In psychology, a “construct” is the term and definition attributed to a phenomenon that, despite not having empirical reality, is constituted as an object of study. Constructs serve to communicate, know and manipulate phenomena that we can hardly define, precisely because they are not concrete objects. They shape much of psychology and as such, have determined much of our individual perception of everything around us.
Below we present a definition of the construct in psychology and we will review the applications it has had in clinical psychology, specifically based on the Theory of Personal Constructs.
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What is a construct?
As in scientific disciplines, psychology has generated a series of very important knowledge to understand our relationship with the world. This is often abstract knowledge. about objects that, despite having no empirical reality, constitute a large part of psychological knowledge, both at a specialized and colloquial level.
This is because, in order to legitimize itself as a practice that seeks both to generate knowledge and to manage what it generates knowledge about (as a science), psychology has had to create a series of concepts that make the reality it studies intelligible.
In other words, as many of the objects of study in psychology are not empirical elements (concrete, material, visible elements; for example, intelligence, consciousness, personality), the discipline itself has had to generate a series of concepts that can represent what it studies.
These concepts are known as constructs, and they are precisely entities whose existence is neither uniform nor precise, but in any case they are attempted to be studied to satisfy needs related to a specific society.
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Some background and examples in psychology
In the 1970s, within the social sciences, discussions began about the origins and effects of scientific knowledge. Among other things, it was concluded that any science is a product of a specific time and place.
As Berger and Luckmann (1979) would say, belief systems are the product of social construction. This questioning, together with these proposals, also generated a debate about the constructs that psychology has generated within the framework of scientific development.
In fact, much of the research in psychology has focused on the validation of psychological constructs. This means that a series of studies are carried out and The aim is to follow parameters and criteria that generate reliable concepts to talk about phenomena that we hardly observe. For example, when different responses are measured in relation to different reaction times, which translates into the construct of intelligence or IQ.
George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory
The American psychologist George A. Kelly (1905-1966) developed a theory called Personal Construct Theory. Through this theory, Kelly proposed that constructs can have therapeutic effectswith which, he suggested a way to apply them in clinical psychology.
According to Kelly, the terms we use to refer to things, or ourselves, reflect how we perceive those things. From there, what Kelly was saying was that the words through which we interpret a phenomenon do not necessarily describe that phenomenon, but rather are a reflection of our perceptions of it.
So, for example, if a teacher talks about a child as “lazy,” that is primarily a reflection of the teacher’s personal perceptions, but it also has consequences for the child himself. This is because he is put in a certain place (that of inactivity, due to laziness), with which the teacher’s expectations and demands adapt to this perception, and the child’s behaviors as well.
Kelly believed that it was possible to reconstruct, that is, use new constructs to refer to the same phenomena, and in this way, generate and share new possibilities for action. In the case of the lazy child, for example, I would recommend replacing the “lazy” construct with another that allows the child more freedom.
The psychologist recommended thinking of ourselves as if we were scientists, that is, as builders of concepts that allow us to relate in one way or another with the world and with each other. As if we could constantly formulate different theories and test them.
I applied the latter in the clinical field as a way to facilitate the people I cared for, relating in different ways (through different constructs) with what they perceived as a problem.
Kelly’s criticisms of traditional science
This is how Kelly challenged scientific objectivism and the idea of “objective reality”, proposing that more than objective realities, there is a set of beliefs and fictions, with which, and if necessary, new beliefs and new fictions can be generated.
This modification is important because it represents a qualitative change in the system of relationships where the person enrolls. Thus, what Kelly recovers are personal meanings and, far from seeking to homogenize them, she works on them and opens up the possibility of transformation.
In order to do this, Kelly differentiated between different types and functions of constructs, as well as the different variables that participate for a construct to be considered valid or not, or for them to form different systems. Likewise, in his theory he discusses the permeability of constructs, that is, how much they can be applied or modified and under what circumstances.
- Berger and Luckmann (1979). The social construction of reality. Amorrortu: Buenos Aires.
- Botella, L. and Feixas, G. (1998). Theory of personal constructs. Applications to psychological practice. (Electronic version). Retrieved June 4, 2018. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Luis_Botella/publication/31739972_Teoria_de_los_Constructos_Personales_aplicaciones_a_la_practica_psicologica/links/00b4952604cd9cba42000000.pdf-