I: The Evolution of the Bioecological Model of Human Development

A self-reflective theorist, Bronfenbrenner identified three phases in the development of his theory. Phase 1 began in 1973 and concluded with the publication of The Ecology of Human

Development in 1979. This phase focused largely on the differing contexts in which developing individuals are situated. Phase 2 (1983-1993) expanded on these ideas, placing greater emphasis on the role of the individual (including person characteristics) and the role of time in development. During Phase 2 Bronfenbrenner also presented initial models of human development, including the person-process-context model (1983—1986) and the processperson-context model (1988—1989). In the final phase, occurring between 1993 and 2006, Bronfenbrenner defined proximal processes and the Process-Person-Context-Time (PPCT) model for research. These phases can also be linked to some of his most influential publications (Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000): his 1979 book during the first phase, and two “reformulations” (Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1983 and Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998) demarcating phases two and three. As noted in our previous work (Tudge et al., 2009; Tudge et al., 2016), many scholars rely upon earlier versions of Bronfenbrenner’s theory that he himself later criticized, but, as we will argue, this shortsighted approach fails to do justice to the developed form of the theory.

While we will explore the development of his theory across these three phases, we encourage researchers and practitioners alike to focus on and utilize the final form of his theorizing (the bioecological theory and PPCT model described in Phase 3).

Phase 1: The Ecology of Human Development (1973-1979)

Inspired by his research with children and families and his experiences in social policy, Bronfenbrenner began his theoretical work to address two issues: (1) the limitations of laboratory-based psychology research in real-world applications, and (2) the resulting dearth of information applicable to the formation of social policies and programs for children and their families. He wrote:

Our science is peculiarly one-sided. We know much more about children than about the environments in which they live or the processes through which these environments affect the course of development ... [This largely results from] the absence of a theoretical framework appropriate for analyzing the environments in which human beings live.

(Bronfenbrenner, 1979a, p. 844)

Bronfenbrenner believed that lab-based research and the prevailing theories of child development did not consider the contexts in which children and their families actually lived and interacted, and were therefore not helpful in the formation of social policies to support families. Contrary to beliefs at the time, Bronfenbrenner argued that research should be guided by social policy, therefore attempting to provide useful answers to issues of the day (Rosa & Tudge, 2013).

In articles throughout the 1970s, and culminating in his 1979 monograph, Bronfenbrenner outlined the first iteration of his theory. He defined the ecology of human development as:

the scientific study of the progressive, mutual accommodation between an active, growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings in which the developing person lives, as this process is affected by relations between these settings, and by the larger contexts within which the settings are embedded.

(Bronfenbrenner, 1979b, p. 21)

Put simply, Bronfenbrenner viewed development as being influenced by the interrelations and interactions between individuals and the different levels of contexts in which they lived. In this monograph, Bronfenbrenner described the diff erent “systems” of context as “a set of nested structures, each inside the other like a set of Russian dolls” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979b, p. 3).

With the developing individual (e.g., a child) at the center, the ecological system was composed of the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem. We discuss each of these systems more fully later in the chapter but note here that Bronfen-brenner’s concept of nested systems became immensely popular after the release of his 1979 monograph. Textbooks included diagrams created to visually represent these levels, which were depicted as concentric circles. These diagrams and the “Russian doll” metaphor offered an appealing simplicity to explain the numerous external factors impacting child development. However, many scholars failed to recognize the bidirectionality of his theory or apply it to more than one level of context. Researchers cited Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system theory when studying children in a real-world microsystems (e.g., school or home), but often overlooked four key points: (a) children interact differently based on the context, influencing what appear to be individual characteristics, (b) children and microsystems interact and influence one another in a bidirectional relationship, (c) macrosystems continually influence the microsystems children inhabit and (d) microsystems are not objective realities but need to be understood as they are perceived by those within them. Bronfenbrenner clearly articulated this final point with his definition of ecological validity as:

The extent to which the environment experienced by the subjects in a scientific investigation has the properties it is supposed or assumed to have by the investigator. ... Again, the use of the term experienced in the definition highlights the importance of the phenomenological field in ecological research.

(Bronfenbrenner, 1979b, p. 29, italics in the original)

Of particular interest to ECE researchers and practitioners, Bronfenbrenner introduced the term ecological transition during this phase of his career. Bronfenbrenner considered an ecological transition to be a change in or between systems prompted by individual developmental processes (e.g., a child matures to preschool readiness), changes in the environment (e.g., a place opens in an appropriate classroom for a child), or a combination of individual and environmental factors. Bronfenbrenner also conceived that transitions could be the motive for development, such as the development of more independence as a result of the transition to school (Doucet, 2008). Furthermore, for Bronfenbrenner, ecological transitions impacted not only the individual, but the systems they inhabit and with which they interact (e.g., family, friends) (Rosa & Tudge, 2013). The richness of investigating the impact of ecological transitions on developmental trajectories was expressed by Bronfenbrenner and Crouter (1983): “From the point of view of scientific method, every ecological transition has the virtue that it constitutes a readymade experiment of nature with a built-in, before/after design in which each subject can serve as his [sic] own control” (p. 381). As we will discuss in the second part of this chapter, an understanding of ecological transitions can help inform and support both children and their families during times of educational transition (e.g., from preschool to kindergarten) (Doucet, 2008; Doucet & Tudge, 2007; Hayes et al., 2017; Tudge, Freitas, & Doucet, 2009).

Thus, although Bronfenbrenner’s work from the 1970s is often reduced to a theory of how contexts impact individuals, the underlying tenet of these ideas was ecological - human development occurs through complex, dynamic, and interdependent interactions between individuals and their environment (Tudge et al., 2018).

Phase 2: Ecological Systems Theory (1983-1993)

Bronfenbrenner himself observed the simplification of his 1979 monograph to a treatise on context and wrote in the 1980s and early 1990s to emphasize the ecological nature of his theory. During this phase, Bronfenbrenner also expanded on his theory; he further delineated the role person characteristics and time play in development and elaborated on the role culture plays in the macrosystem. Bronfenbrenner also introduced his first models for research during this phase, the person-process-context model (1983-1986) and the process-personcontext model (1988-1989).

Bronfenbrenner expounded upon the role of individuals in their own development, namely two types of “instigative characteristics.” These two types include “personal-stimulus qualities,” expressed as the immediate reactions of the individual to either welcome or discourage interactions with their environment, and “developmentally structuring personal attributes,” which Bronfenbrenner defined as “modes of behavior or belief that reflect an active, selective, structuring orientation toward the environment and/or tend to provoke reactions from the environment” (Bronfenbrenner, 1989a, p. 223). Personal characteristics were further refined during the third phase.

During this period, Bronfenbrenner also began to use the term “chronosystem” to describe the influence of time on human development. Throughout the life course, a multitude of events and experiences could change both internal and external factors that could promote or prohibit development. Further, Bronfenbrenner argued that the chronosystem could be used to describe changes not only in the individual, but also changes in contextual systems. Bronfenbrenner’s subsequent elaborations of the concept of chronosystem are discussed in more detail later in the chapter.

Bronfenbrenner’s writings also emphasized variations across cultures and sub-cultures, and how these variations impact human development. Inspired by Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner wrote that “from earliest childhood onward the development of one’s characteristics as a person depends in significant degree on the options that are available in a given culture at a given point in its history” (Bronfenbrenner, 1989a, p. 228). During this period, Bronfenbrenner also highlighted the importance of belief systems, as they form the scaffold from which parents, teachers, and other caregivers interact with and socialize children.

Phase 3: Bioecological Theory (1993-2006)

During this phase, Bronfenbrenner added the prefix “bio” to the name of the theory, perhaps in part to emphasize the often overlooked importance of person (“bio”) characteristics in development. This period, which stretched from the early 1990s to the publishing of a posthumous chapter in 2006, remained true to his earlier emphasis on ecology, but added a fundamental idea - proximal processes. Proximal processes are the everyday activities and interactions between the developing individuals and their environments. Bronfenbrenner believed that proximal processes are the “engines of development” (Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000, p. 118) and placed them at the forefront of the Process-Person-Context-Time (PPCT) model. In this final iteration of the model, Bronfenbrenner continued to view individual characteristics and contexts as key elements of development, but secondary to proximal processes. During this phase Bronfenbrenner also further elaborated on time as a driving force in development, as well as time as a necessary component of research designs. To study human development over time, Bronfenbrenner argued that one must collect data longitudinally.

As is evident from our overview of the three phases of Bronfenbrenner’s “ecological” theory, his ideas underwent major revisions throughout his career, culminating in the bioecological theory and PPCT model. As this final iteration of his theory encompasses processes, person, context, and time, we recommend that researchers and practitioners alike embrace this final model as opposed to earlier versions. As Rosa and Tudge (2013, p. 256) stated:

[T]here really is no reason for continuing to treat Bronfenbrenner’s theory as one of contextual influences on development, or for ignoring the focus, during the third and final phase, on proximal processes and the use of the PPCT model as a guide for research using the bioecological theory.

 
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