is a reflective process
of progressive problem solving
led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a "community of practice
" to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. Action research can also be undertaken by larger organizations or institutions, assisted or guided by professional researchers, with the aim of improving their strategies, practices, and knowledge of the environments within which they practice.
Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT, first coined the term “action research” in about 1944, and it appears in his 1946 paper “Action Research and Minority Problems”. In that paper, he described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action” that uses “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action”.
Action research is an interactive inquiry process that balances problem solving actions implemented in a collaborative context with data-driven collaborative analysis or research to understand underlying causes enabling future predictions about personal and organizational change (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). After six decades of action research development, many methodologies have evolved that adjust the balance to focus more on the actions taken or more on the research that results from the reflective understanding of the actions. This tension exists between
- those that are more driven by the researcher’s agenda to those more driven by participants;
- those that are motivated primarily by instrumental goal attainment to those motivated primarily by the aim of personal, organizational, or societal transformation; and
- 1st-, to 2nd-, to 3rd-person research (i.e. my research on my own action, aimed primarily at personal change; our research on our group (family/team), aimed primarily at improving the group; and ‘scholarly’ research aimed primarily at theoretical generalization and/or large scale change).
Action research challenges traditional social science, by moving beyond reflective knowledge created by outside experts sampling variables to an active moment-to-moment theorizing, data collecting, and inquiring occurring in the midst of emergent structure. “Knowledge is always gained through action and for action. From this starting point, to question the validity of social knowledge is to question, not how to develop a reflective science about action, but how to develop genuinely well-informed action—how to conduct an action science” (Torbert 2001).
Chris Argyris's Action Science
’ Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Human actions are designed to achieve intended consequences and governed by a set of environment variables
. How those governing variables are treated in designing actions are the key differences between single loop learning
and double loop learning
. When actions are designed to achieve the intended consequences and to suppress conflict about the governing variables, a single loop learning cycle usually ensues. On the other hand, when actions are taken, not only to achieve the intended consequences, but also to openly inquire about conflict and to possibly transform the governing variables, both single loop and double loop learning cycles usually ensue. (Argyris applies single loop and double loop learning concepts not only to personal behaviors but also to organizational behaviors in his models.)
John Heron and Peter Reason's Cooperative Inquiry
, also known as collaborative inquiry
was first proposed by John Heron
in 1971 and later expanded with Peter Reason
. The major idea of cooperative inquiry is to “research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people.” It emphasizes that all active participants are fully involved in research decisions as co-researchers. Cooperative inquiry creates a research cycle among four different types of knowledge: propositional knowing (as in contemporary science), practical knowing (the knowledge that comes with actually doing what you propose), experiential knowing (the feedback we get in real time about our interaction with the larger world) and presentational knowing (the artistic rehearsal process through which we craft new practices). The research process iterates these four stages at each cycle with deepening experience and knowledge of the initial proposition, or of new propositions, at every cycle.
Paulo Freire's Participatory Action Research (PAR)
Participatory action research
has emerged in recent years as a significant methodology for intervention, development and change within communities and groups. It is now promoted and implemented by many international development agencies and university programs, as well as countless local community organizations around the world. PAR builds on the critical pedagogy put forward by Paulo Freire
as a response to the traditional formal models of education where the “teacher” stands at the front and “imparts” information to the “students” that are passive recipients. This was further developed in "adult education" models throughout Latin America.
William Torbert’s Developmental Action Inquiry
The Developmental Action Inquiry
is a “way of simultaneously conducting action and inquiry as a disciplined leadership practice that increases the wider effectiveness of our actions. Such action helps individuals, teams, organizations become more capable of self-transformation and thus more creative, more aware, more just and more sustainable” (Torbert, 2004). Action Inquiry challenges our attention to span four different territories of experience (at the personal, group, or organizational scales) in the midst of actions. This practice promotes timeliness – learning with moment to moment intentional awareness – among individuals and with regard to the outside world of nature and human institutions. It studies the “pre-constituted internalized and externalized universe in the present, both as it resonates with and departs from the past, and as it resonates with and potentiates the future” (Torbert, 2001).
Jack Whitehead's and Jean McNiff's Living Theory approach
In the Living Theory approach
of Whitehead (1989) and Whitehead and McNiff (2006) individuals generate explanations of their educational influences in their own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of social formations. They generate the explanations from experiencing themselves as living contradictions in enquiries of the kind, 'How do I improve what I am doing?' They use action reflection cycles of expressing concerns, developing action plans, acting and gathering data, evaluating the influences of action, modifying concerns, ideas and action in the light of the evaluations. The explanations include life-affirming, energy-flowing values as explanatory principles. A living theory approach with the above qualities is distinguished from the living theories produced by practitioner-researchers because of the uniqueness of each living theory generated by individuals.
Action research in organization development
Wendell L French and Cecil Bell define organization development
(OD) at one point as "organization improvement through action research". If one idea can be said to summarize OD's underlying philosophy, it would be action research as it was conceptualized by Kurt Lewin
and later elaborated and expanded on by other behavioral scientists. Concerned with social change and, more particularly, with effective, permanent social change, Lewin believed that the motivation to change was strongly related to action: If people are active in decisions affecting them, they are more likely to adopt new ways. "Rational social management", he said, "proceeds in a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of action".
Lewin's description of the process of change involves three steps :
Unfreezing: Faced with a dilemma or disconfirmation, the individual or group becomes aware of a need to change.
Changing: The situation is diagnosed and new models of behavior are explored and tested.
Refreezing: Application of new behavior is evaluated, and if reinforcing, adopted.
Figure 1 summarizes the steps and processes involved in planned change through action research. Action research is depicted as a cyclical process of change. The cycle begins with a series of planning actions initiated by the client and the change agent working together. The principal elements of this stage include a preliminary diagnosis, data gathering, feedback of results, and joint action planning. In the language of systems theory, this is the input phase, in which the client system becomes aware of problems as yet unidentified, realizes it may need outside help to effect changes, and shares with the consultant the process of problem diagnosis.
The second stage of action research is the action, or transformation, phase. This stage includes actions relating to learning processes (perhaps in the form of role analysis) and to planning and executing behavioral changes in the client organization. As shown in Figure 1, feedback at this stage would move via Feedback Loop A and would have the effect of altering previous planning to bring the learning activities of the client system into better alignment with change objectives. Included in this stage is action-planning activity carried out jointly by the consultant and members of the client system. Following the workshop or learning sessions, these action steps are carried out on the job as part of the transformation stage.
The third stage of action research is the output, or results, phase. This stage includes actual changes in behavior (if any) resulting from corrective action steps taken following the second stage. Data are again gathered from the client system so that progress can be determined and necessary adjustments in learning activities can be made. Minor adjustments of this nature can be made in learning activities via Feedback Loop B (see Figure 1). Major adjustments and reevaluations would return the OD project to the first, or planning, stage for basic changes in the program. The action-research model shown in Figure 1 closely follows Lewin's repetitive cycle of planning, action, and measuring results. It also illustrates other aspects of Lewin's general model of change. As indicated in the diagram, the planning stage is a period of unfreezing, or problem awareness. The action stage is a period of changing, that is, trying out new forms of behavior in an effort to understand and cope with the system's problems. (There is inevitable overlap between the stages, since the boundaries are not clear-cut and cannot be in a continuous process). The results stage is a period of refreezing, in which new behaviors are tried out on the job and, if successful and reinforcing, become a part of the system's repertoire of problem-solving behavior.
Action research is problem centered, client centered, and action oriented. It involves the client system in a diagnostic, active-learning, problem-finding, and problem-solving process. Data are not simply returned in the form of a written report but instead are fed back in open joint sessions, and the client and the change agent collaborate in identifying and ranking specific problems, in devising methods for finding their real causes, and in developing plans for coping with them realistically and practically. Scientific method in the form of data gathering, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses, and measuring results, although not pursued as rigorously as in the laboratory, is nevertheless an integral part of the process. Action research also sets in motion a long-range, cyclical, self-correcting mechanism for maintaining and enhancing the effectiveness of the client's system by leaving the system with practical and useful tools for self-analysis and self-renewal.
is a set of techniques that involve a group or community in shaping and creating their own film, in order to explore, solve and communicate their issues. It started in 1967
by Canadian advocate Don Snowdon, who changed the lives of Newfoundland
's Fogo Islanders
. By watching each other’s films, the different villagers on the island came to realise that they shared many of the same problems and that by working together they could solve some of them. The films were also shown to politicians who lived too far away and were too busy to actually visit the island. As a result of this dialogue, government policies and actions were changed. The techniques developed by Snowden became known as the Fogo process. Its chief power is that the video is edited by its participants.
- General sources for action research
- Center for Collaborative Action Research Contains examples of peer-reviewed action research reports and a wiki for supporting those engaged in the process of writing or supporting action research.
- Davison, Martinsons & Kock, Principles of canonical action research, Information Systems Journal, 2004.
- Burns, D. 2007. Systemic Action Research: A strategy for whole system change. Bristol: Policy Press.
- Greenwood, D. J. & Levin, M., Introduction to action research: social research for social change, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.
- Kock, N. (Ed) (2006). Information systems action research: An applied view of emerging concepts and methods. New York, NY: Springer.
- Reason & Bradbury, Handbook of Action Research. London: Sage, 2001.
- Sherman & Torbert, Transforming Social Inquiry, Transforming Social Action: New paradigms for crossing the theory/practice divide in universities and communities. Boston, Kluwer, 2000.
- Woodman & Pasmore, Research in Organizational Change & Development series. Greenwich CT: Jai Press
- Addison-Wesley Series in Organization Development
- Scholarly Journals
- Philosophical sources of action research
- Abram, D. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
- Argyris, C. Putnam, R. & Smith, D. 1985. Action Science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Gadamer, H. 1982. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad.
- Habermas, J. 1984/1987. The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol.s I & II. Boston:Beacon.
- Hallward, P. 2003. Badiou: A subject to truth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Lewin, K. (1946) Action research and minority problems. J Soc. Issues 2(4): 34-46.
- Malin, S. 2001. Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum physics and the nature of reality, a Western perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Polanyi, M. 1958. Personal Knowledge. New York: Harper.
- Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday Currency.
- Torbert, W. 1991. The Power of Balance: Transforming Self, Society, and Scientific Inquiry
- Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch E. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
- Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory, London; Sage.
- Wilber, K. 1998. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating science and religion. New York: Random House
- Exemplars and methodological discussions of action research
- Argyris, C. 1970. Intervention Theory and Method. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Argyris, C. 1980. Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research. San Diego CA: Academic Press.
- Argyris, C. 1994. Knowledge for Action. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Cameron, K. & Quinn, R. 1999. Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Flyvbjerg, B. 2001. Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press.
- Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
- Garreau, J. 2005. Radical Evolution: The promise and peril of enhancing our minds, our bodies – and what it means to be human. New York: Doubleday.
- Heikkinen, H., Kakkori, L. & Huttunen, R. 2001. This is my truth, tell me yours: some aspects of action research quality in the light of truth theories. Educational Action Research 1/2001. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a739035953
- Heron, J. 1996. Cooperative Inquiry: Research into the human condition. London: Sage.
- McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) All You Need To Know About Action Research, London; Sage.
- Ogilvy, J. 2000. Creating Better Futures: Scenario planning as a tool for a better tomorrow. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
- Reason, P. & Rowan, J. 1981. Human Inquiry: A Sourcebook of New Paradigm Research. London: Wiley.
- Reason, P. 1995. Participation in Human Inquiry. London: Sage.
- Schein, E. 1999. Process Consultation Revisited. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Senge, P., Scharmer, C., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. 2004. Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. Cambridge MA: Society for Organizational Learning.
- Torbert, W. & Associates 2004. Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership.
- 1st-Person Research/Practice Exemplars
- Bateson, M. 1984. With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York: Plume/Penguin.
- Raine, N. 1998. After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. New York: Crown.
- Harrison, R. 1995. Consultant's Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
- Whitehead, J. (1993) The Growth of Educational Knowledge, Bournemouth; Hyde. Retrieved 1 March 2007 from http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/writings/jwgek93.htm