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The Psychology of Personal Constructs



What is PCP?
The Psychology of Personal Constructs was introduced in 1955 by the (North) American psychologist and psychotherapist George A. Kelly as a new approach to psychology which focusses on the meanings that people attach to persons, situations and events they encounter. These meanings, the "personal constructs" of a person, serve also as guidelines for the actions one takes to cope with the demands and challenges of life. PCP is therefore not just another "cognitive theory of personality" as some have written but refers to a much wider view of the "human condition".

While much of contemporary psychology is devoted to finding general laws of human behaviour (with a "nomothetic" research interest: nomos means "law") and tries to locate its roots in biology, PCP is more interested in the individual person's way of looking at life, albeit embedded in the social environment, therefore pursuing an "idiographic" (idios means "own" or specific) research interest.

At the same time, Kelly designed an instrument to use for research on and assessment of personal constructs, the Repertory Grid Technique, which now catches the interest even of researchers and practitioners not based in Personal Construct Psychology. The idiographic, or individual centred, nature of the theory invites a qualitative approach, yet the Repertory Grid Technique lends itself also to a quantitative analysis of constructs and construct systems, thus reconciliating these approaches that are often viewed as antagonistic.



Is PCP the same as "constructivism"?
Not exactly. Both share the idea that the concept of a fixed "reality" outside human perception is at least questionable. The term "constructivism" comprises a multitude of approaches, including the "radical constructivism" connected to the names of Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Heinz von Foerster and others, and "social constructionism" advanced e. g. by Kenneth and Mary Gergen.

The Psychology of Personal Constructs is based in a cogently elaborated theory that focusses more on the individual's construing of the world, although acknowledging that these are partly generated and certainly mediated through social conditions and forces.

Some of the differences between approaches refer to the, perhaps somewhat "academic" question:
  • is there "really" a "real" world "out there" - or does it exist only in our imagination? PCP people think that, in any case, we act "as if" it exists out there. 
  • Or: are we really "only ourselves" (philosophically spoken, "solipsistic") - or are we what the social environment makes us? PCP people think that the environment is important but that it is us as persons who have to make sense of it and have to deal with it - using our constructs. 
This is probably why PCP is attractive to practitioners in various fields, from the clinical to education and the business world.



What can I read to get an idea of  PCP?
An easy way is to check some of the Introductory Papers on this site (see Essential Readings). Online information can also be found in the Internet Encyclopaedia of PCP where scholars from around the world are continuously working on providing easily accessible information on the theory and practice of PCP.
  • A very good book to start with is "Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology" by Vivien Burr and Trevor Butt of Huddersfield in England (2nd edition published as Butt & Burr). 
  • The most comprehensive book is the "International Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology", published in 2003, edited by Fay Fransella.,
  • and its light-weight offspring, the "Essential Practitioner's Handbook on PCP".
  • A successor to Fransella's Handbook is the "Wiley Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology", edited by David Winter and Nick Reed in 2016.
  • Similarly, the classic "Manual of Repertory Grid Technique" (2nd edition as Fransella, Bell, Bannister) was followed by an
  • "Easy Guide to Repertory Grids" by Devi Jankowicz.
A comprehensive list of books can be found here. You might also try the American mail order book "shop" Amazon to find out about available books on PCP.

The (North American) Constructivist Psychology Network (CPN) has opened an online bookshop at: http://www.constructivistpsych.org/bookstore.html



What about the "real stuff" - Kelly's own?
The two volume "opus magnum" of 1955 has been reprinted in 1991, and is still available, e. g. through Amazon. The three introductory chapters have been published separately and may serve as an introduction to the theory.

Then there is an out-of-print collection of later articles where Kelly further development some of his ideas, published in 1969 as "Clinical Psychology and Personality", edited by Brendan Maher (see books).

A number of Kelly's papers is available online on various websites,



Where can I find information on PCP on the Internet?
  • There are currently about 70 Web Sites in 10 countries on the Internet that are devoted to PCP. They include homepages of academic institutions, of organisations devoted to PCP, commercial training centres, and others, such as homepages of individuals involved in PCP. See Resources.
  • Up-to-date information on PCP-related events is in the PCP News Blog.
  • The Internet Encyclopaedia of PCP provides comprehensive information on the theory
  • The online journal Personal Construct Theory & Practice publishes PCP-related articles regularly
  • A web site with resources for studying PCP, especially the applications, is currently in preparation. Watch out for the PCP Toolkit!
  • Another way of obtaining Internet information is through search engines such as Google and Google Scholar using the keywords "Personal Construct Psychology", "Repertory Grid", or "George Kelly".
  • Recently, several free access repositories have benn established, with many PCP-related articles available: ResearchGate and Academia.edu.
  • If you are interested in Web Sites covering related subjects such as constructivism in general or the "radical" variant of the Maturana school in particular, check the Radical Constructivism Web Site in Vienna.


Are there academic journals devoted to PCP?
The International Journal of PCP was introduced in 1988 and has since extended its focus to constructivism in general, under the name of Journal of Constructivist Psychology (JCP). It is available at a considerable discount for members of the (North American) Constructivist Psychology Network (CPN), the European Personal Construct Association (EPCA), and the Australasian Personal Construct Group  (APCG).

In 2004, the free online jornal
Personal Construct Theory & Practice was established.



Is a PCP based approach accepted in academic research?
Yes. Many PhD theses, and theses written for a Master's, Diploma etc degree have been successfully submitted. The problem is often to find a supervisor with knowledge of PCP in the faculty. A hardcore "rats and stats" department may be reluctant to accept PCP work but normally PCP research provides "numbers" and "stats" to a sufficient degree to convince "evidence based" examiners...

In many cases, the PCP mailing lists are valuable sources of advice, and list members are generally very supportive of newcomers.



I have recently discovered PCP and would like to use repertory grids in my research - but my supervisor is not knowledgeable about PCP.
This is a problem encountered by many. You may send questions to one of the PCP mailing lists - the members are usually very supportive - but: PLEASE do your maths first by studying the basic literature (see essentials) and try to be as specific as possible with your questions.



What is a Repertory Grid?
A Repertory Grid is a device invented by George Kelly to elicit personal constructs. He made use of the very general principle that our concepts, ideas, notions, attitudes are based on "comparing", i. e. looking for similarities and differences. The method uses comparisons of (normally) triads of relevant items (e. g.persons who are important for the respondent, technically called "elements") to elicit bipolar (two-ended) descriptions that are interpreted as indications of the "constructs" he/she uses in dealing with the world. This is repeated several times with other triads, resulting in a two-dimensional matrix (the "grid") of numbers where every number stands for the assessment of an element with respect to a construct. This is than open to various interpretations, either directly or with the help of statistical procedures.

In a way, a repertory grid is like a questionnaire that the respondent has devised him/herself - guided by the interviewer, where the self-defined constructs function as test items.

More information here.



Can I learn administering a repertory grid from books or do I need personal training?
Basically, it is recommended to receive personal training because the administration is a kind of interview, i. e. an interpersonal situation where things can "go wrong", e.g. influenced by unnoticed biases etc. So the best way is to learn from an expert who has done a number of grids him/herself.

But of course, good books are extremely useful to acquire the basics. In English, we would recommend Jankowicz's "Easy Guide to RG" or the more comprehensive classic "Fransella-Bell-Bannister" (see books).



Is PCP only for psychologists?
No. PCP was developed by a psychologist and its prime area has been clinical psychology and psychotherapy. However, during the last sixry years, the range of application of the theory has transcended the boundaries of clinical psychology, and even of psychology as a whole. Cognitive science, education, architecture, nursing, social work, organisational development, sociology, even theology are among the disciplines in which the personal construct approach has proved fruitful.



Is PCP just a theory or are there practical applications?
PCP was conceived as a theory that informs practice. Originally developed in clinical psychology (i. e. as a tool in helping people with psychological "disorders"), it did not take long until people working as consultants in organisations discovered the power of the approach, and also in education where it is obvious that valuing the diversity of the individual children is crucial.



Is there some kind of training available where I can learn about the theory as well as the various applications?
At this time, systematic training in PCP is offered in the UK, in Italy, in Spain and in Serbia. In the UK there are two institutions: the PCP Centre at the University of Hertfordshire, founded by Fay Fransella, and PCPA, the Personal Construct Association, They offer curricula with PCP training in the clinical field and in the application of PCP in organisations, development and consulting. In Italy, there are training centres in Rome, Florence and Padova, in Spain in Barcelona and Salamanca, in Serbia in Belgrade. Find out about details here.

The most recent initative is the International Lab hostet by the Institute of Constructivist Psychology (ICP) in Padua which will offer foundation courses in PCP, beginning in 2017, see InfoFlyer.



Is PCP-based training officially recognised, e. g. in psychotherapy?
In the UK, there is a charter of psychotherapists, and PCP therapy is officially recognised. In some countries, a more general understanding of "constructivist psychotherapy" has led to the establishment of training institutions. A European network of people involved in constructivist psychotherapies (the ECTN)  has  been set up by Massimo Giliberto in Padova, Dusan Stojnov in Belgrade, and Mary Frances in the UK.



Where in the world is PCP represented?
PCP originated in the USA. Hence it spread first to English speaking countries: The UK, Canada, Australia. During the last 20 years however, in Italy, Spain, Serbia and to a lesser extent in some other European countries, an ever growing number of people became involved in PCP. The body of existing literature as well as the messages exchanged within the International PCP email networks show that PCP is now literally a world-wide movement, from Chili to Norway to Hong Kong and New Zealand. And apart from Antarctica, all continents are represented in the readership of the online journal PCT&P.



Where can I meet people working in PCP?
It depends on where you live and whether you have the opportunity to travel. Apart from conferences, there are local groups that have regular meetings. In the UK, there are several regional "interest groups". You will find more information on the web sites of regional, national and local organisations.

A good way to meet people is to attend a national or international conference.



Are there "chat rooms" or discussion lists for people interested in PCP?
We don't know of any chat rooms but there are several discussion lists that people interested in PCP can join. The general Mailing list maintained by the British 'jiscmail' service, and a specific research-oriented list called PCPtools (also at jiscmail), PCP-related groups are also on Facebook and LinkedIn.



Are there organisations devoted to PCP?
PCP people are not very "organisation minded" and have reservations about too formal organisations. Hence the "George Kelly Society" which maintains these websites waa established only in 2016. However, three "regional" associations exist: The Constructivist Psychology Network (CPN) in North America, the European Personal Construct Association (EPCA) and the Australasian Personal Construct Group (APCG). And there are some national organisations, as documented here.

The latest development is the establishment of networks that focus on certain issues, such as the Constructivist Psychotherapy Network  (see above). Within the Geroge Kelly Society there will be interest Groups devoted to the further development of PCP methodology, PCP and the arts, PCP and poliics, and more.



Where and when are conferences on PCP being held?
The outstanding event is the International Congress on PCP held every two years, generally alternating between North America, Europe (including the UK!) and Austral(as)ia. The latest one was held in 2015 in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, UK, the 2017 congress will be in Canada. For a list of past and future conferences click here.

Regional conferences are held in North America, Europe (incl. UK) and Australasia biennually in the year between the International Congresses. In 2016, the European conference was in Padua (Italy).

Then there are national and local meetings. Information is available from websites of the respective groups.

It can be said that newcomers have found the conferences usually extremely helpful because the PCP people attending are generally experienced as being very supportive and hardly ever "competitive".



Where can I find regular information on what's going on in PCP?
You can subscribe to the PCP mailing list at jiscmail but you should also check the GKS News Blog regularly where you'll find information about conferences, new books, organisations and various other developments, including, sadly, obituaries. Members of the George Kelly Society receive a newsletter with the latest topics of interest.



Finally - could it be that PCP is just another little sect in the untidy field of the "psycho-boom"?
Well, the suspected members of a "sect" are probably not the most authentic people to ask. But it can be said that people involved in PCP are simply scholars and practitioners who have found the ideas and tools provided by PCP useful in their professional practice. But it's true that the PCP "movement" ist not really booming, and small groups with a specialised professional language and a body of scriptures provided by a supersized inaugurator - like George Kelly without doubt was - are easily suspected to be followers of a sect or cult.

It is still a relatively small group of persons who have come across PCP. This is in part due to the quantitatively limited access to publications on PCP. It can be hoped for - and there are indications for it happening - that the arrival of the Internet will foster the spreading of the ideas that constitute PCP - - -  because "we" think that the PCP approach is better equipped than many other "schools" in the psychological and social sciences to understand (and potentially improve) the "Human Condition". But we may be wrong - because, if we follow Kelly, there are always alternative constructions possible - - -





© Jörn Scheer  2016
Last update 15 July 2016