Action Science

Action Science a field of inquiry developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon "aimed at exploring the reasoning and attitudes which underlie human action, and producing more effective learning" in individuals, organizations, and other social systems. (TFDH, p.237) The Action Science theory was designed to promote reflection and inquiry into the reasoning behind our actions (TFD, p.82). Action Science critiques traditional social science when the experimenters remain "aloof" from the experiment. (TFDH, p.266) Also, action science assumes that there is a theory-in-use or mental model behind every action, a type of logic that happens inside one’s mind. The goal of Action Science/Inquiry is to promote "reflection in action" the ability to identify the dynamics of a situation and comment on them as they unfold in a conversation by offering direct advocacies and questions (inquiries) into the discussion. To uncover "mental models", through exercises like the ladder of inference or left-hand column, we are able to understand the difference between our espoused theories (what we say and believe as an ideal) and theories-in-use (implied theory in what we actually do). Learning how to use these skills can lead to new learning. Action Science practitioners often try to create double-loop learning. This occurs by improving outcomes through understanding our actions and beliefs. Normally, most people operate out of a single-loop learning which seeks to improve the relationship between outcomes and behaviors without questioning or understanding the beliefs guiding the situation.[1]

Model I & II Theories of Action[2]

The main distinction in action science is between theories of action. Theories of action are the master programs, patterns, designs, sets of rules, or propositions that people use to design and carry out their actions. These are the governing variables, values, theories, beliefs, concepts, rules, attitudes, routines, policies, practices, norms, or skills that underlie actions.

There are two main types of theories of action.

  • "Technical" theories of action are autonomous or distanced models of expert analysis. They include theories in micro-economic analysis, competitive strategy analysis, activity-based accounting, or rigorous quantitative empirical analysis.
  • "Human" theories of action are theories about interpersonal relationships, effective leadership, administration, group dynamics, or organizational culture.

Action science represents a unique "Model I/Model II" theory of action, a "meta-theory" or "theory about theories," or a hybrid technical and human theory of action. Crafted to help increase professional effectiveness, it aims to help reduce individual and group ineffectiveness caused by defensive interpersonal and organizational relations by removing barriers to change. It helps reduce anti-productive defensive routines in real time, as group members carry out diverse types of technical and human action plans. Reducing ineffectiveness involves shifting from using Model I to using Model II in resolving difficult problems.

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Further Reading