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Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory of development Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 29th, 2019


The subject of human development is rich and varied. Every individual has a unique experience with development. Nevertheless, sometimes it is challenging to comprehend how and why people grow, learn, and behave as they do. Developmental psychology endeavors to understand, elucidate, and predict behaviors that emerge throughout an individual’s lifespan.

Psychologists have proposed several human developmental theories to elucidate different perspectives of human growth. There are many crucial debates and concerns pertaining developmental psychology. Psychologists and researchers have based their questions on the relative impact of genetics versus environment, the pathway of development, and the significance of early events versus later events.

Literature review on human development

Theorists often pose certain questions to help them understand a phenomenon. Similarly, Kail & Cavanaugh (2008) argue that, three main issues have emerged during the study of human development (p.35). First, the nature-nurture concern pertains to the extent of genetic and environmental influence on development.

Generally, theorists and researchers perceive nature and nurture to play a mutual influence, wherein, human development is interplay of both forces. Second, a continuity-discontinuity issue pertains to whether a similar (continuity) or different (discontinuity) must be applied to account for changes in individuals throughout one’s lifespan.

Continuity, on the one hand, focuses on quantitative change, while discontinuity focuses on qualitative change. Third, universal versus context specific development concerns whether development follows similar path in all individuals or the sociocultural context fundamentally determines it.

Four major forces are fundamental in human development. Interplay of these forces determines people’s development into whoever they are at the various stages of development. Biological forces encompass all genetic and health-related factors that determine development. Individual’s genetic code accounts for most of the biological forces (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008, p. 35).

This issue implicates that, ancestry determines certain individual behavior or characteristic. In this light, researchers need to investigate the positions of dominant versus recessive genes in development (Rutter, 2006, p.16).

Psychological forces entail all intrinsic personality, perceptual, emotional, and cognitive factors that influence development. Altogether, psychological elements explain the most prominent variation in people. Sociocultural elements encompass ethnic, cultural, interpersonal, and societal factors that influence development (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008, p.35).

Culture pertains to behavior, attitudes, and knowledge attached to a group of people. Sociocutlural forces provide the milieu for development. Fourth, the lifecycle forces form the settings for understanding people’s own perception of their current situation and its impact on them.

Do these forces interact at any given point? The biopsychosocial framework upholds all the aforementioned forces to be mutually interactive and learners cannot understand development by studying the forces in isolation (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008, p. 35). Indeed, a similar event can produce a different effect based on the time it occurs.

Psychoanalytic theories

This theory elucidates development as primarily unconscious phenomenon heavily tinted by emotion. Psychoanalytic theorists perceive that behavior is purely superficial characteristic, and the analyses of the symbolic meaning of behavior and the in-depth functioning of the mind is prerequisite for understanding development (Carver, & Scheier, 2004).

In addition, psychoanalytic philosophers stress that initial experience with parents greatly determines one’s development. Sigmund Freud highlighted these characteristics in his psychoanalytic theory.

Psychoanalytic theory highlights five different factors contributing to development. They include (Santrock, Ho Leung, Malcomson, & MacKenzie-Rivers, 2008, p. 35):

  1. Early experience contributes significantly in development.
  2. Family relationships are core to development.
  3. To understand personality, people should examine it developmentally.
  4. The mind, being not entirely conscious, theorist should consider its unconscious aspect.
  5. Developmental changes occur both in adulthood and in childhood years.

Nevertheless, critiques have challenged this theory regarding the following:

  1. The major concepts of psychoanalytic theories cannot be tested empirically.
  2. Psychologists derive most of the data used to validate psychoanalytic theory from people’s reconstruction of the past, regularly the remote past, and of unknown precision.
  3. Theorists have given so much weight to the sexual basis of development, particularly Freud.
  4. Theorists give too much credit to unconscious mind for influencing development.
  5. Critiques argue that psychoanalytic theories portray a very negative image of humans, especially Freud.
  6. Other critiques argue that psychoanalytic theories are gender and culture-biased.

Cognitive theories

Cognitive theory emphasizes the importance of conscious thoughts. Three major cognitive theories include the information-processing approach, Vyogotsky’s socio-cultural cognitive theory, and Piaget’s cognitive development theory.

The contributions of the cognitive theory include:

  1. It depicts the positive perspective of development by emphasizing peoples’ conscious thinking.
  2. It stresses the individual’s active building of understanding.
  3. Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories emphasize the significance of investigating developmental transformation in children’s thinking.
  4. The information-processing viewpoint provides detailed description of cognitive process.

Critiques of cognitive theories argue that:

  1. There is skepticism concerning the clarity of Piaget’s stages.
  2. The theories do not confer adequate attention to individual difference in cognitive development.
  3. The information-processing viewpoint does not provide adequate explanation of developmental changes in cognition.
  4. Psychoanalytic theorists are of the view that the cognitive theories do not confer adequate merit to unconscious thought.

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory of development

This theory comprises five environmental systems ranging from the fine-grained inputs of immediate association with social elements, to the broad-based inputs of culture. These five systems in the theory are the mesosytem, microsystem, chronosystem, macrosystem, and exosystem. The microsytem designates the context within which the person lives.

This context comprises the individual’s family, neighborhood, schools, and peers. Within this system, many direct associations with social agents occur (Santrock, Ho Leung, Malcomson, & MacKenzie-Rivers, 2008, p.41). The individual does not assume a passive recipient position regarding events in this context; instead, s/he plays an active role in constructing the settings.

The mesosytem encompasses associations between microsystem and links between settings. Examples of mesosytem include the relation of family events to school events, school events to church events, and/or family events to peer events. In this light, having been born of mentally impaired parents, my passion for understanding psychological disorder is the impetus for pursuing doctorate in psychology.

The exosystem refers to the involvement of events in another social setting, which the individual does not play an active role; it affects what s/he experiences in an immediate setting. For instances, my class experience with psychology professor may affect my relationship with my parents, because I may regard them as specimens for fulfilling my curiosity.

The macrosystem pertains to the culture within which people live. Culture is the behavior patterns, beliefs, and all other outcomes of a specific population that are passed on from one generation to another (Parke & Stewart, 2010, p.26). In this regard, cross-cultural studies is the comparison of one culture against another or several others that provide insight about the generality of development.

The chronosytem entails the outlining of environmental experiences and transitions through the life courses, and socio-historical situations (Parke & Stewart, 2010, p.26). For instance, upon studying the effect of divorce on children, researchers have discovered that the adverse effects often climax in the first year following the divorce. Two years after the divorce, family relations become less chaotic and more stable.

Regarding socio-cultural circumstances, women currently are more probable to be motivated to pursue career relative to the past 20 or 30 years. Through avenues such as this, the chronosytem has a powerful influence on individual’s development.

Overall, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory of development has made certain contribution to understanding of human development viz.

  • It provides a systematic study of macro and micro dimensions of environmental systems.
  • It draws attention on connections between environmental settings – mesosytem.
  • It highlights social-historical influence on development – chronosystem.

However, some criticisms have been leveled against this theory including

  • Critiques argue that these theorists have given minimal attention to biological basis of development, despite the recent additional discussion of biological influences.
  • In addition, this theory gives inadequate attention to cognitive processes.


Bronfenbrenner’s theory elucidates the influence of environment on one’s development. The role that people play in Bronfenbrenner’s system determines their behavior and actions. Biological factors do not offer an ultimate prediction of people’s development; for instance, I am not afflicted with mental disorders like my parents. Therefore, further research should be conducted on how ecological factors influence development.


Carver, C., & Scheier, M. (2004). Perspectives on Personality (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Kail, R. V., & Cavanaugh, J. C. (2008). Human development: A life-span view. Belmont; U.S: wadsworth, Cengage learning.

Parke, R. D., & Stewart, C. A. (2010). social development. Jafferson City: John Willey & Sons.

Rutter, M. (2006). Genes and Behavior. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Santrock, J. W., MacKenzie-Rivers, A., Ho Leung, K., & Malcomson, T. (2008). Life-Span Development. United States: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

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