The Ecological Systems Theory influenced the way psychologists and other social scientists approached the study of human beings in their environment. Before Bronfenbrenner, child psychologists studied the child, sociologists examined the family, anthropologists studied the society, economists studied the economic framework of the times, and political scientists studied the political structure. Brofenbrenner’s theory looks at how each of the areas interplay in the development of humans, and thus thought it important to study how all areas impact development instead of studying each area separately.
Bronfenbrenner identified four systems that each contains rules, norms, and roles that powerfully shape development. He called these the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem.
The Microsystem contains the immediate environments that the child is a part of (family, school, peer group, neighborhood, and childcare environments). It is the layer closest to the child and contains the structures with which the child has direct contact. At this level, relationships have impact in two directions – both away from the child and toward the child. For example, a child’s parents may affect his beliefs and behaviour; however, the child also affects the behaviour and beliefs of the parent. Bronfenbrenner calls these bi-directional influences, and he shows how they occur among all levels of environment.
The Mesosystem is comprised of connections between the child’s immediate environments (i.e., a child’s home and school). If a child is experiencing difficulties in school, it is likely that the family will be forced to have more interactions with the school’s teachers and administrators, and those family-school interactions should have an effect on the child’s functioning.
The Exosystem contains the external environmental settings and other social systems that do not contain the developing child but indirectly affect development (e.g. a parent’s workplace, neighbourhood institutions, the media, the government, the economy etc.).
Finally, the Macrosystem contains all of the various subsystems and the general beliefs and values of the culture, and is made up of written and unwritten principles that regulate everybody’s behaviour. These principles- whether legal, economic, political, religious, or educational- endow individual life with meaning and value and control the nature and scope of the interactions between the various levels of the total social system.
Bronfenbrenner later added the Chronosystem, which is made up of all the other levels. It refers to the way the each level has an influence on the one before and after it in a back and forth motion. It also pertains to the historical context of the time the child is reared in. For example, a great technological discovery, a war, or times of great economic trouble, can all have impact on the child’s development.
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