Roger G. Barker was a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and a recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1963) from the American Psychological Association (APA), the Kurt Lewin Award (1963) from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the G. Stanley Hall Award (1969), APA, Division 7 (1969). Barker was born in Macksburg, Iowa. After receiving a PhD from Stanford University, Barker spent 2 years as a postdoctoral fellow with Kurt Lewin at the University of Iowa and then devoted the initial decades of his career to studying child development and physical disability/rehabilitation. His career took a distinctive turn in the 1940s when he came to the disquieting realization that, after more than a half century of empirical research, psychologists knew little more than laypersons about the behavioral patterns of individuals as they go about their daily lives. In response to this shortcoming, Barker followed the path of naturalist researchers in the biological sciences by establishing a field research station that was intended to provide “easy access to phenomena of the science, unaltered by the selection and preparation that occur in laboratories.” This groundbreaking effort was accompanied by the development of empirical methods for observing and recording the activities of individuals in everyday settings.
Through these methods, Barker learned that the order he observed in individuals’ actions could not be adequately accounted for solely by considering the environment at the level of the individual. Instead, it was necessary to operate at the extra-individual (eco-behavioral) level of behavior settings, which are naturally occurring, dynamic, ecological structures generated from collective actions of individuals in a physical milieu. Behavior settings arise from such collective actions, while reciprocally constraining individuals’ actions within their boundaries.
One property of behavior settings explored in detail by Barker and Gump in their landmark book Big School, Small School (1964) is level of staffing (or manning). Typically, behavior settings have an optimal number of individuals needed for adequate functioning; as a result, departures from that optimum have predictable effects. Individuals in an understaffed setting must be especially active, responsible, and flexible to maintain the functions of the setting, whereas individuals in an overstaffed setting tend to feel somewhat marginalized and less involved because their separate contributions may not be vital for its operation. Notably, these findings from studies of high schools were replicated in other kinds of settings.
A second program of research employed behavior setting surveys of a community to provide an account of the activity possibilities in that place, and in doing so, detail its ecological resources considered from a psychological viewpoint. Using this methodology, different communities can be compared, as Barker and Phil Schoggen did in Qualities of Community Life (1973), and the same community can be examined at different points in its history to assess qualities of stability and change.
The legacy of Barker’s research program, overall, is the demonstration that psychology must maintain an ecobehavioral focus if it is to account for psychological phenomena in everyday settings.
- Barker, R. G. (1968). Ecological psychology: Concepts and methods for studying the environment of human behavior. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
- Barker, R. G., & Gump, P. (1964). Big school, small school: High school size and student behavior. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
- Barker, R. G., & Schoggen, P. (1973). Qualities of community life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Barker, G., & Wright, H. F. (1955). Midwest and its children. New York: Harper & Row.