Early Years Pioneers: Urie Bronfenbrenner

Professor Tricia David
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The interaction of children's development with larger aspects of society was the focus of Urie Bronfenbrenner's research and theory, writes Professor Tricia David

Who was Urie Bronfenbrenner?

Urie Bronfenbrenner was born in Moscow in 1917. At the age of six, he emigrated to the United States with his family.

Throughout his life, Bronfenbrenner was clearly a very able scholar as well as a warm and respected human being. His first degree was in music and psychology, and it was the latter that attracted him as the focus of postgraduate work at Harvard University. Bronfenbrenner served in the army during the Second World War but afterwards he returned to academic life, gaining a doctorate in child development in 1948. He was a co-founder of the USA's Head Start programme and he became a leading world figure in the field of child development, child rearing and ecology.

Bronfenbrenner died less than a year ago, aged 88, and those who had worked with him spoke highly of his pre-eminence as a teacher and theorist. At the time of his death Bronfenbrenner was the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Human Development and Psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and he had received many honours from universities around the world.

Bronfenbrenner's theory of human ecology

At a time when much American child development research was dominated by laboratory study and maturation theory, Bronfenbrenner argued forcefully that the environment in which a baby and child grows up should be taken into account. He had researched and written about children's lives in Russia and China, from which he began to elaborate on his theory of 'human ecology'.

This ground-breaking theory included the impact of those contexts familiar to the child (such as home, nursery or school, mosque or temple, and so on) and those factors which impinged on the parents' lives and society more widely (such as poverty, racism and sexism). Further, the way in which the different 'levels' of the child's whole place in the world interacted with one another was also seen as important.

In later years Bronfenbrenner added that as well as aspects influencing individual children through their unique experiences, what he called 'intra-child' differences should be included in his theory. So, his theory was relabelled the 'bio-ecological model' of human development.

Although Bronfenbrenner's theory proved complicated to back up with practical work and research, it influenced the ways in which social scientists thought about the study of human beings and how governments conceived policies and programmes for young children and their families.

Additionally, his thinking forged links across disciplinary divides among the social sciences and between societies.

Bronfenbrenner's recent concerns and writing

In his later years, Bronfenbrenner proposed five critical processes for positive human development, saying that these tenets applied irrespective of the person's age. For each person - but especially for a baby or growing child - the essential processes are as follows:

  • Patterns of shared interaction become progressively more regular and complex, over an extended period of time, so that the child develops a strong, mutual emotional attachment with one or more persons (a parent, carer, sibling, or grandparent, for example) who care unconditionally about the child's well-being.
  • These shared interactions promote the child's responsiveness to other aspects of the immediate environment, so that the child's physical, social and intellectual development is accelerated.
  • Another person encourages and supports the intimate carers, demonstrating admiration and affection for them.
  • Family members and nursery staff, or other service providers, adjust to each other and establish trusting lines of communication.
  • Public policies and practices are needed that ensure stability, time, status, and respect for whole communities supporting childrearing.

In particular, Bronfenbrenner stressed his anxiety that US society was becoming increasingly chaotic, and that life for families with children was moving in parallel with corporate enterprise, where new policies were scrapped 'from on high' within weeks of implementation.

He warned that the process that makes a human being human is collapsing in many societies, as children's lives are beset by parental unemployment, poverty and the hectic pace. He felt today's children are facing a grave crisis, being deprived of what he regarded as essential virtues - honesty, compassion, integrity, responsibility. However, Bronfenbrenner was also concerned that many researchers were simply examining the effects of these societal problems rather than searching for solutions.

What is Bronfenbrenner's legacy to the field of early childhood?

One key legacy of Bronfenbrenner's work is the growth in civic interest and investment in young children and their families. The Head Start programme in the United States stimulated developments in many parts of the world, including the UK. Through his insistence that child development research and theories needed to recognise the positive and negative effects of a child's ecological niche, Bronfenbrenner drew attention to factors in families, communities and nations, which could influence children's development and learning for good or ill, throwing long shadows forward throughout their adolescent and adult years. He has thus had a significant influence upon understandings which impact on policy, research and practice in the field of early childhood education and care. Above all, Bronfenbrenner devoted his life to advocacy for children and their families.

Tricia David is Emeritus Professor of Education, Canterbury Christ Church University and Honorary Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood Education, University of Sheffield

Suggested reading

  • Bronfenbrenner, U (1971) Two Worlds of Childhood: the US and USSR.
  • London: Allen and Unwin
  • Bronfenbrenner, U (1979) The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
  • Bronfenbrenner, U (1992) 'Ecological Systems Theory'. In R Vasta (ed) Six Theories of Child Development. London: Jessica Kingsley, pp.187-249
  • Bronfenbrenner, U (1999) Growing Chaos in the Lives of Children, Youth and Families: how can we turn it around? Published online at http://parenthood.library.wisc.edu/ Bronfenbrenner/Bronfenbrenner.html

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