Friday, January 21, 2011

An Ecological Approach to Life: Urie Bronfenbrenner

Due to popular demand, I'm starting an occasional series of blogs where I go through various theories in psychology from my therapy dog perspective. Why? A friend on Facebook was studying for an exam and asked my take on a couple of theories. I successfully taught these theories using examples from my life (squirrels). It seems like it would be fun to continue doing that.

In the United States, it is now possible for a person eighteen years of age, female as well as male, to graduate from high school, college, or university without ever having cared for, or even held, a baby; without ever having comforted or assisted another human being who really needed help. . . . No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations, and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings.
Who said this? Urie Bronfenbrenner. You probably don't know him but you should. From all reports, Dr. Bronfenbrenner was a wonderful human being. While studying in New York City the human met a woman who spoke about studying with him. She got all calm and dreamy talking about what a kind soul he was. Later while working in Ithaca New York, the human happened to walk past Dr. Bronfenbrenner. They had a brief conversation--he indeed was a lovely person. Bronfenbrenner was a professor at Cornell University and the co-founder of the national Head Start program.

Children need people in order to become human.... It is primarily through observing, playing, and working with others older and younger than himself that a child discovers both what he can do and who he can become—that he develops both his ability and his identity.... Hence to relegate children to a world of their own is to deprive them of their humanity, and ourselves as well.
Urie was born in 1917 in Moscow, Russia. When he was six he and his parents, Russian Jews, emigrated to the United States. For those of you who aren't students of history, note that Urie was born when the Russian Provisional Government collapsed. His parents moved at the end of the civil war when the Soviets had taken control of the country. Why is this important? These small biographical details anchor Dr. Bronfenbrenner into a particular place and time. How might have these early experiences influenced him? What did he learn during this time frame? Who did his story of emigrating with his parents influence him?
If the Russians have gone too far in subjecting the child and his peer group to conformity to a single set of values imposed by the adult society, perhaps we have reached the point of diminishing returns in allowing excessive autonomy and in failing to utilize the constructive potential of the peer group in developing social responsibility and consideration for others. 
We often don't think about people in a historical context: we should. It is from within our contexts that our selves develop. I'll get back to that in a minute. First let's look at one more thing Dr. Bronfenbrenner said:
Development, it turns out, occurs through this process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else—especially somebody who's crazy about that child. 
Do you think that perhaps part of how Urie learned this was from a deep understanding of his own context? Neither I nor the human are scholars of Urie or his biographer. It's worth wondering about.

Dr. Bronfenbrenner developed an Ecological Systems theory to human development. It was revolutionary at the time--and in many ways still is. He wrote about about development as something occurring within five systems. I'll describe each of them in turn from my perspective.

Micro system: This is the setting in which I live. My family, peers, school, and neighborhood all populate this system. It is within the micro system that I spend most of my life and have most of my direct interactions. It's important to know that within this theory, I am not a passive recipient of experiences in these settings. I actively am involved in creating and deciding the contours of these experiences. Who's in my microsystem? My humans, of course. The humans that I live with are my most enduring and important relationships. My interactions with them set the contours of what is possible and what is not. My responses to the environmental they create, and my own personal tastes and genetics, dictate the possibilities of what I might become. My microsystem also includes the humans office, the way we are transported to the office, and of course the patients who come into the office. I grew up around people in therapy: this had a fundamental effect on who I became.We develop within the complex exchanges of our relationships. In his ecological systems theory, Bronfenbrenner changed all of our understandings of how children developed. He identified five systems which influence what all of us become. I'll talk about each of those five systems and to help you think about them, I'll put myself in context. Of course I'm sure you all understand that he was talking about human development--not puppy development. However I think the theory  holds for me too!

We as a nation need to be reeducated about the necessary and sufficient conditions for making human beings human. We need to be reeducated not as parents—but as workers, neighbors, and friends; and as members of the organizations, committees, boards—and, especially, the informal networks that control our social institutions and thereby determine the conditions of life for our families and their children.  
  • Mesosystem: Refers to relations between microsystems or connections between contexts. This is the in between system. An example is the relation of family experiences to school experiences. If I don't feel safe at home for example, or my humans don't provide me with positive interactions, I'm not likely going to be successful in school. I won't have the skills from home to use and be skillful in school. Make sense? Ever know anyone deeply frustrated that the dog trainer can easily get their dog to sit (I'm sure you've all watched Victoria Stillwell on T.V.) but then the dog won't listen at home? Well this is because of the mesosystem. The family doesn't share the same set of skills nor provide the same environmental that the dog trainer does. Without an interplay between the two systems it is hard for a dog to learn what to do!
Witness the American ideal: the Self-Made Man. But there is no such person. If we can stand on our own two feet, it is because others have raised us up. If, as adults, we can lay claim to competence and compassion, it only means that other human beings have been willing and enabled to commit their competence and compassion to us—through infancy, childhood, and adolescence, right up to this very moment. 
  • Exosystem: No, not exoskeleton. Those are crunchy bugs that I like to eat in the summer time. Exosystem involves the links between a social setting that I don't have an active role in and my immediate context. For example, I'm not directly involved in my human's marathon running. I'm influenced by it because when he's deep into training, I'm left alone more often and go on less walks. The exosystem, in this case marathon training, changes patterns of interaction with me. Involves links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual's immediate context. For example, a husband's or child's experience at home may be influenced by a mother's experiences at work. The mother might receive a promotion that requires more travel, which might increase conflict with the husband and change patterns of interaction with the child.
In the planning and designing of new communities, housing projects, and urban renewal, the planners both public and private, need to give explicit consideration to the kind of world that is being created for the children who will be growing up in these settings. Particular attention should be given to the opportunities which the environment presents or precludes for involvement of children with persons both older and younger than themselves. 
  • Macrosystem: Describes the culture in which I live. Cultural contexts include developing and industrialized countries, socioeconomic status, poverty, and ethnicity. Don't think this affects dogs? Have you ever traveled to another country and saw the different ways people relate to animals? Some countries dogs aren't household pets--they are street animals. A more simple example--in some countries cows are food--in others cows are considered sacred animals. Take a look at the differences in training styles of Victoria Stillwell and Cesar Milan. They are both highly influenced by different aspects of the macrosystem. They both have different values and different contexts in which they understand animals. They in fact are both from different macrosystems (Milan from Mexico, Stillwell from the United Kingdom). Think about how these macrosystems influence how they relate to animals, and then how they teach others to relate to animals.
If the children and youth of a nation are afforded opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest, if they are given the knowledge to understand the world and the wisdom to change it, then the prospects for the future are bright. In contrast, a society which neglects its children, however well it may function in other respects, risks eventual disorganization and demise. 
  • Chronosystem: The final system involves the effect of time and transitions across a lifespan. Marriage, divorce, or the birth of a baby all are transitions in the human world that fall into the chronosystem. My chronosystem includes being born in Kentucky, being abandoned when I was a day old, being transported to New Hampshire, and then finding my home in Massachusetts. How do you think these transitions have influenced me?
Last thought? In Dr. Brofenbrenner's obituary at Cornell University the following was written. I see it as an invitation to relationship. I hope you do, too.
He spent many of his later years warning that the process that makes human beings human is breaking down as disruptive trends in American society produce ever more chaos in the lives of America's children. "The hectic pace of modern life poses a threat to our children second only to poverty and unemployment," he said. "We are depriving millions of children--and thereby our country--of their birthright... virtues, such as honesty, responsibility, integrity and compassion."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you billions! it is very important to understand complicatedly philosophical context of Brofenbrenner's system theory, which describes human development accurately.