Disentangling Professional Discretion: A theoretical and methodological approach

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


With the overall aim of furthering the theo¬retical and empirical investigation of professional discretion, this article builds on a combination of a conceptual framework for understanding discretion and an advanced method for collecting data on human judgments. Discretion is described as consisting of two analytically separate cate¬gories or dimensions – a structural dimension (discretionary space) and an epistemic dimension (discretionary reasoning). Discretionary reasoning is defined as the cognitive activity that may take place within the discretionary space of professional judgment and decision-making, and it is illustrated by means of Stephen Toulmin’s model of argumentation. The factorial survey, a quasi-experimental vignette approach developed by the American sociologist Peter Rossi, is proposed as a method with substantial potential for studying the contents of the various elements inherent in professional practitioners’ discretionary reasoning. Using multilevel regression analysis within a factorial survey design, an approach to analysing agreement and disagreement in discretionary reasoning is proposed, and is illustrated using examples based on a vignette design constructed with the aim of measuring social care professionals’ judgments about elder abuse. In conclusion, it is suggested that the conceptual and methodological framework presented in this article could form the basis for studies examining issues of topical interest for scholars with an interest in professional groups, including studies involving comparisons of discretionary reasoning across professions and organizations. It is further proposed that results from factorial surveys of discretionary reasoning, together with results from expert panel discussions, could form the basis for improving practice within a specific professional field.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Social Work
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014 Jul 3
Publication categoryResearch
EventInternational Symposium: Factorial Survey Method of Studying Decision Making - Templepatrick, United Kingdom
Duration: 2014 Jul 32014 Jul 3


ConferenceInternational Symposium: Factorial Survey Method of Studying Decision Making
CountryUnited Kingdom