Ecological Systems Theory

            Various divergent theories have proposed in an attempt to explain lifespan development and human behavior. Two of the most popular theories on lifespan development include the ethological theory, which places emphasis on how biology shapes human behavior; and the ecological theory, which perceives the role that the environment plays in influencing the growth and development of a person (Arch, Marylouise, & Spurr, 2006). The ecological theory was formulated by Urie Bronfenbrenner, who theorized five environmental factors that influenced the growth and development of a person. The ecological systems theory perceives lifespan development in the domain of a system of relationships that constitutes one’s environment. According to Bronfenbrenner’s theory, each of the complex layers has an effect on one’s lifespan development. Recently, the ecological systems theory has been renamed “the bio ecological systems theory” in order to give emphasis to one’s biology as the primary development that fuels one’s lifespan development (Berk, 2000). The relationships between these variables in one’s maturing biology, one’s immediate family and community environment, and the societal setting play an instrumental role in fuelling and steering individual development. In order to explore lifespan development, there is the need to assess the individual and his/her individual environment as well as the interaction taking place in the larger environment. The five environmental factors that Urie Bronfenbrenner highlights in the ecological systems theory that affect lifespan development include the microsystem, mesosystem, macrosystem, exosystem, and the chronosystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The goal of this paper is to describe the current research and application of the ecological system theory to the field of lifespan development.
Systems Structures in the Ecological Systems Theory
            Bronfenbrenner hypothesized that socialization and development are determined by the various environmental variables in which an individual is in active inter-relation. The three main assumptions help by the Bronfenbrenner’s theory include: the individual is an active player and exerts substantial force on his/her own environment; the environment can force an individual to adapt to its restrictions and conditions; and that the environment is perceived to comprise of dissimilar size entities that are positioned one inside another. The environmental factors are analyzed and synthesized in the following subsections (Paquette & Ryan, 2001).
The Microsystem
            The microsystem encompasses of the environment that the person lives and this system comprises of family members, neighborhoods, religious communities, peers, and other entities that the person interacts with directly on a regular basis. The individual usually comes to contact with the microsystem in most instances involving social interactions. In the microsystem, the individual does not only observe things happen, but also plays an instrumental role in the creation and construction of the experiences that they are likely to have (Jørgensen, 2004). Bronfenbrenner defined the microsystem as “a pattern of interpersonal relationships, roles and activities that a developing individual experiences in a particular face-to-face situation with specific material and physical entities including other people having unique belief systems and temperament and personality traits”. According to Berk (1979), the microsystem is the closest environment variable for an individual and constitutes of structures that the child has direct contacts with. Paquette & Ryan (2001) make inferences from Bronfenbrenner’s theory and asserts that, at the microsystem level, the relations between people take place in two ways, which include towards the child and from the child. For instance, the parents of a child can determine his/her behavior and beliefs; however, the child can also have an effect on the behavior and beliefs of his/her parents. Bronfenbrenner refers to this observation as bidirectional influence and highlights how these relationships manifest on the various degrees of all environmental factors. The core of the ecological systems theory stems from the interaction taking place within the various layers of the structures and the interaction taking place between the various layers. In the context of the microsystem, bidirectional interactions are extremely strong and have the most significant influence on the individual. Nevertheless, the interactions taking place on the outer levels of environments can still have an effect on the inner structures. At first, the manner in which the child relates with other individuals is dyadic; however, later, the child becomes able to handle concurrent interaction relationships. Bronfenbrenner (1979) asserts that the nature of relationships among the people close to the child and their respective systems has an impact on the development of the child.
Several scholars have applied the concept of Bronfenbrenner’s microenvironment in understanding child development. Wendy & Mary (2006)considers the closest surroundings to be a person’s microsystem such as home, classmates, close relatives, kids in the play yard and day care group among others. Penn (2005) used Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory to come up with the family system model whereas Vander Zanden, Crandell, & Crandell (2007) developed the classroom model using the ecological systems theory, where the teacher was the target. When expounding on bidirectional influences, Berk (2000) cites that a child who is friendly and attentive is highly likely to stir up patient and positive reactions from their parents. On the other hand, an irritable child is likely to stir up punishment, restriction and impatient from his/her parents. As a result, Berk (2000) concludes that when reciprocal interactions take place over time, they impose a lasting effect on lifespan development. Third parties, who are other people in the microsystem, also have an influence on the quality of relationship that the developing individual has with other people. For instance, if they are supportive, there is enhanced interaction. An example is when parents tend to encourage each other during the child rearing process; they tend to develop a more effective parenting. On the contrary, cases of marital conflicts are always linked to inconsistent discipline and hostilities towards children; as a result, children in such environments tend to exhibit aggression, anxiety and fear (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2010).
The Mesosystem
            Penn (2005) perceives the mesosystem as the interactions existing between the microsystems and could comprise of school-related experiences at home, home-related experiences at school. Just like the microsystem, the person does not only observe things that happen but also play a significant role in the creation of their experiences. The perspectives relating to the notion of the mesosystem has been unchanged, and has not been changed since its original definition even by Bronfenbrenner. According to Bronfenbrenner (1979), the mesosystem encompasses of the processes and linkages that occur between at least one setting containing the developing individual; examples include the relations between schools and home, and workplace and school. Berk (2000) perceives the mesosystem as a system of microsystems. On the other hand, Paquette & Ryan (2001) assert that the mesosystem generates the connections between the various microsystems of the developing individual. According to Penn (2005), the mesosystem comprises of relationships that exist between the microsystem of a child and a young person. The most important relations include the relation between school interaction and home, kindergarten and home, and child clinic and home and mother. It is imperative to assess if the factors that influence socialization have diverging or converging directions, which entails assessing whether the various microsystems support each other, or the individual views them as classing. Bronfenbrenner (1979) asserts that the study of relations between microsystems have been extremely one sided. For instance, studies have focused more on how school and day care disjointedly determine the development of the child but have disregarded their joint impacts on child development. In pointing out the significance of the mesosystem, Penn (2005) cites that the academic progress of a child does not only depend on the classroom environment but also on the level parental involvement with school activities. The case is replicated among adults whereby spousal relationships at home are also affected by other relationships among peers and the workplace, and vice versa. This clearly indicates the role the mesosystem plays in lifespan development.
The Exosystem
            Paquette & Ryan (2001) perceives the exosystem as a system whereby the developing individual plays no significant role in construction his/her own experiences; however, these experiences impose a direct effect on the microsystems that the person is part of. For instance, a when a person losses his job, the job loss has a direct effect on the financial state of the family, which could in turn affect the daily lifestyle and domestic stress levels. According to Bronfenbrenner (1979), the exosystem comprises of the processes and linkages occurring  between at least two settings, one of which does not typically contain the developing individual but the events in have an effect on the processes taking place on other immediate setting that do not contain the individual. According to the Penn (2005), the social settings devoid of the developing individual but shape the experiences in his/her immediate settings tend to affect lifespan development. Examples of social settings that the developing person may not be part of include social networks of a child’s parents and members of the extended family, which all have an impact on the child’s development process. Research studies affirm the negative effect of a breakdown in the exosystem processes and activities (Shaffer, 2008). For instance, families isolated socially and having few community-based or personal ties tend to exhibit high rates of child abuse and conflict, which are detrimental to lifespan development.
The Macrosystem
            The macrosystem is the outermost level of the ecological systems theory and comprises of cultural values, resources, laws and customs. The manner in which the macrosystem prioritizes the needs of the developing individual usually has an impact on the support that the developing person receives at the inner environment levels. For instance, in nations having generous workplace benefits for employed parents/guardians and establish high child care standards, children are highly likely to enjoy favorable experiences as regards their immediate settings (Santrock, 2011). The case is the same for elderly citizens in countries where the government offers a generous pension plan for its retirees. Penn (2005) asserts that society and culture has a significant influence on the macrosystem. The ideologies and belief systems of the culture of the developing person directly affects the person; nevertheless, the developing person lacks sufficient freedom in influencing his/her surroundings.
The Chronosystem
            Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory maintains that the environment is not static and does not affect people uniformly; rather, it is dynamic and ever changing. Every time the developing person aIDs or relents some of his/her roles in his/her setting, the entities in the microsystems tend to change (Sven, 2007). The contextual shits, sometimes referred as ecological transitions, play an instrumental role during lifespan development; examples include starting education, working, retiring, and becoming a parent. Life changes can either stem from within the developing individual because they choose, recognize and generate their own experiences and settings, or imposed externally. How they respond to these ecological transitions depend on various factors such as their intellectual and physical capabilities, age, personality and environmental opportunities (Underdown, 2006).
The ecological systems theory, also referred to as the bio-ecological systems theory has been instrumental in understanding lifespan development and socialization processes among people. As a result, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory concedes that lifespan development is neither driven mainly by inner dispositions nor subject to control by innate dispositions. Instead, the ecological systems theory perceives individuals as products and producers of their own environments whereby the person and the environment establish a network of interdependent impacts.
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