Action Research Is Not Merely “Qualitative Research”

We asserted at the outset that it is wrong to think of AR as “qualitative” research, yet a great many conventional researchers and far too many action researchers make this error. It is clear to us that limiting AR to qualitative research approaches is entirely unacceptable and is inconsistent with the AR enterprise itself. An AR process must use qualitative, quantitative, and/or mixed-method techniques wherever and whenever the conditions and subject an AR team deals with require. If the task at hand requires counting, sampling, factor analysis, path analysis, or regression analysis, then these techniques will be used. If issues of voice, community story, the logico-meaningful universe of discourses and culturally constructed human situations are central to an AR project, then the collaborative research will make use of the appropriate qualitative methods. Text-based database analyses (formal, informal, IT-assisted), narrative analysis, life histories, autobiographies, focus groups, interviews of all sorts, documentary analyses, and many other methods can and will be used, and many of these will be learned by and executed by nonacademic members of AR teams.

There is no logic whatsoever in claiming that AR is more in one method­ological camp or another. AR is resolutely a mixed-method research strategy, so long as we understand that the particular mix of methods is contextually determined. ^thile this might sound appealing as a principle, this places action researchers in a difficult situation because, while there have been significant improvements in the development of procedures and epistemological defenses of mixed-method research, the epistemologies and methodological discussions of mixed-method research are still relatively underdeveloped (see Miles & Huberman, 1994).

Thus AR makes heavy demands on professional social researchers. While it would be absurd to argue that action researchers must be fully competent in all social research methods, this actually is the ideal. Anything you don’t know, any competence you lack and cannot learn easily is something that cannot be transmitted to the local stakeholders for use in the arena. So, realistically, action researchers must cultivate openness to all methods, make the effort to learn about them, and learn to be supportive of their deployment in AR projects whenever necessary.

Living with this sense of our own limitations is one of the key features of being a professional action researcher. As troubling as this might be, we find it infinitely better than the self-satisfied cultures of professional expertise in the conventional social sciences, where narrow mastery of some particular tech­nique confers prestige and professional rewards. Doing AR is a constant exer­cise in humility.

Action research is research, not just doing “good”: too often people engaged in meaningful participatory and democratizing change processes claim they are doing AR but one looks in vain for the “research” element in their projects. Participation and collaboration are often there, but there are no definable research objectives beyond data gathering and mobilization efforts. Conventional social researchers, looking at AR reports and projects, have often called attention to this (see Sorensen, 1992).

Not surprisingly, if something is to be called research, then we think it actually should be research. We expect the knowledge generated through an AR process to have “the texture that displays the raw materials entering into argu­ments and the local process by which they were compressed and rearranged to make conclusions credible” (Cronbach & Suppes, 1969). This involves a trans­parent process of data analysis that eventually will lead to credible knowledge, a core aim of scientific knowledge generation. The research process must be convincing for the persons that access the communications from the research. So doing good does not make a project an example of AR. There must be action and research held in a close relationship to each other in a cogenerative arena for a project to deserve the name of AR.

There clearly is a built-in tension here. AR projects owe their first alle­giance to the local stakeholders and their issues. But, for AR to continue to develop and for AR research strategies and learning about effective AR to develop, the processes and results have to also take the form of credible knowl­edge that can be shared effectively with practitioners, researchers, and stake­holders elsewhere.

While this might sound impossible, it certainly is not. The apparent impossibility of reconciling these aims is mainly an artifact of the autopoietic and self-interested ways conventional social science has been pursued for a number of generations. In practice, the topics, complexities, techniques, inter­pretations, and strategies of AR projects touch on all of the major issues in the social sciences, including the major epistemological, theoretical, and method­ological issue that are regularly debated. The difference is that AR does not carry on about these issues in an academic “hot house” but plays them out in the context of application with knowledgeable local stakeholders. We create socially robust knowledge of precisely the sort that current major figures in the social sciences claim as the necessary goal of the renewed endeavors of 21st century social science (Nowotny, Scott, & Gibbons, 2001).

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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