A History of Action Research

History can be written in many ways, and no one ever writes the history. Our intention in this chapter is to present a genealogy of action research (AR) that centers on the way we have learned to understand it during our own years in the field. We do not believe that it is possible to present an objective account of the development of AR. Attempting to create a history of a specific phenomenon often has an underlying assumption that it is possible to draw one historical line that connects the different elements in the field. This is not the case in AR or probably anywhere else. The diversity of activities today iden­tified as “action research” cannot, in an obvious manner, be linked to each other. A striking example of this situation occurred in 1991, when two impor­tant books were published simultaneously with similar elements in their titles: Fals Borda and Rahman’s ( 1991) Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly With Participatory Action Research and ^fuyte’s (1991) Participatory Action Research. Both books use similar elements in their titles, but as Levin (1998) pointed out, they hardly acknowledge each other. In their bibliographies, they share only three references relating to the practice of action research.

This situation has changed over the past 15 years. The Handbook of Action Research edited by Reason and Bradbury (2001a) indicates, by gathering many of the strands of thinking in the field into one volume, that a more ecumenical view of the recent development in AR is developing. Shared references are found to the classic works of Karl Marx, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jurgen Habermas, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Richard Rorty, for example. What is lacking from Reason and Bradbury’s volume and from the field in general, however, is a crit­ical discourse between different conceptualizations of AR or a contrast between different practices and findings. Rather the unspoken intention of the different contributors in Reason and Bradbury (2001a) seems to have been to present a specific position, not to map that position onto other strands of thinking. We hope that the next stage in the international network of AR professionals will be the creation of this kind of engaged, multiple, critical discourse that provides a more meaningful map of the varieties and trends in AR.

Despite this, it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that the diverse activities called AR lack the features of an intellectual and social movement.

AR, as a whole, embodies a broad and diverse movement within which there are many similarities in values, approaches to the empirical field, and commit­ments to mutual learning between problem owners and researchers. The diverse practitioners in the field now do have encounters at conferences, write chapters in the same handbook (Reason & Bradbury, 2001a), and publish in the same journals. But, this activity has not yet resulted in sufficient commu­nication so that it is easy for a reader starting in one corner of AR to find her or his way to other corners.

The many different strands of thinking could be subdivided into more precise categories, but for our purpose here, it is sufficient to focus only on cre­ating a more general historical overview. Later, in Part 3 of this book, we pre­sent the historical origins of major approaches to AR as we introduce each. From our viewpoint, the history of AR necessarily contains more than one narrative, and each narrative adds necessary elements of the larger historical picture.

In constructing the history of action research, we begin with and pay most attention to the Northern tradition of industrial democracy. The Northern experiences in industrial organizations were a primary and fertile ground for the development of AR, and we devote most of the space in this chapter to the Northern, Western tradition because the reader needs to know where we are coming from. This should not be construed as an exclusionary strategy but rather as an articulation of our own situatedness. Next we provide a presenta­tion of the liberationist movement in poor countries because it is a vital part of the history of AR, even though it is not as much a part of our personal itin­eraries. (In later chapters, Southern participatory action research (PAR) and other liberationist approaches are given a more nuanced treatment.) The even­tual rapprochement (without mutual assimilation) is a necessity for the future of AR, given the forces arrayed in both the North and the South against democ­ratization. It was one of the primary practitioners of Southern PAR, Orlando Fals Borda, who understood this best and who reached out to all positions in the world of AR when he chose to organize the world conferences that he titled “Convergence” in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1977 and 1997. We conclude the chapter with a brief overview of the human inquiry/collaborative inquiry approach.

1. Industrial Democracy

The emergence of what came to be called the “industrial democracy” tradition or movement refers to the first systematic and reasonably large-scale AR effort in Western industrialized countries. Its roots trace back to Kurt Lewin’s early work in the United States (first at Cornell University and later at MIT). His ideas recrossed the Atlantic and found fertile ground at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London. Though there were a number of activities in Great Britain, the major source of large-scale AR projects turned out to be in Norway in the Industrial Democracy Project. Many of these ideas were rein­vented in the form of industrial management strategies in Swedish and U.S. industrial firms; later, they reached Japan as well. This very widespread diffu­sion of ideas developed through AR is a success story about the dissemination of AR, but it is also a story about the way fairly radical ideas for social change can be appropriated as management tools aimed at producing more efficient, rather than fairer, organizations.

Our central claim is that the basic ideas of the industrial democracy move­ment are today accepted as state of the art in the organization of work. No sen­sible industrial leader in the West fails to take account of team-based work organization or the training of skillful and responsible workers able to engage in continuous innovation (improvement) processes at the shop-floor level. These ideas are so widely accepted now that their relatively recent origins in the industrial democracy movement are largely forgotten.

One consequence of this is that the concept of industrial democracy has lost its initial meaning. Some practitioners and companies apply the term industrial democracy in a co-opted form, giving the typical control strategies of management a socially euphonic name while still working in Tayloristic ways. ‘ Although we see this as a problematic situation, it is what one always sees when new ideas appear in industrialized settings. We can also see the same domesti­cation processes in the other two approaches to AR we discuss in this chapter. Within the liberationist tradition, for example, the work variously called “Rapid Rural Appraisal,” “Participatory Rural Appraisal,” or “Participatory Learning Analysis” (Chambers, 1994a, b, c) unintentionally made participation into a commodity that was built into development strategies as a technique instigated by the funding agencies. This process is quite parallel to the co­optation of industrial democracy. Likewise, it is possible to trace elements of the same sort of domestication taking the form of quick fixes in organizational settings without the learning perspectives advocated by Heron ( 1996) and Reason (1994). Co-optation always exists alongside more genuine efforts to democratize society. The challenge for the AR community is not to retain its “purity” but to figure out strategically how to open up new ground for demo­cratic work organization and to retain the democratizing momentum that makes AR worth doing.


The spread of Nazism in Germany led the psychologist Kurt Lewin to leave Europe and seek refuge in the United States. Lewin was trained as a social psychologist, and his central interest was in social change, specifically questions about how to conceptualize social change and how to promote it. Although accounts on this matter differ, Lewin is generally thought to be the person who coined the term “action research” and gave it meanings quite close to those we use in this book.

In AR, Lewin envisaged a process whereby one could construct an experi­ment in a holistic social and material situation with the aim of achieving a certain goal. For example, in the early days ofWorld War II, Lewin (1943) con­ducted a study, commissioned by U.S. authorities, on the use of tripe as part of the regular daily diet of American families. The research question was to what extent American housewives could be encouraged to use tripe rather than beef for family dinners. Beef was scarce and was destined primarily for the troops. Thus, the authorities were looking for resources to substitute for beef in domestic consumption.

Lewin’s approach to this research was to conduct a study in which he trained a limited number of housewives in the art of cooking tripe for dinner. He then surveyed how this training had an effect on their daily cooking habits in their own families. In this case, AR was synonymous with a so-called natural experiment, meaning that the researchers in a real-life context invited or forced participants to take part in an experimental activity. This research approach still fell very much within the bounds of conventional applied social science, with its patterns of authoritarian control, but it was aimed at producing a specific, desired social outcome. Lewin’s thinking about experimentation in natural set­tings became the main strategy for the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project. Lewin was trained as a social psychologist, and thus had a strong pro­fessional concern with behavioral modification that became one of the core issues in the early stages of Norwegian efforts to improve working conditions.

Two other strands of Lewin’s thinking had an important influence on the development of the industrial democracy tradition. First, Lewin conceptual­ized social change as a three-stage process: dismantling former structures (unfreezing), changing the structures (changing), and finally locking them back to a permanent structure (freezing). Second, his work on group dynam­ics, identifying factors and forces important for development, conflict, and cooperation in groups, led to the concept of T-groups, which has had a rich subsequent history (see Gallagher, 2001 ).

Lewin’s conceptualization of change as a three-stage process is still an influential model. Lewin’s major idea is that social change can be identified as sequential and discrete processes, using a thermodynamic metaphor of unfreezing, floating, and freezing matter. The core of Lewin’s model is the notion of the existence of stable social states, those preceding a change and those established after the change has taken place. The action intervention (that is, the change process) is an episode and, in the end, the social system will return to a stable state. This conceptualization of change as intermittent had a dominant influence in the early days of AR and still prevails in the conceptu­alizations of many U.S.-based organization development practitioners (Levin, 1994). The model was attractive because it legitimated short-term interven­tions, a concept developed mainly among social psychologists in the 1970s. It also played a major role in framing the thinking behind consultation practices in the field of organizational development, that is, a planned and systematic effort to create participative change in organizations (Cummings & Worley, 2001) without necessarily engaging in long-term change processes.

In our view, this is a very limiting and mistaken position. We argue in favor of modeling AR as a continuous and participative learning process, not as a form of short-term intervention. For us, the change process has an open start­ing point and often no absolute ending point. Moreover, because the core idea in our own practice is to create sustainable learning capacities and to give par­ticipants the option of increasing control over their own situations, predefin­ing the processes as short term is inconsistent with what we take to be good AR practice. Short-term goals (quick fixes) might be relevant if they are woven into a broader web of continuous change.

These criticisms of Lewin’s view of AR do not undermine the basic idea of AR; they only show the limitations in his own deployment of the approach and the rather convenient use made of his concept of short-term change processes by consultants who took advantage of the early prestige of AR to turn organi­zational development into a profit-making enterprise. In contemporary AR, a major shift away from the Lewinian formulation can be seen in the ways change processes are now characterized. Contemporary formulations empha­size ongoing dialogue a great deal more (Gustavsen, 1992) and cogenerative learning as a vehicle for sustained change (Elden & Levin, 1991).

Kurt Lewin’s work had important effect in another area: the field of group dynamics. Group dynamics is a set of methods and praxis strongly shaped by Lewin’s focus on creating groups that could withstand the tensions of develop­mental processes, rather than breaking down as the tensions arose. iAmong the most famous of these approaches is the T-group technique. The T in the name suggests the structure of the group. In this initial form, the outside facilitator plays the key social role in the group, sitting at the top of the T. The facilitator encourages practice by taking on a role of both not being in command and still being present. With such an authority figure present but not operating in the normal authoritarian way, the members of the group are put in a dilemma and forced, occasionally through painful struggles, to come to terms with their own approaches to authority, and eventually to try to make the group work in a new way.

T-group praxis began what became the road to sensitivity groups, provid­ing experiential learning about interpersonal interaction as a path to deeper personal development. This isa much-criticized approach to human develop­ment that involves high risks of creating sustained harm to participants (Filley & House, 1969). The National Training Laboratory at the University of Michigan still teaches people group dynamics by means of this methodology, but with less emphasis on the issues that were central to the initial sensitivity training model and more on group dynamics and social interaction skills needed to build teams.

Lewin is also credited with coining a couple of important slogans within social sciences. They are so widely known and interesting that they bear repe­tition here: “Nothing is as practical as a good theory” and “The best way to understand something is to try to change it.” These mottos resonate with AR practitioners because they privilege praxis and value theory only insofar as it guides praxis well, clearly a position that sets them against conventional social researchers. In AR, we believe that the way to “test” a theory is to show how it provides in-depth and thorough understanding of social structures, under­standing gained through planned attempts to invoke change in particular directions. The commitment of the local stakeholders to the change processes and the resulting appropriate changes are the demonstration of the utility of the theory.

Lewin’s work is a fundamental building block of what today is called AR. He set the stage for knowledge production based on solving real-life problems. From the outset, he created a new role for researchers and redefined criteria for judging the quality of an inquiry process. Lewin shifted the researcher’s role from being a distant observer to involvement in concrete problem solving. The quality criteria he developed for judging a theory to be good focused on its ability to support practical problem solving in real-life situations.


In Great Britain after World War II, rebuilding the industrial base was a major political goal. During the years of the war, this industrial base had been severely damaged and national efforts were launched immediately to revitalize the economy. The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London was called on by the British government to support various parts of this effort.

The Tavistock Institute (called “the Clinic” by its members) was an intel­lectual environment shaped by psychoanalytic thinking and an action orienta­tion. Its rise to importance began with a pathbreaking study done in the English coal mines, where the introduction of new mechanized equipment had not led to the expected increase in productivity. The board overseeing the coal mines commissioned research on this issue, and Tavistock got the contract. The resulting, and now famous, study by Trist and Bamforth ( 1951) shows how production technology and work organization are linked inextricably. These authors show that the lack of improved performance can be explained by the incompatibility between the demands created by the technology and what is beneficial for the workers as a group of interacting human beings. Breaking up the work cycle in fragments on each shift caused suboptimization on the shifts and lessened overaU productivity. The insight based on Trist and Bamforth ( 1951) represented a break with the conventional Tayloristic approach to work, where research is always focused on finding the most technically efficient way to organize workers into separate, responsible groups dealing only with a clearly identifiable and bounded element of the production cycle. These insights shaped the emergence of the industrial democracy movement.

Tavistock brought Lewin’s work on the concept of natural experiments and AR (Gustavsen, 1992) back from the United States, and Tavistock com­mitted itself to doing direct experiments in work life. The relationship between employers and trade unions in Great Britain was such that it did not allow for experimentation on the organization of industrial work there. However, at this very moment, Einar Thorsrud, a psychologist and former human resource manager of a Norwegian industrial company, was in the process of creating a link to Tavistock. This link eventually led to the hoped-for real-life experiments in industrial democracy, but in Norway rather than in Great Britain.

In cooperation with key Tavistock researchers Eric Trist and Fred Emery, Thorsrud sketched out a Norwegian program very much in line with Lewin’s approach (Gustavsen, 1992). The major strategy was to begin several experi­ments at the same time, all focusing on improving democracy at the shop-floor level. Through what was called the “sociotechnical reorganization” of work, semiautonomous groups were created to provide increased motivation for the workers and to open up participation in decision making at the shop-floor level.

Thorsrud and the Tavistock professionals managed to convince the Norwegian Confederation of Employers and the Trade Union Council to sup­port the Industrial Democracy Project. The first stage of the activity was a European study of industrial democracy in general, focusing on whether rep­resentative or participative models of democracy really gave a high degree of employee control over work (Emery & Thorsrud, 1976). Not unexpectedly, the conclusion was that participative approaches to work organization are neces­sary for increasing industrial democracy.

The Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project was carried out as a set of experiments in different companies engaged in different types of production and located in both rural and urban areas. Of the six field sites in this project, probably only one can now be identified as a long-term success, in the sense of there still being a clear impact on a particular company. The other experiments gave rise to short-term successes, proving that group-based production is both feasible and efficient in industrial settings. These altered work systems clearly outperformed conventional Tayloristic organizational systems.

Three major conceptual schemes emerged through this work. The first is “sociotechnical’’ thinking, that is, building direct links between technology and work organization. The sociotechnical approach became a design criterion for all interventions. Second, the design of work was done according to a concept called “psychological job demands.” Third, by linking sociotechnical thinking with fulfillment of psychological job demands, the idea of “semiautonomous groups” was created. The psychological job demands could be fulfilled if a group of workers took on the responsibility for production. Learning, the needed variation, and self-control could be achieved within such groups. Industrial technology could be reorganized to give greater freedom to workers and to offer greater possibilities for both human and industrial development by linking more jobs together.

We provide some brief examples of the central concepts. The sociotechni­cal interrelationship argument (meaning “joint optimization”) affirms the possibility that the adjustment process can move in either direction, from social organization to technology or vice versa. Given a specific technology to be used, one would have to recruit or train workers with the necessary skills for operating in that technical environment or design the technology with partic­ular kinds of behaviors and group organizational features in mind.

The core principle in sociotechnical design is to make these two adjust­ments at the same time, seeing technological and organizational design as inseparable elements of the same web of relationships. It is impossible for a worker to operate a lathe unless the worker has skiils to understand how to set the piece in the chuck, how to choose the appropriate cutting speed, and how to match the cutting depth. The skill requirement could be further specified, but it is enough to point out that a lathe creates requirements for operational skills. A worker without the necessary skills would certainly be a catastrophe in grinding any product.

A parallel example from the organizational side is a conveyer belt produc­tion system. An ordinary work cycle in a car assembly line is usually less than I minute. Under these conditions, it is hard to conceive how work can create learning opportunities and personal freedom. Unless the conveyer belt system is totally redesigned, there are few possibilities for organizational change. It is doable to produce cars through group-based work, using long work cycles and providing relatively high degrees of freedom to the workers. Volvo, in both the Kalmar and the Thorslanda factories, created such systems. In both examples, it is obvious that a joint social and technological design created an effective production system.

Psychological job demands turned out to be a central design criterion in the sociotechnical tradition. Emery and Thorsrud ( 1976) formulate them as in Figure 2.1. The criteria suggested in Figure 2.1 guide the design of work.

Another important aspect of sociotechnical design is the application of Philip Herbst’s (1976) concept of“minimum critical specification.” His idea is that we should shape technology and organizational structures in a way that they render as much choice in organizational design as possible. By introduc­ing as few constraints as possible in modes of operating tools and machines or in organizational structures, more freedom can be given to the workers to design their own working conditions. Thus, by specifying the minimum con­ditions for operation, one can achieve a higher degree of participative control at the shop-floor level. This, of course, also relies on assumptions about both the knowledge and motivations of the workforce.

Another important concept applied in sociotechnical design is Emery and Trist’s ( 1973) “redundancy of functions” and “redundancy of tasks.” In a system with redundancy of functions, a worker is able to handle more than one job, whereas in a system designed according to redundancy of tasks, the orga­nization is built on having workers easily substitute for each other because they all have such limited and narrow competencies. Here the aim in following the principle of redundancy of functions is to design work in such a way that every member of the organization is able to handle more than his or her own imme­diate work task, and this, of course, assumes that workers are quite capable of managing multiple skills sets. If problems occur at any stage in the production system, someone else will be capable of stepping in to help. This creates greater flexibility and potential freedom for the people responsible for production. It also enhances the workers’ opportunities for learning because they are trained to manage more than one job. This, in turn, gives them increased understand­ing of the total production system and their place within it.

Sociotechnical thinking is the major conceptual outcome of the indus­trial democracy tradition. In Trist and Bamforth’s ( 1951) study of coal mining, interrelationships between technology and work organization were already articulated. This represented a major shift from Tayloristic thinking, where technology and management control are totally dominant, or from human relations thinking, where organizational, social, and psychological factors are considered independent of technological influence (Herzberg, 1966; Maslow, 1943; Mayo, 1933). In these approaches, organization and technology are con­sidered two distinct and separate spheres, whereas the sociotechnical view argues that no technological or social design could be done independently of the other. This, in turn, rests on a more integrated and comprehensive view of workers and work organizations as multidimensional human systems.

Trist ( 1981) summarizes the relationship , between old paradigms of work organizations with new (sociotechnical) paradigms, as shown in Table 2.1.

There is little doubt that sociotechnical thinking has had a major effect on organizing industrial work. Sociotechnical design has involved efforts to break away from Tayloristic modes of organizing work and has been important in pinpointing the interrelationship between technology and social life. It has argued effectively that an exclusive concentration on technological change or on the social organization of work will not create good work systems. Yet the proponents of the sociotechnical approach certainly overestimate its influence (for example, Van Eijnatten’s 1993 book with the bombastic title, The Paradigm That Changed the Work Place).

The Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project had a strong democratic and idealistic dimension. Participation at the shop-floor level was a value in its own right. Labor leaders and action researchers advocated this position. A remarkable example is the blunt and unconditional statement from one of the lead researchers, Philip Herbst (1976), that democratizing workplaces is the first step to enhancing democracy in society at large. This ideological element graduaUy dissipated over the years in Norway and was also lost from view in most of the process of diffusion of the ideas beyond Norway.

It is important to note that the ideas from the Industrial Democracy Project did not immediately spread in Norway. To the contrary, the ideas were treated as interesting, but most of Norwegian industry was not willing to act on them. Initially, these ideas had more effect outside the country. Only in a longer time perspective is it possible to identify how the Democracy Project gradually impacted Norwegian production systems.


The core ideas in industrial democracy—semiautonomous working groups and work designed according to psychological demands—were picked up by key industrial enterprises in Sweden. Volvo, Saab-Scania, and Alfa Laval saw the potential in these ideas and soon redesigned some oftheir production systems around these concepts. The Saab engine assembly plant in Skevde and the Volvo car assembly factory in Kalmar soon won international reputations for their ingenious ways of redesigning work. But efficiency was emphasized in praising and justifying these projects, and the ideas about the democratization of work as a goal in itself were left out. An organization, PA rddet, that emerged from the ranks of the Swedish Confederation of Employers, became the lead­ing change agent working near the border between AR-based approaches and conventional consulting. It did a respectable job of communicating the ideas and practices and convincing Swedish industry to take on ideas produced through the Industrial Democracy Project. But one consequence was that industrial democracy gained a reputation in industry more as an efficient way of organizing work in assembly line production than as the path to a more just system. It outdid to a certain degree conventional Fordist ways of organizing work in economic terms, but the motivation that led to its creation involved a broader social change program than this.

The transfer of sociotechnical thinking to the North American continent was almost equally fast. Louis Davis, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), picked up the ideas and soon set up a teaching and consultation program in sociotechnical design (Davis & Taylor, 1972). Davis’s thinking was completely separated from any ideological connection to the value of democracy in itself. Instead, sociotechnical design was converted into a design tool for high-performance industrial production. The design concept focused on joint optimization of teclinology and social systems, indicating that as the only way to generate a really effective production system to properly match technology and people.

Morten Levin participated in a workshop held by the UCLA group in 1980. The UCLA group organized a 14-day training program in Toronto, bringing together people both from Canada and the United States. Levin was amazed to learn that the social system dimensions of work were described and analyzed according to Talcott Parsons’s ( 1951) positivist pattern variables. Because the Parsonian model is one of the most abstract and nonbehavioral constructions in the field of role theory, it was a singularly inappropriate bridge between technology and social systems analysis. More fruitful was the use of social psychological models and analysis of psychological job demands, but, even then, Levin noticed that the joint optimization of technology and work was simply ignored as a concept. As an interesting coincidence and perhaps relevant, Levin noticed that a union-busting firm also was running a 14-day workshop at the same hotel to train managers how to keep the unions out of their companies. Clearly these counterposed training programs high­lighted the difference in the political and economic context between Scandinavia and North America.

In the Scandinavian context, union busting is an inconceivable strategy for running any business. The change projects centering on Scandinavian work life have almost always been joint ventures between trade unions and manage­ment. Thus, the lack of attention to many of the internal social justice dimen­sions of sociotechnical systems work in North America appears to reflect clearly the broader, more adversarial political economy of industry there.

The industrial democracy thinking also inspired other national move­ments. Japan was looking for ways to organize its industrial production that would secure both high productivity and excellent quality. Two U.S. scholars who specialized in quality control, J, M. Juran (1980) and W. E. Deming (1983), played an important role in the Japanese reindustrialization process. Their models for obtaining quality production were easily picked up by Japanese companies. In fact, the Japanese were much more receptive to them than were their U.S. counterparts. “American” ideas (even though some were imported from Great Britain and Scandinavia) helped make the Japanese production miracle work. This story might appear to be a sideline but, in fact, it runs par­allel to the industrial democracy movement. The central themes of industrial democracy found fertile ground in Japan because collective work had a strong cultural base in Japan and the ideas of groups taking on joint problem-solving and operational responsibility were easily picked up.

In Japan, these activities first appeared in the form of quality circles, prob­lem-solving groups created to handle emergent issues in the production system (Ishikawa, 1976). The aim was to have workers and engineers work together to solve production problems. These quality circles were mostly organized sepa­rately from daily work routines. The groups often met on unpaid time in the evenings, working for free to solve company problems. In the Japanese cultural context, this made sense. Later, new concepts of production control, such as Kanban (the Toyota system of production management; see Monden, 1983) and “just-in-time” (production without unnecessary waste and temporary storage; see Womack et al., 1990) demanded a different approach to the orga­nization of work. A high degree of autonomy and local responsibility, com­bined with the ability to learn ways to improve performance systematically, became a core element in the mode of organization. These efforts were in line with the major sociotechnical design principles emanating from the industrial democracy tradition. Thus the overall diffusion route was complex and sur­prising, from Great Britain to Norway to Sweden, then to the United States, Japan, and finally worldwide.

The diffusion route is itself an interesting phenomenon because research networks also play an important role in this process. The diffusion to Sweden and then subsequently to the United States was made possible by communica­tion between researchers. Part of the mission of academics is to work and play with ideas. Though this does not always happen, in the case of industrial democracy, ideas created within academic circles soon gained a foothold in industrial praxis. In the early phases of the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project, this effort was located at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (later renamed the Norwegian University of Science and Technology) in Trondheim, creating a locus for links to the international scholarly networks. Tavistock, on the other hand, was not a university-based institution, but it had a high profile among work researchers interested in organizational change, and thus was well known internationally. And the researchers at Tavistock communicated widely through intellectual networks as well, which facilitated the fairly rapid diffu­sion of sociotechnical ideas in academic contexts.

But it makes no sense to overestimate the academic role in this process. Certainly, academics did not “sell” these ideas and practices to the private and public sector. Rather, the widespread proliferation of this thinking must ulti­mately be attributed to the success of the design principles grounded in indus­trial democracy in shaping effective and profitable production systems. That is, the ideas diffused because they “worked” and met strongly felt social needs.

The sociotechnical perspective gradually developed into a broader per­spective on participation. The next generation of work researchers changed from what Elden ( 1979) identified as the “sleeping bag generation” (the experts who came to town, told people what to do, and left) to the later generation of researchers who understood their role as providing long-term support for local companies’ ability to manage change processes increasingly by themselves. This movement toward greater in-company participation created an interesting democratic paradox. In the first, expert-driven phase, democracy was an explic­itly stated value. But as the practice of change moved in the direction of increas­ingly self-managed change processes, the focus on democracy as a,concept and a value evaporated while the practices themselves were more collaborative.

This change in general approach to action research in industry also created a movement away from a theoretical position based on sociotechnical thinking to a focus on mutual learning or discourses between the organizations’ prob­lem owners and the involved researchers. This relationship was modeled in two ways. One was built on an operationalization of Habermas’s (1984) ethics of ideal speech. Bj0rn Gustavsen (1985, 1992), in particular, has published exten­sively about how development work ccan be understood as discourses among equal participants (members of the organization and researchers). Other key figures in this mode of working are 0yvind PMshaugen (1998) and Per Engelstad (Gustavsen & Engelstad, 1986). The main emphasis in this work was on constructing dialogues that enabled participants to create a language describing their own life world, a language that subsequently would lead to organizational change.

A different take on the discursive mode of doing action research was pre­sented by Elden and LLevin ( 1991) in the early 1990s. In this work, the research process is conceptualized as a mutual learning process involving problem owners and researchers, where their diversity and differences are considered as major constituting factors needed for the knowledge generation process. The participants have different power positions, just as the power of the researchers is diferent from that held by the local problem owners. In this approach, action research emerges from an ongoing process of experimentation and reflection, in which mutual learning is the driving process both for sustainable change and for knowledge generation.


The major reason for attaching the label “industrial democracy” to the tradition starting with AR efforts in the United States, intellectually extended during the Tavistock period, and fully emerging in the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project is that all these approaches sustain a central focus on shap­ing alternatives to conventional hierarchical organizations. As noted earlier, only a modest element within all this activity really claims democracy as a major concern, but still, it does not make sense to overlook the participatory dimensions of these approaches to organizational change even when they have not been connected to the democratization of ownership.

Industrial democracy focused on the ways research results manifested through redesigned organizations would improve the participants’ ability to control their own situations. Industrial democracy also began the first reflec­tions about designing research processes that redefined the relationship between participants and researchers toward a much greater degree of mutu­ality. The second generation of research practice within the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project opened up even greater possibilities for partici­pant control (Elden, 1979).

Carole Pateman’s (1970) book, Participation and Democratic Theory, forcefully presented the argument for democracy in organizational settings, and this book played a major role in creating a theoretical backdrop for participatory industrial democracy efforts. Pateman drew a genealogy from Rousseau’s and Mill’s thinking to the modern debate on democracy at the shop-floor level. Her work offers a well-argued model of democracy that takes as a point of departure the ability of workers to control their own work situations. In her argument, immediate control over the work situation replaces numerical (that is, representative) models of democracy as the key to shaping a successful democratic society. Pateman did not discuss the rela­tionship between representative and participative democracy, an issue that soon emerged as a vital point in the European debate on how to promote democracy in work organizations.

Individual influence through direct participation soon confronted collective power created through systems of workplace representation, an issue that greatly concerned trade unions. This debate soon focused on the degree to which trade union power was undermined by individual and direct control over the immediate working conditions and it is still a vital question in the discourse on industrial democracy (see Chapter 17, “Action Research, Participation, and Democratization”).

Despite this, the strongly idealistic democratic content of the first decade of the industrial democracy tradition within AR gradually lost ground. Initially, the dominant argument was that democracy was an ideological imperative. It was gradually replaced by pragmatic arguments that softened the questions regarding political economy that industrial democracy raises. In this process, the rhetoric shifted from a focus on democracy to an emphasis on empower­ment, from participation as the key to democracy to participation as a neces­sary move to motivate workers to shape a more effective, efficient (and, perhaps, profitable) organization.

Indeed, it seems to us that empowerment is a term that substitutes for the more ambitious and clearer concepts of participation and democracy. We think the language of empowerment, which has inevitably hierarchical dimen­sions, represents a step backward, and certainly a step away from the concepts that began the industrial democracy movement. This point is illustrated in one of the standard textbooks on organizational development (Cummings & Worley, 2001 ), where empowerment, used as an ill-defined concept, was sub­stituted for democracy. The first edition, published in 1975, took a stronger position, but by 2001, it had weakened greatly.

Another dimension of the link between industrial democracy and the early work of Kurt Lewin is reliance on an overly simple change model (unfreezing- change-freezing) and his notions about the experimental design of change processes. Both elements were prominent in the early development of the industrial democracy tradition in AR. Experimental design drawn from the Lewinian tradition became the way ideas were acted on. The researchers made their analyses, recommended new organizational designs, and structured processes by which changes were implemented. The core idea was to make the changes and then let the organization develop a stable state incorporating the changes. Consultation with the local participants was minimal.

This remained the “expert” model in action and did not evolve into AR as we understand it now. In the early stages, researchers within the tradition of industrial democracy played a clear-cut expert role. They made their analysis of a situation in the specific context, and they worked out their recommenda­tions for a new design. The next step in their activity was to have these ideas implemented in a way that involved workers who were affected by the changes. In this way, the researchers created an experimental situation in a natural setting to test whether their ideas were fruitful or not. They did not become collaborative researchers in any broader sense, however.

In the contemporary version of this approach, a lot of emphasis is put on involving employees in the change processes. Usually, the participation is enabled through different types of conferences where participants can exercise influence over the development of the actual process. “Search conferences” (Emery, 1982, 1998) are a well-developed tool, and a somewhat different approach named “dialogue conferences” has a stronghold in Scandinavia (Gustavsen, 1992; Paishaugen, 1998).

2. “Southern” PAR, Labor Organizing, Community Organizing, and Civil Rights

A second major strand in the historical development of AR is another hetero­geneous combination of democratizing efforts that take place under condi­tions of overt oppression. Just as the industrial democracy movement is not a single activity, these “liberationism approaches exhibit many internal differ­ences in politics, aims, and methods—too many for us to document here. Rather our aim is to be sure readers are aware of these major approaches and some of the most prominent varieties.

Many of the activities discussed here antedate the terms Southern participa­tory action research (PAR), Participatory Research, and Participatory Community Development, and this is an important element in understanding how they have developed. These approaches to AR emerged initialy out of the conditions created by some of the most undemocratic situations humans have created: masive colonial exploitation of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, the genocide/etimocide of American indians, the impoverishing of generations of E^opeans who i^imgrated widely, and the enslaving of Africans in the West. M of these conditions gave rise to circumstances of highly institutionalized and consolidated inequality, exploitation, and human misery. The advent of inde­pendence movements, the civil rights movements in various parts of the world, and general attempts to achieve some world standards for basic human rights seemed to promise potential solutions to these long-term evils.

Unfortunately, decolonization has been followed by recolonization in the form of sustained inequalities carried over from the colonial period and the creation of new inequalities through globalization and what has been called the “development of underdevelopment” (Gunder Frank, 1970) that has made it clear that it is not colonialism but endemic structures of advanced capitalism that cause these inequalities to persist.

It seems to us that the realization that the struggle for equality had to take on a new shape emerged with exceptional vigor with the ferment that finally exploded in the events of1968.J From that point on, many of the strands of this struggle against structural inequality came to be known under the rubrics of Southern PAR, Participatory Research, and the civil rights movement. The loci for this work have been worldwide: rural communities and urban slums in poor countries, rural communities and urban slums and small towns in the industrialized “North.” The focus has been on oppressed categories of people: the landless, women, subjects of racism and genocide, the disabled, the elderly, the orphaned, the homeless, and many others.

No single thread of argument, analysis, or method runs through all the approaches in this arena, but certain frameworks are found frequently. Much of the thinking has been stimulated by the literature of revolution and rebel­lion, by the organizing movements of trade unionists, the community organiz­ing strategies of adult educators and organizers, liberation theology and ecumenical Catholic Action, and the feminist movements. Given the complex­ity and diversity of the participants, a single historical genealogy is impossible for us to create. Rather we will simply provide a few exemplars to guide the reader onward.

2.1. THE “SOUTH”

So vast an area is obviously more heterogeneous than any characterization we can make of it. The core thematic unity is massive, structured inequality and class-related violence in both rural and urban areas. In this approach to AR, there can be no presumption of a disposition to share power or to see to the wel­fare of the poor and marginalized. These regimes are financed by the exploita­tion of the poor, and participatory schemes are understood to be attempts to undermine authoritarian regime control systems. Thus AR is an inherently political activity with the attendant dangers and patterns of division.

To commit to AR in these circumstances is to affirm solidarity with the oppressed and to declare an adversarial role toward the powers that be. As a result, in this kind of AR, the holders of power themselves are rarely included. Much of the activity—be it education, organizing, mobilizing—involves build­ing structures and confidence among the poor to enable them to confront the powerful in sufficient numbers and with clear enough plans so that they have some likelihood of success. This work is always risky because the AR practi­tioner can be seen as an agent provocateur.

These approaches to AR differ, not in the issues they address, but in the strategies they use for confronting or “speaking the truth to power.” Paolo Freire’s “conscientization” ( 1970) relies on adult education strategies of dia­logue and group analysis of oppressive conditions coupled with learning the power of changing ideas and words to reveal rather than to hide oppression. The stakeholders are moved from passive to active voice, from a sense of powerlessness and worthlessness to an understanding that is designed to lead to confronting power through redescribing society as it is experienced by the downtrodden rather than as it is said to be by the beneficiaries of their suffer­ing. And, in Freire’s approach, the oppressed ultimately must also liberate their oppressors from the inhumanity of the systems from which they benefit.

In many situations, these approaches and allied ones practiced by Orlando Fals Borda and many promoters of community action involve trying to take on some kind of “natural” coalition of stakeholders—a squatter community, a union, a religious group, a cooperative, and so on—and build its strength and reach. In other situations, the work involves creating the conditions through adult education, public projects, and so on that bring people together so that they can be organized and an AR process of self-reflection, social critique, and the design of agendas for change can take place. In other situations, such as those where Participatory Rural Appraisal is practiced (Chambers, 1997), the external agents arrive with a set of techniques that promote multilateral dia­logues among community or organization members, and the results of these dialogues lead to action planning and change efforts.

In the poor countries of the South, the governments are often adversaries of these efforts but multilateral agencies or nongovernmental organizations may be on the scene helping local people to push back against their govern­ments. However, it is not unusual for the powerful outsiders to become as much a part of the problem as a part of the solution.


Were the South only in the South, the world would not be as unequal. This kind of AR is as much at home in the North as anywhere, because the struc­tured inequalities of capitalism see to it that a great majority of the people in the wealthiest countries in the world live in misery. (The “South” also refers to poverty zones in the North; it is a code word for poverty and disempower- ment.) As a result, there has been significant AR activity in the United States in Appalachia (Belenky, Bond, & Weinstock, 1997; Gaventa, 1982; Hinsdale, Lewis, & Waller, 1995; Horton, 1990), in the deindustrialized areas of the Northeast (Reardon, 1997; Schafft & Greenwood, 2003 ), and in urban slums all over (Benson, Harkavy, & Puckett, 2000). These activities are a complex mix­ture of rural development efforts, community organizing, labor organizing, intercommunity networking and coalition building, civil rights activism, fem­inism, and advocacy for those who fall below the poverty line.

For some, like Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, the people had the power but did not know or believe it. Horton thus operated by gathering people together and encouraging them to share their problems and their analyses. His contribution was to facilitate the conversations, add his experiences to the mix, and encourage people to design their own actions. He felt that he would not “organize” people because they were capable of organizing themselves when given a little sup­port. Others working in the same area have had a more interventionist frame­work and have engaged in purposely goal-driven efforts (Belenky, Bond, & Weinstock, 1997; Maguire, 1994, 1996).

Other AR practitioners have decided to “dig where they stand” and have gone to work in the communities immediately around them. Such is the case of the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, where Ira Harkavy, John Puckett, Lee Benson, and others over decades have moved the University of Pennsylvania into a more collaborative and support­ive relationship with the West Philadelphia community, a notorious slum (Benson, Harkavy, & Puckett, 2000). Others have been called into action by their university being held accountable to its “land grant mission” to serve the people of the state they are located in. This is how the East St. Louis redevel­opment project came about (Reardon, 1997). Still others have focused atten­tion on those who fall through the many holes in the welfare system—the homeless, the injection drug users, sex workers, the elderly, the orphaned. By building the capacity and confidence of such groups through AR, some suc­cesses have been achieved (Lather, 1991; McIntyre, 2004; Maguire, 1994, 1996). Parallel activities emerged in Scandinavia, especially with a support of the trade union education organizations.

These approaches share certain elements, despite their significant differ­ences. Their activities are understood to be first and foremost political activi­ties. They are also willing to be directive, to take action in order to provoke a response among the poor and passive. They place a strong emphasis on build­ing community and solidarity among the stakeholders to prepare them to con­front the powerful and oppressive. And their aim is to equalize power relations and to redistribute resources from the rich to the poor.

3. Human Inquiry and Cooperative Inquiry

Human inquiry or cooperative inquiry approaches can be traced back to a research group formed in London in 1977. The New Paradigm Research Group had the stated goal of developing alternatives to conventional social science approaches that do better justice to the humanity of the participants. (Reason & Rowan, 1981). This group was set up by John Heron, Peter Reason, and John Rowan, and they met every 3 weeks for 3 years. The New Paradigm group probably had a clearer picture ofwhat they wanted to get away from than a clear vision of where they would go. In fact, an interesting and strong value in those research circles has been openness to new ideas and a lived understanding of being“onthe road” to create alternative research tothe dominating orthodoxy. A core value focus for this group was to do research with people instead of on people. The initial framing was the interest in shaping “humanness” in research. Participation became a vital element, since the researchers’ engage­ment converted them into insiders in the ongoing knowledge generation processes.

Four researchers have been dominant in human inquiry or cooperative inquiry. First and foremost, there is Peter Reason. He has authored or coau­thored many of the significant books in this strand of thinking. His research center at University of Bath has been the academic stronghold in this tradition. At Bath, Reason has managed both to set up a center for action research and to combine that with training future practitioners both at master’s and Ph.D. levels. Together with Hilary Bradbury, Reason undertook the huge effort to edit a Handbook of Action Research (Reason & Bradbury, 200la) and managed to convince Sage Publications to publish the Journal of Action Research, which, together with Systemic Practice and Action Research and Concepts and Transformation (now the International Journal of Action Research), are the lead­ing journals in AR.

Human inquiry is a mode of doing research in which the researcher grad­ually involves him- or herself in the research process, connecting emotional and tacit insights to the conventional explicit reflections that are the conven­tional point of departure. Through engaging all stakeholders in the inquiry, the distinctions between outsiders and insiders are gradually wiped out. The Bath group has done a lot of research in the area of health care; doctors and nurses have been the prime cooperative partners. The work with medical professions was, in fact, the first arena where they worked. These steps were taken together with the British Postgraduate Medical Federation linked to the University of London.

The initial members of the group have managed to stay together while still following independent intellectual itineraries. John Heron has played an important role both through his practice and his publications. The book Co­operative Inquiry (Heron, 1996) includes a particularly thorough discussion of the epistemological foundations of his mode of doing participative research. On the American continent, William Torbert (1991, 2001) has been a key figure, and he brings an even stronger focus on personal and emotional aspects of human inquiry.

An important strength of this tradition is its openness to other modes of thinking within AR and the ability to integrate new ideas into the body of knowledge that characterizes human inquiry. These practitioners have always been visible at international conferences on AR and at the special interest group meetings at the U.S.-based Academy of Management annual meetings.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

One thought on “A History of Action Research

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