An Ecological Model Of Human Development

Our work on friendship is grounded in an ecological understanding of human development (Bron-fenbrenner, 1979, 1989). An ecological framework draws attention to the adolescent's immediate developmental milieu, interrelations among major settings, and specific social structures that exert indirect influence on proximal environments in which the adolescent lives. Considering that the child exists within multiple intersecting and overlapping contexts that determine what is adaptive or normative, the various levels (child, relationships, and settings) of the ecological system should not be considered in isolation from one another.

Over the past decade, there has been a surge of research directed at understanding the ways in which multiple settings or contexts influence child development (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov, & Sealand, 1993; Burton, Allison, & Obeidallah, 1995; Seidman, 1991). This research has indicated that contexts such as families, peers, schools, and neighborhoods exert an important influence on adolescent development, with each context influencing the ways in which adolescents experience other contexts. For example, how an adolescent experiences high school is influenced not only by the type of school attended previously, but also by the attitude his/her family has toward school, the perceived safety of the neighborhood, and the quality of peer relations in school (Epstein & Karweit, 1983). Exploring the ways in which each of these contexts shape the experience of other contexts allows for a greater understanding of the processes that shape adolescent development (Phelan, Yu, & Davidson, 1994). Yet little attention has been paid to how contexts, settings, or sets of relationships influence each other. This gap is evident throughout the research on adolescent development but is particularly true for research on friendships. Although an ecological framework has become almost de rigueur in some areas of psychological research, such model has rarely been employed in research on adolescent friendship (exceptions include Crosnoe, Cavanagh, & Elder, 2003).

Our work is also grounded in the belief that subjective experience is a large part of what truly matters in studies of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Lewin, 1951). How a child or adolescent perceives his or her world is a fundamental component of his or her development. Disregarding adolescents' own experiences of their environments leads to an inadequate understanding of adolescents or of the environments in which they exist. For example, our research has suggested that although schools on the outside may appear hostile or supportive, they are not necessarily perceived as such by the adolescents themselves. This discrepancy has direct implications for understanding the effects of those environments on adolescent development. Thus, in our research on friendships, we focus in particular on how adolescents themselves perceive their friendships and other contextual-level variables such as family relationships, school climate, and neighborhood cohesion.

OUR RESEARCH Goals and Method

We have conducted two longitudinal, mixed methods research projects over the past decade focusing on the following three sets of questions: (1) What are the characteristics and quality of friendships among ethnic minority, low-income, urban adolescents and how do the characteristics and quality of their friendships vary by gender, ethnicity, and age?; (2) What are the ways in which adolescents' perceptions of family relationships, school and neighborhood climate (i.e., contextual-level predictors) shape adolescents' perceptions of the quality of their friendships?; and (3) Are these patterns moderated by ethnicity or gender? In our research we distinguish between closest friends and friends in general as adolescents themselves are known to make sharp distinctions between these types of friendships (Newcomb & Bagwell, 1996; Shulman, 1993; Way, 1998) and the associated correlates vary depending on the type of relationship to which the adolescent is referring (Harter, 1990; Reyes, Goyette, & Bishop, 1996; Robinson, 1995; Way & Pahl, 2001). Closest friends refer to those whom the adolescent feels closest (i.e., best friends), while friends in general refer to a large array of friends, some of whom may not be close.

Data collection involved administering standardized measures and semi-structured interviews with urban, ethnic minority, low-income adolescents each year, over a 4- or 5-year period (depending on the study), beginning in the first year of high school. Intensive participant observation over a 4- or 5-year period was also conducted. Each study was conducted in a public high school located in a low-income neighborhood in New York City and was successful in recruiting 86-95% of the freshman population during the first year. Our recruitment effort resulted in sample sizes that ranged from 213 (study 1) to 225 (study 2) for the quantitative component. The qualitative component of each study involved interviewing a total of 242 adolescents (132 in study 1 and 110 in study 2) during their freshman year; adolescents were re-interviewed each year of high school. The interview sample was selected based on our goal of having a representative sample of girls, boys, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans that reflected the student body in each of the schools. For both the quantitative and qualitative component, we had at least a 60% retention rate over a 4- or 5-year period depending on the study, which is typical of longitudinal studies of low-income, urban adolescents (see Seidman, 1991). It is important to note, however, that we had a 90-96% retention rate in both schools among those participants who remained in the school during the study. Those adolescents who were retained for our studies did not differ on any of our demographic variables from those who were not retained.


The mean age of the respondents at Time 1 was 14.33 (Study 1) and 14. 21 (Study 2). The vast majority (over 90%) of participants in both studies identified themselves as Black (almost exclusively African American), Latino (primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican) or Asian American (almost exclusively Chinese American). These ethnic groups are reflective of the dominant ethnic groups in the schools in which we collected the data. The majority of the students (80-90%) in each of the two schools were eligible for federal assistance through the free or reduced-price lunch program.


Students were recruited from "mainstream" English classes (not from bilingual English classes) in order to assure English fluency for the qualitative component of the interview. Approximately 90% of the students in both schools were registered in mainstream English classes. For all waves of data collection, adolescents were required to return signed parental consent forms that were in English, Spanish, or Chinese. The questionnaires and one-to-one, semi-structured interviews in both studies were administered during English classes, free periods, lunch periods, or after school. Questionnaires took approximately 90 minutes to complete (two class periods) and the interviews were approximately 90 minutes to 120 minutes depending on the year of the assessment (the longer interviews took place during the latter years of the studies). Ethnically diverse research assistants who had been extensively trained in interviewing techniques administered both questionnaires and interviews. Participants were paid $5.00 to complete the questionnaires and $10.00 to complete the interviews in Year 1; each participant received an additional $5.00 for participating in each new wave of data collection (Times 2, 3, and 4).


All measures employed in our research have been used with ethnically and socioeconomically diverse urban populations and have been found to have good to excellent internal reliability and external validity (Buhrmester, 1990; Way & Chen, 2000; Way, Cowal, Gingold, Pahl, & Bissessar, 2001; Whee-lock & Erickson, 1996).

For the assessment of the quality of closest same-sex friendship and the quality of relationships with mother and father, we used a 20-item version of Furman and Buhrmester's (1985) Network of Relationships Inventory. This measure investigates multiple dimensions of relationship quality (i.e., intimacy, affection, reliable alliance, satisfaction, companionship, conflict and antagonism) using a 5-point Likert Scale. The "positive" dimensions (i.e., intimacy, affection, reliable alliance, satisfaction, and companionship) were highly correlated with each other and thus, for the purposes of our study, were summed into one score that represented overall support. Our decision to combine these five dimensions into one score is based on previous research that indicates that the positive dimensions on the NRI comprise one factor (Gavin & Furman, 1996). To investigate the quality—overall level of perceived support—of general friendships and family relationships, we relied on The Perceived Social Support Scale for Family and Friends (PSS-FA Procidano & Heller, 1983). The Network of Relationships Inventory is focused on particular dyadic relationships (i.e., closest friend, mother, or father) while the Perceived Social Support Scale is focused on relationships more generally (i.e., friends in general and family members).

Adolescents' perceptions of the climate of their school was assessed using a shortened version of the School Climate Scale (Haynes, Emmons, & Comer, 1993). This measure examines three dimensions (teacher/student relationships, student/student relationships, and order/safety) of school climate on a 5-point Likert scale. To investigate adolescents' perceptions of their neighborhood, we used on the Neighborhood Cohesion Scale (Adolescent Pathways Project, 1992), which assesses perceptions of neighborhood safety, cohesion, and satisfaction using a 4-point Likert scale.

Interview Protocol

In order to explore adolescents' experiences of friendships, family relationships, schools, and neighborhoods, one-to-one, semi-structured interviews were conducted each year with adolescents over a 4- to 5-year period. The interview protocol included questions regarding general descriptions (e.g., tell me about your relationships with your best friend?) as well as more specific probes (e.g., in what ways do you trust your best friend?). Each interview, during Times 2, 3, and 4, began with the following question: "What has changed for you over the past year?" This question allowed us to better understand adolescent responses during the remainder of the interview. Although each interview included a standard set of questions, follow-up probes and questions allowed us to capture the adolescents' own ways of describing their friendships.

Data Analysis

Data analysis of our quantitative data involved methods ranging from Hierarchical Regression Analysis to Growth Curve modeling (see Rogosa & Willett, 1985; Willett, Singer, & Martin, 1998). For our qualitative data, we used analytic techniques such as Narrative summaries (Miller, 1991), conceptually clustered matrices (Miles & Huberman, 1995), and the Listening Guide (Brown, Tappan, Gilligan, Miller, & Argyris, 1989).


The Family Context

Family/Parental Support

Research on the links between the quality of relationships with family members and with peers has been based primarily on attachment and/or social support theories (Updegraff et al., 2001) and has typically found the quality of family relationships to be positively associated with the quality of friendships (Greenberg, Siegel, & Leitch, 1983; Kerns, 1994; Kerns & Stevens, 1996; Procidano & Smith, 1997; Youngblade, Park, & Belsky, 1993). According to attachment theorists, children internalize their parents' responsiveness toward them in the form of internal working models of the self (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). These internal working models in turn influence non-familial relationships, as children provided with security, warmth, and trust are more likely than others to seek out and experience similar qualities in their relationships with their peers (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Greenberg et al., 1983; Kerns & Stevens, 1996; Sroufe & Waters, 1977). Attachment theorists also emphasize the enduring and stable nature of attachment styles, showing significant associations between current parent attachment and peer relationships (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Cauce, Mason, Gonzales, Hiraga, & Liu, 1996).

In a similar vein, social support theorists also maintain that a positive association exists between adolescents' perceived support from families and from friends (Procidano, 1992; Procidano & Smith, 1997). In the social support literature, perceived family support is generally understood as the extent to which adolescents feel they can depend on family for advice, guidance, and emotional support.

When a child's need for support is met at home, that child will likely experience others outside of the home as supportive as well (Bartholomew, Cobb, & Poole, 1997; Sarason, Pierce, & Sarason, 1990).

Although the vast majority of attachment and social support-based research has been focused on European American adolescents, a few studies have examined the links between parent-child closeness and adolescent friendships among ethnic minority youth as well (see Cote, 1996; Updegraff et al., 2001). This research has suggested that the association between parent and peer relationships varies as a function of culture, race/ethnicity, and/or gender. For example, using a sample of early adolescents from Latino and European American families, Updegraff and her colleagues (2002) examined adolescents' experiences with their mothers, fathers, and best friends and found both mother and father acceptance to be significantly linked to friendship intimacy among European American adolescents. For Latino adolescents, however, only mother acceptance was related to friendship intimacy.

In our own research on family and friendship support among ethnic minority youth, we have found patterns that are both consistent and inconsistent with previous findings (Way, 1998; Way & Chen, 2000; Way, Greene, & Pahl, 2004; Way & Pahl, 2001). Similar to Updegraff and her colleagues (2002), our longitudinal analyses showed that over a one-year period, father support was unrelated to friendship support among Latino, Black, and Asian American adolescents. However, perceived support from mothers at Time 1 was significantly associated with change over time in the quality of both general and closest friendship support (Way & Pahl, 2001). These findings extend the significance of mother support to other ethnic minority groups (e.g., African American and Asian American). Strikingly, though, adolescents who reported the least amount of support from their mothers at Time 1 showed the sharpest increases over time in reported levels of support from friends. Although one might interpret such findings as a "ceiling effect" (i.e., those adolescents who reported initial high scores had less room to grow over time than those who initially reported low scores), the analysis indicated that there was no concurrent association between mother and friendship support. In other words, adolescents who reported the lowest mother support were not necessarily the same adolescents who reported the lowest levels of friendship support. Although the increase over time in friendship support was significantly sharper among adolescents reporting the lowest levels of mother support, the mean level of friendship support was not the lowest among these groups. In fact, the mean level of friendship support at Time 2 for those who reported the lowest mother support at Time 1 was significantly higher than the mean levels of friendship support at Time 2 for those who reported the highest mother support at Time 1 (see Figure 17.1). These patterns suggest a compensatory rather than a "ceiling" effect.

Growth curve analyses examining the dynamic associations between perceptions of family support1 and general and closest friendship quality over a 5-year period showed that improvements over time in reports of family support were significantly associated with improvements over time in levels of general and closest friendship support (Way & Greene, in press). In addition, similar to what we found in our analysis of two waves of data (Way & Pahl, 2001), adolescents who reported lower mean levels of family support (averaged over time) experienced sharper improvements in general friendship quality over a 5-year period than those adolescents with higher mean levels of family support. These associations were robust across grade and ethnicity.

Thus, our longitudinal analyses provide evidence for both attachment-like and compensatory-like patterns between family and friendships. Attachment-like associations were indicated in the growth curve findings showing that an increase over time in perceptions of family support were significantly associated with an increase over time in perceptions of friendship support. Compensatory patterns were apparent in the findings suggesting that those adolescents who reported lower mother or family support revealed sharper increases over time in perceptions of friendship support than those who reported higher mother or family support (Way & Greene, in press; Way & Pahl, 2001). Although these findings seem contradictory, they are consistent with much of what we know about the development of relationships. Overall, improvements in one type of relationship (i.e., family members) may be associated with improvements in another type of relationship (i.e., friends). However, the sharpest

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