The ladder of inference

19 11 2008

An essential part of Action Research is reflection. Clearly such reflection is personal and we must assume, accept and interrogate our understanding of this reflection in the knowledge that all of our perceptions are affected by previous knowledge and experience. This therefore gives a reflection on the action that may not necessarily be shared by others. This method of research is in stark contrast to the paradigm of logical positivism where such personal involvement is essential forbidden.

This difference leads to an essential and probably defining concept within such research of recognising and detailing what assumptions are being made upon the basis of this reflection and at the same time offering personal opinion and beliefs for discussion and examination.

Argyris et al. 1985 describe a ladder of inference to help develop understanding of how perceptions are developed of observable data and events such that previous experience will affect how an outcome is perceived. Clearly this is describing reality and the effects of this ladder are not to be removed merely accepted as existing. the ladder of inference

From my personal experience I was approached by a Consultant colleague and asked if I could allow him to operate on a complex case on my Thursday list some 8 weeks in advance. We discussed the matter, agreed the date, emailed the waiting list department to ensure the list was currently empty, booked the patient as the only case for the day, informed the anaesthetist and all was well. Until I received a call at 6pm the night before the list from a ward clerk saying there were four additional patients booked for the list the next day (by a booking clerk). I explained this was an error, that the major case was scheduled 8 weeks earlier and would be the only operation possible that day as had originally been arranged.

At 915 the following morning I received an email from a junior manager,

I understand that you have cancelled your operating list for today, unfortunately it only appears to have come to light as of last night. Please can you let me know:

  • When you cancelled the list
  • What the reason for the cancellation is
  • Who you informed

For whatever reason the patients have not been cancelled until last night which is obviously far from ideal and this morning it is important to work out what went wrong here.”

The ladder of inference is interesting and presents many possible interpretations of events. Such ladders are possibly as stable as the picture above. They clearly exists however and we all need to accept that we are all balanced precariously on our own ladders of inference before acting and responding.

addition- there is a further post on this topic here.

Argyris C., Putnam, R. and Smith, D. (1985) Action Science. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass




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