The “Bowlby Less Traveled” Journey Comes to an End

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On September 20th, 2011, the FHL Foundation held its annual meeting for the 2011–2012 fiscal year (which ends July 31st of each year). After careful deliberation and consideration, the board and staff decided to de-emphasize its focus on Bowlbian attachment theory as a theory of social change. The reasons for this decision are complex and multifaceted. However, here are the main issue areas discussed:

  1. Multidisciplinary science and scientific investigation is declining. Bowlbian attachment theory is multidisciplinary in nature and encourages multidisciplinary scientific investigation and practice.
  2. A focus on naturalistic systems theory is declining while a focus on mechanistic (e.g., cybernetic) systems theory is gaining. Cybernetic systems can be seen reflected in such cultural phenomena as iTunes, Netflix, Google, Amazon, frequent flyer cards, Facebook, smartphones, etc.
  3. The phenomenon of attachment continues to be framed by a multitude of different frames—psychoanalytic, postmodern, reductionistic, New Age, Buddhist meditation, conservative religion, neurobiology, etc.—many of which conflict with one another. With the attachment field crowded by so many frames, it is extremely difficult to promote a true Bowlbian frame. With so much attachment frame “noise” it is very difficult to get across a true Bowlbian “signal.”
  4. Further, the frames that Bowlby primarily used—ethology, naturalistic systems theory, and cognitive maps or models—are rarely, if ever, used today to frame attachment.
  5. Deep relationships of all kinds—with attachment figures, with nature, with authors, with community, with career, with country, and with church—are on the decline. These patterns have been widely discussed in such books as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Mary Eberstadt’s Home-alone America, Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, Jeremy Rifkin’s End of Work, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and Jim Wallis’ Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. As Bowlby used to say, “Attachment (e.g., deep relating) is with us from cradle to grave.” The continuum of deep relating seems to be breaking down.
  6. Increasingly adults are treating children as if they were “small adults.” This phenomenon goes by such names as “parentification,” “adultification,” and “role-reversal.” Bowlby railed against the phenomenon of treating children as if they were small adults. This phenomenon is described and discussed in detail in Kay Hymowitz’s book Ready or Not.

In the remainder of this post I’d like to briefly expand on each of the above issue areas (pulling from both board meeting discussions and my own research), and then end with a look at where all of this may lead the Foundation.

Multidisciplinary science—In the concluding chapter to his recently released book (June, 2011) John Bowlby—From Psychoanalysis to Ethology, Frank van der Horst writes the following:

Bowlby used ideas and theories of others from all kinds of disciplines to explain the importance of mother–child attachment. He incorporated not only psychoanalytic and ethological ideas, but ideas from Jean Piaget, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and, of course, Mary Ainsworth as well.

A bit further along van der Horst writes:

In the early 1950s, Bowlby for the first time experienced the value of an interdisciplinary approach during the WHO study group meetings on the psychobiological development of the child. Here, he was able to discuss his ideas with a small group of experts with very different backgrounds for the purpose of exchanging views and ideas. This is where Bowlby met with leading researchers such as Erik Erikson, Julian Huxley, Konrad Lorenz, Margaret Mead, Jean Piaget, and others. Bowlby would later apply this interdiciplinary approach to the weekly meetings at the Tavistock Clinic (which included Robert Hinde, Ronald Laing, and James Robertson, for example) and to the biennial CIBA conferences on mother–infant interaction he organized (for which Bowlby invited Mary Ainsworth, Jack Gewirtz, Harry Harlow, and Rudolph Schaffer, amongst others).

That’s an incredibly heady group of researchers. Bowlbian attachment theory exemplifies interdisciplinary science and scientific investigation to the fullest. Sadly, today, it is very difficult to find examples of interdisciplinary science or scientific investigation. Why? The reasons are manifold. One reason, it’s too expensive. The University of Connecticut closed the door to its geology department several years ago. This hit close to home because I received my undergraduate degree in geology from U. Conn. According to the letter sent out to alumni, geochemistry professors would go to the chemistry department, geophysicists to the physics department, paleontologists to the biology department, field geologists to the geography department, and on the “silo-ization” of an interdisciplinary department went. Working in silos is the order of the day. Here’s another reason.

Writing in the book Primate Psychology, Dario Maestripieri tells us that Robert Hinde’s interest in …

… primate research was sparked by John Bowlby, who encouraged him to set up a colony of rhesus monkeys. In addition to training and supervising a whole generation of primate fieldworkers, Hinde had a great influence on primate behavior research with his own work on mother-infant relationships in rhesus macaques. … [F]or decades [Hinde] was one of the most articulate propoents of the conceptual integration between biological and psychological approaches to the study of behavior.

“The heyday of primatology,” writes Maestripieri, “did not last long.” He continues, “In the early 1970s … there were already significant cuts to research funding.” Why did research funds stop flowing to an interdisciplinary area such as primatology (which played such a huge role in the development of Bowlbian attachment theory)? Maestripieri reveals that one very important factor “was the rapid progress of biological disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology, and neuroscience and the growing popularity of scientific reductionism.” Maestripieri gives us this “bottom line”: “[T]he success of neuroscience led to the optimistic view that many important questions about behavior would eventually be answered by studies of brain anatomy and function, thus rendering [naturalistic] behavioral research less necessary.”

Cybernetic systems—“How paradoxical it is that when life develops organizations complex enough to be capable of thought, the emergent mind should revert, in its always oversimplified abstractions and generalizations, to patterns of symbols comparable in their subtlety and complexity only to organizations in the physical world and not those in the living universe…. Hence, of course, the mess in which we find ourselves.“ According to the research Debora Hammond presents in her book The Science of Synthesis, the above quote was contained in a letter that “Aldous Huxley wrote to his brother Julian [mentioned above], after reading Bertalnaffy’s Problems of Life [released in 1952]” (quoting Hammond). Aldous was shocked to learn that much of society had embraced the “man as machine” model. It was the man as machine model that people like Bertalanffy (arguably the father of general systems theory) and Bowlby railed against. Sadly, our present-day society seems to have a love affair with not only the machine proper but also the man as machine model. This love affair is reflected in such cultural phenomena as iPods, smartphones, social networking, Google, DVRs, etc. It appears that the man as living organism model (which holds Bowlbian attachment theory) has lost out to the man as machine model.

A multitude of frames—Honestly, I’m not sure where to start as far as this issue area is concerned. I’m actually surprised by the sheer number of frames that have been used (and continue to be used) to frame attachment. (This topic consumed considerable discussion time during our board meeting.) And Bowlby railed against some of them. He railed against the self-esteem frame and its postmodern leanings. As mentioned above, he railed against the man as machine or reductionistic frame. He railed against certain religious framings of attachment (specifically the Love Thy Mother and Father commandment). He railed against the psychodynamic frame. It’s just incredibly difficult and time-consuming to rail against so many different frames. And it seems as if new ones continue to pop up (like New Age frames). I guess attachment is such a deep human (and animal) experience that every group wishes to lay claim to it in some way. How do you bring up controversy? Focus on issues involving the body such as sex or abortion or food. Bowlby said that attachment was every bit as important as sex or food or shelter.

Ethology, naturalistic systems theory, and cognitive maps, oh my!—I have talked a little about the decline of ethology and naturalistic systems above. Let me briefly talk about cognitive maps (or what Bowlby called Inner Working Models). Bowlby’s theory of attachment can be summed up thus:

If all goes well, early secure attachment relationships between infants and primary caregivers (especially mothers) lead to the development of open and flexible Inner Working Models.

As you can see, Inner Working Models are a big part of Bowlby’s theory. As hinted at above, Bowlby pulled extensively from the work of Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder in the areas of mental models and spatial cognition. Sadly, this hugely important area of Bowlby’s theory is rarely mentioned if mentioned at all. The study of cognitive models and spatial behavior suffered the same fate as primatology. Writing in their 2002 book The Cognition of Geographic Space, Rob Kitchens and Mark Blades tells us (using the work of J.R. Gold as a background) that “behavioral geography” (which includes the study of spatial cognition and mental models) has no future. Here are the three reasons that Kitchens and Blades give for this decline (and they should sound familiar):

  1. Structural changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s (back when Bowlby released the first volume of his trilogy on attachment) prevented young behavioral geographers from securing academic posts, thus “a critical mass failed to develop” (quoting Kitchens and Blades).
  2. Because of the social issues that came to the fore during the 1970s (such as feminism and the self-esteem movement), “behavioral geography was perceived to be inappropriate for examining them” (quoting Kitchens and Blades).
  3. “[T]he philosophical bases of behavioral geography were heavily criticized by other researchers from different traditions” (quoting Kitchens and Blades).

I would suggest that you can apply the above three reasons why behavioral geography never “reached a critical mass” to the Bowlbian study of attachment. In 1999 noted feminist and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach wrote an article entitled Why Is Attachment In The Air? in which she reflects on that pivotal period of the early 1970s. She writes, “Feminist analysts … had a difficult time with what they perceived as Bowlby’s valourisation of the maternal at a moment [the early 1970s] when we were trying to understand the relationship of women’s oppression to the structure of the nuclear family.” What Orbach tells us is that at that time, the biological (e.g., the functioning of attachment behavior) was of little concern to feminists. For feminists it was (and continues to be) all about the sociological, the emancipatory. Orbach continues, “Mothering as social relationship, as that which bound women to men within a power imbalance, as that which was the only legitimate expression of female sexuality, mothering as natural and inevitable [biology], mother as the baddy in psychological development was being contested.”

Viewed using the lenses of sociology and emancipation, Bowlbian attachment was simply “inappropriate for examining” (quoting Kitchens and Blades) the sociological and emancipatory issues surrounding motherhood. Maybe a good Bowlbian motto might be: “Great theory, wrong place, wrong time.” In 2008, Heidi Keller suggested that Bowlbian attachment theory contains an “inherent moral imperative,” one that views maternal sensitivity not simply as “a causal influence in the development of attachment,” but as a “judgement on maternal adequacy, a way of distinguishing good from bad mothers” (echoing Orbach’s sentiments from above). In the same way Darwin did not come up with social Darwinism, I’m not sure it’s safe to say that Bowlby (and his followers) came up with social Bowlbianism. Suffice it to say that much confusion arises when you move amongst the conceptual frameworks of physics, biology, psychology, sociology, and emancipation. It is this type of conceptual confusion that has made it difficult for us to use Bowlby’s theory of attachment as a theory of social change. Right there within our mission focus we have crossed the boundary between the biological and the sociological. In hindsight, maybe not such a good idea.

The decline of deep relationships— Back in 1956 Bowlby wrote:

Probably in all normal people [attachment] continues in one form or another throughout life and, although in many ways transformed, underlies many of our attachments to country, sovereign, or church.

Again, Bowlby said that attachment is with us from cradle to grave. What I take this to mean is that there exists a deep attachment relationship continuum, and each deep attachment experience builds on the one before. Sadly, I have been reading books over the years that, taken as a whole, tends to suggest that the deep attachment relationship continuum is breaking down. Here’s how that breakdown, well, breaks down:

  1. Breakdown of the mother–infant deep relationship (Daphne de Marneffe—Maternal Desire)
  2. Breakdown of the parent-child deep relationship (Mary Eberstadt—Home-alone America and Kay Hymowitz—Ready or Not)
  3. Breakdown of deep relationships to books and their authors (Nicholas Carr—The Shallows)
  4. Breakdown of deep relationships to communities (Robert Putnam—Bowling Alone and Richard Florida—Rise of the Creative Class)
  5. Breakdown of deep relationships to career (Jeremy Rifkin—End of Work)
  6. Breakdown of deep religious relationships (Jim Wallis—Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It)

All of these books do a good job talking about specific breakdowns along the deep attachment continuum, however, I haven’t read a book that talks about the breakdown as a whole. Maybe that’s why I enjoy reading Bowlby: He tends to keep this deep attachment continuum in mind. But there again, Bowlby thought in this very holistic fashion. If the entire deep relationship continuum breaks down, then there will be little need for Bowlbian attachment theory. Heck, if we all end up turning into machines, again, there will be no need for Bowlbian attachment theory. If reductionist scientists are successful in finding the “attachment gene” or the “attachment brain center,” ball game over, we can all go home.

Parentification, Adultification, and Role-reversal—I’m not going to say much on this topic. I cover this topic in great detail in my summary of Kay Hymowitz’s book Ready or Not: How Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—And Ours. I recently reviewed sections of volume II of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment theory and I was struck by how often he condemns the practice of adultifying young children. As an example, Bowlby makes the following declaration:

Ignorance of the natural history of attachment behavior, coupled with a misguided enthusiasm that small children should quickly become independent and ‘mature,’ has resulted in practices that expose children … to a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and distress.

As Hymowitz puts it, “Just as women started to go to work in great numbers [starting in the mid-1970s], the popular image of the baby began to transform from helpless neediness into competent information processing, and at the same time, the mother-infant relationship and attachment theory faded from the headlines.” Just as Bowlby was warning us against parentification or adultification processes, they hit the sociological scene like a tidal wave. Today, as Eberstadt points out, parents use many different forms of parental substitute: behavioral drugs (like Ritalin and Adderall), food, consumer products, sex, music, pricey boot camp-style schools (like the one Bowlby was sent to as an eleven-year-old), technology, and the list goes on. Hymowitz gets this when she asks, “How does one rear children who don’t need rearing?” Darn good question. If children don’t need rearing then we can certainly throw attachment theory out the window. Maybe we should just allow robot caregivers to takeover over parenting duties (a theme parodied in a recent Geico commercial depicting the cost-saving benefits of a day care run by robots, robots run amuck that is). (Note: Just before this post went hot, I read an article entitled Less Play Time = More Troubled Kids, Experts Say. The article mentions a book with a provocative title: A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting by Hara Estroff Marano. According to Bowlby’s theory, an invasive parenting style can contribute to insecure attachment. Just saying….)

Where to next?—So, what’s a Foundation with a focus on Bowlbian attachment theory supposed to do? One approach would be to focus in on one aspect of the overall deep attachment relationship continuum and its associated breakdown. To a degree we are already doing this by supporting such groups as the Children & Nature Network, a network that tries to get kids away from their computers long enough so they can go outdoors. But, is that enough, to work on only one aspect of the overall deep attachment relationship continuum? Working on a part as opposed to the whole doesn’t seem right given that Bowlbian attachment theory is based on naturalistic systems theory. But we might continue along this path. Another would be to fund projects that specifically are interdisciplinary in nature. That might work. Back in 2001, neurobiologist Antonio Damasio was involved in a project that resulted in a book entitled Unity of Knowledge—The Convergence of Natural and Human Sciences. This was a neat collaborative effort in that there were social scientists, ethologists, medical doctors, theologians, neurologists, and many others involved. I remember the theologians being worried that if there ever truly was a unity of science that could explain everything, there would be no need for God. Some very interesting discussions around this theme.

We could fund the area of primatology or maybe ethology or maybe spatial cognition. These are the building blocks of Bowlbian attachment theory. This might work. But is this really Bowlbian attachment theory? We could embrace one of the other frames, such as postmodernism or reductionism or psychodynamics. And we have done that. We have made several grants that look at attachment from a brain scan perspective. We have made a couple of grants that have a decidedly New Age feel to them. And we definitely have made grants that honor the so-called psychoanalytic core of Bowlbian attachment theory. But, again, is this really Bowlbian attachment theory? We could focus in on just parentification or adultification issues. And we have made grants in this area. As an example, we made a grant in support of a video by Jane Caputi entitled The Pornography of Everyday Life (click on this link for a description of the video). Dr. Caputi’s video investigates (in part) how images of infantilized women and adultified children are widely used in mainstream advertising to sell all manner of consumer products. I hate to say it but patterns such as parentification or adultification or role-reversal are so common in our society that it is exceedingly difficult to take a stand against them on Bowlbian grounds.

Maybe I (we, the Foundation) have tried to see Bowlbian attachment theory where it simply does not exist. It simply may be that the emperor is naked and that’s that. Going down the Bowlby Less Traveled road for just over a year now (and almost 100 posts) has been fun and exciting (if not a bit frustrating at times), but I guess all journeys eventually come to an end. I’ve enjoyed it, I hope you have too. If you have any suggestions on what road we should take next, feel free to leave a comment or contact us using the Contact Us link above. I stand firm in my belief that foundations should use a theory of social change, but when a theory is simply out of touch with current realities, it may be time to choose a new one. We’ll start looking.