Lecture Notes – Urie Bronfenbrenner



It’s all about the context.


If there’s one thing that unifies Family & Consumer Scientists and makes Child Developmentalists from FCS different, it’s that one idea. We need to understand the child “in context.” I think that this theory really compliments all of the other perspectives we’ve learned about in that way. Even Vygotsky didn’t go into nearly this amount of detail about the context of development, although I think he would have enjoyed this theoretical perspective had he lived to read or hear about it.


The great thing about this theory is that, unlike Behaviorism, it systematically examines the role of multiple levels of the environment (not just the immediate environment) on human development (not just behavior), and it also acknowledges that individuals are active within these contexts. It takes all of the wonderful attributes of, say, Cognitive Theory, Information Processing Theory, Sociocultural Theory, and more—it keeps the core assumptions of these theories, and at the same time it takes a serious look at the active, developing person within a context that is also dynamic and changing. Like Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner saw a kind of dialectic between the individual and the environmental context; the individual can exert an influence over his/her environment at the same time the environment exerts an influence on the individual. On the nature-nurture issue, I’d say this theory is just as balanced as Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s in acknowledging that each has a role, and observed development is really the result of an interaction between the two. Bronfenbrenner’s theory has evolved somewhat over time--so many people have picked up on his initial idea and have modified it to make their own variations--but the basic idea of the person developing in the context of various “systems” or environments is something that Bronfenbrenner really deserves credit for.


You’ve seen his “concentric circles” model before. Here’s one I found applied to students in Tennessee’s higher educational system:

(note: they just left out the Chronosystem.)


As you can see, this idea has a great deal of potential for application. My favorite area of application is in the area of poverty and child development (if you’ve taken my poverty class, then you know this already). This perspective can be applied to explain the development, typical or atypical, of any individual or group. What I particularly like about the theory is that it can help to lead to good programmatic and policy decisions—we must change as many levels of the environment as possible if we’re serious about making change in the lives of children. Does that mean we should even try to change things at the cultural/national level? The worldwide level? Yes, absolutely. (Think of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.—that’s exactly what they set out to do, and it is also what they accomplished.) Be wary of any program or policy that only focuses on one level of the environment and ignores the others. Systems correct themselves—if change happens in one area of one level, then the larger system as a whole is likely to resist that change. Here’s an example: say your approach to solving the problem of child crime is one simple thing: to put the child in a correctional institution for a very long time. Essentially, society is tackling this problem at the level of the individual by punishing the child for undesirable behavior (remember, according to Behaviorists, punishing an unwanted behavior should cause the individual to be less likely to perform the behavior in the future.) This solution removes the offender from the street for a time, it’s true, but eventually the child offender (perhaps no longer a child) will be released into the same environment(s) that helped to lead to his antisocial behavior in the first place. By not attempting to change educational opportunities, job availability, the minimum wage, neighborhood safety, prevailing societal attitudes about the worth of ex-convicts, the criminal justice system and how it works, we have done nothing to prevent the same behavior from reoccurring. In fact, if we put the child in an adult institution, we’ve presented him with a plethora of adult criminal models who’ve probably done pretty heinous things—maybe even while they were in prison (think of Bandura). On a cognitive level, we’ve also taught him something very important: he is a dispensable person. On an emotional level, we teach him that nobody cares, the world is a dangerous and frightening place, and he’ll never be a productive (or generative) member of society (e.g. Erikson’s theory). Not only do we have to look at multiple systemic levels of the environment, but we also have to consider different systems or aspects of development at work within the individual. Hard work, but certainly possible—and worthwhile.


According to the criteria in Thomas’ book, is this the strongest developmental theory we’ve read about? Well, no. There’s a lot about the relationship between the individual and the environment and how change really happens within these various contexts that’s probably impossible to directly study—think of all the uncontrolled variables (not to mention the rarity of a truly random sample). That’s the problem as we move from a simple theory like Skinner’s, which may be testable but is in many ways far removed from the real lives of children, toward a theory that has the potential to explain the messiness of reality. “The real world” can be very difficult to study empirically. What we can do is evaluate programs or policies that deliberately impact as many environmental levels and systems as possible. This has been done (there’s a kind of old book out there that’s really great—14 Ounces of Prevention—which is a good example of what I mean), and in fact more comprehensive programs do work. It’s why the Decker Center in Barberton made such an impact on the community, and why “full service schools”, where they have been tried, are so effective. Although this kind of empirical support is more indirect than we might like, sometimes that’s the best we can hope for with a theory that is, as David Witt would say, “looking under the right street lamp” for the truth about child development. Sometimes the light’s not so great, but we know we’re on the right side of the street. (I’d repeat the whole analogy, but he tells it better.)



As always, here’s your lagniappe:


Full Service Schools Initiative


What Urie’s been up to lately


Brief Bronfenbrenner Bio (how’s that for alliteration?)


An Example of  Modification of Bronfenbrenner’s Model


Another example from a newsletter by Wendy Russell:


A framework for defining playwork

It may be helpful to have a framework for the knowledge and standards and the one I offer here is the concentric circles developed by myself and Stuart Lester from an ecological model of human development by Urie Bronfenbrenner:


diagram of 4 concentric circles


The concentric circles start with the child at play in the centre and show the influences on that child and their play from the perspective of the play setting. This model also allows for acknowledgement of the flow of connections within and between each circle.

The play environment circle focuses on the role of the playworker in providing a rich physical play environment as well as a human environment where the children expect to be able to play, and also looks at the role of the playworker in terms of the 'low intervention, high response' model.

The idea of the model is that each of the outer circles should support rather than constrain children's play.


More about this idea