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Pictorial ways of eliciting constructs
In recognising the different needs, orientations and skills of  clients or research participants who might benefit from engaging with a PCP framework, a plethora of methods have been developed to help them articulate their constructs. Closest to the traditional method of repertory grid elicitation is the use of pictures, or indeed artefacts that are real examples of an element set, to replace the verbal labels usually used to represent elements. These have the advantage of being concrete and readily manipulated so that, in using the full context format or triadic elicitation, elements can be physically sorted and grouped together according to their similarities and differences. Apraiz (2001) used a technique like this, in which the elements were large postcards reproductions of famous works of art, with adults with moderate to severe learning disabilities. As they sorted the pictures and commented on why some were placed near or on top of others or far away from them, Apraiz noted the arrangements and the constructs as they emerged so that the participants’ focus was on how they saw the images rather than on a procedure.

There are often occasions in research and counselling when confrontation with a formal procedure may act as a barrier to reflection on experience and articulation of constructs. A client or participant may be more comfortable with a narrative format, more akin to normal conversation, yet they may need help in focussing on particular experiences in order to explore them further. A raft of methods that might be subsumed under the description ‘pictorial methods’ make use of ‘non-text’ formats, such as pictures, to stimulate a narrative process that helps the construer to identify constructs in use. Once articulated, these constructs may be explored further using questions about contrasts, laddering and pyramiding techniques etc.

One branch of this family of techniques includes stimulated recall ( Bloom, 1953, Pope, 1981, Dolk et al, 1999). As its name suggests, the aim is to enable participants to bring back to mind events that have happened in the past in order to explore further such issues as what happened, why and what reactions there were to the event. Just as Proust’s (1922) taste of Madeleine’s evoked memories thought long since vanished, pictures such as old photographs, video clips or even illustrations from magazines can bring to mind a rich web of constructs. Researchers exploring professional work contexts have used photographs of typical work situations to elicit constructs not only about how professionals might react in some situations but also what values and beliefs orient that reaction (Sexton & Denicolo 1997). Mignot (2002), working with young people in a study on career counselling, had his participants take photographs of situations, events and people which represented for them both positive and negative futures. A collage exercise, sorting and collating images into those that were similar and different in various ways generated a rich set of constructs. Other examples of the same genre include drawings either provided to or generated by participants.

Research into conceptual understanding in science and the alternative frameworks that children bring to bear in their studies (Osborne and Gilbert 1980),  made use of stick figure drawings that illustrate situations in which a chosen scientific concept (e.g. energy) is either present or absent. These simple drawings focus children’s discussion on the action being portrayed so that their discussion is replete with constructs about what is going on and why. In contrast, Illuminative Incident Analysis (Cortazzi & Roote, 1975) involves participants or clients in producing a drawing to illustrate a particular incident that epitomises for them a general situation in which they are involved. Such interventions are particularly useful in contexts that are highly emotive, blocking verbal discourse. Talking about, describing what is going on in the drawing, why it is happening that way and how any people illustrated are feeling, provides a conduit to otherwise unverbalised constructs. Ravenette (1997) provided many examples of the power of this method for shedding light on the worlds of children, especially those who had initial difficulty in expressing fears and worries in a purely verbal form.

Another form of putting pencil to paper to help unravel complicated constructs and their provenance can be found in the technique variously known as lifelines, snakes or rivers of experience which can be traced back to the writings of the philosopher Dilthey. He noted (quoted in a translation by Rickman, 1976) that, among the plethora of experiences within an individual’s life, there are some which have ‘special dignity’ or significance and are held together by common meaning. The basic structure of this technique involves encouraging participants to focus on a particular role they play in life (a professional or familial role, or self as a musician or writer, for instance) and then to consider events in their lives that influenced it. They are asked to draw their lives as a river or snake, annotating bends, twists and turns with a note of the causal events. Having completed the task very little input from the researcher/counsellor is required as participants describe what happened, how it influenced their understandings of the world and so on. During the process significant constructs that guide their current action are revealed, as is the history of their development. Examination of these can reveal to the participant potential alternatives, constructs which can now be challenged, having been revealed and articulated, as well as those which are useful to them in dealing with the present and the future.

Examples of these techniques and more detail about procedures can be found in Denicolo & Pope (2001) and in Fransella (ed) (2003).


  • Apraiz E (2001). Using pictures of paintings as aids to communication with people who have learning disabilities, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Reading
  • Bloom B S (1953). Thought Processes in Lectures and Discussions, Journal of General Education 7:160-9
  • Cortazzi D & Roote S (1975). Illuminative Incident Analysis. London: McGraw Hill
  • Denicolo P M & Pope M L (2001). Transformative Professional Practice: Personal Construct Approaches to Education and Research. London: Whurr Publishers
  • Dolk M, Korthagen P, Wubbels T (1999). Instruments to investigate knowledge in teaching situations. Paper presented at ISATT Conference, Dublin, July
  • Fransella F (ed) (2003). International Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons
  • Mignot P (2002). Metaphor: a Paradigm for Constructive and Critical Research into Career, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Reading
  • Osbourne R & Gilbert J (1980). A technique for exploring students’ views of the world, Physics Education 15(6): 376-9
  • Pope M L (1981). In True Spirit: Constructive Alternativism in Educational Research, paper presented at the 4th International Congress on PCP, Brock University, Canada.
  • Ravenette A T (1997). Tom Ravenette: Selected Papers, PCP and the Practice of an Educational Psychologist. Farnborough: EPCA
  • Rickman H P (Ed and Translator) (1976). W.Dilthey - Selected Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Sexton R & Denicolo P M (1997) Formative Critical Incidents in Early Professional Life, in Denicolo and Pope (eds) Sharing Understanding and Practice. Farnborough:EPCA 133-43

Pam Denicolo

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004