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Uric Bronfenbrenner's pedantry in laying out formal definitions, hypotheses, propositions, is off-putting until you realize that he is establishing the ground rules for an evolutionary/revolutionary turn in developmental psychology. Notwithstanding the debased currency of the word, his is a truly ""ecological"" viewpoint. He sees the growth of a child as a series of nested boxes of micro- to macrosystems involving first dyads and triads of individuals, then larger chunks of society. With acknowledgment to Kurt Lewin's ""topologies"" and Harry Stack Sullivan's interpersonal psychology--and perhaps unconscious homage to Jules Henry, that master of family psychopathology--Bronfenbrenner convinces us that parents, teachers, social scientists have all been blind to the fact that development is not something that happens to a child, but a process that involves the child in a series of potentially transforming interactions with others in particular settings. While psychologists have often paid lip service to these ideas, developmental studies continue to focus on a child in a laboratory, or a white academician in an ethnic ghetto, and perpetuate a ""deficit""-in-the-victim ethos. If something is developmentally wrong, the child is at fault; or if not the child, the family; and so on. Even the classic experiments to determine if there are critical periods of attachment or dependency have focused on the mother or the child, but not on both together. Thus, Bronfenbrenner astonishes and delights us as he painstakingly re-analyzes the work of Ren‚ Spitz, for example, or of Skeels, who had the beneficent idea of putting orphans in wards of mentally-retarded females, to their mutual gain. On an adult level, he reviews the Milgram pain-inflicting experiment and the Zimbardo prisoners-and-guards role-playing scenario. All these experiments--involving interpersonal and larger ecological variables--have been criticized in terms of design, interpretation, and ethics. Bronfenbrenner, moreover, goes so far as to suggest that psychological studies should not necessarily shape social policy, but the other way around. We could, for example, mandate the addition of ""caring"" programs to school curricula, where children would learn what it is like to help the aged or the ill. We could emphasize play that simulates the workplace or stimulates fantasy--neither presently encouraged in American schools. Of course, there is a danger of social manipulation which Bronfenbrenner recognizes, for these practices are typical of the Russian and Chinese nurseries that he has studied. But Bronfenbrenner argues that changes can take place in the macrosystem as well: society need not be static. It all sounds eminently sensible, and exciting.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1979
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press