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2.5 Ecological Theory

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    Ecological Theory and Multicultural Psychology

    Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) developed the Ecological Systems Theorywhich provides a framework for understanding and studying the many influences on human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Bronfenbrenner recognized that human interaction is influenced by larger social forces and that an understanding of these forces is essential for understanding an individual. This theory provides a holistic understanding of human development by considering multiple levels of influence, from the immediate family and peer groups to broader societal and cultural contexts. The individual is impacted by several systems.

    Each system is listed below with examples of how it has been applied in social science research including multicultural psychology.

    Microsystem includes the individual’s setting and those who have direct, significant contact with the person, such as parents or siblings. The input of those is modified by the cognitive and biological state of the individual as well. These influence the person’s actions, which in turn influence systems operating on him or her.

    In the context of multicultural psychology researchers can examine how the family or peer group influences cultural identity development.

    • How the interactions between various microsystems, such as family and school, affect the acculturation and cultural adaptation of immigrant children (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001).
    • How family dynamics, traditions, and communication styles impact the cultural identity of immigrant children in the context of their immediate family (Phinney & Ong, 2007).
    • How cultural values, norms, and practices within these microsystems impact an individual's cultural identity and psychological well-being (Sue & Sue, 2016). 

    Mesosystem includes the larger organizational structures, such as school, the family, or religion. These institutions impact the microsystems just described. The philosophy of the school system, daily routine, assessment methods, and other characteristics can affect the child’s self-image, growth, sense of accomplishment, and schedule thereby impacting the child, physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

    In the context of multicultural psychology researchers can examine the interactions between different microsystems and how they affect cultural adaptation.

    • How school environments interact with family environments to shape the acculturation experiences of adolescents from diverse cultural backgrounds (Fuligni, 2001).
    • How an individual's cultural experiences at home and at school interact and influence their cultural adaptation and acculturation (Berry, 2005).

    Exosystem includes the larger contexts of community. A community’s values, history, and economy can impact the organizational structures it houses. Mesosystems both influence and are influenced by the exosystem. Examples include a parent's workplace or community institutions. Changes or events in the exosystem can have cascading effects on the individual.

    In the context of multicultural psychology researchers can analyze the role of policies and institutions in the multicultural context:

    • The role of discriminatory policies and practices within the broader community or society in shaping the mental health disparities experienced by marginalized cultural groups (Williams, Neighbors, & Jackson, 2003).
    • How societal structures and policies affect the experiences and mental health of multicultural individuals (Williams & Mohammed, 2009).
    • The effects of immigration policies or educational policies on the well-being and mental health of immigrant populations (Garcia-Coll & Marks, 2011).

    Macrosystem includes the broader cultural, societal, and historical context in which an individual lives. It includes cultural values, beliefs, norms, and larger social forces like politics, economics, and historical events. The macrosystem can shape the values and expectations of individuals within a particular culture or society.

    In the context of multicultural psychology researchers can explore the broader cultural context and its impact on multicultural individuals.

    • How cultural values, traditions, and historical events impact the cultural identity and mental health of individuals from diverse backgrounds (Triandis, 1995).
    • How cultural norms and societal attitudes toward diversity influence the experiences of individuals from different cultural backgrounds (Hofstede, 2001).
    • The impact of cultural values and norms on the identity development and psychological well-being of individuals from different cultural backgrounds (Kim, 2007).

    Chronosystem is the historical context in which these experiences occur.  It recognizes that human development is not static but evolves over time. It takes into account life transitions, historical events, and individual experiences that occur at different points in a person's life and can have a lasting impact.

    In the context of multicultural psychology researchers can study:

    • How historical events, such as immigration waves or conflicts, shape the experiences and psychological outcomes of multicultural individuals across generations (Portes & Zhou, 1993).
    • The effects of historical events, immigration patterns, and generational differences on cultural identity and mental health outcomes (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001).
    • Generational differences in cultural identity and adaptation among immigrant families to understand how cultural experiences evolve across generations (Portes & Fernandez-Kelly, 2008).

    In sum, a child’s (or individual's) experiences are shaped by larger forces such as the family, schools, religion, culture, and time period. Bronfenbrenner’s model helps us understand all of the different environments that impact each one of us simultaneously. 

    Ecological Systems Theory emphasizes the dynamic and bidirectional nature of interactions between individuals and their environments. It suggests that human development cannot be understood in isolation but must be examined in the context of these multiple interacting systems.

    By utilizing Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory, researchers in multicultural psychology can gain a comprehensive understanding of the complex interplay between individual and contextual factors in multicultural settings. This framework allows for the exploration of cultural identity, acculturation, discrimination, and mental health outcomes within a holistic ecological perspective.

    model of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory.


    Think about it

    Consider the development of gender identity (your internal sense of your gender.) How is an individual's gender identity influenced in each of the different systems?  Do you think one system has more influence than another? Why? 

    If you were a psychological researcher who wanted to learn more about gender identity, what level of the system would you target your research?  Why?

    Additional ways the theory can be applied in Multicultural Psychology

    Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory can be applied to the study of multicultural psychology through critical application of each system (as summarized above) as well as in concert with other theories:

    1. Cultural Ecology:

      • Applying an ecocultural framework to understand how cultural practices, beliefs, and the physical environment jointly influence mental health outcomes in culturally diverse populations (Weisner, 2002).
    2. Intersectionality:

      • Incorporating intersectionality theory within the ecological framework to examine how multiple dimensions of identity (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) interact within various ecological systems to influence individuals' experiences and mental health (Crenshaw, 1991).
    3. Community and Neighborhood Context:

      • Focusing on the neighborhood or community as an important ecological level and examining how the cultural composition of a community and its resources impact the well-being of multicultural residents (Kawachi & Berkman, 2003).

    These examples demonstrate the versatility of ecological theory in understanding multicultural psychology, as it allows researchers to explore the intricate relationships between individuals and their cultural contexts at various levels, offering a comprehensive perspective on the experiences of multicultural individuals.


    How APA uses the theory today

    The APA (2017) Multicultural Guidelines: An Ecological Approach to Context, Identity, and Intersectionality, uses Ecological theory to center their conceptual framework.  The document is intended to serve as a guide for all members on how psychological practice (consultation, education, research, etc.) has an interaction with and influence at each level, namely drawing attention to the need to consider the historic trends, cultural norms, and interpersonal transactions that shape an individual's lived experience. 

    Contributions and Attributions

     Lifespan Development (Lally and Valentine-French) contributed to Brofenbrenner's Theory (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)


    American Psychological Association. (2017). Multicultural guidelines: An Ecological approach to context, identity, and intersectionality. Retrieved from 

    American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2012). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century. Retrieved from 

    Berry, J. W. (2005). Acculturation: Living successfully in two cultures. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29(6), 697-712.

    Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

    Fuligni, A. J. (2001, Winter). Family obligation and the achievement motivation of adolescents from Asian, Latin American, and European backgrounds. New Directions in Child and Adolescent Development, 94, 61-76.

    García Coll, C. & Marks, A. (Eds). (2011). The immigrant paradox in children and adolescents: Is becoming American a developmental risk? Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. F. (2003). Neighborhoods and Health. Oxford University Press.

    Kim, Y. Y. (2007). Communication and cross-cultural adaptation: An integrative theory. Routledge.

    Phinney, J. S. (1990). Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: Review of research. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 499-514.

    Portes, A., & Fernandez-Kelly, P. (2008). No margin for error: Educational and occupational achievement among the children of immigrants. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 620(1), 12-36.

    Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001). Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. University of California Press.

    Portes, A., & Zhou, M. (1993). The new second generation: Segmented assimilation and its variants. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 530(1), 74-96.

    Suárez-Orozco, C., & Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (2001). Children of immigration. Harvard University Press

    Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2016). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice. Wiley.

    Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Westview Press.

    Weisner, T. S. (2002). Ecocultural understanding of children's developmental pathways. Human Development, 45(4), 275-281.

    Williams, D. R., & Mohammed, S. A. (2009). Discrimination and racial disparities in health: Evidence and needed research. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 32(1), 20-47.

    Williams, D. R., Neighbors, H. W., & Jackson, J. S. (2003). Racial/ethnic discrimination and health: Findings from community studies. American Journal of Public Health, 93(2), 200-208.

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