Measuring Environment Across the Life Span: Emerging Methods and Concepts
Friedman, Sarah L. and Wachs, Theodore D. (1999).
Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association; 419 pages. $24.95. ISBN 1557985677.
Quite some time ago, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s vision of psychology and human development paved the way for a new paradigm in developmental theory and research. Drawing on activity theory, which suggests that children learn through interactions and explorations, Bronfenbrenner (1979) highlighted that children do not grow up in isolated settings; rather, they live and act in environments that influence their development.
Around the same time, environmental psychology emerged as a new school of thought, and researchers across many disciplines began to recognize the impact of the everyday environment on human behavior and development. While research on the environment-person relationship has continually grown since then, there has been little communication between researchers on common methodological and conceptual struggles. This book is one of few in the field of environment-behavior to discuss issues of empirical problems, measurement, and conceptualizations of the various environments we encounter across our life span.
The book is organized into five parts. Bronfenbrenner’s opening chapter introduces readers to his bio-ecological theory, which views the environment as a nested and interactive system. The second part of the book is concerned with conceptualizing and measuring specific environments occupied by particular age groups. For example, Robert Bradley provides an interesting overview of common struggles associated with empirically measuring a child’s home setting. He describes how research methodologies must be adjusted for the age of the children being studied—from conducting observations during infancy, to obtaining parental report during early childhood, and finally interviewing children during middle and older childhood. Researchers must also simultaneously recognize the nested social atmosphere of the home setting.
Further, Bradford Brown’s chapter provides readers with an excellent discussion of the multidimensionality of adolescent peer environments. Particularly complicating the measurement of peer social environments is the fact that adolescents occupy a number of different social settings that are nested within groups and the overall youth culture. Brown highlights that many investigators fail to recognize this nested structure and its influences on adolescents. Also, researchers too often rely on “crude” measurement and methods. His chapter offers a “battle plan” for this line of research which calls for a combination of ethnographic and quantitative approaches.
While Bradley and Brown embrace Bronfenbrenner’s conceptual contributions to environmental measurement, Powell Lawton’s chapter on the environments of older adults moves away from this transactional focus of the person-environment relationship. His chapter outlines the “ecological” approach which separates the measurement of person and environment. This sparks an interesting conceptual debate that is continued in Theodore Wachs’ final chapter in the section.
The third part of the book focuses on organizational settings. Sarah Friedman and Jo-Ann Amadeo discuss the various measures of child care environments which are usually associated with one or more of the goals of licensing, accreditation, or evaluation. Deborah Lowe Vandell and Jill Posner’s chapter applies Bronfenbrenner’s environmental structure to after-school environments. In addition to addressing common empirical issues including how to measure and define quality and quantity of care, they introduce a comprehensive conceptual model of after-school environments. Joan Talbert and Milbrey McLaughlin’s discussion of school environments is an excellent complement to the after-school environment chapter. They also propose a nested model which includes the classroom, school administration, and institutional context. Similar to Brown’s suggestions, these scholars advocate for a mixed-methods approach to researching school settings. Carmi Schooler’s discussion of workplaces provides insight into the conceptualization of the workplace but is limited in its theoretical contribution.
The fourth part of the book focuses on larger environmental contexts. While stress and coping research has generally ignored the role of the physical environment, Gary Evans’ chapter discusses how environmental stressors (e.g., noise, crowding, pollution) relate to people’s health and behavior. As this area is still in its “measurement infancy” and relies too greatly on subjective measures, Evans calls for multiple methods and theoretical development. Charles Super and Sarah Harkness recognize an even larger structure: they conceive of environment as culture due to the systematic structure of behaviors and beliefs.
The final part integrates the chapters and provides an overview of how far environmental research and measurement has come since Bronfenbrenner’s first theoretical contributions. Daniel Stokols summarizes that certain groups of people are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of environment stressors and reviews design strategies for enhancing development and positive outcomes. Furthermore, with the advancement of technology and the resulting changes in human interaction, he suggests that the Internet and virtual behavior settings such as chat rooms should be recognized as new environments. Theodore Wachs highlights the need to link proximal and distal environments and concludes by pointing out that in addition to studying the objective environment, researchers must also consider the subjective structure (i.e., perceptions, feelings) about a particular setting. He also revisits the debate of whether researchers should integrate the measurement of environment and person or assess them separately.
Overall, this book provides an excellent discussion of the measurement of environments we typically encounter over the course of our lives. Chapter contributors offer interesting conceptual frameworks of these environments and discuss common methodological problems, challenges, and future directions. As there are numerous environments in our daily lives, it is not surprising that the environments discussed in this volume represent only a small collection. It is disappointing, however, that the neighborhood environment did not receive adequate attention as research on neighborhood effects on children has become increasingly significant across the social sciences (see Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000 for a review).
Environmental research and measurement has evolved since the book was published in 1999. With the popular use of hierarchical linear and structural equation models in quantitative research, a more current volume focusing on these new approaches and measurement seems appropriate. Nevertheless, this book contributes to an interdisciplinary conversation about evaluating our everyday environments. It is an excellent resource for research who study people in their natural settings, whether these are the home, school, or after-school care context.
Bronfenbrenner, Urie (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Leventhal, Tama and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn (2000). “The Neighborhoods They Live In: The Effects of Neighborhood Residence on Child and Adolescent Outcomes.” Psychological Bulletin 126(2): 309-337.
Graduate Center, City University of New York
Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel is a doctoral candidate in Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her dissertation research explores different measurements of the neighborhood environment. She is an adjunct lecturer in Children’s Studies at Brooklyn College and a research associate with ActKnowledge in New York City.