Action Researcher: Creating Possibilities Rather Than Reinforcing Limits

The dominant imagery in conventional social research comes, for very good historical and political economic reasons, from the language of bureaucratic organizations. These organizations constantly seek control, objectivity, classifi­cation, and replicability, all essential features of a bureaucratic and authoritar­ian mindset. But before we go too far down this line, it is worth remembering that bureaucracy, despite fashionable antibureaucratic ideologies in academia, is, among other things, an embodiment of attempts to build public structures and decision-making criteria on an abstract notion of social justice. Rather than making decisions about allocation of public resources on personalistic grounds, bureaucrats were supposed to develop objective criteria for classifying clients and problems in such a way that the allocation of public resources was beyond the reach of personal choice. By developing and employing “impartial” norms and methods, bureaucrats were supposed to make fair and unbiased decisions on important issues and allocate social resources justly. The vastness of the failure of this attempt hardly needs emphasis in a world of international cartels, war profiteers, and pork barrel politics, but it nevertheless left an indelible imprint on conventional social science.

Underlying the ideology and practices of bureaucracy are notions that humans are strongly given to self-deception and that the unruly world has to be brought under rational control. Bureaucrats are taught to set themselves apart from other people, using their rational minds to solve problems that others react to personally and emotionally. They also accept radical differences in social power and intellectual ability, with bureaucrats having the power and resources, their clients being active only in as much as they must press their claims for assistance. This bureaucratic ideology mirrors the basic belief system and professional practices of conventional social research.

Action researchers reject this framework on theoretical, methodological, political, and moral grounds. On theoretical grounds, action researchers assert that those who face social problems have much of the information and analyt­ical capacity needed to solve them. Action researchers attribute much more weight to the knowledge of local people than do conventional researchers or bureaucrats. Action researchers are deeply skeptical about the transcendence of professional knowledge over all other forms of knowing and that “Father/ Mother knows best.”

Methodologically, action researchers argue that shared decision making about methods, collaborative case analysis, and teaching analytical techniques to a group of research partners produces superior research results in the quality and amount of information gathered and in the depth and quality of the analyses made. Politically, action researchers argue that research results should be useful for the local partners in gaining increased control over their own situations and that the research questions should be influenced by all parties involved in the research. Morally, action researchers reject the imposition of research on other human beings. We do not believe that social research is a professional right. We promote research methods that enable nonprofessional researchers to enhance their own control over their lives and their social situations.

AR thus is a process comanaged by the interested parties, not a technique applied by a professional researcher to other people. This means that action researchers visualize research processes in unique ways and use these visualiza­tions to help keep the processes moving in useful directions without impos­ing an overall direction from above. One of the visualizations of this kind of process that best captures our collective experience of AR is that provided by the French biologist, Francois Jacob ( 1982), in his book The Possible and the Actual.

Jacob (1982), one the foremost evolutionary biologists of the contempo­rary generation, was not writing about AR. He was trying to communicate to a general audience a clear sense of the open-ended, dynamic, and diversifying character of evolutionary processes and was criticizing the ever-present ten­dency to try to reduce evolution to some kind of preordained and directed optimal process. To this end, he wrote about evolution as a process built on a constant dialogue between the possible and the actual.

Jacob’s (1982) analysis of the physicochemical and biotic universe was built on the view that what exists at any moment in history always contains many fewer objects and beings than could possibly have existed. Although this may sound odd, it is quite logical. Jacob observed that physicochemical and organic matter are capable of yielding an immense number of possible combi­nations: all those that have existed and that currently exist, plus many more that are possible but have never existed.

The reasons why certain combinations exist or do not exist are funda­mentally historical. History intervenes because, at each point in the Earth’s development, particular conditions exist. At those moments and under those conditions, only certain of the physicochemical or biotic capabilities of matter are acted on, leaving the other possibilities forever untouched in ongoing evo­lutionary processes. In other words, what happened simply is what happened, not everything that could have happened. As time goes on, only some of the new possibilities generated are acted on at the next turning points (or selection events, in biological parlance).

This argument is paralleled in the work of Latour ( 1987). An important claim Latour makes is that a fact becomes a fact when actors decide that it is true. This is conveyed through the metaphor of closing the black box, meaning that when and how the box is closed depends on which actors participate, their power and interests, and the context under which the box is closed. When the box is closed, the fact has become true. With new constellations of actors, the black box can be reopened and new “truths” or possibilities can be produced.

This perspective argues that the relationship between the possible and the actual is a historical and contingent relationship and that the history of the process itself is a causal agent. According to Jacob and the evolutionary biolo­gists, our world is not Pangloss’s best of all possible worlds, but rather a possi­ble world that was actualized historically, leaving others unrealized. This is precisely what the concept of evolution means, despite repeated attempts to domesticate the notion by making it a directed, teleological process (see Greenwood, I 985).

Thus far, we have been discussing so-called blind evolutionary processes, that is, those in which self-aware beings have not intervened. ^^en dealing with humans, the situation becomes more complicated, because the dialogue between the possible and the actual continues to operate but the human abil­ity to conceptualize alternative pasts and futures opens up a much wider range of possible-actual relationships. Thus, the relationship between the past and the future in human affairs is a combination of the physicochemical and biotic possibilities and historical conditions and the variety of visions of the past and the potential futures that humans conceive as they determine the actions they will take.

Like other teleological, antievolutionary forces, bureaucratic control sys­tems and existing power holders expressly attempt to gain control over the way the relationships between the past and future are conceptualized to be able to determine the direction the future will take. Against this, AR specifically aims to reopen the dialogue between the possible and the actual and to counter attempts by power holders and their bureaucratic agents to pretend that the future is predetermined. Thus, a core belief in AR is that there are always more possible futures than appear at first to be open, and thus there is a significant effort in all AR processes to reanalyze the past, projecting what happened against other possible outcomes, and a consequent division of the future into what is likely to come about if no self-conscious action is taken and what other, possibly more desirable, futures may be available.

To be an action researcher is to believe that other, better situations are pos­sible than those currently existing. Action researchers aim to reopen the possi­bilities for change, enhance a sense of responsibility for the direction of the future, and emphasize that human agency, not impartial control systems, is the centerpiece of social change. One consequence of this perspective is that action researchers do not “apply” techniques to a situation. Rather, we bring knowl­edge and skills to a group of people who collaboratively open up the possibil­ities for self-managed social change. Nearly all the AR approaches we discuss in this book, in one way or another and in very different languages, revolve around this basic vision.

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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