Ecological Theory

Ecological   theory   is   a   global   perspective   or meta-theory,  because  the  broad  heading  represents   several   scientific   approaches   that   view human  behavior  as  the  result  of  the  relationship  between  individuals  and  their  environments. Ernest Haeckel, German zoologist and evolutionist, coined the term oekology in 1866 to define a field of study that examined organisms in their living environments. Ellen Swallow Richards, chemist  and  founder  of  the  field  of  home  economics, brought the term to English-language use in 1907. She  described  human  ecology  as  the  study  of  the influence of the surroundings of human beings on their lives. Swallow Richards provided an example of  the  application  of  ecological  theory  to  physical  activity  with  several  observations  about  the interactions between individuals and their environments to promote healthy lifestyle behaviors. For example, in her 1904 publication The Art of Right Living, she noted that there is no better way to raise a child to perform healthy habits than to expose a child to environments that utilize the natural desire for effective movements. She recommended giving a child a garden because the care of a garden bed combines  exercise,  enjoyment,  and  adds  indirect instruction on attaining satisfaction through work. Since  the  early  1900s,  the  study  of  human  ecology has been fragmented, with work occurring in a range of disciplines, such as anthropology, geography, sociology, psychology, and kinesiology. The focus here is on describing several ecological perspectives that fall under the heading of ecological theory and illustrating their influence on sport and exercise psychology. By illuminating the influence of  ecological  perspectives  on  sport  and  exercise psychology,  this  entry  offers  a  description  of  an ecological metatheoretical approach. The ecological  perspectives  described  include  Kurt  Lewin’s ecological  psychology,  Roger  Barker’s  ecological psychology, James Gibson’s ecological approach to human  perception,  Uri  Brofennbrenner’s  ecological systems theory, and recent application of these ecological perspectives to inform physical activity promotion.

Kurt Lewin’s Psychological Ecology

In 1943, Kurt Lewin used the term psychological ecology  to  propose  that,  for  an  understanding  of individual  and  group  behavior,  it  was  necessary to study the opportunities and constraints of environments.  But  Lewin  did  not  focus  on  studying environmental   opportunities   and   constraints. Rather  his  major  influence  on  sport  and  exercise  psychology  was  his  well-known  equation B  =  (P,E),  which  stated  that  behavior  is  a  function  of  the  person  and  one’s  environment.  While the  person–environment  interaction  concept  is adopted  by  social  cognitive  approaches,  it  is  a central  focus  of  ecological  theory.  Lewin  viewed individual  behavior  as  a  function  of  the  immediate social environment and believed that the social group  to  which  individuals  belong  was  the  basis for  individual  psychological  processes.  The  ecological perspective of Lewin’s work departs somewhat from most contemporary ecological theories in that he considered the environment to only have an  indirect  influence  on  people’s  behavior  and  it was people’s subjective perception of the environment that should be the central focus of study and intervention. In contrast, ecological theories place greater emphasis on the study of and intervention on  actual,  rather  than  perceived,  features  of  the environment.

James Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Perception

James Gibson rejected the premise that perception is  part  subjective  and  part  objective.  He  argued that  there  is  a  subjective  aspect  and  an  objective aspect to every experience, but this does not mean that there is subjective determination of perception. Gibson’s  approach  differed  from  Lewin’s  because the  target  of  study  and  intervention  began  with environmental  features.  Because  perception  was described as a direct process of extracting information from the environment, the differences among individuals in perception were largely attributed to attention to environmental features. Gibson introduced  the  concept  of  affordances.  An  affordance was defined as a latent feature of the environment that  provides  action  possibilities.  An  affordance was  viewed  as  ecological  (person–environment interaction),  because  an  object’s  use  is  always dependent on individual capabilities. For example, a  7-foot-tall  individual  may  not  perceive  a  small chair  as  affording  the  opportunity  to  sit,  while  a 5-foot-tall  individual  perceives  the  same  objective features  and  sits  down.  Much  of  the  influence  of Gibson’s  ecological  approach  within  sport  and exercise psychology has been in the area of motor skill learning and performance.

Roger Barker’s Ecological Psychology

The study of objective features of the environment in  the  daily  lives  of  individuals  was  the  center  of the work of Roger Barker from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Although Barker spent 2 years as a  postdoctoral  fellow  with  Kurt  Lewin  and  was strongly  influenced  by  him,  he  shifted  his  path of  research  from  a  focus  on  the  subjective  perception  of  the  environment  to  conduct  studies  of human behavior within natural environments. He set up the Midwest Psychological Field Station in the  small  town  of  Oskaloosa,  Kansas,  developed empirical  methods  for  observing  the  activities  of individuals in their everyday settings, and did copious measurements of daily life.

Barker’s  ecological  psychology  focused  on  person–environment  interaction  within  the  immediate environmental experience, which he labeled a behavior setting. Behavior settings were defined as the social and physical environments where behavior  takes  place.  Behavior  settings  are  a  natural phenomenon  that  is  bounded  by  time  and  place, a  specific  measurable  unit,  and  recognized  by people going about their daily lives. A school, for example, is not a behavior setting. But a basketball game  at  a  school  could  be  a  behavior  setting.  It has  a  standing  pattern  of  behavior,  is  not  only  a characteristic  of  the  individuals  involved  but  can function with different individuals, and is tied to a time and place.

Barker  established  that  the  strongest  influence on  behavior  was  not  personality  or  global  social inputs  but  rather  the  places  in  which  people  live their lives. For example, when a young girl entered a worship service, she behaved “worship service.” If she left the worship service, and then went to a basketball game, she behaved “basketball game.” After  identifying  the  behavior  setting  as  the  unit of  study,  Barker  shifted  his  focus  from  studying individual  behavior  to  studying  the  environment. Barker  and  his  colleagues  provided  evidence  that knowledge about the place of behavior was more important than individual differences in predicting individual behavior.

Behavior  settings  were  shown  to  influence physical activity. Studies of small schools and large schools  were  shown  to  have  a  similar  number and types of behavior settings, such as basketball games  and  practices.  But  small  schools  offered more  behavior  settings  relative  to  the  population (understaffed).  For  example,  a  basketball  game requires five players plus substitutes on each team. A  basketball  practice  requires  more  players,  but the  number  involved  in  practice  games  is  limited to  10  plus  substitutes.  Although  basketball  game or  practice  behavior  settings  are  similar  at  both large  and  small  schools,  at  large  schools  behavior  setting  forces  eliminate  individuals  from  participation  in  physical  activity  through  a  selection process  because  of  being  “overstaffed.”  At  small schools,  however,  the  behavior  setting  may  foster  recruitment  of  individuals  to  participation  in physical activity because more players are needed for a game or practice than may initially turn out. While Barker’s theoretical perspective has not had a  large  impact  on  sport  and  exercise  psychology, many  contemporary  ecological  perspectives  have adopted  the  term  behavior  setting  to  represent a  social  and  physical  environment  for  physical activity.

Uri Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory

Uri Bronfenbrenner outlined his theory of the ecology  of  human  development  beginning  in  1958 and  continued  to  develop  his  ecological  perspective  over  5  decades.  Bronfenbrenner’s  theory  was strongly influenced by Kurt Lewin, under whom he worked as a young PhD in the Office of Strategic Services of the Army during World War II. Lewin constantly reminded Bronfenbrenner that space is not physical but psychological. This focus on the perceived  environment  contributed  to  distinguish Bronfenbrenner’s  approach  from  Roger  Barker’s.

In  addition,  Bronfenbrenner’s  ecological  systems model  focused  on  the  impact  of  the  environment on  the  individual.  He  viewed  individual  development as the result of being exposed to many different environments over time.

Bronfenbrenner’s  largest  contribution  to  contemporary sport and exercise psychology was the concept that the environment is a set of nested systems or multiple levels of influence, each inside the next like a set of Russian dolls. The most proximal of these systems was termed the microsystem. This is the immediate situation where person–environment interaction  occurs.  Key  to  the  nested-system  concept  is  the  idea  that  the  immediate  microsystem environments that people encounter, while the key to behavior and development, are the outcomes of the larger systems in which they are housed. The next-level  (larger)  system,  called  the  mesosystem, was  defined  as  a  system  of  microsystems.  For example,  a  child  may  encounter  the  school  bus, classroom,  school  lunch,  recess,  and  home  environments throughout the school day. These could all be considered microsystems. The mesosystem is the combination of exposure to all these microsystems for the developing individual. The next level of  the  environment  is  the  exosystem,  which  is  a microsystem that does not contain the developing person but impacts on the child’s micro and mesosystem. For the child, the exosystem may include the parent’s workplace or a school district’s administration.  Decisions  made  within  each  of  these microsystems  have  an  influence  on  the  microsystems  that  the  child  encounters.  The  next  level  in the  multilevel  system  is  the  macrosystem,  which was  defined  as  the  larger  sociocultural  context. Bronfenbrenner  proposed  that  cultural  influences filtered  down  to  the  microsystem  level  to  influence  the  daily  practices  of  individuals  that  create the environments with which individuals interact. Later in his work, Bronfenbrenner added the chronosystem to his theory to recognize the impact of the patterning of environmental events over time. The last development of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory was to imbed it within a bioecological model that addressed the genetic influences on behavior and development within the ecological environment.

While  there  has  been  little  true  integration across the ecological perspectives described earlier, they  share  many  principles  that  can  inform  sport and  exercise  psychology  research  and  practice. A  summary  of  the  principles  of  ecological  theory suggests (a) the focus of study represents person– environment  interaction;  (b)  study  and  intervention  begins  with  examining  characteristics  of  the environment;  (c)  person–environment  interaction leads to behavioral outcomes and proximal developmental  processes;  (d)  behaviors  and  proximal developmental  processes  occur  in  environments that, when studied directly, exhibit characteristics of self-regulating behavior settings; and (e) multiple levels of influence operate to impact the quality of  the  person–environment  interaction  over  time to determine physical activity and development.

Application of Ecological Theory to Physical Activity Promotion

Perhaps one of the strongest influences of ecological  theory  within  sport  and  exercise  psychology has been in the study of physical activity promotion. Physical activity promotion researchers have embraced the principle of multiple levels of influence, as well as the focus on environmental characteristics.  The  public  health  focus  of  physical activity promotion researchers directs their attention  to  the  primary  target  of  population  health. Individually  targeted  behavior  change  interventions  that  do  not  address  environmental  factors have  not  been  successful  in  changing  the  health behaviors of communities. To solve this problem, in 1988, Kenneth R. McLeroy proposed that interventions be targeted at multiple levels of influence, defined  as  interpersonalorganizationalcommunity,  and  public-policy  factors.  Corresponding with physical activity being identified by the U.S. Surgeon General as a major public health problem in the late 1990s, first mention of the adoption of an ecological approach within the sport and exercise literature occurred. A few public health scientists, including David Dzewaltowski, James Sallis, and Neville Owen charged researchers to embrace an ecological perspective. While several years and significant work has been conducted, there is still no consensus on an ecological theory for physical activity promotion or on how to define the levels of influence.

Ecological  principles  have  been  applied  in  the design of some interventions. Physical activity interventions  for  diabetes  management  have  included, in  addition  to  individual  health  behavior  change components, multilevel strategies targeting healthy system change and community resources for regular physical activity. Interventions targeting settings  such  as  worksites  and  schools  have  included broad  environmental  and  policy  components.  In schools,  for  example,  students  may  receive  curriculum  on  self-regulation  skills,  school  policy change  interventions  to  increase  the  amount  and quality of physical education, and community outreach  to  increase  physical  activity  opportunities. Comprehensive  community  multilevel  programs may  include  legislation  for  physical  environmental  changes  like  parks  and  walking  and  bicycle paths; mass media campaigns; and targeted school, worksite, and other delivery setting programs that include building social and physical environments for  physical  activity  and  curriculum-based  education on behavior-change skills.

Many   community-based   physical   activity approaches   also   use   participatory   strategies, whereby individuals in the community are empowered  to  lead  change.  These  social  and  physical environment  change  leaders  become  champions of physical activity initiatives. Consistent with the ecological  approach,  interventions  are  tailored  to the natural environments where people live and it is the residents of these environments that are best equipped  to  understand  these  unique  local  variables.  Since  ecological–psychology  perspectives focus  on  the  multiple  systems  that  filter  down  to create  local  environmental  variables,  this  multiplicity presents substantial logistical challenges for study and practice.


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