What is the Ecological Systems Theory?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Ecological Systems Theory is a theory developed by the psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner.  This theory holds that a person’s psychology is affected by “ecological systems.”  In other words, there are different levels of “systems” that a affect a person’s psychological development as he or she interacts with them.

There are five of these systems, four of which can be conceived of as concentric circles radiating out from the individual’s own body.  The first of these systems is called the “microsystem.”  The microsystem is made up of the people and environments with whom a person interacts most often.  In other words, this system would be made up of one’s family, one’s peers, and one’s neighborhood.  The second system is called the “mesosystem.”  This system is created by the interactions between parts of the microsystem.  For example, it is made up of things like the relationship between a person’s family and the person’s peers.  The third system is the “exosystem.”  This is a system that affects a person but one with which the person does not actually interact.  As an example of this, we could say that my wife’s workplace is part of my exosystem.  Things that happen at work affect her and that affects me, but I do not directly interact with my wife’s work.  Finally, there is the “macrosystem.”  This is the overall culture and society in which we live and our place in it.  For example, my psychology is affected by the fact that I live in a rich, democratic country.  It is further affected by the fact that I am a biracial person in a society that is very conscious of race.  In short, these are factors that exist on the societal level and which affect me personally.

Finally, there is a system that is not part of these concentric rings.  This is the “chronosystem.”  This system is made up of events that happen over time.  For example, my grandparents’ psychological development was affected by the fact that they grew up during the Great Depression and were adults during World War II.  My own development has been affected by the fact that America has become more racially tolerant over my lifetime.

The Ecological Systems Theory, then, is a theory which holds that our psychological development is affected by these “systems” that make up the environment in which we live.  

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