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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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4.2 The social ecological perspective: advantages and limitations


Bronfenbrenner (1979) wished to illustrate how human development is influenced through the mutual influences and simultaneous relationships within, and between, the different systems or environments, including the following:

  • a child’s own innate capabilities and their biological and genetic characteristics the stresses and supports of primary carers and extended family
  • the stresses and supports of direct contacts (for example, schools) and indirect contacts (for example, a parent’s workplace) within a neighbourhood and community
  • the stresses and supports created through cultural beliefs, expectations and values at the societal level.

The social ecological perspective is useful for understanding relationships between children or young people, and for understanding the different systems listed above, including friendship networks, families, community organisations and services, cultures, national policies, and even globalisation. According to Stevenson (1998, p. 19), ‘though it [social ecological perspective] is theoretical, it is very practical, it provides us with a kind of map to guide us through very confusing terrain’.

The social ecological perspective may assist practitioners when engaging with children and parents, because it reflects their realities, world views and explanations of their difficulties (Gill and Jack, 2007). It is a useful approach to support work with children, young people and families because it can act as a framework within which different and sometimes competing theories can be brought together (Seden, 2006). It is possible to look at practice problems from different perspectives and consider the impact of family, community, culture and societal processes both in causing problems and finding solutions (for example, resilience building). In particular, it reminds social workers about the diversity and uniqueness of children and service users and the importance of keeping them at the heart of their work.


Bronfenbrenner developed his theory over several decades. Despite the fact that we have presented his latest PPCT model, his earlier version of theory is often the one mentioned in books, research studies and practice documents. Although compatible and relevant, the original model tends to down play personal characteristics and focus more attention on the context. The later version of the PPCT gives both equal relevance, and in addition it highlights the role of time.

The model is often presented using the metaphor of nested rings or Russian dolls. Rosa and Tudge (2013, p. 255) argue that ‘This metaphor does not do adequate justice to Bronfenbrenner’s position that each of the systems is interrelated. Moreover, the mesosystem is not a layer outside the microsystem but a relationship between or among microsystems’.

Although Bronfenbrenner’s model is very useful, models are only representations of the real world and should always be considered alongside other knowledge and experiences. The social ecological perspective is indeed helpful for showing interrelationships. It is, however, not so good at showing the weighting between the different elements. For example, many children who grow up in poverty may still achieve positive outcomes – the effects of poverty may be offset by other factors (for example, quality of parenting). The perspective often appears to overlook the day-to-day reality of practitioners. They might show the availability of support to a child from a social worker, yet the conditions under which the social worker is working (a large case load, conflicting priorities, personal development needs, etc.) are not necessarily visible within the model. Social workers are also ‘nested’ within their own social ecologies, and their practice is related to the different levels.

Although the ecological perspective has proposed a framework within which the development of children’s lives can be viewed, it does not necessarily define what is good or bad for children. Social ecological models are often a snapshot and do not easily represent changes across time.