Central Perspectives of Action Research

As framed by Reason and Bradbury in their opening chapter for the Handbook of Action Research (2001a), AR centers on producing knowledge that is useful to people in everyday life, that increases the well-being of individuals and com­munities in the context of sustainable relationships with the rest of the world, that is emancipatory in intent, and that centers on dynamic, ongoing inquiry processes (Reason & Bradbury, 200lb, p. 2). Underlying this framework is what Reason has often called a “participatory worldview.” This worldview not only privileges participation but also refers to a sense of both engagement and ongoing transformation of the human situation from less liberated to more liberated states of what he calls “human flourishing” (Reason & Bradbury, 2001b, p. I). Finally, AR produces valid results but only when validity is under­stood to involve an appreciation of plural ways of knowing, of the quality of the processes themselves, and of the significance of the results for the welfare of the participants and their surrounding worlds.

Together with John Heron, about whom we say more following, Reason has developed a comprehensive overview of what they call “cooperative inquiry,” which means research “with” instead of “on” people. Developing frameworks they have been working on since the late 1970s, they lay out the following con­ditions for cooperative inquiry. It requires that all participants be fully involved as coresearchers in all dimensions of the research process. There must be a well-orchestrated interaction between sense-making activities and the results of experience and action, and validity must be treated as a central question. Validity is tested in action by the degree to which the results satisfy the partic­ipants’ goals and needs.

Cooperative inquiry rests on a developed epistemology of inquiry. Reason and his colleagues distinguish experiential knowing, which occurs through direct action; presentational knowing, which communicates the results of those experiences; propositional knowing, which reinscribes the first two forms in words and concepts; and finally practical knowing, which involves knowing how, the ability to take skillful and self-conscious action. We discuss this framework in more detail following because we find it a fruitful technique for guiding AR inquiry.

In addition, this group insists strongly on making distinctions among first-person, second-person, and third-person research and practice. Torbert, in his essay “The Practice of Action Inquiry” (2001 ), lays out these distinctions clearly; they are used as well by Reason, Judi Marshall (2001), and a number of others. First-person research and practice involve work to discover ways to “exercise our attention” (Torbert, 2001, p. 251) and to overcome our strong tendency to shy away from the introspective dimension of inquiry. This focuses on the researcher herself and involves learning to develop habits of inquiry about her own actions and states of awareness as a key element in being pre­sent in group situations as an effective participant and researcher. As Torbert sees it, this kind of action inquiry can permit us to gain greater clarity about our ongoing experience of ourselves and thus prepare us both to participate more actively with others and to understand others better. In this regard, there are links to the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon (Argyris, 1974, 1980, 1993; Argyris, Putnam, & Smith, 1985; Argyris & Schon, 1978, 1996) and others for whom learning to analyze and discipline the actions of the researcher her­self are centerpieces of any inquiry framework.

Torbert moves from this to identify second-person research and practice as involving the disciplines of dialogue and listening with and in the context of others. A variety of activities are central to second-person research and prac­tice. They include attempts to “frame” the discussions and have that framing be open to response from other participants, to advocate or assert positions in a dialogical context where they can be analyzed and responded to, to offer illus­trations to back up assertions, and then to inquire of the others in the situation about their reactions to the developing pattern of interpretations. These are essentially the interpersonal, dialogical context of engaged AR groups, and, again, these perspectives have a good deal in common conceptually and prac­tically with the work of Argyris and Schon (1978, 1996) (see Chapter 15, “Action Science and Organizational Learning”).

FinaUy, there is third-person research and practice, in which the first- person and second-person inquiries are linked into a process of organizational transformation in which power changes hands (Torbert, 2001, p. 256). These are the contexts of organizational change, organizational development, organi­zational leadership, and broader social change in which power and the move­ments of power are particularly salient.

The work of these colleagues, and many others whom they have taught and otherwise influenced, has a comprehensive framework. They rely on a basic set of epistemological positions contrasting sharply with the underlying epistemologies of conventional research. They also employ a clear set of dis­tinctions among the variety of kinds of knowledge that are used and given weight in AR. Finally, they employ distinctions among first-person, second- person, and third-person research that keep an active tension between the per­sonal, the dialogical, and the collective dimensions of collaborative research processes. This is a rich and well-articulated vision of AR, and Reason and Bradbury have used it to organize key dimensions of the Handbook of Action Research (200la) and thus to give a certain reading to the form of the whole field of AR.

We are aware that this is very general presentation of these approaches, so we substantivize it more through the rest of the chapter by reviewing the work of four practitioners: Peter Reason, William Torbert, Judi Marshall, and John Heron.

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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