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Ecological Systems Theory Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 11th, 2020


The ecological systems theory was developed by renowned scholar Urie Bronfenbrenner. The theory argues that development should be viewed as a socio-cultural phenomenon shaped by a number of systems containing, factors that shape development. The theory identifies five systems that contribute to development as direct social inputs and also greater cultural influences (Bronfenbrenner, 1981).

The systems include the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and macrosystem. The microsystem is basically the setting in which the individual lives and includes family, peers, school, and neighborhood. Most research is done on this system as the individual has the most direct interaction with the social agents of development and actively participates in constructing these settings. The mesosystem involves the interaction of two microsystems; they may be for example family to church or school to peers. The exosystem is the interaction whereby the individual does not play an active role in forming the setting but is nevertheless directly affected the system.

The macrosystems, on the other hand, revolve around the culture of the people among which the individual dwells. More recently developed is the chronosystem which looks at the way in which the environment of the individual changes and affects their development over time in their lives. Examples of these may include the effects of time or important events or socio-historical events that might occur in the individual’s life (Bronfenbrenner, 1981). This paper will attempt to illustrate ecological theory.


I chose to recognize and implement the cultural and social components necessary to construct a convincing argument that utilizes the foundations of the Ecological Theory to confirm its validity by using two individuals as illustrations.

I chose a 13-year-old female (Sarah) with Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She interacts with others by using sign language and typing on the computer. She attends Jenks Middle School in Jenks, OK. She lives with her mother and step-father. Her biological father has very little to do with her and her mother believes it has to do with her disabilities. She loves surfing the Internet, swimming with assistance and watching television especially the food network channel. Sarah can utter a few words but you have to really listen to understand what she is saying. She has an older brother (17) and a younger brother (5); the younger brother picks on her a lot because I don’t think he understands why she can’t communicate and play like other children.

The second individual is an older adult (Vernon) who is an 80-year-old male with Alzheimer’s disease, Congestive Heart Failure and just had a hip replacement. He is married; his wife is 75 years old and they live in an assisted living facility where she has to help with him 5-6 hours a day, seven days a week. In order to continue her social life, she is very active in the community. Vernon walks around their 2 bedroom apartment most of the time chanting; his wife says the only time he really sits still is when The Price is Right is on; otherwise, he is up and just shuffling around the apartment. Vernon’s wife has several locks on the door with an alarm in case he tries to get out of the apartment. They had two sons; one was killed in Vietnam and the other drank himself to death.

I seek to relate these individuals to the ecological theory separately so as to bring out their unique situations.


Cerebral palsy is a disorder that hinders movement and posture and may lead to child inactivity due to slow or limited development of the child’s brain. It is also often accompanied by the slow development of cognitive ability (Anonymous, 2007). Sarah is a young kid affected by this disorder in addition to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

As indicated by the ecological theory, the microsystem is the most crucial system as the individual interacts directly with the social factors. Sarah’s immediate surrounding is her family. Her family setting is complicated as it is because she has to deal with living with a stepdad and a biological father who doesn’t seem to want anything to do with her due to her condition. According to Bronfenbrenner (1981), an unstable and unpredictable home setting does not allow the child enough time or opportunity to interact with the parents and this is one of the most destructible forces to a child’s development.

In this case, Sarah’s dad does not have any time for her and she basically lacks the biological father’s love that is so important in her development both socially and in cognitive ability. Bronfenbrenner (1981) insists on the theory that deficiencies in a child’s microsystem cannot be replaced by over involving other systems. Primary relationships for example between parents and children should be permanent.

Lack of or insufficient love, support and guidance may lead the child to seek attention and comfort in other places like the internet and mass media for example. I observed that two out of three things that Sarah likes doing involve the internet and mass media (television), she even communicates by typing on a computer; an indication that she spends a lot of time on the computer given that she suffers from mental retardation. She also likes to watch television. This general behavior could be attributed to the fact that her family microsystem is not as supportive and loving as should be and so she, therefore, prefers doing something that doesn’t involve anyone else and where she can just enjoy without the fear of being picked on.

On the other hand, it can be observed that Sarah likes to swim with little assistance! This is probably the case because of the kind of interaction she has with her swimming teacher. She probably even works harder to impress her teacher because it is only then that she can receive much-needed love, support, and a sense of understanding. This then illustrates the mesosystem; the child develops an interest outside the hostile family setting because she can get some comfort and joy at school or at the swimming club. The family and school microsystems interact here and one becomes the cause of development of the other.

Another manifestation of the mesosystem could be between the peers and family microsystems. Sarah prefers to surf the net rather than play with other children or her younger brother who often picks on her. She cannot play with her elder brother, although he could be more understanding of her condition because he is a lot older and probably has very different priories and interests from Sarah’s.

Sarah has to contend to living with her stepdad whether she likes it or not. That is an ascribed position in which she finds herself but can do nothing about. The presence of the step father clearly kills any hope of the biological father ever coming back in her life directly or living with her. This is a clear illustration and manifestation of the exo and meso systems; she has no power over this and the whole living with a step dad scenario is created as a result of disintegration of her nuclear family micro system. This may have a silent but lasting impact on her in terms of morals and spiritual well being.

As learned above, Sarah suffers from Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This is also an ascribed status that she can do nothing about but continues to define her as a person and determines almost everything she can or cannot do Anonymous (2007). Her development physically, mentally and socially is limited by her condition and may even determine whether or not she will ever achieve all her dreams like having a successful family one day.

The micro-system comes into play with regard to the attitudes and culture of the people around Sarah. Most societies stigmatize mentally challenged individuals let alone those affected by multiple conditions like Sarah. Her younger brother for instance picks on her all the time because of her inability to communicate like the other kids. This is probably a brother has not been educated by the parents on Sarah’s condition and is an obvious indication that the society in which Sarah lives is not doing much to educate and sensitize its members on conditions like Sarah’s. This is bound to mount stigmatization that could in turn greatly reduce chances of Sarah having a comfortable life that is as close to normal as possible.

Sarah lives with a step father and has a biological dad who does not care much about her. The assumption here is that Sarah was born out of wedlock or the mother and biological father separated. Whatever happened was obviously a very significant event in Sarah’s life and would change her life forever. This then illustrates the aspect of the chronosystem as outlined by Bronfenbrenner (1981).

Vernon is an elderly male aged 80 and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Congestive Heart Failure and recently had a hip replacement. Most of Vernon’s micro-system is shaped by his 75year old wife. His wife basically takes care of Vernon most of her time. Vernon’s sons form another important factor in his Micro system.

Vernon spends most of his time in their apartment and loves to watch The Price is Right. His wife helps him most of the day but still finds time to get involved in community work. Helping him for more than five hours each day of the week is an indication that his wife loves him and is committed to ensure that he leads a normal life even with his age and condition. His wife’s presence, care and love are vital for Vernon because it contributes greatly to his emotional and mental well being. Insufficient or lack of support for a person in Vernon’s condition would be detrimental to his well being mentally, emotionally and even physically.

Bronfenbrenner (1981) observed that such primary level relationships should be permanent to ensure emotional stability. Vernon’s condition calls for his wife’s understanding, endurance and tolerance. His wife provides all this and forms what is agreeably a stable and secure micro system for Vernon. Vernon spends much of his time chanting in his living room. This could very well be an indication of a troubled man. Challenged by Alzheimer’s disease, Vernon probably only has scattered recollections of his sons and their deaths could very well be the cause of his troubled mind. This has a huge effect on his mental stability and thus the almost day long chanting. This is a clear illustration of the effect of a micro system on an individual. Vernon probably has some fond memories of The Price is Right and finds comfort in watching it hence the observed inclination to stop most other activities to enjoy the show.

Vernon’s wife’s micro system is also greatly influenced by Vernon. The wife has to endure living with a man she loves but has almost been incapacitated by disease and age. It can be fairly concluded that Vernon’s wife is involved heavily in community work as a way of getting away of the troubles of taking care of her husband and finding a little time to relax. The mesosystem then comes into play here because I observed that the family micro system (sick husband) leads her to get involved in community activities to get away from her daily duty of taking care of her husband. She could also jus be looking to break the monotony of staying indoors with her sick husband. She applies the same commitment she has to her husband to the community work. Vernon’s wife locks the doors while leaving probably to ensure that her ‘activity time’ is not interfered with by incidents that that may as a result of her unattended to husband leaving the house.

In Vernon’s case, the exosystem manifests itself in his sons. One of his sons was killed in Vietnam during the war and this has a direct impact on his life though he had no power to prevent this. The other son drank himself to death; Vernon probably did not have control or even knowledge of his sons drinking problem although it directly influences his family micro system. A similar micro system directly affects his wife, probably in a greater way, because she has to deal with the two deaths and an ailing husband. This is bound to mould her character into some unique way due to her peculiar circumstances.

The cultures and people in Vernon’s society mould the macro system. This is evident as both Vernon and his wife live in an assisted living facility. This could be an indication that their society has a positive attitude towards old and sick people and provides help to them by having them in an assisted living facility. The community also allows Vernon’s wife to participate in their activities despite her age and ailing husband.

From both the above cases, it was clear that indeed all the five systems described by Bronfenbrenner have a role in shaping the development of any human regardless of age or condition. The systems achieve this by individual influence and interrelationship between them. The micro system was observed to be the most influential in both the cases above. The individuals were found to interact more directly with the micro system more than the other systems.


Anonymous. (2007). Definition and classification of cerebral palsy. Developmental medicine and child neurology, 49 (8), 8-9. Web.

Bronfenbrenne, U. (1981). The ecology of human development: experiments by nature and design. NY: Harvard University Press. Web.

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