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 = f (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 interpersonal, organizational, community, 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.
- Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2009). Ecological approaches to cognition and action in sport and exercise: Ask not only what you do, but where you do it. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 40, 5–37.
- Dzewaltowski, D. A. (1997). The ecology of physical activity and sport: Merging science and practice. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 9, 254–276.
- Richard, L., Gauvin, L., & Raine, K. (2011). Ecological models revisited: Their uses and evolution in health promotion over two decades. Annual Review of Public Health, 32, 307–326.
- Sallis, J. F., Owen, N., & Fisher, E. B. (2008). Ecological models of health behavior: Theory, research, and practice. In K. Glanz, B. K. Rimer, & K. Viswanath (Eds.), Health behavior and health education: Theory, research, and practice (4th ed., pp. 465–485). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Schneider, M., & Stokols, D. (2009). Multilevel theories of behavior change: A social ecological framework. In S.A. Schumaker, J. K. Ockene, & K. A. Riekert (Eds.), The handbook of health behavior change (3rd ed., pp. 85–105). New York: Springer.
- Spence, J. C., & Lee, R. E. (2003). Toward a comprehensive model of physical activity. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4, 7–24.
- Tudge, J., Gray, J. T., & Hogan, D. M. (1997). Ecological perspectives in human development: A comparison of Gibson and Bronfenbrenner. In J. Tudge, M. J. Shanahan, & J. Valsiner (Eds.), Comparisons in human development (pp. 72–105). New York: Cambridge University Press.