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Re-framing Attachment Theory with Respect to Gender and Sexuality

Discussions in the psychological literature on attachment and its consequences for adult relationships tie the development of gender identity, sexuality and successful adult pair bonding in adulthood to secure attachment in infancy. Secondarily they cite the physiology of hormones and brain chemistry as supporting these continuities. While the culture-bound designations of avoidant, ambivalent, insecure attachment have been critiqued by anthropologists and cross-cultural psychologists, less attention has been focused on the many culturally variable and viable formulations of gender, sexuality, kinship, marriage and parenting documented in the ethnographic record and the challenges they present to the secure attachment-pair-bonding scenario. I will re-cast this scenario in a broader framework that takes account of cultural variation in attachment patterns and their possible outcomes in adult relationships. Using ethnographic examples of cultural dislocation and recovery I will show how culturally shaped attachment orientations may produce adult relationality that functions effectively through extended kin relations and community rather than exclusive pair-bonding/nuclear family configurations as the measure of success.

Kathleen Barlow is a professor and current chair of the Department of Anthropology and Museum Studies at Central Washington University. She is a psychological anthropologist whose research among the Murik of Papua New Guinea has focused on the lives of women and children, culture and learning, and the role of mothering culture. She is a contributing author and coeditor, with Bambi Chapin, of the 2010 theme issue of Ethos (38:4) on “Mothering as Everyday Practice.” Among her publications are “Attachment and Culture in Murik Society,” in Attachment Reconsidered: Cultural Perspectives on a Western Theory, Naomi Quinn and Jeannette Mageo, eds.; “Critiquing the ‘Good Enough’ Mother: A Perspective based on the Murik of Papua New Guinea” Ethos, Special Issue “Contributions to a Feminist Psychological Anthropology, Dec. 32(4):514-537; “Working Mothers and the Work of Culture in a Papua New Guinea Society,” Ethos 29(1):1-30; and “Dialogics of Material Culture: Male and Female in Murik Outrigger Canoes” with David M. Lipset. 1997. American Ethnologist 24(1):4-36. Other research interests include museum anthropology, art and aesthetics, regional exchange networks, economic development and change, and race and ethnicity as barriers to educational access.