Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Reflective Practitioner

Paper #8

Action Evaluation and Action Theory:
An assessment of the process and its connection to conflict resolution

Ian Darling
MA. Student, Antioch University
Individualized Master's of Arts Program in Conflict Resolution

March, 1998

The notion of reflection-in-action, and the Reflective practitioner were first posited by Donald Schon in The Reflective Practitioner (1983). Schon described how reflection-in-action could be used by professionals as a tool to improve their practice. Schon later noted that it is possible to describe the tacit knowledge implicit in our actions through a process of observation and reflection (Schon, 1987, 26). Schon's concept of reflection-in-action has attracted a great deal of attention across several disciplines, as the idea of the Reflective Practitioner has been adapted to suit the circumstances of different professions. Jay Rothman's concept of Reflexive practice in conflict resolution was influenced by Schon's work.

This essay compares Schon's notion of the Reflective Practitioner, with Rothman's alternative of Reflexivity.

Reflexivity is a result of Rothman's work in the field of conflict resolution . Conflict resolution is based on intervention, these interventions require a high degree of interaction between disputants. Reflexivity benefits both the practitioner, and participants in an intervention,as it can improve the communication process, and content of the messages. There are two separate forms of reflexivity. The first a visceral response, similar to a reflex test in a doctor's office. This creates a single loop feedback between actions and reactions (Rothman, 1997, 35). The positive form of reflexivity advanced by Rothman takes on the exact opposite meaning. It is this form of reflexivity that will be referred to for the duration of this essay. Reflexivity involves delaying the instinctive and unexamined reactions to external stimulus, and analysing them before responding (Rothman, 1997, 36). If parties are able to reflexively examine their situation, they are able to engage in a pro-active analysis of their assumptions, and how they relate to others, rather than just responding reactively . This enables participants to mitigate destructive reactions in the context of dialogue with other parties. In a conflict resolution process, this can redirect parties from destructive interaction, to more productive conversation.

Reflexivity is an interactive process that takes into consideration the relationship between self, other and context. Reflexivity expands the frame to include an examination of the underlying assumptions and priorities that shape interaction within a given time, place and situation (like a conflict). Being reflexive requires that parties examine their priorities before they react . This involves asking "Why this situation is so important to me? Why do I care so much?" "What have I done to contribute to the problem?" and "What might be done in order to contribute to its resolution (Rothman, 1997, 37)". The answers to these questions can be used to determine the priorities of participants, and help in the communication and resolution process. If both parties are able to embark on a reflexive process, they may be able to be more responsive in the context of their interaction. In a conflict intervention, this can mean a significant shift from polarization and antagonism to resonance between parties (Rothman,1997).

Argryis and Schon (1978) note that single-loop analysis is based on a given frame of reference that may be defined and improved, whereas double-loop inquiry is the nature of the frame, the assumptions that underlie it, and investigate whether an alternative frame would be more appropriate. In the context of conflict resolution, reflexivity encourages parties to abandon the single-loop approach to the conflict, and expand their focus to incorporate analysis of the context, and how their roles as participants shape the conflict. In Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987, 27),Schon describes the reflection-in-action process in the context of designing a garden gate. He described it as an intuitive process of trial and error where each stage in the building process is followed by a period of reflection, and the goals are set for the next stage of the trial. He also notes that reflection after the fact would also improve the planing of future events (Schon, 1987, 28). Practitioners are able to incorporate reflection into their practice, by using a step-by-step process of reflection, similar to the process described in designing thegate. Throughout the reflection process, the focus of practitioners is on their role and how their actions influenced the course of events. Reflective practitioners then use these insights to improve their practice in future.

The differences between reflection and reflexivity are readily apparent. Reflection is related to self and improving future practice through a retrospective analysis of action. Even in the reflection-in-action process,reflection is post facto, relating to completed stages and analysing them before taking the next step. Reflection is future focussed in that it seeks to improve practice through an understanding of the relative successes and failures of previous events, however it remains connected to the past focussing on completed stages. Reflection takes the form of a cumulative body of knowledge that can then be used to improve practice. Although reflection influenced the development of reflexive practice, there are profound differences. Reflexivity is pro active as its focus is on providing practitioners with a tool that will simultaneously improve theircommunication and help make them aware of assumptions and priorities that shape theirinteraction with others. Reflexivity can be used to provide insight into priorities before the party reacts to the other. Reflexive practice in this manner can have an immediate impact in improvingpractice, as practitioners are able incorporate new insights into each interaction. The difference relates to when the process of introspection takes place. In reflection, it takes place after an interaction, whereas the reflexive process incorporates introspection into each interaction. Rothman refers to this as "interactive introspection" (1997).

Another difference relates to whom the introspective process considers most relevant. In the reflective process described by Schon, the actions of the practitioner are foremost, and the context is seen as passive . Reflexivity involves an interaction between the practitioner, and their environment that influences the form of the reflexive process . These differences arise as a result of reflexivity being developed in an environment were there are several actors involved in an intensive interactive process. If the reflective model were used in this environment, parties would reflect on their comments, after they had already stated them. The danger of this is that any hurtful, or destructive comments are already stated before reflection takes place. Being reflexive necessitates that the parties slow their reactions, and consider the impact of their statements or interactions before making them. Reflexive reframing of the conflict situation can help parties realize that they are part of the problem that led to the conflict, and they are also an integral part of its resolution. As a result, reflexivity becomes a tool for improving communication within an intervention, and can help parties reorient their approach to resolving the conflict.

Schon's work on describing reflective practice significantly influenced several academic and professional fields, including conflict resolution. Conflict intervention is particularly suited for reflection, encouraging both interveners and participants to adopt a systemic approach for analysing their behaviour within the intervention process. Reflexivity, as defined by Rothman, enhances the reflective process by encouraging parties and professionals to slow their reactions down and analyze the values and priorities inherent in the interaction process. Reflexivity can never replace reflection, because the two occupy different spheres, however it does offer an alternative form of introspection that is pro-active in nature and can help parties mitigate destructive behaviour in a conflict resolution process.

Conclusion and Applications

Rothman has operationalized reflexivity in his direct conflict resolution work in Identity-Based Conflict (1997) and in his "Action-Evaluation" methodolgy (1998) designed to help promote intersubjective agreement among stakeholders in complex interventions (e.g. community development, conflict resolution, participatory education, etc.). In short, Action-Evaluation is a participatory goal-setting, monitoring and assessment process based on the collaborative articulation of goals and objectives. It is a process of reflexivity-in-use. A trained "action -evaluator" collects data about goals from key organizational or project stakeholders and summarizes this data with the help of a computerized database designed to systematize and assist in the analysis and feedback process. This goal articulation ideally takes place at the outset of an intervention or during the start-up period of an organization. The collaborative and evolving nature of the goal-setting process ensures that expectations are clear, and that the goals are realistic, practical and widely-shared. Moreover, these goals reflexively provide internal criteria for success and standards for external assessment as project stakeholders move from conceptualization into implementation and finally evaluation. For further information see the Action-Evaluation Research Initiative


Argyris, C. and Schon, D. (1978). Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

Rothman, Jay (forthcoming) Action Evaluation and Conflict Resolution in Theory and Practice, Mediation Quarterly (also available in earlier form in website listed above).

Rothman, Jay (Forthcoming), Action-Evaluation and Conflict Resolution Training, The International Journal of Negotiation (also available in earlier form in website listed above).

Rothman, Jay. (1997). Resolving Identity-Based Conflict: in Nations, Organizations and Communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schon, Donald. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schon, Donald. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

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