Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Construct theory

core definition

Construct theory is a psychological theory of personal development thatis based upon the idea that people's psychological processes are channelled by the way they sucessively construe events.

explanatory context

Contrary to most psychological approaches that posit arbitrary stages of development (childhood, adoescence, adulthood and old age) with various sub-stages (oral, anal, genital stages of childhood, for example), construct theory proposes a continuum of development from one moment to the next.


Construct theorists view people as 'thinkers' rather than 'organisms' or 'computers' or as bounded by 'unconscious dynamics'. To understand why people approach life the way they do it is necessary to listen credulously to what they say.


A construct is essentially a discrimination between things that are similar and thereby different from other things.


Personal construct theory posits that the mother's construct system is the start point for the development of the child's construing system that becomes amended as the child's mother-role based construct generated unfulfilled anticipations. Thus new roles constructs are developed by the child in dealing with other children and gradually the child's role-construing is elaborated. Development in this model is seen as occurring when anticipations fail.


Construct theory argues that reality can never be known in any final absolute way. Reality is known through our constructions of it, which are subject to continual revision. A major proponent of construct theory is George Kelly. Construct theory developed a certain popularity in the 1960s and was revived in the late 1980s. Construct theory is similar, in many respects, to Piagetian psychology but differs in underlying philosophy. Construct theory sees the stages of development as related to experience (serial reconstruction) not age. Thus changes are construed (and measured) as a function of structure rather than culture.

analytical review

Under the heading 'Personal Construct Theory - George Kelly' Southampton University provides the following:

In 1955 George Kelly published "The Psychology of Personal Constructs" (Kelly, 1955). This was the culmination of more than twenty years pioneering work in psychology and is the synthesis of Kelly's own experiences, not only in the practice of clinical psychology but also in his wide-ranging educational background, receiving degrees in physics, mathematics, educational sociology, education and psychology.
People use “constructs” to categorise people and situations they encounter.
They are frequently bi-polar adjectives such as intelligent-dull, friendly-unfriendly, stable-unstable.
Each of us develop of own set we use in different situations to make evaluations.

>Our construct systems make our world more predictable;
>Our construct systems reflect our constant efforts to make sense of our world;
>Our construct systems can grow and change;
>Our construct systems influence our expectations and perceptions;
>Some constructs, and some aspects of our construct systems, are more important than others;
[Some of our constructs - those which represent our core values and concern our key relationships - are complex, quite firmly fixed, wide-ranging, and difficult to change; others, about things which don't matter so much, or about which we haven't much experience, are simpler, narrower, and carry less personal commitment.]

>Your construct system is your truth as you understand and experience it - nobody else's;
[A person's construct system represents the truth as they understand it. Construct systems cannot be judged in terms of their objective truth - whatever 'objective' means in the world of personal feelings and choices. When we meet someone whose construct system is different from our own - especially if we don't like it, or think it's wrong - we sometimes use words like prejudice or stereotype to convey our disagreement. We might try confronting them with opposing opinions or evidence, and get frustrated if we see them immunising their constructs instead of adapting them. But we have to accept that their system has worked, more or less, for them so far, and that if it is different from ours then that is a reflection of the fact that they've had different experiences, different reactions, and see different things as important.]

>Construct systems are not always internally consistent.

associated issues


related areas

See also




Kelly, G.A., 1955, The Psychology of Personal Constructs Volume 1: A Theory of Personality Volume 2: Clinical Diagnosis and Psychotherapy New York: Norton , Selection available at, accessed 3 February 2013, page not available 14 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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