Disclosing Cognition

The ethics of research was an interesting topic to read about this week (though, to continue my last post’s line of thought, this segmentation is a bit artificial for me: its not ‘ethics’ as a subcategory of ‘research’ but ethical choices seem to underscore the entire research initiative). My own research topic doesn’t dive very deep into these professional ethics, but Knight’s discussion of achieving ‘disclosure’ with participants had touched on what I’ve been grappling with lately.

My research proposal began with a strong interest in the cultural meaning assigned to an object (a typeface), so I have spent a lot of time working out my historical analysis methodology. I had always worried that this approach would veer off into a grand narrative that might loose contact with the current world. In my proposal, I counterbalanced this method with the addition of a focus group to maintain the individual perspective.

Describing the focus group in more detail has been a struggle; how to do you test for the psychology of aesthetics? While Knight suggests building a trusting relationship or an insider approach to understand what the participants think, I doubt that our aesthetic preferences are so well-thought out that can be readily articulated by the participant.

With some research, though, I think I’ve found a method that works. It is a technique adapted from the personality psychologist George Kelly called the Repertory Grid Technique, that have been used (as relevant to my research) in user-testing and market research. It is basically a structured interview where the interviewee is
(1) presented with a series of ‘elements’ (like physical objects) and is asked to write down some qualities ('constructs') that two items share but discriminates one from them (this is a triading process, versus the typical binary process).
(2) asked to rank the elements based on the constructs they have suggested.

The idea is that by having the interviewee come up with their own defining constructs, the research is capturing their cognitive process without the biases of the researcher. If I were to ask ‘which typeface is the most authoritative,’ I’d have suggested that authoritative is not only a quality that is present but that probably one is definitely authoritative and another one is definitely not. The repertory grid is a way of having the participant ‘disclose’ their own perceptions that they themselves might not be fully aware are shaping their opinions.

This was a horribly brief overview of this method, but I’ve been really enthralled with it; the quantitative analysis that emerges from this is quite interesting. The other aspect I really liked about this research method is that is comes with an explicit and details description of its logic. Kelly’s book, Psychology of Personal Constructs, outlines the method in the great detail: from the philosophical stand point it is taking (and why), the aspects of the theory, the factors in its context, the methodology and the technique. While my research will be taking a slightly different approach in application (as a clinical psychologist, he’s interested in the experience of personal relationships not objects), I fully appreciated the reflexive development of this method. 

Diagram of the Chapters' Content of (and from)
George Kelly's Psychology of Personal Constructs 

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