Object Relations Theory

Since its formulation by Sigmund Freud , psychoanalytic theory has developed into many distinct schools of thought. One of these is the so-called Object Relations School, which was originally associated with the names of (among others) W. R. D. Fairbairn and D. W. Winnicott , but also much influenced by the work of Melanie Klein . In essence, Object Relations Theory offers a much more social view of psychological development than does the earlier Freudian account, seeing individuals as formed in relation to, and seeking connection with, other individuals. Instead of Freud's notion of libidinal stages of child development, it emphasizes the gradual differentiation of the self through the formation of reflections of experiences of real people from earliest infancy, or in other words of internal ‘objects’. The term ‘object’ denotes the person or persons (or his or her inner representatives) with whom a subject is intensely involved emotionally. It is these initial experiences with other people, according to the theory, that structure and form later relationships.
A central aspect of Object Relations Theory is the primary attachment of infants to their mothers. Feminist theorists have been attracted to this emphasis on the centrality of the maternal, and have drawn on the theory to develop a causal account of gender difference. Gender differences, it is argued, originate in the infantile development process in which female and male infants experience different patterns of struggle to separate from the mother. For example, Nancy Chodorow (in The Reproduction of Mothering, 1978) describes how personality develops in terms of both innate drives and relations with other people, or ‘objects’.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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