Carol Tindall

The balance of this chapter varies slightly from the others as I intend to look at a range of personal construct approaches. Most attention will be given to the repertory grid, as this is most commonly dealt with quantitatively and often with scant regard for its theoretical background, in a somewhat free-floating fashion. My worked example of a repertory grid with laddering is immediately followed by the associated discussion and reflexive account. I then turn to other personal construct methods.


First, as George Kelly's research designs are an integral part of his personal construct psychology (PCP), some theoretical background is needed. However, this is necessarily brief and highly selective. There is some debate as to whether PCP is a theory or a complete psychology. Jahoda suggests that Kelly has both an approach and a theory. She defines an approach as a relatively content free point of view about how best to proceed in studying people. It is based on extra-scientific assumptions and often incorporates personal values. It contains the fundamental questions to which a psychologist seeks answers. In contrast to theories, an approach can therefore neither be verified nor falsified: you can only take it or leave it.

Kelly's is a constructivist approach. For Kelly, objective reality is a myth. Our subjective reality is based on the meanings we have attached to previous experiences. It is the meaning that is influential, not the event itself. Such personal meanings are the basis of our individual theories or frameworks, through which we filter and interpret current experiences. We are constandy engaged in psychological processing, purposefully searching for meaning: operating 'as if' we were scientists, constantly applying our very personal theories to 'what's going on', shifting and restructuring our frameworks in line with new understandings; aiming to inhabit an increasingly useful personal world, one which facilitates more effective interactions with others. In this way we construe ourselves, each other and our personal reality. Kelly's focus is on the individual as the maker of meaning. It is the idiosyncratic nature of our experiencing that accounts for the difference between people. Unlike in some psychodynamic and behaviourist views, within personal construct psychology there is a dynamic element of personal agency. 'People are neither prisoners of their environment nor victims of their biographies, but active individuals struggling to make sense of their experiences and acting in accordance with the meaning they impose on those experiences' (Kelly 1955: 15).

Nevertheless, as Fransella (1990) points out, we may make ourselves prisoners by the way we construe our biography. Our idiosyncratic constructions, firmly rooted in our unique stories, simultaneously provide an anticipatory basis for future action. This anticipatory element based on our current understanding inevitably frames our reality and illuminates or alerts us to particular aspects of 'what is going on', and equally limits or blinds us to other aspects. When we predict that something will happen we are also predicting that other things will not happen. Construing (a word deliberately chosen by Kelly) is experiencing, at all levels of awareness, thoughts, feelings and actions in appropriate (personal) harmony. It is essentially a dynamic search for personal understanding, which according to Kelly is gained by recognizing similarities and differences in our experiences. 'Only when man [sic] attunes his ear to recurrent themes in the monotonous flow does his universe begin to make sense to him' (Kelly 1955: 53).

Our personal frameworks, or construct systems in Kelly's terms, are made up of a vast collection of similarity-difference dimensions or bipolar constructs. We each uniquely yet systematically hierarchically network our constructs. Core or superordinate constructs are those which are central to our being, those which we use to impose personal order on our lives. Each core construct subsumes a number of subordinate constructs, which in turn subsume more subordinate constructs and so on. A construct gains its meaning from both poles; similarity can only be understood in the context of difference. Constructs are highly individual and personally understood. For example, as an outsider we would recognize that two people using the construct 'friendly' are experiencing different realities if we also know that the difference pole for one is 'not so friendly' and for the other is 'hostile'. The difference pole may be a logical or idiosyncratic opposite. Thus our current construct system frames our reality, aspects of which will be clear and appropriate while others remain fuzzy. We must remember that it is our construction, the meanings are inferred by us. These meanings are not part of the event, not statements of reality.

'Constructive alternativism', the philosophical basis of personal construct psychology, acknowledges that there are different ways of seeing, that equally valid alternative constructions are always possible. We need to be aware that others are likely to construe differently from ourselves. Constructive alternativism is about exploring our construct system and selecting the most appropriate theories to apply, which must then be judged only in terms of their usefulness, not in terms of any absolute truth. They do, however, determine the range of options open to us and can be limiting. We can extend our knowledge and understanding by being continually open and prepared to update and reconstruct our theories in the light of experience: 'even the most obvious occurrences in daily life might appear utterly transformed if we were inventive enough to construe them differently' (Kelly 1986: 1).

Kelly suggested that psychologists should start their work not with theories but with involvement in the life situation of the people they have chosen to study. If our aim is to understand someone, then we must gain understanding from within that person, empathize with them, get to know their story, explore their social world through their frameworks.

Another core element of personal construct psychology is reflexivity. Personal construct psychology accounts for its own creation: it is a construction like any other. The richness and relevance of the personal experience of all is acknowledged and validated. Both researcher and participants are involved in interacting and construing. The aim of research is to engage in a collaborative exploration of equality and mutuality to gain an insider's view of part of the participant's reality, at the same time acknowledging that the research question is necessarily part of the researcher's construct system. Clearly the research process offers all who take part the opportunity for new understandings and self-development. The completed research is a more or less useful construction, which is, of course, open to reconstruction.

We can see, then, that Kelly's approach encourages the democratization of the process of research. The subjectivity of both the researcher and researched is embraced. People are dealt with as complex beings rather than reduced to isolated variables. Participants' constructions are valued, not seen as requiring modification and adjustment to fit more easily into another's theoretical framework.

Personal construct techniques

The repertory grid

The repertory grid is a highly flexible technique which is often used quantitatively and on occasions completely divorced from its theoretical underpinning. I will show how it can be used qualitatively. The aim of the repertory grid is to illuminate a person's current understanding of whatever it is they are concerned with. This may be done alone or with one or more co-researchers, depending on what is being explored and by whom.

The first step is to choose a topic of concern, personally relevant to the participant, which has the potential to offer insight. This may be their work situation, family, friendships, themselves, relationships, leisure activities, possible opportunities, whatever is appropriate.

Second, the participant must choose a range of elements (more than ten can become unwieldy}. Elements are anything that give rise to construing: they can be people, courses, pubs, leisure activities, careers, aspects of work etc. To expose the most illuminating picture and to allow some comparison, elements need to vary on dimensions relevant to the participant and the topic. If explaining friendship, for example, it is likely that you would want to include established friends, ex-friends, potential friends and acquaintances. Traditionally, in Kellyan research, elements are roles -someone I admire, someone I dislike, someone who has influenced me etc. - or, if the focus of the research is yourself, each of your own roles -friend, partner, colleague, worker, parent etc. - or yourself over time - as a teenager, as a young adult, now, in ten years time.

You might want to look at relationships, perhaps in terms of similarity of construing and/or ability to empathize. In this case elements and constructs (see below) would be jointly negotiated, then completed individually before being jointly completed (Bannister and Bott 1973). The comparison between each individual's reality and the negotiated picture of reality can reveal connections and areas of discord.

Thomas (1979) developed these ideas and devised a similar 'exchange grid'. This involves both participants jointly deciding on the elements, then completing the grid individually using their own constructs. Constructs are then exchanged and each completes the other's grid 'as if' they were the other. Analysis of the two pairs of grids offers insight into the degree of understanding each has of the other's personal world.

To reiterate, elements need to be personally relevant to the participant, even if they appear strange to outsiders, and both appropriate to and representative of the topic explored.

The next task is to identify some of the constructs currently being used within the area of exploration. This is done by choosing any three elements and asking in what way two of the three are similar to each other and different from the third. I find it more useful to ask participants to identify a difference rather than a contrast or opposite, as in my experience these last two terms encourage people to search for some generally accepted contrast and therefore shift the emerging picture away from the personal.

The three elements to be compared can be chosen systematically or randomly. Each element can be allocated a number and then three numbers can be chosen. Or each element can be written on a separate card, with the cards being shuffled and the top three chosen. Used cards are returned to the pack, the pack is reshuffled and the top three are chosen, and so on. This process of choosing three elements and identifying similarity and difference continues, ideally until the person runs out of constructs. Ten to fifteen constructs often provide a useful picture.

The similarity, which may be positively or negatively stated, is written on the left and the difference on the right. In the example below it is clear which three elements a friend I will call Jo compared. The Xs indicate the two elements who were seen similarly, as egotistical, when compared with the third element O, who was identified as being group-oriented.


Similarity - -- -- -- - Difference Egotistical X X O Group-oriented

In this way, one of the constructs used by the participant to understand 'what's going on at work' is accessed. This procedure is repeated until the participant decides that sufficient constructs have been externalized. It- is assumed that the constructs are permeable, i.e. they can and will be applied to new elements and they do indeed represent the participant's understanding of the area. It is also assumed that the language used does, to an extent, capture the personal meaning of the construct. However many constructs are generated, it must be remembered that we are only gaining access to a sample of current constructs.

The fourth task is to locate each element on each construct. Each element is allocated an X or O depending on whether the element is more like the similarity pole of the construct, marked with X, or the difference pole, marked with O.


Egotistical XOXOXOOX Group-oriented Creative XOXOOOOX Rule-bound

When the whole grid is completed in this way, patterns and associations emerge. Clearly Jo, with the exception of one element, experiences people at work who are egotistical as also creative, and group-oriented people as rule-bound. This may be a barrier to creative group-based work. We would need to see the rest of her grid and talk to her about her understanding of these two constructs to gain a clearer picture.

A slightly more subtle picture can be gleaned by using an ordinal scale to reflect person relevance, rather than a notion of absolute quantity. Each element is rated by the participant, on each construct, on a scale of 1-3, 1-5 or 1-7, whichever seems most suitable. Some elements might share the same number, other numbers might not be used at all. Jo used a scale of

Egotistical 24142542 Group-oriented Creative 1 5 3 4 4 4 5 1 Rule-bound

It must be remembered that these numbers carry no inherent meaning but simply provide a way in which the participant can position elements in relative terms on each of the dimensions and so expose a slightly richer picture. We can now see that all those people in Jo's grid construed as group-oriented are also seen as rule-bound while only two of the four experienced as egotistical are also creative. One is rule-bound, an interesting phenomenon, worthy of more discussion with the participant. The other is given a 3, which may mean that they appear to Jo to be rule-bound in some situations and creative in others.

Analysis may be focused on elements, constructs or both. If a rating scale is used, a simple cluster analysis is possible to clarify associations.

Analysis is an integral part of the collaborative process of working up the grid to completion {i.e. it is part of, rather than succeeds, the research process). Information on how the participant understands their world emerges throughout, from the first step of identifying the particular topic to be explored, through to which elements are chosen for inclusion and which excluded, and beyond to how readily constructs are verbalized and which particular constructs are applied. As it is the participant's understanding that is being exposed it is for them to analyse and gain insight from viewing the completed grid. If the participant does not identify and verbalize obvious connections made explicit by completion of the grid then it is not necessarily the role of the co-researcher to voice them. Essentially it depends on the area explored and the reason for the exploration. Emergent implications may be sensitively checked out with the participant but we must be aware of the possibility of harm. The grid may highlight sensitive issues that the participant chooses not to acknowledge at this time. The understanding gained is thus framed by the participant.




78 Qualitative methods in psychology A worked example

This grid was constructed by a middle manager in a recently privatized utility, who claims to be frustrated and somewhat limited by the work climate set, in his opinion, by top management's failure to act in a way that values all workers and to offer sound leadership. His frustration has been clear from numerous spontaneous discussions with him over the past two years. His aim was to clarify his view of colleagues' management styles, with the possibility of gaining new insight. Mine was actively to re-experience the process of working up a grid with a participant. Figure 5.1 shows his organizational structure.

Having outlined Kelly's theory to Alex, stressing particularly that it was his understanding of his issues, framed by him and explained in his language, that we were attempting to access, 1 asked him to identify a range of elements. He chose managers liked and respected, disliked and not respected, peers, middle, senior and top managers, although he stated at this point that there were no top managers he respected. All were men. His focus, then, is his experience of management styles and their implications within his work sector.

He constructed the grid very readily (see Figure 5.2). The constructs flowed in response to me repeatedly offering him a random selection of three elements. He occasionally offers further explanation of the meaning of his constructs. Ambition, for example, is construed as being prepared to knife others in the back, and if you're not prepared to take this action then you're experienced as less ambitious.

His construct choices present a picture of traditional male work culture underpinned by competition and in-house political correctness. He clearly experiences a different work climate from Jo, who, when engaged in a similar work-based exercise, revealed the following constructs: reliable-a bit erratic; clear communicator-rambling style; effective-less so; creative-more limited; socially skilled-socially clumsy; enthusiastic-too much trouble; good negotiator-directive; adventurous-doesn't take risks; facilitative-critical; weak-strong; stubborn-amenable.


Focusing on the constructs and just choosing a few of the evident associations, we can see that those colleagues construed as supportive are also experienced as inventive, trustworthy and less likely to be politically malleable. And of course the corollary is that those experienced as non-supportive cannot be trusted, are more likely to be politically malleable and tied down by the flavour of the month - in Alex's terms the 'politically correct' current issue. He also experiences those who are less inventive to n,

be systems bound and unlikely to take risks. These people are seen as more likely to use bullying tactics to achieve their aims.

The clearest association in the grid is that those experienced as sufficiently ambitious to knife others in the back are also seen as concerned with self rather than being person-oriented. These colleagues are also described as more likely to be lacking in awareness of others. In all probability there is a core construct (possibly egocentrism-altruism or cooperative-competitive) underpinning these three slightly semantically different manifestations.

Conversational laddering, which is explained in the next section, could be used here if more depth is required, to gain access to core constructs and thus perhaps to greater understanding.

In terms of elements, he construes the senior and top managers in his sector, Brian and John, whose decisions have implications for him, in very negative terms. He characterizes them as politically malleable, lacking in long-term strategy, rarely prepared to take risks and short on inventiveness, owing to their being tied down by the 'flavour of the month'. They are also experienced as untrustworthy, prepared not only to bully but if necessary also to knife their colleagues in the back. Alan, who heads another sector, is construed very similarly.

The grid reveals that Alex sees himself as most like Pat, his immediate boss, and very similar to Jeremy, a top manager in a different sector, despite his claim at the outset that there were no top managers he respected. Brian and John are construed as most unlike him and in fact similar only to Alan, another top manager. Setting these findings in the slightly wider context, Alex maintains that he has little faith in top managers, as he claims that those who are promoted are not necessarily the most skilled and effective people, but those who play the 'politically correct' tune. Their management actions are rooted in their own uncertainty. Their need to maintain control means that their teams are not included in decision making, nor are they trusted to operate responsibly and effectively, which results in workers feeling undervalued and frustrated.

Clearly this analysis could be taken much further, the specific direction depending on the research question. However, this initial exploratory grid has captured Alex's frustration and disillusionment with the management of his organization.

There are a number of ways to extend this understanding. The grid could now be used as a basis for further grids, perhaps including his notion of an ideal manager or how he would handle the role. He might find it useful to discuss findings from such a grid with a trusted colleague who had completed a similar grid. Grids such as this form a useful focus, an initial shared understanding on which to base an interview. If Alex wanted a more illuminating picture of how he experiences his work setting, then conversational laddering based on the constructs revealed would produce a deeper understanding.


Laddering (Hinkle 1965) is a particular style of interviewing which allows constructs to be revealed (see Chapter 4 for more details on interviewing). It may be used in addition to the grid or independendy using constructs that crop up in conversations. It needs to be used wisely and cautiously (see Rowe 1988) and only when the participant is willing and keen to gain a deeper understanding. Often the grid gives rise to surface (subordinate) constructs that are not generally applicable. They have implications, but fewer than core constructs, which frame our reality as they are central to our being. Often subordinate constructs are sufficient. Laddering, however, not only allows elaborations of a more personal framework but also illuminates how constructs are personally (hierarchically) integrated, and has the advantage of being able to identify which of the revealed constructs is more important, thus offering a better understanding of how the person frames their reality.

We move up the hierarchy from subordinate constructs to those that form the core of our value system by asking where the person would prefer to be located on a particular construct and why. This is best achieved by using a conversational style, responding directly to their comments each time (rather than repeating the question why, which often feels inter-rogational). Occasionally laddering works neatly, when co-researchers move from initially stated superficial constructs through to more psychological core constructs fundamental to the person's understanding. Often this is nor the case, and core constructs may be difficult to verbalize for a variety of reasons. Rather than climbing up the ladder of the hierarchy we can climb down to more subordinate constructs by pyramiding (Landfield 1971). This is done by asking the question 'What does it mean to be... ?' (organized, for example).

Alex and I used the laddering technique to try to gain a better understanding of what he means by 'political malleability'. We noted that he had put himself on the extreme position of less politically malleable. 1 began by asking what advantages there are to being less politically malleable.

Ax Not a lot (said with a laugh) — I feel a bit more virtuous but it doesn't do a lot of good at the end of the day ... sometimes I feel things are right... If I was politically malleable I'd have to go against my conscience. I'm not as politically malleable as some, but I'm not fixed -

some of our managers duck and weave to stay in power... that's their main aim in life. CT: It's not yours?

A: I'm happy to be part of a ream - to influence what's going on. If something is wrong I'm prepared to stand up against it, to put it right. 1 don't seek power for power's sake. CT: Why don't you seek power?

A: Those who are power driven have a narrow, limited view... some people need power. CT: You'd prefer to put it right?

A: Yes ... although it doesn't necessarily win many friends — it's seen as a negative position. I'd prefer a more positive job. People have said to me 'I wouldn't have your job'. CT: Is there anything positive about 'putting it right', about your position?

A: It helps achieve the company's aims. CT: Which are?

A: To lower costs, to offer better value for money - which would secure more jobs and satisfy customers.

We now have a fuller view of what Alex means by politically malleable, although we have moved to a more pragmatic rather than psychological construct. It is tied up with power seeking and the consequent limitations of view. He experiences those in power as generating problems, ones that he has to 'stand up against' and 'put right' for the good of the organization and his conscience. His stated aim aligns with the company's aims, to lower costs and thus secure more jobs and to satisfy customers. In contrast, he construes the politically malleable as mainly aiming to stay in power. Although his stance does not 'necessarily win many friends' we can see that he and others construe this negativity as at least partly to do with his position. At least one of the sources of his frustration at work is now clearer.


What we see from the analysis is a middle manager who wants more control, who wants to take part in decision making, who would prefer to work in a more supportive consultative climate. Jackson (1983) and Argyle (1989) among others claim that such an environment leads to increased health and job satisfaction.

The discussion could present some support for Alex's experiences of top managers by picking up the thread of organizational culture and looking at possible reasons for the actions of managers at different levels, particularly the lack of power sharing. Handy (1985) claims that age and middle management task experience lead top managers to dislike too much risk, to prefer a style of tight structure and control, whereas Alex's preference to work within a supportive flexible climate is typical of middle managers. This could then be developed in terms of the efficacy of work cultures, seemingly a major concern for Alex, and the creative integration of different management styles.

Alex views top management as insecure about their own management skills and there is objective insecurity in the wider organizational context, as recent privatization has brought about change and the workforce is to be halved over the next two years. A number of studies (Cobb and KasI 1977; Dooley et al. 1987) suggest that the anticipation of job loss, for managers, may well be as traumatic as unemployment itself. It is also reasonable to speculate that those who feel stressed may adopt a tighter style of management. It is possible that the insecurity of the situation itself fosters a high need in Alex for participation to enhance feelings of control and professional worth. A study of managers (Roskies and Louis-Guerin 1990) in an ambiguous work context found links between perceived job insecurity and poor health, and between negative work attitudes and psychological distress.

Personal construct psychology connections and comments would need to be made, particularly the fact that we are dealing with the dynamic construing of one middle manager whose personal experiences have led to the construction of particular frameworks through which he filters and understands his current experiences. This snapshot in time is inevitably illuminating only part of the picture, and the picture itself is open to a range of alternative constructions.

Reflexive account

Personal construct psychology is reflexive. Both co-researcher and participants are, in Wilkinson's (1988) words, 'in the construing business'. The choice of topic and the interaction involved in constructing and analysing the grid would have been different with someone other than me, someone with whom Alex has a different personal history and understanding. The brief analysis, although checked out with Alex, is my construction, my way of seeing, my struggle to understand his understanding. 'The knower is part of the matrix of what is known' (DuBois 1983: 111). Essentially it is the sense that I can make, operating with my current frameworks as a woman and social psychologist with both particular interests and a previous understanding of Alex's work concerns, of the expressions of his work experiences elicited at this time by the process of constructing the grid with me.

The researcher's part in the process needs to be acknowledged. In a full reflexive account specific consideration needs to be given to how the researcher, with her particular interests, skills and understanding, influenced the process.

Other personal construct methods


Personal construct psychology methods may only give rise to superficial construing, but all, particularly laddering and the ABC method, have the potential to tap into core constructs and therefore the potential to be harmful. To a large extent the methods are participant controlled, the level of construing revealed depending on the level at which they choose to work. However, core constructs and particularly personal links between constructs of which the person was previously unaware may be externalized for the first time. Caution and sensitivity are required throughout, as such new understandings, while offering opportunities for self-development may also be threatening. Researchers need to be aware of ways of limiting participant disclosure and of supporting strategies to cope with what might emerge. Participants need to be fully informed at the outset of the possibilities.

Often we fail again and again to achieve personal change we claim to want to make. The ABC model devised by Tschudi (1977) is particularly useful for revealing possible underlying tensions (core constructs) that prevent us from making the change. Again you can do this alone or with a co-researcher asking the questions. When the change to be made has been identified, the person's present and preferred positions are stated - in this case mine.

A1 Present position A2 Preferred position

Relatively disorganized life More organized life

I then list the advantages of my preferred position and the disadvantages of my present position.

B1 Disadvantages of present position


Being slightly chaotic is time consuming

B2 Advantages of preferred position

Less time and effort spent achieving tasks

Smoother life?


Look tense and therefore less approachable? Slightly dizzy persona Occasionally feel out of control Achieve less?

Appear (and feel?) more professional

Appear calm änd therefore more approachable?

Gain some control

Less stress

Maybe have more time for more social life

Finally, the advantages of the present position and the disadvantages of the preferred position are listed. Often, the reason for the lack of movement becomes clearer at this stage.

CI Advantages of present position

Freer to 'go with the flow' -respond to intuition Room for spontaneity Creativity and fun - self-development

Able to ask for and receive practical and emotional support when needed

More closely connected to others - more open relationships possible More varied life?

C2 Disadvantages of preferred position

Appear (and feel) in control and therefore strong; consequently, maybe, never offered support, or approached by others to support them

Maybe more distant from friends and colleagues

Appear dull and predictable, lacking in enthusiasm?

Ruled by my own organization?

More fixed - possibly less capacity for creativity

Less open to new opportunities for self development?

Clearly, I associate being disorganized with spontaneity, creativity and the ability to act impulsively. Crucially, 1 also see it as allowing me to form closer relationships and offering me more opportunities for self-development, to enjoy a more interesting life. Although an organized life appeals in terms of less stress, more control and possibly more time, I also construe being organized as a potential barrier to close connections with people and self-development. As I currently value close connections with others, intuitive understanding, creativity and opportunities for self-development, it is quite clear why I do not become more organized.

Revealing such personal implications in this way can highlight why a person is 'stuck* and offer new understandings of the dilemma which then enables them to begin to make changes, to reconstruct, if that is what they choose to do.


Self-characterization (see Fransella and Dalton 1990) is a method of capturing the flavour of the idiosyncratic richness of the way individuals construe themselves and their worlds. It is used a great deal in therapy, but has applications in a variety of other contexts.

The instructions given to the participant are: 'Write a character sketch of yourself, as though you were the principal character in a play. Write it from the point of view of a friend, someone who knows you intimately and sympathetically, perhaps better than anyone really could know you.'

The resultant sketch will reveal, in part, the participant's truth, her story. We are not in the business of content analysis, nor checking off constructs used. Rather, we are looking at how the person construes, how constructs are integrated and what implications they are seen to have. The overall tone and character, the non-verbals of the sketch, also offer important insight. The sketch needs, in Kelly's terms, to be 'brought in to focus.' We, as co-researchers, are attempting to empathize to gain a glimpse into the world that the writer experiences, to understand their story. Understanding is best gained via a process of negotiation between the co-researchers. Statements such as 'it seems to me that... Is that right?' are useful for checking understanding. It is the script writer who is the final arbiter as they alone can offer personal validity. We must remember, however, that this is our here-and-now construing, not necessarily how things were or will be. Nevertheless, useful insight can be gained.


Participants sometimes prefer to use drawings to explore their construing. This initial freeing from language can give rise to more spontaneous expression and illuminate, perhaps more readily, the personal quality of the experience that language often fails to convey. Drawings are most often used in conjunction with other methods. They can be used in a multitude of effective ways: for example, to illustrate parts of an interview, to chart change, real or potential, to go beyond the words, to reveal more of the underlying meaning. There are clear links here with art therapy. Drawing skills are not necessary, and people can choose to represent themselves in all sorts of ways.

Cooperative analysis will include the non-verbal characteristics of the illustrations, such as size, positioning, and the use of colour. The researcher's understanding is best checked out by using proposirional statements like those mentioned above, so that it is the participant's interpretation, rather than the researcher's, that is illuminated.

88 Qualitative methods hi psychology Assessment

I will look first at some general limitations of personal construct psychology approaches. Our aim is, to the extent that we can, to gain an understanding of our participant's way of seeing, to enter their reality. It must be acknowledged that a complete understanding, an ability to experience the world 'as if we were them, is not possible. There are many barriers.

All the techniques rely on people's ability to introspect, to reflect on their experiences and assume that the idiosyncratic quality of such experiences can be captured and communicated via language. This is not so. Many have difficulty reflecting and the use of language is highly personal and inadequate to convey the total meaning of an event. Some experiencing is completely beyond words: listening to a piece of music or achieving a personal goal is active construing without language.

Some would claim that unconscious motives and physiology affect our experiencing but are unknown and therefore cannot be stated. Kelly had no truck with unconscious motives, but acknowledged that constructs are not always fully elaborated, in that one end, usually the difference, is submerged and therefore not available for conscious exploration. His concern was for the limitations this set for the individual, as people cannot be something they cannot construe. However, a knowledge of constructs lacking oppositional meaning is useful. As co-researchers our understanding is limited by our ability to relate effectively to the participants and thus to facilitate the telling of their story, by our capacity for open listening to the complete message and by our own frameworks of understanding.

There is the problem of reification, of believing that we have accessed some objective truth. All we have ever gained is our construction of a section of someone's current understanding, not their complete construct system. Reconstruction is always a possibility as the theoretical underpinning of current construing is one of change. We must remember not to generalize, that personally relevant constructs applied in a specific context are not necessarily applied in other settings.

There are further problems, which are connected to wider issues to do with qualitative research.

First is the notion that constructs oversimplify experience. Constructs are dimensions, not either/ors: people may be experienced by the construer as tense or relaxed to some degree. Constructs reside in our heads, they are the way we make sense of what is going on. Friendliness, for example, is a characteristic, with an idiosyncratic quality, used by me to interpret someone's behaviour — not their characteristic.

Connected to this is the debate that hinges on any distinctions between constructs and concepts. Kelly's aim was to develop a holistic approach, not one solely based on cognitions. He was clear about the distinctions. For him the world is comprised of processes (constructs), not things (concepts). He addressed this in the 1950s, actively choosing the term constructs, as unlike concepts they include an element of anticipation, based on recognition of patterns of experience and outcomes of personal actions. They are 'an interpretative act of someone' (Kelly 1955: 106), not a feature of the world. Constructs underpinned by dynamism, unlike concepts, open up possibilities and enable us to extend our understanding. The debate continues. Warren (1991) recognizes some similarity between prototypical (as opposed to classical) concepts and constructs, and claims that this 'is heartening for those who would wish to develop relations between personal construct theory and other perspectives in psychology' (p. 535). However, Warren (1991: 535) concludes that 'there is value in continuing to differentiate constructs and concepts.'

Personal construct psychology has been accused of being a cognitive approach at heart. This also has much to do with the confusion between construct and concept. Kelly distanced himself from a reductionist cognitive approach, which he regarded as a barrier to sensitive psychological enquiry, preventing study of the whole person. Experiences are rarely completely emotional, cognitive or rational. Construing is not thinking or feeling but an act of discrimination that may take place at many levels of awareness, from intuitive thought through to verbal, which then enables us to anticipate future events. We are forms of motion, an integrated whole, not separate systems of body and mind. Rational and intuitive knowing need to be acknowledged as equally valid, as integral parts of human experiencing.

There are two levels of criticism that focus on Kelly's neglect of the sociocultural context.

One concerns the lack of acknowledgement of the influence of prevailing ideologies on Kelly's understanding, and therefore on the emergent approach. It is true that Kelly paid little attention to the wider contextual influences. Although, from the vantage point of the 1990s, the values of the 1950s are clearly evident, this does not necessarily imply that they are no longer meaningful or appropriate. The format of his approach and his use of language illustrate his firm grounding in the times and his personal biography.

The second focuses on the neglect of the influence of the sociocultural context on construing. It is clear from Kelly's clinical work that he was aware of the impact of culture on people's construing. His sociality corollary and commonality corollary acknowledge that both individuals and groups influence a person's construing. Kelly's sociality corollary claims that to interact effectively we must, at least in pan, successfully construe the other's construction processes, we must empathize. The commonality corollary explains similarity of behaviour, not in terms of similarity of expectation, membership of the same cultural group or having similar experiences, as due to construing experiences in the same way, using a shared framework, which will inevitably have some rooting in cultural background. 'So the individualist standpoint taken by Kelly does not preclude one from construing aspects of life from a group or cultural standpoint' (Fransella 1984: 160).

The emphasis, nevertheless, is on individuals as agents of their own actions, shaping themselves by attaching personal meanings to what is going on rather than shaped via social construction; that is, a personal rather than social construction (Rychlak 1990). Clearly individuals and their contexts interact. The range of contexts a person is operating in at any one rime will influence their experiencing. However, it is the individual's understanding, the personal importance or otherwise of the contexts in their construing, that is the emphasis of personal construct psychology.

As the focus of personal construct psychology is the individual, we may fail to consider how our particular position in our sociocultural context frames our reality and limits our choices. However, the accounts we gain from personal construct approaches are explicitly subjective, which is indeed our aim and all that research can ever gain. Unlike positivist approaches, here it is the participant's understanding that is valued.

Useful reading

Bannister, D. and Fransella, F. (1986). Inquiring Matt: the Psychology of Personal

Constructs, 3rd edn. London: Croom Helm. Burr, R. and Butt, T. (1992). Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology. London: Whurr.

Dalton, P. and Dunnet, G. (1992). A Psychology for Living. Chichester: Wiley. Fransella, F. and Dalton, P. (1990). Personal Construct Counselling in Action. London: Sage.

Rowe, D. (1988). The Successful Self. London: Fontana.


Argyle, M. (1989). The Social Psychology of Work, 2nd edn. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bannister, D. and Botr, M. (1973). 'Evaluating the person' in P. Kline (ed.) New

Approaches in Psychological Measurement. London: Wiley. Cobb, S. and Kasl, S.V. (1977). Termination: the Consequences of Job Loss. Cincinnati: US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Dooley, D., Rook, K. and Catalano, R. (1987). 'Job and non-job stressors and their moderators'. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 60, 115-31.

DuBois, B. (1983). 'Passionate scholarship', in G. Bowles and R. Duelli Klein (eds) Theories of Women's Studies, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Fransella, F. (1984). 'The relationship between Kelly's constructs and Durkheira's representations', in R. Farr and S. Moscovici (eds) Social Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fransella, F. and Dalton, P. (1990). Personal Construct Counselling in Action. London: Sage.

Handy, C.B. (1985). Understanding Organisations, 3rd edn. Harmondsworth; Penguin.

Hinkle, D. (1965). 'The change of personal constructs from the viewpoint of a theory of construct implications'. Unpublished PhD thesis, Ohio State University.

Jackson, S.E. (1983). 'Participation in decision making as a strategy for reducing job-related strain'. Journal of Applied Psychology, 68, 3-19.

Jahoda, M. (1988) 'Opening address: the range of convenience of personal construct psychology - an outsider's view' in F. Fransella and L. Thomas (eds) Experimenting with Personal Construct Psychology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Volumes 1 and 2. New York: Norton (reprinted by Routledge, 1991).

Kelly, G.A. (1986). A Brief Introduction to Personal Construct Theory. London: Centre for Personal Construct Psychology.

Landfield, A.W. (1971). Personal Construct Systems in Psychotherapy. New York: Rand McNally.

Roskies, E. and Louis-Guerin, C. (1990). 'Job insecurity in managers: antecedants and consequences'. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 11(5), 345-61.

Rowe, D. (1988). The Successful Self. London: Fontana.

Rychlak, J.F. (1990). 'George Kelly and the concept of construction1. International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology, 3(1), 7-19.

Thomas, L.F. (1979). 'Construct, reflect and converse: the conversational reconstruction of social realities* in P. Stringer and D. Bannister (eds) Constructs of Sociality and Individuality. London: Academic Press.

Tschudi, F. (1977). 'Loaded and honest quesrions', in D. Bannister (ed.) New Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory. London: Academic Press.

Warren, B. (1991). 'Concepts, constructs, cognitive psychology and personal construct theory'. Journal of Psychology, 125(5), 525-36.

Wilkinson, S. (1988). 'The role of reflexivity in feminist psychology'. Women's Studies International Forum, 11(5), 493-502.


My thanks to Alex for his cooperation and to Sue Lewis for her constructive comments.

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