Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of Psychology


In this this project I have developed concepts and applications for community psychology from theories in the broad area of social constructivism. I evaluated theoretical models in community psychology as providing a limited explanation of the interaction of person and social context. I then developed a model of psychosocial functioning which could account for the experience of social context. This model was based on the personal construct psychology of George Kelly and the phenomenological sociology of Schutz, Berger and Luckmann.

According to constructivist concepts, people experience the social world through definitions of situations. Situations are defined in terms of their possible outcomes. Empowerment and fulfilment of these outcomes is dependent upon effective action and interaction. Effective action is dependent upon the availability of personal and social resources. Utilisation of these resources requires congruency between them at subordinate and superordinate levels. The provision of resources depends upon the existence of suitable social structures which are created by the overarching social, political and cultural fabric of society. When incongruency exists between personal and social resources, empowerment and fulfilment of outcomes can be created by the dereification of existing social structures and the development of alternative social structures.

I extended these concepts to account for the experience of transition to a new environment. The experience of new situations may lead to incongruence between typical constructs and new elements of experience. Effective incorporation of these new experiences will depend upon the flexibility of a person's construction processes. Sufficient flexibility is required so that new experience can be acknowledged and interpreted. When incongruency exists between personal and social resources, sufficient flexibility is required to enable social structures to be de-reified and alternative structures and resources to be developed. Yet sufficient inflexibility is required so that a specific course of action can be chosen and outcomes attained. Adequate functioning requires a dialectical interplay between flexible and inflexible construing so that constructs can evolve while remaining functional for interpreting experience.

People experience anxiety if they are not able to interpret new experience which is incongruent with existing constructs. They will also experience personal and social hostility if they refuse to alter their existing constructs to accommodate the new experience. If the new experience is incongruent with superordinate core constructs the implications for change in constructs will create core anxiety in the form of threat, fear or guilt. The use of inflexible construction processes may enable people to avoid making changes to their constructs. If people continue to be confronted with the incongruency, they may experience increases in these forms of emotional stress when they continue to maintain their inflexibility.

I conducted two empirical studies to evaluate the utility of these concepts. My objectives in the first study were to conduct a qualitative assessment of students' experience of transition to university and to develop a content analysis scale for measuring person-environment incongruence. A further objective was to examine the experience of person-environment incongruence in different types of university environments and to explore relationships between this measure and content analysis scales measuring emotional stress.

I used Schutz's analysis of the concept of 'definition of the situation' as a schema for developing the Person-Environment Incongruence Scale. The scale was initially tested by obtaining verbal and written samples on students' experience of their first session at university. Samples of students were selected from a large metropolitan university and a small university in a provincial town. A proportion of the larger university sample participated in an intervention which was designed to reduce person-environment incongruence through the provision of social and personal resources. Other established content analysis scales assessing anxiety and hostility were used as measures of stress.

In the larger environment students without an intervention experienced more person-environment incongruence and personal hostility than students in the small environment. The students in the larger environment who participated in the intervention experienced less person-environment incongruence but not significantly less personal hostility than the students who did not receive the intervention.

The major objective of the second study was to investigate whether it was more constructive to be flexible or inflexible during transition to university when faced with person-environment incongruence. Students were interviewed in a small university and two years later when the university had increased in size. From the results of the first study I anticipated that there would be greater person-environment incongruence in the larger environment. Students were also provided with an intervention which was designed to make them more flexible in construing personal and interpersonal resources as well as being sufficiently inflexible to perform effectively. I developed a content analysis scale for detecting inflexible construction processes indicating reification of personal and social resources. Other established content analysis scales were used to assess anxiety due to difficulties interpreting new experience, core anxiety, personal and social hostility, utilisation of social resources, empowerment and fulfilment of situational interests.

When recent school leavers experienced more person-environment incongruence in the small environment than in the large environment, they also experienced more interpretive anxiety and less fulfilment of situational interests. When mature age students experienced more person-environment incongruence in the large environment than in the small environment, they also experienced less fulfilment, interpretive anxiety and core anxiety.

In the small environment the intervention students maintained higher levels of inflexibility. Without the intervention in the small environment the students expressed more social hostility. These effects of the intervention did not hold in the larger environment. Both intervention and non-intervention students experienced a significant decrease in inflexibility overtime. However, they did not experience a significant increase in social hostility over time as the non-intervention students had in the smaller environment. The only change to occur in levels of social hostility was for the non-intervention students who experienced less social hostility at mid-session than they had in the small environment. There were no differences between this group and the intervention group in the larger environment.

I concluded that social constructivism provides a useful base for linking the person and social structure and for developing interventions which account for personal experience.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.