July 26, 2009

Theory of action vs Theory in use

For weeks now I wondered about the terms 'theory of action' and 'theory in use'm what they mean and how they are different. They are two concepts introduced by Chris Argyris and are widely cited in organisational learning literature. Unfortunately, except in the earlier work by Argyris, he doesn't seem to define them clearly , rather it was used straight away. The same  goes with the literature. No definition , somehow reader are expected to know them already

Today I finally know the difference

Theory of Action is a theory of deliberate human behaviour which is for the agent a theory of control but which, when attributed to the agenet, also serves to explain or predict his behavior (P.10)

On the other hand, he explains the difference with theory-in-use as

When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action who which he gives allegiance and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is his theory in use, which may or may not be compatible with his espoused theory (p.11).

In more straighforward terms, theory in action is the things you say you do. Theory in use iswhat you actually believe and not just what you say you believe. These two may not be the same e.g. attitude toward smoking, sexual orientation, exercise, healthy eating, and more generally, political correctness.

Chris Argyris- Organizational learning- A theory of action perspective


- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    Because I’m not able to write about a subject completely under my own steam I think sometimes I rush into commenting in an effort to make myself heard, I think we are similar in some, especially in the way that we are constantly trying to make sense of the things around us.

    We all perceive things differently. I was reminded of this recently when an elderly person was telling me about her stay in hospital. She said that while she was there she had been patronised and treated as if she was senile. When I asked her what had happened to make her feel like this she said that the nurses kept calling her “My love” and bending down to speak to her. I tried to pesuade her that they were probably just being kind to her but she didn’t agree.

    26 Jul 2009, 22:15

  2. What you said about rusing to comment is very true for me too! Sometimes I don’t know if that is good thing or bad thing. I used to think a comment is just a comment, no harm in leaving a comment right? But some people get annoyed if they think what you comment isn’t related to what they write and start to get all jumpy and making accusations. I think this is bad for the blogging community since blogging should be free from restrictions and judgements. If we are worried about how we might be judged by what we say, then it really takes away the fun of blogging.

    I am trying to relate your comment to my blog entry. Are you saying that since we all perceive things differently, one might perceive his/her theory-in-use (TIO) is consistent with his/her theory of action (TOA), while others, might consider them to be different? In a way I think what you say does make sense… but I think while that might be true, the situation described here is when the subject in question knows his/her TIO and TOA are different but simply refuse to admit it.

    Maybe….

    26 Jul 2009, 22:35

  3. Sue

    What I was saying is that we all perceive things differently. I don’t know what TIO and TOA are and I don’t think they are related to my point.

    27 Jul 2009, 06:46


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