This framework is based on an ecological model of human development, in which individual development occurs within concentric circles of environmental influence, which include the family, the school, peer, neighborhood, community and nation (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). “The ecological model environment is conceived as a set of nested structures, each inside the other like a set of Russian dolls” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p.3). These structures within the ecological model are systems in themselves, yet are not independent of each other, so that, for example, the family circle overlaps with the school, neighborhood, and peer circles (Coatsworth, 2002). Further removed from the individual in the model is the parent job context; parent support networks including child care and families of peers; and neighborhood, community and religious organizations and opportunities. Still further removed in the ecosystem are the social, cultural, political, and economic contexts of the larger society. (See Chart A).
More recently, this ecological model has evolved to recognize that the process of interaction between the individual and the environment is central to human development, and that this process will vary with characteristics of the person, their environmental contexts, and the time periods, both within an individual’s life course and historical times, in which the processes take place (Bronfenbrenner, 1998).
It is useful to apply this concept of an individual’s life course to families. “The life course is conceived as an age-graded sequence of socially defined roles and events that are enacted and even recast over time. It consists of multiple, interlocking trajectories, such as work and family, with their transitions or changes in states” (Elder, 1998, p.983). A family cycle has been conceived of as stages of parenthood, including marriage, birth of the first child, the preschool period, children’s entry into school and transitions through each level of school, and the transitions to the empty nest (Elder, 1978). This concept of a single, smooth family cycle describes a decreasing proportion of families, however, as more children are raised outside of marriage because of increases in nonmarital births, cohabitation, and divorce, and changes in the order of the stages as experienced by parents (a birth before a marriage, for example). Therefore, in this framework, married couple families as well as other family types are considered. In addition, recent research on the life course takes into consideration cohort as well as period effects on individual family members and their roles within the family.
In conceptualizing measures of the social context of families, this framework utilizes lessons emerging from the study of family strengths. There is an emerging consensus in the family strengths literature that:
- Measures of family strengths need to address different developmental periods of family life;
- Multiple measures are necessary to provide a complete picture of the status of a family or groups of households;
- Both the quality of family relationships and the nature of family behaviors are important in the consideration of family strengths;
- The nature of family strengths is influenced by the social and economic context of the social environment; and
- The role of culture affects family processes and relationships in ways that remain poorly understood (Moore, Chalk, Scarpa, & Vandivere, 2002, p.i)