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«The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child: John Bowlby’s theory of attachment in post-war America MARGA VICEDO* Abstract. This paper ...»

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44 Ashley Montagu, ‘The triumph and tragedy of the American woman’, Saturday Review, 27 September 1958, pp. 13–15, 34–35, 14, 35, 34, 14.

The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child themselves to regulating the interactions between the ‘components’ of the nuclear family.

Parsons noted they could do other things as well. But what else they could do while they remained full-time housewives and mothers was not clear.45 Erik Erikson also justi ed his gendered division of labour by appealing to the role of mothers in the family unit and the signi cance of mother love. As he put it, One must work with children who cannot learn to say I, although they are otherwise healthy, and beautiful, and even soulful, to know what a triumph that common gift of ‘I’ is, and how much it depends on the capacity to feel af rmed by maternal recognition.46 In these ways, a number of social scientists used the alleged need of children for constant mother love to justify the existence of separate spheres and to reject what Montagu called ‘the equality of functions’. It is dif cult to gauge to what extent public opinion in general was in uenced by studies of maternal deprivation and the WHO report. In the late 1950s, a National Manpower Council report showed that most Americans agreed that women with small children should not be working.47 At the very least, it seems safe to assume that the scienti c work helped shore up long-standing beliefs about infants’ need for mother.

It was, however, not all that clear that science had proven this point. The widespread support and use of Bowlby’s work may suggest that scienti c opinion was unanimous regarding the in uence of mother love on personality formation. But this was not the case.

Scienti c criticisms In the WHO report, Bowlby admitted that there were ‘still far too few systematic studies and statistical comparisons in which proper control groups have been used’ in support of his views about mother love. But he rejected the studies that did not con rm his position, saying that only ‘three’ studies presented evidence challenging his conclusions and that they lacked ‘high scienti c quality’.48 Despite Bowlby’s quick dismissal, there were diverse interpretations of the data and contrasting views about their social implications. Harvard psychiatrist Abraham Myerson implored scientists to ‘quit blaming mom’, stressing that there was no scienti c proof to consider mothers the cause of their children’s neurosis. Based on an empirical study of 162 ‘farm children of old American stock’, University of Wisconsin sociologist William H. Sewell found no correlation between infant training and personality development. And child psychologists were questioning the solidity of Margaret Ribble’s 45 Talcott Parsons, ‘The social structure of the family,’ in Ruth Anshen (ed.), The Family: Its Function and Destiny, New York: Harper and Row, 1959, p. 256; idem, ‘Family structure and the socialization of the child’, in Talcott Parsons and Robert F. Bales, Family, Socialization and Interaction Process, Glencoe: The Free Press, 1955, pp. 45–49. An insightful analysis of social science on gender relations is Wini Breines, ‘The 1950s: gender and some social science’, Sociological Inquiry (1986) 56, pp. 69–92.

46 Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther, London: Faber and Faber, 1958, p. 115.

47 Margolis, op. cit. (2), p. 219.

48 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), pp. 41, 43.

418 Marga Vicedo and René Spitz’s work. Samuel Pinneau from the University of California presented the most comprehensive critical analysis.49 Pinneau dealt rst with the physiological evidence Ribble presented to support her thesis that without the mother’s emotional involvement, the child would develop gastrointestinal disturbances, tension, respiratory problems, anxiety and neurological functional disorganization. After examining dozens of studies, some of which failed to con rm Ribble’s claims while others discon rmed them, Pinneau agreed with the conclusion of Harold Orlansky, a Yale anthropologist who offered this strongly worded assessment of Ribble: ‘It is unfortunate that such an in uential writer has not attempted to draw a line between her empirical ndings and her personal opinions’.50 In his 1953 presidential address to the New York State Psychological Association, child psychologist L. Joseph Stone recognized the effectiveness of Pinneau’s critique of Ribble by comparing its power to ‘a kind of hydrogen bomb’. Due to its awesome ‘destructive’ impact, ‘not a paragraph is left standing for miles around’.51 Though Stone agreed with the dismissal of Ribble’s work, he still found the studies of Spitz and Bowlby convincing.52 Then Pinneau published a devastating critique of Spitz’s work. Spitz had argued that infants separated from their mothers for over six weeks tended to develop psychogenic disorders. Spitz reported that in many cases infants suffering from those conditions would literally wither away and die. But Pinneau pointed out that it was dif cult to evaluate Spitz’s claims, because he had not identi ed the speci c sites of his studies – he only mentioned a nursery in a penal institution for delinquent girls and a foundling home. More troubling, by putting together data offered by Spitz in different reports

about the same set of studies, Pinneau exposed grave inconsistencies and shortcomings:





Spitz had not indicated the composition and training of the research staff, and he had presented contradictory data on the number of children studied and the description of the parents.53 In addition, Spitz had not determined the health of infants before or during his study, although he mentioned a lethal measles epidemic during his study of hospitalism.

In addition, due to the loss of children through adoption, there was a selective sampling bias in the foundling home. From the evidence presented, it was clear that the groups being compared differed substantially in their economic backgrounds, constitution and hereditary make-up. Pinneau pointed out that Spitz was inconsistent in presenting data about when the children were observed and only provided cross-sectional but not longitudinal data. Pinneau also attacked the validity of the developmental scale that 49 Abraham Myerson, ‘Let’s quit blaming mom’, Science Digest (1951) 29, pp. 10–15, 11. William H.

Sewell, ‘Infant training and the personality of the child’, American Journal of Sociology (1952) 58, pp. 150– 159, 151.

50 Harold Orlansky, ‘Infant care and personality’, Psychological Bulletin (1949) 46, pp. 1–48, 12, used in Samuel R. Pinneau, ‘A critique of the articles by Margaret Ribble’, Child Development (1950) 21, pp. 203–228, 222.

51 L. Joseph Stone, ‘A critique of studies of infant isolation’, Child Development (1954) 25, pp. 9–20, 14.

52 Stone, op. cit. (51).

53 Samuel R. Pinneau, ‘The infantile disorders of hospitalism and anaclitic depression’, Psychological Bulletin (1955) 52, pp. 429–452.

The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child Spitz used to obtain developmental quotients. Pinneau concluded, ‘the results of Spitz’s studies cannot be accepted as scienti c evidence supporting the hypothesis that institutional infants develop psychological disorders as a result of being separated from their mothers’.54 Even researchers in Bowlby’s own group reconsidered the effects of maternal separation. A 1956 paper by several members of his Tavistock group – ‘The effects of mother–child separation: a follow-up study’ – noted that some of the workers who rst drew attention to the dangers of maternal deprivation resulting from separation have tended on occasion to overstate their case. In particular, statements implying that children who experience institutionalization and similar forms of severe privation and deprivation in early life commonly develop psychopathic or affectionless characters are incorrect.55 This statement caused a stir, as it clearly contradicted Bowlby’s position in earlier papers and in the WHO study.

However, Bowlby did not retreat. Almost two years later, in response to letters from perplexed readers who were wondering whether he had changed his views, Bowlby published a short note to ‘discourage anyone from supposing that I have changed my position in any material way’.56 Indeed, Bowlby never changed his mind about the determinant role of mother love in an infant’s life.

But during this period Bowbly turned towards other areas of research, speci cally animal studies, to support his views. For guidance in this area, Bowlby looked to ethology. In his 1958 paper ‘The nature of the child’s tie to its mother’, Bowlby presented the most developed theory about the biological basis of the mother–infant dyad and also clari ed the social implications of his views on mother love.

The nature of the child’s tie to its mother and its social consequences From early on in his career, Bowlby was interested in nding a biological foundation for the child’s emotional needs. In his rst papers he had discussed animal research about primates and considered this work relevant to explanations of human behaviour.57 He had often talked about the ‘natural’ family unit, emphasized the natural basis of the mother–child dyad and portrayed the child’s emotional development as a process similar to embryological development. The mounting criticisms of the observational studies on children also probably encouraged him to look to other areas to support his views.

He was thus happy to encounter the work of ethologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, who postulated the existence of instincts to explain animal and human social behaviour.

54 Pinneau, op. cit. (53), p. 448, original emphasis. See also pp. 453 ff. for Spitz’s reply.

55 John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Boston and Dina Rosenbluth, ‘The effects of mother–child separation: a follow-up study’, British Journal of Medical Psychology (1956) 29, pp. 211–247, 242.

56 John Bowlby, ‘A note on mother–child separation as a mental health hazard’, British Journal of Medical Psychology (1958) 31, pp. 247–248, 248.

57 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), pp. 69. E.F.M. Durbin and John Bowlby, Personal Aggressiveness and War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, includes an appendix on the social life of monkeys and apes.

420 Marga Vicedo In his search for a naturalistic basis for the mother–child dyad, Bowlby speci cally used Lorenz’s views on imprinting. Working mainly with ducks and geese, Lorenz had discovered that, after birth, the infant birds follow the rst moving object they see. If the object is not the mother, however, the young will not develop the social and sexual responses typical of their species. Thus in Lorenz’s work Bowlby saw scienti c evidence for the view that the mother–infant dyad was a biological system whose disruption had disastrous consequences.58 When the WHO report was reprinted in its popular 1953 version Bowlby hardly made any changes, but he considered his discovery of ethology suf ciently important to add several pages to the rst chapter. This addition has not been noted in the literature on Bowlby, but it marked a key transitional moment in his thinking. Bowlby now pointed out that some European biologists had shown that in birds and dogs ‘emotional experiences at certain very early and special stages of mental life may have very vital and long-lasting effects’. Thus his own theories, ‘far from being in themselves improbable, are in strict agreement with what biological science has shown to be true of both bodily and mental growth’. Yet Bowlby did not elaborate. He did not explain the ‘emotional’ experiences of dogs and birds. And he did not report the evidence allegedly provided by biological science for his views.59 But he soon took the necessary steps to nd out more about Lorenz’s views.

With the support of the WHO, Bowlby helped organize an international Study Group on the Psychobiological Development of the Child. This group met in Geneva in 1953, London in 1954, and Geneva again in 1955 and 1956. Among the permanent members were Bowlby, Lorenz, American anthropologist Margaret Mead and Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.60 These meetings focused on ethological research and its implications for child psychology. Bowlby spent these years building up his knowledge of imprinting and animal research, which he used to develop what he called the theory of component instinctual responses, later known as the ethological theory of attachment. In 1958 Bowlby published those views.61 In ‘The nature of the child’s tie to its mother’, Bowlby argued that ve instinctual responses serve to bind the child to the mother and contribute to the reciprocal dynamic of binding mother to child. The baby is the active partner in three of them, sucking, clinging and following. The other two, crying and smiling, serve to ‘activate maternal behaviour’. Bowlby presented the mother–child dyad as a biological system, in which each part ts the other, as designed by evolution. Thus not only is the child tied to the mother, the mother is also tied to the child: ‘It is fortunate for their survival that babies are so designed by Nature that they beguile and enslave mothers’.62 58 See Marga Vicedo, ‘The father of ethology and the foster mother of ducks: Konrad Lorenz as an expert on motherhood’, Isis (2009) 100, pp. 263–291.

59 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), p. 15. Bowlby did not name Konrad Lorenz in the text, but included him in a ‘List of authorities referred to but not named’. Idem, op. cit. (8), p. 183.

60 J.M. Tanner and Baurbel Inhelder (eds.), Discussions on Child Development, London: Tavistock Publications, 1971.

61 Bowlby, op. cit. (1).

62 Bowlby, op. cit. (1), pp. 351, 367.

The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child Was the biological mother, then, the person best suited to care for her child? Bowlby’s adoption of a biological framework to explain the mother–child dyad once again raised the central question about the implications of his views for childcare: who exactly could provide the love and care necessary for the child? Could several people do so? Could the father?

Aware of the social signi cance and controversial implications of his theory, Bowlby was often ambiguous about this matter. Bowlby described attachment responses as ‘mother-oriented’, though he said it was evident that this was so ‘only potentially’.



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