Becoming an Action Researcher

In Part 4 of this book, we take up the education of action researchers in detail. Here, we briefly rehearse some of our central contentions.


In conventional social science, there is relatively little attention paid to the social skills of the researcher. This is in accord with the dominant positivist notion that data are independent of the researcher. Much positivist research can take place without any social relationship between the performing researchers and the respondents to the survey. All that is demanded from the researcher is technical skill in being able to prepare an instrument, to distribute or admin­ister it and collect the data, to use statistical or formal techniques to perform the necessary analysis, and be able to write a report.

Students can be trained in these skills independent of any relationship to the field. In fact, it is quite common for professors to let new students work on datasets that the professors have collected and to steer the students’ activity in the direction of the professor’s interests. This is both decontextualized research and decontextualized training.

In the realm of qualitative research, training students to handle interviews or engage in deeper ethnographic research requires some attention to relating to people in their life contexts. It is impossible to become a good qualitative interviewer without the skills of empathy, without the ability to listen and to engage the interviewee in a reflection process. In ethnographic work as in AR, the need for social skills to engage and live with local people is even higher.


In AR, the planning of the intervention is very important and should be as detailed as possible. This gives the researchers a chance to be prepared for the way the research process develops. There is no excuse for not really thinking through and planning for the process.

But, plans seldom match the actual process as it evolves. The projects always take off in unexpected directions and the researcher will have to adjust to this on the fly. If participants drop out of the project, if conflicts arise between participants or with the researchers, if funding changes, or if official regulations hamper development in desired directions, the process has to be recalibrated, sometimes a little, sometimes a great deal. The challenge for the researcher is to be able to read (make sense of) the actual situation in order to understand what is at stake and how to help the group move into taking adequate new actions.

Many of these decisions will have to made on the spot, and because these actions have to take place in real time, the sense making and the creation of good responses is mainly built out of tacit knowing and skillful improvisation. A thorough reflection can and must be made on the actions taken, but no full thinking through can be done on the spot. People who cannot by character or training tolerate this kind of situation definitely should not engage in 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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