An historical journey of attachment

Cornerstones of Attachment Research (Oxford University Press) by Robbie Duschinsky, reviewed by Matt Woolgar.

Attachment as a psychological construct has spread out so far from its origins. Its influence can be found in developmental psychology; clinical psychology, both child and adult; psychotherapy more generally; in educational settings; and especially social work and the court systems. However, once you move away from, say, academic developmental psychology – where the term is often defined along with a modifier (attachment behaviour; attachment pattern; attachment figure; attachment representations and so on into many further subdivisions of attachment specialisms) – how attachment is understood varies not just from setting to setting, but also between professions, and within a profession, person-to-person; and probably even from time to time within persons, depending on the context and its demands. What is it about this construct that does so much different work, for so many different people and in so many different ways? One of the many things that this book does so well is to help the reader understand just why that is. Duschinsky’s majestic study carefully takes us on a journey through the developmental history of the attachment construct to help us understand why a singular, definitive account of the term ‘attachment’ has never been possible and probably never will be.

Duschinsky approaches attachment research from different angles simultaneously, so that while encompassing developmental psychology research, and applied psychology practice and psychoanalytic psychotherapy models, he takes an organising theme from the history and sociology of ideas – the way in which scientific ideas get taken up into practice and thrive, are modified, or wither; and how during that development themes might become magnified or minimised (Duschinsky, 2019).

This vast book then is, appropriately, an historical journey of a developmental model and the trajectories of continuity and change in the understandings of attachment itself. Within Bowlby’s own writings, but also among the transactions between the lead researchers (or more accurately their research groupings and various collaborations) who came after him, specifically, chapters devoted to each of Mary Ainsworth; Mary Main & Erik Hesse; L. Alan Sroufe & Byron Egeland; Phillip Shaver & Mario Mikulincer.  

There is so much richness of detail and process in this book it is impossible to do it justice in a brief review. Fascinating insights constantly throw new light upon ideas and concepts I thought by now I knew well. And yet it remains highly accessible, a joy to read and a refreshingly balanced approach to the various sides, of the numerous debates within the attachment research family, and in attachment’s relationships with the outside world. It is a book with enormous scope and range, on what is, ostensibly, a focused account of a single topic.

The first three chapters (after an Introduction that could stand alone as an exemplary overview of attachment in its historical context) are each accompanied by an appendix, which present a table of some of the key constructs from those innovative research groups, along with the way in which those constructs are frequently understood in ways that deviate from their formal meaning and by way of comparison a fuller technical explanation. For example, the appendix to Chapter 3 on Mary Main and Erik Hesse includes two examples relating to disorganisation and disorganised attachment behaviour; two attachment ideas that have taken hold in applied settings in ways that frequently deviate significantly from more technical understandings (cf. Granqvist et al, 2017) and it is extremely helpful to see these issues laid out like this. The appendices also end with illustrative statements which bring some of these terms together in ways that are consistent with the literature and are then followed by alternative statements which contain significant deviations from the technical understandings. It is striking how minor some of these differences between the technically correct statements and the deviation statements might seem to be, yet they can lead to important differences in understanding attachment ideas, especially in applied contexts working with parents and their children.

Fittingly for an historical account of the development of a developmental theory, the final chapters consider some of the manifestations of attachment ideas in adulthood. This is particularly important because whatever attachment is, or does, as it journeys from ‘cradle to grave’, it means something quite different in adulthood compared with infancy. Indeed the work by Main and Hesse is clearly of a different kind from that of Shaver, Mikulincer and colleagues, and so raises some interesting conceptual questions, which are likely to persist unresolved, however much we attempt to think them through. Of course, there is a large literature studying attachment in adulthood, especially using derivations and refinements of the original ‘love quiz’ questionnaire, as if there was clarity and agreement around a definitive form of adult attachment assessment, and that such a measure could be mapped in unproblematic ways back to early experiences and the conceptualisations of attachment in the infancy period. Duschinsky does a great job here of balancing these differences in his account and accepting that such differences will likely endure. 

This book shows us attachment isn’t a single thing. No one owns the definitive meaning of attachment. Not even Bowlby could have claimed that because he changed his position several times during the course of his writings (and as Duschinsky points out, he was himself increasingly fascinated by the historical context of scientific theorizing and the associated changes in meaning over time). Duschinsky’s account of the fundamental cornerstones of attachment research highlights something more than just the fluidity of the attachment construct over time and settings. It sets out a case for an enduring and probably inevitable polysemy, that we need to embrace. Perhaps more than anything, reading this book should help psychologists recognise our first task should be to try and understand what people mean when they speak of attachment and to recognise there are many legitimate ways in which this term is used. It is a magnificent and unique book, and this account of attachment theory’s life story so far, compels us to be open-minded and inclusive and to find a shared and collaborative understanding rather than trying to win the battle of definitions.

- Reviewed by Dr Matt Woolgar, Dr Matt Woolgar, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, National Adoption & Fostering Service, SLAM NHS Trust
- Look out for Robbie Duschinsky’s ‘Looking Back’ piece on attachment in our April issue 


Granqvist, P., et al. (2017) Disorganized attachment in infancy: a review of the phenomenon and its implications for clinicians and policy-makers. Attachment & Human Development, 19(6), 534-558, doi:10.1080/14616734.2017.1354040

Duschinsky, R. (2019). Attachment and the archive: Barriers and facilitators to the use of historical sociology as complementary developmental science. Science in Context, 32(3), 309-326. doi:10.1017/S0269889719000243

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