Social ecological model

Social ecological model

The Social Ecological Model, also called Social Ecological Perspective, is a framework to examine the multiple effects and interrelatedness of social elements in an environment. SEM can provide a theoretical framework to analyze various contexts in multiple types of research and in conflict communication (Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, & Rinderle, 2006). Social ecology is the study of people in an environment and the influences on one another (Hawley, 1950). This model allows for the integration (Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, & Rinderle, 2006) of multiple levels and contexts to establish the "big picture" in conflict communication. Research that focuses on any one level underestimates the effects of other contexts (Klein et al., 1999; Rousseau & House, 1994; Stokols, 1996). SEM is primarily a qualitative research model to conduct field observations; however, it has and can also be utilized in experimental settings.


There are several adaptations of the Social Ecological Model; however, the initial and most utilized version is Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1977, 1979) "Ecological Systems Theory" which divides factors into four levels: macro-, exo-, meso-, and micro-, which describe influences as intercultural, community, organizational, and interpersonal or individual. Traditionally many research theorists have considered only a dichotomy of perspectives, either micro (individual behavior) or macro (media or cultural influences). Bronfenbrenner’s perspective (1979) was founded on the person, the environment, and the continuous interaction of the two. This interaction constantly evolved and developed both components. However, Bronfenbrenner realized it was not only the environment directly impacting the person, but that there were layers in between, which all had resulting impacts on the next level. His research began with the primary purpose of understanding human development and behavior. Bronfenbrenner’s work was an extension from Kurt Lewin’s (1935) classic equation showing that behavior is a function of the person and the environment.

Bronfenbrenner (1979) considered the individual, organization, community, and culture to be nested factors, like Russian dolls. Each echelon operates fully within the next larger sphere. Although Bronfenbrenner first coined the phrase "Ecological Systems Theory", it is necessary to mention that Amos H. Hawley (1950) conducted a significant amount of research in this field as well, along with many other philosophers, including his colleague, R. D. McKenzie. Hawley’s work on the “interrelatedness of life” was grounded in Charles Darwin’s writings on the “web of life” in his book, "Human Ecology" (1950).

Conceptual Framework

SEM is essentially a "Systems Theory" approach to understanding development that occurs in various spheres due to actions in different systems. There are many effects that occur from cross-level influences and relationships between and among levels that SEM addresses. Relationships include parallels or isomorphisms and discontinuities or cross-level effects (Klein et al., 1999; Rousseau and House, 1994). Below is diagram of the SEM spheres of influences in the conflict communication context, taken from Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, & Rinderle (2006, p. 731). The single direction arrows indicate cross-level effects, whereas the circular arrows indicate isomorphisms or discontinuities.

Spheres of Influence


Microsystems consist of individual or interpersonal features and those aspects of groups that comprise the social identity (Gregson, 2001) which may include roles that a person plays (i.e. mother, father, sister, brother, child, etc.) or characteristics they have in common. These interpersonal attributes are strong as to how an individual perceives oneself. These qualities and factors can be learned, as in membership to a group, but many are ingrained (e.g., ethnicity, gender). In the interpersonal sphere, there are also many components of the individual, including psychological and cognitive factors, like personality, knowledge, beliefs (Gregson, 2001). The individual in his or her own microsystem is constantly shaped, not only by the environment, but by any encounter or other individual they come in contact with. This "shaping" is well explored in child development, as it would be unreasonable to believe a child is solely a product of the societal environment. There are multiple, simultaneous influences in child behavior and learning including culture, school, teacher, parental support and education level, involvement in extracurricular activities, etc. Examples of microsystems outside the self also include groups of friends, family, unorganized athletics, or social clubs.


Mesosystems are the organizational or institutional factors that shape or structure the environment within which the individual and interpersonal relations occur (Gregson, 2001). These aspects can be rules, policies, and acceptable business etiquette within a more formal organization. There are some organizations that foster entirely different atmospheres than other corporations, i.e. Google [] , whereas employees may wear pajamas to the office. The organizational component is especially influential with younger, more impressionable employees, as it helps to shape the ethics and expectations of a typical organization for these individuals. Examples include schools, companies, churches, and sports teams. Mesosystems are essentially the norm forming component of a group or organization, and the individual is an active participant in this group or organization. Bronfenbrenner (1979) also claimed that the richer the medium for communication in this system, the more influential it is on the microsystem.


Exosystems refer to the community level influence, including fairly established norms, standards, and social networks (Gregson, 2001). There will likely be many organizations and interpersonal relationships that compose the community, and this web of organizations and relationships creates the community. The community is larger than the meso-; however, it is considerably smaller than the respective nation or culture it composes. The community level in a geographic sense, for example, may be Midwestern or Iowan, while the next level up (macro) would be an American. However, it does not have to be associated with any physical or spatial relationships. Another example could be membership in special interest groups or political affiliations. Exosystems are essentially any setting which affects the individual, although the individual is not required to be an active participant (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).


Macrosystems are the cultural contexts (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), not solely geographically or physically, but emotionally and ideologically. These influences are more easily seen than the other factors, mainly due to the magnitude of the impact. Examples of significant intercultural effects include Communism, Western culture, Military, Islam, and Christianity. For instance, the macrosystem of Communism is a Marxist philosophy that believes that wealth should be shared in the macrosystem. A Communist country, such as Cuba (exo), governs and regulates the environment within which corporations (meso) and society or individuals (micro) exist. Media plays a significant role on all levels, as it communicates information and assists in the development of expectations for all individuals in the respective culture.

Isomorphisms & Discontinuities

Isomorphisms are parallels in the impact on one level and the resulting impact on another level (Oetzel, Ting- Toomey, & Rinderle, 2006). Researchers studying isomorphic models expect to see an equal effect in both magnitude and direction when at least one influence level shifts. Discontinuities are essentially the antonym of isomorphisms. A discontinuity is an effect on one level or group which produces an unequal, potentially in the opposite direction, impact on at least one more level.

Cross-Level Effects

"Top-down Effects"

The consideration of top-down effects (McLeroy et al., 1988; Stokols, 1996) establishes that environmental effects shape individual behavior. The nested factors are essentially influenced by the external influences that embody these factors. Community and organizational factors often determine how individuals will respond in crisis situations (Oetzel, Ting- Toomey, & Rinderle, 2006). There is a program called OK-FIRST [] , which is an outreach project of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey [] and the Oklahoma Mesonet [] to educate the community and public officials to help individuals respond in the appropriate way during a weather-related risk. Ethnicity (Oetzel, Ting- Toomey, & Rinderle, 2006) and historical relationships also shape individual conflict behavior. This is obviously true in many situations observed in the conflict in the Middle East. The media additionally plays a significant role in reinforcing these stereotypes (Oetzel, Ting- Toomey, & Rinderle, 2006). Top-down effects are essentially the most prominent of any of the social ecological components.

"Bottom-up Effects"

Bottom-up effects describe how individuals or community affect higher levels, as in how individuals form alliances or coalitions to accomplish personal goals (Oetzel, Ting- Toomey, & Rinderle, 2006). There is also an impact in cultures due to global corporations’ presence in some countries. For instance, Google China has increased the accessibility of information to reach a wider audience in a Communist nation. Guerrero and La Valley (2006) recognize emotions are caused by feelings (i.e. anger, guilt, jealousy, greed, etc.) and that these feelings impact events likely to occur. The psychological instability of the shooter in the Virginia Tech [] incident demonstrates microcosms impacting macrocosms.

"Interactive Effects"

Interactive effects are interdependent and occur simultaneously at multiple levels (Rousseau and House, 1994). For instance in culturally diverse workgroups, there would likely be conflicts between group members, interaction effects in completing the goal of workgroup for the organization, and some learning at the individual level. Another excellent question from Oetzel, Ting- Toomey, & Rinderle (2006) is what role does technology play in cultures, organizations, community, and interpersonal conflicts? McLeroy et al. (1988, p. 354) noted that the “ecological perspective implies reciprocal causation between the individual and the environment” which essentially defines interactive effects.

Empirical Studies

Stanford Prison Experiment []
In Zimbardo’s experiment (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973) in 1971, they randomly assigned subjects to be either prison guards or prisoners. This "prison" was actually a basement at Stanford University [] , and the subjects were actually volunteers who responded to a newspaper advertisement. Essentially the study was conducted to observe the interpersonal dynamics in a prison environment. The individuals immediately began to take their respective roles very seriously, almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The prisoners rioted, and the guards hassled and intimidated the prisoners to "maintain" order. Applying the Social Ecological Model, top-down and interactive effects created groups with that were very unlike the individuals within the mesosystems. It is difficult to believe that all of the individuals involved in the study were truly sadistic or rebellious prior to the experiment.

Milgram Experiment []

Stanley Milgram’s studies were conducted in 1961-1962 at Yale [] on subjects that answered a newspaper advertisement. The objective of his research was to observe the power of authority in following orders (Milgram, 1963). This experiment was conducted in response to the beginning of the Eichmann trials. Adolf Eichmann was a high ranking officer of the Nazi Party. He was on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Was he simply following orders? In Milgram’s experiment the subjects were assigned to the role as the “teacher” and were required to administer a shock to the “student” to facilitate learning. The “teacher” was ordered to administer increasing and almost fatal electric shocks to the “student” whenever they proved an incorrect response. The experimenter sat in the same room as the “teacher” and observed the learning process. In actuality, the “student” was actually a researcher and no real electric shock was ever administered. These studies demonstrated that individuals can easily be persuaded to inflict harm if they are ordered to do so. These individuals were a product of the mesosystems they participated in.

SEM Applications in multiple contexts

Below are only a few of the abundant contexts in which the SEM could be applied. SEM applied to a problem or situation can provide a vivid, detailed snapshot or framework to analyze the inputs on various levels and the resulting impacts.

Corporate ethics

In the midst of corporate scandals, many conflicts are implicit, while some are explicit. The existence of multiple stakeholders, including company leadership, employees, shareholders, and customers has tended to blur the corporate mission and increase conflict. There are many interactive and cross-level effects when observing a corporation from an external perspective. Many corporations feel as though their duty is to create financial value for the shareholders, while they still have a responsibility to the customers. In some industries, it is difficult to discern when the loyalty is shifted too far towards shareholders or employees in lieu of the customers. The operating environment (or what other companies were doing) had created some of the ambiguity in corporate ethics in the late 1990’s. There was obviously a requirement for a higher prevalence of regulatory authorities and consumer advocacy groups (consumer protection) due to some inappropriate and unethical decisions. The decision to require Sarbanes-Oxley [] compliance is an excellent example of how individuals and organizations created a need for increased regulation in a bottom-up approach.


Geographic or environmental determinism, conceived by Ellsworth Huntington, is an economic theory that is highly dependent on the ecological environment and geography. Essentially from a top-down approach, the environment dictates a considerable amount to the lifestyle of the individual and the economy of the country. If the region is mountainous or arid and there is little land for agriculture, the country typically will not prosper as much as another country. The theory fundamentally states economics, human habits, and cultural characteristics are shaped by geography. In Neoclassical economics, output is a function of natural resources, human resources, capital resources, and technology (Alfred Marshall, 1890). Technology is a direct effect of an entrepreneurial mind or individual. This would indicate that there are also bottom-up effects in economics.

Risk communication

When a natural disaster or risk occurs, what is the best way to ensure the safety of all individuals that may potentially be impacted? The SEM could assist the researcher to analyze the timing of when the information is received and identify the receivers and stakeholders. This situation is an environmental influence that may be very far reaching. The individual’s education level, understanding, and affluence may dictate what information he or she receives and processes and through which medium. If the information receiver actually alters the context of the message and medium to communicate more appropriately with the individual stakeholders, this would be a bottom-up effect.


There are many ecological factors that potentially improve or harm a personal’s physical health. To prevent illnesses, a person should avoid an environment in which they may be more susceptible to contracting a virus or where there immune system would be weakened. This also includes possibly removing oneself from a workgroup or organization if there are breathing or inhalation risks (i.e. toxic pollutants, passive smoking) or avoiding a sick coworker. Some environments are particularly conducive to health benefits. Surrounding yourself with physically fit people will potentially motivate you to become more active, diet, or work out at the gym. The government banning trans fat may have a positive top-down effect on the health of all individuals in that state or country. There have been many studies done on obesity prevention, and everything from access to parks and playgrounds to cultural norms to self-efficacy impact the tendency for an individual to become obese.

Political conflict

The act of politics is making decisions, and playing politics is all about appeasing all the parties involved while still reaching the ultimate goal. A decision may be required of an individual, organization, community, or country. A decision a congressman makes impacts anyone in his or her jurisdiction. If one makes decision not to vote for the President of the United States, one has given oneself no voice in the election. If many other individuals choose not to voice their opinion and/or vote, they have inadvertently allowed a majority of others to make the decision for them. On the international level, if the leadership of the U.S. decides to occupy a country in the Middle East, it not only affects the leadership. It also impacts U.S. service members, their families, and the communities they come from. If the U.S. is spending money on a political conflict, the value of the U.S. dollar may be adversely impacted. There are multiple cross-level and interactive effects of a decision. As the action of one jihadist may potentially disrupt the lives of hundreds of service members, their respective families, the unit to which they belong, the community, and the nation.

Key contributors

Urie Bronfenbrenner

Ernest Burgess

Charles Darwin

Garrett Hardin
Amos H. Hawley []

Alastair McIntosh
John G. Oetzel []

Robert E. Park

Daniel Stokols
Stella Ting-Toomey []

Louis Wirth

See also

*Environmental sociology


*Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. "American Psychologist, 32", 513-531.
*Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). "The ecology of human development". Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
*Gregson, J. (2001). System, environmental, and policy changes: Using the social-ecological model as a framework for evaluating nutrition education and social marketing programs with low-income audiences. "Journal of Nutrition Education, 33"(1), 4-15.
*Guerrero, L. K., & La Valley, A. G. (2006). Conflict, emotion, and communication. In J. G. Oetzel, & S. Ting-Toomey (Eds.), "The SAGE handbook of conflict communication." Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 69-96.
*Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. "International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1", 69-97.
*Hawley, A. H. (1950). "Human ecology: A theory of community structure". New York: Ronald Press.
*Klein, K. J., Tosi, H., & Cannella, A. A. (1999). Multilevel theory building: Benefits, barriers, and new developments. "Academy of Management Review, 24", 243-248.
*Lewin, K. (1935). "A dynamic theory of personality". New York: McGraw-Hill.
*Marshall, A. (1890). "Principles of economics". London: Macmillan.
*McLeroy, K. R., Bibeau, D., Steckler, A., & Glanz, K. (1988). An ecological perspective on health promotion programs. "Health Education Quarterly, 15", 351-377.
*Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. "Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67", 371-378.
*Oetzel, J. G., Ting-Toomey, S., Rinderle, S. (2006). Conflict communication in contexts: A social ecological perspective. In J. G. Oetzel & S. Ting-*Toomey (Eds.), "The SAGE handbook of conflict communication". Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
*Rousseau, D. M., & House, R. J. (1994). Meso organizational behavior: Avoiding three fundamental biases. In C. L. Cooper & D. M. Rousseau (Eds.), "Trends in organizational behavior" (Vol. 1, pp. 13-30). New York: John Wiley.
*Stokols, D. (1996). Translating social ecological theory into guidelines for community health promotion. "American Journal of Health Promotion, 10", 282-298.

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