Action Inquiry and Self-Reflective Inquiry

Within this array of approaches, there clearly are different kinds of emphases. One such emphasis takes a harder-edged approach to the role of personal inquiry in making AR processes possible. Some of this work is influenced by the work of Argyris (see Chapter 15, “Action Science and Organizational

Learning”), but it also owes a good deal tothe work ofKurt Lewin, other social psychologists, and to psychotherapeutic traditions. Prime exponents of these approaches are William Torbert and Judi Marshall. Torbert (2001) calls this work “action inquiry” and Marshall (2001) calls it “self-reflective inquiry.” A collection of papers on these approaches can be found in the special issue of Action Research devoted to “Self-Reflective Practice and First-Person Action Research” (Marshall & Mead, 2005).


Although Torbert has developed these ideas in many publications and continues to develop them, we refer to the most comprehensive statement of his views, The Power of Balance (1991). This book opens with a rather quizzi­cal introduction by Donald Schon, who does not ratify many of the things in the book but enjoins us to learn actively from it. Part of the reason for Schon’s diffidence may be that Torbert’s claims are occasionally extreme, and partly this may be due to the fact that Torbert is occasionally painfully self-revealing in making his points. this tone of self-revelation is not foreign to human inquiry-cooperative inquiry approaches, Torbert is both more insistent and harder edged about demanding a particularly sharp focus on the self and its foibles as a central competence for an action researcher. He asserts that social transformation requires self-transformation, and he shows in most of his writ­ing how this requires a great deal of introspection and a certain kind of open­ness to the personal that most other approaches seek to hide.

Of the authors discussed here, Torbert (1991) works hardest at cross- referencing participative change at the individual, group, and larger political levels. Torbert’s cases routinely engage power relationships in a direct way that makes his analysis a valuable addition to this general set. He begins with the view that power as ordinarily conceived (that is, power over others) is far weaker than what he calls the “power of balance,” a “self-legitimizing form of power … that invites mutuality, that empowers those who respond to this invi­tation with initiatives of their own, and that generates both productivity and inquiry, both transformation and stability, both freedom and order” (p. 2). The aim of action inquiry is to learn how to exercise this kind of power individu­ally, in groups, and across generations.

Torbert then distinguishes four kinds of power: unilateral, diplomatic, logistical, and transforming. Blending these four types productively gives rise to the power of balance. This balance comes from what he calls “constructive rationality,” which desires to achieve individual rights and fairer social rela­tionships. Thus, the perspective is rooted in a macropolitical vision that is buik on a view of group dynamics and individual action, all of which are necessary ingredients in the development of the balance. In this regard, Torbert’s work is distinctive because it has a more articulated view of the macro-social and political environment.

Given Torbert’s long experience of teaching in business schools and work­ing in the private sector, most of his examples and his arguments are drawn from these settings. The work contains a long example on curriculum reform in a business school. This stands as one of a very small number of accounts of AR in curriculum change in higher education (for another, see Reynolds, 1994). The work is peppered with shorter analyses of the actions of individu­als and groups that often provide vivid illustrations of his key points.

The core practice in action inquiry is what Torbert calls “the creation of liberating structures.” Rather than arguing against structure, Torbert argues for structures that lead people to develop themselves and their relationships in an ongoing process of growth, confrontation, and development. In his view, with­out structure, there is no movement, whereas with coercive structures, there is only resistance. Liberating structures are action inquiry’s way out.

Torbert lists eight essential qualities of liberating structures. First, deliber­ate irony attempts to move people out of conventional ways of thinking about their organizations. Second, liberating structures must define tasks that, to be completed, must be approached in ways congruent with the broader values of organizational development. Third, they involve premeditated and foretold structural change over time. Fourth, the processes must create ongoing cycles of experiential and empirical research and feedback to the participants. Fifth, leadership can use all available forms of power to achieve these goals. Sixth, the structures are always open to challenge by organizational members. Seventh, the leadership is held accountable to the same values as it espouses for the process. Eighth, the leadership aims to ferret out and fix personal and organi­zational incongruities.

Although these positions echo other frameworks, Torbert’s combination is unique. Torbert is much more attentive to the dilemmas of the exercise of power and leadership. The dimensions arrayed earlier are played out in a long example of a curriculum reform that Torbert undertook at Southern Methodist University’s business school. The vivid retelling, the ethnographic specificity, the tacking back and forth between the organizational story and the personal and existential dimensions of the process, and the macropolitics of the school make this a uniquely valuable case to read. The fits and starts, the uncertainties, the fears, depressions, highs, and errors that necessarily accom­pany anything so complex as major organizational change are wonderfully retold. These are gradually woven into a larger narrative about Torbert’s own trajectory as an educator, husband, friend, and leader. The confessional tone of this writing provides one of the few published accounts of the existential side of AR, a telling reminder that engaged inquiry engages us on all levels, not just as trained professionals.

He has continued to develop these perspectives in a variety of writings. A brief summary of his practices is found in Torbert (2001). He has also artic­ulated his views into a larger framing of the field of AR in an interesting essay on the many “flavors” of AR in Chandler and Torbert (2003). A particularly riveting set of case examples is found in Sherman and Torbert (2000).


Judi Marshall, a longtime colleague of Peter Reason, has made first-person action research her particular focus. She provides an overview of her practices in the Handbook of Action Research (2001) and links her work to systems theory in an article in Action Research (Marshall, 2004). Her point of departure is that inquiry itself requires discipline and that what she calls “attentional disci­plines” are central to successful AR processes. These attentional disciplines are not narrow prescriptions or rules but rather ways to achieve general greater growth and inquiry skill. In Marshall’s framing, inquiry itself is a central piece oflife. She says, “I currently prefer the notion of inquiry as life process, respect­ing how inquiring is a core of my being, and that my fuU (multiple) being is involved in any ‘researching’ I undertake” (Marshall, 2004, p. 438, emphasis removed).

Marshall insists that attention must be directed both inward and outward in AR and that these attentional disciplines are then placed in the context of systematic cycling between action and reflection and between both action and reception of action. Never is inquiry unintentional, despite the fiction held by some practitioners that AR should be determined by everyone else and the action researcher herself should be entirely neutral. Marshall, rightly we believe, emphasizes being deliberate and intentional while also remaining open and receptive, a skill that can only be achieved through the strengthening of a well-understood selfhood and authenticity about one’s own motives and needs. Clearly, great weight in Torbert’s and Marshall’s work is placed on the attentional disciplines and the enhancement of self-knowledge as a prerequi­site and perhaps a key motivation for doing AR.

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

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