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September 25, 2013

Ecological Theory

by Angel Pumila

Ecological Theory

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory of development describes development as a relationship between the environment and the person instead of two separate concepts.  This multi-level theory breaks down environmental influences on development as “the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem” (Crandell, Crandell, & Zander, 2009).  Each layer represents a variety of influences that shape each person’s developmental progression.

This ecological theory of development suggests that there’s not one single instance that effects our decisions in the path of life.  Instead, a complex relationship between different environments is the cause for behavior.  For example, a teenager chooses not to go to college.  This decision is not solely based upon their family’s educational history or academic struggles in previous school settings.  According to Bronfenbrenner, identifying behavior as being based upon simple factors, ignores the complex environmental interactions of school, peers, family, beliefs, religion, age, health, et cetera.  These complex patterns of behavior cannot be identified as happening at one point in time.  Instead, behavioral changes happen over time.  This is also referred to as the chronosystem.

To elaborate on the various levels of this theory, picture a circle with four layers surrounding the individual.  The microsystem is the layer directly outside of the individual.  It consists of relationships such as the family, school, peers, neighborhood, church, and health services.  These are the closest surrounding relationships that a person interacts with (Berk, 2000).  At this level, the impact of interactions work two ways, toward the individual and away from the individual. For example, peers can have an impact on thought patterns or behaviors of a child.  That same child can impact the thought patterns or behaviors of their peers.

The next layer, the mesosystem provides connections between elements of the microsystem and that of the exosystem.  For example, connections between a child’s family and educational system occur at this level.  It simply acts as a passageway to connect neighboring layers and comingle interactions between those layers.

Located outside of the mesosystem, the exosystem represents relationships that do not directly impact a person.  Bronfenbrenner listed the extended family, educational system, legal services, government agencies, mass media, and friends of family.  These categories have influence on a person’s life by interacting with components within the mesosystem (Beck, 2000).  Although the relationship here is passive, there is a “positive or negative force involved with the interaction with a person’s system” (Paquette, 2001).

The last element of the ecological theory is the macrosystem.  This layer is concerned with elements of a person’s society such as laws, cultural values, and customs (Berk, 2000).  Categories of the macrosystem have an effect on all parts of the theory.  An example of this would be “if it is the belief of the culture that parents should be soley responsible for raising their children, that culture is less likely to provide resources to help parents” (Paquette, 2001).

Given the multiple dynamics that create the features of each and every one of us, lifespan development can not be approached from a single system.  All aspects, relationships, biological components and experiences must be taken into account to ensure a healthy progression from birth into adulthood.




Berk, L.E. (2000). Child Development (5th ed.)  Boston: Ally and Bacon. 23-38

Crandell, T. L., Crandell, C. H., & Vander Zanden, J. W. (2009). Human development. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Paquette, D., (June, 2001).Bronfenbrenner’s Ecolological Systems Theory. Retrieved from


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