In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urie Bronfenbrenner

  • Introduction
  • Intelligence
  • Writing on Bronfenbrenner

Childhood Studies Urie Bronfenbrenner
Jonathan Tudge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0112


Urie Bronfenbrenner (b. 1917–d. 2005) was born in Russia but moved to the United States at age six. In an autobiographical chapter (Bronfenbrenner 1995, in Writing on Bronfenbrenner), subtitled “Reflections of a Participant Observer,” he wrote about those aspects of his personal and intellectual development most relevant to his subsequent career. Among the crucial elements he mentioned were the following: his parents’ respect for “great [Russian] psychologists”; his father’s worry about the labeling as “morons” (a self-fulfilling prophecy) of those sent to the state mental institution where he worked; the early appreciation for organism-environment interdependence gained from long walks with his father (“a field naturalist at heart”: Bronfenbrenner 1995, p. 602); the “two worlds” at Cornell, divided between the strictly experimental psychology of Edward Titchener and Gestaltist views of configurations, patterns, and what Bronfenbrenner later termed “experiments of nature”; the influence of Walter Dearborn (with whom he studied at Harvard), with his view that to understand something one has to change it, and of Kurt Lewin (whose work he read while a doctoral student at the University of Michigan), who stressed the importance of understanding “the particular processes through which the observed phenomenon was brought about” (Bronfenbrenner 1995, p. 606); and finally, in 1949, joining the faculty at Cornell, with a joint position in psychology and home economics. As he wrote, “I had already decided that my main scientific interest was in the forces and conditions shaping human development in the actual settings in which human beings lived their lives” (Bronfenbrenner 1995, p. 610). Bronfenbrenner was passionately interested in making a difference in the lives of struggling families and children (see Concern with Children). Relatively early in his career he was one of the prime movers in the creation of Head Start, and many of his papers are devoted to the plight of the young. His broad vision for how societies could make a difference was put in sharper focus by his understanding of arrangements in other countries—primarily in the former Soviet Union. Bronfenbrenner was equally concerned with the difficulties faced by many families, with public policies treating families as deficient rather than understanding the relation between their problems and the broader social context within which they were situated (see Concern with Families). He is probably best known in the academic community for his theoretical work (see Development of the Bioecological Theory of Human Development). His Ecology of Human Development (Bronfenbrenner 1979, cited under the Ecology of Human Development) continues to be cited widely, but, despite the evolution of the theory, Bronfenbrenner continues to be viewed as a theorist simply interested in contextual influences on development (see Writing on Bronfenbrenner).

The Soviet Union

Although Bronfenbrenner lived from age six onward in the United States, his knowledge of the Russian language and his many visits to the Soviet Union allowed him to understand and appreciate contemporaneous Russian approaches to childrearing and to be saddened by the negative perceptions that Russians and Americans had of one another. From a geopolitical standpoint, misperceptions are dangerous; however, Bronfenbrenner believed that the United States also had a good deal to learn from the care and attention that Russians paid to the rearing of their future citizens. As his writings that appear in the sections Concern with Children and Concern with Families make clear, Bronfenbrenner was highly concerned about the ways in which many American children, particularly those living in relative poverty, were raised—especially the limited support provided by the community, the workplace, and government policies. What he termed the “chaos” of many children’s and families’ lives could only lead, he believed, to growing alienation among the young. Contemporaneous Soviet childrearing approaches could, if incorporated into the American way of life, help in the process of “making human beings human” (see Bronfenbrenner 1972b, Bronfenbrenner 1972c, Bronfenbrenner 1977, and Bronfenbrenner 1980, cited under Causes and Consequences of Alienation, and Bronfenbrenner 1980, cited under Family Policy). The use of the collective to help with character formation was associated with peers encouraging one another to behave in socially acceptable ways, unlike the situation Bronfenbrenner found among American peer groups.

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