The Comfort of Things in Child Development

Things, according to Miller, are constitutive of identity. "Material culture matters," he insists, "because objects create subjects more than the other way round". Even more strongly: "the closer our relationships with objects, the closer our relationships with people". -Laurie Taylor, The Independent

Not to argue too much against Miller, because I feel as if his work is of great importance to studies of consumption, but I feel as if his analysis is, at times, banal and overly simplistic. It borders on commodifying relationships to an extent that is almost problematic and infuriating to consumers, many of whom feel as if objects are those which they control and not the other way around. It’s interesting to read his argument in relation to Bowlby’s attachment theory, as elaborated by Ainsworth and, subsequently, Vondra and Barrett. It’s as if he is codifying the Insecure-Avoidant (Type A) Pattern observable in the attachment behaviors of children. In Bowlby’s model, he argued that infants initially show a great amount of distress when their caregivers leave them. This distress is followed by a sense of ambivalence towards their absence and then increased feelings of reattachment upon the return of the caregiver. Bowlby believed that these early developments were indicative of later attachment relationships. Ainsworth tested some of these premises in her Strange Situation test, which included a number of episodes in which an infant was provided with toys, the presence of their caregiver and then a stranger, and a number of instances in which their caregiver left the room. 

Ainsworth elaborated upon Bowlby’s model by contending that infants show a number of different forms of attachment, including the Insecure-Avoidant Pattern, which is the second most common form to emerge. In this pattern, infants are more interested in the toys or objects in their surroundings rather than the caregiver themselves as a way of avoiding anxiety and frustration. In North America, 25% of infants demonstrate this pattern and it is linked to the fact that the caregiver might not have shown as much direct physical contact with the child. This is deemed a childhood coping strategy to dealing with stress and anxiety. How could such evidence demonstrate a relationship with people when it clearly rejects such a thesis on the basis of the child’s focus upon a particular toy over the presence of another individual? 

In Northern Germany, under a cultural paradigm of individualism, this kind of bonding is actually encouraged, with the mother avoiding excessive contact with the child for extended periods of time. Similarly, although under different premises, Anthropologist Arthur Wolf, famous for his work on the incest taboo, postulated that maternal sentiments based on sim-pua (minor marriage) in Taiwan or China, was based upon an institutionalized form of discrepancies in mother-daughter relationships that pervaded these societies. These examples demonstrate rifts in attachment, but such research could be laid over the work of Miller through an assessment of the relationships such disparate groups hold towards commodities.

In light of some of this evidence, it is reasonable to ask as to whether our relationships are becoming increasingly unimportant in the age of commodities that Miller speaks of. I would argue against him, insisting that, although consumption is a significant component of our social lives, it is not a constituent of close relationships, nor will it ever be. If one was to accept this idea, one would be submitting to the idea that all individuals are Insecure-Avoidant (type A), which is not true of a great majority of infants. However, to what extent does an infant’s connection to objects tie into the connection formed with its mother? From a young age, we are bombarded with objects, and it has been demonstrated that American infants are usually more readily oriented to objects than their mother, something that is intentionally enacted on behalf of the parent themselves.

What might be the tie between commodities and early child attachment? Can they interfere with a child’s mental health or be integral to it?

Perhaps I am conflating these theories too much, but regardless, my question remains.

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Comment by John McCreery on June 4, 2012 at 8:17am

Chelsea, this is a great question. I like the way in which you probe the notion of attachment to objects as a source of identity and observe that different types of attachment (and thus different self formations?) are possible. Could you tell us a bit more about the alternatives to the Insecure-Avoidant Pattern and how objects and self-formation might be related in these cases?

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