Key constructs are the building blocks of any theory. They are simply the specialized terms used to label the elements in the theory. They are called “constructs” in order to emphasize that they are theoretical representations of real objects and processes. In a good description of a theory, authors provide a comprehensive list of the key constructs used in the theory along with careful and precise definitions of these concepts. For example, in Bowlby’s theory, such key constructs would include “attachment,” “infant distress,” “proximity seeking,” “protection,” and “responsiveness.” Identifying the key constructs and locating their definitions are important steps in getting a handle on the pieces of a theory. For Bowlby and Ainsworth, these are listed in the examples of “Understanding a theory” summaries at the end of this chapter.
The search for key constructs and their definitions is an important step during which students often discover that theorists’ presentations of their theories have “holes” in them. The definitions, even of key terms, are often incomplete, or they are missing all together. Sometimes definitions can be inferred from how terms are used, but sometimes, in understanding a theory, we must refer to other papers or just leave definitions blank. In preparation for drawing a theory, we often ask students to place each key construct and its definition on an index card—this deck of cards can then be used to create alternative depictions of the relationships among these constructs, as prescribed by the theory.