The Ecological Systems Metaphor
Kieran O'Donoghue and Jane Maidment
This chapter provides a critical review of the ecological systems metaphor as understood and utilized in Australasia. This will be achieved through an overview of the evolution and development of the ecological systems tradition, and consideration of its location as a metatheory within social work thought. The guiding concepts of ecological systems theory will also be outlined, together with a critique that pays particular attention to the Aotearoa New Zealand and Australian contexts. This chapter concludes with a summary, which reviews the main points and directs the reader's attention towards the subsequent chapters that demonstrate ecological systems theory in practice.
Throughout its history, social work has maintained a dual focus upon both people and their environments (Mattaini and Meyer 2002; O'Donoghue 2003). Ecological systems theory is widely accepted as a metaphor that assists social workers to maintain this dual focus (Greif 1986; Rothery 2001; Wakefield 1996a). It has developed into a theoretical tradition that is predominately described as a perspective or metatheory (Mattaini and Meyer 2002; Rothery 2001). Coady (2001, p.29) describes a metatheory as an abstract theory that is highly explanatory and minimally prescriptive. As a metatheory, ecological systems theory is considered to provide a foundational big picture perspective used in combination with other more specific mid-range theories that give a more specific understanding of human behaviour, as well as techniques that facilitate change (Mattaini and Meyer 2002).