Cross-cultural patterns of attachment: Universal and contextual dimensions

Abraham Sagi-Schwartz, Marinus H. Van Ijzendoorn

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It was in Uganda, a former British protectorate in East Africa, that Mary Ainsworth (1967) began to create the famous tripartite classification system of "avoidant" (A), "secure" (B), and "resistant" or "ambivalent" (C) infant-mother attachment relationships. In this chapter, we describe and evaluate the cross-cultural attachment studies that have followed Ainsworth's Uganda example. We limit our discussion to cultures other than the Anglo-Saxon and European cultures. In particular, we presuppose the following findings: 1. In Western countries all infants—when given any opportunity at all—become attached to one or more specific (parental or nonparental) caregivers, except perhaps in the most extreme cases of neurophysiological impairments, such as extreme mental retardation. For the purpose of cross-cultural research, this finding may be translated into the "universality hypothesis." 2. In Western societies the majority of infants are securely attached, although a considerable number of infants (up to 40%) have been found to be insecurely attached, and the number of secure infants may vary considerably across samples within a culture. In stressful circumstances, secure infants appear to settle more easily than insecure infants, as shown by several psychophysiological studies. Secure attachment therefore seems to be normative in both the numerical and the physiological senses; this may be called the "normativity hypothesis." 3. Attachment security is dependent on childrearing antecedents, particularly sensitive and prompt responses to the infants' attachment signals, although other factors may be relevant as well. The causal relation between sensitive childrearing and attachment security has been documented in several experimental intervention studies. This is the "sensitivity hypothesis." 4. Attachment security leads to differences in children's competence to regulate their negative emotions, to establish satisfactory relationships with peers and teachers, and to develop cognitive abilities. This is the "competence hypothesis." The universality, normativity, sensitivity, and competence hypotheses constitute the core hypotheses of attachment theory. "Etic" studies on attachment in various cultures may be heuristically fruitful in documenting (1) the universality of attachment in infancy, (2) the culture-specific dimensions and normativity of the three attachment patterns, and (3) the generalizability of the nomological network of attachment-related constructs across cultures. We discuss attachment studies in several non-European, non-Anglo-Saxon societies: various African cultures, the People's Republic of China, Israel, Japan, and Indonesia. Our analysis and integration of cross-cultural attachment research suggest a balance between universal trends and contextual determinants. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved)
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)880–905
JournalHandbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications
StatePublished - 2008


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