The term ecological perspective is a concept from the science of ecology that refers the study of organisms and how they interact with their environments. In 1973, Carel Germain borrowed the term and used it to explain the way sociologists and social workers should study the interactions of people and groups within social and cultural environments. The ecosystems theory of social work encourages those in the field to look at the environment surrounding a person or group when attempting to provide support. Researchers use many categories to collect social data, including habitat, niche, adaptation, goodness-of-fit, self-esteem and self-direction.
Habitat and Niche
Habitat is the social and physical environment where people live, work, shop or spend time. These individuals often share similar values and perspectives. Niche is a person’s or ethnic group’s place in society as determined by their immediate environment. People have similar influences and shared relationships when they belong to the same habitat or niche. For example, people who live in rural environments or public housing have specific types of influences from the spaces they inhabit, and also share certain types of influences and relationships depending on how they earn a living.
The ecosystem perspective studies how adaptation occurs by looking at environmental, social and cultural factors that lead to changes. New technologies provide more comfortable and effective ways of functioning in certain environments. For instance, many people now use the Internet to shop and work, to save money and resources. Social researchers and those who use the ecological perspective in social work use what they learn about these changes to identify, understand and provide solutions to social issues through social services, such as when someone needs help learning new technology skills to find a job.
Goodness-of-fit refers to how well a person fits into a historical, social and cultural context. Social workers call this the life model approach and use it to help determine factors that keep people from fitting into a context. For example, social workers use this category to develop sensitivity to diverse backgrounds and issues of bias and social prejudice. Thus, instead of blaming the individual, they can recognize when clients' needs are not met by the resources available.
Self-Esteem and Self-Direction
Social researchers also study psychological factors that make it difficult for someone to adapt or fit into a social or cultural environment. Low self-esteem causes a person to feel unloved, unworthy or inferior. Self-direction refers to how much control a person feels he has over what happens in life, and the ability to take responsibility for decisions. The ecological perspective studies how these emotional skills develop in early childhood and evolve in adulthood.