Academic journal article Perspectives in Psychiatric Care

The Real and the Researchable: A Brief Review of the Contribution of John Bowlby (1907-1990)

Academic journal article Perspectives in Psychiatric Care

The Real and the Researchable: A Brief Review of the Contribution of John Bowlby (1907-1990)

Article excerpt

TOPIC. John Bowlby

PURPOSE. To provide a broad overview of

Bowlby's life and contribution to psychoanalytic theory and to examine his departure from the British school of object relations.

SOURCES. Literature review and author's interpretation of material.

CONCLUSIONS. Bowlby's ideas remain relevant although controversial and merit continued study.

Search terms: Attachment theory, John Bowlby, object relations, psychoanalytic research

It is 11 years since John Bowlby's death in 1990 and 21 years since the publication of the final installment of his seminal trilogy, Attachment (1969), Separation (1973), and Loss (1980). In the intervening years, his work has remained a source of disquiet and controversy in many U.K. psychoanalytic circles. Although there is an "attachment school" in London (with strong U.S. links) that offers formal training and conferences dedicated to Bowlby's ideas, in many other psychoanalytical institutions and trainings Bowlby is marginalized compared to his post-Kleinian contemporaries (especially Donald Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, and Herbert Rosenfeld). It is fair to say that Bowlby has been consigned to something of an outpost in the British school of object relations. Although he took pride in referring to himself as a "biological psychiatrist" (Bowlby, 1985), and was seen to possess an "inner calm" (Brown, 1992, quoted in Holmes, 1993, this consignment must have been difficult at times for him to bear.

   The casting of theoretical dissension, however, was not Bowlby's most
   important achievement. Rather, his ideas transcended in-house
   psychoanalytic rifts and went toward mitigating the insular and
   inaccessible public image of psychoanalysis.... He managed to establish his
   theories as core curriculum material in nearly all mental health care
   trainings, from nursery nursing to psychiatry, social work to pediatrics.
   Bowlby's ideas remain an informing presence not only in psychotherapy
   practice but also in health service, education, and child-care provision in
   the U.K. It is indubitable that many (if not most) clinical situations that
   involve issues related to attachment, separation, and loss are better
   understood with reference to "Bowlbian" [sic] principles and those ideas
   that have followed him.

Controversial Discussions

   I have always held the view that the internal world is a reflection of the
   external world and there is a constant interaction--you can't understand
   one without the other. (Bowlby, 1985, p. 20)

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born into a quintessentially middle-class English family in 1907. A career in medicine was not an unexpected choice of occupation. He undertook a degree in 1925 in preclinical sciences and psychology at Cambridge before studying clinical medicine at University College Hospital, London. He spent 1929 as a teacher in a progressive school for maladjusted children, an experience that left an indelible mark on him and his career path, which became apparent later when he formulated his ideas on child development.

He qualified medically in 1933 and undertook his psychiatric training at the Maudsley Hospital, London. He qualified as a psychiatrist in 1937 and immediately embarked on his training as a child analyst, working in the London Child Guidance Clinic. He also trained with the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London, and began a training analysis with Joan Riviere.

Riviere was a colleague of Melanie Klein and an articulate member of the emerging school of object relations in the United Kingdom. Bowlby ran up against a conflict of theoretical interests, however, inasmuch as the Kleinians emphasized the internal world, and Bowlby's experiences working with deprived children had led him to be interested in environmental factors. Klein's emphasis on the internal world and fantasy seemed for Bowlby to be neglectful of actual experience (Bowlby, 1985). …

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