Ernst Strüngmann Forum


Contextualizing Attachment:
The Cultural Nature of Attachment

April 3–8, 2016

Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Heidi Keller and Kim A. Bard, Chairpersons

Program Advisory Committee

Heidi Keller, University of Osnabrück, Germany, and Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel
Kim A. Bard, Comparative Developmental Psychology, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, U.K.
Majorie Beeghley, Infant & Child Development Lab, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, U.S.A.
William D. Hopkins, Neuroscience Institute and Language Research Center, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia 30302 and Division of Developmental and Cognitive Neuroscience, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, Georgia 30329, U.S.A.
Julia Lupp, Ernst Strüngmann Forum, c/o Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Ruth-Moufang-Str. 1, 60438 Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Masako Myowa-Yamakoshi, Professor at the Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University, Japan
Nandita Chaudhary, Lady Irwin College, Delhi University, India


  • To conceptualize attachment theory so as to include cross-cultural and cross-species perspectives and research.
  • To devise research strategies as gold standards for programmatic change in future attachment research.
  • To explore the implications of a new paradigm for practice and policy and communicate these to policy makers and stakeholders.

This Forum will scrutinize the underlying philosophical and ideological assumptions of attachment theory. It will not rehash the contributions of Bowlby and Ainsworth nor revisit the basic mammalian biology of bonding (e.g., Carter et al., 2005). It will explore how perspectives from cross-cultural and cross-species research can be included into a conceptualization of attachment: one that embraces new concepts of attachment, such as the basic necessity of infants to develop trust in the social environment as a primary and universal developmental task; and one that incorporates new information on epigenetics and neuroscience. Such a reformulation will have implications for theory, research, and practice.

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Attachment theory, developed in the 1950s and 1960s, was significantly influenced by the cultural context of scientific enquiry at that time. Some historians even view attachment theory as an interesting historical phenomena; Marga Vicedo (2013), for example, concluded that it was partially a product of cold war America.

The foundations of attachment theory were strongly based on Euro-American middle-class family life, albeit with reference to observations from only one group of nonhuman primates and one group of non-Western humans. In the intervening half century, accumulated data from psychological, primatological, and cultural research clearly indicate that the Euro-American middle-class perspective and behaviors are not representative of humans worldwide, and therefore may not be the firmest foundation upon which to build an evolutionary theory (e.g., Otto and Keller 2014; Quinn and Mageo 2013). Moreover, many applications of attachment theory to policy, childcare, and therapy are embedded within a relatively mono-cultural perspective. Simply put, attachment theory has become enormously influential in the contexts of early education and daycare. A secure mother-infant/child relationship, in the Bowlby-Ainsworth sense, is regarded as crucial for successful educational practice. Teacher-child relationships are modeled along attachment theoretical assumptions, with a focus on the single child and individualized interactions. Group processes, which were crucial for the evolution of intelligence in humankind, are grossly neglected. In short, the theoretical and methodological foundations of attachment theory have remained amazingly unaffected by the substantial increase in knowledge across all of the foundational disciplines.

Although the early writings from Bowlby as well from Ainsworth have a wider social reference system, attachment theory became clearly monotropic by qualifying the mother as the main attachment figure. This conception is notably resistant to change despite the obvious evidence of diverse caregiving systems across cultures. Recently, van IJzendoorn and Sagi-Schwartz (2008:900), who are often referred to as experts in discussing “culture and attachment” from a “within attachment research” point of view, acknowledged contextual variations with non-Western samples and attested to the need for a radical change from a dyadic perspective to a network approach (which would as well have radical consequences for the definition and assessment of attachment) (for similar arguments, see also Heinicke 1995). Surprisingly, they conclude that “in fact, taken as a whole, the studies are remarkable consistent with the theory” (van IJzendoorn and Sagi-Schwartz 2008:901). Robert LeVine (2014), however, draws attention to the ideology inherent in attachment theory: “Bowlby’s thinking was bound to a dichotomous medical model in which deviations from an idealized pattern of good mothering prevalent among the Anglo-American middle-classes leads inevitably to psychopathology.” His analysis demonstrates the closeness of the link between ideology and psychopathology. He also claims that attachment theory is more a Western philosophy of childrearing than a scientific theory (LeVine and Norman 2001).

The contradictions in attachment theory—that is, when contextual dependency is acknowledged yet cultural variation is ignored—have yet to be resolved. Meanwhile research evidence of different caregiving strategies and ideologies across cultures continues to accumulate, making it imperative to expand the discussion and re-conceptualize attachment theory.

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Group 1: Evolution and Attachment across Primate Groups

Attachment theory is grounded in evolutionary theory with its basic tenet that every human characteristic is shaped through selection processes and represents an adaptation to contextual demands (Hrdy 2009; Jablonka and Lamb 2007). Bowlby explicitly stressed the contextual nature of attachment in his early writings, yet focused primarily on the social environment that the mother represents without acknowledging that adaptive behaviors (including mothering) depend on ecosocial contexts, affordances, and constraints. Thus, not only can maternal investment be different in various contexts, it may also differ as a function of the caregiving arrangements of the social system in which the mother lives, which must be systematically considered (for a more detailed discussion, see Vicedo 2013).

Bowlby relied on the rhesus macaque caregiving system as the evolutionary model for attachment, without acknowledging the enormous variability among nonhuman primate species in terms of their caregiving arrangements. For example, cotton top tamarins rely on distributed caretaking; capuchin monkeys behave in many ways toward their mothers just like they behave toward siblings or unrelated adults; and monogamy is rare among nonhuman primates (e.g., Bard 2002: Sommer 2000). Primate parenting of over 300 primate species can look very different in terms of social systems and parenting strategies (Fairbanks 2003) and, moreover, it varies contextually (Bard et al. 2005) so that the assumption that there is only one "natural" model cannot be maintained.

This group will consider both the proximate and the ultimate functions of different attachment systems, expanding our views beyond the simple mother-infant pairing in different primate groups.

Guiding Questions:

  • Is attachment a uniform construct across primate groups?
  • What contextual variations exist (plasticity, flexibility) and their consequences across species?
  • Is Bowlby’s conception of evolution compatible with contemporary views? Does the theory, which is based on a rhesus monkey system, work for all primates and all cases of attachment across cultures?

Group 2: Neural Foundations of Variability in Attachment

Neuroscience is offering new insight into processes that support the integration of the social brain, cultural contexts, and development of attachment relationships, and it can extend these insights beyond the human case. For example, cortical organization of adult chimpanzees is differentially influenced by early rearing experiences (Bogart et al. 2014); laterality in the posterior superior temporal gyrus is implicated in the processing of social information in chimpanzees (Hopkins et al. 2014a) and genetic variation in the arginine vasopressin V1a receptor gene is significantly associated with receptive joint attention in adult chimpanzees (Hopkins et al. 2014b). Previously, these correlations of brain structure and function with social behaviors, and polymorphisms in receptor gene were associated with pair bonding in humans and voles (e.g., Phelps 2010). A scientifically valid evolutionary theory must account for the diversity of parenting systems across primates, with neuroscience enriching our understanding of the biological mechanisms that support plasticity in attachment outcomes (Bogart et al. 2014; Coan 2008).

Guiding Questions:

  • How does attachment interface with brain development?
  • What are the shared and unique neural systems involved in attachment between primate species and across cultures?
  • If there are negative consequences associated with attachment, are they reversible?
  • Is the neural circuitry underlying maternal-infant attachment the same as in other types of pair bonds?

Group 3: Cultural Evidence for Different Conceptions of Attachment

There is an impressive amount of documentation of diverse realities in the anthropological and psychological literature concerning different images of man (self), caregiving models, and conceptions of relationships (although by far not sufficient with respect to the full range of cultural variability) that also apply to the historical timescale. How and with which social partner(s) attachment forms varies substantially with the environment in which children grow and develop. This body of literature must inform attachment theory, especially in providing models of the evolution of attachment and, importantly, in changing methodology of assessing attachment.

Guiding Questions:

  • Does the conventional (i.e., monotropic) view of attachment hold across all cultural groups and social systems?
  • How does our knowledge of diversity of care arrangements inform or expand the theory and study of attachment?
  • Are there universals in the development of relationships across cultures? What can diversity teach us?

Group 4: Meaning and Methods in the Study and Assessment of Attachment

Researchers have relied on a systematic observational procedure—the Strange Situation—to assess the quality of attachment relationships (Ainsworth et al. 1978). This procedure has only been validated for middle-class Americans living in the 1950s and 1960s in an urban environment in the United States. The assumptions underlying this procedure include the following:  infants have dyadic attachments; infants encounter strangers moderately often but infants should be wary of them; infants have everyday experiences of independent explorations and are frequently in a room alone, but sensitive caregivers will respond quickly to infants' vocalizations of distress (Ainsworth et al. 1978). These types of experiences are not, however, common to infants across a wide variety of cultures. In many cultures, for example, infants have multiple caregivers and infants are never alone; in some cultures, infants are not encouraged to express emotion, especially negative emotions; in others, strangers are not frightening.  Serious issues of validity arise when the Strange Situation procedure is used in cultures other than the original (i.e., middle-class, 1950s urban culture in the U.S.). Due to a reliance on the Strange Situation procedure, infants well adapted to their culture-specific attachment system can be labeled as atypical or even pathological from the Western/urban perspective (and vice versa; Keller 2007). Although it may be perfectly appropriate to provide therapeutic interventions to those infants and caregivers who are not adjusting well within the parameters of their cultural setting, it is problematic to make diagnoses of pathology due to a lack of understanding of alternative cultural norms. There is substantial variability across cultures and across primate species of what is considered normal, atypical, abnormal, and pathological that needs to inform application and policy.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can we expand attachment theory to embrace cross-cultural variation?
  • What new paradigms need to be devised to characterize attachment across cultures?
  • Do current policy and assessment guidelines from public health, educational, and NGO systems need to be changed to accommodate cultural variation in attachment?
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Bard, K.A. (2002). Primate parenting. In M. Bornstein (Ed.) Handbook of Parenting: Second Edition: Volume 2 Biology and Ecology of Parenting, (pp.99-140). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bard, K.A., Myowa-Yamakoshi, M., Tomonaga, M., Tanaka, M., Costall, A., & Matsuzawa, T. (2005). Group differences in the mutual gaze of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Developmental Psychology, 41, 616-624.

Bogart SL, Bennett AJ, Schapiro SJ, Reamer LA, Hopkins WD. 2014. Different early rearing experiences have long-term effects on cortical organization in captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Developmental Science 17:161-274.

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Coan, J.A. (2008). Toward a neuroscience of attachment. In J. Cassidy & P.R. Shaver (Eds.) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications (2nd ed., pp. 241-265). New York: Guildford.

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Hopkins, WD, Misiura, M, Reamer, LA, Schaeffer, JA, Mareno, MC, and Schapiro, SJ. (2014b). Poor receptive joint attention skills are associated with atypical gram matter asymmetry in the posterior superior temporal gyrus of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Frontier in Psychology, 5 (7), 1-8.

Hrdy, S. B. 2009. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Keller, H. (2007). Cultures of Infancy. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

LeVine, R. A., and K. Norman. 2001. The infant's acquisition of culture: Early attachment reexamined in anthropological perspective. In The Psychology of Cultural Experience, ed. C. Moore and H. F. Mathews, pp. 83–104. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LeVine, R. A. 2014. Attachment theory as cultural ideology. In The Different Faces of Attachment, ed. H. Otto and H. Keller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Phelps, SM. (2010). From endophenotypes to evolution: social attacment, sexual fidelity and the avpr1a locus. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 20, 795-802.

Quinn, N., and J. Magio, eds. 2013. Attachment Reconsidered: Cultural Perspectives on a Western Theory. Palgrave MacMillan.

Sommer, V. (2000). Rethinking monogamy: The gibbon case. In P.M. Kappeler (Ed). Primate Males: Causes and Consequences of Variation in Group Composition (pp 159-169). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

van IJzendoorn, M. H., and A. Sagi-Schwartz. 2008. Cross-cultural patterns of attachment: Universal and contextual dimensions. In: Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications, ed. J. Cassidy and P. R. Shaver, pp. 713–734. New York: Guildford.

Vicedo, M. 2013. The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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