Spotlight on Scholarship

January 2024

Sweet Potatoes instead of Teddy Bears






Indigenous Tao children in Taiwan described in this volume feel securely attached when they receive food from their caregivers. Visual contact, speech, and object play – the primary socialization strategies among members of Euro-American middle-classes – are of lesser importance for human bonding. The distinct pathways to relationship formation are illustrated by depicting two culturally specific replacements of the mother: a piece of sweet potato (Tao) and a teddy bear (Western middle-classes). (Image credit: iStock)

We are a team of six authors from Germany, the US, and India with backgrounds in socio-cultural anthropology and cultural psychology. Our book explores multifaceted linkages between culturally specific feeding practices and human bonding based on ethnographic case studies from Morocco, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Costa Rica.

A comparative analysis of our ethnographic research demonstrates that there are many culturally valued ways of feeding children, contradicting the idea of a single, universally best feeding standard. We show that in many parts of the world feeding plays a central role in human bonding and relationship formation, something largely overlooked by attachment theory and related approaches. Our analysis further demonstrates that feeding contributes to relationship formation through different socio-emotional dimensions, which we label proximal, transactional, and distal. Each of these relates to a specific aspect of the feeding relationship (e.g., physical intimacy, food as a life-sustaining gift, conviviality) and is experienced by qualitatively distinct emotions. Finally, we argue that feeding practices can lead to different forms of relationships. Through feeding and eating together, caregivers express core values about how different generations should relate to each other. In our research sites, intergenerational feeding relationships are either hierarchically organized, or characterized by a mix of egalitarian and hierarchical orientations.

Our ethnographic insights have important theoretical and practical implications. First, we call for the expansion of attachment theory to include feeding and body-centered caregiving to move it closer to being a truly universal theory with multiple approaches. There is no reason why children’s psychic-emotional needs should be viewed as more important than their need to be cared for in a physical sense. Second, we call for significant changes to current global interventions that are based on a culturally biased “responsive feeding” approach derived from attachment theory and dominant Western preferences. Responsive feeding entails interactions guided by children’s signals of hunger and satiety, with caregivers following children’s leads rather than imposing their own ideas of when and what children should eat. However, as we show, this prescription contradicts and devalues many longstanding feeding practices around the world. Such interventions not only ignore the sociocultural contexts of the people they target, but they may be harmful as they encourage individual orientations that can undermine support and cohesion, which are especially crucial where the state is weak or inaccessible.

We hope this slim, straightforward volume supported by compelling ethnographic vignettes of child-feeding around the world will be useful to students and policy makers as well as scholars of children and childhood.

Find Funk et al’s book here

Funk, L., Scheidecker, G., Chapin, B. L., Schmidt, W. J., El Ouardani, Christine, and Nandita Chaudhary. 2023. Feeding, Bonding, and the Formation of Social Relationships: Ethnographic Challenges to Attachment Theory and Early Childhood Interventions. Elements in Psychology and Culture, Cambridge University Press.

The six authors from upper left to bottom right: Leberecht Funk (anthropologist, independent scholar from Germany), Gabriel Scheidecker (anthropologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland), Bambi L. Chapin (anthropologist at the University of Maryland, USA), Wiebke J. Schmidt (cultural psychologist at the University of Osnabrück, Germany), Christine El Ouardani (anthropologist at the California State University, USA), and senior researcher Nandita Chaudhary (cultural psychologist, independent scholar from India).


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