Famous April Psychologist: Urie Bronfenbrenner

Urie Bronfenbrenner is one of the psychologists who has significantly contributed to transforming the paradigms of psychosocial research in the last half-century and is known to the general public for creating the Ecological Theory of Human Development.

Bronfenbrenner has dedicated all his career to the research of evolutionary forces that “make human beings human”. He has spent most of his life trying to highlight the systemic interconnections of the environment that influence an individual’s development.

The life of Bronfenbrenner

Born in Moscow on 29 April 1917, Bronfenbrenner emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of six. He graduated in music and psychology in 1938, then he completed a master’s degree in Educational Sciences at Harvard. His academic achievements do not stop here as he successfully completed his PhD in psychology in 1942.

During the Second World War (1941-1945) he worked as a psychologist in the US Army and when the conflict ended, in 1948 he did his work at Cornell University where he remained for many years to come, teaching and conducting research in Developmental Psychology. However, during the years of military service Bronfenbrenner, knows Kurt Lewin, an author who will have a great influence on his work.

The theory of ecological systems

In order to understand the human development, one must consider the whole ecological system in which growth occurs. In subsequent revisions, Bronfenbrenner also recognized the relevance of the biological and genetic aspects of the person that can influence the development.

According to the theory of ecological systems, each system contains roles, norms and rules that can shape the psychological development of an individual. In other words, human beings develop according to the environment in which they live; this can include the whole society and the period, which in turn will influence the behaviour and development of the individual. According to this vision, behaviour and development have a symbiotic relationship.

The ecological system is made of 5 environmental systems:

  • Microsystem refers to institutions and groups of people that have a more immediate and direct impact on the development of the child including the family, the school, the neighbourhood institutions and the peers. The microsystem is the closest layer to the child and contains the structures with which the child has direct contact.
  • Mesosystem refers to the interconnections between microsystems, such as interactions between the family and teachers, or the relationship between peers of the child and the family.
  • Exosystem is formed by the links between a social context in which the individual does not have an active role and the immediate context of the individual. For example, a parent at home can be influenced by the experiences of the parent who works. The employed parent may receive a promotion that requires more travel, which could increase the conflict with the other parent who does not work and in turn, this will change parents’ patterns of interaction with the child.
  • Macrosystem is instead composed of cultural values, customs, laws and in general the culture in which individuals live. It refers to the global models of ideology and organizations that characterize a particular society or social group.
  • Chronosystem represents the system of events and transitions throughout the life, as well as historical-social and global economic circumstances. For example, divorces are a transition. The researchers found that the negative effects of divorce on children often peak in the first year after the divorce. But two years after the divorce, the family interaction is less chaotic and more stable.

Since its publication in 1979, this theory has had a widespread influence on the way psychologists and others deal with the study of human beings and their environments. As a result of this influential conceptualisation of development, these environments – starting from the family to economic and political factors- they are now commonly seen as an integral part of the life course of a human being from infancy to adulthood.

Some of the most important writings of Bronfenbrenner

Bronfenbrenner U. Personality and Participation: The Case of the Vanishing Variables Journal of Social Issues. 16: 54-63. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1960.tb00412.x

Bronfenbrenner U. The role of age, sex, class, and culture in studies of moral development Religious Education. 57: 3-17. DOI: 10.1080/003440862057S402

Bronfenbrenner U. The psychological costs of quality and equality in education. Child Development. 38: 909-25. PMID 4170816

Bronfenbrenner U. Is early intervention effective? Day Care and Early Education. 2: 14-18. DOI: 10.1007/BF02353057

Bronfenbrenner U. Contexts of child-rearing: Problems and prospects American Psychologist. 34: 844-850. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.844

Bronfenbrenner U. Ecology of the Family as a Context for Human Development. Research Perspectives Developmental Psychology. 22: 723-742. DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.22.6.723

Bronfenbrenner U, Ceci SJ. Nature-nurture reconceptualized in developmental perspective: a bioecological model. Psychological Review. 101: 568-86. PMID 7984707

Bronfenbrenner U, Evans GW. Developmental Science in the 21st Century: Emerging Questions, Theoretical Models, Research Designs and Empirical Findings Social Development. 9: 115-125.


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