John Bowlby: Rediscovering a systems scientist



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© 2010 International Society for the Systems Sciences

John Bowlby: Rediscovering a systems scientist
Gary S. Metcalf, PhD January 7, 2010 It seems to go without saying that John Bowlby’s work in attachment theory has created controversy over the years. And though it has been expanded upon, interpreted, and rebutted, it has not gone away. Even today, his ideas are still found in materials regarding child development from the World Health Organization.
Bowlby finds himself in good company. He saw important connections that explained longstanding problems in new ways, and then struggled to explain those ideas. Bowlby can easily be labeled a
systems thinker; though neither he nor others seemed to formally label him as such. He considered and incorporated ideas across a wide variety of disciplines as he developed his own theories. Specifically, he used aspects of control theory (cybernetics) as part of his theory of attachment. His approach, though, is more generally systemic, making sense of the patterns of organization that he perceived in the world. For decades, Bowlby worked and regularly met with some of the most brilliant thinkers of his time. Though he was a psychoanalyst in a child guidance clinic, he drew from theorists in learning, ethology, communications, psychology, sociology, cybernetics, general systems, and soon. He saw and used the connections, but also strived to make his theories accessible to practitioners and policymakers. Bowlby justifies his own work as an extension of Freud’s continuing development of psychoanalytic theory both were working to further the science of the human psyche and its implications for social functioning. Each step of his work, though, seemed to create more questions about the foundations of prevailing theories, which caused great conflicts with his psychoanalytic colleagues. It is no wonder that many people are still working to understand him. This paper will attempt to reconstruct some of the historical development of Bowlby’s work, and to make more explicit the connections with thinkers and theorists not often found in the child development literature. Especially, this will focus on systems thinkers who may have influenced Bowlby, if not directly through their theories, very possibly through their approaches. It will make the case that in order to truly understand Bowlby’s ideas you need also to understand this way of thinking.


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