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Superordinate constructs 
Superordinate and subordinate constructs follow from the Organization Corollary which introduces the notion of an ordinal relation. Kelly defines ‘ordinal relation’ as occurring where  “One construct may subsume another as one of its elements” (p.57). He then offered two ways in which a superordinate construct may ‘subsume’ a subordinate construct, either through ‘extending the cleavage intended by the other or it may abstract across the other’s cleavage line’ (p.57). Problems inherent in this dual definition have been highlighted by Ryle (1975) who described the first kind of subsuming as the ‘more general’ approach and the second as a ‘construct construing’ approach. Ryle suggested that the ‘more general’ relationship has both constructs applied to the same elements and underlies Hinkle’s (1965) laddering and implications grid procedures.  Ryle suggested the ‘construct construing’ relationship which did not have both constructs applying to the same elements could be found in the continual process of construct choice while aberrant forms of such ‘construct construing’ could be seen in thought disorder and humour (Ryle, 1975, p.122).

Perhaps as further evidence of the difficulty of this concept, Husain (1983) pointed out that Kelly did not succeed in giving a single example of a construct of a construct or of a construct subsuming another as one of its elements, arguing that Kelly’s defining example (p.57) was a constellatory rather than an ordinal relationship. Kelly also introduced other notions that impinge on superordinacy; such as the ‘regnant’ construct, ‘a kind of superordinate construct’ (p.480) which is a purely dichotomous, and the ‘comprehensive’ construct (pp.477-479) which ‘cuts across many other construct lines’ (p.478), although it is not clear how this latter variant differs from the superordinate construct which ‘abstracts across’ the ‘cleavage line’ of another construct.

In a theoretical logico-mathematically rigorous (ie difficult) paper, Chiari, Mancini, Nicolo, & Nuzzo (1990) have showed that if a construct is subordinate to another, then elements in both poles of the subordinate construct will be subsumed under one and the same pole of the super-ordinate construct. This is a strict superordinate relationship, and obviously can be relaxed with a fuzzy or probabilistic version which could accord with data on super-sub-ordinate relationships in a grid. But Crockett (1980) has questioned whether we need the notion of super- and sub-ordinacy of constructs, arguing that the more important notion is that of implication which does not require the presence of hierarchy, an argument rather more like that of Hays (1958) referred to in the related entry, hierarchical construing.

  • Chiari, G, Mancini, F., Nicolo, F., and Nuzzo, M. L. (1990) Hierarchical organization of personal construct systems in terms of the range of convenience. International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology, 3, 281-311.
  • Husain, M. (1983) To what can one apply a construct? In J.R. Adams-Webber and J.C. Mancuso (Eds.) Applications of personal construct theory (pp. 11-28) Toronto: Academic Press.
  • Ryle, A. (1975) Frames and cages: The repertory grid approach to human understanding. Brighton, UK: Sussex University Press

Richard C. Bell

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004