Dewey 2016 [Abstract Accepted]

Dear All,

I am pleased to let you know that my abstract for the Dewey 2016 conference has been accepted.


Understanding Reflexivity in Light of Dewey’s ‘Trying’ and ‘Undergoing’

1 Introduction

Drawing on John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916), this paper focuses on one of the text’s central themes, namely that of ‘learning from experience’. I start by shedding light on this particular idea in Dewey’s work; then address insights that have emerged from it especially in relation to furthering our understanding of the concept of reflexivity (Edge, 2011; Attia & Edge, forthcoming). This is followed by examples of how such understanding – grounded in Dewey’s notions of ‘trying’ and ‘undergoing’ – continues to inform my research practice.

2 ‘Trying’ and ‘Undergoing’

In his seminal text, Dewey discusses the nature of experience which he perceives as involving the dual active ‘trying’ and the passive ‘undergoing’.

The nature of experience can be understood only by noting that it includes an active and a passive element peculiarly combine. On the active hand, experience is trying – a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term, experiment. On the passive, it is undergoing. When we experience something we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences. We do something to the thing and then it does something to us in return. Such is the peculiar combination. The connection of these two phases of experience measures the fruitfulness or value of the experience. (Dewey, 1916, p. 163, italics in original)

According to Dewey, an activity in itself does not amount to experience. Rather, it is the extension of the understanding of the activity to also include its effects on oneself that develops an experience, when our understanding of change comprises both the change caused by our action and that caused upon us as a consequence. To “learn from experience” is therefore, about making these connections of acting and being acted upon (Dewey, 2016, p. 164).

3 Cycles of Reflexivity

Dewey’s writings on the nature of experience have inspired numerous efforts in the field, one of which is related to the concept of reflexivity. In this paper I focus specifically on Edge’s (2011) understanding of cycles of reflexivity.

Drawing on Dewey’s (1916) processes of ‘trying’ and ‘undergoing’, Edge (2011)

argues that “reflexivity in qualitative research is concerned with the ongoing, mutually- shaping interaction between the researcher and the research” (p. 35). He explains that as the researcher reaches out to shape his/her research, the experience of that reaches back to shape him/her. As such, the concept of reflexivity involves a relationship of continuous interaction, reciprocal formation, and internalisation and externalisation between the researcher and their research. In this respect he views the relationship as a cycle with no clear beginning, where the researcher never returns to the same point again.

Edge (2011) notes that although awareness of the cycles of reflexivity can have valuable implications for personal and professional development, our reporting of research often emphasises the ‘trying’ elements of our practice more than the ‘undergoing’.

Our reports foreground what we have learned, what we have acquired, much more than they feature what changes have undergone, what we have become. To that extent, they do not represent well the emergent nature of our learning, in the sense that the person entering the next experience is no longer the one who entered the last (p. 42)

Such emphasis on the ‘trying’ (compared to the ‘undergoing’) has long informed our understanding of the concept of reflexivity, for example, through a focus on how to account for the influence of researcher advanced knowledge, subjectivities, values and beliefs in shaping their work, or how to deal with researcher status, gender, ethnicity, and language in research practice (Attia & Edge, forthcoming).

Encouraging researchers to engage with both elements of reflexivity is necessary for a fuller experience, and consequently learning from experience (Edge, 2011). This is precisely because it is “the intimate union of activity and undergoing its consequences which leads to recognition of meaning” (Dewey, 1916, p. 164).

4 Examples from Practice

In light of Dewey’s concpets of ‘trying’ and ‘undergoing’ I wish to offer examples of becoming aware of the cycles of reflexivity, and the contribution of such awareness to my ‘learning from experience’ and therefore development as a researcher.

I work on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project which investigates researching multilingually in contexts where the human being is under pressure or pain (e.g., mental health, forced migration, political occupation). As the use of creative arts is integral to our work, we have have a team of international artists on the project. In this paper, I present examples of close interaction with my creative arts colleagues and the impact that this has had on myself and the way I now perceive the role of creative arts in my work. I focus on processes of ‘trying’ and ‘undergoing’ explaining how an awareness of such reflexive cycles has lead to meaningful experiences and continuing growth in this area. As stated by Dewey (1916), “the

measure of the value of an experience lies in the perception of relationships or continuities to which it leads up” (p. 164, italics in original).


Attia, M. & Edge, J. (forthcoming). Be(com)ing a reflexive researcher: A developmental approach to qualitative research methodology. In S. Mirhosseini. Qualitative research in language education and literacy. Springer Publishing.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Edge, J. (2011).The reflexive teacher educator: Roots and wings. New York: Routledge


  • Lada Smirnova

    Mariam, congratulations!
    Right now I’m reading the Dewey’s ‘Having an Experience’ (1934), available at It seems that an experience is emotion-laden component of that process of the Dewey’s ‘Trying’ and ‘Undergoing’, no? Anyway, very interesting, indeed! Like Susan, would love to hear more 😉

  • Susan Dawson

    Great news Mariam, and thanks for sharing it with us! I found this very interesting to read – if your talk is recorded and put online at all, I’d love to listen.

    The idea of passively ‘undergoing’ is new to me. If I have understood it correctly (and I might not have done), ‘trying’ and ‘undergoing’ are two separate stages – the actions followed by the consequences of our actions – the ‘undergoing’. Is that correct? I suppose I’m wondering if there is some sort of passive undergoing even while we are actively doing things as well? Or maybe its the undergoing from a past experience that is happening while we undertake a new one, and which affects the doing even though we might not be conscious of it. I suppose that would still be sequential though. Interesting – as I said, I’d love to read/hear more.