Simply speaking, the ecological perspective is a method of approaching problems. Traditionally, problems encountered by businesses, policymakers or organisations were examined more mechanically. Under a mechanical model, for example, a company might be understood as a large machine that has separate parts. Its employees could be seen as those parts, and are specialised to fit into the larger operation as a part of its functions. Finally, when something went wrong in the system, the issue was often resolved by carefully examining and troubleshooting the system in the manner of engineers exploring a technological challenge, replacing parts as necessary. The ecological perspective serves as a sharp departure from this model, focusing more on interdependency and outside influences than would a mechanical approach.
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Overlapping Systems and Environments
Prior to the advent of ecological perspectives, it was typical to examine a system in a vacuum--as an independent, self-sufficient entity that may have inputs and outputs from elsewhere. The ecological perspective recognises relationships as being affected by a confluence of various systems, including biological and natural systems, economic systems, and political or social systems. The ecological perspective focuses on the interdependency of a given relationship or subject with one of these larger environmental systems, and the characteristics of the system that help to shape and define the subject.
The Example of Drug Abuse
If you analyse the problem of drug abuse in a vacuum, the tendency might be to see addiction as an individual behaviour. In this context, to abuse drugs is a choice some make and others do not, and those who do might be discouraged from doing so from either an awareness of the consequences or the threat of legal action. Examining this problem with an ecological perspective would not ignore the impact of individual choices, but would examine how drug abuse both arises from and contributes to a set of environmental conditions that an addict is in. Ecological perspectives focus on the larger context of drug abuse--its effects on other systems and relationships, such as families or economies, as well as the effects of economies, policy or social relationships on drug abuse. In examining these effects, an ecological policy might approach drug abuse differently than a mechanical policy. An ecological model seeking to address drug abuse might focus more on the social and economic environments in which drug abuse proliferates, and attempt to change the environment such that addictive behaviour is less likely to survive. An ecological intervention might involve removing an addict from a drug-friendly living situation or placing an addict in a neighbourhood with a much lower frequency of drug abuse.
Proximate and Distant Levels of Influence
Recognising relationships, organisations, problems or individuals as a part of a larger system of influence is important to developing an ecological perspective. Additionally, ecological perspectives examine subjects or problems to the extent of their distance from one of these overlapping systems. For example, a public policy enacted by a government often does not have an immediate effect on an individual. Policies often create immediate effects on communities and institutions, though, and these communities and institutions sometimes change as the result of a policy shift. Changes in communities and institutions usually have effects on social relationships and behaviours--people relate to one another differently as a result of how their institution functions. For example, a law like the Civil Rights Act might make it illegal for an institution to discriminate on the basis of race. Such a decision won't immediately affect an individual, but those individuals working in an institution that formerly discriminated will be required to change the way they relate socially to other individuals, those formerly discriminated against. In this example, the shift in the social relationship brought about indirectly by policies will be noticed by the individual in question. Understanding the difference between a policy's immediate effects and the way it relates with an individual is an important element of the ecological perspective. The levels at which an impact takes place are often called levels of influence.
The ecological perspective often requires both individual and collective actions to resolve problems. Because the ecological perspective seeks to understand how a problem is created at the level of the larger system, interventions developed using the ecological perspective frequently rely on structural changes to the larger system. For this reason, ecological perspectives frequently require the input and action of a large number of people. Developing support for environmental approaches to individual problems is often required to implement an intervention. Additionally, problems must be understood from a number of different positions in a larger system--namely, those of both technical experts and everyday users. Often, the ecological perspective requires the use of approaches such as "participatory design" or "charrettes"--strategies where a products, policies or plans are forged through a relationship between the designer, policymaker or technical expert and the consumer, citizen or layman.
Philosophy and Environmentalism
While the ecological perspective is primarily a method of understanding problems in a pragmatic context, it also has massive philosophical implications. Often, companies and organisations have adopted ecological perspectives without an awareness of its connections with social and political movements. The internet, for example, is often used to facilitate participatory design through social media like YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Additionally, many commentators in politics and business have begun to respond to problems as being indicative of or resulting from a larger environmental condition--for example, businesses implement different strategies to respond to a "recessionary environment." It is important to note, though, as this trend emerges, that it both contributes to and is informed by an environmentalist ideology: a sense of responsibility based on the position that the environment shapes the individual as the individual affects the environment. Critiques of the ecological perspective approach to problems focus heavily on its evolutionary roots, and that it easily suggests and supports a philosophy of ecosystem protection. As a result, the perspective may not be useful in all political, clinical and economic contexts.
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- "Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design."; Urie Brofenbrenner; 1979
- "Introduction to Public Health"; Mary-Jane Schneider; 2006
- Health Education & Behavior: An Ecological Perspective on Health Promotion Programs
- Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility: What is Participatory Design?
- Social Service Review: Does Social Work Need the Ecological Perspective?