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How to... use a repertory grid

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The repertory grid – an overview

The repertory grid is a way of carrying out an interview in a highly structured manner, using the interviewee's own language and setting out their responses in the form of a grid.

A big advantage of the repertory grid technique is that it allows interviewees to articulate their experience in the way they see the world, according to their own personal constructs. In so doing, it avoids interviewer bias (the interviewer allowing their questions to be informed by their own values, even subconsciously). Because it also uses differences and similarities with other examples, it can be easier to tease out the interviewee's views than talking in abstract terms. It can also be good for teasing out different dimensions of a question.

For example, suppose a student is asked about their experience of lectures. The interviewer might ask, "What makes a good lecturer?". If the student struggled to respond, the interviewer might mention a couple of prompts, perhaps based on his or her conception of what qualities a good lecturer should possess. With the repertory grid technique, the student and the interviewer could agree on a range of particular lecturers and then use a technique of comparison and contrast as a way of getting the student to talk.

The repertory grid technique, therefore, can be a rich source of qualitative data and allow people to express things in their own terms or jargon. Because it also uses rating scales, it can also be analysed statistically, hence it combines both qualitative and quantitative methodology. In epistemological terms it represents a subjective view of knowledge, in which meaning is to some extent an individual matter.

Kelly's personal construct theory

The repertory grid technique was developed by the clinical psychologist George Kelly, who also developed personal construct theory (PCT). According to PCT, people develop their own rules, or constructs, for interpreting events, situations and people. Such constructs are not abstractions, but are often developed on the basis of previous experience.

For example, in an age of the globalization of higher education, many students study abroad. Students from some parts of the world can find the Western way of education, which often involves interactive lectures and lecturers getting students to solve problems etc., odd because they expect lecturers just to give them the information. This is not because anyone has actually said to them, "the teacher will tell you everything you need to learn", but rather that that is their experience and so that is the construct which forms their view of education.

In their 2004 article, "A constructivist model for evaluating postgraduate supervision: a case study", published in Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 82-93, Zuber-Skerritt and Roche describe personal construct theory thus:

"Kelly's personal construct theory provided the theoretical framework and overarching methodology for our study. According to the theory, people develop their own tentative models or personal theories about the world in order to understand and negotiate their environments in the roles of 'personal scientists' (Kelly, 1955; 1963). Like scientific theories, personal theories help people to anticipate future events and guide behaviour and attitudes. Theories are tested against experiences and discarded if they fail to provide meaningful interpretations of the world. Personal construct theory assumes that people anticipate and explain events in their world through organization of perceptions, called 'bi-polar constructs'. People use these bi-polar constructs to test hypotheses, which are the basis of personal theories. Constructs are continually revised, when experience suggests the need for further thought. Kelly's fundamental assumption of 'man the scientist' [sic], thus recognizes a dynamic and reflective role for men, presumably also for women, as constructors of knowledge. We are using the term 'personal scientist' (Shaw, 1980).

Kelly developed the repertory grid technique based on his theory to enable structured conversations between researcher and participant and explorations of the individual's world of meaning. Unlike standard approaches to research, such as questionnaires and interviews, the repertory grid can elicit people's constructs without influencing them by the researcher's preconceived questions. In this way the repertory grid is both an ideal tool to explore the uniqueness of the supervision relationship, and a useful benchmarking tool, against which change can be planned and assessed."

The main components of a repertory grid

The main components of the repertory grid are:

  • The topic – what the interview is about.
  • Elements – these are examples that illustrate the topic. They can be people, objects, experiences, events, according to the topic. The elements can either be chosen by the interviewee, or they can be preselected. In the example about students' views of lecturers given above, the topic would be "What makes a good lecturer?" and the elements would be particular lecturers known to the interviewee. If a number of students were being interviewed, with different backgrounds, the lecturers/elements would not necessarily be the same. To give another example, imagine an exercise designed to elicit views on wine. The topic would be, say, Italian wine, and the elements various wines with the interviewee being asked to taste, and compare them!
  • Constructs – the most important component of the repertory grid. This is where the elements are compared with one another to produce a series of statements which describe what the interviewee thinks about the topic. These statements will form the eventual unit of analysis. They will be bipolar – in other words, every statement will be presented as opposite ends of a pole. The students being interviewed about lecturers might say that Lecturer A, as opposed to Lecturers B and C, explains things clearly whereas B and C are hard to follow. So, one set of constructs would be "explains things clearly" as opposed to "hard to follow". The wine interviewees meanwhile might say that Wine A was sweeter than Wines B and C. So, constructs could be "sweet" – "dry", "fruity" – "grassy", "heady" – "light", etc.
  • Ratings – once the main constructs and elements are in place, they are entered on a grid with the elements on top and the constructs down the side. The interviewee then rates each element against each construct according to a rating scale, usually of 1-5.

Uses of repertory grid

Because of its ability to capture good data, the repertory grid is used in a wide range of contexts. Below is a non-exhaustive list:

  • human resources (for example performance appraisals, job analysis, training needs analysis, staff and organizational development),
  • psychology (for example, psychological tests or counselling type interviews),
  • brand analysis and consumer behaviour,
  • team development and organizational studies,
  • information retrieval studies and systems analysis, for example mental modelling.

It is particularly good in circumstances where it is important to understand how people think, for teasing out knowledge which is implicit rather than explicit, and for establishing mental maps. It can be used by both practitioners and researchers.

Advantages and drawbacks of repertory grid

Despite the flexibility of the technique it does have drawbacks:

  • It is time-consuming; each interview will take up to an hour.
  • It can appear rather artificial, and senior managers in particular may be sceptical about its value, and hence rather unwilling to give time to it.
  • There are many variations of design and it can be difficult to select the right one.
  • The analysis process can "overwhelm with numbers" and one can become fascinated by the process of computer analysis and what it can "discover" – at the expense of the "bigger picture".

These objections notwithstanding, the technique is commonly used in all sorts of ways and we shall go on to explore this in more detail.

Devi Jankowicz has written a lot about repertory grid technique and in his 2001 article co-written with Penny Dick, "A social constructionist account of police culture and its influence on the representation and progression of female officers: A repertory grid analysis in a UK police force", published in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 24 No. 2, pp. 181-199, he makes the following observation:

"There are a number of advantages to using repertory grid. First, it is a method that avoids the use of a priori categories, but since research participants are asked to construe the same phenomena (i.e. effective performance) it is nevertheless systematic enough to allow the identification of shared cognitions. Second, the technique allows participants to articulate their experiences in their own words, yet, due to its systematic nature, enables the researcher to probe participants’ responses such that they are rendered intelligible. Finally, the data obtained from repertory grids is both rich enough to enable a thorough examination of the content of each individual’s construct system, yet sufficiently parsimonious to allow rigorous content analysis that can be checked for reliability. Thus we were able to meet the methodological requirements we have outlined."