Nested or Networked? Future Directions for Ecological Systems Theory


Correspondence should be addressed to Jennifer Watling Neal, Department of Psychology, 316 W. Physics Road., 127A Psychology Building, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA. Email:


Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory (EST) is among the most widely adopted theoretical frameworks for studying individuals in ecological contexts. In its traditional formulation, different levels of ecological systems are viewed as nested within one another. In this article, we use Simmel's notion of intersecting social circles and Bronfenbrenner's earlier writing on social networks to develop an alternative ‘networked’ model that instead views ecological systems as an overlapping arrangement of structures, each directly or indirectly connected to the others by the direct and indirect social interactions of their participants. We redefine each of the systems discussed by EST—micro, meso, exo, macro, and chrono—based on patterns of social interaction, and then illustrate how this alternative model might be applied in the classic context of the developing child. We conclude by discussing future directions for how the networked model of EST can be applied as a conceptual framework, arguing that this approach offers developmental researchers with a more precise and flexible way to think about ecological contexts. We also offer some initial suggestions for moving a networked EST model from theory to method.