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Review: Making Human Beings Human

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. “Making Human Beings Human: Bioecological Perspectives on Human Development.” Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2005.


Urie Bronfenbrenner was one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century, as well as one of the most original social critics. “Making Human Beings Human” is a collection of articles by and about Bronfenbrenner, describing the development of his work and its applications to real-world problems.

Bronfenbrenner’s theoretical framework is called “human ecology” or “ecological systems theory,” and it emphasizes the interactions between a person and his or her environment. Though this may sound like a simple and obvious concept, it was a marked departure from the traditional approach in developmental psychology, which often saw a person in isolation from their environment. Many observers, both academic and otherwise, preferred to talk about the effects of “nature versus nurture,” as if you had to pick one or the other or specify exactly what percentage of a person’s intelligence is due to heredity and what percentage is due to upbringing.

Bronfenbrenner argues that nature and nurture cannot be separated. In the book’s introduction he says, “The main thesis of this volume is that, to a greater extent than for any other species, human beings create the environments that shape the course of human development….and this agency makes humans—for better or for worse—active producers of their own development” (p. xxviii). A person’s “nature” will influence their “nurture” from the moment of birth, and the “nurture” will then influence the person right back. Because of this, Bronfenbrenner does not talk about a person’s “nature” as something innate or genetically determined; instead, he talks about “the developing person” and what that person does in response to changes in his/her environment.

For example, in his studies of childrearing, he is less interested in the child’s genetic traits or the parents’ socioeconomic position, focusing instead on how (and how much) the parents interact with the child. In his studies of education, he largely ignores the school’s traits (funding, number of books in the library, education levels of its staff, etc.) and the students’ traits (income levels, IQ, etc.), focusing instead on how (and how much) the children and teachers interact. The quantity and quality of these interactions, he argues, are more important than any static traits in determining the outcome of the education.

Bronfenbrenner is very specific about what he means by interaction. For example, a teacher lecturing to a class is only minimal interaction because the teacher does not change very much in response to the students. Interaction, he says, is when each party’s behavior changes the other’s in a repeated cycle. Conversation is a good example: you say something, then my response is directly conditioned by what you just said, and we go back and forth dozens of times. This sort of interaction, Bronfenbrenner argues, is the primary building block of human development. The quality and quantity of these interactions determine how human beings develop: as each person influences the other, each develops a certain power over the other and a certain attachment. This is how parents and children become attached to each other and how children become attached to society. When this process fails—when either the parent has all the power, or the child has all the power, or no interaction occurs at all—children fail to develop.

This different approach required different methods of research. The old model’s experiments generally observed the subject in a laboratory setting rather than the subject’s own real-world environment. As Bronfenbrenner puts it, “Much of contemporary developmental psychology is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time” (p. x).

In the second half of the book, Bronfenbrenner describes the practical applications of these theories to the nation’s problems and its policies. As he says in the introduction, “The major social changes taking place recently in modern industrialized societies, especially the United States, may have altered environmental conditions conducive to human development to such a degree that the process of making human beings human is being placed in jeopardy” (p. xxviii). In short, Bronfenbrenner is worried that people do not interact very much anymore. He says that in the past, people lived in small towns where they knew their neighbors and were surrounded by large extended families, which meant that just about everyone experienced a high degree of interaction. But now, parents spend much less time with their children, which sets the stage for a minimum of interaction across society. More and more people are living alone, and elderly people are increasingly put into isolated medical care.

This situation, he argues, is more or less the cause of the social problems we see today: for example, adolescents who engage in “anti-social” behavior like lying, doing drugs, dropping out of school, breaking the law and committing violence. It is very common to blame the parents for the “alienation” and “poor socialization” of their children, but Bronfenbrenner says this is an error, that it dehumanizes the parents and does not take into consideration their own environment. It takes a great deal of time for parents to build a close interactive connection with their children. As Bronfenbrenner puts it, “The extent to which such a reciprocal system can be developed and maintained depends on the degree to which other encompassing and accompanying social structures provide the place, time, example, and reinforcement to the system and its participants” (p. 35).

What are these “other encompassing and accompanying social structures”? One important example that Bronfenbrenner cites is the parents’ employment situation. A single mother with only a high school diploma has to work long hours to support her children, which leaves little time to actually spend with them. At the other end of the economic spectrum, a businessman trying to advance in his company will also have great difficulty finding time to spend with his family. If we want to get serious about the education and behavior of young people today, Bronfenbrenner says, these are the sorts of situations we need to actually change. He calls this one of his “preposterous proposals,” but he is entirely serious. In the 1970 White House Conference on Children, Bronfenbrenner set out four policy recommendations, all directed at the nation’s business leaders: “minimizing out-of-town, weekend and evening obligations,” “reducing frequent geographic moves,” allowing more “leave and rest privileges for maternal and child care,” and better day care options (p. 213-214). In addition to this, he urges that the government allow more funding to the community programs that support low-income families.

Bronfenbrenner cites a study which took place in 1954 at a summer camp. The campers were all middle-class eleven-year-old boys. The researchers who were running the camp found they could create hostility and violence between the boys merely by dividing them into groups and arranging for competitions between the groups. Then, they found they could erase that hostility by creating “superordinate goals” towards which the boys had to cooperate. For example, the researchers sabotaged the camp’s water supply and then informed the boys of the crisis, at which they all roused at once to identify and repair the problem.

The wrong way to interpret this study, says Bronfenbrenner, is to say that we can fight delinquency by giving opposing groups of children “superordinate goals” to work towards. The real problem, he says, is that children and adults have become two “opposing groups” who view each other with hostility. The real solution, he says, is “a context in which adults and children can pursue together a superordinate goal” (p. 207). Young people are alienated, he says, because they feel that they have no role to play in the problems that confront society. Bronfenbrenner offers one simple solution as an example: make it an educational requirement for students to help take care of younger children (who are often undersupervised) and the elderly (who are isolated). As he puts it,

It is now possible for a young person 18 years of age to graduate from an American high school without ever having had to do a piece of work on which someone else depended. Equally disastrous from this same perspective, it is possible for a young person, female as well as male, to graduate from high school, college, or university without ever having held a baby in his or her arms for longer than a few seconds, without ever having had to comfort or assist another human being who really needed help. Yet all of us, sooner or later, will desperately require such comfort and care, and no society can sustain itself unless its members have learned the motivations, sensitivities, and skills that such caring demands. (p. 254)

 Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Do you think that the threat to human development that Bronfenbrenner mentions is really a recent development?
  2. Can you think of some other ways that young people can cooperate with adults in solving the problems of society?
  3. Do you think it would be possible for the economy to function while still giving parents enough time to spend with their families?


  1. Positive social interaction is the primary determinant of healthy human development.
  2. Social isolation, therefore, is the proximate cause of a lot of what’s wrong with our society.
  3. Parents need to spend more time with their children in substantive, constructive interaction.
  4. A student service program could solve the problem of youth, elderly and children’s isolation all at once.

 Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS

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