Democratization and Action Research

If understanding the diverse meanings of participation is complex, the concept of democratization offers even more challenges because its referents are even broader. This is a term that refers to structures, processes, governments, decision making, and moral goals, and no short treatment will do it justice. Despite the importance action researchers ascribe to it, sustained discussions of the meaning of democratization in AR are rare. They are much needed.

In organizing our thinking about democratization, we developed a brief typology that highlights different elements in the process. Key to all of them is the notion of collaboration. Democratization requires collaboratively setting the problems to be addressed. Deciding what is to be decided is one of the most fundamental points in any kind of democratic process. Democracy is a collec­tive good, and as a consequence it cannot be achieved through the vehicle of radical individualism. Democracy either is based on representative models or on participative models built on people’s ability to make collective decisions. The rules used for reaching a decision can and will vary in different contexts, but the fundamental issue is that decisions be based on collective constructions of meaning and on collaboration and conflict between members who together shape a decision.

Once the problems have been collaboratively set, then collaboration once again is essential in developing the solutions. Here too democratization has multiple meanings. It involves developing the requisite knowledge base for understanding the contours of the problems. This also often means giving the collaborators necessary tools and training so that they can carry on the research on the problems they have set for themselves. In all these cases, the responsibility for acquiring the necessary knowledge is democratized rather than being lodged in the hands of the experts.

Once the knowledge has been developed, the process of analysis is also collaborative, taking advantage of the multiple perspectives of the diverse stakeholders and their experiences with the problems. And from here, the col­laboration extends to the design of actions that will help resolve the problems that motivated the work from the outset. This step of action design is shared and does not rely solely on the experts to design programs. Finally, the collaboration extends to applying the actions designed and evaluating the results.

Throughout the base of collaboration is broad and the role of participa­tion is one in which a high degree of codetermination is central. Though this kind of democratization of research implies it, we think it worthwhile to emphasize that it is premised fully on respect for the knowledge and experi­ences of all problem owners. The democratic assumption here is that every human being knows more about his or her own life situation than anyone else and that everyone, given reasonable support, is capable of contributing knowledge and analysis to a collaborative social process if we coUectively are skillful enough in creating the arena for collaboration.

One thingtoo often lost sight of in the talk about democracy and AR is that both consensus models and majoritarian models of democracy are inimical to the conception of democracy that guides AR. Except in the unusual situation in which everyone has an identical interest (that is, that the meteor coming our way not hit the Earth), consensus decision making usually involves dominant voices and perspectives tyrannizing subordinate ones. Majority rule strikes us as even more hostile. In this case, the majority wins and the minority is crushed.

In our view, the only approach to democracy consistent with AR is democ­racy as the harmonization of positions (Lijphart, 1977). AR processes are not about erasing difference but about mapping them and mapping possible ways forward that respect the differences that the stakeholders either cannot or will not give up. Often this means restricting actions to those areas where there is enough overlap of interests to permit action, though successes with such actions may eventually lead to the possibility of tackling more divisive issues. What we reject is the notion that a decision rule be used to ignore or crush the legitimate interests of any stakeholder group. In this sense, our notion of democracy is fully in accord with the neopragmatist view that the goal of these activities is “keeping the conversation going” (Rorty, 1980).

Finally, we think that democratization requires a kind of ultimate vigi­lance about the fairness of the process in conjunction with the fairness of the outcomes. That is, as AR projects proceed, we must be concerned to question the openness and fairness of the day-to-day processes that take place but also to see about fairness of the outcomes. These must not be separated. It is possi­ble to have an open and fair process and end up with a poor outcome. It is also occasionally possible to achieve a good outcome by a bad process. In AR, we try to be attentive and consistent in our concern for democracy both along the road and at the end of the day.

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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