Bronfenbrenner Ecological Theory

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What makes someone want to be a doctor? What drives someone to commit crimes? Why would someone choose to wear a dress instead of pants? Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory may just have the answer for you.

Social psychology attempts to answer all of these questions and more, in one way or another. Some psychologists believe that nature influences a person’s personality more than nurture, or the way they were raised. Studies may point to traumatic events as a sign of criminal behavior later in life. Where does culture fit in? Where do the lessons that their parents fit in? 

Many theories in psychology attempt to explain how a person develops and where things can go awry. These theories may involve different stages, like Freud’s stages of psychosexual development or Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. In this article, I’m going to talk about a different type of theory - Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory.

What Is Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory?

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory of Development is unlike many theories of development in that doesn’t look at a person’s life in different stages. Instead, it looks at the layers of community that may influence a person’s personality, behavior, and decisions. 

History of Ecological Systems Theory 

Urie Bronfenbrenner was an American psychologist whose work helped to influence and start government programs. Before developing Ecological Systems Theory, he co-founded the Head Start program. Head Start is a program that aims to provide education and health services to low-income families around the country. It is still in place today. 

Urie Bronfenbrenner

Bronfenbrenner is most known for Ecological Systems Theory. This theory gives a framework that shows how an individual interacts with different systems in their community and society. It shows just how much can go into a person’s personality and development. 

Layers of the Ecological System Theory 

Let’s look at the layers of this theory. It starts with a small circle in the center and continues to expand with each layer or system. 

At the center of this framework is the individual. Here, we look at the age of the person, their sex and gender identity, any disabilities that they might face, etc. 


But an individual does not just interact with themselves. The next layer of the framework is microsystems. These are communities that the individual interacts with every day, including:

  • Family or friends 
  • School or work environment
  • Neighborhood 
  • Clubs, groups, or religious organizations

Remember, these are the communities that the individual interacts with. How might they influence an individual’s behavior? 


Outside of the microsystems, we have the mesosystems. This layer represents the relationships between different microsystems. 

Mesosystems Example

Say the individual is a child at a public school. They interact with two different communities: their family and their school. Within the mesosystem, psychologists may look at whether the child is comfortable coming to their teacher with a problem at home. Or maybe, they may look at how the parent’s income level influences their status in a school that serves children of a different income level. A child who is considered “poor” in a school filled with “wealthy” kids may have a different experience from a child who fits in with their peers, income-wise. 


An individual may not directly interact with groups that influence them. Outside of the mesosystems are exosystems. These are groups that affect a person’s immediate environment.  

Exosystem Example 

Maybe the child’s parents have a demanding job that prevents them from attending school fundraisers or showing up to their ballet recital. Even though the child has never gone into their parent’s place of work, it is still influencing the child’s life. Local government is also an example of an exosystem. 


There are larger systems at play. The next layer in Bronfenbrenner’s Theory is macrosystems. These systems include the attitudes and ideology of the culture surrounding the individual.

Macrosystem Example  

The larger political climate, for example, may fall into macrosystems, where local governments might fall into exosystems. Society’s view of gender roles may be considered a macrosystem, although the family structure and gender identities of the individual may fall into other layers. 


Although macrosystems may seem like the broadest category in this framework, it is not the last. Bronfenbrenner also suggests that there is a chronosystem that influences the other systems. The chronosystem is the time in which the individual is born and raised and enters different milestones. This puts the individual’s behavior into a larger sociohistorical context.

Chronosystem Examples 

A child born in the 1950s will have different experiences than a child born in the 1990s, and the macrosystems and exosystems in which they interact with will be different because of the times they are living in. Similarly, an adult entering the workforce at 22 will have a different experience than a teenager entering the workforce at 15. 

These Layers Interact With Each Other 

Graphs displaying Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory show each layer is separate from the rest. But this isn’t always the case. The layers frequently interact with and influence each other. Of course, this makes things more complicated, but it contributes to the overall idea that the motivations behind our behavior are complex. 

Example of Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory 

Here’s an example of how these layers may interact. Let’s say a man is picking out what he wants to wear. We start with his individual preferences. Does he feel more comfortable wearing a polka-dot tie or basketball shorts? Does he believe that “clothes make the man?” When it comes to the choices he has made in his life, does he believe that he did so with intention or from a lack of free will? 

His individual preferences, and the pressure to wear a certain outfit, may be influenced by larger systems. As a young boy, maybe he was instructed to wear a uniform. Or the kids in his neighborhood attributed the newest sneakers to a high social status. He may have grown up in a very conservative and gossipy environment, and wearing the “wrong” clothes to one event may influence his reputation in other areas. Maybe he lives in a time where wearing a dress is considered sinful. Maybe it’s considered to be edgy. Or maybe he is growing up in the Roman Empire, where all men wore skirts. 

Breaking Down the Layers of Bronfenbrenner's Systems

A Reddit user broke down another great example of Bronfenbrenner's systems:

"Let's take Bob, Bob is born to a family and for the first few years of life exists almost entirely within that family system. This family microsystem directly shapes and influences Bob's behavior and development. As Bob ages, other microsystems begin influencing Bob's behavior, like schools, church, friend groups, etc.

Now traditional research has measured the influence of each of these microsystems on human behavior quite well, but Bronfenbrenner argues that these things do not occur in isolation. There is a mesosystem, which is the interaction between microsystems. Do the parents agree with the teachers? Do they attend conferences? Do they care if homework gets done?

Furthermore, there is an exosystem or a system that does not contain Bob, but still influences his behavior. For example, the architects of his school have indirectly influenced his class size. If dad gets drunk at the bar (Which does not contain Bob), maybe he comes home and beats Bob.

There is also a macrosystem, which is a cultural construct. If Bob is a white, protestant, male, does he benefit from an inherent system of privilege in his day-to-day life? Does he act in accordance with our culture's moral values?"

You can read the full discussion on Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory here!

Why is Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory Important?

As you can see, there is a lot that can go into one decision. These factors may also hold different weights, and this weight may be influenced by other systems. It is something to consider when making a judgment about another person. Are they making a decision due to their personality or biology, or are there much larger factors at play?

Urie Bronfenbrenner Quotes

Bronfenbrenner's work goes beyond his Ecological Systems Theory. Below is some wisdom attributed to the late psychologist.

On Child Development

"Development, it turns out, occurs through this process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else- especially somebody who’s crazy about that child."

"In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody's got to be crazy about that kid. That's number one. First, last and always."

"In the planning and designing of new communities, housing projects, and urban renewal, the planners both private and public, need to give explicit consideration to the kind of world that is being created for the children who will be growing up in these settings. Particular attention should be given to the opportunities which the environment presents or precludes for involvement of children both older and younger than themselves."

"One of the most significant effects of age-segregation in our society has been the isolation of children from the world of work. Whereas in the past children not only saw what their parents did for a living but even shared substantially in the task, many children nowadays have only a vague notion of the nature of the parent's job, and have had little or no opportunity to observe the parent, or for that matter any other adult, when he is fully engaged in his work."

On Television

"Like the sorcerer of old, the television set casts its magic spell, freezing speech and action and turning the living into silent statues so long as the enchantment lasts. The primary danger of the television screen lies not so much in the behavior it produces as the behavior it prevents — the talks, the games, the family festivities and arguments."

On "Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps"

"Witness the American ideal: the Self-Made Man. But there is no such person. If we can stand on our own two feet, it is because others have raised us up. If, as adults, we can lay claim to competence and compassion, it only means that other human beings have been willing and enabled to commit their competence and compassion to us--through infancy, childhood, and adolescence, right up to this very moment."

On Education and Caring for Others

"In the United States, it is now possible for a person eighteen years of age, female as well as male, to graduate from high school, college, or university without ever having cared for, or even held, a baby; without ever having looked after someone who was old, ill, or lonely; or without ever having comforted or assisted another human being who really needed help. No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations, and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings."

"We as a nation need to be re-educated about the necessary and sufficient conditions for making human beings human. We need to be re-educated not as parents - but as workers, neighbors, and friends; and as members of the organizations, committees, boards - and, especially, the informal networks that control our social institutions and thereby determine the conditions of life for our families and their children."

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, May). Bronfenbrenner Ecological Theory. Retrieved from

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