Original Research

From Uganda to Baltimore to Alexandra Township: How far can Ainsworth’s theory stretch?

Nicola K. Dawson
South African Journal of Psychiatry | Vol 24 | a1137 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajpsychiatry.v24i0.1137 | © 2018 Nicola K. Dawson | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 01 June 2017 | Published: 06 June 2018

About the author(s)

Nicola K. Dawson, Department of Psychology, School of Human and Community Development, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa


Introduction: After extensive observation of mother-infant dyads in two diverse contexts, Ainsworth developed the construct of maternal sensitivity to explain the nature of mother-infant interactions that lead to infant attachment security. She believed this construct to be universally applicable. Since Ainsworth’s publications, her theory has been adapted and extended, particularly by theorists working in North American and Western European countries. These developments have been largely uninterrogated in relation to their universal cultural relevance, despite the fact that parenting practices differ greatly across cultural groups. Those who have begun to interrogate the cultural universality of current conceptualisation of maternal sensitivity highlight important areas of cultural disagreement.

Method: This article provides a critical theoretical argument regarding the cultural universality of maternal sensitivity, extending comment to the cultural and contextual relevance of developments in its operationalisation.

Results: Particular aspects of current theoretical and operational use of the construct of maternal sensitivity that are potentially culturally specific (as opposed to culturally universal) are noted, namely the inclusion of positive affect, the centrality of parent-infant play, verbal responsiveness, the inclusion of learning in parent-infant interactions and the shift towards a more proactive (rather than reactive) role for the parent in parent-infant interactions.

Conclusion: This article suggests that the evolution of the concept of maternal sensitivity has failed to account for cultural differences.


Infant Mental Health; Maternal Sensitivity; Culture; Context


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