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3.1: What are the steps to “understanding a theory”?

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  • The goals of developmental science are to describe, explain, and optimize human development, including quantitative and qualitative topographies of stability and change, both as these unfold normatively and as they follow differential pathways. These worthy goals fit within the larger goals of science and of social science, which are to describe, explain, and optimize whatever target phenomena, that is, whatever aspects of the social and natural world, we have chosen to study. There are great ethical responsibilities that come with these goals. As scientists, we must bring as much clarity to our work as possible, describing and explaining what we are studying as truthfully and accurately as we are able. We must also bring compassion to our work—taking the full picture into account, including the perspectives and interests of all involved. And we must try to carry out our work mindfully, with full awareness of how we are conducting our science, and the historical and social pressures that shape our work. Hence, to prepare us for our profession as scientists, we require training in both ethics and science.

    Empirical science, as a way of knowing, offers us a set of tools. Two of the most important are theories and methods. Theories, at their core, are ways of thinking about phenomena, representations or working models of our targets, if you will. Methods, at their core, are ways of looking at phenomena, rules for observation. These two sets of basic tools, for thinking and looking, are reciprocally connected to each other (see Figure 3.1): Theories guide us about the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” we should look or observe. As the German saying goes, “Das Auge schläft bis es der Geist mit einer Frage weckt,” which means “The eye sleeps until the mind wakes it with a question.” If our eyes are open, we then see things through our observations that, if our minds are open, should inform what we think, or update our working models.

    An important step in our scientific training is the realization that we are not studying theories or constructs; we are studying whole people functioning in the real world, or the slices of the real world delineated by our target phenomenon. Theories are highly selective and impoverished representations of these real world phenomena, and we should always be trying to rework our conceptualizations to more truthfully, compassionately, fully, and clearly map onto our targets. Our theories will get “better,” that is more useful, to the extent that they can more fully integrate all the empirical information that is currently known about our phenomena and suggest new avenues for research. As has often been noted, theories become more useful as they expand in scope (the range of phenomena they map), precision (the exactness of the mapping), and generativity (the new territory they open up for exploration). If we believe that the social and natural worlds are complex intertwined dynamic systems, then we will naturally be attempting to construct theories that can more clearly capture more of this complexity and change. To do this, however, we first need to carefully and deeply understand the theories that currently guide our developmental science.

    For the process of “understanding theories,” this text offer a set of strategies for unpacking and analyzing theories that allows us to look at the components of theories and distinguish their micro-developmental processes from their macro-developmental processes. This kind of analysis allows us to deconstruct theories—to identify the elements that are descriptive and explanatory, and to examine their implications for optimization. Importantly, we can also analyze the assumptions about humans and their development that underlie theories. Once completed, we can go “beyond understanding” to processes of critique, elaboration, and generation of conceptual and empirical questions. Such an analysis is the basis for locating places where a theory can be “developmentalized,” “complexified,” and “systematized,” bringing it closer to our target real world phenomenon and rendering it more useful to finding solutions to important applied problems.


    The steps to understanding a theory are pictured in Table 3.1. They include a set of questions that allow us to focus on the goals of the theory, its historical context, its key constructs, the parts of it that are relevant for description, explanation, and optimization, and its underlying assumptions. In addition, we also encourage students to draw theories, focusing especially on “what is on the arrows,” namely causal or micro-developmental processes. After such an analysis, students are ready to go “beyond understanding,” for example, by critiquing and elaborating the theory, or using it to derive research questions or intervention ideas.

    \(\PageIndex{2}\) Why would it be important to “understand” theories? Why can't we just start using them?

    Because we have meta-theoretical lenses that we bring to the study of our phenomena, it is easy to “misunderstand” theories, that is, to assume that they are more comprehensive or dynamic that they really are. It is also easy to dismiss theories with which we are not as familiar, if they raise our meta-theoretical hackles. We are likely to accept the theories that our mentors use, that are dominant in our areas, or that reflect current historical conventions. When we read theoretical papers (which are still in the minority in our scientific journals, Slife & Williams, 1997), we typically just follow the ideas as they are presented and often do not question them or notice what is missing. To begin seeing theories clearly and afresh, and to become aware of what they are (and are not), it is helpful to take them through the understanding process.

    To illustrate the process of understanding a theory, we use the theory of attachment, as presented in Mary Ainsworth’s 1979 article in the American Psychologist. We selected this theory because it is applicable to a wide range of phenomena and because it was part of a “metatheoretical duel” with social learning theorists in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Gewirtz, 1969). We discuss these ideas and events more completely in the next chapter, in which we contrast these perspectives. We also offer alternative “dueling formulations” in theories of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (e.g., Ryan & Deci, 2000). In terms of understanding a theory, it is always necessary to specify the source article because theories are themselves developmental phenomena, and different papers, even by the same author(s) can present different versions of the theory (e.g., see Chapman, 1988, for a historical analysis of Piaget’s changing theoretical views on cognitive and affective development). We selected Ainsworth’s American Psychologist article because it was suitable for general readers. We also provide a relatively general understanding of Ainsworth and of the differences between Bowlby and Ainsworth, but we encourage readers to follow up on these theories and theorists in more detail (e.g., Bretherton, 1992).