A quick post on attachement theory and my PhD

After years of intending to read John Bowlby, I’ve finally got round to it and I’m very impressed. He formulated attachement theory as an attempt to affect a paradigm shift (in a very self-consciously Kuhnian fashion) within psychiatric research and therapeutic practice. I won’t bother outlining the theory (the Wiki link above is excellent) because my interest in it is somewhat tangential but rather crucial to what I’m trying to do in my PhD. Bowlby offered his account as a theory of psychopathology which “instead of starting with a clinical syndrome of later years and trying to trace its origins retrospectively”  drew “on observations of the behaviour of children in certain sorts of defined situation[s], including records of the feelings and thoughts they express” and traced out the consequences prospectively (pg 29). Or, in other words, it took interpersonal dynamics at a particular point in time and, through empirical research and theoretical work, elaborated an account of the ensuing intrapersonal consequences.

Its capacity to do this in an explanatorily productive way rests on an attentiveness towards an “internal psychological organisation with a number of highly specific features”, as well as how these internal structures are shaped by the relational contexts the child confronts over time (pg 32). For my own purposes, I’m taking attachement as one particularly significant category of interaction between one particular social domain. In my terminology: Bowlby’s gives an account of how psychic structures (intrapersonal) are shaped over time (diachronic) by attachement dynamics (relational) at particular points in time (synchronic). This is the basic structure of what I’m trying to map out: how different causal factors at a particular point in time lead to the elaboration or reproduction of our personhood over time.

However Bowlby’s account is too specific for my sociological purposes (though this isn’t intended as a criticism of him). Within the domain of human relationships, his picture of why attachement happens – i.e. what is it about some people, in the context of a relationship, that engenders attachement behaviour – is overly narrow. It remains entirely relational rather than considering, for example, how structural factors might impart characteristics which engender attachement behaviour in some e.g. stable income –> security & reliability. It also seems to lack a broader theory of what relationships are, as well as how they lead to the emergence of goods/evils, virtues/vices or whatever term you like to denote the fact that relationships have emergent characteristics which are (a) irreducible to the individuals involved (b) are good, bad or anything in between relative to the subjective concerns and projects of each party to the relationship.

So, in short, I think Bowlby is for entirely understandable reasons offering an account of a particular class of interpersonal/relational modality which, given the way humans are constituted, is developmentally hugely significant and also very important to our emotional lives as adults. My intention in the PhD is to map out classes of modalities through which (synchronic) causal factors in different social domains – as well as conjunctions of factors within/between those domains – give rise to the (diachronic) transformation or reproduction of personhood.

In slightly more pleasant terms: it’s a theory of how we become who we are and an explanatory methodology for unpicking how different sorts of casual influences shape this process over time. Theoretically I want to develop an account of how human personhood is shaped which incorporates the psychological and the social without unduly privileging either. Methodologically I want to develop an approach which can be applied to any qualitative research which is concerned with biography/life course through identifying particular cycles of personal transformation or reproduction:

T1 – Causal factors within or between social domains that relate to our personhood

T2  to T3 – Leading to the transformation or reproduction of psychic structures

T4 –  An elaborated or reproduced set of psychic structures

Who we are over time is shaped by an endless array of such cycles which are empirically superimposed. Which is why biographical research can be so messy. My approach – developed through a 2 year longitudinal case study of 19 participants with 5 in-depth interviews – helps alleviate this. Given a particular interest, whether defined at the start of the research or testing out different interests iteratively as one proceeds, data analysis can precede by identifying the above cycles and unpacking the T2-T3 dynamics. Speaking from personal experience, this is starting to prove a VERY powerful way of making sense of longitudinal qualitative data, though I’m less confident about how useful people would find it with non-longitudinal data.

My intention is to use my data to iteratively developed a taxonomy of classes of modalities that obtain at T2-T3. Or in slightly less weird language: in what sorts of ways do personal characteristics, relationships, ideas, social structures – or some combination thereof – have an impact on who we are over time.

This is all a bit rough. I’ve also just tried to explain in 500 words what I spent 15000 words explaining in the PhD itself. Does this make sense to anyone? I’m presenting this for the first time in April and I really do need to learn to summarise it to people who aren’t my supervisors and/or haven’t read my thesis and/or aren’t critical realists. I quite successfully explained this to a room full of critical realists in Oslo last October but am a bit worried I won’t be able to manage it without the shared intellectual background. Hmm.

Here’s the core 4 questions / aims as I just tweeted them:

  1. In what SORTS of ways can personal characteristics, relationships, ideas and social structures (or combination thereof) shape who we are.
  2. How do these kinds of causal relationships add up to shaping the life of any particular individual, understood as a specific biography
  3. How can we do social research in a way which recognises ALL these different sorts of relationships + doesn’t over/under privilege any?
  4. In practical terms of research design & data analysis, how do you put this approach into practice? What are difficulties+benefits of it?


When i talk about ‘social domains’ I mean:

  1. Personal – our personal characteristics & capacities, some generically human, others shaped by our own personal histories (including the genetic)
  2. Relational – the relational networks within which we’re embedded, their characteristics as networks, as well as the characteristics of the relationships which comprise them (and the emergent goods/evils found within them)
  3. Ideational – basically the ideas both actually and potentially accessible to us at a given point in time given our social position, as well as the logical relations that obtain between them
  4. Structural – the allotment of material resources and cultural capital we enjoy at a particular point in terms, our positions within organisations and bureaucracies, the emergent consequences of political&economic processes which we are subject to given that we, like everyone else, have a particular social placement

The quotes above are from Bowlby’s “A Secure Base”

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