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CONTROVERSIAL ASPECTS OF BOWLBY'S ATTACHMENT THEORY
by
Juan Carlos Garelli
 
It scratches one's imagination to think how by the mid fifties, when irrationalist trends felt at the peak of their triumph in Europe and the United States and their voice the only one that sounded loud and clear among intellectual circles worldwide on any imaginable issue, be it art, politics, economics, the social sciences, music, the media, and so on, when true professional charlatans of the calibre of Foucault, Lacan, Melanie Klein, Levi-Strauss, Spengler kept, and still keep, the upper hand among the intelligentsia, a lone British psychoanalyst would leap into the arena and declare war on the long-standing myths pestering psychological thinking ever since Freud, brandishing the then already ragged banner of scientificism. It must have struck a dissonant chord in own Bowlby's brains or thereabouts for he decided, as a matter of sheer fact, to brandish the science banner on one hand and Freud's object-relations theory on the other.
 
As we will show, albeit the redoubtable importance of  Bowlby's work, inner theoretical contradictions and heavy compromises with psychoanalytic theory make the whole far from a monolithic, coherent, work, weaken its very bases, and, more importantly, determine a sterile fate and preclude any hope for progress to those entering the Attachment Theory field of enquiry.

For instance, his compromise with psychoanalysis forced him to assert his was an object-relations theory thus pushing him to add and heavily rely on a more than controversial argument: the Working Models theory, a natural corollary of an inner representational model, both totally unrefutable arguments and hence uninteresting for the scientific community.  We will demonstrate how both issues: object-relations theory and working-models theory fill attachment theory as a whole with hosts of conceptual and logical contradictions, which we feel must be underscored, so as not to identify John Bowlby with a god-like figure, on the one hand; and on the other to display how current attachment theory and research, particularly in the United States, connives with, and thrives on, this spurious, dispensable parts of attachment theory.

BOWLBY'S SCIENTIFIC STANCE

Bowlby's first attempts focused on countering psychoanalysis psychologism and replacing it by a more common-sense, everyday experiences both children and their parents undergo, and which may be labelled "environmentalism", which enable him to make a strong point against psychoanalysis' subjectivism, fantasies, inner representational world, and the like, since the hypotheses he advanced were in keeping with empirical data, whereas, psychoanalytic introspective speculation was not liable to contrastability, and so it simply rendered it unscientific.

Let's recall the three fundamental papers that, to my mind, make a tremendous dent in psychoanalysis' structure:
 

These three papers were more than enough to tear the fantasy building of speculative psychoanalysis to pieces. So why did Bowlby have to concede his was an object-relations theory, when it sprang from the very reading of the papers that it was a theory about personal relationships. We insist in this distinction, as it is sometimes overlooked the fact that both theories are incompatible. Either you are related to an ambiguous inner object which happens to be projected onto a real person (object-relation theory), or you distinctly know who you are related to, who you are for the other party in the relationship, why you are related, what you expect from the relationship in each interaction, and so on.

BOWLBY'S CONTRADICTIONS

Let us examine Bowlby's contradictions regarding this central arguments which approach personal relationships, psychology and psychopathology in a radically new way.

In book 1 of his trilogy, Attachment, page 16, he asserts: "Throughout this inquiry my frame of reference has been that of psychoanalysis. There are several reasons for this. The first is that my early thinking on the subject was inspired by psychoanalytic work -my own and others'. A second is that, despite limitations, psychoanalysis remains the most serviceable and the most used of any present-day theory of psychopathology. A third and most important, is that, whereas all the central concepts of my schema -object-relations, separation anxiety, mourning, defence, trauma, sensitive periods in early life -are the stock-in-trade of psychoanalytic thinking, until recently they have been given but scant attention by other behavioural disciplines". So as we can see, he has a first sentimental reason to stick to psychoanalysis, a second consensual reason, and a third pedagogical reason. One wonders, what on earth did psychoanalysis need Bowlby for to drum the practice away on those three feeble grounds: nostalgia, hegemony, and an example for other rebel stances (for instance, his own).

However, only seven pages later, he criticizes psychoanalysis' way of gathering data for its conclusions. Psychoanalysis relies on "a process of historical reconstruction based on data derived from older subjects... "The point of views from which this work starts is different... it is believed that observation of how a very young child behaves towards his mother, both in her presence and especially in her absence can contribute greatly to our understanding of personal development. When removed from mother by strangers, young children respond usually with great intensity; and after reunion with her they show commonly either heightened degree od separation anxiety or else unusual detachment... Because this starting point differs so much from the one to which psychoanalysts are accustomed, it may be useful to specify it more precisely and to elaborate the reasons for adopting it."

And he goes on: "Psychoanalytic theory is an attempt to explain the functioning personality, in both its healthy and its pathological aspects, in terms of ontogenesis. In creating this body of theory not only Freud but virtually all subsequent analysts have worked from an end-product backwards. Primary data are derived from studying, in the analytic setting, a personality more or less developed and already functioning more or less well; from those data the attempt is made to reconstruct the phases of personality that have preceded what is now seen."

"In many respects what is attempted here is the opposite. Using as primary data observations of how very young children behave in defined situations, an attempt is made to describe certain early phases of personality functioning and, from them, to extrapolate forwards. In particular, the aim is to describe certain patterns of response that occur regularly in early childhood and thence, to trace out how similar patterns of response are to be discerned in later personality. The change in perspective is radical. It entails taking as our starting point, not this or that symptom or syndrome that is giving trouble, but an actual event or experience deemed to be potentially pathogenic to the developing personality."

" Thus, whereas almost all present-day psychoanalytical theory starts with a clinical syndrome or symptom -for example, stealing, depression, or schizophrenia - and makes hypotheses about events and processes which are thought to have contributed to its development, the perspective adopted  here starts with a class of event -loss of mother-figure in infancy or early childhood- and attempts thence to trace the psychological and psychopathological processes that commonly result. It starts with the traumatic experience and works prospectively."

It is fairly evident that an approach such as the one advanced above cannot but clash against classical psychoanalytic mores. Where psychoanalysis relies on memories, Attachment Theory distrusts them. Where psychoanalysis asserts the natural site to perform research is the consulting-room, Attachment Theory declares research must be done out of psychotherapeutic premises. Where psychoanalysis works retrospectively, trying to reconstruct the patient's infancy, Attachment Theory is determined to see by its own eyes what goes on during infancy and early childhood directly, dispensing with untrustworthy informants. But this is exactly what the "new generation" of Attachment Theorists is encouraging throughout the United States: Mary Main, Alan Sroufe, Pat Crittenden, Phil Shaver, Kim Bartholomew, Charles Zeenah, Everett Waters, Hazan, Kobak, Cassidy, Bretherton, Weiss, and so on, rely exclusively on reports, self-reports: they interview a mother-to-be, or for that matter, anybody else, and ask her about her relationship with her mother. From her responses and the way they are made, they infer the kind of early attachment the adult must have had with her own real mother, as they are convinced patterns of attachment endure unalterably throughout life. As to why they think all this nonsense, we will elaborate on below. At any rate, I hope it is crystal clear that present-day methodology amounts to about the opposite to what Bowlby recommended half a century ago, and which he had come to adopt as a rejection of similar methods characteristic of psychoanalysis, a whole century ago. We advance the argument that American Attachment Theorists have harked back to psychoanalytic methods simply because it is far less work, and much more popular. No parent likes to face the sad reality of a distorted family context and severe alterations within relationships, such as role-reversal (if you call it overprotection, mother appears as loving and child facing a lifetime task, that of cutting the umbilical cord with mother, which is, of course, his entire responsibility), covert authoritarianism, outward permissiveness, perversions, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, coaxing, everyday coercion, and so on.

But Bowlby is even more emphatic concerning the unreliability of reports, let alone of self reports. On page 25 of Attachment and Loss: Attachment, he says that psychoanalysts regard direct observation of behaviour as superficial and that it contrasts sharply with what is the almost direct access to physical functioning that obtains during analysis. On page 26, he unambiguously states: "Now I believe an attitude of this sort to be based on fallacious premises. In the first place we must not overrate the data we obtain in analytic sessions " (let alone data obtained in interviews). So far from having direct access to psychical processes, what confronts us is a complex web of free associations, reports of past events, comments about the current situation, and the patient's behaviour. In trying to understand these diverse manifestations we inevitably select and arrange them according to our preferred schema; and in trying to infer what psychical processes may lie behind them we inevitably leave the world of observation and enter the world of theory (i.e., speculation). As regards infants or children's observations he firmly contends:" Since the capacity to restrict associated behaviour increases with age, it is evident that the younger the subject the more likely are his behaviour and his mental state to be the two sides of a single coin. Provided observations are skilled and detailed, therefore, a record of the behaviour of very young children can be regarded as a useful index of their concurrent mental state". As anybody can appreciate, nothing of the kind is being carried out in the late nineties, where all that seems to matter is adult attachment, and may God take care of the kids. Furthermore, we can see from these quotations from Bowlby's Attachment I, that reality takes pride of place over fantasy, or inner representational models, which amounts to be the same.

More differences between the psychoanalytic approach and that of Bowlby's

1. Ethology

In page 27 of his Attachment I, Bowlby says: "Another way in which the approach adopted differs from traditional psychoanalysis is that it draws heavily on observations of how mothers of other species respond to similar situations of presence or absence of mother; and that it makes use of the wide range of new concepts that ethologists have developed to explain them."

"A main reason for valuing ethology is that it provides a wide range of new concepts to try out in our theorizing. Many of them are concerned with the formation of intimate social bonds -such as those tying offspring to parents, parents to offspring (See my Outline), and members of the two sexes to each other, and so on. We now know that man has no monopoly either of conflict or of behaviour pathology. A canary that first starts building its nest when insufficient building material is available not only will develop pathological nest-building behaviour but will persist in such behaviour even when, later, suitable material can be at hand.. Ethological data and concepts are therefore concerned with phenomena at least comparable to those we as psychotherapists try to understand in man".

2. Theories of maotivation: Instincts

On page 34 of Attachment I, Bowlby continues: " Since the theories that Freud advanced regarding drive and instinct are at the heart of psychoanalytic metapsychology, whenever an analyst departs from them it is apt to cause bewilderment and consternation." The work of Rapaport and Gill (1959) provides a useful point of reference.

In their attempt to state explicitly and systematically that body of assumptions which constitutes psychoanalytic metapsychology, Rapaport and Gill classify assumptions according to certain points of view. They identify five such viewpoints, each of which requires that whatever psychoanalytic explanation of a psychological phenomenon is offered must include propositions of a certain kind. The five viewpoints and the sort of propositions each demands are held to be the following:
1. The Dynamic: this point of view demands propositions concerning the psychological forces involved in a phenomenon; 2. The Economic: This demands propositions concerning the psychological energy involved in a phenomenon; 3. The Structural: this demands propositions concerning the abiding psychological configurations (structures) involved in a phenomenon; 4. The Genetic: This demands propositions concerning the psychological origin and development of a phenomenon; and 5. The Adaptive: This demands propositions concerning the relationship of a phenomenon to the environment.

Now there is no difficulty with the structural, the genetic, and the adaptive. Propositions of a genetic and adaptive sort are found throughout Bowlby's work; and, in any theory of defence, there must be many of a structural kind. The points of view not adopted by Bowlby are the dynamics and the economic. There are therefore no propositions concerning psychological energy or psychological forces; concepts such as conservation of energy, entropy, direction and magnitude of force are all missing, because of a model of the psychical apparatus that  pictures behaviour as a resultant of a hypothetical psychical energy that is seeking discharge was adopted by Freud almost at the beginning of his psychoanalytical work. "We assume," he wrote many years later in the "Outline" as other natural sciences have led us to expect, that in mental life some kind of energy is at work..." But the energy conceived is of a sort different from the energy of physics and consequently is termed by Freud "nervous or psychical energy" (Standard Edition, 23, pp. 163-4)

Harking back to what had been objected to: Object-Relations Theory - Working Models

It looks as though genial thinkers are also aware, too aware of the scientific community social repercussions, and that it would put them on the public placard of ridicule, were it the case, they were proved wrong. As far as I know this has been going on since the Inquisition times. Galilei had to backtrack officially lest he be burned at the pire. Copernicus spends half of his book on "The Revolutions of Celestial Spheres", trying to convince his pope that his is but an instrumental hypothesis, concocted, not to displace the EARTH from the centre of the universe, but an "as if" manner to resort to more efficient predictions as to the positions of the astral bodies, a fundamental issue for kings, princes and popes in the wars they were engaged in. Examples abound in the history of science: Lavoisier, Darwin, Freud, and now Bowlby.

Working Models, a mere change of terminology for "mental representations"

Let us take a look at what he says in this respect on page 236 of his Attachment II: Separation, under the heading of "Working Models of Attachment Figures and Self":

"The states of mind with which we were concerned can conveniently be described in terms of representational or working models". Bear this in mind, he equates representational models to working models. "in the working model of the world that anyone builds, a key feature is his notion of who his attachment figures are, where they may be found, and how they may be expected to respond. Similarly, in the working model of the self that anyone builds a key feature is his notion of how acceptable or unacceptable he himself is in the eyes of his attachment figures.

And again, on page 237, he states: "...the formulation adopted is... a way of describing... ideas traditionally described in such terms as "introjection of an object (good or bad) and "self-image". So you see, what difference is there between these formulations and current psychoanalytic thinking? None. Now this amounts to a very serious contradiction to a man who had fought Freud's contention that neuroses are the result of a misdeveloped component instincts which led to fantasies that made the patient ill, and for so doing had presented evidence that environmental reality, and not inner representations, were  far more important -as a matter of fact the only relevant aspect to be taken into account- to a person's mental health.

So there isn't one Bowlby and one Theory of Attachment: there are at least two quite wide apart.

One which unmistakably states mental health depends entirely on the relationships the individual keeps with his attachment figures so as to make him say that "the psychology and psychopathology of emotional life is the psychology and psychopathology of affectional bonds". This we can call the "young Bowlby", or the "uncontaminated Bowlby".

The other Bowlby which begins to appear in the seventies, two decades later, has little difference with a common psychoanalyst, and thus gives way to all that fake literature on attachment produced by American attachment theorists. For instance, just to underscore my previous assertion with a quotation from Bowlby's Attachment II: Separation, p. 239. He writes: "In terms of the present theory much of the work of treating an emotionally disturbed person can be regarded as consisting, first, of detecting the existence of influential models of which the patient may be partially or completely unaware of, and second, of inviting the patient  to examine the models disclosed and to consider whether they continue to be valid..." What difference is extant between these naive words and those of making conscious the unconscious and contrasting both? None.

The decadence we now observe pervades all of US university system and academic life devoted to attachment is not even their own invention, they just followed this gattopardism Bowlby himself had elaborated, consciously or unconsciously.

References

Bowlby, John (1958) The Nature of The Child's Tie to His Mother, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-73.

Bowlby, John (1960a) Separation Anxiety, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 89-113.

Bowlby, John (1960b) Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of The Child, 15, 9-52.

Bowlby, John (1969, 1982) Attachment and Loss, vol. 1: Attachment. London: The Hogarth Press.

Bowlby, John (1973), Attachment and Loss, vol. 2: Separation. London: The Hogarth Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1938) An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Standard Edition, 23, pp. 163-4.

Garelli, JC (1989) Critique of Psychoanalytic Reason. (In Spanish: Crítica de la Razón Psicoanalítica. Buenos Aires: Troquel).

Rapaport and Gill (1959) Beyond Metapsychology, New York:  Psychological Issues.

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