Bioecological Theory Of Human Development Research Paper

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The bioecological model, together with its corresponding research designs, is an evolving theoretical system for the scientific study of human development over time. Within the bioecological theory, development is defined as ‘the phenomenon of continuity and change in the biopsychological characteristics of human beings, both as individuals and as groups. The phenomenon extends over the life course, across successive generations, and through historical time, both past and future.’ The term ‘future’ raises a question: How is it possible to investigate scientifically phenomena that have not yet taken place? The question, of course, is hardly new; indeed it pervades every field of scientific endeavor. However, we are the only species that has, over historical time, developed the capacity to engage successfully in scientific inquiry, and thereby, in many respects, has been able to change the nature of the world in which we live. As a result, within certain limits, we humans have altered the nature and course of our own development as a species (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998).

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To place the bioecological theory of human development into a larger context, it is important to recognize that many of the general perspectives advanced and elaborated in this theory, are also parts of other related lines of theoretical and empirical inquiry into human development. Examples are lifespan psychology (Baltes et al. 1999), cultural psychology (Cole 1995), Magnusson’s developmental theory of contextual-interactive holism (Magnusson and Stattin 1998), and, especially, the work of Robert Cairns, who through communications and publications extending over three decades, has played a major role in the evolution of the four defining properties of bioecological model: process-person-context-time. Cairns is of course best known as the founder and principal protagonist of developmental science. Examples of his books and articles that have been most relevant to the evolution of the ecological model are cited in the Bibliography: (Bergman et al. 2000, Cairns 1970, Cairns and Cairns 1994). The specific profile of the theory of Bronfenbrenner and his colleagues is its comprehensive interdisciplinary and integrative focus on the age periods of childhood and adolescence and its explicit interest in applications to policies and programs pertinent to enhancing youth and family development.

1. Defining Properties Of The Bioecological Model

The term ‘evolving’ highlights the fact that the model, along with its corresponding research designs, has itself undergone a process of development over its own ‘life course.’ Another defining property of the bioecological model specifies that it deals with two closely related but nevertheless fundamentally different developmental processes, each taking place over time. The first defines the phenomenon under investigation: namely, that of continuity and change in the bio- psychological characteristics of human beings. The second focuses on the development of the scientific tools—the theoretical models and corresponding research designs required for assessing the continuity and change.

These two tasks cannot be carried out independently, for they are the joint product of emerging and converging ideas, based on both theoretical and empirical grounds—a process called ‘developmental science in the discovery mode’ (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, pp. 999–1000). In the more familiar ‘verification mode’ the aim is to replicate previous findings in other settings to make sure that the findings still apply. By contrast, in the discovery mode, the aim is to fulfill two broader but interrelated objectives:

(a) Devising new alternative hypotheses and corresponding research designs that not only call existing results into question, but also stand a chance of yielding new, more differentiated, more precise, replicable research findings and, thereby, producing more valid scientific knowledge.

(b) Providing scientific bases for the design of effective social policies and programs that can counteract newly emerging developmentally disruptive influences. This has been an explicit objective of the bioecological model from its earliest beginnings.

A major challenge to today’s bioecological model is to discover how such new working hypotheses and corresponding research designs can be developed for the future. One answer lies in the possibility that, despite historical change, some elements of the model, and their inter-relationships, may remain constant across both time and space. From this perspective, today’s model has several distinctive defining properties that become the foundation for the rest. Some are of relatively recent origin; others date back to the model’s earliest formal beginnings (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998, for reviews). Each is expressed here in the form of a Proposition.

1.1 Proposition I

An early critical element in the definition of the ecological model is experience. The term is used to indicate that the scientifically relevant features of any environment for human development include not only its objective properties but also the way in which these properties are subjectively experienced by the persons living in that environment. This equal emphasis on an ‘experiential’ as well as an ‘objective’ view springs neither from any antipathy to behaviorist concepts, nor from a predilection for existential philosophical foundations. It is dictated simply by a hard fact. Very few of the external influences significantly affecting human behavior and development can be described solely in terms of objective physical conditions and events (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998).

A critical term in the foregoing formulation is the word ‘solely.’ In the bioecological model, both objective and subjective elements are posited as driving the course of human development; neither alone is presumed sufficient. Moreover, these elements do not always operate in the same direction. It is therefore important to understand the nature of each of these two dynamic forces, beginning on the phenomenological or experiential side. Both of the underlined terms are relevant because, while related to each other, they are typically applied to somewhat different spheres. The former is more often used in relation to cognitive development and pertains mainly to changes in how the environment is perceived at successive stages of the life course, beginning in early infancy and proceeding through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and, ultimately, old age.

By contrast, ‘experience’ pertains more to the realm of feelings; for example, anticipations, forebodings, hopes, doubts, or personal beliefs. These too, emerge in early childhood, continue through life, and are characterized by both stability and change. They can relate to self or to others, and especially to family, friends, and other close associates. They can also apply to the activities in which one engages; for example, those that one most or least likes to do. But the most distinctive feature of such experiential qualities is that they are ‘emotionally and motivationally-loaded’, encompassing both love and hate, joy and sorrow, curiosity and boredom, desire and revulsion, often with both polarities existing at the same time but usually in differing degrees. A significant body of research evidence indicates that such positive and negative subjective forces, evolving in the past, can also contribute in powerful ways to shaping the course of development in the future (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998).

But these are not the only powerful forces at work. There are others that are more objective in nature. This does not mean, however, that they are necessarily either more or less influential, mainly because the two sets of forces are interdependent and affect each other. Like their subjective counterparts, these more objective factors also rely for their assessment on corresponding theoretical models and associated research designs that have evolved over time. These more objective relationships are documented below in the form of two propositions (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998). The first specifies the theoretical model, and provides concrete examples; the second foreshadows the corresponding research designs for their assessment.

1.2 Proposition II

Over the life course, human development takes place through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interaction between an active, evolving biopsychological human organism and the persons, objects, and symbols in its immediate external environment. To be effective, the interaction must occur on a fairly regular basis over extended periods of time. Such enduring forms of interaction in the immediate environment are referred to as proximal processes. Examples of such processes include feeding or comforting a baby; playing with a young child; child-child activities; group or solitary play; reading, learning new skills; athletic activities; problem solving; caring for others; making plans; performing complex tasks; and acquiring new knowledge and know-how.

For the younger generation, participation in such interactive processes over time generates the ability, motivation, knowledge, and skill to engage in such activities both with others and on one’s own. For example, through progressively more complex interaction with their parents, children increasingly become agents of their own development, to be sure only in part.

In sum, proximal processes are posited as the primary engines of development. The next defining property speaks to the corresponding research designs.

1.3 Proposition III

The form, power, content, and direction of the proximal processes producing development vary systematically as a joint function of the characteristics of the developing person (including genetic inheritance); the environment—both immediate and more remote—in which the processes are taking place; the nature of the developmental outcomes under consideration; and the continuities and changes occurring in the environment over time, through the life course, and during the historical period in which the person has lived.

Propositions II and III are theoretically interdependent and subject to empirical test. An operational research design that permits their simultaneous investigation is referred to as a Process-Person-ContextTime model (PPCT).

In the corresponding research designs for the bioecological model, the element of time has special importance. To show that development has actually occurred, the research design must demonstrate, or at least make plausible, that the elements in the design, and their dynamic relationships to each other, have influenced the ‘biopsychological characteristics of the developing person over an extended period of time.’

For example, a rich data archive generously made available by Small and Luster (1990) from their statewide studies of youth at risk in Wisconsin has made possible some reanalyses of working hypotheses derived from the newly-emerging formulations.

Figure 1 depicts the results from a reanalysis of the effects of parental monitoring on the academic achievement of high school students living in one of the three most common family structures found in the total sample of over 2500 cases. The students were between 14 and 16 years of age. The participants were also differentiated by gender, and stratified by two levels of mother’s education, with completion of high school as the dividing line. The figure shows the results only for the high school graduates.

Bioecological Theory Of Human Development Research Paper

Parental monitoring was defined as ‘the effort by parents to keep informed about and set limits on their children’s activities outside the home.’ Levels of parental monitoring, ranging from 0 to 12, are shown on the horizontal axis, and grade point average (GPA) appears on the vertical scale. The markers to the right of each curve record the average GPA for each of the six groups.

The data were fitted to a curve with a declining slope, rather than simply with a straight line, based on the following considerations derived from the bioecological model: Higher levels of academic performance require mastery of progressively more complex tasks, and hence are more difficult to achieve. As can be seen in Fig. 1, the relation between parental monitoring and school grades does indeed show a declining curvilinear trend. This effect, however, is far stronger for girls than for boys, particularly in the most advantaged ecological niche—families with two biological parents in which the mother had some education beyond high school.

Both of these results are consistent with two working hypotheses derived from the bioecological model. The first stipulates that proximal processes (in this instance, parental monitoring) are likely to have greater impact in two-parent families than in those in which the mother is a single-parent or the father is a stepparent. The second hypothesis posits a stronger and longer-lasting influence of the family on the development of females than of males.

In addition, a distinctive feature of the pattern for girls is a marked flattening of the curve at higher levels of monitoring, and, in the case of daughters of singleparent mothers, even becomes a turnaround. This finding suggests that under such circumstances, the demands on the girls may become so great that the existing proximal processes are not equal to the task, and as a result, bring fewer educational returns. Finally, an analysis (not shown) of data on students whose mothers had no more than a high-school education revealed a similar pattern, but the constructive influence of monitoring was appreciably weaker, and its greater benefit to girls was reduced. Nevertheless, daughters of mothers with less than a high-school education both in single parent and in stepfather families still had higher GPA scores than did sons. Moreover, within each level of mothers’ education statistically significant differences by family structure were found in school achievement, with students growing up in two-parent families receiving the highest grades and those from single-parent families the lowest.

To turn to a related issue: although proximal processes function as the engines of development, the energy that drives them comes from deeper sources that take us back to the experiential world of Proposition I (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, Bronfenbrenner et al. 1996, Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998). Both the subjective and the objective forces exert an especially strong influence on development during the formative years (from early infancy to young adulthood). A substantial body of research over the past century indicates that, two or three decades ago, these forces lay mainly within the family, with parents acting as the principal caregivers and sources of emotional support for their children, and with other adult family members living in the home being next in line. To a lesser extent, other relatives, family friends, and neighbors also functioned in this role.

However, there has been a marked change in this pattern over the past three decades. Parents, and other adult family members as well, have been spending increasing amounts of time commuting to and working at full-time jobs (in which overtime is increasingly often required or expected).

The nature of this trend and its relevance for human development are conveyed in the Propositions that follow. (For brevity’s sake, the term ‘child’ is used below to encompass the entire period from infancy through young adulthood.)

1.4 Proposition IV

In order to develop—intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally—a child requires, for all of these, the same thing: participation in progressively more complex activities, on a regular basis over an extended period of time in the child’s life, with one or more persons with whom the child develops a strong, mutual emotional attachment, and who are committed to the child’s well-being and development, preferably for life (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998). The prerequisites stipulated in Proposition IV then lead to the developmental consequences described in the next Proposition.

1.5 Proposition V

The establishment of a strong mutual emotional attachment leads to internalization of the parent’s activities and expressed feelings of affection. Such mutual ties, in turn, motivate the child’s interest and engagement in related activities in the immediate physical, social, and—in due course—symbolic environment that invite exploration, manipulation, elaboration, and imagination. The next Proposition broadens the family circle.

1.6 Proposition VI

The establishment and maintenance of patterns of progressively more complex interaction and emotional attachment between parent and child depend to a substantial degree, on the availability and involvement of another adult, a third party, who assists, encourages, spells off, gives status to, and expresses admiration and affection for the person caring for and engaging in joint activity with the child. It also helps, but is not absolutely essential, that the third party be of the opposite sex from that of the other person caring for the child, because this is likely to expose and involve the child in a greater variety of developmentally-instigative activities and experiences (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1996). Where this is an attachment to two or more parent figures, each can serve as a third party to the other.

The research evidence for this Proposition came mainly by default. It was produced by demographic data documenting a rapid rise in the proportion of single-parent households. The trend began in the 1980s, and then continued at an even faster rate through most of the 1990s. The overwhelming majority of such homes were those in which the father was absent and the mother bore primary responsibility for the upbringing of the children.

A large number of investigations of developmental processes and outcomes in families of this kind have since been conducted across a range of cultural and social class groups. In general, the findings lead to two complementary conclusions:

(a) Even in families living in favorable socioeconomic circumstances, children of single-parent mothers, or of fathers, for whom no other person is acting reliably in a ‘third party’ role are at greater risk for experiencing one or more of the following developmental problems such as: hyperactivity or withdrawal; lack of attentiveness; difficulty in deferring gratification; poor academic achievement; school misbehavior; and frequent absenteeism.

(b) At a more serious level, there is the so-called ‘teenage syndrome’ of behaviors that tend to be associated together: dropping out of school; involvement in socially-alienated or destructive peer groups; smoking, drinking, frequent sexual experience, adolescent pregnancy, a cynical attitude toward work, and—in the more extreme cases—drugs, suicide, vandalism, violence, and criminal acts. Most of these effects are more pronounced for boys than for girls (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1996).

Not all single-parent families, however, exhibited these disturbed relationships and their disruptive effects on children’s development. Systematic studies of the exceptions have identified what may be de-scribed as a general ‘immunizing’ factor. For example, children of single parents were less likely to experience developmental problems especially in families in which the mother (or father) received strong support from other adults living in the home. Also helpful were nearby relatives, friends, neighbors, members of religious groups, and, when available, staff members of family support and child care programs. What mattered most was not only the attention given to the child—important as this was—but also the assistance provided to the single parent or by others serving in the supportive roles cited in Proposition VI. It would seem that, in the family dance, ‘it takes three to tango.’

But dancing is not the whole story. By the 1980s, theory and research in the ecology of human development had documented an accelerating trend toward greater permissiveness in styles of child rearing in American families. At the same time, successive scientific investigations had revealed progressively greater developmental advantage for strategies that placed increased emphasis on parental discipline and demand. The interpretation that emerged from analyses of the available data suggested that widespread application of these research findings would serve as an effective response to the developmentally disruptive changes taking place in contemporary society.

At this point, it is important to mention two other bodies of research that contributed significantly to the development of bioecological theory and its corresponding research designs. The first is now of long standing. In 1974 the sociologist Glen H. Elder, Jr., in his classic volume Children of the Great Depression (1974, 1999), extended the concept of development beyond the formative years to encompass the entire life course.

The second addition has yet to be fully exploited. Bronfenbrenner and Ceci (1994), taking the bio- ecological model as their point of departure, suggested an empirically testable alternative for the established scientific paradigm used in behavior genetics. The proposed alternative model: (a) allows for nonadditive synergistic effects; (b) employs direct measures of the environment; and (c) proposes proximal processes as mechanisms of person–environment interaction through which genotypes for developmental competence are transformed into phenotypes. The model predicts that: (a) estimates of heritability (h ) for developmental competence increase markedly with the magnitude of proximal processes; (b) heritability measures the proportion of variation in individual differences that are attributable only to ‘actualized’ genetic potential, with the degree of ‘unactualized’ potential re maining unknown; (c) actualized genetic potential (h ) will vary with the quality of the environment, and will increase as that quality is improved (for example, through providing job opportunities, health services, and intervention programs in lowincome neighborhoods).

The authors also suggested that high levels of such patterns of parental behavior as ‘neglect, abuse, or domination’ could serve as powerful mechanisms for actualizing genetic potentials for developmentally maladaptive behaviors that both disrupt proximal processes and produce developmental disarray.

1.6.1 The Bioecological Model In The Discovery Mode: Future Perspectives. This section is based on Propositions and working hypotheses derived from the bioecological model for which, as yet, there are few empirical data. The section begins with future prospects for addressing the second stated goal of the bioecological model: that of ‘providing needed scientific bases for the design of effective social policies and programs that can counteract newly-emerging developmentally-disruptive influences.’

In accord with the latter objective, the section begins with an unorthodox proposal. By and large, thus far, theory and research on human development have been concerned with the influence of the older generation on the development of the younger. In the Proposition that follows, the direction is reversed. (It should be noted that the basic idea underlying this Proposition is not new, and is foreshadowed both in the theory of Vygotsky (1978), and in the contemporary ‘action’ theory of Brandtstadter (1998, 1999).)

1.7 Proposition VII

The psychological development of parents is powerfully influenced by the behavior and development of their children. This phenomenon occurs through the life course; is more evident during the formative years when most children are living at home in the care of their parents; and often becomes especially pronounced during adolescence, when the young begin to strive for independence both as individuals and as members of peer-groups. Such behavior is particularly likely to occur amongst those adolescents or youth who have comparatively little contact with their parents or other caring adults earlier in life. Although many studies have focused on the development of such alienated young people, the impact of the latter’s behavior on the subsequent development of their parents has yet to receive the systematic investigation hat it deserves. The converse of the foregoing Proposition—the influence of the successful transition of children through adolescence and young adulthood on the constructive development of their parents—has regrettably received even less scientific attention.

1.8 Proposition VIII

Over the life course, the process of attachment exhibits a turnaround. In the beginning, it is the children who are the beneficiaries of the parents’ irrational commitment, whereas toward the end the roles are reversed. Then it is the elderly parents who receive the love and care of their now middle-aged children. If, however, there was no attachment at the beginning, there may be no attachment at the end.

In this regard, developmental science has yet to address a curious omission both with respect to theory and research design. Resort to search engines in psychology and related fields has thus far failed to identify any investigations of the influence of parentchild attachment on the future development of the parent in contrast to that of the child.

This is not quite the case, however, for the next proposition in the discovery mode. The theoretical model, the corresponding research design, as well as half of the necessary empirical data are already available. The only problem is to find or conduct a study that meets the requirements of this model.

1.9 Proposition IX

If an investigation conducted in the past meets the requirements of the bioecological model, including assessment of developmental outcomes ‘over an extended period of time,’ then replication of the study at a later point in time would reveal whether the processes under investigation were still valid or had been nullified or superseded by subsequent historical changes. When the latter occurs, the investigator is confronted with the challenge of proposing alternative working formulations for explaining the observed phenomena.

At the conclusion of this research paper, we move from the domain of theory and research design to the world of reality and action. In the bioecological model, these two worlds have never been far apart. Especially from 1970 to 2000, these two worlds have become ever closer to each other. At a more general level, the findings from both domains reveal what has been referred to as ‘growing chaos’ in the lives of children, youth, families, schools, the world of work, and the ever-greater commuting in between (Bronfenbrenner and Evans 2000, p. 1022). The most recent report of this phenomenon appears in an article by Bronfenbrenner and Evans (2000). It contains the following summary about the nature of ‘chaos’ and its developmental consequences.

‘Chaos integrates the various elements involved, and foreshadows the role [of chaos] in the bioecological model in terms of what is called ‘chaotic systems.’ Such systems are characterized by frenetic activity, lack of structure, unpredictability in everyday activities, and high levels of ambient stimulation. Background stimulation is high, and there is a general lack of routinization and structure in daily life. The environment is also a major source of interruption of proximal processes in the form of residential noise, crowding, and classroom design’ (p. 121).

At the turn of the century, we are left with a troubling question: From the perspective of the bioecological model, what is the prospect for the future development of our species? The answer to that question lies with the willingness of the USA and other economically developed countries to heed the emerging lessons of developmental science. At the moment, it is difficult to know what the answer will be. The future could go either way.

Given this alternative, then surely it becomes the responsibility of developmental science to communicate such knowledge as we possess, and to do so in words that can still find an echo. Here is a first draft.

In the USA it is now possible for a youth, female as well as male, to graduate from high school, or university, without ever caring for a baby; without ever looking after someone who was ill, old, or lonely; or without comforting or assisting another human being who really needed help. The developmental consequences of such a deprivation of human experience have not as yet been scientifically researched. But the possible social implications are obvious, for—sooner or later, and usually sooner—all of us suffer illness, loneliness, and the need for help, comfort, and companionship. 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.


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