Life Design

Mapping Your Social Ecosystem

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We all have direct and indirect relationships that impact our lives. This post shares an activity to help visually map out your social ecosystem.


Nicole Ja – faculty at the JHU Carey Business School – was the person who introduced me to the idea of charting out social ecosystems in her Designing Personal Change course. She drew from research by psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner and his work on ecological systems theory (later known as the bioecological model).

Bronfenbrenner viewed child development as a complex system of relationships at various levels:

  1. Individual
  2. Microsystem (direct environment)
  3. Mesosystem (relationship between microsystems)
  4. Exosystem (indirect environment)
  5. Macrosystem (cultural and social values)
  6. Chronosystem (change(s) over time)

Using Bronfenbrenner’s structure and Nicole Ja‘s adaption as inspiration, I created an activity geared towards college students to help them map their social ecosystem.

Mapping Your Social Ecosystem Activity

I used this activity as part of the accept phase in my Designing Your Sustainable Life course. My goal was to help students visually see where they were at in the present moment in relation to their social environment.

To help facilitate this activity, three things were key:

  1. Adjusted descriptions of each system
  2. Templates
  3. An Example

Descriptions of Each System

The following are the descriptions of each system I created for this activity:


The ways in which you identify yourself. You can include your name(s), pronouns, roles, titles, key attributes about yourself.


Individuals/groups in your immediate environment that you have direct contact (physical/virtual) with (direct connections).


Relationship/connections between the micro- and exosystems.


Individuals/Groups/Factors that are important and impact you, but you are not in direct contact with them (indirect connections).


Social and cultural values/customs/groups/experiences that impact you and those around you.


Where in time (however you define it) you are currently at. You can also include events/experiences in the immediate horizon that impact your thinking (e.g., graduation).


Since my course was virtual, I created two templates on Google Slides that my students could use.

Here is a link to the templates: Social Ecosystems Templates

There are simple image options, as well as options with text areas.

Students were also given access to a Pinterest board filled with other representations of the model that they could sketch out by hand or virtually.


In walking through the exercise, it was crucial to provide examples of each system. Since it was the first day of class, I took this as an opportunity for my students to get to know me and used the following personal example:


Closing Thoughts

This activity can be a powerful tool in helping participants map their social environment. Having a visual representation is often useful in recognizing relationships and focus areas, especially in the accept phase. However, this activity can be adapted to other phases in the design and life design process.

In facilitating this activity, I recommend building in ample time to describe and provide examples of each system. For most participants, this will be a new concept. The ask might not be clear if you don’t spend time to explain each part thoroughly.

Overall, this activity can be quite useful in design challenges and settings looking at next steps, the impact participants want to have, and understanding existing relationships.


  1. Thank you so much, this has helped in my assessment for building a multi-dimensional framework.

  2. I came across this as I was prepping for my fall courses. I use Bronfenbrenner’s theory as a framework for much of my research and teach it in all of my classes (all of which are rooted in developmental psych and human development) and I notice that you use a different definition for mesosystemic influences. Bronfenbrenner defined the mesosystem as the interactions between various microsystems, not between microsystemic and exosystemic influences. For example, the interactions between parents (one microsystem) and a child’s teacher (another microsystemic influence) would fall within the mesosystem. Could you expand on your definition of mesosystem?

    • Smiti Nathan Reply

      Hi Mary! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right about Bronfenbrenner’s definition of the mesosystem and I will adjust that. In adapting the theory for life design purposes, including the relationship between the microsystem and exosystem worked well. Here is a other example of a similar adaption:

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