An Ecological Approach to Study of the Family

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  • This article was downloaded by: [UQ Library]On: 22 November 2014, At: 03:26Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    An Ecological Approach to Study of the FamilyMary P. Andrews PhD a , Margaret M. Bubolz PhD b & Beatrice Paolucci PhD ba Assistant Professor and Evaluation Specialist, Cooperative Extension Service Family LivingProgram, Michigan State Universityb Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology, Michigan State UniversityPublished online: 26 Oct 2008.

    To cite this article: Mary P. Andrews PhD , Margaret M. Bubolz PhD & Beatrice Paolucci PhD (1981) An Ecological Approach toStudy of the Family, Marriage & Family Review, 3:1-2, 29-49, DOI: 10.1300/J002v03n01_02

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  • An Ecological Approach to Study of the Family

    MARY P. ANDREWS. PhD MARGARET M. BUBOLZ. PhD

    BEATRICE PAOLUCCI. PhD

    Abstract. An ecological approach for examination of the interdependnece of family and its interacting environments is presented. Attention is given to the function the family plays as an energy transformation system, with par- ticular emphasis on its role in the production of human capital through the building of family and individual competences. These competences are essential for families and individuals to cope with crises and problems on many levels: individual, family, community and societal. Use of an ecologi- cal approach can enhance the understanding of the relationship of behavior to environmental conditions and the effects on families of the institutions and the organizations with which they interact. This approach can also pro- vide a framework for design and implementation of imaginative intervention programs and support systems based on knowledge of family/environment interaction.

    Introduction

    In this paper we propose an ecological systems approach to the farn- ily for purposes of research, practice, and policy development. At present, this approach is primarily in the "angle of vision" stage, all though some concepts have been identified and a framework is evolving. It is not yet a theory in the sense of a set of logically interre- lated propositions. This perspective for looking at the family assumes, as does the systems way of thinking and related concepts

    Dr. Andrews is Assistant Professor and Evaluation Specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service Family Living Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michi- gan 48824. Dr. Bubolz is Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology, and Dr. Paolucci is Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology of the College of Human Ecology, Michigan State University.

    Marriage & Family Review, Vol. 3(1/2), Spring/Summer 1980 O 1980 The Haworth Press 29

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  • 30 Marriage & Family Review

    of structuralism in a variety of disciplines, that phenomena must be examined in their wholeness of interaction and interdependence, rather than by simple or linear cause-effect relationships. As such it is akin to what T. S. Kuhn (1970) suggests as a new paradigm in sci- entific theories, and what Foucault (1970) suggests as a new episteme, underlying thought and shaping practice in the disciplines and applied fields.

    This paper presents conceptualization of an ecological ap- proach to the family, with suggestions of how this approach may be used to examine relationships of the family to institutional support systems such as health, welfare, and education. In addition, it sug- gests ways the approach can be used to assess needs of families and thus provide a base for policy, legislation, and program develop- ment.

    Background of an Ecological Systems Approach

    An ecological approach is founded in ecology, the study of the inter- relations of organisms and environment. It is built on the concept of an ecosystem, the term proposed by Tansley in 1935 as a name for the interaction system comprised of living things together with their habitat or environment which surrounds them (Evans, 1956). An ecological approach utilizes concepts from general systems theory (Buckley, 1968), and from a social systems approach, which have been suggested and promulgated by several family scholars (Broder- ick, 1971; Hill, 1974; Kantor & Lehr, 1975). An ecosystem ap- proach, however, adds and gives emphasis to the biological and physical dimensions of the organism and the environment, as well as to psychosocial characteristics and interactions. Social systems ap- proaches to family study have sometimes assumed biological and physical dimensions and environments as given, or when considered have given them scant attention. With an ecological approach, the physical resource base of the family is critical, as are the family's transactions with other environments.

    We are not, however, considering the family only from the stance of biology, the discipline with which ecology has been pri- marily identified, nor are we using it from a strictly human ecologi- cal orientation as developed in sociology. Such concepts and princi-

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 31

    ples, however, as needs of living species for nourishment, shelter, and reproduction; interdependence, community, population, and spatial distribution; stability, diversity, adaptation, and balance or equilibrium, common to plant and animal as well as human ecology, are basic in considering the family from an ecological perspective (Hawley, 1968; Odum, 1963). In our use of ecology we are, in a sense, returning to the root Greek word from which it was derived- oikos, "a house or living place," and the conception which Ellen Swallow Richards and others (AHEA, 1902) had of a new field of knowledge (home economics) in the early 20th century which was defined as study

    of the laws, conditions, principles and ideals which are concerned on the one hand, with man's immediate physical environment and on the other hand with his nature as a social being, and is the study specifically of the relations between those two factors (pp. 70-71).

    Recent work in the field of home economics has resulted in renewed attention to the ecological natureof humans, and more especially to the family as the primary living group, existing in interaction with its biological-physical and social environment (Compton &Hall, 1972; Lee, Hart, & Mentzer, 1972; CHE, Note I). An ecological perspec- tive on the family offers the possibility of a reapproachment of the natural and social sciences to the study of the family, to which vari- ous disciplines can contribute their special concepts and methods of study and analysis. It provides a framework in which multidiscipli- nary study can be accommodated, and various approaches and theories utilized.

    In some respects a family ecological framework is a reconcep- tualization of the earlier household-economics / home-management approach developed prior to 1950 and included by Hi11 (1955) in one of his early efforts to identify and categorize approaches to family study. Since 1955, home economists along with other family re- searchers have given continued attention to the interrelationship of resources and family behavior, i.e., valuing, decision making, and communication (Deakin & Firebaugh, 1975; Eldridge & Meredith, 1976; Nichols, Mumaw, Paynter, Plonk, &Price, 1971). During the 1960s and early 1970s, family research began to provide insights into the necessity for viewing the interrelatedness and interdependence of family members and those environments which impinge upon

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  • 32 Marriage & Family Review

    them. This led to a reawakening of the need to view the family from an ecological perspective (Hook & Paolucci, 1970; Paolucci, Hall, & Axinn, 1977).

    Underlying this approach is the assumption that humans are a part of the total life system and cannot be considered apart from all other living species in nature and the environments that surround them.

    Family Ecological System

    An ecosystem has three central organizing concepts: environed unit, environment, and the patterning of interactions and transactions between them (Sprout & Sprout, 1965). In the family ecosystem, the environed unit is the group of persons who constitute the family, de- fined as a bonded unit of interacting and interdependent persons who have some common goals and resources, and for part of their life cycle, at least, share living space. So defined, families with dif- ferent configurations of age, sex, marital status, and role patterns can be delineated. Pluralistic familial groupings, i.e., nuclear, single parent, kin networks, communal arrangements, intentional couples can be identified and their adaptability and effect on environments examined (Sussman, 1976).

    This definition places emphasis on the corporate unity of the family as a group, with identity, actions, and character of its own, more than the sum of the individuals who make it up. The definition builds upon the classic definition of Burgess (1965) of the family as a unity of interacting persons and on his assumption that the family as a reality inheres in the conception which society and its members have of it. The definition adds the essential notion of some shared resources and goals, including living space. From an organism/en- vironment standpoint the family can be considered an organism or group of organisms in transaction with its environment.

    The environments of the family furnish the resources necessa- ry for life and constitute the life-support system. Environment is conceptualized to include natural, human-constructed, and human behavioral components (Bubolz, Eicher, & Sontag, 1979; Mor- rison, 1974). The natural, physical, and biological environments provide the basis for human existence. Humans are not independent organisms. For human survival, such fundamental resources as air,

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 33

    water, space, food and other energy supplies, and shelter from ex- treme temperatures and dangers, human and otherwise, are essen- tial. But humans have transformed the natural environment, both biological and physical. Humans have constructed artifacts of art, machines, and other material goods and structures. Humans as social beings have also developed such constructions as language, values, norms, social patterns, systems, and institutions, which pro- vide the basis for communication, order, and coordination of human activities. These, too, are part of the environment in which the family is firmly embedded. Last, humans constitute en- vironments for other humans; thus, a third component of the envi- ronment is conceptualized as the human behavioral environment.

    The family ecosystem itself can also be viewed as an environ- ment that supports the development of individual subsystems or family members. The sociopsychological and behavioral environ- ment of roles, rules, and interactions supports the development of those human characteristics that serve an integrative function for society, i.e., building of trust, love, relatedness, and order. It shapes attitudes, values, expectations, and patterns of decision making. The interaction of this sociopsychological and behavioral environ- ment with the material human-constructed aspects of the ecosystem (housing, equipment, clothing, and food) and the natural environ- ment (land, air, and water) facilitates the physical maintenance of the system, the development of skills, eating patterns, and aesthetic choices. The extensive research focusing on conditions affecting child growth and development vividly illustrates how family aspira- tions, values, and .childrearing styles interact with the material re- source base of the family (Keniston, 1977). The results are the pres- ence or lack of tangible educational materials, th'e adequacy of space, nutrition, and health services, and the opportunities provid- ed for language and social interaction. These conditions of the home environment critically influence the development and conti- nuing growth of not only children but all family members.

    A third component of the family ecosystem is the organization derived from patterns of transactions between environed units and the environment. This organization relates the family system to the environment and is created and constantly evolving through reci- procally directed transactions or exchanges of energy between and among systems and environments.

    A family ecosystem approach views the family as a unit in in-

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    teraction with environments comprised of matter-energy and infor- mation in the form of symbols, signs, and messages (A. Kuhn, 1974; Miller, 1971). Family members structure a pattern of com- munication for transforming matter-energy and information (Laszlo, 1973; Weick, 1969). The flow of energy through systems serves an organizing function, relating parts to wholes and systems to environments.

    Energy, thus, forms the lifeblood of human systems. A mini- mu...

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