A Midlevel Theory of Adult-Nature Interaction

[This term paper says that . . . actually, on brief review, I’m not entirely sure what it does say. But surely it says something. Perhaps elaboration on that is best left as an exercise to the reader looking to fill some leisure time.]

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Erikson, Attachment, and the Outdoors: A Theory of the Middle Range

presented to Dr. Kathleen Gilbert

in partial fulfillment of the requirements of HPER F654

Conceptual Frameworks in Human Development and Family Studies

by Ray Woodcock

December 17, 2006


Classic theories of human development have tended to focus particularly on child development. Erikson’s theory of life stages is a prominent exception. The classic theories have also tended to treat the environment in relatively generic terms, with little specific interest in the natural environment (i.e., the outdoors); but evolutionary theories tend to consider the mutual interaction between the organism and its environment. The ethology of Bowlby and Ainsworth, in particular, concentrates upon the microcosm of mutual interaction between parent and child. In that microcosm, emotion plays a central role. Insights from ethological theory encourage investigation into the emotional content of adults’ efforts to fulfill life tasks in the larger environment, within a modified Eriksonian theory. Perception of the natural environment as a potentially emotional zone provides a perspective from which to examine the beneficial effects that adults may experience from exposure to the outdoors.


This paper presents a middle-range theory. [For elaboration on that term, see the Appendix]. The theory in question represents a step toward refining my understanding of my primary area of research interest. That area of interest has to do with the beneficial effects that adults may experience as a result of exposure to the natural environment (i.e., the outdoors). From a developmental perspective, I begin with a desire to know whether there is some developmental phase or capacity that might affect the nature of adult perception of, experience in, or perhaps receptivity to any such beneficial effects.

Classic theories in human development – those of Sigmund Freud, for example, and Jean Piaget – have tended to focus upon development of children rather than adults, or to perceive more complexity in childhood development. For purposes of obtaining a general sense of what development is believed to entail, and also to identify prominent theories of development that might address concerns involving adults, it will be helpful to provide a summary of these classic theories. The first section of this paper provides that summary, with particular attention to these theories’ varying conceptions of the person-environment relationship.

From that summary, it appears that several classic theories have considerable potential for use in the realm of adult development. Among those theories, two – Erikson’s theory and ethology – appear especially promising. Subsequent sections expand upon those two theories. In the case of ethological theory, as explained in a later section, that expansion yields a direct connection with current thinking in environmental psychology on the subject of place attachment. In the final section, these materials are shown to support a midlevel theory relevant to the beneficial effects that adults may experience as a result of outdoors exposure.

The Generic Environment’s Role in Development

With some variation, there appears to be substantial agreement on the names and theories that deserve mention in a list of classic theories of human development. Miller (2002) includes Freud, Piaget, Erikson, learning theory and social cognitive theory, and Vygotsky, and also the areas of information processing theory, ethology and other evolutionary theories, and ecological theory. Salkind (2004) leaves out a few of those and adds the work of Arnold Gesell, which appears quite dated for present purposes. Rice (1995) adds the humanistic theories of Buhler, Maslow, and Rogers; but except for Buhler’s age-specific developmental phases (specifying that Phase One, for example, runs from ages 0 to 15), Rice does not provide much insight on the specifically developmental nature of those theories.

Other treatments of development take other approaches. For example, on the subject of personality development, Hall, Lindzey, and Campbell (1998) add the theories of Jung; of social psychologists Adler, Fromm, Horney, and Sullivan; and of Murray, Allport, Cattell, Eysenck, and Kelly. Generally, according to Hall et al., these additional theories suffer from such drawbacks as insufficient originality, excessive complexity and vagueness, lack of testability, and limited inspiration of researchers or other followers. Monte (1999) provides a largely similar list, with additional names (e.g., Anna Freud) that represent enhancements of, rather than departures from, the approaches listed above. For such reasons, the following discussion relies largely upon theories and descriptions presented in Miller (2002). The one significant addition is that of humanistic psychology, particularly because of the durability of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the aspects of the natural environment that are explicit or implicit in it.

As becomes clear in the sources just cited, childhood development has drawn a degree of attention that seems disproportionate to the number of years in the typical western life expectancy. Accordingly, in the following discussion, it becomes necessary to consider only the theory as presented, but also the theory as it might be extended to apply to adults. Also, on the subject of the environment, for Miller (2002), the social environment can include home and school, and can provide models and support; effects from the physical environment can arise from things as small as a jack-in-the-box (p. 9) or a rattle (p. 41); and in both social and physical environments one might find stressful events and self-selected features (p. 20).

For Jean Piaget, Miller (2002) says, the environment is a source of information that children actively select, interpret, and adapt to. Taking a structuralist perspective, Piaget posited the existence of schemes, or organized patterns of behavior, that a person is born with (p. 63), that reflect his/her way of interacting with and adapting to the environment, and that vary according to his/her developmental level (pp. 33-34). In the sensorimotor period, for example, the child gradually learns to differentiate him/herself from the environment (p. 45). Piaget held that all organisms have an innate tendency to adapt to their environments – that, in fact, intelligence is nothing other than environmentally appropriate behavior (pp. 32, 63). Constant adjustments to the environment, born of incomplete successes in applying old learning, yield a state of dynamic equilibrium with the environment and with one’s own cognitive processes (pp. 66, 68). Equilibrium is stage-defined; that is, a child may be in equilibrium for purposes of the particular developmental stage s/he occupies, while being in disequilibrium within the larger developmental picture (p. 67). Development is ultimately a combination of physical maturation, experience with the physical and social environments (including knowledge), and the ongoing process of equilibration (pp. 70-72).

Sigmund Freud saw the environment in quite a different light. According to Miller (2002), for Freud, the environment provides objects with which the ego can achieve gratification (p. 113). At the same time, the environment – that is, the external world, and especially its social dimension – threatens the ego with annihilation, to which the ego responds with its problem solving skills (except where anxiety results in the use of defense mechanisms (pp. 114, 136). Good mothering provides a secure base from which the developing child can proceed with the otherwise threatening process of individuation (p. 127).

Miller (2002) notes that Erikson viewed personality development as a process that occurs in and is influenced by the environment. While inner psychosocial crises emerge and are resolved, the child expands his/her circle of significant relationships, develops his/her potential, and progresses through a series of ways of interacting in society (p. 148). To a much greater extent than Piaget or Freud, Erikson saw development as a lifelong process (p. 159). As such, he considered it important for the aging adult to continue to “stimulate and challenge the environment” (p. 157). Especially for Erikson, the concept of a social environment extends beyond individual relations to include culture and “the communal environment” (pp. 159-160).

In an extremely environmentally oriented approach, learning theorists John Watson and B. F. Skinner considered the environment (construed as a set of stimuli) to be the primary source of influences upon the development of the “blank slate” child (Miller, 2002, pp. 167, 170, 181-182, 200, 282). Learning theorists emphasized the influence of the environment – employing operant and classical conditioning – rather than focusing upon innate factors and personal experiential perspectives (p. 174).

Miller (2002, p. 438) characterizes Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems approach as one among a number of “developing-person-in-context” approaches (Miller, pp. 437-438). Such approaches, Miller says, typically describe multiple contextual levels in which children are embedded. While the natural environment is not key in Bronfenbrenner’s version, a macrosystem can include physical elements (e.g., a playground) that vary at the cultural or subcultural level. Bronfenbrenner also holds, as in some other theories, above, that children select and shape their contexts to some extent. For Bronfenbrenner, behavior is a function of the interaction between the person and his/her environment.

Albert Bandura’s social cognitive (originally social learning) theory explores the role of learning in the shaping of social behaviors (Miller, 2002, pp. 177-178), and expands upon Bronfenbrenner’s concept. Bandura views the learning context as including the person’s biological and psychological characteristics, his/her behavior, and the environment, in a dynamic relationship of triadic reciprocal causation in which people are not only being acted upon, but are also capable of acting to change their environments (pp. 183, 198-199, 201). Bandura thus distinguishes environments that are imposed on people from those that they can select or create (p. 183). Perhaps in a reflection of learning theory’s behaviorist roots, Bandura differs from Piaget in declining to present thought as a complex reworking of information (p. 188). Bandura does, however, devote attention to people’s self-efficacy, i.e., their developing sense, beginning in childhood, that they can cause changes in their environment (pp. 188, 190). By interacting with others, children develop a growing set of behaviors, along with conceptions of the world resulting from direct and vicarious experience (p. 197). Unlike Piaget, Bandura considers the new information resulting from interactions as being more important than any broad cognitive structures (pp. 188, 199); and for Bandura, development is not stagelike; it is highly individuated by child and by specific environment situations (pp. 200, 204).

Robert Sternberg proposes an information processing theory comprised of componential (i.e., components of intelligence), experiential (i.e., dealing with novel demands and automating information processing), and contextual (i.e., emphasizing social and practical behavior in cultural context) subtheories. Intelligence in this theory entails adaptation to, or selection or shaping of, one’s environment (Miller, 2002, pp. 256-257). Information processing approaches tend (though not necessarily) to assume a relatively passive, information-gathering organism, and they tend not to take account of context or social influences on thinking (pp. 264-265).

Evolutionary theory (e.g., ethology) emphasizes biological influences on behavior but also recognizes that environments interact with the genotype to produce changes in people and to affect the evolution of innate behaviors (Miller, 2002, pp. 282, 284-285, 287, 295). In evolutionary theory, species themselves, in their present forms, are solutions to problems posed by environments, (pp. 288). For example, John Bowlby proposed that genes cause the behavioral system to develop, but that that system then adjusts to environmental changes (p. 300). Humans have emerged as “specialists in nonspecialization” (p. 289, quoting Lorenz, 1959). Nonetheless, like other species, their brains have evolved to deal with an expected kind of environment (Miller, p. 311). Evolutionary theory also has much to say about social interactions, such as dominance hierarchies (p. 307). Newer, complex ethological models take a holistic, bidirectional approach, considering how children select and change environments (under the influence of their genotype) while being affected by environments on physical, interpersonal, and cultural levels (pp. 313-314, 323, 326). Miller offers the interesting observation that studying children in context, as ethologists prefer to do, raises the question of what would constitute a natural environment for a child in a highly technological society (p. 333).

As in evolutionary theory, Eleanor Gibson’s ecological theory emphasizes natural behavior in a particular environment (Miller, 2002, pp. 342, 347). Gibson is particularly interested in the “affordances” that an environment offers to an organism, i.e., its opportunities for actions through which the person and the environment have a reciprocal relationship. Different species extract different information from an environment, with particular interest in information pertaining to e.g., food, sex, and safety (pp. 342-343). As with Piaget’s, Gibson’s theory recognizes the child’s great capacity to learn from, and adapt to, the environment; both identify structures that are sensitive to complexity in the environment; but they differ in the location of that structure: Gibson places it within the sensory stimulation, while Piaget considers it to be constructed in child-environment interactions (p. 359).

Like Gibson and some ethologists, Vygotsky’s sociocultural view sees the environment as not merely a separate, interacting influence on an individual’s atomistic development, but rather as a part of a single unit. In this unit, the child, and his/her needs and goals, unavoidably involve the environment; they are related to the environment by social practices that define what the environment means to the child (Miller, 2002, p. 373). Mind and culture cannot be separated; culture (including specific people in daily experience) collaborates with the child to organize his/her everyday experiences and nurture his/her development (pp. 376, 402). People use psychological tools (e.g., art, language) to change people’s ways of thinking, and to organize and control their behavior (p. 383). Vygotsky’s concept of development, as modified by Riegel (1976), entails a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis progression, in a lifelong process of resolving inevitable conflicts in and among sources of developmental change (p. 401).

Finally, Hall et al. (1998) explain that, for Maslow, human nature is essentially good, or at least neutral; if people turn bad, it may be because they have had unhealthy environmental experiences – with e.g., “sickness in the society” (p. 447, quoting Maslow, 1970, p. 58). That said, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places physiological needs below (i.e., prior to) social needs (Hall et al., pp. 448-449). His second-tier needs, for safety, need to be met by society in part, but are also significantly attuned to the physical environment. For example, society may play a part in the circumstances that lead a person to occupy a physically dangerous position; but in terms of immediate safety needs, the eminent threat in such a position comes from the physical rather than the social environment.

These several theories vary in their apparent receptivity to, and suitability for, the study of human developmental interactions with nature. In summary, Freud’s seems both antiquated and environmentally indifferent. Piaget’s allows for dynamic adaptation to the environment, but so do others, without his structuralism and without terminating at adolescence. Erikson’s has the advantage of contemplating a lifelong developmental process. Bronfenbrenner offers the possibility of attending to macrosystemic settings, at least as cultural or subcultural phenomena. Bandura provides the features of (a) triadic reciprocal causation among person, behavior, and environment, and (b) a non-stagelike, individuated concept of development. Evolutionary theory, while not ostensibly environmental in the sense that learning theory is, has a desirably environmental orientation in its concept of an ultimate human link with nature. In addition, evolutionary theory contemplates a holistic interaction involving the physical environment, and also emphasizes studying development in context. Vygotsky’s sociocultural view offers an appealing holism but, as its name suggests, is not overly absorbed in nonsocial (i.e., physical) aspects of the environment. Finally, as just noted, Maslow’s theory places priority upon needs having to do with the physical environment, in the sense that they tend to be first among a person’s preoccupations even as s/he strives to develop in the direction of self-actualization.

First Key Adult-Environment Developmental Theory: Erikson

The foregoing summary suggests that a theory of person-nature interaction might profitably choose among, or draw from, evolutionary theory and/or the theories of Erikson, Bronfenbrenner, Bandura, and/or Maslow. While each of these theories offers some prospect for interesting insights, this section of this paper explores evolutionary theory in particular, for reasons that will become clearer in the next section. Also, Erikson’s will be considered because of its explicit distinction of adulthood from other stages of life.

In several of his major works, Erikson identified eight stages of development. Earlier stages (e.g., infancy, school age) are capable of being pegged to relatively precise chronological periods of life (Miller, 2002, pp. 151-156). Beginning with the fifth stage (i.e., adolescence), however, time periods become vaguer. Erikson’s stages are unlike those of Piaget, in that they are not grown through and left behind; rather, according to Hall et al. (1998, pp. 195-196), they all contribute to formation of the personality. Each stage poses a basic crisis – that is, a new challenge – that the developing person must address as s/he matures into contact with a new aspect of society. Hence, for each stage, it is possible to identify not only its name (e.g., young adulthood), but also a psychosocial crisis (in that case, intimacy vs. isolation) and a corresponding psychosexual stage (genitality). It is also possible to identify, among other things, the radius of significant relations that comprise the social aspect of the stage (which, again in the case of young adulthood, includes partners in friendship, sex, competition, and cooperation), a basic strength (love), and a basic antipathy (exclusivity). The basic crisis does not exist only in that stage, however, but rather has its roots in previous stages and has consequences in subsequent stages; it is identified with a particular stage merely because that is when it is the salient or defining crisis for the period with which it is primarily associated (cf. Hoare, 2005, p. 20).

As Monte (1999) explains, Erikson posited maturation of the ego – which term, like others among his key concepts, is distinctly Freudian in origin – through “an epigenetic sequence of combined psychosexual and psychosocial stages” (p. 378, emphasis in original). “Epigenetic,” in this context, means “the approximately stepwise process by which genetic information, as modified by environmental influences, is translated into the substance and behavior of an organism” (Flexner & Hauck, 1987, p. 653). As Monte puts it, the unfolding of the genetically predetermined structure is governed by environmental variables. Specifically, the inescapable, psychosexual, Freudian stages of ego development (i.e., oral, anal, phallic, and genital) are only half of the equation; the essential other half involves the child’s surroundings. The developing ego identity thus changes form, beginning as “a conscious sense of individual identity” and ending as “a maintenance of an inner solidarity with a group’s ideals and identity” (Monte, p. 380, quoting Erikson, 1959, p. 102) (emphasis removed).

Among the eight stages identified by Erikson, three have to do with adults. They are the stages of young, middle, and late adulthood. According to Crain (2005, p. 289), young adulthood differs from adolescence in that adolescents are self-centered, seeking self-definition, and are therefore too preoccupied with themselves to enter into young adulthood’s core challenge of attaining intimacy and genuine mutuality – the failure of which yields the opposite result of isolation. In this, as in all stages, Erikson describes the stage’s developmental challenge in terms of similar polarities of outcome. But the polarities are not intended to imply that anyone’s development is adequately described solely in terms of one pole or the other. For example, even a couple that has attained great intimacy will also experience some antagonism.

For middle and late adulthood, Hall et al. (1998, pp. 203-205) say, the developmental crises are, respectively, generativity (of children, ideas, products, etc.) versus self-absorption and stagnation, and integrity (i.e., integration of a sense that one’s life has order and meaning, within a larger order) versus despair. Generativity goes beyond mere output to include a sense of creatively giving oneself to the future – that is, transcending one’s own situation to develop a sense of care for others. To illustrate how failure at a previous stage may haunt a subsequent one, Bertrand and Lachman (2003) say this:

[T]he midlife adult who progressed through the young adult stage with an imbalance toward isolation will have a weakened ego that is likely to inhibit the establishment of generativity. In midlife this adult will be self-centered and self-absorbed and lack interest in training or guiding the next generation. The resultant imbalance toward stagnation will further weaken the ego . . . . (p. 467).

Finally, the stage of ego integrity is, as the term suggests, oriented not toward external products but rather toward an inner struggle (Crain, 2005, p. 291). The late adult hopefully sees his/her life as merely one life within the larger flow of history; that the life, as it turned out, was something that had to be; and moreover that it was satisfying. The alternative is despair that one’s life was lived in vain (Hall et al., 1998, pp. 203-205; Monte, pp. 399-401).

Erikson’s most important emulators, as described by Bertrand and Lachman (pp. 468-470), include Vaillant, Levinson, and Loevinger. Their most significant amendments consist of modifications to specific adult stages. Vaillant proposes two additional stages in adulthood – so that, after adolescence and young adulthood, there is a stage whose challenge is career consolidation versus self-absorption; then comes the generativity stage; then the second new stage that counterposes “keepers of the meaning versus rigidity” (p. 468), characterized by a sense of wisdom and cultural preservation on a more abstract level of values – all of which are then followed by the final stage. Levinson’s most noted contribution is his concept of the midlife crisis, though that concept was undermined by Vaillant’s research among others. Loevinger proposes six adult stages, with a particular interest in moral development: conformist, conscientious-conformist, conscientious, individualistic, autonomous, and integrated.

Erikson’s theory has been criticized for its orientation toward highly educated western males and its nonfalsifiability (Bertrand & Lachman, 2003, p. 468), as well as its excessively optimistic view of people and its seeming support for a social status quo within which the individual must fit (Hall et al., 1998, pp. 217-218). These observations also appear to apply, to varying degrees, to the several emulators just mentioned. Nonetheless, the theory does encourage contemplation of the idea that adulthood is best understood developmentally, not as a barren plateau, but rather as a variegated landscape within which physical as well as social environments have an influence upon one’s passage.

Second Key Theory: Attachment to People

According to Sameroff (1983, pp. 274-275), sociobiology is the study of the biological (especially the genetic) basis of social behavior. This relatively new field is believed, by some advocates, to provide a superior solution to what such advocates see as the crude approach taken in the older field of ethology. That said, however, it is within that older field that one presently finds competent attention to complex social phenomena pertinent to this paper. For purposes of those phenomena, it is not necessary to present a broad summary of sociobiology and its relationship to ethology. Rather, it may suffice to proceed directly to a particular phenomenon through which human development and the environment appear to be linked.

The research of interest, in this regard, is that Bowlby and Ainsworth investigated the attachment that children form with their parents or other caregivers. Drawing upon the language of evolutionary science, and particularly upon Lorenz’s ethology, these researchers conceived and described attachment in terms of instinct and imprinting (Crain, 2005, pp. 44-45).

On the basis of mother-infant bonding in primates, Miller (2002, pp. 298-304) says, Bowlby proposed the evolutionary theory that otherwise helpless human infants developed attachment to a caretaker as a way of promoting their survival. Attachment in humans, he said, shows traces of such animal behaviors as clinging to a mother’s fur, but depends primarily upon signaling behaviors (e.g., smiling, crying) that draw the attention of caretaking adults. As the infant matures, it refines its attachment, gradually becoming selective in the adults it considers most protective. Evolutionary elements in this picture include species-specific reflexes and innate (i.e., not learned) action patterns, to the point of attachment even to abusive adults – although, Bowlby later noted, attachment behavior that fails to elicit adult responses may eventually fall into disuse. Evolutionary influences operate from the adult side, too, in that the infant’s attachment behaviors stimulate adult caretaking responses. Somewhat ambiguously, Miller cites species-wide behavior (e.g., more positive ratings of pictures of infants by girls who had begun menstruating as compared to those who had not) but also cites the bonding phenomenon in which caretaking attitudes may not be stimulated unless adult and child are physically present with one another shortly after birth.

According to Miller (2002, pp. 304-307), Mary Ainsworth expanded Bowlby’s research in the direction of understanding the role that the attached parent plays in providing a secure base from which the infant feels safe in exploring his/her environment. Maintenance of this arrangement may require only minimal parental responses – but they must be appropriate responses – to signals that the child sends out when s/he returns, from his/her exploratory forays, to verify that the base remains secure. Imperfect attachment patterns (i.e., avoidant, anxious, or disorganized/disoriented) emerge when infants learn that parents do not provide appropriate “resources” (p. 305; cf. Main, 2000, pp. 289, 291; Newman & Newman, 1987, pp. 165-172).

[Footnote: Miller’s reference to “resources” muddies the water somewhat, in that it is not clear how the calculation can be simultaneously utilitarian (in which event the infant would presumably gravitate toward whatever adult might be supplying the best mix of resources) and bonding (in which event, as just noted, the infant will be satisfied with minimal reassurance (never mind resources). This terminology ambiguity apparently reflects certain unresolved issues in the literature – having to do with, for example, the question of whether other aspects of the parent-child relationship are as important as attachment.]

Attachment theory has been extended to other settings as well. Green and Campbell (2000, pp. 453-454) note its application in adult romantic relationships, in the study of behaviors associated with insecure attachment (e.g., casual sex, drinking, and eating disorders), and in research into adults’ propensity to enjoy their work and, generally, to maintain an exploratory attitude toward their life experiences.

Thus, Mikulincer and Shaver (2005) cite research in adult attachment that has translated childhood attachment styles into dimensions of adult relationships (e.g., attachment avoidance, attachment anxiety). Mikulincer and Shaver propose an activation system model in which people first determine whether a responsive attachment figure is available. Depending upon the answer to that question, people then proceed to employ strategies that are suitable for secure or, alternately, insecure situations. In the secure scenario, people may display indicia of optimism, trust, and self-efficacy. In the insecure scenario, the person may engage in “energetic, insistent attempts to attain proximity, support, and love” (p. 151).

In the adult setting, as in the parent-child setting, Mikulincer and Shaver construe attachment theory as dealing “mainly with results of a partner’s responses to one’s own needs (with the partner being conceptualized as an attachment figure),” but the theory “is also extremely relevant for explaining one’s own emotional reactions to a partner’s needs” (p. 161). Either way, however, as further demonstrated in the analysis of various pieces of relevant research (e.g., p. 160), this interpretation of the theory seems relatively static; it appears to consist of an analysis of reactions. If that is correct, then an important piece seems to be missing, namely, the dynamic, interwoven co-evolution of parental and child behaviors. Further investigation of that concern might include in-depth exploration of longitudinal research into the longer-term results of the accumulated sets of reactions within relationships.

The question of bidirectional interaction in attachment relationships arises, likewise, in the postulated personal relationship between God and a believer. A person who believes s/he has a personal relationship with God may be either correct or incorrect. These possibilities appear plausible to believers as well as nonbelievers, insofar as believers in a personal God typically appear able to identify others whose concept of God seems, to them, to be mistaken, and whose alleged personal relationship with the deity may thus be presumed to be either nonexistent or not as the person imagines it to be. In the context of an alleged but nonexistent or essentially uninformed relationship with God, the remarks of Cicirelli (2004) make clear that it is possible to speak of a believer’s perception that s/he maintains “a personal, interactive relationship with a powerful, wise, and loving God,” and that “Such a relationship fulfills the criteria for an attachment relationship” (pp. 371-372) when there is, in fact, no such relationship.

One might contend that there is no attachment relationship without mutuality. Yet as Miller (2002, p. 290) notes, Lorenz discovered that animals have proved capable of becoming imprinted, not only upon humans, but also upon flashing lights and electric trains. While such observations plainly do not rise to the level of the mutuality attributed to attachment theory (above), the sources just cited do appear to support the general idea that there can be attachment sufficient to provoke attachment behaviors (e.g., attachment anxiety) – and that such behaviors (e.g., insecure attachment and such consequent behaviors as problem drinking) can be worth studying from an attachment perspective, even when the object of attachment is unknown, nonexistent, misconceived, or inorganic.

Attachment to Places

For some years, environmental psychologists have been exploring the concept of attachment to places. In an early approach, Harold Prochansky and his colleagues explored the role of place in the formation of personal identity. For example, Prochansky, Fabian, and Kaminoff (1983) described the concept of “place-identity” as being based upon the assumption that the development of personal identity extends to objects and to the places where they appear (p. 57). Within that assumption, they defined place identity as a substructure of self-identity regarding a person’s physical world – or, alternately, as a “potpourri of memories, conceptions, interpretations, ideas, and related feelings about specific physical settings as well as types of settings” (p. 60). Prochansky et al. hypothesized that such settings, like other influences, would play an especially important role in shaping the self-identity if they are experienced during the earlier months and years of child development (p. 75). Hence, at the level of a reader’s initial impressions, there appears to be some similarity of perspective between Prochansky and the foregoing examples of imprinting upon inorganic objects.

Low and Altman (1992) describe Prochansky’s place identity as one among a number of constituent concepts of place attachment. Others include topophilia, sense of place, rootedness, and community sentiment (cf. Manzo, 2003; Bell et al. 2001). Generally, place attachment is considered to be the emotional link that a person develops with a physical site, where the emotion is given meaning through the person’s actual or potential interactions and experiences with the site itself and/or with people at, or pertaining to, that site (Milligan, 1998, p. 2; Stedman, 2003; cf. Low & Altman, 1992, p. 4). The places to which one can be attached, according to Low and Altman (1992), can range from very large (e.g., one’s nation) to small (e.g., one’s room) and even to specific objects, and the attachment may be experienced as a shared phenomenon, even on a culture-wide basis.

Researchers have noticed similarities in language and concepts used to describe people’s relationships with people and places to which they have become attached (Steel, 2000). For example, reminiscent of Bowlby’s attachment theory, preferences for places appear to depend upon a sense of safety and belonging (Manzo, 2005, p. 78; Chawla, 1992, p. 75), and it is possible to experience the loss of a sense of place (cf. Arefi, 1999, p. 183). According to Hammitt, Backlund, and Bixler (2006, p. 18), researchers have suggested that place bonding develops over periods of time, and in stages, comparable to the periods and stages of development that one might identify in the formation of bonds among people. Finally, Giuliani (2003, p. 140) explicitly links place attachment with Bowlby’s concept of attachment between mother and child.

As demonstrated in the previous section, it is at least somewhat compatible with attachment theory to suggest that people can form an attachment to a place, including its inorganic and evidently unresponsive organic features (e.g., trees). It does not appear necessary for the nature of the attachment to be primarily linked with any human interaction. Indeed, a place (e.g., a church, a high rock) can come to feel special (e.g., sacred) to a worshipper, within a given religious tradition, even if s/he personally has no prior or anticipated experiences in or connected to it (cf. Bandura & Walters, 1963).

While mutuality is not necessarily essential for an attachment-theory approach, one need not rule it out entirely. There does appear to be some mutuality in the person-nature relationship. On the time scales within which evolutionary theory operates, certainly people do reach a point of feeling secure with, and attached to, environments that provide the kinds of feedback (e.g., bounteous harvests) that people prefer, while tending to avoid environments that are less hospitable. One need not anthropomophize environments (though doing so may contribute to a sense of attachment to them, in secular or sacred terms) in order to suggest that, in return, fostering environments, like fostering parents, can be recognized by their responsiveness to the expressed needs of creatures that depend upon them – by growing cherries, for example, when one plants a cherry tree.

In short, attachment theory deals with behaviors that one might expect of people who feel attached to or detached from the natural environment, regardless of whether there is (in fact or in belief) any intelligent force providing a mutuality of interaction. It is possible to identify some such mutuality without postulating anything resembling a western concept of deity: the environment does respond to the ways in which people treat it, and the environment also behaves in different ways, varying from one place to another, that encourage or discourage human bonding to it; and these respective human and environmental behaviors continue cyclically through seasons and generations.

Incidentally, the behavioristic phrasing just employed should not obscure the fact that emotional language has been an important component of attachment theory, beginning with Bowlby’s observation of despair in infants who were separated from their mothers (Miller, 2002, p. 298). Such a statement is not intended to impute human emotions to the ducklings who imprinted upon Lorenz (Miller, p. 279), nor to the natural environment or any deity in it. It is hard to know what, if anything, might pass for emotion within the experience of such things. But on the human side of the equation, attachment is an undeniably emotional phenomenon.

A Midlevel Theory of Adult-Nature Interaction

I commenced this paper with a desire to know whether there is some developmental phase or capacity that might affect adult perception of, experience in, or perhaps receptivity to, potentially beneficial effects of exposure to the natural environment. To identify such a phase or capacity, I began by reviewing prominent theories of development. Among the several that seemed most suitable for contemplation of phenomena pertaining to adults and the outdoors, I selected Eriksonian and evolutionary theories – the former because of its specific attention to adult development, and the latter because of its potential for expansion into the outdoor context. I then outlined salient features of those two groups of theories, in the latter case linking the developmental theory of attachment to the environmental theory of place attachment. As noted above, Erikson’s theory suffers from cultural narrowness and inflexibility. It remains unclear how a rigid sequence of stages can hope to be broadly applicable across cultures, or even for the very different kinds of individuals and experiences that one may find within a culture. What remains of value from Erikson’s effort, for present purposes, is the concept that people may broadly tend to have certain identifiable sets of priorities within adulthood – while recognizing that, for example, a person might manage to achieve a sense of integration at age 50 (if e.g., s/he anticipates death because of some disease), and yet may entirely lose it by age 70 (if e.g., s/he survives, but then proceeds to live poorly).

A separate investigation might support the thought that Erikson’s theory could be markedly improved by the addition of certain elements from Maslow. While Maslow does not present a perfect answer to the question of degree, his theory nonetheless emphasizes the fluctuating nature of achievements. For the most part, in life, one does not simply finish a stage, as if arriving on a grand overlook halfway up the mountainside. Despite Erikson’s emphasis that work in each stage begins before one arrives at that stage and continues afterwards, the impression persists – in the typical reporting of his theory, if not also within the pages of his actual work – that there is, somewhere, a simplistic stage that one firmly occupies at a given point in life and, moreover, that the total number of such stages is small.

Though the search lies beyond the focus of this paper, it seems possible that one could uncover some extant research or conceptualization that has tried to link Maslow’s postulated, essential human drive toward growth with Erikson’s picture of what growth should look like at each stage (e.g., generativity rather than stagnation). On the basis of that research or conceptualization, it would seem possible to provide a superior version of Erikson’s theory. For example, adulthood might be more satisfactorily captured by a set of pyramids, each representing one’s current progress with respect to one of adulthood’s many struggles (including, but not limited to, the several stages suggested in the work of Erikson and his followers). Adulthood would then indeed be conceived as a topography, in which the story of each canyon or rolling hill would be simple in overview and yet complex in the details of its constituent elements.

Turning to the outdoors, it seems that an Eriksonian perspective could readily include phenomena of the natural environment among those environmental influences with which adults must contend as they pursue the goals of their particular stages of development. Or, recasting that sentence in light of the recommended influence from Maslow, the environment may provide opportunities for growth, and may also provide hindrances to growth, within each adult’s developmental stage. Or again: the natural environment’s opportunities for growth, and hindrances to it, impact adults across the full range of developmental undertakings (e.g., generativity, integration) in which they may be engaged at any moment; and those opportunities and hindrances operate on a moment-by-moment basis, constantly varying the adult’s progress in those tasks.

To this picture, attachment theory adds an emotional element. Life is not really a matter of bloodless fluctuations in developmental levels of achievement on a set of tasks. Encounters with the environment – any aspect of the environment, including the outdoors – can be exciting, reassuring, or defeating, to name a few among the multifarious options found within the emotional crayon box. Like the parent who may send consistent or inconsistent signals (with consequences for the child’s responses and development), the natural environment behaves more predictably in some places and in some regards, and less predictably in others. Adults respond by preferring the more reliable and by reacting against the less reliable, in a bid to mitigate experiences of unpleasant emotion and to encourage experiences of pleasant emotion.

It is not surprising that people should have emotional reactions, sometimes unexpected, to a variety of encounters with the environment. When it does not facilitate their pursuit of their life tasks, it frightens or angers them. They respond by swearing at the hammer that hit their thumb, or by blaming God for the tornado that flattened their house. They have been frustrated, in some small or large way, by the recalcitrance of an environment upon which they are plainly dependent. Over time, they entertain attitudes and manifest behaviors toward the natural environment that, whether persistent, hardened, or depressed, are not entirely unlike those that one would expect from an infant under attachment theory.

One line of investigation, under this theory, would be to explore a practical manifestation of the thesis that facts are laden with theory (Hanson, 1958). For example, do people tend to imbue the objects in their lives with emotional significance? E.g., does a hammer have emotional content according to its expected usefulness for accomplishing specific life purposes (e.g., to have built things, to be handy with tools, to be the man around the house)? Does the participant imbue such a hammer with traits capable of exciting emotional responses (seeing it as a trustworthy friend, for example, or instead considering it flaky because its head is not firmly affixed to its handle)? A related question is whether people who bond with unreliable objects (e.g., a car that one has owned for a long time), in eminently nonutilitarian fashion, evince behaviors comparable to those of the child who is attached to an underperforming parent.

Generally, the question is whether the insights of attachment theory represent an understanding of the pervasive realities of life, extending not only to child-parent relationships and to special places, but also interlocking with myth and fantasy to inject meaning into virtually everything relevant to one’s developmental tasks. In this perspective, the addition of attachment theory makes the Eriksonian project messier, but it also highlights the myriad emotional experiences that go into the achievement of life tasks. Attachment theory may thus provide a tool with which to explore emotional aspects of functionality and dysfunctionality in those life pursuits. On this basis, it appears that one can indeed speak of developmental phases or capacities that might affect the nature of adult perception of, experience in, or receptivity to beneficial effects of exposure to the outdoors. The Eriksonian part of the answer to that question recommends use of a modified conception of life tasks, in which the adult is actually pursuing many at once, with varying degrees of success. In other words, one can indeed think in terms of such phases, but they are not necessarily arrayed in a simplistic or linear fashion.

This conceptualization does not necessarily add much to one’s previous understanding. The problem that emerges at this point appears to be that, not surprisingly, much depends upon the circumstances of the particular individual. For example, a young father who is struggling with obligations may not allow time for outdoor experiences that could assist in the achievement of one or more current life tasks. By contrast, another young man, unmarried, may hike, camp, and otherwise employ the outdoors, at the expense of not achieving things that the young father achieves. The contribution of the outdoors appears necessarily linked to the tasks for which it is utilized. Dissatisfaction with this result may ultimately result from the proposed change of the Ericksonian understanding, toward a set rather than a sequence of life tasks.

Where the outdoors is implicated, attachment theory adds an appreciation for the mutual evolution of behaviors in response to one another’s participation over time, and for the emotional impacts of those behaviors on the human level. The question is not an anthropomorphic one, of whether the sky cares that the camper appreciates clear, starry nights; the question is, rather, whether the sky is changed, over the centuries, by a dearth of campers having some such appreciation. On the human level, the role of attachment theory in this picture is to facilitate awareness of mutuality, and of emotional imperatives, within the pursuit of life tasks.


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Defining and Positioning a Middle-Range Theory

Defining a Middle-Range Theory

This assignment’s speculation of a “middle-range theory” provoked my incidental curiosity about the specifics of that term, with which I was not very familiar. While the assignment proper did not provide much of an opportunity for me to accept the invitation to indulge my philosophical curiosity, this particular term did. The following paragraphs present the insights I accumulated in the course of exploring the term in the present context.

Doherty, Boss, LaRossa, Schumm, and Steinmetz (1993) present a highly structured perspective of middle-range theories. To them, a middle-range theory is more abstract than an empirical generalization (i.e., a summary of research findings that is linked to other research findings and to more general ideas, but without reference to any “overarching theoretical scheme” (p. 20)); it is also more abstract than a causal model, which tends to be characterized by (generally diagrammatic) portrayal of relationships among multiple variables. But a middle-range theory, they say, is less abstract than a formal propositional theory, which is comprised of a hierarchical arrangement of abstract propositions, and is also less abstract than an analytical typology, which is applicable to a broad range of content areas. A middle-range theory is not typically susceptible of being presented and tested within a single empirical study; it tends to entail “more elaborate theoretical writing about a particular domain” (p. 21) followed by testing across multiple studies via multiple methods.

The idea of a middle-range theory appears to have originated in Merton (1957), who speaks more simply of “consolidating into a theory of the middle range” (p. 328) the “otherwise segregated hypotheses and empirical uniformities” (p. 280) pertaining to a certain subject. According to Lavee and Dollahite (1991), Merton positioned middle-range theories between master conceptual themes and minor working hypotheses that evolve during day-to-day research. This was, for him, a “modest search for social uniformities” that would seek to avoid constructing “twentieth-century sociological equivalents of the large philosophical systems of the past” (p. 10). Lavee and Dollahite suggest that middle-range theories are simply those concepts that arise between broad theoretical frameworks (e.g., symbolic interaction) and the level of data collection and analysis.

Whatever the virtues of that simpler formulation, it raises the question of whether one can defensibly speak, as Lavee and Dollahite (1991) do, of a “thin, permeable line” between facts and theory, or of “theory construction” as something distinct from the researcher (pp. 364-365). Certainly there seems to be a gap between such views and the postpositivist sense that facts are theory-laden (Hanson, 1958) and that theory is not distinct from the researcher – indeed, that “There is today no completely – one is almost tempted to say remotely – satisfactory analysis [within the philosophy of science] of the notion of a scientific theory” (Zammito, 2004, p. 10, quoting Shapere, 1982, p. 112). Or, as Suppes (1967) put it, “If someone asks, ‘What is a scientific theory?’ it seems to me there is no simple response to be given” (p. 63).

Against such views, the approach taken here is that explanation is a largely pragmatic affair, dependent upon judgments of what is informative, tautological, or useless for a particular purpose (Garfinkel, 1981, p. 173). Hence, the theory provided here is provided, not as an enduring illustration of some category of entity known as a middle-range theory, but rather as a pragmatic response to an assignment, undertaken in what is, hopefully, a good-enough general sense of what seems to be expected.

Positioning the Middle-Range Theory

Human development is, of course, particularly related to humans who are developing. The development of children tends to be more obvious than that of other humans; thus, as noted in the main body of this paper, it is not surprising that writers may focus especially on developmental theories that relate to children (e.g., Miller, 2002). Yet adulthood seems likely to be vastly more complex than the three gross stages of young, middle, and late adulthood into which Erikson (1982) parses the five to eight decades that frequently remain after adolescence.

To illustrate the degree of complexity, of events and perspectives, that may arise within one of those Eriksonian stages, Richardson and Barusch (2006) outline the theories of aging upon which a social worker may draw. Those theories, they say, are divided into biological, psychological, social-psychological, and sociological categories. The focus of biological theories, they say, is upon bodily changes over time. Psychological theories are said to include those that concentrate upon changes in personality and cognition; there are also theories of “geotranscendence” and “the fourth age” (p. 33). The social-psychological theories are role theory, disengagement theory, activity theory, and continuity theory; there is also a phenomenon of socio-emotional selectivity. Finally, sociological theories of aging include social phenomenology, age stratification, an “aging and society paradigm” (p. 40), the aged as a subculture, social exchange theories, a political economy perspective, and critical and feminist gerontologies. Moreover, a theorist’s views may have application across multiple theories. For example, Erikson’s work is said to have some things in common with the psychological theories of personality change and gerotranscendence, and also with social phenomenology.

Although Richardson and Barusch (2006) write an impressive volume, from an impressive publisher, with a stated focus on social work, it does not appear that they have sought, in the numerous theories just listed, to encompass the full scope of social work approaches to aging, never mind the additional variety of non-social work approaches that may exist. Rather, they indicate that their four major groups of theories comprise simply a look at “four aspects of aging” (p. 22). Thus, in listing major theories or perspectives of social work generally, Payne (1997) cites others (e.g., existentialist, Marxist, empowerment) that would seem potentially applicable to older people, and are plainly related to some of the theories listed above (e.g., critical theory), but are not identical to or entirely contained within them.

Hence, as one might expect, even within the field of social work, there does not appear to be a canonical text or perspective on aging, much less on adulthood as a whole. There may not even be wide agreement on the full list of perspectives on such subjects. There could be substantial agreement on such matters within one or more of the disciplines that Richardson and Barusch (2006) identify (notably psychology, social psychology, and sociology), but that seems unlikely; and in any case there is substantial divergence among those broad fields.

Finally, as if to maximize the potential for complexity of theory, some embrace theory proliferation. Miller (2002), for example, finds it “exciting” to contemplate a dozen or more different theories, ranging from “grand, encompassing theories” (e.g., Erikson’s) to “families of approaches under a general ‘theory’ or framework” to “minitheories” that “limit themselves to a particular territory within development” (p. 2), and Richardson and Barusch (2006) contend that a “multidisciplinary framework” is “a central premise in gerontology”; indeed, they offer a “multidimensional, multispheral, multidisciplinary, and multidirectional” perspective (pp. 48-49).

Under such circumstances, there seems to be no alternative but to adopt, again, a pragmatic response. For purposes of homing in on an approach to the topic, practical considerations are allowed to, and perhaps must, supersede alleged scientific or theoretical influences in selecting the problem to be examined (cf. Busch, Lacy, & Sachs, 1983; Gieryn, 1978). The middle-range theory presented here thus cannot claim to provide a perspective that is superior to, or even definitively distinct from, the many others that may already have been generated on the same topic. It is not even clear what quantum of research would be necessary – how many semesters of college coursework might be required – in order to reach a point of being able to make some such claim. Hence, the paper to which this appendix is attached cannot be, at this stage, more than an academic exercise, though certainly its preparation has been, in some regards, quite interesting.

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