The ecological perspective is a theoretical and practical approach to the social sciences that emphasizes the interactions between an individual and their environment.
This perspective views individuals as active agents who engage in reciprocal relationships with their physical, social, and cultural contexts.
The ecological perspective indicates that psychological factors can not be seen in isolation but must be understood concerning other factors at play within an individual’s surroundings.
For instance, a child’s development can be influenced by their immediate family or caretakers in the microsystem.
Still, it can also be affected by other macro factors like a parent’s job insecurity within the exosystem, which may affect their parenting style or ability to provide adequate resources for the child.
So, an ecological perspective acknowledges the complexity and interconnectedness of various aspects that shape human behavior and development.
Definition of Ecological Perspective
According to Lobo et al. (2018), the ecological perspective in psychology considers how multiple environmental factors influence human behavior and development.
This perspective emphasizes that individuals develop within and are influenced by complex systems of social, cultural, and physical environments.e
According to Satchell and colleagues (2021),
“…an ecological approach is about the understanding of individual’s perceived behavioral opportunities and gives important focus on what the environment might offer an individual in a place” (p. 1).
One of the most influential ecological perspectives is that of Urie Bronfenbrenner, who viewed individuals as situated within systems – microsystem, macrosystem, and ecosystem, each with different levels of influence (Crawford, 2020). For example, an individual’s immediate physical environment (microsystem) can include things like their home and school surroundings. The exosystem may include institutions like political entities or religious organizations in which people participate indirectly. And macro systems operate at cultural levels and encompass customs, norms, laws, and values.
The ecological perspective emphasizes studying individuals in a naturalistic setting using rigorous naturalistic observation methods to gain deep insight into an individual’s behavior vis-à-vis the environment (Heft, 2013).
For example, a study on the impact of poverty on child development might look at factors such as access to nutritious food or quality healthcare within a family’s immediate environment (microsystem).
Still, it also assesses the effects of larger economic policies or neighborhood conditions within the exosystem/macro system.
Overall, the ecological perspective provides a scientific understanding of how various environmental contexts interact with individual biological, cognitive, emotional, and social factors to shape human development across different lifespan stages.
Examples of Ecological Perspective
- The impact of ‘nurture’ in child development: A child’s upbringing is greatly influenced by their immediate family and caretakers (microsystem), which can include parenting style, availability of resources, and other family dynamics. Additionally, the exosystem (such as community resources and social support structures) and macrosystem (cultural values and traditions) significantly impact a child’s development (see also: nature vs nurture debate).
- Real-life social networks impact our life chances: Individuals create relationships that form complex social networks. These networks can extend beyond their microsystems to encompass mesosystems such as local communities or broader systems like groups based on shared interests.
- Workplaces affect our income and prosperity: Work environments can impact employee productivity and satisfaction in various ways, such as job demands/resources available, manager support, organization culture, etc., ultimately influencing the individual’s psychological well-being.
- The healthcare system affects your long-term health: The quality of healthcare services is not solely dependent on doctors but encompasses the entirety of a patient’s experience. This includes the involvement of family caregivers’ involvement and the overall operation and management of hospitals and healthcare institutions.
- Environmental stewardship affects your health: Global concern with ecology mandates us to study interactions between individuals and the natural environment that impacts them, i.e., recycling habits or transportation choices for reducing carbon footprints.
- The education system affects your job prospects: An individual’s academic success isn’t only dependent on individual intelligence or motivation but is also influenced by the surrounding educational environment. It includes school resources, curricula guidelines, or initiatives encouraging diversity and inclusion in the classroom.
- Politics & legislation affect what you can and can’t do: Political changes on a large scale, such as shifts in economic power structures or changes in international relations, can profoundly impact people’s day-to-day lives. These changes can alter various settings, from social interactions to institutional policies, and influence how individuals perceive and experience their lives over time.
- Mental health support may consider environmental factors in a support plan: Mental health professionals may integrate an ecocentric approach while working out a treatment plan for a client/patient, which considers not just individual psychopathology but also social and environmental factors that influence the person.
- Good housing and neighborhoods affect wellbeing: Built environment (housing, transportation, and amenities located nearby) can affect psychological well-being (e.g., green spaces promote activities conducive to physical exercise) and the safety of people.
Origins of Ecological Perspective in Psychology
The ecological perspective in psychology has its roots in various disciplines like biology, sociology, and anthropology. We can trace its origins to several key historical movements that emerged during the early 20th century.
One important precursor was behaviorism – an approach emphasizing observing and measuring behavior rather than unobservable mental processes such as thoughts or emotions (Holahan, 2012).
In the 1930s, psychologist James Gibson voiced criticism against traditional behaviorism, which he believed ignored the complexity of human thought processes, such as accurately perceiving objects or movement (Lobo et al., 2018).
He emphasized the importance of perception’s influence on action in determining behaviors, which led to the development of approaches based on environmental systems analysis (Lobo et al., 2018).
Kurt Lewin, another influential figure, proposed field theory, highlighting how individuals are part of a psychological environment defined by their social and cultural context (Heft, 2022).
He emphasized that cognition, both personal (internal mindset) and collective process, is heavily shaped by interactions with external environments/systems.
Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory integrated these ideas by anchoring discussions within a systemic approach while developing ideas about how interactions between individuals across multiple environmental levels influence individual development.
From the viewpoint of this theory, a better understanding of transitions across different life stages requires considering individual development within a larger environmental context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
This is because both the individual and the environment influence each other when studying mental development from birth through maturity.
These historical movements emphasized understanding how human beings interact with their environment at different levels while highlighting the significance placed on context (physical, social-cognitive-affective-cultural).
They paved the way for interdisciplinary theories such as Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory and impacted diverse areas of psychology, from lifespan development to mental health studies.
Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory
Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory is a framework for understanding human development as a complex process influenced by multiple interacting environmental factors that coordinate to shape individual experiences.
The theory proposes that people must be understood in isolation and within the social and cultural contexts in which they develop (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
According to the theory, human development happens within social environments, which can be classified into several hierarchical levels such as microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem:
The microsystem refers to the closest personal environments that directly influence an individual’s experiences.
These may include family or home environments, as well as schools or peers with whom individuals interact regularly (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
Mesosystems refer to the connections between microsystems where interactions occur, such as the relationship between a child’s school and their family environment.
The quality of these interactions can be affected by how these subsystems are linked to one another, sharing mutual involvement (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
The family and the school are perhaps the two most important microsystems that impact a child’s psycho-social development. When they interact, this is an instance of the mesosystem at work. If the family and school have a good relationship, this can greatly help a child’s development and learning.
Exosystems refer to external systems that impact individuals indirectly, such as societal norms, cultural expectations, and policies that govern institutions like government regulatory bodies or workplace regulations.
These systems can significantly impact an individual’s circumstances, even if they are not directly associated with them (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
For example, a change in government policy regarding healthcare can have a ripple effect on the healthcare services available to an individual, even if they do not work in the healthcare industry or have any direct involvement with the government.
The occupation of a child’s parent, or the changes in the parents’ occupation, are factors not directly related to the child and yet they have a major influence in shaping their selves.
The macrosystem encompasses a society’s broad cultural and social values within a larger historical context, including religion, customs, culture, and political ideologies.
These values constantly impact policies and laws, shaping a particular culture and defining what behaviors are considered acceptable or unacceptable (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) theoretical approach accounts for how interactions at each level of the environment influence an individual’s biological, psychological, and socio-emotional development over time.
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory emphasized the interdependence of environmental systems and was sensitive to demographic and culture-specific processes influencing each level of influence.
He recognized the unique interactions among various environmental system levels that provide opportunities and challenges at different stages, leading to enhanced or maladaptive developmental outcomes (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
By understanding the complex interactions between individuals and their environments, the theory can inform interventions aimed at promoting positive development.
The Value of an Ecological Perspective
An ecological perspective is an important approach in sociology, psychology, and the social sciences as it underscores the role of environmental context in shaping individual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
This approach highlights how both internal and external factors interact dynamically to form human development (Lobo et al., 2018).
The ecological perspective encourages using multiple research disciplines to understand humans’ complex psychological environment and behavior through a coordinated and intersectional approach.
Furthermore, the ecological perspective promotes systematic analysis, making it easier to study and understand complex systems within contexts calling for mapping out complex relationships between people and the environment (Brymer & Schweitzer, 2022).
Importantly, the ecological perspective places the person-environment relationship at its core, giving greater recognition of the importance of biological, psychosocial, and cultural factors on outcomes in people’s lives.
Therefore, the analysis takes into account the influences across various layers, emphasizing the holistic nature of an individual’s life and experiences.
Furthermore, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological perspective aims to illustrate the developmental stages over time and how various systems (such as micro, meso, exo, and macro) interact to influence them (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
It also considers the transitions, such as from adolescence to adulthood/aging, societal changes, and other crucial variables that affect life choices.
Overall, the ecological perspective enriches psychological knowledge significantly by offering a dynamic framework that considers interdependent relations between individuals and their diverse environments.
An ecological perspective is a significant psychological approach emphasizing the complex interplay between individuals and their environments.
This perspective enables researchers to understand how different environmental factors can impact an individual’s biological, psychological, and social development over time.
The significance of the ecological perspective rests on its ability to provide detailed insights into how individuals adapt to their environment as they transition through diverse developmental stages.
By considering various subsystems interacting at multiple levels – micro/ meso/ exo/ macro – valuable data that may inform public policy can be derived for addressing problems such as social inequality.
Overall, ecological perspectives continue gaining popularity among researchers worldwide due to achieving solutions-oriented approaches that facilitate the nurturement of healthy initiatives promoting improved individual outcomes.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. New Jersey: Harvard University Press.
Brymer, E., & Schweitzer, R. D. (2022). Learning clinical skills: An ecological perspective. Advances in Health Sciences Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10459-022-10115-9
Crawford, M. (2020). Ecological systems theory: Exploring the development of the theoretical framework as conceived by Bronfenbrenner. Journal of Public Health Issues and Practices, 4(2), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.33790/jphip1100170
Heft, H. (2013). An ecological approach to psychology. Review of General Psychology, 17(2), 162–167. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032928
Heft, H. (2022). Lewin’s “psychological ecology” and the boundary of the psychological domain. Philosophia Scientae, 26-3, 189–210. https://doi.org/10.4000/philosophiascientiae.3643
Holahan, C. (2012). Environment and behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.
Lobo, L., Heras-Escribano, M., & Travieso, D. (2018). The history and philosophy of ecological psychology. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02228
Satchell, L. P., Kaaronen, R. O., & Latzman, R. D. (2021). An ecological approach to personality: Psychological traits as drivers and consequences of active perception. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12595