2.1 THE BASIC REPERTORY GRID

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‘Grid’ is actually a generic term for a number of simple rating-scale

procedures. They’re all used for arriving at straightforward descriptions of

how a person views the world, or some smaller part of it, in his or her own

terms.

The result of these procedures looks like a set of rating scales printed one

above the other, with the ratings arranged in rows and columns into a table or

grid. Like a rating scale, a grid can be about anything. Grid procedures result

in information which can have an enormous range of applications, and some

of these are illustrated in Table 2.1. I shall be drawing on these fields of

application to provide examples throughout.

As you can see, they are grouped according to your possible interests; and here

I’d like to make a suggestion. While it makes sense to stay focused on your own

2.1 The Basic Repertory Grid . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

2.2 An Example of a Completed Repertory Grid . . . . . . . . . . . 16

2.3 Points to Remember. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

Things to Do. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

Things to Read . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

Table 2.1 A brief list of applications in which a repertory grid can be used (there are

many more!)

Some general applications

. Understanding how a person important to you thinks about things that matter to

you.

. Forming a fast impression of a person’s likes and dislikes.

. The systematic description and exchange of views between two people, as a way of

recording and monitoring the process of friendship formation.

. Describing an individual’s opinions as part of an attitude survey.

. Gossiping systematically with your partner about your mutual friends.

. Simple problem solving: for example, an artist seeking to resolve a creative ’block’.

. Simple decision making: for example, which model of car to buy.

Some educational applications

. The assessment of a set of teachers by their students, as a course evaluation and

feedback device.

. The description of a set of ideas, techniques, examples, or illustrations by the pupils

who are meant to be learning them, to discover what the pupils have learnt, and,

perhaps more valuably, how they have learnt them.

. The systematic recording and assessment of a set of programme components, as part

of a programme evaluation.

. The collection of experts’, or clients’, views about different educational philosophies.

. The description of the ways in which a person thinks about their friends, in order to

understand the person, or in support of a counselling relationship with that person.

. Identifying a person’s understanding of their options in order to help them to make a

career choice.

Some occupational applications

. Knowledge capture and, particularly, the clarification of tacit knowledge.

. Recording the variety of opinions which exist in a group of managers or employees,

as part of a team-building exercise.

. Analysing the different stakeholder positions held among a group of employees.

. The systematic description of job responsibilities in order to develop a competency

framework for the job in question.

. The development of a performance appraisal scheme for a job in which the preferred

ways of doing tasks are initially vague, underspecified, or expressed as ‘motherhoods’

rather than as precise performance specifications.

. The development of a new product by building on consumers’ ideas about, and

preferences for, existing products.

. The training of quality controllers for products, services, and processes where the

definition of ‘quality’ depends on initially underspecified, expert judgement.

Clinical applications

Many and varied: the repertory grid was first devised in the context of clinical

psychology. I’m not qualified to make useful statements in that field, but Winter (1992)

is the definitive text should your interests lie there.

field of application when working through the examples, it would be wise to

attend to the examples in other fields, too. You might be in teacher training,

attracted to the examples in education or assessment. Nevertheless, bear with

me, and look at the occupational examples, too, since I’ll be using them to

illustrate points which are relevant to your own use of grids. You might be a

manager working under pressure to devise a competency framework; but you

should follow the educational applications, too, for the same reason. And you

might be a student in these, or related, fields. No doubt everyone will find the

‘general’ applications interesting and attend to them anyway.

You should know that there are other types of grid, too (for example, the Implications

Grid; Hinkle,1965); and you should be aware that there are other ways of identifying

thewaysinwhicha person seestheworld, of which themost important isprobably the

Self-Characterisation Technique (Kelly, 1955/1991: 323). No numbers or ratings are

used in this approach: it’s allwords! There’smore on this in Section 4.3.2.

2.1.1 The Basic Constituents of a Grid

Every grid consist of four components:

. topic

. elements

. constructs

. ratings.

Of these, the most important for the time being are constructs.

Constructs

Our basic unit of description and analysis is called a construct. We construe

things by means of constructs. To construe is to make sense of something; to

have a personal understanding of it; to find meaning in it. When I spoke about

‘viewing the world’ and of ‘ways of seeing’ earlier on, I was talking about

construing.

The following are all constructs:

Pleasant – Rude

Warm and sunny – Cold and windy

A good teacher – An ineffective teacher

Ensures I’ve understood his point – Doesn’t check if he’s made sense

A risky business strategy – A safe business strategy

Reliable – Unreliable

Usually comes in late for work – Always comes to work on time

When you read these examples, insert the words ‘as opposed to’ in place of the

dashes. It’s ‘pleasant, as opposed to rude’; ‘warm and sunny, as opposed to

cold and windy’; and so on. A construct always represents a contrast, and you

need to spell out the contrast before you can be sure of the meaning intended

by the whole construct.

George Kelly, who first developed repertory grid technique (in a form known as the

Role Construct Repertory Test), also developed something rather more important:

an explicit theory of human understanding called Personal Construct Theory (Kelly,

1955/1991). One of the central assumptions of the theory is that reality and what we

make of it is built up of contrasts rather than absolutes.‘A person’s construct system

is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs’, is howhe put it.

We simply don’t know what ‘a good teacher’means unlessweare awarewhat alternatives

are possible.To say that a personis‘pleasant’ ismeaninglessunlessit’s saidwith

some idea that there were other options available; otherwise, so what? And if the

person is not pleasant, inwhat way is he or she not pleasant?

And so, in expressing ameaning, the most useful comparison to make is the contrast

rather than the negative: the particularopposing or contrasted possibility you have in

mind. ‘Pleasant’ as opposed to ‘not pleasant’ (the negative) is useless! The precise

flavour of theword‘pleasant’, the precise meaningweintend, can be understood best

if weidentify the particular contrast which is being implicitly conveyed.

To say someone is ‘pleasant as opposed to rude’ carries a different meaning of

‘pleasant’ than to say that someone is‘pleasant as opposed to exciting’. In the former

case, ‘pleasant’ includes politeness, but in the latter, a kind of placidity: ‘merely

pleasant, maybe even a bit humdrum’.

And so, if you wish to understand how an individual sees the world, in his or

her own terms, you need to find out that person’s constructs.

It’s fatally easy to talk to someone and think that we’ve understood them, but

unless we do so in their own terms – which means finding out what their

personal constructs are – we run the risk of simply laying our own thinking on to

them. Have you ever filled out a form, done a questionnaire, or taken a

psychological test, and felt that none of the questions asked, or alternatives

offered you, gave you a chance to say what you really thought? Infuriating, no?

The requirement that constructs should always be spelt out in full makes sure

that you have captured meaning precisely. Very often, people elicit grids in

order to go beyond the obvious and banal; to discover exactly what some other

person means, or understands, in a given situation. In many of the applications

shown in Table 2.1, grids are used in order to avoid the mindless clicheґs and

banalities thrown up by alternative techniques. Think of the last course

feedback form you filled in for your lecturer, or the typical performance

appraisal questionnaire you had to complete . . .

Topic

People have constructs about anything and everything. A grid is always

conducted about a particular topic, with the intention of eliciting just those

constructs which the person uses in making sense of that particular realm of

discourse – that particular slice of their experience. In discovering the

constructs, you discover how the person thinks, what meanings s/he usually

discerns, about that topic.

Also, while a single construct can be used to make sense of many different

people, situations, and events (people may be ‘reliable’ as opposed to

‘unreliable’, but so can cars, supervisors, pubs, and interviews, for example), it

tends to have a certain range of convenience. In other words, it is more

likely to be used for some topics, and not for others, by the individual

concerned. I might construe lots of people, situations, and events in terms of

‘comfortable – painful’, but I would normally restrict the construct

‘incandescent – luminescent’ to a discussion of light sources. (Unless I

wanted to describe someone as ‘incandescent with rage’, I suppose. But you

take my point about the relatively narrow range of convenience of

‘incandescent – luminescent’ compared with a construct like ‘comfortable –

painful’.)

And there are some constructs that I simply don’t possess, for any topic,

because I don’t have dealings with those particular topics. The constructs lie

outside my personal repertoire. Constructs such as ‘distributive – integrative’,

which I had to look up in a book on industrial bargaining, or ‘highly leveraged

– unleveraged’, which is something to do with management buyouts and

similarly beyond my ken.

Which suggests a use in the exploration of other people’s repertoires. Grids are

a very good way of understanding professional and occupational private

languages: the technical jargons of teachers, educational administrators,

managers, and entrepreneurs, the more specialised languages of teablenders

and steelworkers; of wine tasters and pilots; of tailors and cutters

besides. Bring me a flint-knapper and I’ll tell you his language.

In doing a grid on a particular topic, you only discover a part of a person’s

repertoire. Be assured that there are many more constructs, a wealth of

different ways of thinking about experience, which the individual no doubt

possesses about other topics that you haven’t dealt with.

A grid, then, is a highly focused technique, in which the topic must always be

clearly specified in advance. Later sections go into this issue in greater depth,

in discussing the notion of a person’s construct system and the ways in which

it is structured and hangs together.

Elements

The way you identify a set of constructs on a given topic is very

straightforward. You provide an interviewee with plenty of examples of that

topic, and discover the ways in which s/he puts those examples together.

Think of any three people known to you. Can you think of some characteristic

which two of them have in common, and in which they differ from the third?

‘Well,’ you might say, ‘Mary is fairly shy, but compared to her, John and Lucy

are a lot more outgoing; is that the sort of thing you mean?’

Exactly so. We’ve discovered that you have a construct, ‘shy as opposed to

outgoing’, which you use when the topic is ‘friends’; and we’ve done this by

providing you with examples of the topic: Mary, Lucy, and John. These

‘examples of a topic’ are known as elements.

An element is an example of, exemplar of, instance of, sampling of, or

occurrence within, a particular topic.

A set of elements is compared systematically to discover a person’s

constructs.

As you might imagine, choosing the right set of elements is a crucial aspect in

doing a grid; it indicates the realm of discourse, and helps to determine the

kinds of constructs you’ll obtain by hinting at the range of convenience

involved.

I shall have plenty more to say on this shortly. For the time being, to give you a

flavour of what elements look like, Table 2.2 provides some typical ones. As

you can see, practically anything can be an element! I once did a market

research activity in which the elements were different cheeses, and the

interviewees’ constructs about cheeses were obtained by asking them to

systematically compare the elements – by tasting them.

Ratings

Grids are very powerful, and for two reasons, the first of which you can

anticipate already. They allow people to express their views by means of their

own constructs, not yours – in other words, to talk about the world in their own

terms. No one can object that someone else’s assumptions have been laid on

them; no one has put words into the person’s mouth. I’m sure you can think of

many situations in which this is desirable.

Secondly, once you as the investigator have discovered a person’s constructs,

the person’s own terms of reference, the grid will allow you to identify exactly

what the other person means when s/he uses those terms. Each element is

rated on each construct, to provide an exact picture of what the person wishes

to say about each element within the topic.

Between them, the elements, constructs, and ratings of elements on constructs

provide you with a kind of mental map: a precise statement of the way in which

the individual thinks of, gives meaning to, construes, the topic in question.