Action Research, you said?

Throughout my current research, I intend to follow principles of Action Research. What does that mean?

I’ll try to synthesise my understanding of AR by focusing on a few main characteristics.

A HOLISTIC, EMBODIED APPROACH

One interesting definition of AR is that proposed by Kemmis and McTaggart (1988):

a form of collective self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social or educational practices, as well as their understanding of these practices and the situations in which these practices are carried out.

So fundamentally, AR is about people observing what they already do, reflecting on it, then finding ways to do it better. This is accomplished through cycles of try and error.

Ideally, doing this meaningfully requires making sense of reality — including social systems — in a holistic way: not simply through an analytical process taking place after an event has been observed, but via a relational and experiential process taking place as things are happening. As Burns (2007) puts it, AR is a process of coming to know, by using all your faculties and senses.

Indeed, in AR, the researcher is not removed from the object of study, but embedded within it. AR is more than just another methodology, but an approach to inquiry based on experimental action: it is about generating knowledge (research), while at the same time supporting positive change (action).

“The primary purpose of action research is not to produce academic theories based on action; nor is it to produce theories about action; nor is it to produce theoretical or empirical knowledge that can be applied in action; it is to liberate the human body, mind and spirit in the search for a better, freer world.” (Reason and Bradbury, 2008)

A PARTICIPATORY PROCESS

The AR process can be purely personal, as an examination of one’s own practice. But within a social context, research is rarely undertaken by the researcher alone; rather, it is rather based on cooperation between multiple parties. In the words of Greenwood and Levin (1998), AR is

“…a cogeneration process through which professional researchers and interested members of a local organization, community or specially created organization collaborate to research, understand and resolve problems of mutual interest.”

This participatory aspect is of critical importance. As Reason and Bradbury (2008) point out,

“In AR, ‘participation’ is more than a technique, epistemological principle, or political tenet. An attitude of inquiry includes developing an understanding that we are embodied beings part of a social and ecological order, and radically interconnected with all other beings.”

Therefore, the practice of AR is rooted in the realisation that we are not bounded individuals experiencing the world in isolation: we are all interconnected, participants in a whole, “part-of and not apart-from.”

And this stance has a deeper purpose: as Thomas Berry points out, we will not be able to fully face the ecological devastations wrought by humans until we truly experience the universe and the Earth as “a communion of subjects rather than as a collection of objects.”

A DEMOCRATIC, EMANCIPATORY ETHOS

Consequently, many (perhaps most) practitioners view AR as a way of carrying out research and acting in the world that has an explicitly egalitarian and democratic ethos:

“AR is a social process in which professional knowledge, local knowledge, process skills, and democratic values are the basis for co-created knowledge and social change.” (Greenwood and Levin, 1998)

“Action research is a participatory process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes. It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities.” (Reason and Bradbury, 2008)

Thus,

“Action Researchers aren’t ‘making a discrete contribution to the field of knowledge’ when they undertake a piece of AR, but are contributing to a stream of action and inquiry which aims to enhance the flourishing of human persons, their societies, communities and organisations and the wider ecology of which we are all a part.” (Reason and Bradbury, 2008)

Therefore, a direct link can often be observed between AR and social change: indeed, “AR explicitly seems to disrupt existing power relations for the purpose of democratising society.” (Greenwood and Levin, 1998)

AR is therefore a particularly relevant approach as regards generating social and political change.

AN EMERGENT PROCESS

Concretely, how does it work?

AR is not a predetermined process, ruled by rigid and immutable guidelines. Instead, it is an emergent process, in the sense that it changes and develops as the people engaged in the research deepen their understanding of what they are studying, and become better at it both individually and collectively (Reason and Bradbury, 2008).

Therefore, in order to be useful and relevant (and therefore, create understanding and change), an AR research process must remain flexible, and adapt to fluid settings.

Part of this flexibility comes from relying on repeated cycles of inquiry — or a spiral process, often referred to as the Kolb Cycle: plan; act; observe; reflect; plan; act… and so on. It is therefore a process that alternates action and critical reflection.

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Beyond this foundation, a multiplicity of methodologies and techniques are used by action researchers, based on their personal preferences, the goal of their study, etc. See here for more details on the principles of AR methodology, and there for a comparison of AR with the usual scientific method.

IN SUMMARY

Burns (2007) summarises the most fundamental characteristics of AR as follows:

  • it is context bound and addresses real-life problems;
  • it is inquiry where participants and researchers contribute to knowledge through collaborative communication processes in which all participants’ contributions are taken seriously;
  • it treats the diversity of experience and capacities within the local group as an opportunity for the enrichment of the research-action process;
  • the meanings in the inquiry process lead to social action or these reflections on action lead to the construction of new meanings;
  • the credibility of action research knowledge is measured according to whether actions that arise from it solve problems (workability) and increase participants’ control over their own situation.

And in Burns’s view, this is AR’s underlying ethos:

  • it combines a systematic study, sometimes experimental, of a social problem as well as endeavouring to solve it;
  • it includes a spiral process of data collation to determine goals and assessment of the results of intervention;
  • it demands feedback of the results of intervention to all parties involved in the research;
  • it implies continuous cooperation between researchers and practitioners;
  • it relies on the principles of group dynamics and is anchored in its change phases. The phases are unfreezing, moving and refreezing. Decision making is mutual and is carried out in a public way;
  • it takes into account issues of values, objectives and the power needs of the parties involved;
  • it serves to create knowledge, to formulate principles of intervention and also to develop instruments for selection, intervention and training;
  • within the framework of action research there is much emphasis on recruitment, training and support of the change agents.

WHY I WANT TO GIVE IT A TRY

I find AR particularly relevant to my research program, for several reasons. Here are three:

Firstly, because it is an approach that pays attention equally to knowledge (or learning), and action. It is precisely because I want to explore the interface of learning and action that I decided to embark on a PhD program.

Secondly, because contrary to ‘normal’ (positivist) research, with its (vain) striving for ‘objectivity’, AR embodies a philosophy with an explicitly democratic slant, which aims at changing society to make the world a better place for humans and the rest of our living planet.

And finally, perhaps even more importantly: as a result of the two previous factors, I see AR as being fundamentally about transcending the idea that each of us is a separate, disconnected entity. I believe this idea of ‘separatedness’, which we have inherited largely from Cartesian physics, is to blame in huge part for the terrible state of our planet and society today. As Charles Eisenstein would put it, we must learn to let go of this old story, and embrace a reality in which we are all interconnected. Or in the words of Jeremy Lent, a view of the world as a web of meaning.

I am hoping that AR will help me bring a contribution, no matter how modest, towards this purpose.

SOURCES

Burns, D. (2007) Systemic Action Research: A strategy for whole system change. Bristol: Policy Press

Greenwood, D. and Levin, M. (1998) An Introduction to action research: Social research for social change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. (1988) The Action Research Planner, 3rd edn. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press.

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (eds) (2008) Handbook of action research: Participatory inquiry and practice, 2nd edn. London: Sage Publications.

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