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Action Science: Epistemology, Knowledge and It's Contested Communities

Action science is an inquiry into how we design and implement action in relation to one another. It is a science of practice, whether the professional practice of administrators, educators, and psychotherapists or the everyday practice of people as member of families and organizations.

Action science calls for basic research and theory building that are intimately related to social intervention. Clients are participants in a process of public reflection that attempts both to comprehend the concrete details of particular cases and to discover and test propositions of a general theory.

Action Science

Empirically disconfirmable propositions organized into a theory, is characteristic of so-called mainstream science. In it, scientific theories are seen as hypothetical-deductive systems that explain and predict regularities among events. But there is a traditional counterview that argues that the sciences of action cannot take this form, because the interpretive understanding of meanings cannot be reduced to regularities among events. Instead, human beings in everyday life create meanings and guide their actions accordingly…

The dichotomy between basic science and applied science reflects a division of labour embedded in the mainstream account of science: The basic scientist generates fundamental, generalizable knowledge that is then put into practice by the applied scientist. Argyris, Putnam and McLain Smith, in their book ‘Action Science’, suggest that this division of labour reinforces a pernicious separation of theory and practice. Action science attempts both to inform action in concrete situations and to test general theory.

The action scientist takes a normative position. Mainstream science has sharply separated empirical theory from normative theory, and has cast doubt on the scientific legitimacy of normative theory. The split between empirical theory and normative theory is related to the split between empirical theory and normative theory is related to the split between theory and practice.

Action science is an outgrowth of the traditions of John Dewey and Kurt Lewin. Dewey was eloquent in his criticism of the traditional separation of knowledge and action, and he articulated a theory of inquiry that was a model both for scientific method and for social practice. He hoped that the extension of experimental inquiry that was a model both for scientific method and for social practice:

“Contempt for matter and bodies and glorification of the immaterial are affairs which are not self-explanatory. And, as we shall be at some pains to show later in the discussion, the idea which connects thinking and knowing with some principle or force that is wholly separate from connection with physical things will not stand examination, especially since the whole-hearted adoption of experimental method in the natural sciences.

The questions suggested have far-reaching issues. What is the cause and the import of, the sharp division between theory and practice ? Why should the latter be disesteemed along with matter and the body? What has been the effect upon the various modes in which action is manifested: industry, politics, the fine arts, and upon morals conceived of as overt activity having consequences, instead of as mere inner personal attitude ?

How has the separation of intellect from action affected the theory of knowledge? What has been in particular the effect upon the conception and course of philosophy? What forces are at work to break down the division? What would the effect be if the divorce were annulled, and knowing and doing were brought into intrinsic connection with one another? What revisions of the traditional theory of mind, thought and knowing would be required, and what change in the idea of the office of philosophy would be demanded ? What modifications would ensue in the disciplines which are concerned with the various phases of human activity ?”

[Page 9 – 10, Dewey J. The Quest for Certainty. New York: Minton, Balch, 1929; Retrieved from internet 05/12/2014:]

John Dewey
John Dewey

This separation of thinking from doing, of action from theory, intellectually and socially strips those outside of the popular orthodoxy from engaging in matters of science and knowledge. It sets up a Platonic dynamic where there are a small number of ‘gatekeepers’ to meaning making who are culturally acknowledged as having the right to participate in the development of the field. The inherent qualities of mind which even the child has are delegitimized in favour of a situation where science and the common instruments of knowledge become an occluded taboo for those outside of the habitus of the narrowly appointed paladins of knowledge.

“This scientific attitude of mind might, conceivably, be quite irrelevant to teaching children and youth. But this book also represents the conviction that such is not the case; that the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind.”

[Preface, Dewey, J. How We Think (Rev Ed) Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1933; Retrieved from internet 05/12/2014:]

He based this hope for extension of experimental inquiry on the observation that “science in becoming experimental has itself become a mode of directed practical doing” (1929, p 24). This observation, that experimentation in science is but a special case of human beings testing their conceptions in action, is at the core of the pragmatist epistemology.

One tradition that has pursued the integration of science and practice is that exemplified by Lewin, a pioneer in group dynamics and action research…The Lewinian tradition of action science, in contrast, is that of scholar-practitioners in group dynamics and organizational science and practice. For reading on this:

  • Argyris, C. Personality and Organization. New York: Harper & Row, 1957
  • Argyris, C. Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1962
  • Argyris, C. Integrating the Individual and the Organization. New York: Wiley, 1964
  • Argyris, C. Intervention Theory and Method. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1970
  • Bennis, W., and others. Interpersonal Dynamics. 3rd Edition, Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1973
  • Bennis, W., and others (eds.). The Planning of Change. (3rd ed.) New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976
  • Bradford L., Gibb., J and Benne, K. (eds.). T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method. New York: Wiley, 1964
  • Blake, R., and Mouton, J. The Managerial Grid. Houston: Gulf, 1964
  • Jacques, E. The Changing Culture of a Factory. London: Tavistock, 1951
  • Likert, R. New Patterns of Management. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961
  • McGregor, D. The Human Side of Enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960
  • Susman, G. “Action Research: A sociotechnical Systems Perspective.” In G. Morgan (ed) Beyond Method. Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage, 1983

Members of this tradition have emphasized the continuities between the activities of science and the activities of learning in the action context, the mutually reinforcing values of science, democracy, and education, and the benefits of combining science and social practice.

Lewin produced several conceptual maps that showed how it was possible to bridge the tensions between science and practice. As Gordon Allport noted, “Lewin’s concepts are arresting because they serve equally well in depicting concrete situations, and in the task of making scientific generalizations”. These conceptual maps have proven extraordinarily fruitful, both in stimulating subsequent research and in informing behavioural science intervention. They include the idea that social processes are “quasi-stationary equilibria” maintained by a balancing of driving and restraining forces, with the related heuristic that change is better accomplished by reducing restraining forces than by increasing driving forces.

[Lewin, K. ”Frontiers in Group Dynamics” In K. Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper & Row, 1951]


Other ideas developed by Lewin include those of “gatekeeper” and “space of free movement” which were used to explain the results of the Lewin, Lippett, and White (1939) experiments on authoritarian and democratic group climates. Although Lewin never wrote a systematic statement of his views on action research, several themes stand out:

  1. Action research involves change experiments on real problems in social systems. It focuses on a particular problem and seeks to provide assistance to the client system.
  2. Action research, like social management more generally, involves iterative cycles of identifying a problem, planning, acting, and evaluating.
  3. The intended change typically involves re-education, a term that refers to changing patterns of thinking and acting that are presently well established in individuals and groups The intended change is typically at the level of norms and values expressed in action. Effective re-education depends on participation by clients in diagnosis and fact finding and on free choice to engage in new kinds of action.
  4. Action research challenges the status quo from a perspective of democratic values. This value orientation is congruent with the requirements of effective re-education (participation and free choice).
  5. Action research is intended to contribute simultaneously to basic knowledge in social science and to social action in everyday life. High standards for developing theory and empirically testing propositions organized by theory are not to be sacrificed, nor is the relation to practice to be lost.


Suggested Reading:

  • Lewin, K. “Action Research and Minority Problems” In K. Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts. (G Lewin, ed.) New York: Harper & Row, 1948a
  • Lewin, K. Resolving Social Conflicts. (G. Lewin, ed.) New York: Harper & Row, 1948b
  • Lewin, k., and Grabbe, P. “Conduct, Knowledge, and Acceptance of New Values” In K. Lewin, Resoliving Social Conflicts. (G. Lewin, ed.) New York: Harper & Row, 1948
  • Marrow, A. The Practical Theorist. New York: Basic Books, 1969
  • Benne, K. D. “The Processes of Reeducation: An assessment of Kurt Lewin’s Views.” In W. Bennis and others (eds.), The Planning of Chnage. (3rd ed.) New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
  • Peters M., and Robinson V. “The Origins and Status of Action Research” Journal of Applied Behavioural Science. 1984, 20(2), 113-124


Any claim to knowledge can be challenged by asking, “How do you know what you think you know?” Answering this question is the domain of epistemology, the theory of knowledge. It has been argued that epistemology has been the central concern of philosophy since Descartes (Rorty, R. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1979).

And at least since the time of Newton, ‘science’ has been the preeminent way in which human beings have generated reliable, cumulative knowledge. Much of modern philosophy has been concerned with distinguishing science from nonscience and with specifying the conditions of scientific knowledge, an enterprise known as the philosophy of science.

Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper

There has been an approach to the problem of epistemology, that of the analysis of ordinary or commonsense knowledge. This approach is favoured by later analytic philosophy, as practiced, for example, by the later Wittgenstein, Strawson, Ryle, Hampshire, and Austin….

“Although I agree that scientific knowledge is merely a development of ordinary knowledge or common-sense knowledge, I contend that the most important and most exciting problems of epistemology must remain completely invisible to those who confine themselves to analysing ordinary or common sense knowledge or its formulation in ordinary language.”

[Page xxii, Popper, K. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Harper & Row, 1959]

From this we can see that, in Karl Poppers formulation, scientific knowledge comes from the knowable in our everyday experience, however he makes the case for the development of special language which emerges from the study of the commonly knowable and observable. Confining ourselves to either worlds – that of the common sense world, or that of the explicit and specialised expression of our observations – brings a danger of isolating our knowing to a reduced experience.

The tradition of Continental Phenomenology, which has been concerned with the world of everyday life, has collided with those methods of natural science in the philosophy of social science. According to the mainstream account of science, a view whose origins can be traced to the empiricism of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill, the epistemology of the social sciences is (or should be) essentially the same as that of the natural sciences.

According to the counterview, which arose in the nineteenth century to oppose the extension of the methods of the natural sciences to the human sciences, understanding the meanings that are the essence of social action is fundamentally different from explaining events of the natural world. The debate between these two viewpoints has continued for the past century. It is reflected, more or less, in the tacit sociological paradigms that underlie organizational theory and research. The debate has become increasingly vigorous in recent years as interpretive approaches to social inquiry press their claims against the mainstream, which they sometimes label “positivism”.

The argument of Argyris et al is that different accounts of science can be understood in terms of their construal of the relation between science and community. This approach is congruent with recent work in the philosophy of history of science.

Bernstein argues that there is growing agreement that “the significant epistemological unit for coming to grips with problems of the rationality of Science” is the scientific community, “an ongoing historical tradition constituted by social practices” (Bernstein, R. J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983). This view implies that the standards by which beliefs are criticized, evaluated, and justified are embedded in such social practices as forms of argument.

Knowledge is community based, as it were. Indeed, all contemporary accounts of science agree that science is a social enterprise, carried on within communities of inquiry according to practices or rules for distinguishing valid from invalid claims. There is deep disagreement, however, about the characteristics of these communities and their practices.

In Action Science, Argyris et al’s book, they discuss four construal’s of the relation between science and community. The mainstream view establishes, as a logical requirement for the justification of knowledge claims, a community of inquirers who can rationally criticize each other’s claims. This notion, that scientific rationality is grounded in a community of inquiry, goes back at least as far as the pragmatist philosopher Charles S. Peirce, whose views on this matter are echoed in the work of Karl Popper. Obviously, composition of and access to a community of inquirers are key considerations in building an understanding of what knowledge claims are valued.

Another view of the relation between science and community rests on the observation that the sciences of action take as their domain communities of social practice. These sciences deal in “constructs of the second degree,” in Schutz’s phrase (page 59, Schutz, A. Collected Papers. M. Natason, ed., Vol 1. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962), because the scientist must first grasp the meanings embedded in the community being studied. Theorists are concerned with how knowledge of the commonsense understandings of social actors is possible. In this sense the human sciences may be said to be built on an epistemology of practical knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Kuhn

A third view of the relation between science and community is that associated with the work of Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). Kuhn focuses on the scientific group as a community of practice with a distinctive language that to some degree cuts it off from other groups, and he asks what kind of rationality governs debates among different groups. This perspective can be understood as a way of seeing the mainstream view through the lens of the counterview. The epistemic principles of science are seen as embedded in the practical knowledge of groups of scientists.

The fourth view is that of action science, which seeks to enable communities of inquiry in communities of social practice. Such inquiry is a form of practical deliberation, one that is guided by norms of science as well as by norms of practice. In action science we build on the practices for coming to agreements in everyday life, in ways that make them more consistent with scientific values such as valid information and public testing.


This is a digest and comment on the thinking of Chris Argyris, Robert Putnam, and Diana McLain Smith –  Page 4 – 18 Action Science; Conepts, Methods and Skills for Research and Intervention.  Copyright 1985 Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.  ISBN: 0-87589-665-0



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