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Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Systems and the Sociocybernetic Map

Ecological systems theory and practice is part of an ongoing series, and this article will focus on systems and he sociocybernetic map. I will be discussing ecomaps, genograms, and critical events timelines. Bronfenbrenner was not the only person exploring the application of ecological systems theory thinking in 1979. Ann Hartman published a book demonstrating how an ecological approach could be used in family assessment. Her book introduced ecomaps to the assessment lexicon and tool chest.


Ecomaps are characterized by circles representing individuals and groups and linked in various ways. The linking of the circles provides an indication of the relationships between the systems. A solid line indicates a strong relationship. A dashed line indicates a tenuous or fragile relationship. A jagged line indicates a fractured or stressful relationship. Arrows, plus and minus signs can be used to represent energy flow between the systems.

Ecomaps are a good way to visually represent the client system, the influences on the client, and the energy flow to and from the client system. The worker may use the ecomap to organize the client’s systems to be reviewed in staffing. It may also be used to provide a visual aid when explaining assessment of the problem to the client.


SampleGenogramWithoutEmotionalRelationshipsIn 1985, McGoldrick and Gerson introduced a new method for mapping the family system. This new system visualized the client in the context of other relatives including parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, children, nephews, and nieces.

The genogram is not only concerned with the relationships among the systems, i.e. the lines connecting them representing relationship. It is also concerned with the health and well-being patterns represented in the individual persons included in the diagram. A thorough genogram will also include medical information including diagnoses.

Because of its inclusion of medical and relational data, the genogram can be used in medical health care settings as well as mental health care settings. Patterns of illness, including mental illness, failure to thrive, family complexity, adverse childhood experiences, substance abuse, and other trauma may be noted in the genogram. The Wikipedia article on genograms provides a useful visual demonstrating symbol usage as well as how the use of color expands the information potential of the genogram.

Adding the Critical Events Timeline

The concept of creating a timeline of events is not new. Perhaps the best known application within social work is Cournoyer’s (2010) explanation offered in his multi-edition text: Social Work Skills Workbook. The timeline provides a visual list of important events that have shaped the life of the client.

Cournoyer suggests two columns. The first column lists the age of the client when the event occurred. The second column lists the event. The age range typically extends from birth, beginning the chart, to the present age of the client.

The critical events timeline can provide a chronological representation of the events that have impacted the client. Timing is critically important in determining the impact of events on the development of the client. For example, childhood experiences have been shown to impact adult choice behavior (Felitti et al, 1998).

Expanding the Use of Mapping Tools

The tools presented, ecomap, genogram, and critical events timeline provide visual means to examine the influences on the client. Both the ecomap and genogram also provide a context for the client as system and the related systems. Yet, neither explains the context from the perspective of the client. This misses the opportunity to begin to clarify the opportunities, contracts, and negotiations that the client perceives—the basis of choice behavior.

Introducing the Sociocybernetic Map

The solution is to include elements of environmental practice in a mapping of systems, perception, and meaning over time. Imagine a combined ecomap/genogram distinguishing between “high influence” and “low influence” relationships completed multiple times corresponding with the ages on the critical events timeline. The point would be to identify the extent, enduring nature, and choice pressure of relationships based on membership, diffusion, relationship characteristics, and historical factors—the ability confirmed by an understanding of complex systems.

The best example is to consider relationships as chess boards. Each chess board represents the choice behavior matrix of individuals as they attempt to reach goals they have set for themselves. In order to understand the choice of the client, you will need to identify the choice options perceived by the client at a given time. A sociocybernetic map providing insight into the complex systems impacting the choice can provide a model of the chess boards, and possible moves, perceived by the client.

Bibliographic Notes

Cournoyer, B. (2010). Social Work Skills Workbook. Independence: Cengage Learning.

Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, Koss MP, Marks JS.Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 1998;14:245–258.

Hartman, A. (1979). Finding families: An ecological approach to family assessment in adoption. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Hartman, A. (1995). Diagrammatic assessment of family relationships. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 1 , 111-122.

McGoldrick, M. and Gerson, R. (1985). Genograms: In Family Assessment. New York: W. W. Norton.

[EST&P stands for Ecological Systems Theory and Practice. ]

Written by Dr. Michael Wright

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers expertise as an mentor, entrepreneur, educator, and philosopher. Wright has maintained a social work and media macro practice consultancy for more than 15 years. He has logged dozens of professional relationships with public and private entities seeking to increase capacity, conduct social research, train staff, and grow strategically. Wright participates on a number of national committees with groups like the Council on Social Work Education.
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