Introduction to Social Ecology

Social ecology is the study of how individuals interact with and respond to the environment around them, and how these interactions affect society and the environment as a whole. Consider traditional ecological studies, in which students examine how multiple factors must interact within nature to create the world’s ecosystems.

Social ecology takes the same approach by examining society holistically. Studying how individuals, collectives and institutions interact with and depend on one another, social ecologists look at the bigger picture of our “system”—allowing for a more effective approach to solving society’s collective problems.

What Is Social Ecology?

The concept of social ecology was introduced by an environmental activist named Murray Bookchin. He was an ecologist and believed there was a better approach to the study. In his paper "What is Social Ecology?" (PDF, 122 KB), he argues environmentalists are too focused on studying the individual symptoms of a problem rather than addressing the problem itself—the belief that humans can and should control nature.

This philosophy served as the foundation for social ecology. In Bookchin’s eyes, the hierarchies that exist within society are to its own detriment. The issues and dysfunctions of human society, whether they be environmental or social, come from a human-made hierarchical structure. Rather than a hierarchy, Bookchin believed that life and society should be looked at as an ecosystem where all the moving parts are equally important to a healthy, stable and sustainable environment.

The belief is that following these principles and extending them to all facets of society will lead to a more equal, cooperative environment where hierarchies don’t decide winners and losers. Recognizing the importance of each ‘piece’ to the system as a whole is a fundamental part of a good social worker’s mindset.

The ecological systems theory in social work

The ecological systems theory—also known as human ecology theory or development in context—examines how individuals’ environments shape them into who they are. This theory was first developed by psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner to delve into relationships within one’s community as they relate to personality traits cultivated from childhood.

There are five systems in the theory. Looking at the five systems of the ecological systems theory, we see a heavy focus on how events influence a child through their development. We learn not just the “what,” but the “why,” too.

Microsystem

Microsystems are the people, groups and institutions that most directly influence a child’s growth and development. This could include family, teachers, peers, neighbors or religious institutions.

Mesosystem

Mesosystems are the relationships and interactions between microsystems in a child’s life. For example, if a child isn’t getting enough attention or is dealing with abuse at home, this may cause them to have difficulty with emotional development and interacting with their teachers and peers.

Exosystem

The exosystem consists of social settings the child has no control over, but is directly affected by. A common example of the exosystem is a child being affected by their parents’ work. Consider a scenario in which one parent suddenly receives more responsibility at work and must now travel frequently. This will fundamentally change the child’s interactions with the other parent, whether their bond becomes stronger or there’s increased conflict between them.

Macrosystem

The macrosystem is the general culture that influences a child as they develop, and the microsystems and mesosystems within. The macrosystem includes factors such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race and geographic location.

Chronosystem

The chronosystem is the pattern of major events and cultural shifts that occur and influence an individual over the course of their lifetime. A frequently used example of an event within the chronosystem is the child whose parents get divorced, which has negative effects on the child for the first one to two years before stabilizing. Another example of a significant, influential culture shift would be the increased amount of women in the workforce over recent decades.

Learning more about the events that shaped this individual’s personality and circumstances is essential to addressing the issues they’re dealing with—this is where the ecological systems theory offers actionable insight in the context of social work.

Applying the Social Ecological Perspective in Social Work

The social ecological perspective posits that many factors from our environment come together to create the unique circumstances that shape who we are, seeking to promote the idea that we are all interdependent and must handle society’s issues in ways that consider all parts of a functional system.

Applying this ecological perspective in social work can benefit your existing understanding. Often, those in need of social assistance are those at the bottom of the hierarchy, such as deeply impoverished families. A holistic approach to finding out how a person or group of people landed in the position they’re in will help a social worker by giving them a look into some of society’s problems and what demographics they affect most. This puts the social worker in a position to advocate for change and social justice at the public policy level, as they have an intimate understanding of who social issues affect and how they’re affected by them.

Criticism

There are some criticisms of Bookchin’s ideas, mainly around the issues of practicality for putting his insights into action, and whether or not it’s realistic that the lack of any form of hierarchy would solve social issues—environmental or otherwise.

However, as the principles of social ecology apply to social work, its critiques aren’t quite as relevant. A social worker who applies these principles to better understand someone’s place in society and how they got there is concerned with helping—not necessarily the greater philosophical implications of Bookchin’s ideas.

Summary and Resources for Further Learning

Social ecology looks at the ever-changing relationship between all parts of our society, and how each one has an important role to play in keeping the system healthy and stable. Applying these principles, social workers get a better picture of how the system affects different groups of people. Social workers are in a better position to advocate for change on a greater scale and do their job well.

If you’re interested in a career in social work or would like to learn more about the process of becoming a social worker, the following resources will be helpful:

For more information on conceptual social ecology and the social ecology perspective, view UCI School of Social Ecology’s extensive article that covers both.

Last updated: June 2020