Urie Bronfenbrenner

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Urie Bronfenbrenner (April 29, 1917 – September 25, 2005) was a renowned Russian-born American psychologist, known for his work in child development. Bronfenbrenner was one of the first psychologists to adopt a holistic perspective on human development, developing his Ecological Systems Theory which had a widespread influence on the way psychologists and other social scientists approach the study of human beings and their environments.

Bronfenbrenner emphasized the importance of the social environments in which children are raised, and saw the breakdown of the family as leading to the ever growing rates of alienation, apathy, rebellion, delinquency, and violence among American youth. His work led to new directions in research and in the design of programs and policies affecting the well-being of children and families.


Urie Bronfenbrenner was born on April 29, 1917 in Moscow, Russia, as the son of Dr. Alexander Bronfenbrenner and Eugenie Kamenetski Bronfenbrenner. When Urie was 6, his family moved to the United States. After a brief stay in Pittsburgh, they settled in Letchworth Village, the home of the New York State Institution for the Mentally Retarded, where his father worked as a clinical pathologist and research director.

After his graduation from Haverstraw High School, Bronfenbrenner attended Cornell University, where he completed a double major in psychology and music in 1938. He went on to graduate work in developmental psychology, completing an M.A. at Harvard University, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1942. Twenty-four hours after receiving his doctorate he was inducted into the Army, where he served as a psychologist in a variety of assignments for the Army Air Corps and the Office of Strategic Services. After completing officer training he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

Immediately after World War II, Bronfenbrenner worked briefly as Assistant Chief Clinical Psychologist for Administration and Research for the Veterans' Administration, before beginning his work as Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1948, he accepted a professorship in Human Development, Family Studies, and Psychology at Cornell University. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, Bronfenbrenner served as a faculty-elected member of Cornell's Board of Trustees.

With his wife, Liese, Urie Bronfenbrenner had six children: Beth Soll, Ann Stambler, Mary Bronfenbrenner, Michael Bronfenbrenner, Kate Bronfenbrenner, and Steven Bronfenbrenner. Beth Soll became a choreographer, dancer, writer, and teacher at Hofstra University, Columbia University, and Manhattanville College. His daughter, Ann Stambler became a psychiatric social worker in Newton, Massachusetts. Mary Bronfenbrenner became a teacher of German in the Ithaca Public School system. Michael Bronfenbrenner moved to Seal Beach, California, working as a video artist/professional. Kate Bronfenbrenner was appointed the Director of Labor Education Research at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Steven Bronfenbrenner became director of an arts administration company in San Francisco, California.

At the time of his death, Bronfenbrenner was the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Human Development and of Psychology in the Cornell University College of Human Ecology. Bronfenbrenner died at his home in Ithaca, New York, on September 25, 2005, due to complications from diabetes. He was 88.


Did you know?
Developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner believed that children need sustained interaction with their parents and a supportive society in order to develop into successful adults

In his scholarly work, Bronfenbrenner pursued three mutually reinforcing themes: Developing theory and corresponding research designs to advance the field of developmental psychology; laying out the implications and applications of developmental theory and research for policy and practice; and communicating the findings of developmental research to students, the general public, and to decision-makers both in the private and public sector.

Head Start

Bronfenbrenner played an active role in the design of developmental programs, including being one of the founders of Head Start. In 1965, his ideas and ability to translate them into operational research models and effective social policies spurred the creation of Head Start, the federal child development program. One of the most successful and longest-running program for stopping the cycle of poverty in the United States, Head Start has provided comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.

Ecological Systems Theory

Generally regarded as one of the world's leading scholars in the field of developmental psychology, Bronfenbrenner's primary theoretical contribution was his Ecological Systems Theory, in which he delineated four types of nested systems. He called these the microsystem, the mesosytem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem. He later added a fifth system, called the Chronosystem.[1] Each system contains roles, norms, and rules that can powerfully shape development. Bronfenbrenner recognized that not only is it necessary to understand how the family or school influences human development, but broader influences as well.

The four systems are:

  • Microsystem: Immediate environments (family, school, peer group, neighborhood, and childcare environments)
  • Mesosystem: A system comprised of connections between immediate environments (i.e., a child’s home and school)
  • Exosystem: External environmental settings which only indirectly affect development (such as parent's workplace)
  • Macrosystem: The larger cultural context (Eastern vs. Western culture, national economy, political culture, subculture)

Later a fifth system was added:

  • Chronosystem: The patterning of environmental events and transitions over the course of life.

Each system contains roles, norms, and rules that can powerfully shape development. According to the ecological theory, if the relationships in the immediate microsystem break down, the child will not have the tools to explore other parts of his environment. Children looking for the affirmations that should be present in the child/parent (or child/other important adult) relationship look for attention in inappropriate places. These deficiencies show themselves especially in adolescence as anti-social behavior, lack of self-discipline, and inability to provide self-direction.[2]

The major statement of this theory, The Ecology of Human Development (1979), has had widespread influence on the way psychologists and other social scientists approach the study of human beings and their environments. It has been said that before Bronfenbrenner, child psychologists studied the child, sociologists examined the family, anthropologists the society, economists the economic framework of the times, and political scientists the political structure.

As a result of Bronfenbrenner's groundbreaking work in "human ecology," these environments, from the family to economic and political structures, have come to be viewed as part of the life course from childhood through adulthood. The "bioecological" approach to human development broke down barriers among the social sciences, and built bridges between the disciplines that have allowed findings to emerge about which key elements in the larger social structure, and across societies, are vital for optimal human development.

Later Years

Bronfenbrenner spent many of his later years warning that the process that makes human beings human is breaking down as disruptive trends in American society produce ever more chaos in the lives of America's children. "The hectic pace of modern life poses a threat to our children second only to poverty and unemployment," he said. "We are depriving millions of children—and thereby our country—of their birthright … virtues, such as honesty, responsibility, integrity and compassion."

The gravity of the crisis, he warned, threatens the competence and character of the next generation of adults—those destined to be the first leaders of the twenty-first century. "The signs of this breakdown are all around us in the ever growing rates of alienation, apathy, rebellion, delinquency, and violence among American youth," he said. Yet, Bronfenbrenner added: "It is still possible to avoid that fate. We now know what it takes to enable families to work the magic that only they can perform. The question is, are we willing to make the sacrifices and the investment necessary to enable them to do so?"[3]


Bronfenbrenner's widely-published contributions won him honors and distinguished awards both at home and abroad. He held six honorary degrees, three of them from European universities. An American award given to him in 1996, and afterwards given annually in his name, was for "Lifetime Contribution to Developmental Psychology in the service of Science and Society," also known as "The Bronfenbrenner Award." Other awards and positions include:

  • The James McKeen Cattell Award from the American Psychological Society[4]
  • Chair, 1970 White House Conference on Children[5]

His theoretical model transformed the way many social and behavioral scientists approached the study of human beings and their environments. It led to new directions in basic research and to applications in the design of programs and policies affecting the well-being of children and families both in the United States and abroad. Bronfenbrenner's work provides one of the foundational elements of the Ecological counseling perspective, as espoused by Bob Conyne, Ellen Cook, and the University of Cincinnati Counseling Program.

Cornell President Hunter R. Rawlings said of Bronfenbrenner, "Perhaps more than any other single individual, Urie Bronfenbrenner changed America's approach to child rearing and created a new interdisciplinary scholarly field, which he defined as the ecology of human development. His association with Cornell spanned almost 60 years, and his legacy continues through Cornell's Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center and through the generations of students to whom he was an inspiring teacher, mentor and friend."


  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1972. Two Worlds of Childhood. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671212389
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1973. Influencing Human Development. Holt, R & W. ISBN 0030891760
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1975. Two Worlds of Childhood: US and USSR. Penguin. ISBN 0140811044
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1975. Influences on Human Development. Holt, R & W. ISBN 0030894131
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1979. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674224574
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1981. On Making Human Beings Human. Sage Publications Ltd. ISBN 0761927123
  • Myers, R. & Bronfenbrenner, U. 1992. The Twelve Who Survive: Strengthening Programmes of Early Childhood Development in the Third World. Routledge. ISBN 0415073073


  1. U. Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979). ISBN 0674224574
  2. J. T. Addison, "Urie Bronfenbrenner" in Human Ecology, 20(2): 16-20.
  3. Susan S. Lang, Cornell News Release on Bronfenbrenner's Death. Retrieved December 1, 2007.
  4. Psychological Science, 1993 James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award.
  5. Time Magazine, The American Family: Future Uncertain. Retrieved December 1, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bronfenbrenner, Urie. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. ISBN 0674224574
  • Bronfenbrenner, Urie. On Making Human Beings Human. Sage Publications Ltd, 1981. ISBN 0761927123
  • Myers, R. and Urie Bronfenbrenner. The Twelve Who Survive: Strengthening Programmes of Early Childhood Development in the Third World. Routledge, 1992. ISBN 0415073073

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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