This paper is a position paper on Ecological Systems Theory and the application of this theory to management practices. Presented are the critical aspects of Bronfenbrenner, an evaluation of Ecological Systems Theory, and applications of Ecological Systems Theory to management and organizational paradigms. The last point is bolstered through analyzing other theorists and their theories as compare and contrast with Ecological Systems Theory.
Ecological Systems Theory
Ecological Systems Theory originated in Urie Bronfenbrenner’s work during the 1940s on childhood and friendship patterns (Bronfenbrenner, 1995). Over several decades the foundations were laid, culminating in Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1999). “The ecological environment is conceived as a set of nested structures, each inside the next like a set of Russian dolls” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Within this structure are five layers arranged from the closest to the individual to the farthest: the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). These systems have continuing impacts an individual’s development (Bronfenbrenner, 1999).
Evaluating Ecological Systems Theory
Ecological systems theory focuses upon the environmental aspects of development with a particular focus on youth (Bronfenbrenner, 1999). From an observer’s perspective, there is little the observer can do about an individual as framed by the microsystem aside from their individual interactions. Similarly, the macrosystem and chronosystem are too large for an observer to encompass. However, the macrosystem and chronosystem are interpretable through understanding various sociological, environmental, and time factors that influence an individual (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). Even in this example, Bronfenbrenner (1994) cautions that one needs to go “beyond the simple labels of class and culture to identify more specific social and psychological features at the macrosystem level…” (p. 40). The microsystem presents similar challenges, since one cannot understand all the different elements close to the individual that impact their development.
The mesosystems and exosystems are easier to observe, since they result from the interactions between other systems, such as between microsystems. The exosystem is the external influences upon the microsystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). An example would be a parent performing less effectively at work because of their child’s difficulty in school.
Bronfenbrenner’s focus upon development, particularly, in children makes application of ecological systems theory to adults somewhat more difficult than might otherwise occur. However, the analysis done by Bronfenbrenner (1994) demonstrates that factors, such as birth weight, mother’s education, and family situation impact childhood development. The concept of external factors influencing an individual makes sense. Lastly, understanding that the time one develops in, as well as the passage of time, both influence psychological development is an important concept.
Application of Ecological Systems Theory to Management
Numerous approaches have utilized Ecological Systems Theory to understand phenomena observed today. One study looked at dual-earner spouses and the impacts of employment and home life (Kulik & Rayyan, 2006). Another paper assesses impacts of changes to higher education by state governments (Poch, 2005). However, a search of databases such as Emerald Insight, Business Source Complete, ABI/INFORM complete, and PsychINFO show a lack of articles correlating Ecological Systems Theory or Bronfenbrenner with either management or leadership.
Instead, I believe that Bronfenbrenner’s theory is best applied in developing a manager’s understanding of individuals, actions, and interactions. In particular, understanding the mesosystem and exosystem can benefit managers through understanding sources of employee satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Kulik and Rayyan (2006) show in their research, that there is a correlation between job satisfaction, home satisfaction, and spousal support for dual-earner families. Pock (2005) used Ecological Systems Theory to create charts showing linkages between microsystems within the mesosystem and impacts of the mesosystem upon the mesosystem and vice versa. Similar analysis could be done to aid management.
As a brief example, a small business could be considered a mesosystem. Within it are the various individuals or the microsystem. Other impacts, such as competitors or participants in the supply chain are all exosystem impacts. The environment, such as the economy and government, in which these various subsystems exist, forms the macrosystem. An effective manager could understand these systems and use it to benefit the organization as a whole. It could occur through differing compensation schemes, understanding opposing businesses, or through regulatory affairs. Any of these applications impact the individuals in the organization.
Other theorists support various levels of Bronfenbrenner’s theory. Chronosystem and macrosystem impacts are examined by Elder (1998) in his research. In particular he looks at temporal impacts for generations, such as major upheavals for countries including wars and economic turmoil (Elder, 1998). The chronosystem and macrosystem impacts then alter individual development. Bronfenbrenner (1999) considers the timing of events, as they occur within other activities during an individuals life, as important to overall development.
Maslow (2000) notes in his hierarchy of needs that individuals only can achieve self-actualization once other needs are met. Helping to determine the needs, such as safety or esteem can be understood through Ecological Systems Theory. As Maslow (2000) notes, “we all have all sorts of implicit axioms, truisms which we have taken for granted.” (p. 117). Bronfenbrenner would likely support this notion through the understanding that different cultures, either through time or geographic area, support different axioms or truisms (Bronfenbrenner, 1995).
Moral stages are impacted by the variances of culture, time, and other factors such as the family’s own morality. The stages of morality are defined by these other influences (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977). Kohlberg and Hersh (1977) frame the stages of moral development within the framework of accepted cultural and familial norms. This corresponds with the individual development by the microsystem through the chronosystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1994).
Applying Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory to management and organizational applications is a challenge. I was unable to find any direct references to the application of the theory to these applications. However, simply because there has not been research directly related to management does not mean that the theory is either ill-suited or inapplicable to management. Instead, using Ecological Systems Theory provides a powerful tool to understand the influences upon a person’s life and how it influences other parts of their development. Similarly, it helps understand how broad aspects such as time or culture influence individual development. All of these factors can greatly impact a business, management, and an organization.
Elder, Kohlberg, and Maslow all provide theories or analysis that can be strengthened through the lens of Ecological Systems Theory, or aid in validating specific aspects of the theory. Although none of these other theories directly validate or disprove the application of Ecological Systems Theory, they were able to help me gain insight into different strengths and weaknesses of those theories. Although not yet in broad employment, I believe Ecological Systems Theory provides a valuable tool for scholars and practitioners to understand individual development in order to become more effective managers and leaders.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). A future perspective. In The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design (pp. 3-13). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. In International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed., Vol. 3, pp. 1643-1647). Oxford: Elsevier.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1995). The bioecological model from a life course perspective: Reflections of a participant observer. In Examining lives in context: Perspectives on the ecology of human development (pp. 599-618). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/ehost/detail?vid=9&hid=9&sid=2ba7031e-152d-4702-a172-1ea5d6671ebb%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=psyh&AN=1995-98394-018
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1999). Environments in developmental perspective: Theoretical and operational models. In Measuring environment across the life span : emerging methods and concepts (1st ed., pp. 3-28). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Elder, G. H. (1998). The life course as developmental theory. Child Development, 69(1), 1. doi:10.2307/1132065
Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory into Practice, 16(2), 53-59.
Kulik, L., & Rayyan, F. (2006). Relationships between dual-earner spouses, strategies for coping with home–work demands and emotional well-being. Community, Work & Family, 9(4), 457-477. doi:10.1080/13668800600925100
Poch, S. (2005). Higher education in a box. International Journal of Educational Management, 19(3), 246-258. doi:10.1108/09513540510591020