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  • Writer's picturePeter Isebor

Connecting perspectives: Attachment and Ubuntu

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Anyone who has taken any kind of study in psychology will be familiar with the term “Attachment”. Andy’s blog series from last winter covered this and began to think about how understanding attachment patterns could aid us in coping during the winter months. This blog post attempts to offer an exploration of the origins of attachment, and bridge this with the African concept of Ubuntu.

What is Attachment?

At its core Attachment theory suggests that infants’ relationships with key caregiver(s) form the basis for future relationships with other people and themselves. What follows is a very brief history of Attachment theory.

John Bowlby

Attachment as a concept was first advanced by John Bowlby in the 1930s. A psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who, dissatisfied with the focus of contemporary analytic thinking on fantasy, proceeded to build his own theory of infant development. While very much influenced by psychoanalytic ideas, Bowlby was inspired by evolutionary and ethological thinkers. These researchers studied animals to understand the function and survival value of certain behaviours. Bowlby extended these ideas to understanding infant-caregiver interactions to inform his new theory, which was predominately focused on the lived experiences (observable behaviours) of children in relation to their caregivers, and how this influenced psychological, emotional and behavioural development.

One aspect of Bowlby’s work that is often cited is the negative impact of child and caregiver seperation on healthy development. James Robertson, one of Bowlby’s postdoctoral researchers, recorded rich observations of the effects of separation because of prolonged hospital stays. These observations provided evidence for the theory of maternal deprivation and the categories of ambivalent, avoidant, and disorientated as potential separation responses. While still a controversial theory due to its implications for reinforcing gendered roles of caregiving and parental responsibility – this theory continues to underpin family social work and children’s services policy and practice. This seperation research inspired the work and writings of many future psychologists, including Mary Ainsworth, another of Bowlby’s post-doctoral researchers in the 1950s.

Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth was a Canadian psychologist with a background in infant development research and observation. She came to London in 1950 with her husband who had to move there for a work opportunity. Ainsworth took up a role working with Bowlby and Robertson in the Tavistock clinic, studying the impact of separation on young infants. Ainsworth came to London a postdoc with extensive experience and knowledge of infant security theory as proposed by William Emet Blatz. Although Blatz security theory had a different emphasis from Bowlby's ideas on attachment there were similarities.

The leading theories of the time were psychoanalytic, focusing mostly on innate drives, and behavioural theories, focusing on reinforcement. Blatz' theory made space to think about dependency and independence as interacting forces with external environments. Ainsworth took this further by highlighting the importance of forming relationships as a human need, and that in developing 'security' with trusted adults, children learn to be confident in themselves and the world. As a result they embark on more challenging and novel situations.

A focus on Uganda

It was in 1953 that Ainsworth moved again because her husband was offered a research role in Uganda. While in Uganda Ainsworth continued her study of infant-caregiver relationships. For two hours, twice a month over the course of nine months Ainsworth spent time with 26 infant-caregiver dyads in small villages just outside Kampala.

This research with African families provided rich data which informed Ainsworth’s contribution to Attachment theory by providing cross-cultural evidence for the variability of strength and quality of infant-caregiver attachment patterns. Using these observations, Ainsworth expanded the repertoire of potential attachment behaviours in infants that was, at the time, limited to moving to or away from, to include lots of other behaviours such as crying, cooing, reaching and specific to the Ganda children clapping. She observed that clapping was encouraged by the Ganda mothers as a way of greeting on reunion. A behaviour American children did not display, nor did their mothers. In addition to these findings, building on the work of child psychologists before her, Ainsworth reified ideas around the caregiver as a secure base, the importance of caregiver sensitivity and the three most famous attachment categories: A avoidant, B secure, and C ambivalent/resistant. This work was the basis for the Baltimore study, which is often cited when we think about Ainsworth's contributions to Attachment research.

Often Attachment theory is discussed as a purely Western phenomenon that is superimposed on to other parts of of the world with images of white mothers and their white children smiling at each other as the representation of a child who has a 'secure attachment'. The Uganda study is certainly cited, but not in the same detail as the Baltimore study. What this often-forgotten aspect of Attachment theory’s history speaks to, is the deep connection of African influence at the heart of a theory that almost 70 years later is one of the most well-known psychological “facts” today.

What is maybe more interesting, and the connection this piece seeks to make, is the echoes of the fundamental idea of attachment and the African concept of Ubuntu.

What is Ubuntu?

While the term Ubuntu has been written and discussed since the 1900s, it is often described as the value of “I am because we are” since the 1980s. Essentially Ubuntu is an African concept from the Bantu speaking peoples which captures the essence of being human.

At its heart, Ubuntu recognises that “a person is a person through other people” or “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – essentially it is not possible for us to be fully human without other people. It is through our relationships with other people (our community) that we learn how to be human but also to fully express our humanity. Ubuntu suggests that being fully human means being kind, generous, humble, friendly, caring, compassionate and hospitable. These ideas were made more popular in the 1980s and 1990s by the writers and thinkers such as the Samkenges, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Augustine Shutte in attempts to redefine Zimbabwe and South Africa’s politics by re-establishing African concepts of humanity. Desmond Tutu summarises:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed”

You can see how such a philosophy would serve to work at reconciliation of a divided country, but also all these attributes are those you might associate with a person who is seen as having secure attachment.

Attachment researchers suggest that there are links between secure attachment in adults and healthy emotional functioning, building stable and healthy relationships which are characterised by comfort with being close, low anxiety to rejection, being able to depend on others and allow others to depend on them.

There are many parallels between this description of secure attachment and someone who has Ubuntu. Fundamentally, both these ideas, although coming from different positions (one from a psychoanalytic come ethnographic developmental psychology position and the other from an African philosophical and political position of independence and reconciliation), arrive at the almost identical conclusion that in order for us to be happy and healthy human beings, we need to learn about ourself and the world in the context of responsive, caring and meaningful relationships with others.

Attachment, Ubuntu and Me

I first learned about Attachment theory almost 14 years ago when I studied A-Level psychology. I came across it again during my undergrad, and since then in lots of other places on my journey in psychology and the helping profressions. It always fascinated me that Ainsworth had gone to Uganda to study mothers and babies, but in my mind, this was a relatively small part of the story (a pilot study), because almost as quickly as it was discussed, the Baltimore study would be raised even more quickly and described as the ground-breaking study that advanced attachment theory – so I didn’t even give it another thought. Until recently.

I came across the idea of Ubuntu in 2018 in preparing for an opening address to a group of psychology graduates from racialised backgrounds. At the time it was a way of trying to capture why diversity is so important. Particularly in a profession like Clinical Psychology. It also resonated with me because, on reflecting on my journey to becoming qualified, it was a concept that had room to acknowledge the contributions of all the people I had met over the years. People who had directly or indirectly taught me something, which became part of who I was, how I saw myself, and how I saw the world. In my attempts to continue to develop as a psychologist and seek other types of knowledge to inform my thinking and practice, I have continued reading about Ubuntu and was struck by the parallels of Ubuntu and Attachment. While I do not claim that one influenced the other, I do think there are two interesting takeaways.

Attachment and Ubuntu - Distant relatives/Common humanity

The first take away centres on the rich history and context of our psychology and how this can be lost. Take the circumstances of Ainsworth’s (a Canadian born psychologist working in London) trip to Uganda. The trigger being a colonial Britain’s efforts to mobilize their researchers to understand how to respond to political tensions and demands for Ugandan independence. This created an opportunity for her to collect research data that became core to the Attachment theory that we are taught today. Altogether an example of how the historical and political context of psychology can be disconnected. While Attachment theory is a strongly valued finding of British psychology, by its nature it is also an international psychology that has influences from all around the world. Equally, Ubuntu, the concept often discussed as an African humanism philosophy, was made popular in the aftermath of a post-colonial Zimbabwe and a post-apartheid South Africa. It is so important that we have an awareness of these social, political, and cultural influences on the ideas that we share and how they connect us through a shared and complex history.

The second take away is that Ubuntu and Attachment both arrive at similar conclusions albeit from very different positions. Having studied and trained in psychology I have been taught to approach knowledge production from a particular point of view, and there is a danger in how that shapes what I do and don’t regard as legitimate. Putting together this piece has helped me to consider again the multiple types/sources of knowledge that exist, and how, while there is much that separates these positions, there can be moments or places of convergence. This is the area that I aspire to operate in, but which, like the securely attached infant, requires me to feel safe enough to have an open mind, explore, challenge and be challenged. In doing so, there might just be an opportunity to grow a little bit more.

I am because we are.


Battle, M. (2009). Ubuntu: I in you and you in me. Seabury Books. (This book gives a great overview of Ubuntu)

Dawson, N. K. (2018). From Uganda to Baltimore to Alexandra Township: How far can Ainsworth’s theory stretch? South African Journal of Psychiatry, 24.

Duschinsky, R. (2020). Cornerstones of attachment research (First edition). Oxford University Press.

Fuchshuber, J., Hiebler-Ragger, M., Kresse, A., Kapfhammer, H.-P., & Unterrainer, H. F. (2019). The Influence of Attachment Styles and Personality Organization on Emotional Functioning After Childhood Trauma. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 643.

Gade, C. B. N. (2011). The Historical Development of the Written Discourses on Ubuntu. South African Journal of Philosophy, 30(3), 303–329.

Hanks, T. L. (2008). The Ubuntu Paradigm: Psychology’s Next Force? Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 48(1), 116–135.

Mukuka, R. (2013). Ubuntu in S. M. Kapwepwe’s Shalapo Canicandala: Insights for Afrocentric Psychology. Journal of Black Studies, 44(2), 137–157.

Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment & Human Development, 7(4), 349–367.

Van Rosmalen, L., Van der Veer, R., & Van der Horst, F. (2015) Ainsworth’ Strange Situation Procedure: The Origin of an Instrument. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 51(3), 261–284.

Voges, J., Berg, A., & Niehaus, D. J. H. (2019). Revisiting the African origins of attachment research—50 years on from Ainsworth: A descriptive review. Infant Mental Health Journal, 40(6), 799–816.


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