Re: Boundaries of PCP

Bob Green (
Mon, 22 Feb 1999 20:52:54 +1000

In response to Ian Yeoman's question:

>Point for discussion: What are the boundaries of PCP? What do I mean! What
>of understanding and knowledge is PCP not very good at eliciting from people.
>What are the drawbacks of PCP
>Ian Yeoman
>Napier University Business School

I have posted a section of a review I wrote for a Master's thesis. I had a
quick read and there are things I would change given I wrote this several
years ago (especially re sociality), however I think the broad issues raised
may still be relevant.


Bob Green

While it is beyond the scope of this review to comprehensively analyse
Kelly's theory, the following aspects of his theory will be critically

1. As anticipating the future involves the ability to recognise or recall
the similarity of an experience or event with past experience, the
distinction between episodic and semantic memory (Tulving 1972, Tulving
1983) is relevant. Tulving argues memory is not a unitary phenomena but can
be classified into categories, such as procedural (skills) and propositional
(knowledge) memory. The distinction between episodic and semantic memory
belongs to the latter category. While episodic memory, "... is involved in
the recording and subsequent retrieval of memories of personal happenings
and doings ...", semantic memory refers to the general or shared, "...
knowledge of the world that is independent of a person's identity and past"
(Tulving 1983, p.9). Episodic memory as hypothesised by Tulving provides
support for the proposition that an individual's construc-tion system
provides a personal context for the recall of past experiences (Mancuso and
Adams-Webber 1982).

Support for Kelly's contention that prediction is based on
likeness/difference comes from normative research into the representative
heuristic (Kahneman and Tversky 1984). However, this research suggests that
such representative-based prediction may be flawed because the likelihood of
an event occurring is ignored.

2. Fundamental to Kelly's notion of anticipation and choice is the
development of the individual's construct system in terms of extension and
definition. Botella and Gallifa (1993) provide support for this view when
commenting on the literature on expertise, "Experts in a given domain have
been consistently found to have a richer conceptual structure of that domain
-- i.e., higher cognitive complexity -- than non-experts ..." (p.8).
However, the literature reporting a lack of agreement between experts, and
the problems associated with learning from experience (Brehmer 1986, Garb
1989, Dawes 1989), cannot be overlooked. Also of relevance is the review of
Gambrill (1990) which reported that experts differ more from novices when
solving structured problems.

Kelly was certainly aware of the difficulty in learning from experience,
questioning, "... just what it is a successful prediction confirms" (p.38).
He went on to state, "At best, the confirmation of a prediction is no more
than tentative evidence that one may be on the track of something" (Kelly
1970, p.39). For Kelly this tentative support may be as much as can be
expected in an uncertain world, where behaviour was conceived of as an,
"independent variable" rather than as a, "dependent variable". It can be
inferred that Kelly addressed this apparent contradiction concerning the
role of anticipation when he stated,
... however useful prediction may be in testing the transient utility of
one's construction system, the superior test of what he has devised is its
capacity to implement imaginative action (Kelly 1969, p.33).

3. Practitioners (Yorke 1978, Bonarius 1984, Thomas and Harri-Augstein 1985,
Millis and Neimeyer 1990, Riemann 1990), have questioned Kelly's dichotomy
corollary, namely that constructs are bipolar. For example, qualification
to this corollary has been recommended on the basis of research which found
that only about half of the constructs elicited by 22 students were bipolar
(Riemann 1990). It was concluded that although constructs can be bipolar,
they are not exclusively so. Despite this qualification, Riemann describes
examining contrast as necessary to the exploration of personal meaning.

4. The insularity of Personal Construct Theory from developments in other
fields has been described and noted as a challenge for the revitalisation of
the theory (Bonarius 1984, Neimeyer 1985). These comments are qualified by
the observation that the insularity of the theory served an important
sociological function in its development (Neimeyer 1985). More recently, a
trend has been noted toward the incorporation of other approaches by
Personal Construct Theory (Winter 1992).

Further, Kelly has particularly been criticised (for his lack of knowledge
concerning his philosophical predecessors (Holland 1977) and that his theory
would have been richer if he had been able to draw on these traditions
(Holland 1970). Kelly's polemical caricatures of other approaches has been
criticised both from outside the theory circle (Holland 1970) and from
within (cited in Neimeyer 1985). It follows that if the theory is not to
become a set of dogmas it needs to be open to change and elaboration (Winter

5. A controversial aspect of Kelly's theory is the importance placed on the
person and personal responsibility, an emphasis which has been referred to
as, "crusading individualism" (Holland 1977). While it is simplistic to
suggest Kelly was ignorant of social processes, this aspect of his theory
has been described as subject to, "astonishing neglect" (Duck 1983). It is
interesting, that where subsequent theorists have suggested additional
corollaries, their additions have concerned social processes (see Winter
1992 for examples). Kelly's theory has been criticised on three broad
grounds with respect to social processes, (1) for not adequately addressing
the social origins of construing (Procter and Parry 1978, Tyler 1981), (2)
for seeing social processes only in terms of individual processes (Jahoda
1988) and (3) overemphasising the extent to which persons are free to choose
(Foulds 1973, Tyler 1981).

While Bannister does not specifically address these issues, he does
eloquently articulate his personal movement between an interest in both
politics and psychology (Bannister 1979). He concludes that politics and
psychology are not mutually exclusive and that Kelly's theory provides a
basis for critical and reflexive thought, and consequently for active
choice. Similarly, Kelly's contribution has been seen as laying a blueprint
for action rather than, "... viewing the individual merely as a passive
occupant of socially determined roles" (Procter and Parry 1978, p.158).
While it has been argued that broader social processes are beyond the scope
of the theory (Jahoda 1988), Chiari and Nuzzo (1993) assert that Personal
Construct Theory has the potential to align itself and contribute to, "...
the more explicitly social-oriented, avant-garde constructivism" (p.8).

6. Two further issues are related to choice. Firstly, there is criticism
that the focus of Kelly's theory is on anticipation, and the elaboration of
personal constructs, to the exclusion of other goals. Thus the question has
been posed by Foulds (1976) as to whether Casanova should be construed as an
unusually persistent scientist. In partial reply, it can be argued that,
"... Kelly did not assert that people always function as if they were exact
replicas of the hallowed model of the competent scientist" (Mancuso and
Adams-Webber 1982, p.31).

Further, Husain (1983) argued that,
... constructs cannot be man's only intellectual tool for interpreting the
given data of his experience, since the data do not only stand in relations
of true bipolarity to each other (p.18).

Attention has been directed towards extending the focus of the Fundamental
Postulate to include the processing of other sensory stimuli (Mancuso and
Hunter 1983) and to include the role of personal and situation induced goals
(Applegate 1990).

Secondly, Kelly's assertion that constructs are imposed on events is
questioned by the argument that, "One could not predict the future course of
events unless events were already accessible as an intelligible category
..." (Husain 1983, p.12). Yorke (1988) has thus suggested,

The linearity of the Postulate seems to conceal a circularity, for
how can a person anticipate events without in some way having
already established psychological channels towards them? (p.80).

Rather than generally attempting to specify the relationship between events
and a person's representation of events, Mancuso and Adams-Weber (1982) have
reviewed the literature on cognition and described construing in terms of
the interplay between changing constructs and the environment. The point is
also made that even sensory data are not imposed on a passive receptor, but
are subject to personal cognition and interpretation, in accord with Kelly's

Because of Kelly's emphasis on personal construing, he has been accused of
solipsism (Foulds 1976). The broader issue is whether his theory is too
subjective, i.e., if Personal Construct Theory is just one of many
alternative constructions, does it or any other construction have any
meaning beyond itself. This issue has been reframed within a Personal
Construct perspective as the question, "... to what extent is objectivity
possible?" (Warren 1992, p.1). Quoting the philosopher Max Deutscher, that,
"Objectivity is an intelligent use of our subjectivity, not an escape from
it ..." (p.8), Warren writes of Personal Construct Theory: "It's value lies
in returning integrity to 'subject' ..." (Warren 1992, pp.9-10).

Personal Construct Theory has also been described as a "methodological
theory" which seeks to broaden the scope of psychology through an
exploration and communication of subjectivity (Mair 1970). Chiari and Nuzzo
(1993) argue that through an epistemology of participation between the
observer and the observed, that constructivism allows the transcendence of
both objectivism and subjectivism.

Clearly many of the issues raised in relation to Personal Construct Theory
reflect major philosophical debates, such as induction versus deduction,
free-will versus determinism, idealism versus realism and objectivity versus
subjectivity and relativism. It would be presumptuous to suggest this
review, Personal Construct Theory or any other theory has "resolved" these
issues. Rather, an attempt has been made to identify underlying assumptions
as well as the philosophical dimensions of the theory. Prior to providing
an overall summary of the literature which has been reviewed, research based
on Personal Construct Theory will be outlined to demonstrate relevant
research applications.


The repertory grid technique developed by Kelly has been applied to
construing in a wide range of clinical areas such as HIV positive men,
depressed and obsessional patients, offenders, anorexics and, the joint
construing of married couples (Winter 1992). Other applications include
examining the integration of Special Hospital patients into the community
(Norris 1984), and uses in diverse areas such as preference in architecture,
political analysis and the impact of professional training (Adams-Webber
1979). Of particular relevance is research which has examined the
construing of mental health professionals (Winter et al. 1987, Tooth 1992).....