Tuesday 21 June 2011

John Bowlby's Cybernetics of Attachment

At the exhibition on 'Who Cares' at the Whitworth Gallery last week, I stumbled across a book on 'teenagers and attachment', which opened my eyes to John Bowlby's work. I like these random discoveries - they tend to be the best!

Bowlby is an extraordinary character and his 'attachment theory', whilst concerning human relations seems to also fit my thinking around property. I was thinking this with regard to Melanie Klein's object relations theory too recently, and that was an important influence on Bowlby (although he seems to take what he wants out of it).

I'm interested in Bowlby's work for its relevance to economics. The emotions associated with economic crisis are fear of loss. Bowlby's idea of feedback loops between child and mother are equally applicable, understood as a broad understanding of adaptation to the environment. Bowlby argues that:
"the only relevant criterion by which to consider the natural adaptedness of any particular part of present-day man's behavioural equipment is the degree to which and the way in which it might contribute to population survival in man's primeval environment." (p 59)
And here Bowlby clearly allies himself with Freudian thinking about instinct, and indeed his work is about unpicking the nature of human instinct. (I'm sure that Bateson's famous discussion about instinct with his daughter where he introduces the idea of an 'explanatory principal' relates to the discussion by Bowlby, Klein and Anna Freud about instinct in the 60s).

The primeval environment is an environment of human relations - in Bowlby's language, attachments: those relations which are equally observable in the animal world. For example, Bowlby writes that:
The types and sequences of behaviour that lead a pair of birds to reproduce their kind illustrate the sort of problem that any theories of instinctive behaviour must solve. All the following behaviour, and more, is required if outcome is to be successful: male identifies territory and nest-site; male ejects intruding males; male attracts female and courts her; male and /or female build(s) nest; pair copulate; female lays; male and/or female brood(s); pair feed young; pair ward off predators.  (p 50)
He then comments:
In what way do we imagine all this to be organised? What principles of organisation are necessary if behaviour is to attain these ends? (p50)

With regard to the attachment processes between mother and child, Bowlby identifies four principle theories in the psychology literature (as it was in 1958), which he divides as primary and secondary, dependent on whether the propensity described depends on learning (secondary) or not. These are presented:
i. the child has a number of physiological needs which muyst be met, particularly for food and warmth. In so far as a baby becomes interested in and attached to a human figure, especially mother, this is the result of the mother's meeting the baby's physiological needs and the baby's learning in due course that she is the source of his gratification. I shall call this theory of secondary drive, a term which is derived from Learning Theory. It also has been called the cupboard-love theory of object relations.
ii. There is in infants an in-built propensity to relate themselves to a human breast, to suck it and to possess it orally. In due course the infant learns that, attached to the breast, there is a mother and so relates to her also. I propose to term this the theory of Primary Object sucking.
iii. There is in infants an in-built propensity to be in touch with and to cling to a human being. In this sense there is a 'need' for an object independent of food and warmth. It is proposed to term this the theory of Primary Object Clinging.
iv. Infants resent their extrusion from the womb and seek to return there. This is termed the theory of Primary Return-to-womb Craving.
 Bowlby largely rejects these approaches and argues for a simpler alternative theory of attachment as:
"the child's tie to his mother is a product of the activity of a number of behavioural systems that have proximity to mother as a predictable outcome"
I think there's something in all of this which gives a new perspective on economics when we consider the impact not of hunger, but of risk and anxiety in human behaviour.

Bowlby's systems model may be re-applied to consider the attachments that humans form to material artefacts, ideas and other people as they seek to manage their anxieties in an environment which constantly creates the conditions for new anxiety.

By conceiving of commodities and services as 'objects of attachment', a link can be made between the biological organisation of humans and economic behaviour.

In our current economic climate, some of these behaviours both respond to and lead to emotions of anxiety, loss and fear - all of which stimulate new desires for commodities and services.

What's fascinating me is that Keynesian thinking about propensities to consume and save may be conceived within this biological framework.


Frances Bell said...

(I arrived here via your comment on Downes' blog). Before you get too carried away with Bowlby's attachment theory (where he did a lot of flitting of ideas between very different contexts) I suggest you read some feminist critiques of his work.
I 'found' Bowlby in psychology literature about 15 years after I read an article (as a young mother) by him in the Family Circle magazine. BTW I have no way of proving that he actually wrote this article except for my leap of recognition of the ideas and the name. What I did remember was my contemporary reaction to his article - that he was a pompous bloke who sat in his study pontificating on where women were going wrong with bringing up their children while his wife ran around the house caring for their four children (he must have made some reference to their domestic arrangements in the article).
Imagine my delight in being able to follow up his theories and finding feminist critiques. Cleary says "The third and most immediately significant consequence of Bowlby’s work for feminist psychologists is that his theory contributes to the cultural construction of a self that is ahistorical and decontextualized"

Let's face it context-hopping is the bane of communication on the Internet (private messages appearing on people's walls to day on Google+).

I am sure that Bowlby's theories have been very useful in developing child care but we need a feminist critique to avoid some of the strident mother-blaming that can emerge.
I would also say that a feminist critique (or even a few more women's voices) of technology-mediated learning and communication would be an improvement on the current male-dominated public discourse.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Frances,

I'm not in the mother-blame business!

Bowlby's distinctions are very precise, and that's why it's of interest. Incidently, Bateson got into similar trouble with his work on autism. That wouldn't stop me reading Bateson (and he's also very precise).

If precise distinctions lead to 'blame' of any particular group, then they're not precise enough. Besides which 'blame' is often confused with 'cause': they are quite different...

Frances Bell said...

I didn't say you were mother-blaming;)
The point that I am making that as well as Cleary's point about context, Bowlby's theories have also been applied, inappropriately I would say, in different contexts causing problems http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_disorder (in case you don't want to read the feminist literature).
So I don't agree with your point about precision.

Mark Johnson said...

Yes - context is important. It's not just Bowlby, but also the 'role' theorists who haven't sorted out the context issue: Mead, Parsons, Goffman

Harre's Positioning Theory tries to re-articulate this in a way which I find much more satisfactory. My current interest with Bowlby is to integrate his work with Harre's. Because most of the key distinctions relate to 'systems', they are often describe mechanisms which are commensurable. So there's progress to be made!

More significantly, however, is the issue of attachment and loss not just to people but to things, and the relationship between mechanisms of attachment and mechanisms of identity. We have a very outdated theory of 'property' (dating back to John Locke), for example. In an economic crisis, 'loss' is a big deal.

I don't know about you, but I'm currently surrounded by people experiencing that at first hand right now!

Frances Bell said...

So when you apply Bowlby's theory to a context of economic loss - who is the baby? and who is the primary care-giver?
and why would we conflate loss of primary care-giver with (also painful) loss of employment?
Though I agree - we are surrounded by sadness of colleagues losing jobs. This might be better explained by ' new managerialism' than attachment theory though.

Mark Johnson said...

His interest is in control systems, which is what's interesting me. "Attachment and loss" focuses on establishing a systemic explanatory framework which is then applied to mothers and children (as well as other animals). Look at ch. 2 "principals of control systems", "control systems and instinctive behaviour", etc. He was fascinated by Lorenz's experiments. He asks "clearly something's going on. What?"

That's a good question, and it's the same as mine as I look at economics and identity.

He knows (like Harre) that who we are is partially determined by the relationships we form. But those relationships are also to the friends we have, the ideas we think, the cars we drive, the houses we live in and the jobs we do.

I don't think it's conflation to join dots together. It would only be conflation if the categories were used in inconsistent ways in different contexts. But if you read 'Attachment and Loss' and read Harre's Positioning Theory (see http://tur-www1.massey.ac.nz/~alock/position/position.htm which is fantastic), I think the dots are there to be joined.

I'm not so familiar with the explanatory mechanisms of 'new managerialism', but I'm sure that can also provide some sort of explanatory framework too.