A Qualititive Study Showing Adults Perceprion Essay

The study examines how adults perceive the influence of ‘significant others’ on their lives in the context of developmental psychology and attachment theory. Thematic analysis was conducted on a previously filmed DVD and it’s transcript of a semi-structured interview. Carrying out the analysis the researcher has found themes showing that ‘significant others’ do in fact influence psychological development and relationships in later life. Findings also prove the theory of ‘earned security’- attachment style that we develop during childhood might indeed be changed in adulthood through healthy relationships, sense of security and support.


Ontological assumptions adopted for this research state that people are sense making and capable of reflection on their experiences and they produce and read meaning. The study was conducted using deductive approach within the social constructionist perspective and focused on lifespan development and attachment theory. Psychologists working with lifespan development theory try to understand how, to what extent and by whom our development is influenced. In our lives we connect with people through vertical relationships- like the ones with our parents or caregivers and horizontal relationships- for example with school or work peers (Shaffer, 1996, cited in Wood et al., 2007, p.8). There was some controversy around the issue of higher importance of one kind of relationships over the other, for example Harris(1999, cited in Wood et al., p.20) states that it is peers not parents that influence us more.

Pioneering, sourced in multiple disciplines work of Bowlby (cited in Wood et al., 2007, p.28-29) established that children have a primary attachment relationships with a caregiver who is their secure base and that they develop ‘internal working models’ of such relationship. A child needs a secure base in their development to be able to explore knowing that if something goes wrong they can return to the secure base. The work of social constructivist Rogoff (cited in Bretherton, 1997) shows that parents act as ‘guides’ in our development-helping us choose direction, transferring their psychological patterns onto the child, who uses them to construct an understanding of the world. It is a part of forming Bowlby’s ‘internal working model’ of the attachment to make a model of self, a model of the attachment figure and the model of the entire relationship (Bowlby, cited in Wood et al., 2007, p.29).

Bowlby suggests that by using internal working models we construct sets of expectations that of people we form relationships with- the way they should behave, react to us –and expect those people to behave according to them. Bowlby claims that in order to form healthy and secure relationships with the primary caregiver open communication, support and encouragement towards autonomy are necessary(Bowlby,cited in Bretherton, 1997). More studies followed in different settings and using different methods and Bowlby’s theories were confirmed. Mead(1934, cited in Wood et al., 2007, p.14-15) shows that we create sense of ourselves through interactions with parents(caregivers), siblings and peers; in which relationships with sibling and peers, being so different from the vertical relationships with parents, are of more social context. It was also recognized that work on identifying attachment in adults was lacking and needed improvement (Ainsworth, 1989).

More recent research showed that attachment is also present in adults (Hazan and Shaver, 1987, cited in Wood et al., 2007, p.23) and that our attachment styles might change over time (Hamilton, 1994, cited in Wood et al., 2007, p.33). A study conducted in 1990 by Rutter, Quinton and Hill (cited in Wood et al., 2007, p.27) has recognized that adults can change their attachment status from insecure to secure through stable relationships and security in adulthood and Main and Goldwyn (1984) named it ‘earned secure’. The study was conducted on a pre-recorded semi structured interview and a thematic analysis was carried out. Using the theoretical framework and previous studies mentioned above the researcher tried to answer the research question How adults perceive that significant others in their lives ( people who are or have been important) have affected their development?


The researcher carried out the analysis on pre-existing material. A semi structured interview with an actor playing the role of an interviewee was conducted by The Open University. The DVD and transcript were provided to the researcher- an Open University student who analysed the interview. DVD was edited and transcript had each line sequentially numbered to aid quoting. The participant was a white,50 years old British woman. Prior to the interview an informed consent permitting the use of the material was signed. Participant was also informed of right to withdraw at any time and her right to decide for any data to be destroyed. After the interview the participant was debriefed and given a chance to give feedback and discuss her feelings about the experience.

The video version of the interview was watched four times on it’s own and then additional three times with an aid of the transcript to gain a general understanding of topics, when notes about tone of the voice, pauses and body language were made to aid the understanding. Next transcript was read three times to familiarize with the written version of the data. Notes on researchers general feelings and impressions were made. After that the interview was coded on the first level of simple, descriptive labels for any separate ideas and meanings. Next, second order coding was carried out connecting relating descriptive codes with similar meaning and labels were given. Finally, thematic analysis was conducted connecting labels into themes and recurring topics. The general meanings were captured that connected and summarized participant’s words to the theoretical framework of the research.

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By watching the DVD multiple times and reviewing the transcript with a research question in mind: how do adult perceive that significant others in their lives (people who are or have been important) have affected their development; the researcher has found four themes: I. Difficult relationships

Chloe talks about her past difficult relationship with her mother, father and husband. The most difficult being with her mother.


The study was conducted to answer the question; how do adults perceive that significant others in their lives (people who are or have been important) have affected their development? The themes that have been found in the interview show that in Chloe’s life siginificant others have changed her life. Theme I shows that during her childhood Chloe’s attachment style was insecure. Bowlby’s theory on attachment claims that to have a secure attachment an open communication with the secure base is needed (Bowlby, cited in Wood et al., 2007). In Chloe’s childhood, after her father left when she was eight, that was not the case. Her mother, after becoming a single parent, drastically changed her behaviour and became very ‘needy’. Bowlby’s internal working models that she built of her mother prior to that time were not working any more as the whole relationship changed. Another strained relationship for Chloe was the one with her father where yet again there was no open communication for many years, as they did not have any contact.

Relationships with her parents left Chloe with an insecure attachment style, which she later transferred onto her relationship with her first husband. Chloe’s emotional attachments and relationships that are core to Bowlby’s (cited in Wood et al., 2007) theory were for many years very negative. According to Bowlby (cited in Wood et al., 2007) a component of attachment is an ‘internal working model of the relationship’ which creates expectations that we have of people that we have relationships with. Theme II is based in the idea of expectations. We can see that Chloe clearly had expectations of her parents and her former partners. Firstly, she had expectations of her mother based on her childhood before her father left. She remembered her mother being happier and more playful and understanding prior to separation and expected her to remain the same after. That didn’t happen which led to Chloe’s sadness about her mother not being ‘the way she remembered.

Secondly, Chloe had huge expectations of her father. After he left and when she didn’t see him for many years she built a mental picture of him being an ideal father that would always love and understand her. When she talks about her mother not fulfilling her emotional needs we can see that she transferred them onto a mental model of her father, but unfortunately her expectations were not met when she reunited with him. We can see another transfer of expectation from her father to her former husband and partners. She wanted those romantic partners to fulfil her emotional needs, probably because her parents didn’t. Theme III shows the changes that Chloe had to make in her life and relationships to become more independent and secure. Looking at Chloe’s life chronologically we can see that the first change that she had to make was taking on an adult role and responsibility after her father left. We can see that the biggest change and decision were the ones about separating her life from her mothers.

She decided that she had to do things for herself and that she was not responsible for her mother and her happiness. That brought a big shift to her thinking about the world and other people. Having changed the relationship and separating their lives Chloe finally had a chance to see some positive things about her mother. More recent changes in Chloe’s life like changing a career and deciding to get married again show that she has become mentally stronger and more independent person (Main, Kaplan and Cassidy, 1985, cited in Wood et al., 2007). That leads us to the Theme IV that talks about earned security and stability in Chloe’s life. Looking at Chloe’s life we can see that she has moved on from her childhood insecure attachment to her recent secure attachment style(Rutter, Quinton and Hill, 1990, cited in Wood et al., 2007).

This is a very good example of Main and Goldwyn’s (1984, cited in Wood et al., 2007) theory about earned security, Chloe’s story shows that we don’t stay in the same attachment style for our whole life, but with the right support and people we can change it. Chloe is now in a very happy and secure relationship and the fact that she can reflect on her past and openly talks about it is another proof of her secure attachment (Main, Kaplan and Cassidy, 1985, cited in Wood et al., 2007). In conclusion, from the above analysis, it can be seen that relationships with significant others do influence our development. However, Chloe’s case also shows that our development is continues through life and that we can change our attachment status. From a social constructivist point of view we can see that the environment plays a part in our development, that our personalities are not determined from birth but we and other people can change them.

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The above analysis is a personal interpretation of the researcher. Reflecting back on the process of this thematic analysis I can see a few points that I can relate to. As a white, European, female I can relate to Chloe’s emotional needs and expectations she had created of her parents. In our culture girls are expected to have a good relationship with their mothers and talk about ‘everything’. Chloe struggled with being unable to talk to her mother about her feelings. Being heterosexual I can understand Chloe’s needs and expectation of her romantic partners. Women expect men to support and understand them and maybe sometimes to take on a role of a caregiver. Moreover, having had similar experiences with my parents, especially my mother, I can understand Chloe’s need to make changes like separating her life from her mothers. Having ones life too closely connected with ones mother’s can be suffocating and limiting and what one thinks one can do. So I understand Chloe’s thinking that it was necessary to separate herself from her mother in order to develop and progress in life. Chloe’s interview made me think a lot about my own family as we share many issues. My focus seemed to be on the positive change in Chloe’s life from insecure to secure as I think that was the most important theme emerging from the interview.


Ainsworth, M. (1989) ‘Attachments Beyond Infancy’, American Psychologist, 44(4), 709 – 716.

Bretherton, I. (1997). ‘Bowlby’s Legacy to Developmental Psychology’, Child Psychiatrist and Human Development, 28(1), 33 – 43.

DSE212 Course team. (2007). DVD Programme 4: Interviewing and Thematic Analysis – Section 4, Interview with Chloe (with line numbers). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

DSE212 Course Team, 2007. The Qualitative Project: From Research Design To Analysis.. Pike, G., Miell, D., (2007). Exploring Psychological Research

Methods (pp. 335 – 356). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

The Open University (2007) DSE212 Exploring Psychology, DVD 4: Interviewing and Thematic Analysis, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Wood, C., Littleton, K., Oates, J., 2007. Lifespan Development. Cooper, T., Roth, I. (2007). Challenging Psychological Issues (2nd ed., pp. 3 – 37). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

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