It is important to start the understanding process with a clear perspective on the goals of the theory, what it is trying to do, as reflected in the “theoretical question” it is intended to answer. This provides a frame for analyzing the parts of the theory and insures that we begin our analysis at the right “grain size.” Sometimes we zoom in too quickly and get stuck on specific concepts or methods. Focusing on the theoretical question allows us to zoom out and get a feeling for the whole package before we consider its elements. Alternatively, we sometimes zoom out too far, and end up disliking a theory because it is not helpful to us, when it was never designed to answer the questions we would like it to address. In this case, focusing on the actual theoretical question allows us to get oriented to the goals of the theory’s authors, instead of our own. When trying to understand a theory, we often put up pictures of the theory’s authors and laughingly pretend that they are with us in the classroom, to remind us to be as accurate and constructive as we can be in analyzing their work.
It is surprisingly difficult to read an entire theory paper (even one as short as an article in American Psychologist) and then to pull back and figure out what the authors were trying to do. Rarely do authors directly state their theoretical questions. In trying to articulate Ainsworth’s central question, students often land on the term “attachment” and suggest guiding questions such as “Where does attachment come from?” and “Why are babies attached to their mothers?” These are not Ainsworth’s questions, of course, but we usually let students’ ideas sit on the whiteboard as possibilities, and suggest that continuing with the “Understanding” process may help to surface Ainsworth’s guiding questions, which it usually does.