The origins of attachment theory

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Reference: Developmental Psychology (1992), 28, 759-775.

Attachment theory is the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991 ). Drawing on concepts from ethology, cybernetics, information processing, developmental psychology, and psychoanalysts, John Bowlby formulated the basic tenetsof the theory. He thereby revolutionized our thinking about a child’s tie to the mother and its disruption through separation, deprivation, and bereavement. Mary Ainsworth’s innovative methodology not only made it possible to test some of Bowlby’s ideas empirically hut also helped expand the theory itself and is responsible for some of the new directions it is now taking. Ainsworth contributed theconcept of the attachment figure as a secure base from which an infant can explore the world. In addition, she formulated the concept of maternal sensitivity to infant signals and its role in the development of infant-mother attachment patterns. The ideas now guiding attachment theory have a long developmental history. Although Bowlby and Ainsworth worked independently of each other during theirearly careers, both were influenced by Freud and other psychoanalytic thinkers-directly in Bowlby’s case, indirectly in Ainsworth’s. In this chapter, I document the origins of ideas that later became central to attachment theory. I then discuss the subsequent period of theory building and consolidation. Finally, I review some of the new directions in which the theory is currently developing andspeculate on its future potential In taking this retrospective developmental approach to the origins of attachment theory, I am reminded of Freud’s (1920/1955) remark:

I would like to thank Mary Ainsworth and Ursula Bowlby for helpful input on a draft of this article. I am also grateful for insightful comments by three very knowledgeable reviewers. Reference: Developmental Psychology (1992), 28,759-775. Reprinted in from R. Parke, P. Ornstein, J. Reiser, & C. Zahn-Waxler (Eds.) (1994). A century of developmental psychology. (Chapter 15, pp. 431-471).

So long as we trace the development from its final outcome backwards, the chain of events appears continuous, and we feel we have gained an insight which is completely satisfactory or even exhaustive. But if we proceed in the reverseway, if we start from the premises inferred from the analysis and try to follow these up to the final results, then we no longer get the impression of an inevitable sequence of events which could not have otherwise been determined. (p. 167) In elucidating how each idea and methodological advance became a stepping stone for the next, my retrospective account of the origins of attachment theory makesthe process of theory building seem planful and orderly. No doubt this was the case to some extent, but it may often not have seemed so to the protagonists at the time.

ORIGINS John Bowlby After graduating from the University of Cambridge in 1928, where he received rigorous scientific training and some instruction in what is now called developmental psychology, Bowlby performed volunteer work ata school for maladjusted children while reconsidering his career goals. His experiences with two children at the school set his professional life on course. One was a very isolated, remote, affectionless teenager who had been expelled from his previous school for theft and had had no stable mother figure. The second child was an anxious boy of 7 or 8 who trailed Bowlby around and who was known ashis shadow (Ainsworth, 1974). Persuaded by this experience of the effects of early family relationships on personality development, Bowlby decided to embark on a career as a child psychiatrist (Senn, 1977h). Concurrently with his studies in medicine and psychiatry, Bowlby undertook training at the British Psychoanalytic Institute. During this period Melanie Klein was a major influence there...
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