3.2.3 Specifying Constructs

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The investigator doesn’t choose the constructs. They are elicited from the

interviewee, and are, in that sense, the interviewee’s. However, there’s a lot

you can do to ensure that the constructs represent what the interviewee wants

to tell you, while being informative and useful to yourself.

In that sense, a ‘good’ construct is one which expresses your interviewee’s

meaning fully and precisely, and this is a matter of three things:

(a) a clear contrast

(b) appropriate detail

(c) a clear relationship to the topic in question.

As we saw in Section 2.1.1, it should have two clearly contrasted poles. These

would rarely be logical opposites, such as ‘happy versus not happy’, but

would contain a pole which says, somewhat more specifically, ‘in what way

‘‘not happy’’ ’, in order to illuminate ‘in what way ‘‘happy’’ ’. To know that

someone is ‘happy as opposed to sad’ is to know something rather different

about his or her state of mind than that he is ‘happy as opposed to furious’.

A ‘good’ construct is also one which is appropriately detailed. This means that

the interviewee has had to think, often quite hard, about what s/he really

means when using a particular label – prompted by yourself, as the

investigator, making what is at times a somewhat intrusive judgement that

the interviewee isn’t really doing himself or herself justice.

For example, if your topic is ‘effective management’ and your elements are

various people known to your interviewee who are more effective, and less

effective, as managers, alarm bells would go off if you started to elicit

constructs such as

Leads the team – Not a team player

On the ball – Takes his eyes off the ball

Charismatic – Lacks charisma

Good at the job – Bad at the job

Sticks to the knitting – Vague and woolly

and that self-serving hypocrisy of our times,

On-message – Off-message

Clicheґ, motherhood, and apple pie, anything which sounds like Eduspeak,

Suitspeak, or Politspeak, as it were, needs to be handled with benevolent


At this point, your own empathy, sensitivity, and sheer gut feelings have a

part to play, and help to inform a judgement which you must make. These

constructs may be provided by someone who has never thought about the

issue before. Consequently, they could be clicheґs which reflect insufficient

consideration and don’t represent the interviewee’s actual views. Alternatively,

they might indeed represent his or her views precisely! You need to

check out which it is.

Your judgement involves two rather distinct issues.

(a) From what you know of this interviewee (his or her age, educational

background, experience, job title, role, vocabulary, status, and manner

during the interview), is s/he likely to have more thoughtful and detailed

constructs to put in place instead of each of these? And, assuming the

answer to this question is ‘yes’, then

(b) bearing in mind the use to which your information is likely to be put, are

the constructs being expressed in a sufficiently operational way? In other

words, can the interviewee say in more useful detail what personal,

behavioural expectations each of these constructs represents?

Handling constructs like these is very straightforward, and the same technique

is used, regardless of whether the issue is (a) or (b).

Laddering Down

You ask the simple question, ‘How do you mean; in what way?’ and use the

answer as the construct to be noted in the grid sheet, rather than the one which was

first offered. This question can be asked in a variety of ways: you have plenty of


. ‘What sort of thing do you have in mind when you say a person is, or isn’t, a

team player?’

. ‘How do you mean, ‘‘on the ball’’?’

. ‘Charisma, now. What do people who are charismatic do, that’s different

from those who lack charisma?’

. ‘Can you suggest a particular and important way of being good at the job?’

. ‘I know what you mean! But suppose I was a Martian just landed in order to

study good management: what would I observe when I saw someone

‘‘sticking to the knitting’’?’ or, quite simply,

. ‘Can you give me an example of the one and the other?’

There is more on this procedure, which is known as ‘laddering down’, in

Section 4.4.1.

Before wego on.Someauthors (Fransella et al., 2004, in particular) prefer to reserve

the term‘laddering’ for a procedure, also known as ‘pyramiding’, which turns each of

the poles of the initially vague construct into a new, more specific construct, with two

poles.We’ll saya bitmore about thisissue in Section 4.4, and outline both techniques.

Here, we’re simply concernedwith getting a clear, operationally defined, non-cliche¤ d

construct, and are using the term‘laddering down’ for that activity.

Qualifying Phrases as a Focus

Finally, the interviewee should be clear that the constructs s/he offers are

relevant to the topic, in two ways: that s/he considers them relevant, and that

you do. You’ll remember (see Section 3.2.1 above) that you’ve spent some time

in thinking of a few qualifying phrases which help to clarify the topic. Well,

you can use them now to help your interviewee to focus on the precise issues

you have decided to investigate.

You do this quite simply by reminding the interviewee of the topic each time

you offer a triad of elements. At step 4 of the basic procedure outlined in

Section 3.1.2, add a brief qualifying phrase beginning with ‘. . . in terms of . . .’

or ‘. . . from the point of view of . . .’ the topic. For example, in a grid about

managers’ social skills, the qualifying phrase might be ‘Which two are the

same, and which one is different, in terms of how they handle people?’ If

the emphasis was less on abstract skills and more on day-to-day behaviour,

the qualifying statement might be ‘. . . in terms of what you can see them do,

that makes them effective?’ (See Section 3.2.1 above.)

Suppose the topic was about classroom effectiveness, in which the elements

are named teachers; the phrase to use at step 4 might be ‘(Here’s another three

of your teachers). Which two of them are the same in some way, and different

from the third, in terms of what they do in the classroom that makes them

effective, or otherwise?’

Further examples are given in Table 3.2. It takes a little forethought, and at

times, ingenuity, to prepare an appropriate qualifying phrase, but you’ll find

that using one consistently helps to ‘sharpen up’ the constructs you elicit.