Attachments: Rutter Versus Bowlby

Rutter’s Challenge: Is Monotropy a Valuable Concept?

Most, if not all, A Level Psychology textbooks make reference to the challenge made by Michael Rutter regarding Bowlby’s concept of monotropy (the idea that infants need one bond that is stronger than all the rest) but they make this reference fairly superficially. I often find that students are aware that Rutter made a challenge but don’t really understand the grounds on which Rutter disagreed with part of what is arguably one of the most important and influential theories A Level Psychology students will come across.

Good Old Radio 4

radioBBC Radio 4’s science programmes are, in my opinion, exceptional. In June (3rd June 2014) an episode of The Life Scientific was aired which focused on the work of Michael Rutter. The interview with Rutter (still available to listen to at time of blogging) is a must listen for any A Level Psychology teacher, student or anyone interested in Developmental Psychology.

From the Horse’s Mouth

horseI love hearing about how researchers got into their field, what motivates them and what sort of people they are more generally. You don’t get this knowledge from the pages of a textbook and so taking the opportunity to hear learn first hand from the researcher, rather than simply reading a (possibly false) biography online, should not be missed. One of the things that particularly struck me was that Rutter is in his 80’s and is still working; he talks about how he still works with the individuals who were part of his study of Romanian orphans who were adopted. In a society where many people are driven by making as much money as possible then retiring as soon as possible, it is refreshing to hear someone value the meaningful nature of their work and for someone of his vast experience to hold great value too. This is something I would make explicit when discussing this interview with students as the potential benefit in the classroom goes much further than the content of the A Level specification.

In the Classroom

About 15 minutes in to the episode, Rutter refers to the differing approaches of the Tavistock Clinic in London (taking a Psychoanalytic approach), where Bowlby was working, and South London’s Institute of Psychiatry, where he was working. It could easily be assumed that Rutter and Bowlby were rivals or enemies but during the interview, Rutter speaks highly of Bowlby’s work. Rutter models the use of evaluative thinking, a vital part of being a Psychologist which can be used to help dispel the myth that this is an Assessment Objective that is purely the task of A Level students. This gives students the opportunity to see (or hear) that analytical thinking is a vital skill to master in order to be an effective learner, in or out of formal education, and is not something you do (or appear to be doing) at school then switch off when you think you are not assessed anymore.

I would either ask students to listen to the episode (or part), with some questions to focus them on particular aspects, for homework or play all or part of the episode in class. You might ask students to defend Rutter’s challenge using what they have learned and possibly counter criticise by thinking about how Bowlby might defend his position regarding monotropy. Rutter basically suggests that it doesn’t make sense to need one (usually maternal) bond more than any others because if that bond was broken the cost would be so high.

I’m not going to repeat the interview here; listen to the episode and hear Rutter make his case (he talks about the differing effects of deprivation and privation too). This audio resource puts the detail on a blurry textbook representation of what is arguably a key evaluative point of Bowlby’s  Attachment Theory. Rutter also talks about his study of Romanian orphans in a way makes criticising on knee jerk methodological grounds seem somewhat churlish. A great opportunity to stretch students thinking and avoid relying too heavily on weaknesses of research in evaluative writing.

Other scientific lives

Another useful episode of the Life Scientific for A Level Psychology is an interview with circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster.

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5 comments

  1. tombssimon

    Thanks for this. I’ve already incorporated this audio into my planning and will build on your suggestions here. Rutter covers similar ground in this podcast here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/histmed/audio/neuroscience/rutter/podcasts/rutter_maternal_deprivation.mp3
    There’s a whole page of his podcasts here
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/histmed/audio/neuroscience/rutter/podcasts/

    I also liked your ideas about Bowlby’s theory in the previous post. The Psychology Faculty do a couple of good podcasts which unpack the ideas in his theory which are difficult to explain.
    http://www.thepsychologyfaculty.org/index.php?start=24

  2. Jan Hendley

    Many thanks for this. I often struggle to put this kind of activity into my lessons at FE level 3, I will try your suggestion and play this in class when they are doing preparation for the developmental presentations.

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