school setting. He did state his limitation of the uniqueness the theory provides, but does believe that it is important to compare surroundings of those who bully to see if any similarities exist (Lee, 2011). By using the theory to understand the similarities, policies can be designed around preventing the similarities in the systems of bullies in a school setting. For example, if research shows a pattern of a child coming from a home with a parent that has an addiction, neurological disorder, or overall dysfunction, the school can work to develop a policy to provide counseling to these children. Homework policies could also be affected by looking at a child’s surrounding environment. If multiple children come from low-income households and have to contribute to family functioning, it can be hard for a child to dedicate time to work outside of class. By observing the child’s systems, an understanding of this can be reached. School policymakers can develop a policy that reduces the amount of homework to just finishing what was not completed in class. This, in turn, could create a more positive experience for the child and produce better overall work for him or her in the school system.

Reflection and Conclusion

After looking further into this theory, I have a much better understanding of why this theory is mentioned so often in so many different areas of social work. I learned that by understanding the multiple systems that affect an individual, social work can be defined, and policies can be brought about. The most interesting part of this research was this theory’s influence policy-making decisions. My initial belief of this theory was that it was for those in helping professions to understand the different aspects of peoples’ lives and how it affected their behavior, but when going deeper into understanding the theory, I see that it is so much more.

Bronfenbrenner dedicated much of his life to developing a theory that helped many people understand how individuals develop and why people behave the way that they do. He spent time and effort developing each system that can affect someone’s environment. The theory can be applied to many aspects of human development and social work. The uniqueness that the theory applies to individuals can be both positive and negative as it emphasizes the importance of human relationships but it can affect research by micro and mesosystems not accurately reflecting an individual’s behavior. This theory was created to help many fields of study, however it seems that this theory was created exclusively for the field of social work. Bronfenbrenner emphasized much of what the Code of Ethics stands for, and his theory creates the separation that was needed for the field of social work to gain the respect that it rightfully deserves.


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