Urie. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
Bronfenbrenner doesn’t do much to discuss tools explicitly as such, but he
presents a theoretical and analytical framework for the radical localism
emphasized in activity theory. He’s not an activity theorist per se;
instead, he sets out to correct tendencies in experimental psychology
(particularly that line concerned with studying, through observation, the
development of young children) that takes the setting for granted. The
Ecology of Human Development argues strongly for rejuvenated attention to
scenic variables when studying developmental psychology. Typical
laboratory settings strip away too much of the local environment;
experimental controls meant to respond to the sheer breadth of complexity
ultimately undervalue the richness of "development-in-context" (12).
Bronfenbrenner pursues a method for psychological study that is both
experimental and descriptive. He sets out from a concern that too
much developmental psychology attends "to the properties of the person
and only the most rudimentary conception and characterization of the
environment in which the person is found" (16). Because such studies seek to
impose controls in an effort to extrapolate probabilities ("scientific status"
finds that human behavior is "invariant across contexts" (30)),
environment (and social, contextual complexity), he argues, has received too
little consideration. "From this perspective, it can be said that much of
developmental psychology, as it now  exists, is the science of the
strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the
briefest possible periods of time" (19). Fix: the ecology of human
development, which is concretely situated, phenomenologically
astute, longitudinal, and immensely attentive to
Specifically, Bronfenbrenner studies (and reads studies about) scenes of
early childhood development (ages 3-5): home, pre-school, day care, playground,
etc. The book is heavily structured; lists of definitions,
propositions, and hypotheses constituted the core structure.
Between the offset list items, Bronfenbrenner explains and gives readings of
selected studies. In the chapter on "Interpersonal Structures," he
introduces basic terms and concepts for what he calls social networks
(81). The dyad (a person-person tie) is further characterized into the
following classes: observational dyad, joint activity dyad, and primary dyad.
From there, he discusses clusters of subjects, using N+2 (68) and N+3
(71). In his discussion of roles, Bronfenbrenner refers at length to
Milgram’s Obedience to Authority (Eichmann) experiments (92-98).
Microsystems (22): "the immediate setting containing the developing
person" (3); Microsystem elements: activity, role, and relation (33).
Mesosystems (25, 209): looks "beyond the single settings to the relations
between them" (3)
Exosystems (25, 237): "development is profoundly affected by events
occurring in settings in which the person is not even present" (3)
Macrosystems (26, 258): the broadest level; "a striking phenomenon
pertaining to settings at all three levels of the ecological environment" (4)
Limitations to studies of day care settings and preschools:
- The empty setting (164) [no ecological orientation]
- Ecologically constricted outcome measures (164)
- Fixation on the child as the experimental subject (165)
Selected definitions, propositions, and hypotheses:
- Definition 1: The ecology of human development involves 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 in which the settings are
embedded (21). [i.e., Matryoshka dolls analogy]
- Proposition A: In ecological research, the properties of the person
and of the environment, the structure of environmental settings, and the
processes taking place within and between them must be viewed as
interpdependent and analyzed in systems terms (41).
- Definition 12: A molar activity is an ongoing
behavior possessing a momentum of its own and perceived as having
meaning or intent by the participants in the setting (45).
- Proposition C: If one member of a dyad undergoes
developmental change, the other is also likely to do so (65).
- Hypothesis 12: The tendency to evoke behavior in accord with
expectations for a given role is a function of the existence of
other roles in the setting that invite or inhibit behavior associated with
the given role (94).
- Proposition H: If different settings have different developmental
effects, then these effects should reflect the major ecological differences
between the settings, as revealed by contrasting patterns of
activities, roles, and relations (183).
Keywords: descriptive psychology (vii), "nomothetic" psychology (ix), dyad
(5, 56), ecological transitions (6), role (6), molar activities (6), microsystem
(7), proximal domain (10), development-in-context (12), reciprocity (22),
ecological environment (22), observational dyad (56), joint activity dyad (56),
reciprocity (57), balance of power (57), affective relation (58), primary dyad
(58), reciprocal development (65), N+2 system (68), N+3 system (71), social
network (81), role transition (103), multisetting participation (209),
linking dyad (210), indirect linkage (210), intersetting communications (210),
intersetting knowledge (210), weak linkage (211).
Lewin’s psychological field: ongoing activity (24), perceived
interconnections (25), roles (25).
Ecological validity (28): "an investigation is regarded as ecologically
valid if it is carried out in a natural setting and involves objects from
"Approximately one hundred years ago a number of scholars began to think that
it would be possible to understand human psychological processes by conducting
experiments, modeled on the precision and explicit, quantitative,
data-analytic techniques that had propelled the physical sciences to such
prominence in human affairs" (vii).
"All of these commonsense suggestions entail a reorientation of the way we
think about psychological processes, which must come to be treated as
properties of systems, systems in which the individual is but one element"
"Most of the building blocks in the environmental aspect of the theory are
familiar concepts in the behavioral and social sciences: molar activity,
dyad, role, setting, social network, institution,
sub-culture, culture" (8).
"Development is defined as the person’s evolving conception of the
ecological environment, and his relation to it, as well as the person’s
growing capacity to discover, sustain, or alter its properties" (9).
"In sum, this volume represents an attempt at theoretical integration.
It seeks to provide a unified but highly differentiated conceptual scheme for
describing and interrelating structures and processes in both the immediate and
more remote environment as it shapes the course of human development throughout
the life span" (11).
"First, the development involves a change in the characteristics of the
person that is neither ephemeral nor situation-bound; it implies a
reorganization that has some continuity over both time and space" (28).