Epistemological Foundations of Action Research

The presentations of GST and pragmatism connect directly to AR. AR aims to solve pertinent problems in a given context through a democratic inquiry where professional researchers collaborate with participants in the effort to seek and enact solutions to problems of major importance to the local people. In doing this, AR specifically engages in systems-based, pragmatic social science. Indeed, AR is challenged to practice leading-edge science, combining the best in scientific practice with a commitment to the democratic transfor­mation of society. Yet AR is almost universally viewed with disrespect by con­ventional social scientists, who see it as unsystematic, atheoretical storytelling. We, of course, believe these criticisms to be both ill founded and self-serving.

To begin with, AR generally takes on much more complex problems than do the conventional social sciences. AR focuses on specific contexts, demands that theory and action not be separated, and is committed to the idea that the test of any theory is its capacity to resolve problems in real-life situations. This focus on the world of experience, with its complexity, historicity, and dynamism, means that AR distances itself from the often purified world of conventional social research with its friction-free, perfect information and “other things being equal” assumptions that make being an academic easier, though at the cost of also being irrelevant. Conventional social researchers seem to us to be content to chop up reality to make it simpler to handle, more suited to theoretical manipulation, more suited to management by disciplinary cartels, and to make the social scientists’ life easier to manage.

AR does not accept these compromises. As a result, and consistent with our presentations of GST and pragmatism, we assert that AR as a form of research has the following core characteristics:

  • AR is context bound and addresses real-life problems holistically.
  • AR is inquiry through which participants and researchers cogenerate knowl­edge using collaborative communicative processes in which all participants’ contributions are taken seriously.
  • AR treats the diversity of experiences and capacities within the local group as an opportunity for the enrichment of the research-action process.
  • The meanings constructed in the inquiry process lead to social action, or these reflections on action lead to the construction of new meanings.
  • The credibility-validity of AR knowledge is measured according to whether actions that arise from it solve problems (workability) and increase partici­pants’ control over their own situations.

Given this conceptualization of AR, several important questions emerge. ^that is the logic of inquiries constructed this way? What are reasonable criteria for judging knowledge to be credible in AR? How can strongly context-bound knowledge be communicated effectively to academics and other potential recip­ient groups? The aim of the following discussion is to present an epistemolog­ical position that supports our arguments for the value of AR.

1. CONTEXT-BOUND INQUIRY ON IMPORTANT LOCAL PROBLEMS

AR focuses on solving real-life problems. The focus of the inquiry is deter­mined by what the participants consider important, what affects their daily lives. The inquiry process is thus linked to actions taken to provide a solution to the problem being examined. Of course, inquiry also can precede actions. In this case, it is a way of acquiring necessary knowledge to design actions that will resolve the pertinent issue. Inquiry can also be a way of developing reflec­tions based on experiences drawn from prior actions that can be understood in new ways. Of course, in most real-life situations, any attempt to solve impor­tant problems involves a priori and a posteriori meaning construction.

We emphasize that the inquiry process is linked to solving practical prob­lems. But despite the conceits of academic theoreticians, practical problems are not necessarily simple ones. Community economic development, develop­ing new organizational structures in an organization, building a house where inhabitants in a neighborhood can meet, or collective efforts to reduce violence in the local community are all practical problems, but they are often extremely complex ones to manage.

Whether the problem is a social organizational or a material one, the results of AR must be tangible in the sense that participants can figure out whether the solution they have developed actually resolves the problem they set themselves. Here we connect directly back to pragmatic philosophy. The results of an AR process must be judged in terms of the workability of the solutions arrived at. Workability means whether or not a solution can be identified as solution to the initial problem or whether revision of the interpretation or redesign of the actions is required. This is not a matter of double-blind experimentation, strat­ified random samples, and significance levels. It is a matter of collective social judgment by knowledgeable participants about the outcomes of a collective social action. Social judgment is itself the result of a kind of democratic con­versation in which the professional researcher has only one vote.

2. DEMOCRATIC INQUIRY PROCESSES LINKING PARTICIPANTS AND PROFESSIONALS

We frame AR as democratic processes supporting the creation of new knowledge that potentially can be liberating. Obviously, then, the inquiry process has to aim to solve problems important to the local participants, and the knowledge produced by the inquiry process must increase participants’ control over their own situations. This is consistent with Freire’s (1970) con­cept of “conscientization,” which identifies the inquiry process as aimed at shaping knowledge relevant to action built on a critical understanding of his­torical and political contexts within which the participants act. The partici­pants must be able to use the knowledge that emerges, and this knowledge must support the enhancement of the participants’ goals.

The democratic element in the inquiry process indicates that mutualism between outside researchers and inside participants must exist. AR is a com­munication process where the best of both sides can cogenerate knowledge through the inquiry process. Local knowledge, historical consciousness, and everyday experience of the insiders complements the outsider’s skills in facili­tating learning processes, technical skills in research procedures, and compar­ative and historical knowledge of the subject under investigation. At the same time, we agree with Dewey (1976) that

in all this, there is no difference of kind between the methods of science and those of the plain [man]. The difference is the greater control by science of the statement of the problem, and of relevant material, both sensible and conceptual. (p. 305)

Linking the outside researcher with insiders in a joint inquiry process eliminates the possibility of believing in Fregian (1918/1956) and Russellian (1903) logic as some kind of objective outside standard for what can be con­sidered true or relevant knowledge. The logic of inquiry is linked to the inquiry process itself, in the struggle to make an indeterminate situation into a more positively controlled one through an inquiry process in which action and reflection are directly linked. The outside researcher inevitably becomes a participant with the insiders.

Years ago, a Norwegian philosopher titled his master’s thesis Objectivity and the Study of Man (Skjervheim, 1974). It deals with the foundations of social science. According to Skjervheim’s view, in AR, there is no doubt that the researcher is an active participant in the inquiry process. The acceptance and the active and conscious use of this position contrasts AR with conventional social science that purposely obfuscates the researcher’s social role. The obvi­ous participant status that any social scientist has in any research process is fuly acknowledged in AR and is treated as a resource for the process. The con­struction of new knowledge is built on the premise of this mutual engagement. On the other hand, the active researcher’s involvement raises important challenges of integrity and critical reflection. AR is not a mode of research that accepts researchers’ co-optation by local actors or power holders either. Balancing active involvement with integrity and critical reflection is funda­mental in any AR process.

3. DIVERSITY AS AN OPPORTUNITY

The involvement of participants in the research process creates a genuine opportunity to use individual capacities. We have argued that research involves human creativity in developing potential solutions to and explanations of the problem at issue. A purely rational argument in favor ofhaving a diverse group of coresearchers is that the broader set of experiences and attitudes the partic­ipants bring to the research process can permit more creative solutions to develop. Lessons from research on creativity illustrate this point (see, for exam­ple, Amabile, 1996).

A second and equally important argument is the ethical position that it is important to sustain diversity as a political right in itself. AR must be constructed to gain strength from the creative potential in the diversity of the participant group, not to create solutions to problems that unnecessarily reduce diversity.

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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