Urie Bronfenbrenner was born in Russia in 1917 and came to the United States at the age of 6. He went to high school in Haverstraw, New York, and completed a double major in psychology and music at Cornell University in 1938. He received a master's degree in education from Harvard University in 1940 and a doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Michigan in 1942. After completing his doctoral work he was inducted into the U.S. Army, where he served as a psychologist in the Army Air Corps and the Office of Strategic Services. After his military service he worked briefly as a research psychologist for the VA Clinical Psychology Training Program, before returning to the University of Michigan as an assistant professor of psychology. Two years later, in 1948, he accepted a faculty position in Human Development, Family
Studies, and Psychology at Cornell University, where he remained for the rest of his professional life. He continued his research and writing as a professor emeritus of Human Development and Psychology in Cornell's College of Human Ecology until he died on September 25, 2005.
It is fitting that Bronfenbrenner spent most of his professional career in a department with a name that encompasses three separate fields and ended it in a college named Human Ecology–a field that he did much to inspire. He was dissatisfied with what he saw as fragmented approaches to the study of human development, each with its own level of analysis (child, family, society, economics, culture, etc.), and was fond of saying that “Much of contemporary developmental psychology is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time” (Bronfenbrenner, 1977, p. 513).
In response Bronfenbrenner developed an ecological systems theory, detailed in his 1979 book The Ecology of Human Development. In this theory the child is at the center of many levels of contexts (or systems) that interact to influence development over time. Hedescribed five systems, each of which is progressively distant from the child but which nevertheless impact development. The microsystem includes those relationships and interactions that are closest to the child, such as family, peers, and school. The meso-system comprises the connections between the influences closest to the child, such as the relationships between parents or between parents and schools. The exosystem includes the larger social context, such as the surrounding community, that impacts children indirectly through their parents. The fourth level, the macrosystem, is the most distant from the child and includes cultural values, economic conditions, political systems, and laws, all of which flow back through the inner levels to influence the child. Finally the chrono-system incorporates the unique influence of a child's personal history. Later formulations of his theory included the child's biological system as an important but not decisive factor in development (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Bronfenbrenner, 2001).
Bronfenbrenner's theory, with its emphasis on the powerful influence of multiple contexts on the child, both directly and indirectly through his/her parents, has had a profound effect on how others view a child who has difficulties in school. It is no longer sufficient to simply blame the parents or conclude that the child has a low aptitude for learning. In fact, Bronfenbrenner explicitly argued that it is the cumulative effect of the specific, enduring, supportive interactions children have with all of the individuals in their lives that allows them to live up to their biological potential. He called these interactions “proximal processes” and asserted that others share responsibility for both directly providing such interactions to children and creating social conditions that allow their parents to do so.
Bronfenbrenner, a tireless advocate for more humane and supportive contexts for children and their families, helped to establish the Head Start program and taught an entire generation of social science researchers to take a broader more inclusive look at the forces acting on children. Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be his insistence that people must not only strive for a more accurate picture of human development, but also act on this knowledge to improve the lives of children.
In the forward to one of Bronfenbrenner's last books, Richard Lerner wrote: “For more than 60 years, Urie Bronfenbrenner has been both the standard of excellence and the professional conscience of the field of human development, a field that–because of the scope and synthetic power of his vision–has become productively multi-disciplinary and multiprofessional” (2005, p. ix).
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32, 513–531.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Republished in 2006).
Bronfenbrenner, U., & Ceci, S. (1994). Nature-nurture reconceptualized in developmental perspective: A bioecological model. Psychological Review, 101, 568–586.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (2001). The bioecological theory of human development. In N. Smelser & P. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (Vol. 10, pp. 6963–6970). New York: Elsevier.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.