Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Examination of Technical Rationality & Reflection in Action

By: Erica Hutton


The following discussion analyzes the similarities between technical rationality and reflection in action and logical positivism and interpretive epistemologies. The evidence of technical rationality and reflection in action within the criminal justice arena will be evaluated as well as the mission for professionalism prevalent within this discipline.

Similarities: Technical Rationality and Reflection in Action

Technical rationality represents the application of logical positivism, the view that social reality is objective, measurable, and explained in rational terms, and reflected in professionalization to enrich scientific problem solving abilities (Papell & Skolnik, 1992). Technical rationality is a linear approach purporting that the majority of professional knowledge produces one’s cognition of professions and the application of professional activity within the area of research, education, and practice (Schon, 1983). Technical rationality is utilized to examine the approach and methods incorporated by established professions in order to operate; this is determined by evaluation and consideration of concrete technical knowledge within the a given profession (McClure & Hernon, 1991). There are limitations associated to technical rationality that does not permit the knowledge of true nature within the professional arena.

Schon (1983, 1987) is credited for integrating the role of science into professional practice and education through reflection in action (as cited by Papell & Skolnik, 1992). Within the reflective practice paradigm, an individual’s actions are represented and correlated to their overall desire to learn, obtain knowledge, and understand (Schon, 1983). According to Schon (1983), the practitioner reflects on phenomena and considers prior interpretations of knowledge that are understood and employs this knowledge in the operation of generating new information (as cited by Smith, 1999).

Reflection in action, derived from the principles of interpretivism, and refers to the process of obtaining experience spontaneously. In other words, there is an element of intuition associated to one’s performance that is not necessarily designed; however, through the process of reflection, one considers the transaction of the action, the results of the action, and the instinctive process of obtaining knowledge associated to the particular action (Schon, 1983). From the interpretive epistemological perspective, knowledge is multifaceted in nature, establishing research methods that reveal the expressions of the participant’s social reality. Reflection is not acknowledged as a type of professional knowing due to the fact that professionalism is primarily identified with technical proficiency (Schon, 1983). The constructionist perspective is based upon the philosophy of phenomenology in which one’s social interpretations of society influence their behavior or actions.

Reflection in action (Schon, 1987) is founded in the constructionist view of reality within the profession of the practitioner (as cited by Papell & Skolnik, 1992). Reflection in action or knowing in action is a topic for debate (Eraut, 1994) in regards to time; “…when time is extremely short, decisions have to be rapid and the scope for reflection is extremely limited…” (as cited by Smith, 1999). As social animals, humans naturally contribute their perceptions, opinions, and experiences of events in the overall construction of their interpretations. These interpretations aim in building one’s knowledge base.

Technical rationality and reflection in action are derived from different paradigms; however, both are significant aspects that characterize the role of epistemology in professional practice. If technical rationality is a counterpart of logical positivism and reflection in action is analogous with interpretivism, there is a similarity apparent in the correlation of these two paradigms to that of the practice arena. Technical rationality pertains more to the scientific and objectifiable manner in which knowledge should be obtained while reflection in action correlates more to the application of action that practitioners employ within their given profession to attain knowledge. Both are designated concepts in the explication of quantifying knowledge. Empiricism is knowledge that is directly observed and measured and incorporated into practice for the purpose of providing sound explanations or in the prediction of phenomena; this methodical progression aids in theoretical development (Rutty, 1998).

Technical Rationality and Reflection in Action in the Criminal Justice System

According to Edgar Schein, there are three components associated to one’s professional knowledge: a) the underlying discipline or basic science component in which one’s profession of practice is cultivated, b) the applied science or production component in that aid in designing procedures and solutions for that profession, and c) the skills and attitudinal component in which the performance of services that are supplied by the profession are evaluated based upon the basic and applied knowledge (as cited by Schon, 1983).

Within the criminal justice system, technical rationality is evidenced in the formal legal perspective (Dixon, 1995) in which the organization of justice is ultimately guided by formalized rules (Rattner & Fishman, 1998). The operative assumptions utilize legal rules to govern the sentencing process through the application of rules that are mandated to meet specified parameters. These assumptions propose that sentencing outcomes are a direct result of the criteria in place by legal rules (Lukacs, 1971) and that these rules are applied in an equal manner to defendants of all classes, races, and ethnic groups (as cited by Rattner & Fishman, 1998).

If examining the same concept mentioned above, reflection in action can be a helpful technique in the evaluation of sentencing practices that are meant to be represent parity in a rather disparate society. The issue of racial discrimination is prevalent within the sentencing process of African Americans and minorities on trial and heading to prison. Whether or not there is a significant correlation between race and severity of sentences is highly debatable. Research confirms that the Hispanic and African American population are more likely to be sentenced to prison and for longer periods of time in addition to be less likely to have their sentence reduced than Caucasians. There is a correlation between the elevated level of African Americans that are incarcerated and the population that is comprised primarily of African Americans in addition to communities with high rates of unemployment (Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2007).

Through the reflection in action paradigm, practitioners are able to reflect upon current experiences in relation to sentencing guidelines being implemented to the knowledge required to take action in implementing equality into this process. Guidelines’ pertaining to the sentencing process and the elimination of discretion is a complex issue that requires accountability from the federal court system, this may be accomplished through the method of judicial review.

Quest for Professionalization

The criminal justice system’s quest for professionalization is prevalent throughout operation. It is necessary for our criminal justice system to operate with the utmost standards a means to earn respect, authority, and partnership with community in relation to the overall objective of law enforcement. This task is not easy to accomplish. The criminal justice system and those practitioners employed within this profession are expected to hold high integrity and character; however, when a member of this system fails to meet these expectations or standards, it is difficult for members of society to dismiss their error. Oftentimes, the perspective of professionalization within the criminal justice arena is subjective in nature, dependent upon one’s personal experience rationalizing professionalism from reflecting upon their own knowledge of how this system has operated in the past in relation to current or future expectations. There is constant criticism on how the bureaucracies of this system can improve their operational standards to reflect upon meeting standards expected, deserved, and anticipated.

The main purpose of the criminal justice system, according to the rational/legal theoretical orientation, pertains to the concept of the system, the notion that there is a necessity for laws to exist and be initiated to provide protection against those who seek to do harm to others (Kraska, 2004). This theoretical orientation associates effective punishment for individuals who break the law while providing justice for victims of these crimes. The punishment should be fair and guided by the rule of law. “Rational, impartial decision-making, based on the rule of law, best typifies criminal justice operations” (Kraska, 2004, p.20). This orientation focuses on the manner in which our criminal justice system is supposed to operate and supports the concept of an ideal justice system. Impartiality within the criminal justice system is rare.

When sentencing, judges use discretion to decide the appropriate level of punishment in relation to the crime committed and the criminality of the offender’s history; therefore, a form of judicial discretion is necessary at times to decipher what is the best interest of the courts and the community and is prevalent within the criminal justice system (Bushway & Piehl, 2001). It is evident that equality within the courts is an aspect that has not been achieved as of yet (Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2007). Our criminal justice system has failed to operate in an ideal manner; however, this is the underlying goal of the system.


In summation, the position of positivism holds that science is an apparatus that aids in the development and advancement of knowledge that subsists beyond one’s thought (Hoshmand & Polkinghorne, 1992). Technical rationality is utilized to examine the approach and methods incorporated by established professions in order to operate while reflection in action correlates more to the application of action that practitioners employ within their given profession to attain knowledge. Practitioners are considered to be those who apply knowledge within their specialized area of profession versus contributors of knowledge. Both methods of technical rationality and reflection in action are utilized in the criminal justice profession a quest for professionalization within this discipline.


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