Attachment Theory and Community Development Theory

The Practical and Theoretical Applications of Attachment Theory and Community Development Theory in Social Work

Social work theories are extremely helpful in placing certain problem situations in context, and dealing with those situations. Two theories, Attachment Theory and Community Development Theory, will be particularly helpful in analyzing the case of Dave and Jenny, a married couple in their early twenties, who live on a London housing estate with their two children, Sean (aged four) and Sarah (aged two). Dave works irregularly as a labourer, and spends a good portion of his wages each week at the pub and at the bookies. This causes tension in their marriage, including repeated rows and occasional violence. The family have rent arrears and hire purchase debts, and they recently received a letter from a loan company threatening to repossess some of their property. Most of their problems are about money, and each blames the other for Sean’s willful and aggressive behaviour at the local day nursery. A mother and toddlers group was offered for Sarah, but was never taken up. Both Dave and Jenny would like help with their financial difficulties, and Jenny would like their relationship to improve. Dave claims that the only thing wrong with their relationship is their lack of intimacy since Sarah was born. The family was referred by the Health Visitor, who felt the family’s problems were affecting Sarah.

The first theory is question is Attachment Theory. Intimate relationships with others are the context in which we discover who we are, learn how others feel about life’s important issues, and how to bridge differences (Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell and Albersheim, 684). The emotional security and warmth derived from a loving parent provides us with a foundation from which we can take the risks that are inevitably part of life (Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1990). In short, close relationships between babies and their caregivers are central to human life, and the theory of attachment is about these relationships: how they are formed, what happens during the relationship with the nurturing parent, and what the consequences are for later development (Ainsworth, 969 )

If we begin life with an experience of successful closeness, we are better able to create closeness in our relationships with friends and partners. The connection between caregiver and child ensures the two will remain near each other physically, but at the same time, the security of this closeness creates the courage the child needs to venture forth into the world (Waters etc. et al., 686). Secure attachment therefore actually facilitates independence as well as the formation of an autonomous self (Weinfield, Sroufe and Egeland, 687).

Attachment theory proposes that the maintenance of bonds, particularly the bond between a mother and her young child, is essential to the survival of the human species and a compelling individual need (Belsky and Nezworski, 1988). An attachment may be defined as an affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time (Ainsworth, 989).

Secure attachment provides the foundation for positive growth. It is therefore essential that all children have the opportunity to enjoy such relationships. The key factor for the caregiver is “sensitive responsiveness” – the ability to attune to the child and respond to their signals (Caruso, 121). The child’s responsiveness is also an important contributor to the process. Attachment problems are more likely to arise with “difficult” babies. Research has established a clear link between secure attachment and other developmental processes, in particular language development, exploratory behaviour and socially appropriate behaviour (Belsky and Nezworski, 1988). The desire to gain the approval of adults is a powerful motivation in learning to control equally powerful but less desirable urges (Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1990). For children learn to take care of themselves only as well as they have been cared for, and attentive care fosters self regard, self protection and self control, fostering a view of the world as responsive and caring (Weinfeld, etc. et al., 200).

The securely attached child has formed the mental image of the self as a “cared about person in conjunction with the mother or other partner as a caring person, which enables the child to tolerate being separated from the caregiver, both physically and mentally, without anxiety increasing enough to disrupt play” (Rutter, 267). In the simplest terms, securely attached toddlers are more independent than insecurely attached ones.

Attachment is the “laboratory of human connection, the experience that prepares us for a life in which we have the opportunity to thrive” (Bowlby, 1988). As part of our general duty to protect the young, we must support them in these early important relationships and do whatever we can to preserve the family relationships that support them. The attachment process is based on fine-tuning the relationship between caregiver and child, and multiple difficulties may arise in any situation. Separation due to illness, depression, stress and tension within the family may make it difficult for the primary caregiver and/or child to respond to each other (Ainsworth, 1009). Where the environment is chaotic and the primary caregiver is not available to the child secure attachment will not be possible. Failure to accomplish the goals of the parent-child relationship will result in an inadequate attachment relationship, placing the child on a pathway to relationship difficulties throughout life (Bornstein and Tamis-LeMonda, 1990).

Here is where our case study comes into play. The problems Sean is having at the day nursery (willful and aggressive behaviour) could very easily be derived from a lack of attachment at home. As evidenced in the preceding paragraphs, Attachment Theory is particularly applicable to “difficult” children, and there is a direct correlation between secure attachment and appropriate behaviour. This behaviour, in combination with the ability to act independently, is not evidenced by Sean, and, while there is not enough data to support it, could very well be applied to Sarah as well. After all, the reason the family was referred by the Health Visitor was out of concern for her. Furthermore, if Sean isn’t receiving the secure attachment he needs, then probably neither is Sarah. It is therefore safe to assume that the tension and chaos of the home environment is having a detrimental affect on Sean and Sarah, especially looking at it from a theoretical standpoint. And unfortunately, while Sean at least has the opportunity to forge positive relationships at the day care centre, without the proper foundation at home, such relationships are not likely to succeed. Bringing an Attachment Theory standpoint to the attention of Dave and Jenny would be the first step in addressing these problems, followed by a comprehensive plan of action to redress the problems derived from a lack of secure attachment.

Another theory that will be useful in assessing our case study is Community Development Theory. Since the late nineteenth century, the use of the term community has remained to some extent associated with the “hope and the wish of reviving once more the closer, warmer, more harmonious type of bonds between people vaguely attributed to past ages”(Hoggett, 1997). Before 1910 there was little social science literature concerning community, and it was really only in 1915 that the first clear definition emerged, which was coined by C. J. Galpin in relation to delineating rural communities in terms of the trade and service areas surrounding a central village (Harper and Dunham, 19). A number of competing definitions of community quickly followed. Some focused on community as a geographical area, some on a group of people living in a particular place, and others as an area of common life. Community development as a theory and practice centers on community work, organization and participation. As a child needs guidance to develop correctly, communities, too, need mature guidance from experts to ensure the proper developmental trajectory (Almond, 1970). Community development (or building) presents an image of “continual improvement and grassroots efforts, using a combination of mental and manual work, with a division of labor within the community, not between the community and the outsiders” (Cook, 1979). Community building implies a broad set of participants and a shared vision of what the community should be like in the future, looking at the whole and not just a few parts.

When community residents are addressed in terms of what they can offer rather than what they need to receive, they become active participants in the process of change (Almond, 1970). While a community is made up of individuals, it is more than the sum of its individual parts. A healthy community is able to use the skills, knowledge and ability of all the people in it to take initiative and to adapt in the face of constant change (Morgan, 1942). It requires there to be relationships and communications both inside and outside of the community.

There is a generally recognized set of characteristics distinguishing community development, which include:

Focus on a unit called “community.”
Conscious attempts to induce non-reversible structural change. Use of paid professionals/workers.
Initiation by groups, agencies or institutions external to the community unit.
Emphasize public participation.
Participate for the purpose of self-help.
Increase dependence on participatory democracy as the mode for community (public) decision-making.
Use a holistic approach (Lotz, 69)

There are many ways to define community. Each of the standard definitions may be sufficient in most situations, but here is a general operational definition: A community is a particular type of social system distinguished by the following characteristics:

People involved in the system have a sense and recognition of the relationships and areas of common concerns with other members.
The system has longevity, continuity and is expected to persist.
Its operations depend considerably on voluntary cooperation, with a minimal use (or threat) of sanctions or coercion.
It is multi-functional. The system is expected to produce many things and to be attuned to many dimensions of interactions.
The system is complex, dynamic and sufficiently large that instrumental relationships predominate.
Usually, there is a geographic element associated with its definition and basic boundaries (Christenson and Robinson, 1980).

In the context of community development, development is a concept associated with improvement. It is a certain type of change in a positive direction. The nature and direction of development can only be made by people according to their own values, aspirations and expectations (Wade, 116). In the case of community systems, this must be a collective judgment. Since people are different in many ways, the chances of finding unanimity about what constitutes improvement are slight (Lotz, 71). Community development builds from this proposition (people are different). Each is distinguishable from all others, indicating that each has something unique about him or her. It also takes the position that each person probably has some bit of information or insight not available to anyone else. While it is impossible to collect and process “all the bits of intelligence embodied in the population, it is possible to collect and evaluate more of the diverse intelligence that does exist” (Cook, 1979).

Community development theory involves certain assumptions about people and the community system. These include the following:

People are diverse. Community systems can organize to take advantage of that diversity.
Community systems are not totalitarian. People have life spaces outside of the community structure.
Breadth of experience, intelligence, information and energies represented in a population far exceed that which the community system takes into account.
People learn from participation in community systems and community systems learn from the participation of people.
People are capable of exercising a considerable degree of autonomy, while exercising self-restraint required for social order.
People have the capacity for a significant level of empathy with others that permits tolerance and voluntary relationships within the community systems.
While people prefer justice and fairness in community systems, they often perceive it differently.
Imperfections will mark every community system. A degree of inequity will exist in every community system.
Resorting to absolutes is likely to stand in the way of finding practical accommodations within the community system.

Working from the principle that everyone affected by a decision has a right to participate helps the community system locate areas of difficulty and expands the range of potential intelligence available to the system with which to address the situation (Wade, 118).

As the situations faced by community systems become more complex and subject to change, there is need for more and greater variety of intelligence to govern the system (Christenson and Robinson, 1980). Members of the community have been, and are, an underused source of intelligence and information. “Open democratic processes give the system access to this reservoir. Participants learn and the system learns. Learning is the requirement for, and the product of, the community development process” (Botkins, Elmandjra and Malitza, 1979). And here is where this applies to our case study.

Dave and Jenny are new to their community, and don’t know anyone. Therefore, they feel isolated. However, if they were more involved, either with those in their immediate environment, or with their greater surroundings, they would feel more welcome and more “part of a whole.” With more friends, and more of a sense of community and belonging, they would feel happier, which would no doubt affect their relationship and, subsequently, their relationship with their children. In addition (and more importantly), they would have an incredible resource at their disposal: the other members of their community. While the phrase “it takes a village” is perhaps something of a cliche, or something that belongs in rural Africa, it is entirely applicable to countless situations and in a modern context. The fact is, over time, the only way progress has been made is collectively. People, working together, pooling their resources, have been able to make extraordinary progress, the kind which could not have been done alone. And on the surface, while this kind of progress, along with Community Development Theory itself, may seem to apply to big, societal projects like keeping the streets safe or the streets clean, it is relevant to families as well. Raising kids is hard work, and even with systems in place like day care, it is sometimes impossible to do so in ways that are healthy and productive. However, by utilizing one’s community, which is chock-full of “underused sources” (babysitters, teachers, tutors, social programs, civic organizations, churches, etc.), everyone can benefit. And in this case, the advantages for Dave, Jenny, Sean and Sarah are obvious.

Issues of family, community poverty and violence are as old as recorded history. Millions of reports of child abuse and neglect are made each year, and these statistics and others reinforce the long held-concerns of the effects of poverty and stress on children’s development. However, the task of discovering familial and societal causes and consequences are enormously important not only scientifically but morally and practically. They are also among the most difficult types of social work. Both Attachment Theory and Community Development Theory, though vastly different in terms of their goals, applications and functions, are extremely useful in looking at ways to assist and comprehend Jenny and Dave and people like them. Whether at home through secure attachment, or outside the family unit via the community at large, help (and understanding) is at hand.

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