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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Attachment, the New Imperialistic Schema?

Several decades ago, Sandra Bem, a social psychologist interested in gender issues, referred to gender as an “imperialistic schema”. By this term, she meant that gender had become a concept that was strongly linked to other concepts, and that dominated them. For example, a person thinking about gender would automatically also think about how other characteristics of a person-- even of the world-- would line up as either “like males” or “like females”. Stereotypically, people would think of aggressiveness as “male”, peacefulness as “female”; of strength as “male” and weakness as “female”; of angularity as “male” and “curviness” as female; even of the sun as “male” and the moon as “female”. Other concepts that really had nothing to do with gender were somehow (probably because of repetition) hitched on to the gender schema and could hardly be separated from its “empire”.

Stereotyping of ethnic or class differences also gives examples of imperialistic schemas at work. Schema imperialism can cause us to make mistakes, but it also saves us a lot of cognitive effort, and we lazy humans tend to prefer not to have to think too hard.

I’d like to nominate another concept as a rising imperialistic schema. It has come to imply many more related factors than it was ever intended to mean, and as a result, like gender, it conveys much different information than a dictionary definition might suggest.

The new imperialistic schema candidate is, of course, attachment. This term, in its original formulation by John Bowlby and a few of his colleagues, referred to a young child’s strong preference for familiar caregivers and distress when separated from them at times of perceived threat. But when we read how the term attachment is popularly used today, we see it aligned with and almost inextricably connected with other concepts. Here are some common ideas that connect attachment to other concepts and can lead to confused thinking about family relationships:

1. Attachment is a concept that includes all early mother-child interactions, possibly including those occurring before birth; attachment does not really involve fathers.

2. Attachment includes all positive responses to another person, including recognition of voice or face, or interest in prolonging an interaction.

3. Attachment is connected with all positive aspects of personality development from infancy through adulthood, including obedience, respect, and affection for other people.

4. Separation from familiar caregivers is associated with all negative aspects of personality development, including psychopathy, with any displeasing behavior such as disobedience or sexual promiscuity, and with adult depression or prolonged unhappiness. (A few die-hards would still include autism in this list.)

5. Because adoption usually involves separation from the first mother (see #1, above), the concept of adoption can also be brought into the “empire” of attachment, making all these concepts connected to adoption as well as to attachment.

Allowing attachment to become an imperialistic schema (and to associate it with the gender schema!) means that we lose track of the most basic meaning of the term, and that is what’s happened as the list I’ve just given came into being. When Bowlby formulated his attachment theory, he was talking about specific events in development and their probable outcomes, not about everything that happens in the course of development or about every aspect of interpersonal relations. He was concerned that children who had poor early care would become antisocial, but his work on this involved juvenile thieves, not murderers. Reading about attachment as it is discussed in the blogosphere today, it appears that the specifics of Bowlby’s work have melted away, leaving nothing but a general view that bad developmental outcomes of all kinds are the result of the separation of children from their mothers. The imperialistic schema has taken over a wide range of factors that should be considered independently.

Can we ever fight our way back to the original definition of attachment, or make ourselves use other words to describe other aspects of the interaction between infants and adults? Of course we can-- if we want to. But wanting to change will mean being transparent about the agenda that has driven the attachment schema imperialism. That will be the hard part for many.

[Incidentally, next month’s issue of the journal Theory & Psychology will include an article in which I discuss ways in which attachment theory has been supported by the evidence and ways in which it has not.]

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