In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecological Framework

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Situational Approaches
  • Resilience Theory
  • Ecological Assessment Tools

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Social Work Ecological Framework
Susan P. Kemp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0095


Ecology, the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments, is a vibrant interdisciplinary field encompassing both the natural and the social sciences. In the social sciences, ecological theories, research, and intervention models focus on the complex, dynamic, and reciprocal relationships between human organisms and a range of environmental contexts, from family and immediate milieu to larger sociocultural, political, and institutional arrangements. Conceptually, the ecological framework is a broad, overarching paradigm or metatheory, bridging several fields of theory and research, and orienting practitioners and researchers to the importance of integrative, multilevel, and multidimensional approaches to person-environment relationships. Despite concerns that it is overly abstract and difficult to operationalize and use systematically in practice, the ecological (or ecological systems) framework has been widely influential, informing a range of practice and research applications and a growing interdisciplinary body of research literature. In social work, three lines of ecological inquiry have been particularly influential: sociological and community psychological approaches to community research and human ecology, theories and models grounded in general systems and ecological theories, and applications of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s developmental ecological theory. Recently, interest has been growing in holistic, justice-centered, and non-Western ecological frameworks. This bibliographic summary provides guidance on theoretical and applied work in these four areas, focusing primarily on developments since the 1970s. In addition to social work resources, materials are included that point readers to promising developments in ecological science in neighboring disciplines, including community, developmental, and environmental psychology; public health; geography; urban planning; and landscape architecture.

General Overviews

The overviews in this section provide a range of perspectives on the development and application of ecological perspectives in social work. Greene 2008, Gitterman 2008, and Mattaini 2008 provide useful general overviews. Siporin 1980 and Allen-Meares and Lane 1987 contribute additional information on the underlying interdisciplinary foundations of ecological approaches. Although overviews that compare US and non-US perspectives are not widely available, for valuable comparative perspectives see Ecological Systems Theory.

  • Allen-Meares, Paula, and Bruce A. Lane. 1987. Grounding social work practice in theory: Ecosystems. Social Casework 68.9: 515–521.

    Describes the theoretical and empirical contributions of ethology, ecological psychology, ethnology, and systems theory to ecological systems theory (ecosystems) in social work; presents a set of ecosystems principles; and outlines a model for ecosystemic assessment in social work practice.

  • Gitterman, Alex. 2008. Ecological framework. In Encyclopedia of social work, 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrahi and Larry E. Davis, 97–102. New York: National Association of Social Workers and Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise but comprehensive overview of foundational and emerging ecological concepts, framed within a summary of the development of ecological ideas in social work theory and practice.

  • Greene, Roberta R. 2008. Ecological perspective: An eclectic theoretical framework for social work practice. In Human behavior theory and social work practice. 3d ed. Edited by Roberta R. Greene, 199–236. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

    Reviews the theoretical roots of the ecological perspective, outlines its primary assumptions, and examines the application of selected concepts in individual, group, and community practice.

  • Mattaini, Mark A. 2008. Ecosystems theory. In Comprehensive handbook of social work and social welfare, Vol. 2, Human behavior in the social environment. Edited by Bruce A. Thyer, 355–377. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    A thorough presentation of the ecosystems perspective that delineates the history and key elements of this social work framework, maps its interdisciplinary conceptual and empirical foundations, and succinctly lays out recent advances in systems and ecological scholarship, including ecobehavioral theory and approaches.

  • Siporin, Max. 1980. Ecological systems theory in social work. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 7.4: 507–532.

    Provides a critical overview of ecological systems approaches emerging in social work at the end of the 1970s, including a useful presentation of the intellectual foundations of these approaches in social work and neighboring social science disciplines.

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