Ecological Paradigm in Social Work

"The ecological perspective uses ecological concepts from biology as a metaphor with which to describe the reciprocity between persons and their environments.........attention is on the goodness of fit between an individual or group and the places in which they live out their lives"(Sands, 2001).

The ecological perspective can be traced back to biological theories that explain how organisms adapt to their environments. In 1868, Ernst Haekel voiced the term "ecology" to refer to an organism and its interdependencies within a natural environment.  The most conventional definition of the term "ecology" means "the interdisciplinary scientific study of the living conditions of organisms in interaction with each other and with the surroundings, organic as well as inorganic" (Naess 1989,p. 36).


The mid to early 20th century served as a milestone for the social work profession in adopting a family systems model to incorporate that family members are influenced equally by environmental systems with equal power.  The social work discipline has expanded this perspective to explain that an individual is "constantly creating, restructuring, and adapting to the environment as the environment is affecting them" (Ungar, 2002).  The systems approach now added the social elements to the interactive process.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the systems theory was expanded based on an ecological approach, breaking down the term "environment" into social determinants with varying levels of power and influence, as deemed by individual stress and need and level of connectedness.

Unlike most behavioural and psychological theories, ecological theories focus on interrelational transactions between systems and stress that all existing elements within an ecosystem play an equal role in maintaining a balance of the whole. In social work practice, applying an ecological approach can be best understood as looking at persons, families, cultures, communities, and policies and identifying and intervening upon strengths and weaknesses in the transactional processes between these systems.


Holistic thinking can provide a paradigm for understanding how systems and their interactions can maintain an individual's behaviour. Bronfenbrenner (1979), suggests four levels of ecological components as a useful framework in understanding how individual or family processes are influenced by hierarchical environmental systems in which they function:

1. Microsystem- The most basic system, referring to an individual's most immediate environment (i.e., the effects of personality characteristics on other family members).

2. Mesosystem-  A more generalized system referring to the interactional processes between multiple microsystems (i. e., effects of spousal relationships on parent-child interactions).

3. Exosystem-  Settings on a more generalized level which affect indirectly, family interactions on the micro and meso levels (i. e., the effects of parent's employment on family interactions).

4. Macrosystem- The most generalized forces, affecting individuals and family functioning (i.e., political, cultural, economic, social).

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