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Bowlby, the Strange Situation, and the Developmental Niche

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Bowlby, the Strange Situation, and the Developmental NicheW. T. LeGard (2007) OUBowlby, the Strange Situation, and the DevelopmentalNicheBowlby asserted that infants who fail to maintain proximity and thus achieve secureattachment to the mother are predisposed to experience maladjusted development. Thepurpose of this essay, however, is to argue that the manifestation of secure attachmentis a cultural process pertaining to the child’s developmental niche. Moreover, thispaper will argue that infant behaviour is shaped by the cultural meanings pertaining toseparation and reunion and, as a consequence, the so-called standardized procedurefor measuring attachment type − the Strange Situation − is not a valid method. Thisessay will begin with an account of Bowlby’s attachment theory and the StrangeSituation followed by a definition of developmental niche. The limitations ofBowlby’s claims will be established via a critical examination of attachment theory inlight of more recent socio-cultural research.Inspired by the ethological research of Lorenz (1935) − whose study of imprintingdemonstrated an attachment between greylag geese and their mother − Bowlbyapplied the concept to the infant/caregiver bond. Further research by Harlow (1958)led Bowlby (1969a) to claim that infants possess an innate predisposition, what hetermed monotropism, to form initially an attachment to a single figure, typically themother. Bowlby maintained that the bond must be intimate and continuous and thatsuch a relationship − which allows the child to use the caregiver as a secure baseduring stressful episodes − is essential for the child’s social and cognitivedevelopment (Smith et al., 2003). According to Bowlby, the infant’s innerrepresentation of their early caregiving relationship with the attachment figure servesas an internal working model. This has three elements: a model of the self, a model ofthe other, and the relationship between these (Bowlby, 1969b). An internal workingmodel can be described as a series of expectations concerning the availability ofattachment figures, their probability of providing care during stressful episodes, andthe self’s interaction with those figures. This internal working model then becomesthe representation for all future relationships.Ainsworth and her colleagues (1978b) developed the Strange Situation to measure thequality of attachment by examining reunions following separation. Observingchildren’s responses to seven short episodes encompassing brief separations from andreunions 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 regulatedcustoms and child-nurturing practices; and the beliefs − or ethnotheories − of thepopulace.Bowlby drew upon ethological research for indicators of human behaviour. Heproposed that animals evolved an innate protection mechanism, manifested by theproximity-seeking behaviour of the fledgling to the mother. Harlow’s (1958) researchwith macaque monkeys demonstrated that, when distressed, the primates favoured a“cloth mother” over food. These findings convinced Bowlby that the emotional bondbetween parent and offspring was significant. Conclusions of such ethologicalinvestigations are not completely convincing, however. Human behaviour is moreflexible and culturally-driven than that of other animal species. There exists enormouscultural difference in human behaviour within societies, and such variations are learntvariations. Humankind possesses the ability to transfer and construct beliefs andknowledge via cultural traditions. Certainly, the imprinting nature of birds is notcharacteristic of higher primates (Smith et al., 2003). Moreover, Harlow’s researchincorporated the confounding variables of both social and sensory deprivation andthus cannot be considered a valid measure of primates’ natural behaviour.Separation distress, as measured in the Strange Situation, occurs at approximatelyeight months of age within Western culture (Schaffer, 1984), and this appears to be thecase in all societies, irrespective of the social setting within which the infant is reared(Konner, 1982). The onset of this contemporaneous developmental trend suggests thatproximity-seeking behaviour is maturationally determined. Certainly, aspects ofsensori-motor development are essential for attachment; the child cannot protest atmaternal absence or attempt to maintain proximity until they have developed2recognition memory and object permanence. That is, infants must possess the abilityto recognize attachment figures and comprehend the continued existence of people orobjects when they are out of sight.Although the need for emotional security is, arguably, universal, the process by whichchildren gain secure attachment is diverse. Indeed, the sensitivity hypothesis proposesthat 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 thisclaim. Such a hypothesis, then, appears to back up Bowlby’s assertion that the childmust experience a warm and intimate relationship with the mother in order to assurepsychological well-being. Ainsworth et al.’s (1978a) longitudinal study focused onchildren from the US. Research in Germany (Grossmann et al., 1985), however,revealed that significantly more children were classified as insecure/avoidant whencompared with their North American counterparts. These findings demonstrate thatbehaviour in the Strange Situation is culturally mediated. Child-rearing practices inGermany stress the importance of early self-reliance for children. Consequently,German parents who participated in the study exhibited a less responsive pattern ofnurturing. The sensitivity hypothesis fails to consider joint effects, such astemperament and mothers’ social support, and, like Bowlby’s


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