Kelly, George


Start date:


Kelly (1905 – 1967) grew up in Kansas, USA, and obtained his initial training there. In the 1930s he founded and directed a unique travelling psychological clinic for teachers, parents and children, at a time when the majority of American psychologists saw little future in this direction. His early clinical experiences were in the public schools of Kansas, where he observed that teachers would refer pupils with complaints that appeared to reflect something of the teachers themselves. This led Kelly to the view that there is no objective, absolute truth and that phenomena are meaningful only in relation to the ways in which they are interpreted by individuals, a view referred to as constructive alternativism.
Kelly argued for a perspective from which people are regarded as 'scientists' in the sense that all of us have ways of interpreting our world (our construct systems) , act purposefully in terms of these interpretations (behaviour is an experiment) and modify (sometimes verbally and sometimes non-verbally) our construing systems, in terms of experienced outcome. His theory is radical in being reflexive (accounting for its own construction) and in dispensing with the traditional distinction between emotion and cognition. Most notably, in the 1950s, when positivism and behaviourist psychologies dominated the field, he proposed a systematic intellectual alternative in the form of personal construct theory. As a technique related to his theory, he devised the repertory grid method, whereby the links between a person's constructs can be brought to light by examining the statistical relationships between a person's judgements.
While Kelly rejected attempts to label his approach, his emphasis on the ways in which people attend to and interpret information meant that his ideas were increasingly associated with emergent information-processing approaches. An association with cognitive psychology was reinforced through Kelly's use of the 'person as scientist' metaphor.
Kelly's ideas enjoy greater popularity in Britain than elsewhere. It is sometimes suggested that this relative neglect is partly due to Kelly's tendency to avoid forging links with the ideas of others, and that this was reciprocated, accounting for an under-rating of his contribution.