Community Environmental Psychology Research Paper

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Research in community and environmental psychology emphasizes the powerful role of the everyday social settings where individuals live, work, and learn in shaping human development and behavior. This body of research also emphasizes the dynamic nature of the inter-relationship between individuals and social contexts. Social settings can be described in terms of three underlying sets of social climate dimensions: relationship dimensions, personal growth or goal-oriented dimensions, and system maintenance and change dimensions. Research findings on social set-tings may be organized according to four social ecological principles: environmental press, setting interdependencies, matching models, and a transactional view.

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1. Historical Development

Psychological research on social settings has been guided by a social ecological perspective. The social ecological perspective emphasizes the powerful role of social context in shaping behavior and the dynamic nature of the inter-relationship between individuals and social contexts. The historical roots of research on social settings trace to Kurt Lewin’s field theory (Cartwright 1951) developed during the 1930s and 1940s. Lewin argued that behavior is determined by the concrete situation that exists at the time the behavior occurs. During the 1950s, Barker’s (1968) Ecological psychology presented a conceptual and observational framework for research on social set-tings. In contrast to psychology’s traditional emphasis on person-based variables, Barker showed how the temporal and spatial characteristics of the everyday settings where individuals live, work, and learn mold participants’ behavior.

Since the 1960s, both community and environ-mental psychology have pursued research on con-textual determinants of behavior (Walsh et al. 1992). Community psychology focuses on the influence of the social environment, whereas environmental psychology focuses on the influence of the physical environment. The overlap of community and environ-mental psychology involves the study of social processes in physical settings—the psychology of social settings like the home, the workplace, and the school. Bronfenbrenner’s (1989) ecological approach to human development has added a fuller understanding of how the characteristics of one type of setting, such as the family, are altered by other factors in participants’ lives, such as occupational and educational settings.

Moos (1994) has developed integrated assessment procedures to measure the social climates of family, work, educational, and other social settings. Moos described social settings in terms of three under-lying sets of social climate dimensions: relation-ship dimensions, personal growth or goal-oriented dimensions, and system maintenance and change dimensions (Table 1). Relationship dimensions assess the quality of personal relationships in a setting; that is, how involved people are, how much they help one another, and how openly they express their feelings. Personal growth or goal orientation dimensions tap the directions in which an environment encourages personal change and development. System maintenance and change dimensions measure how orderly and/organized a setting is, how clear it is in its expectations, how much control it maintains, and how responsive it is to change.

Community Environmental Psychology Research Paper

Research findings on social settings may be organized according to four social ecological principles: environmental press, setting interdependencies, matching models, and a transactional view. Environ-mental press and setting interdependencies describe how social settings affect behavior. Matching models and a transactional view describe the dynamic interplay between individuals and social settings.

2. The Psychology Of Social Settings

2.1 Environmental ‘Press’

Traditional approaches to the prediction of behavior rely predominantly on demographic and person-centered variables. Yet, individuals are profoundly affected by the ‘press’ of the social settings in which they are embedded. For example, high family support, independence, social integration, and/organization are associated with better psychological adjustment and more self-reliant and active coping. Family support may have especially protective psychological effects when family members face life crises and transitions (Pierce et al. 1996).

Child and adolescent development is fostered in families that encourage independence and provide modeling for instrumental and social skills, whereas it can be impeded in families that emphasize achievement in the context of conflict and accommodation to restrictive rules. For example, youth in more cohesive, expressive, well-organized, and socially oriented families are more likely to have higher self-confidence and social competence. Youth in families that value independence and achievement tend to be assertive and self-sufficient, whereas those in supportive and well-organized families tend to have a more even temperament. In contrast, a strong emphasis on achievement in the context of high family structure and a lack of cohesion is associated with depressed mood. Family conflict tends to engender behavior problems and impulsivity.

Four aspects of the work climate have been associated with employee distress and lack of mental and physical well-being: high job demands, insufficient opportunity to participate in decision-making, high supervisor control, and lack of clarity about the job and criteria for adequate performance (Karasek and Theorell 1990). In general, occupational distress is most likely when job demands are high and employees have little discretion in deciding how to meet them. When individuals are allowed to make decisions about their job, high work demands can be stimulating and can foster active problem solving and innovation.

The quality of interpersonal relationships at work can moderate these associations. Supportive relationships with co-workers and supervisors strengthen the salutary effects of autonomy and task orientation and moderate the adverse effects of highly demanding and constrained work settings. In general, co-worker cohesion and supervisor support promote better job attitudes and morale as well as higher work motivation and commitment. However, cohesion without task focus diminishes satisfaction and productivity, where-as the combination of high support and moderate structure promotes these outcomes.

Similarly, the most effective schools are supportive as well as task-oriented (Fraser and Walberg 1991). Educational settings need to emphasize student performance, but not at the expense of engagement and support. Supportive relationships with teachers and classmates and an emphasis on student participation in well-organized classrooms foster student morale, motivation to learn, and academic self-confidence. Students in task-oriented classes that set clear academic goals in the context of supportive relationships are especially likely to do well on standard achievement tests.

Learning environments characterized by competition and control with low support often lead to student anxiety and higher absence rates. Although significant achievement gains can occur in classes that emphasize task performance and competition and are lower in warmth, such classes are less successful in fostering student creativity and continuing motivation to learn. Students in flexible classes that encourage more individual initiative are more willing to work independently and have lower absenteeism.

2.2 Setting Interdependencies

The boundaries between social settings are permeable; the social settings where individuals live, work, and learn are inextricably related to one another (Parke and Kellam 1994). Sometimes the influence of one social setting can amplify that of another setting. For example, youngsters do better in classrooms with rules guiding interpersonal interaction that are similar to those they experience in their families (Booth and Dunn 1996). Youngsters from cohesive families obtain better grades in cohesive classes; those from structured families do better in structured classes; and those from laissez-faire families obtain better grades in laissez-faire classes. Similarly, stimulating home environments that are oriented toward learning independently help to predict more positive attitudes toward school and better academic achievement. Students in family and educational settings both of which are characterized by high support and structure tend to have the most positive academic self-concepts.

Likewise, the influence of the workplace is an important aspect in understanding family functioning in a broader social context (Eckenrode and Gore 1990). One pattern of work–family interaction involves positive carryover; personal gratification and positive experiences at work can enrich family life. Family members of individuals who enjoy their work tend to experience their families as more involving and supportive. Moreover, because parental work environments can influence the family climate, they may indirectly affect child functioning through their impact on family life. For example, fathers’ positive work relationships have been associated with better family relationships and, in turn, fewer child adjustment problems.

At other times the influence of one setting can counteract that of another setting. Thus, family and school effects can be oppositional when there is discontinuity between the home and the school. For example, the academic underachievement and high dropout rate of children from families of low socio-economic status may be due in part to a discontinuity between their home and school environments. Parents who are less educated are less likely to mirror teaching and learning processes that are similar to those that occur in school, such as praising and interacting with their child around mastering new knowledge.

Similarly, the work–family interface often involves negative carryover from the workplace to family life. Highly demanding, conflict-laden job situations often elicit a pattern of tense family interaction. For ex-ample, fathers’ work stressors are related to fathers’ depression and, in turn, to more family conflict and children’s adjustment and physical health problems. Stressors in the workplace are especially likely to generate family distress among individuals who have more family-related demands. Thus, the association between work expectations, such as taking on extra duties and finishing job tasks by doing overtime, and perceived overload tends to be progressively stronger among single employees, those who are married, and those who have children.

3. Person–Setting Interaction

3.1 Matching Models

Considerable evidence documents the powerful connections between features of social settings and individuals’ well-being, performance, and personal development. However, part of the influence of social settings depends on the personal characteristics of the individuals who experience them. Thus, according to person–setting matching models, adaptation is viewed in terms of the match or congruence between the environmental demands of a particular setting and an individuals’ unique pattern of personal vulnerabilities and strengths.

For example, individuals with few personal vulnerabilities generally adapt well except in settings with unusually high demands (Fig. 1). Conversely, those with many personal vulnerabilities typically adapt poorly except in settings with exceptionally low demands. Individuals with an inter-mediate level of personal vulnerabilities tend to adapt poorly in settings that tax areas of vulnerability, but adapt well in settings that emphasize areas of strength. For example, moderate emphasis on system maintenance factors helps to promote ego control among individuals who need a well-structured setting. How-ever, a strong emphasis on system maintenance factors, especially among developmentally mature and internally oriented persons, restricts individual growth and can foster passivity. Similarly, expressive relation-ships typically promote morale. However, highly independent or introverted persons who prefer fewer social bonds can feel hemmed in or overstimulated by interaction-oriented settings.

Community Environmental Psychology Research Paper

When individuals invest themselves in a setting, they are likely to be especially vulnerable to disruptions in that setting. For example, environmental demands that match an individuals’ vulnerabilities in a highly salient setting are associated with more adverse health risks. Involvement in more settings leads to the development of a more complex self-system and provides protection against pressures and disappointments in any one setting.

More generally, social settings tend to maintain or accentuate individual preferences and attitudes that are congruent with dominant setting characteristics. The more intensive, committed, and socially integrated a setting is, the greater is its potential impact. Thus, when person–setting mismatch occurs, homogeneous settings exert the strongest pressure on incongruent individuals to change in the direction of the majority. A heterogeneous setting in contrast has more diverse influences and provides participants with a wider choice of options.

3.2 A Transactional View

Thus far, we have described a passive process by which people find themselves in settings that mold their behavior. However, people are both influenced by and in turn influence social settings. Individuals select and build environmental niches that maintain and accentuate their dominant personal dispositions. Thus, the psychology of social settings adopts a transactional view that emphasizes the reciprocal, two-way inter-action between the person and the environment (Stokols and Shumaker 1981).

In part, individuals create microenvironments that then ‘reciprocate’ by fostering personally preferred attitudes and behaviors. For example, people avoid some settings and, on the basis of their needs and dispositions, choose to participate in others. In turn, these chosen settings are likely to influence people to change in desired ways. Further, individuals’ mood and behavior may alter the settings they function in, such as when a depressed individual’s hopelessness and lack of enthusiasm leads to a reduction of support from family members and co-workers.

The Conceptual Level (CL) matching model integrates a transactional view with a person–setting matching model. According to the CL model, more mature individuals are better able to organize their environment. Those who are less mature need the stabilizing influence of a well-structured setting. In general, people who want to explore and shape their environment and who exhibit a strong need for independence profit more from less structured environments. For example, internally oriented individuals do better in more flexible environments, whereas externally oriented individuals tend to adjust better in well-structured settings.

Human–environment optimization describes the overall process whereby individuals and groups strive to achieve optimal environments that maximally fulfill their goals and needs. For example, organizational consultants and program evaluators use change-oriented interventions to institute organizational development programs in work and educational settings and clinicians apply such interventions to promote healthy family settings. More generally, through a long-term process of group and community participation and collaborative decision making, each individual can help to shape social values and the ensuing evolution of new settings.

4. Current Directions

Interest in the psychology of social settings has experienced a resurgence in contemporary research on psychological stress (Goldberger and Breznitz 1993). The social ecological principles that have guided the study of social settings are central to contemporary models of the stress and coping process. The social settings where individuals live, work, and learn can be significant sources of distress. Stressful settings, such as demanding work environments that allow little control, explain a wide range of behavioral and health outcomes. Moreover, linkages between settings can markedly increase stress responses, such as when a pileup of work demands exacerbates chronic family strains.

At the same time, an appreciation of the dynamic nature of the inter-relationship between people and social settings provides insight into some ways individuals can reduce or avoid distress. Social settings are sources of adaptive resources, such as social support from family members and colleagues at work, that can operate as stress resistance factors when stressors occur. In addition, stress-diathesis (vulnerability) models can help to educate individuals to seek settings where their adaptive capacities best match setting requirements. Finally, transactional models of coping (Lazarus and Folkman 1984) underscore how active, problem-focused coping strategies can help individuals to manage stressors successfully and even to grow psychologically through stressful encounters.


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