Ecological approach to studying peace and war

It is unlikely that the human capacity for inhumanity can ever be adequately explained by any one theory. We believe that all behavior is multi-determined—that is, many forces at a variety of levels contribute to any one type of behavior, including aggression.

We subscribe to what has been called an ecological approach to understanding complex behaviors. This approach involves constructs reflecting different contexts that influence individuals and are in turn influenced by those individuals. That set of constructs includes: the macrosystem, the exosystem, the microsystem, and the individual.

For example, an individual’s concerns about “national security” are influenced by:

  • The values and mass media positions of the society at large (the macrosystem)
  • The views expressed in places of worship, neighborhood, and more local media (the exosystem)
  • Lessons promulgated within the home and family (the microsystem)

Moreover, individuals bring to all of their interactions their own genetic heritage and the results of their personal experiences, beginning in the womb. Sometimes that heritage and those experiences can lead individuals to behave in ways that change the microsystem, or the exosystem, or the macrosystem. Think of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King.

Consider also your own views on national security, on torture, on terrorism. How many influences on those views, at what levels of experience, can you identify?

In our next post, we start considering psychological theories that focus on thoughts and emotions that individuals bring to their interactions, as well as the thoughts and emotions they carry away from those interactions.

Individuals’ tendencies to incorporate ideas from the different environments in which they grow and to which they adapt can lead to a great deal of ingroup and outgroup thinking that can provide a basis for enduring conflict.

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

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16 Responses to Ecological approach to studying peace and war

  1. Laura Marcucci says:

    I think it’s fascinating to consider the different influences that shape a person’s views on national security, war, terrorism, and peace. It makes one wonder, when one or more systems are conflicting…which view would an individual tend to gravitate towards? Would a microsystem and exosystem filled with more peaceful ideals become overrun by a macrosystem that focuses on the necessity of the “War on Terror”? As you noted, individuals such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to make positive changes in their larger environment, despite such drastic differences.

    I feel another interesting comparison would be lessons taught in the home (microsystem) versus ideas from schools and religious groups (exosystem). As a child grows older, and their views are shaped by more and more influences outside the family, how do they deal with the cognitive dissonance that results? Many individuals are probably very unaware of the impact from the various systems, especially when subtle influences have an effect over time.

  2. Madeleine Logan says:

    The macrosystem influences most of my views on terrorism, war, peace and torture. Since the media (TV news and the internet) is the most common way I receive and process information about current events it can further polarize my pre-existing values and moral code. Nevertheless, I think that our beliefs are constructed by a combination of inherent values and influences from the macrosystem. For example, individuals, like Martin Luther King, have had experiences that leave a permanent mark on their own moral code and the way that they perceive others for the rest of their lives. Although the media can at times be manipulative, biased and pass along subjective view points that influence the audience on an unconscious level, I think that the media can not solely shape who we are on an individual basis. As you mentioned, our behavior is multi-dimensional and our beliefs are dependent on multiple factors.

  3. Marguerite McHale says:

    Suggest an interesting book that analyzes psychological, historical, biological, among other fields to answer the question why men fight: Sebastian Junger’s “War,” a companion piece to the recently released film, Restrepo.

    NYTimes Review:

  4. kathiemm says:

    Hi, Marguerite.
    Thanks for submitting the link to the book review.
    A brief 14 minute video focusing on Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta, who won the Medal of Honor while serving in Afghanistan during the deployment chronicled in Restrepo, can
    be seen at this link. It captures some of the anguish portrayed in Restrepo, the award-winning documentary.


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  6. Victoria says:

    In “Is Peace Possible? Citizen’s View” by Castanheira, Corgan and Malley-Morrison, it was found that children from different countries responded to what peace is differently. This is due to the difference in all of their systems: micro-, exo-, and macro-. However, in adults, the international samples and samples from the United States did not differ much (difference in macrosystem) but depending on what their political views were (exosystem) they had different answers from those who identified with other political ideologies. Even men and woman (different microsystems) did not differ much in their views.

    Based upon research such as this, although our feelings on peace and how it should come about seem to differ, they may not really be all that different from those around the world. To me, this is heartening. If adults worldwide see peace as something desirable and actually possible, all that remains to be worked out is the how, and that is less of a question of ideals than it is of politics. To me, it is obvious that there should be a stop to armed conflict, peace talks and treaties, an equal spread of resources around the world, and other such things. There are other details that are in the way however: should individual governments be abolished, or should additional governments of smaller groups of people be recognized? Or should a universal government be established with representatives from every single country? How will the resources be spread equally, by whom and how would they make sure they were truly equal?

    These are just a few problems in a much larger list of complications that would arise should universal peace be attempted. I believe that our society, our governments, and our people have a long way to go and possible need to evolve more for this wonderful goal to be achieved, unfortunately.

  7. JR says:

    Though we seldom consider our opinions to be anything more than just that, our own opinion, it is interesting to consider the idea that some, if not all, of our opinions come from the world around us rather than some innate belief on how things ought to be. Every opinion or belief we have, from the type of condiment we chose for our food to the respect we have for other cultures, is likely a product of years of conditioning from the world around us.

    This seemingly obvious concept, which has likely never been considered by most, is a very good explanation for why some people feel compelled to fight and/or kill for their beliefs. It is unlikely that they have ever considered why the “enemy” believes what they do as they are so consumed with disbelief that someone could view the world differently than them. While the subjugation of women may be deplorable to someone growing up in America, the practice is quite normal for someone living in parts of the Middle East. Likewise, a person growing up in the middle east could be sickened by the sexual objectification of women whereas the average American considers it to be an acceptable means for an independent woman to express herself.

    Though less frequent as the differences are often less extreem, the different levels that individuals within America expereience can also lead to misunderstanding based altercations. Though two people may grow up mere miles apart, the neighborhood they grew up in, the place of worship they may have attended or even the sports they played, can and will lead to differences in belief and opinion.

    If we are to ever coexist in a world rich in varying norms, it imperative that we not only understand what our fellow man believes but more importantly, we must understand why he/she believes it. Only then will we be able to accept the fact that the practices of others that may differ from our own are neither good nor bad… merely different.

  8. Jami LeRoy says:

    This ecological approach can similarly be applied to situations of family violence. There are many factors that influence any behavior, and family violence cannot be explained easily because its causes are so multidimensional, context dependent, and sometimes confounding. Furthermore, variations in cultural attitudes toward family violence make it extremely difficult to define in the first place. Hines and Malley-Morrison cite Emery (1989) who states that labeling and act as “violent” or “abusive” is a social judgment rather than an objective decision (7), as would be ideal in creating a definition. However, the ecological approach allows us to look at family violence from a perspective that tries to synthesize as many determinants of this behavior with the context in which it occurs.

    The ecological approach effectively evaluates family violence because it is affected by so many variables on so many different levels. For example, family violence is performed by a person or persons, which is on the individual level, but it also occurs within the family or home, which is the microsystem. Additionally, violence is perpetuated by acceptance in the neighborhood, school, and mass media – which constitute the exosystem – and also reflects ingrained cultural values about topics such as roles, discipline, and violence – which make up the macrosystem. Family violence can be related to factors on all of these levels, and there are many theories that attempt to explain violence on a single level. However, “there are identifiable risk factors at every ecological level” (Hines and Malley-Morrison 16). No single theory can comprehensively explain the intricacies of family violence because “maltreatment is the product of the genetic endowments, behaviors, cognitions, and affects of the individual at the center of the nested set of ecological contexts, as well as the genetic endowments, behaviors, cognitions, and affects of the other actors at each ecological level” (16). Even views about what is considered violent versus what is considered acceptable are influenced by each of these levels. Malley-Morrison and Hines “suggest that individual cognitions concerning the acceptability or abusiveness of particular behaviors are among the proximal (immediate) causes of those behaviors. The values of the cultures in which the individuals operate are among the important distal causes of the behaviors” (6). Each level is important because they all affect each other and contribute equally.

    The diverse perspective of the ecological approach reconciles the fact that individuals rate violence as more or less severe depending on such factors as their race, socioeconomic status, religion, and experiences. It also helps us understand why occurrence rates of family violence differ among ethnicities, cultures, and countries.

    • kathiemm says:

      Dear Jami. You have done an excellent job of applying concepts from your two textbooks–Family Violence in the United States and Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective–to the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six other people. I believe that an analysis of the contexts of violence focusing on different contributing factors at different ecological levels helps us both understand the multi-causal nature of violence both within and beyond families and the necessity of our combatting that violence at different ecological levels.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thank you for your very informative comment, Jami.

  9. Justine Vecchiarelli says:

    When considering different forms of aggression, take terrorism and torture as identified in post, the influences of the macrosystem, exosystem, and microsystem, as well as the individual, are evident. These systems comprising the ecological approach to behaviors can also extend to the realm of aggression within the family.
    In the macrosystem, we have cultural values and both national and statewide legislation. Aggression in all forms is ever-present in the lives of Americans. While aggression within families has generally been criminalized, much of the legislation was not developed until recently, and many types of intrafamilial abuse are still not recognized (Family Violence in the US pg 11), and legal definitions of family maltreatment are imprecise (Family Violence in the US, pg 10). Additionally, the macrosystem’s tolerance for firearms, media violence and pornography, capital punishment, and of poverty and economic inequality conflict with these loosely defined laws and contribute to the existence of violence within the family (Family Violence in the US, pgs 48-53). There is thus, a knock-on effect to the exosystem, with family violence being more rampant in local communities with less stability, more poverty, and poorer social resources resulting in isolated families with lack of social and neighborhood support (Family Violence in the US,pg 90; Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg 18). At the level of the microsystem, aggression and violence within families have numerous contributors, for example, families with child physical abuse tend to be chaotic, and have poor communication and high levels of conflict (Family Violence in the US, pg 91), as well as high levels of dependency in some cases (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective). These characteristics are compounded by the lack of support and resources and levels of stress in the exosystem. Finally, individual factors such as family history of aggression, psychopathology (Family Violence in the US, pg 91), as well as genetic contributions (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, 20) all contribute to continued violence in families.
    All levels of the ecological model interact heavily, to influence the behaviors of the individual amidst the different systems, and is evident when analyzing the effects and roots of all violence, whether it be international or familial.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks, Justine. I agree that the ecologial framework applies equally well to family violence and to violence on a larger level, such as war. It is a challenge to identify the many different factors that work together to increase the likelihood of violence, but you have done a good job at identifying many of them and giving attention to different levels of influence.

  10. Shannon Thornhill says:

    “It is unlikely that the human capacity for inhumanity can ever be adequately explained by any one theory. We believe that all behavior is multi-determines-that is, many forces at a variety of levels contribute to any one type of behavior, including aggression. We subscribe to what has been called an ecological approach to understanding complex behaviors.”(KMM, blog) This same ecological approach can be used to understand the complex behaviors that are involved in family violence.
    The ecological approach has four sublevels. These sublevels are individual, microsystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. In family violence the individual level deals strictly with the person, this can be the abused or the abuser. In Family Violence in the United States it states, “that certain people due to their genotype, may be more likely to commit aggressive acts in their relationships than people who do not have that same genotype.”(21) This goes well with understanding why some people who have a long line of abuse in their family can turn out to continue the cycle. It is a generational curse that has some genetic indications.
    On the level of the microsystem it deals more with the family. In Family Violence in the United States it says that system theorists view influences on the family as multi or even bi-directional. For example, “How a husband treats his wife may be related to how she then treats her children. From this perspective, maltreatment in families is not a simple matter of one disturbed family member harming innocent victims; rather, it results from everyday stresses and strains on the family system that produce conflicts, accommodations, and various responses, sometimes including violence.”(25) I know that in my family both of my parents worked and my mom was the one to pick us up from school and help us with homework and make dinner all after a hard day at work. So when we would upset her, plus with all the stress from working then dealing with children you could see that she would take it out on my father when he came home. It was never anything physical just the verbal annoyance gave me a real-life understanding of the system theorist’s view of the microsystem and how it affects the family.
    The exosystem deals with our schools, neighborhoods, churches, etc. I know that I thought that communities would lessen the violence seen but after reading this section in Family Violence in the United States it says that, “there is also evidence that norms within an individual’s peer group and community can contribute to the likelihood that violence will be viewed as an acceptable solution to difficulties within the family” (26) This can be seen in my culture with the use of corporal punishment. Spanking are used to discipline children in the African American culture. No matter where we are whether it is in church, school, our parents and family members are not afraid to spank and it does not even need to be a family member sometimes even if your mother’s friends sees you doing something you are not suppose to she will spank you. It is something so engrained in our culture we even joke about it on television. In Family Violence In A Cultural Perspective it says that African Americans feel that “physical discipline protects children from becoming unruly and disobedient, and, therefore, actually prevents child maltreatment” (99) It is something that being in the culture you would not expect to be wrong because that is all you grew up knowing. But having the knowledge of seeing how other cultures raise their children you see that there are other ways.
    The last level is the macrosystem. This system deals with the roles and the cultural values, for example the inequality between men and woman, the roles society puts on men and women, etc. The book says that the greater the inequality between men and women the more wife abuse that will occur. “Male dominance within the family has been found to predict not just wife beating but also physical child abuse; moreover, the higher the level of husband dominance in the family, the stronger the likelihood of child abuse.”(Family Violence in the United States, 27)
    After learning and reading about the different levels in the ecological system I have seen that violence is sometimes more then just on an individual level. It also has to do with your family dynamic, your culture, and your socioeconomic status. It is amazing how both systems can demonstrate family violence and war.

  11. Nick Peine says:

    I certainly agree that the ecological perspective is excellent in explaining the theories behind family violence.

    I would argue that the layer of the ecological approach that has the most influence upon the would-be batterer is the exosystem. The exosystem is the layer that contains the elements which commonly place the most amount of stress on an individual. It involves things like one’s job, money matters, relationships with people outside of the family, and other things which are common stressors.

    Family dynamic and the microsystem definitely play a major role, however I think that the more common stressors in a person’s day to day life outside of the family are more likely to cause a transference of anger onto one’s family.

    Many batterers choose to abuse their family due to social learning and genetic transference, or due to a sociopathic mentality or some other kind of moral defect. However it seems that these explanations only account for part of the abusive populations. A normal person who does not possess any of these predetermining factors and batters his family would seem to be most likely to do so due to some kind of transference of stress from the outside world. The stressors in the exosystem may be the tipping point for those who possess the aforementioned characteristics, and the primary risk factors in causing those with none of these characteristics in committing acts of violence against one’s family.

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