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Celebrating 100 years of Urie Bronfenbrenner

In the United States, currently, about 15 million children (almost a quarter of the global child population) live in families whose income falls below the federally established poverty level. The damaging effects on children’s and families’ development were something that was a life-long concern of Urie Bronfenbrenner, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, until his death in 2005. Had he lived, he’d be turning 100 on 29 April 2017.

Among his significant accomplishments, he was one of the founders of the Head Start movement (a federal US program designed to provide quality child-care experiences to children of poor families) in the 1960s and developed what came to be known as the bioecological theory of human development. When I arrived as a doctoral student at Cornell in 1981, to study under Bronfenbrenner, his widely cited book The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (1979) had only recently been published, but I knew nothing about it. I’d been attracted to work with him because of his writing on Soviet child-rearing practices. He’d been born in Moscow, and though he left with his family for the United States, aged six, as an adult he travelled frequently to the Soviet Union to meet with child psychologists. He was convinced that some contemporary Soviet practices, if incorporated into the American way of life, would help in the process of “making human beings human.” He was unhappy with the negative perception that Americans and Russians had of the “other side” and felt that approaches such as group – rather than individual – competition and greater integration of children into the broader community would benefit American youth.

Much of his writing about children and families involved the same theme; he felt that American children and adolescents spent too much time either in front of the television or with same-age peers. This approach, he felt, would lead to increasing alienation. Instead, he drew from European ideas about child rearing, ideas that involved community and governmental support for parents, particularly single mothers and parents living in poverty. Quality child care, he believed, needed a broad supportive framework, one in which children and parents were integrated into the wider community. He therefore called for longer maternal and paternal leave policies, child-care centers to be established in workplaces, and for flexible work time for parents. His overall concern, reflected in the title of one of his articles, was that “Our system for making human beings human is breaking down.” He didn’t blame families for these problems: “Most families are doing the best they can under the circumstances; we need to try to change the circumstances and not the families.”

As Bronfenbrenner loved to point out throughout his life, it is the active engagement of individuals (children, parents, teachers, community members) in the course of activities with others, over time, that makes human beings truly human.

He was invited to testify before Congress in 1964 about the effects of poverty on children’s development, and that led to a meeting at the White House with the then President’s wife, “Lady Bird” Johnson. He was subsequently asked to discuss his ideas with a federal panel whose aim was to find a way to counteract the negative impact of poverty and put children of poor families on a more equal footing with those being raised in wealthier families. Giving poor children a “head start” was intended to give them a chance to compete more equally. Although others were involved in planning the educational and nutritional aspects of the Head Start program, it was Bronfenbrenner who encouraged the idea that this program would greatly benefit not only from government support, but from the active and engaged participation of the parents themselves, and the involvement of the entire community.

This integration of the individual and the broader context is of course one of the hallmarks of his theoretical work. For Bronfenbrenner, the practical and the theoretical were always linked. He was fond of quoting one of his intellectual forebears, Kurt Lewin, to the effect that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory”). He initially termed his theory an “ecological” theory of human development to stress the dialectical nature of person–context relations. Given contemporary notions in American psychology that strongly emphasized the role in development of individual characteristics, Bronfenbrenner’s 1979 book paid more attention to the role of context, leading to the popularization of the famous four layers of context – microsystem, mesosytem, exosystem, and macrosystem.

The theory developed greatly over the next twenty years, however. Terming it a bioecological theory was far more than a mere change of names. Context was but one of four interconnecting concepts linked in the Process–Person–Context–Time model. Of these four, it is proximal processes – typically occurring activities and interactions that become more complex over time – that are key to the model. Proximal processes are simultaneously influenced both by characteristics of the person and the context, with the latter viewed as local (e.g., home, school, or workplace) and distal (e.g., class, ethnicity, or culture).

Unfortunately, too little attention has been paid to these changes. Almost any internet site that appears when typing “Bronfenbrenner’s theory” into the search engine will reveal images of concentric rings and information about context, as though context is all that’s important. Child development textbooks make the same mistake. Even scholars who state that they are using Bronfenbrenner’s theory in their research are likely to treat it as one that primarily focuses on context. Yes, context is important; Federal and State policies should be designed to help families and children move out of poverty. However, changing the overarching context is not sufficient.

As Bronfenbrenner loved to point out throughout his life, it is the active engagement of individuals (children, parents, teachers, community members) in the course of activities with others, over time, that makes human beings truly human.

Featured image credit: Cornell University from McGraw Tower by Maeshima hiroki. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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