An Ecological Approach to Study of the Family

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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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    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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    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- mum supply of energy is required on both the individual and family system levels for system maintenance and sheer existence-to main- tain essential functions for survival, e.g., food and fuel. Additional energy or more efficient use of energy is required for transactions with other systems beyond the family-educational, religious, rec- reational, economic, and other social systems. Still higher levels of organization of energy use are needed for adaptive, creative behav- ior to enable a system to cope with changing environments and rules.

    Transactions between family and environment are guided by two sets of rules: the immutable laws of nature and the set of human- derived rules. Immutable laws of nature pivot around the capacity of the natural environment to process waste and the finite nature of energy (fossil fuel) resources (Koenig, Note 2). Rules of relation- ships within and between systems are, however, human derived and changeable, e.g., allocation of resources, social customs, role ex- pectations, power distributions. Because the family ecosystem ex- ists in interdependence with a series of other ecosystems, ranging from the social and physical community in which it exists to the global ecosystem, considering the family as an ecosystem requires that both sets of rules be considered.

    Family as an Energy Transformation System

    The boundaries that protect the integrity and identity of the family system are permeable, permitting energy exchanges with the en- vironment. Members of the family system who interact with other systems form linkages. These interfaces or points where two systems meet facilitate the flow of information, goods, and services across system boundaries. As illustrated in Figure 1, this flow of energy in- to and through the family system activiates decision-making and de-

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 35

    ENERGY Information Goods Services Fuels Pollutants

    TRANSFORMED Material Goods Information Waste - - Human Capital

    ENERGY

    Figure 1. Family as an energy transformation system

    cision-implementing processes. Internally, energy is transformed to support the production, consumption, and socialization functions of the family. The output to the environment is transformed materi- al goods, information, waste products, and human resources. These outputs are used by other systems, activating reciprocal exchanges and bonds of interdependence.

    The family is a cybernetic system. Energy flow in the form of information that reenters the family as feedback provides the per- ceptual data that allows the family to adjust its behavior in relation to the environment. This moves the family to change its pattern of internal organization and external relatedness.

    The family system also uses feedforward mechanisms to predict the effects of family change on other systems, as well as to predict the effects of the environment on the family. This ability to anticipate as well as learn from experiences provides the basis for planning and goal-oriented adaptions.

    Family Behavior from an Ecological Systems Perspective

    Living systems are dynamic, in a constant state of change. Family systems are constantly coping and adapting to perceived cir- cumstances. In so doing, families experience periods of growth and integration, periods of relative balance and stability, as well as periods of disorder and disintegration. Families both react to inter-

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    nal and external conditions as well as proact and initiate action to seek new levels of functioning.

    Based on a general systems concept of "wholeness," it can be conceived that as segments of the family system or the environment change, the state of equilibrium of the ecosystem will be disrupted, calling for counterbalancing or elaborating changes. In the mean- time, stress or tension is created within the ecosystem. Such stress, within limits, is a natural or necessary condition. It serves as a moti- vating or activating force to create change.

    Stress or strain within family systems can be triggered by exter- nal environmental forces such as inflation cutting away at the fami- ly's buying power, or by internal changes such as family members' reexamining values and goals, as well as by the challenges of move- ment through the life cycle. For instance, boundaries may be strained when teens are growing away from the family and establishing strong interdependences with other systems. Internal relationships may be strained when family members experience new roles, such as when a mother enters the labor force, when a young dependent begins to earn his or her own money, or when,a middle-aged father has a heart attack and must change his pace. As the family adjusts to these changes, a new balance is created and the system moves to a new level of relatedness, internally and externally. A cautionary note, however-the intensity of the stress can be overwhelming for a system and, thus, rather than create positive change may instigate disruption and breakdown of system functioning.

    The family has been maligned because of its supposed resis- tance to change. Because of the intimacy of its membership, it does transmit and reinforce patterns of behavior that may be self-en- hancing. Often when such traditional patterns prove maladaptive in light of the demands from the larger environment, an analysis of the feedback processes may be warranted.

    Many systems in our modern society experience difficulty in trying to receive feedback in transactions with increasingly more remote and complex systems. Individual and family choices create relationships and lifestyles, and lifestyles create demands on the en- vironment. For families to moderate their lifestyles, or to adapt to changing conditions in the environment, information in a mean- ingful form must be available to families. Aggregate family behav- ior does make a noticeable impact on the larger environment. It is,

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 37

    however, difficult for individual units to see how their behavior makes much of a difference in the larger realm. This is one area where professionals can help families identify feedback by translat- ing the effects of microlevel behavior on macrosystems. Profes- sionals can also help families identify and process critical informa- tion necessary for adaptive goal-setting or feedforward processes. Many individual decision-making units experience overload because of the amount and inconsistency of the information that they receive. As a result there is apathy, indecision, and a continua- tion of past behavior. Professionals can help individuals evaluate various alternatives and conflicting points of view, and help predict the consequences of various courses of action. The quality of infor- mation processing may be directly associated with the degree to which system behaviors are adaptive and mutually supportive of en- vironmental trends.

    In terms of being able to perceive feedback and exert control, it is the family's near environment, that environment in closest prox- imity both in physical and social-emotional space, that provides both family members and outsiders with the greatest insights con- cerning family behavior. This environment is of critical importance because some of the most essential transactions of matter-energy and information exchange occur in the family, in its home and near environs. Basic processes of deciding, valuing, goal setting and im- plementing, and resource allocation, the outcomes of which are so- cialization and consumption, occur within the home and family. These transactions are heavily influenced by local conditions, in- cluding resources and services available, customs, values, and pat- terns of interaction.

    Three broad dimensions of family ecosystems which appear to have potential for further understanding family behavior have been outlined by Insel and Moos (1974).

    1 . Relationship dimensions identify the nature and intensity of personal relationships within the environment. They assess the extent to which individuals are involved in the environment and the extent to which they support and help each other.

    2 . Personaldevelopment dimensions consider the potential or opportunity in the environment for personal growth and the devel- opment of self-esteem.

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    3. Systems maintenance and system change dimensions assess the extent to which the environment is orderly and clear in its expec- tations, maintains control, and is responsive to change.

    These dimensions of ecosystems are important in considering the re- sourcefulness of the family in response to problems, and can serve to focus study of the family away from individual acts to processes and synergetic patterns of activity.

    Family as a Subsystem within Society

    The family exists in a complex milieu of biological, physical, social, and institutional systems that form the environments of the family. Figure 2 presents a descriptive model that conceptualizes the family as a human system made up of subsystems of individuals as acorpo- rate, bonded entity, transacting with its environment (Paolucci, Bubolz, & Rainey, 1976). These elements of the larger environment

    ENVIRONMENT

    Environment

    Behavioral Environ- Environ-

    NON-MMKET ACTIVITIES INTEGRATIVE FUNCTIONS

    1. Health r e w ~ t ~ in ,/'

    I 2. Fertility Management .-.-.-,-.A 3. Income. Production 4. Social Equity

    Fiure 2. Conceptual model for assessing family-environment transactions.

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 39

    include the natural environmenr of land, raw materials, energy sources, and other life-support resources; the human-constructed environment of housing, tools, transportation and communication systems, religion, government, educational and cultural institu- tions; and the behavioral environment of other human beings with their modes of relating. These environments influence the resources available to the family and the manner in which activities are per- formed. If the environments do not furnish the material, human, or information resources needed, the family and its members cannot function effectively. The family system includes both personal at- tributes of its members such as health and skills, and structural at- tributes of the family, i.e., authority patterns, roles, goals, aspira- tions, affectual relationships, and patterns of decision making. The family system produces human resources, and with the help of other social systems transforms these resources to provide the human cap- ital reserves of a society. If the required sources are not available or the family is not able to utilize resources, family members do not develop in a positive direction and instead of becoming human capital reserves of a society, become costs to society. The family as a unit, and through its individual members, participates in both market (business, industry, agriculture, service) and nonmarket (household production, individual maintenance, community par- ticipation) activities and provides an integrative function (trust, or- ganization, relatedness) that contributes to the social and economic well-being of the family, the community, and the society. The ever- changing status of the family's and the society's social and econom- ic development changes the environment and provides feedback to the family and to other social systems. Such feedback aids in making management decisions about the allocation and dispersion of human and nonhuman resources. This ecological model draws at- tention to the multiple and interacting systems that impact on the family and to the diversity of functions performed by the family that contribute to social goals. The model can provide a framework for policy and planning, for resource assessments, for developing pro- gram strategies and for evaluation. Such a model can aid in:

    1. Identifying the systems that impact on families. 2. Assessing the human and nonhuman resources available in

    and to families for their existence and for carrying out internal activ- ities and functions for society.

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    3. Identifying and quantifying integrative activities of fami- lies that facilitate the functioning of other systems; i.e. trust.

    4. Identifying and quantifying activities or contributions of families and family members in the marketplace, the community and the home.

    The model can also provide a basis for delineating the competence families and individuals need to function in contemporary society and to cope with rapid change.

    Building Human Competence

    Building and enhancing competence in people is essential if they are to learn not only to cope but also to shape their environments. Com- petencies essential to everyday living occur in at least three domains: family, neighborhood, and workplace. These competencies include the ability to carry out family functions effectively, to participate in community affairs and utilize community institutions, and to per- form successfully in the marketplace.

    Efforts need to be made by the family and its support systems to help each person acquire knowledge and skill in health and nutri- tion, decision making and problem solving, interpersonal commun- ication, and managing the everyday production of goods and ser- vices essential to maintaining a household and nurturing family members.

    The ability to use and participate in community and social in- stitutions is critical to coping with modern society. Knowledge of community resources, and the ability to obtain jobs, make pur- chases, use political and social structures to lobby for interests and acquire social services such as libraries, protection from fire and theft, and health care, is essential.

    Not only does the individual need to be competent in the family and community, but in order to gain access into the economy and hence to money income it is essential that one succeed in school and acquire marketable skills. Success in school is dependent on the irn- pact of different family environments. Through behavior learned in the family, individuals acquire a repertoire of skills, attitudes, and values required to persevere and perform at work. Adult motivation to work comes largely from the family, and the need to provide for

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 41

    family maintenance and achievement of personal and family goals. Release from tensions sustained at work is largely a family responsi- bility-a source or deterrent of violence in families. Thus, the fami- ly can be considered a primary educator and the home a basic center for developing competencies-or incompetency.

    Community as a Support System for Families

    Families cannot build competencies without an interdependent sys- tem of supports (Figure 3). Formally organized systems such as the schools, social welfare, police protection, health care, and mainten- ance systems are essential, but just as important are nonformal and informal systems. Nonformal systems which do not function through hierarchically organized or formally structured operations as schools and the like can be of special value in providing flexible supports, adaptable to the pruticular needs of families and in-

    Figure 3. Links between the family and support systems.

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    dividuals at critical times. Neighborhood and community groups such as Big Brothers and Sisters, 4-H Clubs, cooperative buying groups, child care groups, and adult education provide oppor- tunities for some people for meaningful interaction, exchange of in- formation, and provision of other human services. Such nonformal groups can be parts of or complementary to formal systems.

    Informal support from friends, neighbors, extended family members, and persons who provide goods and services are some- times overlooked by community planners and those involved in for- mal and nonformal systems. They may be among the most signifi- cant and essential in helping people deal with their day-to-day needs and problems, however. Not only can they be sources of social-emo- tional or economic help, they can provide needed physical help, and are often key sources of information. Tips on jobs, where to go for help for certain problems, consumer advice, and a host of other val- uable information are exchanged in informal encounters between people in their neighborhoods, on the job, at the tavern, park, or ballgame, or wherever people engage in social exchange. One of the factors contributing to some of our social problems is the fact that many people are not involved in informal networks where such essential social exchanges can occur, or those informal networks that are functioning provide reinforcement for non-socially accep- table exchanges. Contemporary cities do not provide the means for easy social intercourse where social life and socialization can occur. Aries (1977) points out that as traditional patterns of social interac- tion based on streets and neighborhoods and the cafe began to break down, the balance between family life in the home and community life in the public sector was destroyed. Too many demands were placed on the family to fill the social and emotional needs of its members. A central task of enabling families to cope may lie in rees- tablishing neighborhood or community environments where mater- ial, human, and information resources can be exchanged to help families and their members adapt and survive.

    Concluding Comments

    An ecological systems approach to studying the family provides a holistic way of viewing human systems as ecosystems-sets of components bound together as functioning wholes in dynamic in-

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 43

    teraction with the environment. Families are such ecosystems, unities of individuals intricately embedded in environments of both physical and social dimensions. Some underlying generalizations about this approach can be summarized:

    1. A family ecological approach recognizes that family sys- tems are dynamic, in a constant state of change and adaptation. Feedback and feedforward are necessary processes for goal-direc- ted adaptive functioning.

    2. A family ecological approach emphasizes the fundamental interdependence of human systems with one another and with the environment. Humans exist as part of a total life system sustained by mutually interdependent transactions with other systems and the environment.

    3. A family ecological approach views the family as an energy transformation system. The flow of energy as matter-energy and in- formation serves an organizing function that relates parts to wholes and activates adaptive functioning.

    The models and ideas illustrated in this presentation provide avenues for focused observation of various elements and processes of family behavior. Understanding the nature of the transactions of the family with its environment is proposed as a key to analyzing, describing, and predicting family behavior, and understanding the interrelatedness of the family with the community and the society.

    Considerations for Research and Evaluation

    As noted earlier, an ecological systems approach to family study is not a theory but rather a perspective or paradigm. Thus, it can be used as a framework for incorporating a number of theoretical ap- proaches in conceptualizing and analyzing family phenomena. An advantage is that is provides a set of common terms and concepts which can be used with a variety of disciplinary and theoretical ap- proaches. This more holistic, integrative approach has the potential to build bridges across traditional fields of inquiry, linking more narrowly defined approaches into the context of a larger ecological perspective. In so doing, family study can profit from the experi- ences and results of a great number of simultaneously evolving fields of inquiry.

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    For example, in the area of family research, the work of the structure-functionalists, interactionists, behaviorists, developmen- talists, and increasingly even the economists in their equally valid in- dependent approaches can be merged and reexamined once their conceptualizations are identified within a more holistic perspective. The cross-fertilization of ideas that can result requires that com- munication occur across perspectives. The ecological approach can help serve this integrative function.

    An ecological approach in family study is also helpful for or- ganizing and providing direction to the breadth of work being done at an applied, clinical, or service level. A myriad of agencies work with families for a variety of purposes-health care delivery sys- tems, justice systems, welfare systems, educational and occupa- tional service systems. Each of these view and serve families from a somewhat different point of view. Each is, however, beginning to recognize that what one system or service does affects others.

    Service providers have realized that they must expand their fo- cus in order to accomplish their own objectives. Health careperson- nel have increasingly taken on an educative role in helping families, both on the preventive and the consumerism fronts, by enlightening clientele to become better consumers of services. Similarly, educat- ors have recognized the need for basic stability in family functioning in order for educative services to be effective. Thus, basic nutrition- al adequacy, freedom from trauma, and access to supportive inter- actions are recognized as prerequisites to maximizing one's involve- ment in educational activities.

    Service providers are also seeking ways to improve the efficien- cy and effectiveness of their work. Field research and evaluation re- sults often point to the need for coordination of services in order to provide aunified, holistic thrust in services to families. Specific de- livery methods are often criticized for their lack of continuity or flexibility in meeting needs in a timely and appropriate manner, given the constantly changing and fluctuating nature of those needs. Ser- vices are often found to be in themselves a negative force, disrupting natural adaptive patterns and creating dependencies. Thus, for a variety of reasons, professionals need to analyze their work with families from an ecological perspective.

    With this kind of analysis and feedback, service providers can begin to individualize services to take into account the unique cir- cumstances surrounding each family's situation. Interagency co-

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  • ANDREWS, BUBOLZ, PAOLUCCI 45

    ordination and long-term planning from a variety of service per- spectives can be initiated. And most importantly, the family itself can be recognized as central in the decision-making process. Ser- vices can thus be designed to support the strengths and developing capacity of families to function auton,omously.

    Why are these approaches considered ecological? First, they serve to illustrate awareness that the family as an ecosystem exists in an organized pattern of relationships dependent on and changing the environments in which they are embedded. These existing rela- tionships are maintained and reinforced by a set of interdependen- cies that identify each family system as unique. Identifying these sets of interdependencies is critical for any intervention thrust. Second, the family system is viewed as interfacing with a variety of systems si- multaneously, each exerting an influence on the family. Recogni- tion of these multiple and compounding influences and relation- ships can aid in predicting the nature of the family and the environ- ment's capacity to produce and integrate change that has a positive, intentional outcome. Third, the family system as a rule-governed, cybernetic system is in a constant state of creating or maintaining its own organization. The transformation of energy in the system both produces behavior while simultaneoui.ly reinforcing or adjusting the organizational structure itself (i.e., information-processing ca- pacity, values, decision styles, role definitions, communications). Over time, these actions can result in either a stronger, more auton- omous family unit, better equipped to deal with uncertainty, or a more fragmented, less unified family, less able to cope with change and uncertainty without continued support. Experiments which demonstrate how the family structure itself changes with the inclu- sion of new inputs such as changes in role expectations, activity pat- terns, or resources, aids in monitoring the appropriateness of such inputs and in providing feedback to the family to help the members mediate those changes to best serve their own interests.

    The impact of changes in the environment or in family behav- ior on the family structure or the environment is not easily predic- ted. In fact, this is an area of inquiry in need of scientific study. It is precisely this type of research that requires an ecological approach.

    An ecosystems approach in research would facilitate aware- ness of the dynamics of family-environment transactions. How does the environment, both social and physical, impact on family members and their interpersonal transactions? How does the en-

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    vironment shape behavior? How does the family shape en- vironments? How does the context of the setting influence relation- ships? What are the critical aspects of the environment that mediate functional or dysfunctional transactions in various situations? How do relationships change over time and space? These questions high- light the need to attend to elements of the environmental context when analyzing behavior, as well as to attend to the potential im- pacts of elements of the environment as forces in their own right in influencing behavior and relationships.

    An ecosystems approach in research would emphasize proper- ties of state and change in the family system. Traditionally, research has described and used characteristics of family membership as key variables in family study. With an ecological approach, family study would be expanded to attend to elements of the family as a unity, to identifying the structure of relatedness within the family and be- tween the family and the environment. For example, variables to be identified would include the openness or closedness of the family system, the degree of its embeddedness in multiple systems, the fre- quency and intensity of various energy exchanges, the commonality to which values, role expectations, and goal aspirations are held among members of the family, and relationships between these vari- ables could be investigated.

    If the family system were observed across more than one point in time, the pattern of these relationships could be observed across time and circumstances. All systems have apast, present, and future. By observing systems across time, some of the dynamism of the in- terdependencies of the family system with the environment can be observed. Mediating and catalyzing forces can be investigated in known relationships. Observations of reciprocal transactions of systems in interaction with each other can be traced and their pat- tern identified. Changes in family structural characteristics can be associated with changing behavioral and perceptual states. Thus, time as an element in investigations can provide a richer, more valid analysis of the relatedness and interdependence necessary for pre- dictive or causal analysis.

    Accepting an ecological approach opens a new vista of possi- bilities in both conceptualizing and investigating the family as a unit in the universe. Accepting such a paradigm forces the researcher to attend to multiple and simultaneous aspects of the objects of in- quiry, and it implies the need for synthesizing approaches to attend

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    to multiple facets of the situation. This implies the need for quanti- tative as well as qualitative measures allowing for inclusion of sub- jective as well as objective reality. It suggests an approach to re- search that can more aptly be termed "planned discovery'' as multi- ple hypotheses evolve and are tested (Bronfenbrenner, 1976). It al- lows for both a macro analysis of aggregate family behavior as well as a micro focus on investigating individual family or even family member behavior.

    Accepting an ecological approach also raises questions as to the generalizability of results of past and ongoing research. A re- search tradition has been built upon the notion of estimating popu- lation ~arameters from a somewhat limited measurement of a sampling of families and variables. Yet, understanding the nature of ecological systems with their infinite variability and potentially unique transactions raises questions as to the validity of generaliza- tions so derived. Some facets of this research tradition, including measurement standards, designs, and statistical models, need seriously to be examined as to their appropriateness for use with this approach, and some new procedures may need to be designed to op- erationalize these more dynamic ecosystem concepts and to unravel these complex interrelationships.

    A goal of ecological research is to identify patterns of relation- ships between systems and their environments, especially noting what happens at the interface. This goal is not so very unique from past and present research foci. The means of reaching this goal, however, may be different. The way reality is perceived and the methods of investigating that reality, particularly at points of inter- action and transaction, constitute an ecological approach. Concep- tualizing the family phenomenon from an ecological approach may help in the recognition of the limitations of present work and begin to force an appreciation of the implications of those limitations. In so doing, ecological inquiry in research and program evaluation will be built. Such contributions should lead to a more systematic ap- proach for understanding families, providing support systems, and creating public policies.

    REFERENCE NOTES

    I . College of Home Economics. The report ofrhe comrnillee on fhe future of home economics. Unpublished manuscript, Michigan State University, 1968.

    2. Koenig. H. Thelifesupporr system in relorion to nolurolenvironmenl. Paper de-

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    livered at Extension Home Economists lnservice Training Conference, Michigan State Uni- versity, East Lansing, November 1973.

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