The Ecosystems Perspective: Implications for Practice
Mark A. Mattaini and Carol H. Meyer
Social work involves, at its core, work with interconnected transactional networks. The ecosystems perspective has been almost universally accepted in social work because it provides a framework for thinking about and understanding those networks in their complexity. This strategy for viewing the world can at first seem rather abstract, so it may be useful to explore why it was developed and has been so widely adopted. Since the beginning of the profession, practice has been focused on the person and the environment. This "psychosocial" focus is so important as a distinguishing feature of social work that it has become its identified purpose: to address the psychosocial matrix of which individuals, families, groups, and communities are constituents. Although the person-in-environment concept has governed practice since the work of Mary Richmond (1917) nearly a century ago and has been defined and redefined (Hamilton, 1951; Hollis, 1972) over the years, its hyphenated structure has contributed to a continuing imbalance in emphasis on the person or the environment. As a result, practitioners have often attended primarily to one or the other, missing key dimensions of the case. For example, a child who refused to attend school might have been treated for depression, with limited or no attention paid to the role of his school or his family (his environment) in his behavior. Conversely, attention only to serious dysfunction in a school or a family might have led to ignoring the plight of the child’s response. Often, practitioners have selected a focus that was compatible with their preferences, assigning peripheral status to either the person or environment. Another consequence of the perceived separation of the person-in-environment construct has been the tendency of practitioners to avoid environmental interventions in favor of changing people in isolation from their life situations–because the environment is often seen as so intractable and so difficult to affect (Kemp et al., 1997). This emphasis has been encouraged by the development of extensive knowledge regarding human behavior and development, as contrasted with a less-well-developed, cohesive knowledge of the environment. Clinical social workers’ choice to focus on the person to the exclusion of the environment may also have had something to do with the view that their professional status was dependent on their engaging in practice similar to psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Thus, the psychosocial purposes of social work were being eroded, and the person-in-environment construct did not appear to be helping. The problem was real, and profoundly affected work with clients. Beyond these consequences for direct practice, the severe social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s brought awakened populations calling for social services. Previously noticed mainly in public services, poor people, members of ethnic and racial minority groups, women, people with severe social problems, and those with new (or newly acknowledged) lifestyles demanded help from social workers in the voluntary sector. Problems such as child abuse, family violence, AIDS, and homelessness caused all professions to redefine their approaches to account for the evident psychosocial features of these problems. By 1970 it became clear that it was essential to review and rethink the person-in-environment construct so that social workers would find it more possible to intervene in a more transactional fashion in cases that were clearly (nonhyphenated) psychosocial events. The "invented" construct was called "the ecosystems perspective." The Ecosystems Perspective
The ecosystems perspective is a way of seeing case phenomena (the person and the environment) in their interconnected and multilayered reality, to order and comprehend complexity, and avoid oversimplification and reductionism. It is a way of placing...