What is social ecology and how does it inform social work?

Social ecology views the environment as a complex system of life forms that are all interrelated and of equal importance for the system to be healthy and sustained. This ideology fundamentally disagrees with the idea that man should control nature and sees this idea as the root cause of all ecological problems. Environmental problems are seen as the consequence of a dysfunctional human society, and the belief is that these problems will only be fully resolved when social issues are resolved.

Social ecology was developed in the twentieth century, with the first socio-ecological models introduced after the first world war.  One of the key players in developing social ecology was ecology activist Murray Bookchin. He originally considered himself an anarchist and his early works included Post-Scarcity Anarchism and The Ecology of Freedom. However, in later life, he began to criticize anarchy and started promoting libertarian socialism within the framework of his communalism ideology.

The ideology refers to social issues such as industrial expansion and class structure, which deems some sections of society inferior, and links factors such as sexism, racism, and the exploitation of third-world countries with environmental problems such as deforestation. Bookchin sees these factors as the underlying causes and argues that we need to focus on these rather than simply tackling the symptoms. Bookchin considers hierarchies to be detrimental to the well-being of society and believes that social and ecological problems can be traced to these hierarchies.

The theory is that the principles of social ecology can be applied to other aspects of society and this would lead to a more cooperative and equal society where a system of hierarchies doesn’t determine success or failure. A social ecologist promotes a more egalitarian social system, which focuses on equality and cooperation over individual profits. Humans are simply part of ecology and are seen as advanced primates, not superior to other animals.

Ecological systems theory 

Also known as human ecology theory, and sometimes referred to as development in context, ecological systems theory explores how the environment in which an individual lives can shape them into who they become. This theory was devised in the 1970s by psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who spent much of his career specializing in the study of childhood development. His ecological framework for human development takes socioecological models and applies them to human development. Individuals do not grow up in a vacuum; rather, everything is connected and can affect the development of the individual.

Bronfenbrenner considered that the environment in which a child grows up plays a significant part in shaping the child. The environment in this context refers to elements including family, friends, school, and the culture of the region or nation. Bronfenbrenner’s theory is made up of five systems connected to childhood development


The microsystem refers to the people, groups, and institutions that have the most direct influence on a child’s growth and development, including family, friends and peers, neighbours, teachers, and religious institutions. This system serves as the child’s reference point for the world and is the first way they learn how to live. Caring relationships between the child and the parents or carer can help support the development of a healthy personality.


The mesosystem relates to the relationships between the microsystems in a child’s life.  If there are issues in one area of a child’s life, this may cause problems to manifest in another area. For example, a child who is suffering from neglect or abuse at home may experience challenges in developing emotionally and their interactions with peers and teachers may be affected.


The exosystem comprises other factors the child is impacted by but may not be directly involved with and has no control over. This could include the parents’ workplace, the neighborhood, special agencies, and the media.

An example of a child being impacted by the exosystem would be when a parent of the child goes through difficulties at their workplace. This could lead to stress in the household, which will impact the child. Even though the child is not physically present at or directly connected to the workplace, things that happen in the workplace can still impact the child. On the other hand, a high-quality prenatal care program developed in the neighborhood would be an example of a positive empowering exosystem. In this case, an individual child could benefit indirectly from the program, as the new parent is more prepared for giving birth, caring for a young baby, and parenthood in general.


The macrosystem refers to the wider culture of the region or nation that influences the child’s development, and the microsystems which are a part of that. The macrosystem includes the overall education system, the legal system, the culture of the region, and the geographic area. Different societies have different norms, and these will shape the child.


The chronosystem is the overall series of major changes and events that take place over the course of an individual’s life and have an influence on the individual. For example, a major cultural shift over past decades was the number of women who returned to the workplace after having children rather than staying home full-time to raise the children. This shift in cultural norms can have a significant impact on a child.

the ecological Theory holds that it is essential to explore the events and factors that have shaped an individual’s personality in order to assist the individual with the issues they have.

How does social ecology inform social work?

The social ecology approach takes a different viewpoint from the traditional social work perspective. In traditional social work the focus tends to be on the individual experiencing problems, with less focus on the influencing factors in the surrounding environment. The ecological perspective looks outward at the broader context of the individual, shifting the emphasis from treating an emotionally or behaviorally challenged person in isolation. Symptoms in an individual are seen as an indication that the wider ecosystem is flawed or malfunctioning and requires attention to address the problems that are having an impact, directly or indirectly, on the individual.

In his book The Life Model of Social Work Practice, Alex Gitterman further explores the relationship between ecological theory and social work. The understanding is that individuals do not operate in isolation, in what he refers to as the “person-and-environment concept.” Just as all living organisms interact with their social and physical environments, so humans interact with their physical, social, and cultural environments.

Physical environments:

  • the natural world
  • the man-made, built world, including buildings and other structures

Social environments:

  • Interactions with family and friends
  • Social networks, such as membership of / association with organizations in the community
  • Political, economic, and legal structures that shape how the environment operates

Cultural environments:

Aspects that shape the individual’s views and expectations, including

  • Values
  • Norms
  • Beliefs
  • Language

The way different elements of the environment connect and interact is not static but instead evolve with the passing of time as new influences develop.

Social ecology uses some specific terminology.

Person-environment fit

Social ecology adopts the assumption that individuals aim to achieve and maintain a good level of fit between themselves and the environment over the course of their life.


This refers to the level of fit between a person and their environment. When an individual is in an environment that provides the resources they need, and they feel that as a person they have the strengths they need to grow and develop, this is considered a high level of adaptive fit.


Stress can be caused when the individual does not have the strength to grow and develop, and their environment does not offer them the resources they need. This could be because resources are unavailable, cannot be accessed, or simply do not exist. When the individual experiences stress like this, it is described as a low level of adaptive fit. This is the point where support from a social worker is often required.

Potential stress points that may arise during the course of an individual’s life include:

  • Major life transitions, such as puberty, leaving home, getting married, having a baby, getting divorced
  • Traumatic events, e.g. bereavement, major accidents, natural disasters
  • Environmental pressures, including poverty, inadequate housing/schooling/healthcare
  • Dysfunctional relationships within the family, social group, or community


Under the life model approach, the social worker assesses the client’s life holistically to identify stressors and to what extent the surrounding environment is contributing to or easing the stress. The social worker then determines the most appropriate intervention to work toward a better person-environment fit. This could involve helping clients to alter the way they view themselves. Alternatively, an intervention might be needed in the environment to develop better interactions and relationships with family, social groups, or the community. There may also be a need to effect change in the broader environment so that the required resources are made available to the individual.

Social ecology: Practical applications

The principles of social ecology can be applied in a range of social work situations. When addressing issues in society, social workers start from the guiding principle that we are all interdependent and part of one ecology. Those in need of support from social workers are very often the people at the lower levels of the hierarchy, such as households on a very low income. Taking a holistic approach to the problem, the social worker will look into the reasons why an individual or group of people came to be in such a disadvantaged position. In addition to finding ways to support specific individuals, in accordance with social ecology principles, the social worker will also explore how the issues identified are affecting a wider population, and whether they relate to a particular demographic. The social worker can then advocate for change at the level of public policy so better outcomes can be delivered in the future.

One-to-one therapy

In one-to-one sessions, the therapist will work from the viewpoint that the individual should not be seen in isolation but rather in the context of the social, cultural, and political environment. There will also be an awareness that the presence of the social worker is another variable that can impact the situation.

Improving community resources

Enhancing living conditions and the surrounding environment include:

  • supporting neighbourhoods where people are not able to access affordable fresh produce by setting up a project to tackle this, such as a community garden
  • developing a project to improve access to quality education for a disadvantaged neighbourhood

Fostering stronger communities

Social ecology works to build community resilience. Whilst the resilience of the individual has always been an important consideration in social work, the importance of developing this at a community level is a newer concept. Social ecology holds that a resilient community will support the individuals within it to be more resilient. Promoting community resilience could involve:

  • a social worker advocating for a community to have access to better healthcare
  • providing a community with information to help them access better support services

Shaping public policy

From a social ecology perspective, social workers have a responsibility to advocate for political and social change, with the objective of helping to improve the situation for individuals. Public and corporate policies can have a huge impact on some populations.

This might involve:

  • Promoting sustainable development
  • Campaigning for social justice

You can learn more about social ecology as part of your studies for a Master of Social Work (MSW). If you are seeking to progress your career in social work, studying for a postgraduate qualification is an ideal next step. There are many benefits of MSW degrees. You have more opportunities to progress or take a new direction in your social work career, and you will develop new skills and build on your knowledge. Gaining an MSW degree at a reputable institution like Keuka College is also an important step if you would like to become a licensed clinical social worker.

Keuka’s course is 100% online, so you can carry on with your career and fit your studies around your work pattern. As part of the program, you will complete 500 hours of real-world experience, arranged with the help of your field placement coordinator. The program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), assuring you of high educational standards for your course.

A social ecology model for violence prevention

Violence can only be prevented if the factors that influence violence are understood. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed a social ecological model to support a better understanding of the factors behind violence and how effective prevention strategies can be. The model has four factors: Individual, Relationship, Community, and Societal, and it uses overlapping rings to illustrate how the different levels of factors influence one another. Preventing violence successfully depends on action being taken across all levels at the same time. Adopting a simultaneous approach also makes it more likely that the prevention can be sustained.

Individual level

Factors that increase the likelihood of becoming either a victim or perpetrator of violence include:

  • Age
  • Education
  • History of abuse
  • Income
  • Substance use

Prevention strategies for the individual focus on changes in behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. Solutions include anger management and conflict resolution, and healthy relationship skills programs.

Relationship level

This level examines the close relationships that could increase the probability of a person becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence. Friends, partners, and family members all contribute to the individual’s experience and can influence their behavior.

Prevention strategies at the relationship level are designed to improve problem-solving skills, promote healthy relationships, enhance parent-child communication, and promote positive peer norms.

Community level

At the community level, the focus is on neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and other institutions, and exploring whether there are aspects of these settings that are influencing the likelihood that an individual will become a victim or perpetrator of violence.

Prevention strategies in the community encompass the social and physical environment, such as creating safer environments at schools and workplaces, and tackling the conditions that lead to violence in communities; for example, poverty at the neighborhood level, instability, and the presence of high numbers of outlets selling alcohol.

Societal level

The societal level examines society-wide factors, such as policies relating to the economy, education and health, which exacerbate social inequalities between different populations in society. This level also looks at factors that can foster a climate where violence is encouraged; for example, social and cultural norms can make violence seem to be an acceptable way to deal with conflicts.

Prevention strategies include promoting societal norms where violence is not acceptable, improving opportunities in education and employment, and working to create financial security through policy change.

Advantages of the social ecology approach

The social ecology approach helps give social workers an understanding of how the transactions between the individual and the environment can impact the development and behavior of the individual, with discord in those transactions potentially leading to adverse effects on people’s emotional, physical, and social well-being. It is a more holistic approach to addressing social issues, and changes made at a broader level in response to the needs of an individual will help alleviate problems for other people and also prevent problems from occurring for others. Although it can be more time-consuming to apply than some traditional approaches, social ecology can offer real and long-lasting benefits for clients and the community in which they live.

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