Getting Back On Track With the “Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment”

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In my posts of recent (see posts from December 21st, 2010, and January 4th, 6th, 12th, and 20th, 2011), I have talked about what I call the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment (or GBAE for short). In my earlier posts I have argued that the GBAE holds the behavioral systems of caregiving, attachment, and sex. Bowlby’s ethological studies (e.g., the study of animal behavior) revealed to him that one of the greatest challenges facing the animal world was how to go about balancing and harmonizing the motivations arising from different motivational (or behavioral) systems that often have conflicting goals. For example, in my January 12th, 2011, post entitled Frogs, Sex and Stayin’ Alive, I make the following observation: “The challenge for the frog is to croak in such a way that two goals are achieved simultaneously: to mate successfully and to not be eaten in the process.” Suffice it to say that once you begin looking at a grand system that is comprised of competing subsystems, you have entered the world of naturalistic systems theory. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, arguably the father of naturalistic systems theory, writes the following in his 1969 book General System Theory (summary available):

[A] point of philosophical interest should be mentioned. If we are speaking of “systems,” we mean “wholes” or “unities.” Then it seems paradoxical that, with respect to a whole, the concept of competition between its parts is introduced. In fact, however, these apparently contradictory statements both belong to the essentials of systems. Every whole is based upon the competition of its elements, and presupposes the “struggle between parts” [a phrase von Bertalanffy attributes to Roux]. The latter is a general principle of organization in simple physico-chemical systems as well as in organisms and social units, and it is, in the last resort, an expression of the coincidentia oppositorum that reality presents.

All this to say that the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment is where the struggle between the parts of caregiving, attachment, and sex takes place. Please take note of Bert’s (as I call him) focus on organization. We’ll see this focus again in a moment.

Now, hopefully you can see some confusion: attachment is both a part (e.g., the attachment behavioral system) and a whole (e.g., the GBAE). I will admit, this was a source of confusion for me as I read through Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment. My sense is that at times Bowlby looked at attachment as an isolated behavioral system; at other times, he looked at attachment (specifically attachment relationships) as a place where the struggle between parts could take place. As an example, Bowlby writes the following in volume one of his trilogy: “By proposing that a child’s attachment behaviour is controlled by a behavioural system conceived as an organisation existing within the child, attention shifts from the behaviour itself to the organisation that it controls” (my emphasis—sound familiar). I hate to say it but Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment is shot through with conceptual confusion of this nature. But keep in mind that Bowlby had one foot in the world of reductionism and the other in the world of naturalistic systems theory. As an example of this confusion, Dr. Metcalf, writing in his article John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist (which was commissioned by our Foundation), alerts us to the fact that Bowlby provides copious references for studies and research framed by reductionistic science, however, provides scant references for studies and research framed by naturalistic systems science. I hate to say it but it appears that Bowlby was in the closet as far as his connection to and participation in the general systems theory revolution that surrounded him back in the 1950s and 60s. You may ask, “Was Bowlby truly a part of the systems revolution?” Dr. Metcalf’s research suggests that he was. Back in November of 2009, Dr. Metcalf wrote the following in an email to me (my emphasis, and my additions in brackets):

Here’s one more quote from Bowlby that reinforces your idea about [Bowlby] balancing and harmonizing [behavioral systems]:  “It is plain that the structure and activity of the organism as a whole cannot be understood simply in terms of structure and activities of its parts and that the process of organization of the separate activities into a whole must have [systems] laws of its own and that, in so far as the organism persists and develops, there must be an equilibrium of forces.” (Fourth Volume [of Discussions on Child Development, 1956], P 45)

Dr. Metcalf’s article was designed to take a first pass at looking at the connection between Bowlby and the system sciences. A full treatment of the subject waits to be completed (see post script below). So, by even proposing and talking about a Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment, I’m stretching the limits of our current understanding (and framing) of Bowlby’s work. This is definitely a “Bowlby Less Traveled,” but travel we must. My sense is that Bowlby was trying to very deftly move us in the direction of a Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment without drawing undo attention to what his ultimate goal was. I would suggest that the politics of the time—a rigid, dogmatic attachment to reductionistic science—warranted such subterfuge. Every once in a while Bowlby would just say something like (again from volume one), “Attachment behaviour is regarded as a class of social behaviour of importance equivalent to that of mating behaviour [e.g., the sexual behavioral system] and parental behaviour [e.g., the caregiving behavioral system].” I could be reading more into it than is there but he seems to be baiting us to ask the obvious question: “I agree that the attachment, caregiving, and sex behavioral systems are all important, but how the heck do you organize them, keep them happy, keep them from fighting with each other, create a harmonious whole?” I think Bowlby placed many bread crumbs as bait leading to what he considered to be an answer; it’s all a matter of whether we wish to take the bait. In my next post I’ll try picking up a few bread crumbs. Here’s a crumb you may wish to munch on in the mean time (again, from volume one):

Since a bond is a property of the two parties, the bond with which we are concerned [e.g., the infant-mother bond] should be designated as one of attachment-caregiving.

Post script: If you’re a grad student or researcher interested in working on a project that will continue the process of bringing to light the systems theory implications of Bowlby’s work, feel free to contact our Foundation using the CONTACT US link above. In addition, if you know of work that has already been done (yes, there is some), by all means, send us the reference.