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LeGard (2007) OU
Bowlby, the Strange Situation, and the Developmental Niche
Bowlby asserted that infants who fail to maintain proximity and thus achieve secure attachment to the mother are predisposed to experience maladjusted development. The purpose of this essay, however, is to argue that the manifestation of secure attachment is a cultural process pertaining to the child’s developmental niche. Moreover, this paper will argue that infant behaviour is shaped by the cultural meanings pertaining to separation and reunion and, as a consequence, the so-called standardized procedure for measuring attachment type − the Strange Situation − is not a valid method. This essay will begin with an account of Bowlby’s attachment theory and the Strange Situation followed by a definition of developmental niche. The limitations of Bowlby’s claims will be established via a critical examination of attachment theory in light of more recent socio-cultural research. Inspired by the ethological research of Lorenz (1935) − whose study of imprinting demonstrated an attachment between greylag geese and their mother − Bowlby applied the concept to the infant/caregiver bond. Further research by Harlow (1958) led Bowlby (1969a) to claim that infants possess an innate predisposition, what he termed monotropism, to form initially an attachment to a single figure, typically the mother. Bowlby maintained that the bond must be intimate and continuous and that such a relationship − which allows the child to use the caregiver as a secure base during stressful episodes − is essential for the child’s social and cognitive development (Smith et al., 2003). According to Bowlby, the infant’s inner representation of their early caregiving relationship with the attachment figure serves as an internal working model. This has three elements: a model of the self, a model of the other, and the relationship between these (Bowlby, 1969b). An internal working model can be described as a series of expectations concerning the availability of attachment figures, their probability of providing care during stressful episodes, and the self’s interaction with those figures. This internal working model then becomes the representation for all future relationships.
Ainsworth and her colleagues (1978b) developed the Strange Situation to measure the quality of attachment by examining reunions following separation. Observing children’s responses to seven short episodes encompassing brief separations from and reunions with the caregiver, researchers identified four attachment classifications: insecure/avoidant (Type A), securely attached (Type B), insecure/resistant (Type C) and insecure/disorganized (Type D). The concept of developmental niche was proposed by Super and Harkness (1982), and refers to children’s social and physical environments; the culturally regulated customs and child-nurturing practices; and the beliefs − or ethnotheories − of the populace. Bowlby drew upon ethological research for indicators of human behaviour. He proposed that animals evolved an innate protection mechanism, manifested by the proximity-seeking behaviour of the fledgling to the mother. Harlow’s (1958) research with macaque monkeys demonstrated that, when distressed, the primates favoured a “cloth mother” over food. These findings convinced Bowlby that the emotional bond between parent and offspring was significant. Conclusions of such ethological investigations are not completely convincing, however. Human behaviour is more flexible and culturally-driven than that of other animal species. There exists enormous cultural difference in human behaviour within societies, and such variations are learnt variations. Humankind possesses the ability to transfer and construct beliefs and knowledge via cultural traditions. Certainly, the imprinting nature of birds is not characteristic of higher primates (Smith et al., 2003). Moreover, Harlow’s research incorporated the confounding variables of both social and sensory deprivation and thus cannot be considered a valid measure of primates’ natural behaviour. Separation distress, as measured in the Strange Situation, occurs at approximately eight months of age within Western culture (Schaffer, 1984), and this appears to be the case in all societies, irrespective of the social setting within which the infant is reared (Konner, 1982). The onset of this contemporaneous developmental trend suggests that proximity-seeking behaviour is maturationally determined. Certainly, aspects of sensori-motor development are essential for attachment; the child cannot protest at maternal absence or attempt to maintain proximity until they have 2
developed recognition memory and object permanence. That is, infants must possess the ability to recognize attachment figures and comprehend the continued existence of people or objects when they are out of sight. Although the need for emotional security is, arguably, universal, the process by which children gain secure attachment is diverse. Indeed, the sensitivity hypothesis proposes that a mother’s sensitive responsiveness to her infant leads to secure attachment (Ainsworth et al., 1978a). A meta-analysis by lamb et al. (1985) seems to support this claim. Such a hypothesis, then, appears to back up Bowlby’s assertion that the child must experience a warm and intimate relationship with the mother in order to assure psychological well-being. Ainsworth et al.’s (1978a) longitudinal study focused on children from the US. Research in Germany (Grossmann et al., 1985), however, revealed that significantly more children were classified as insecure/avoidant when compared with their North American counterparts. These findings demonstrate that behaviour in the Strange Situation is culturally mediated. Child-rearing practices in Germany stress the importance of early self-reliance for children. Consequently, German parents who participated in the study exhibited a less responsive pattern of nurturing. The sensitivity hypothesis fails to consider joint effects, such as temperament and mothers’ social support, and, like Bowlby’s theory, is concerned merely with dyadic relationships. Bowlby claimed that emotional security is extremely difficult to provide outside of the family unit. Young children, he argued, are only able to form single significant attachments (Bowlby, 1969a). Thus, absence from the attachment figure is damaging to the child’s emotional development. Indeed, research by Belsky and Rovine (1988) concluded that full-time childcare leads to insecure attachment. Certainly, these findings seem to support Bowlby’s claim of monotropism. However, Belsky and Rovine’s results were acquired via the Strange Situation. Ainsworth’s intention was that the Strange Situation be used in Western society to induce degrees of anxiety in infants similar to those evoked among Ugandan children (Cole, 1992). Nevertheless, the procedure has been employed as a standardized measure of attachment within all cultures. Although the Strange Situation is regarded as a “gold standard” method (Ding and Littleton, 2005), the validity of particular outcomes must be challenged. Irritable infants, for example, may react to separations and reunions with anxiety − 3
despite the mothers’ sensitivity towards them − and be classified as securely attached. Similarly, a number of children are undisturbed by the separations and reunions in the Strange Situation. Rather than catalogue such infants as insecure/avoidant, their reaction may simply represent an autonomous temperament. Indeed, Singer (1993) questions the basis on which researchers classify infants as aggressive, unstable, or noncompliant. Such children, Singer suggests, could also be categorized as ‘independent, assertive and having their own point of view’ (ibid., p.72). Schaffer (1996) asserts that there exists no empirical evidence for the concept of monotropism. Indeed, in a study by Schaffer and Emerson (1964), almost one third of infants formed attachments to more than one individual. Similarly, Andersson (1992) revealed that Swedish children who experienced full-time day care as infants gained enhanced social-emotional development when compared with children who were reared at home. Infants accustomed to day care, who exhibit so-called resistant behaviour following reunions with the caregiver, are merely responding to elements of their internal working model. As Singer declares: ‘[N]othing “strange” has occurred in the Strange Situation (1993, p.71). Thus, the Strange Situation proves inadequate as a measure of attachment within Western subcultures. Indeed, the limitations of the procedure are exemplified further when attachment within nonWestern societies is examined. Although secure attachment is the most common categorization of the Strange Situation in North American studies, cross-cultural variations exist. Singer (1993) maintains that attachment theory is pedagogy. Indeed, American mothers encourage assertive and self-directed behaviour because such an upbringing is endorsed by Western society. Conversely, Japanese society advocates that mothers rear quiet, contented babies (Caudill and Frost, 1973). Values, therefore, that are attached to the different categories of the Strange Situation are culturally constructed. More Japanese children are assessed as insecure/resistant than are US infants. However, as noted above, the developmental niche of Japanese infants encourages a strong dependence of the child upon the mother. Conversely, American maternal behaviour is part of a system that values independence (Cole, 1992). Separations, therefore, evoke more distress in Japanese infants because of the structure of their developmental niche; they spend the majority of their time with their mothers. 4
Irrespective of the society into which the infant is born, the social and physical setting must initially be accommodated by the child. One aspect of the concept of developmental niche is the way an infant’s environment is shaped by child-rearing practices. Indeed, many cultures share the care of young children (Weisner and Gallimore, 1977). The care of a Kipsigis infant, for example, is taken over by an older child once the infant reaches four months of age (Super and Harkness, 1982). For Kipsigis children, being reared by several caretakers is common and thus they do not experience distress at maternal absence. The infants’ socialization process ensures that they accommodate culturally appropriate behaviours of the developmental niche. Infant/caregiver(s) interaction encourages and develops aptitudes and expectations that are required for personal social and emotional development within particular societies. Indeed, infants of the Efe pygmies of Zaire are reared by several caretakers and consequently form multiple attachments. These multiple attachments ensure that the children form a strong group identification which, in their particular environment of high mortality rate and working mothers, is highly adaptive (Tronick et al., 1987). Attachment relationships, then, are shaped by what is deemed appropriate in each society. Culture influences the process of adaptation and these adaptations to the developmental niche become part of the child’s internal working model. The infant constructs expectations pertaining to what is familiar and safe and what is unusual and insecure. Thus, adaptation to the developmental niche of different cultures results in divergent responses to the identical situation (Super and Harkness, 1982). It is clear that Bowlby’s claim of monotropism can lead to what Walkerdine (1993, p.28) calls the naturalization of childhood. That is, what is considered natural and normal within a particular childhood niche (typically North American and European) is not recognized as merely a cultural response to the values and circumstances of that specific society. Indeed, prevailing Western theories of child development are simply culturally constructed concepts. It has been established, then, that Bowlby’s concept of infant/mother attachment is too simplistic. Bowlby’s theory refuses to acknowledge the socio-cultural aspects of 5
attachment formation. Cultural traditions are the means by which humans construct and pass on knowledge and beliefs. The ethological concept of imprinting cannot merely be ascribed to humans. Indeed, Harlow’s findings lack validity. The sensitivity hypothesis does not consider joint effects and is concerned only with the infant/caregiver dyad. Certainly, infant behaviour in the Strange Situation is culturally mediated. Thus, the procedure is ineffective as a measure of attachment within cultures other than those for which it was designed. Single or multiple attachment relationships are informed by the culturally relevant behaviour of the developmental niche. The infant’s adaptations to the social setting are appropriated into their internal working model. Adhering to Bowlby’s notion that in order to avoid disturbed development, infants must gain secure attachment to a single caregiver is perilous. Such a presumption can lead to the short-sighted conviction that one culture’s childrearing methods are faultless and not simply a cultural response to the values, circumstances and beliefs of particular societies.
References Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E. and Wahl, S. (1978a) cited in Schaffer (1996) p.144. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E. and Wahl, S. (1978b) cited in Oates et al. (2005) p.26. Andersson, B. E. (1992) cited in Singer (1993) p.71. Belsky J. and Rovine, M. J. (1988) cited in Schaffer (1996) p.142. Bowlby, J. (1969a) cited in Schaffer (1996) p.135. Bowlby, J. (1969b) cited in Oates et al. (2005) p.21. Caudill, W. and Frost, L. A. (1973) cited in Super and Harkness (1982) p.38. Cole, M. (1992) ‘Culture in Development’, in Woodhead, M., Faulkner, D and Littleton, K. (eds) (1998) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, Oxford, Routledge/The Open university. Ding, S. and Littleton, K. (eds) (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Grossmann, K., Grossmann, K. E., Spangler, G. and Unzner, L. (1985) cited in Schaffer (1996) p.145).
Harlow, H. F. (1958) cited in Ding and Littleton (2005) p.18. Konner, M. (1982) cited in Schaffer (1996) p.60. Lorenz, K. (1935) cited in Schaffer (1996) p.5. Oates, J., Lewis, C. and Lamb, M. E. ‘Parenting and Attachment’, in Ding, S. and Littleton, K. (eds) (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Schaffer, H R. and Emerson, P. E. (1964) cited in Schaffer (1996) p.135. Schaffer, H. R. (1996) Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Singer, E. (1993) ‘Shared Care for Children’, in Woodhead, M., Faulkner, D. and Littleton, K. (eds) (1998) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, Oxford, Routledge/The Open university. Smith, P. K., Cowie, H. and Blades, M. (2003) Understanding Children’s Development, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing. Super, C. M. and Harkness, S. (1982) ‘The Development of Affect in Infancy and Early Childhood’, in Woodhead, M., Faulkner, D. and Littleton, K. (eds) (1998) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, Oxford, Routledge/The Open university. Tronick, E. Z., Morelli, G. A. and Winn, S. (1987) cited in Schaffer (1996) pp.136137. Weisner, T. S. and Gallimore, R. (1977) cited in Super and Harkness (1982) pp. 38-39. Winnicott, D. W. (1953) cited in Oates et al. (2005) p.20. Woodhead, M., Faulkner, D. and Littleton, K. (eds) (1998) Cultural Worlds of Early Childhood, Oxford, Routledge/The Open university.
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