Conventional Social Research and Action Research

To organize this discussion, we begin by paralleling our treatment of conven­tional social science with our presentation of AR. We say much less about conventional research because we assume the reader’s familiarity with it, but we use the contrast to highlight both similarities and differences between conventional social science and AR.

We find it useful to talk about varieties of research as research strategies rather than trying to reduce them to a set of particular postulates, techniques, and aims. All forms of research involve, at minimum, individual techniques, work forms, and research strategies anchored in a set of epistemological, theo­retical, and methodological assumptions.

What we discuss next would typically be captured in other books under the heading of “method” or “methodology.” A standard definition of method­ology is presented in Schwandt (1997a):

[Methodology is the] theory of how inquiry should proceed. It involves analysis of the principles and procedures in a particular field of inquiry that in turn govern the use of particular methods. The study of methodology includes topics in philosophy of social science (e.g. explanation, theory, causality and so on) and philosophical anthropology (the study of human nature). (p. 93)

However, such broad philosophical orientations toward methodology are so extensive as to be impossibly vague and they also separate methodol­ogy from values. In view of this, we abandoned the notions of method and methodology and have organized our discussion differently.

We introduce three concepts and orient them specifically for use compar­ing AR with conventional research and in articulating core characteristics of AR. We choose to identify the concrete practices in social research as “tech­niques” (for example, the standard social science techniques found in conven­tional methodology handbooks), the linking of these techniques in the construction of learning arenas as “work forms,” and the overall process of orchestrating these techniques and work forms in AR into research projects as “research strategies.” Thus, we use the term research strategy to identify the overall approach taken, including, techniques, epistemological positions, and the values advocated or embodied in the inquiry process. In what follows, we make a brief comparison of the deployment of techniques, work forms, and research strategies in conventional social research and in AR.


1.1. Techniques

Conventional social research relies on techniques that, in one way or another, center on epistemologies that posit the radical separation between the researcher and the subject of the research. This separation is asserted to be pos­sible but to be desired. The researcher is given a superior status to the research subjects by virtue of theoretical and methodological training and an education that also permits the conventional researcher to interpret what is going on in a situation on a much deeper level than any local stakeholder presumably could. This kind of interpretive autonomy of the researcher is not less true for social constructivists than it is for logical positivists.

1.2. Work Forms

This vision of conventional social research creates hermetic communities of professional social researchers and converts the rest of the world into poten­tial research subjects. These ideas are made clearly visible in the work forms that typify this kind of research. Local stakeholders are not supposed to influ­ence the selection of topics, techniques, hypothesis formulation, data gather­ing, interpretation, or the representation of the results in print. Conventional researchers, as individuals or in teams, orchestrate all dimensions of the “sci­entific” work process. And, by dint of the exclusion of the local stakeholders from the epistemology and work forms, the conventional researchers “own” the results because the data have been extracted from the subjects and only become meaningful when handled by the research professionals.

1.3. Research Strategies

In conventional research, there is ongoing reflection as the research process proceeds. These processes are primarily oriented around maximizing the efficiency, effectiveness, and defensibility of the data collection and analy­sis processes. If the reflections are shared at all, they are shared among similarly trained professionals. At the end of the project, conventional social scientists do reflect on the larger meaning and implications they think it possible to draw from the project, again in the context of a community of similarly trained professionals. They are under no obligation to deliver the results to the research subjects themselves and generally assume that most research subjects would neither be interested in the results nor capable of understanding them. In this regard, it is particularly interesting to us that even the social construc­tivists have no trouble taking this relationship of superiority over the research subjects for granted.


2.1. Technique

In AR projects, all known social science methods are applicable, as long as they are set in a context that aligns them with the values of participative and democratic knowledge construction. From this perspective, all the social science textbooks on methodology are sources of tools to choose from.

2.2. Work Forms

AR is constituted by both social science techniques and work forms that enable the cogenerative construction of learning arenas. Action researchers regularly turn to the literatures and praxis in organizational development and change (see Cummins & Worley, 2001) and to what we already have iden­tified as techniques generated by AR itself (for example, search conferences, dialogue conferences, and variance matrices). In Levin and Kiev (2000), these approaches are identified as work forms for the construction of learning are­nas. 1 In AR, we consciously make the work forms and technical methods inter­act throughout the entire AR project to create mutual learning opportunities for the insiders and outsiders. Technical social science methods are used to inform the choices made in learning arena construction, and analytical research methods are used to make sense of the learning emerging from the concrete change activity and to support the meaning construction process. This dialectical process between change and reflection based on social science methodology is a core dynamic of the AR research strategy.

2.3. Research Strategy

When we construct an AR project, we not only select methods but we must plan comprehensively for the social change and learning processes that will occur throughout the project. AR processes aim to create learning both for the involved problem owners and for the professional researchers. This knowl­edge construction, which is expected to create gains for both sides, is based on using any and all of the social science research methods available as well as the knowledge and experience of all the stakeholders in a well-managed process of cogenerative learning. This mutuality is a core democratic value in AR, and it specifically gives voice to the participants and establishes the freedom, the right, and the obligation of the participants to take part in the knowledge gen­eration process. It confers joint ownership and representation of the jointly created knowledge and action designs.

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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