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What is the ecological systems theory?

In this article, read an explanation of Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems theory, which takes a very much sociological approach.
Girl at centre of a ball pool
© University of Strathclyde

Urie Bronfenbrenner introduced his ecological systems theory, or ecological framework for human development, in the 1970s.

The ecological systems theory

Taking very much a sociological approach, Bronfenbrenner described the influences of environmental factors on children and encouraged us to look at what was going on for a child at their level within the different systems that they exist within any given society, and how these systems, in turn, interact with each other and greater systems beyond.

The interactions and influences which may exist for a child

James Garbarino highlights the in-depth possibilities that exist when we begin to think about the interactions and influences which may exist for any child.

  • Where does one start in seeking an understanding of children and families in the social environment? With processes of development that characterize the individual child as a biological organism? With the family as a social entity? With the environment as a network of social institutions and events?
  • Where is the beginning of this chain of events?
  • Where is the beginning of this chain of relationships that brings together children, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, neighbours, communities, and professional helpers?
  • And where is the end?

It would be easy to cast aside the many interconnections and pretend that there is just the developing child, or just the family as a social unit, or just the community power structure, or just the professional delivering helping services. It would be easy, but we believe it would not be enough.

The tangled mass of relationships

Rather, we seek to capture the whole tangled mass of relationships connecting child, family, and social environment.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory identified four systems within which children exist that would combine to have an impact upon how they grow and develop. He uses the terms microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem and macrosystem.


Factors located within the immediate environment of the child which interacts directly with the child and has the greatest impact on them, such as people and events in the home.


Interconnections between the microsystems, such as between the family and teachers or relationship between the child’s peers and the family.


Those factors lie beyond the immediate environment of the child. For example, a child’s experience at home may be influenced by their parent’s experience at work.

Macrosystem: this includes larger societal factors such as cultural values and overall economic conditions.

View this page on Wikipedia for a diagram illustrating Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory.

© University of Strathclyde
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