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

  • Introduction
  • History
  • General Overviews
  • Theoretical Development
  • Research and Measurement
  • Linkages to Systems Perspectives

Public Health Ecological Approaches
Monica L. Wendel, Whitney R. Garney, Kenneth R. McLeroy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0037


Social ecology provides a framework for understanding how individuals and their social environments mutually affect each other across the lifespan. Drawing from the ideas of Kurt Lewin’s A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935), which conceptualized this relationship as an equation that yielded behavior, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s The Ecology of Human Development (Bronfenbrenner 1979, cited under History) extended the social ecological perspective to account for the complexity of individuals developing within embedded systems. Bronfenbrenner specified micro-, meso-, exo-, and macro- subsystems, which constitute the settings and life space within which an individual develops. In this model, each of the subsystems influences the individual and the other subsystems. Moreover, Bronfenbrenner viewed the individual as moving through time and being influenced by his or her developmental and life course experiences (ontogenic development). McLeroy, et al. 1988 (cited under History), which appeared in Health Education Quarterly as “An Ecological Perspective on Health Promotion Programs,” further defined the social ecological model for health promotion to depict interrelated systems at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational, community, and policy levels, illustrated as concentric circles. The authors subsequently add other levels of analysis, including the physical environment and culture. The social ecological model provides a framework for understanding the factors that produce and maintain health and health-related issues, allowing identification of promising points of intervention and understanding how social problems are produced and sustained within and across the various subsystems. However, the model has also yielded a growing acknowledgment of the complexity of these systems, highlighting the need for more sophisticated intervention and research methods. Social ecological concepts are now widely used within the field of public health and are included in: (1) core competencies for public health developed by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health that serve as the basis for the public health certification examination; (2) a framework for several of the leading volumes on theory and practice in the field; (3) curricular frameworks for a number of the schools and programs for public health; and (4) other, related frameworks, such as the model proposed for the National Institutes of Health population disparities centers.


Much of the research at the foundation of current thinking in social ecology stems from human development, and ecological, community, and health psychology. The works in this section provide a glimpse of the conceptual underpinnings of the social ecological perspective in public health. Bronfenbrenner 1979 extends previous ideas about the interrelation between individuals and their environments, applying an ecological framework to human development. Here, the author lays out the embedded systems in which human behaviors occur: the micro-, meso-, exo-, and macro-systems, and the 2005 volume extends Bronfenbrenner’s ecological framework to include a greater emphasis on systems thinking and systems ideas. The history of the social ecological perspective in public health stems from synthesis of ideas from other disciplines including the author’s early works on human development. McLeroy, et al. 1988 is often cited as one of the initial articles specifically applying an ecological model to public health and health promotion. Winett, et al. 1989 provides an ecological perspective on health psychology and public health with a particular focus on several problem areas, including adolescent pregnancy, dietary change, mental health, and others. Moos 1979 focuses increased attention on the role of the physical environment, environmental psychology, and the influences on human behavior of the natural and constructed environment. Susser and Susser 1996 describes the application of a social ecological perspective to the discipline of epidemiology, likening the multiple levels to nested Chinese boxes. Bronfenbrenner 2005 extends the author’s social ecological model to a bioecological theory of human development and explicates its fit with systems theory.

  • Bronfenbrenner, Urie. 1979. The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A thorough explication of the rationale for the systems model in human development with an emphasis on the connection between person and setting (environment). Although historical, when presented, Bronfenbrenner’s theoretical perspective was new in its application. Provides easily understood examples for each theoretical step.

  • Bronfenbrenner, Urie, ed. 2005. Making human beings human: Biological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Several chapters in this volume discuss the conceptual foundations of social ecology, its application in human development, and its fit with systems theory. Suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • McLeroy, Kenneth, Daniel Bibeau, Allan Steckler, and Karen Glanz. 1988. An ecological perspective on health promotion programs. Health Education and Behavior 15.4: 351–377.

    DOI: 10.1177/109019818801500401

    Directs attention to specific circumstances in public health that created demand for a new framework that addresses the complex factors that produce health beyond solely individual behavior. Available online for purchase or by subscription. Also see Theoretical Development.

  • Moos, R. H. 1979. Social-ecological perspectives on health. In Health psychology—A handbook: Theories, applications, and challenges of a psychological approach to the health care system. Edited by George C. Stone, Frances Cohen, and Nancy E. Adler, 523–547. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Provides insight to emergency of ecological thinking in psychology and its early application to health issues.

  • Susser, Mervyn, and Ezra Susser. 1996. Choosing a future for epidemiology: II. From black box to Chinese boxes and eco-epidemiology. American Journal of Public Health 86.5: 674–677.

    DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.86.5.674

    A brief discussion historical paradigms and paradigm shifts in epidemiology, highlighting the need to attend to social processes that influence this distribution of disease. Provides a rationale for an ecological perspective as a systematic rather than universalistic paradigm. Presents a concise table of eras in epidemiology with their preventive and analytic approaches.

  • Winett, Richard A., Abby C. King, and David G. Altman. 1989. Health psychology and public health: An integrative approach. New York: Pergamon.

    This volume provides a rapprochement of health psychology and public health through an ecological perspective and applies an ecological perspective to HIV, community health promotion, mental health, teen pregnancy, diet, health in the workplace, environmental health, and aging. Well written and a valuable resource for the application of social ecological concepts.

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