Action research is either research initiated to solve an immediate problem or 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. There are two types of action research: participatory and practical. Denscombe (2010, p. 6) writes that an action research strategy's purpose is to solve a particular problem and to produce guidelines for best practice.
- Chris Argyris Action Science
- John Heron and Peter Reasons cooperative inquiry
- Paulo Freires participatory action research PAR
- William Barrys living educational theory approach to action research
- Action research in organization development
Action research involves actively participating in a change situation, often via an existing organization, whilst simultaneously conducting research. 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. As designers and stakeholders, researchers work with others to propose a new course of action to help their community improve its work practices.
Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT, first coined the term "action research" in 1944. In his 1946 paper "Action Research and Minority Problems" 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, 2002). After six decades of action research development, many methods 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 who are more driven either by the researcher's agenda or by participants;
- those who are motivated primarily by instrumental goal attainment or by the aim of personal, organizational or societal transformation; and
- 1st-, to 2nd-, to 3rd-person research, that is, 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 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 inquiry 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". In this sense, performing action research is the same as performing an experiment, thus it is an empirical process.
Chris Argyris' Action Science
Chris Argyris' Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Humans design their actions to achieve intended consequences and are governed by a set of environment variables. How those governing variables are treated in designing actions are the key differences between single-loop 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- and double-loop learning cycles usually ensue. (Argyris applies single- and double-loop learning concepts not only to personal behaviors but also to organizational behaviors in his models.) This is different from experimental research in which environmental variables are controlled and researchers try to find out cause and effect in an isolated environment.
John Heron and Peter Reason's cooperative inquiry
Cooperative, aka collaborative, inquiry was first proposed by John Heron in 1971 and later expanded with Peter Reason and Demi Brown. The major idea is to "research 'with' rather than 'on' people." It emphasizes the full involvement in research decisions of all active participants as co-researchers.
Cooperative inquiry creates a research cycle among 4 different types of knowledge: propositional (as in contemporary science), practical (the knowledge that comes with actually doing what you propose), experiential (the real-time feedback we get about our interaction with the larger world) and presentational (the artistic rehearsal process through which we craft new practices). At every cycle, the research process includes these four stages, with deepening experience and knowledge of the initial proposition, or of new propositions.
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 groups and communities. 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" who are passive recipients. This was further developed in "adult education" models throughout Latin America.
Orlando Fals-Borda (1925–2008), Colombian sociologist and political activist, was one of the principal promoters of participatory action research (IAP in Spanish) in Latin America. He published a "double history of the coast", book that compares the official "history" and the non-official "story" of the north coast of Colombia.
William Barry's living educational theory approach to action research
William Barry (Atkins and Wallace 2012) defined an approach to action research which focuses on creating ontological weight. He adapted the idea of ontological weight to action research from existential Christian philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1963). Prof. Barry (Barry, 2012) was influenced by Jean McNiff's and Jack Whitehead's (2008) phraseology of living theory action research but was diametrically opposed to the validation process advocated by Whitehead which demanded video "evidence" of "energy flowing values" and his atheistic ontological position which influenced his conception of values in action research.
Barry explained that living educational theory (LET) "[It is] a critical and transformational approach to action research. It confronts the researcher to challenge the status quo of their educational practice and to answer the question, 'How can I improve that I'm doing?' Researchers who use this approach must be willing to recognize and assume responsibility for being a 'living contradictions' in their professional practice – thinking one way and acting in another. The mission of the LET action researcher is to overcome workplace norms and self-behavior which contradict the researcher's values and beliefs. The vision of the LET researcher is to make an original contribution to knowledge through generating an educational theory proven to improve the learning of people within a social learning space. The standard of judgment for theory validity is evidence of workplace reform, transformational growth of the researcher, and improved learning by the people researcher claimed to have influenced..." (Atkins and Wallace, p.131).
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:
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.