Human Inquiry in Action Research


One of the most striking characteristics of these forms of inquiry is their ongoing trajectory of development through the steady incorporation of a wide variety of perspectives and practices. The genealogy of Peter Reason’s work stretches back to the late 1970s, and from then to now there is an ongoing devel­opment of an increasingly well-articulated approach. Our own favorite among his works, because of its comprehensiveness and link to case studies, is Participation in Human Inquiry (Reason, 1994). Here he nicely defined the central agenda as an approach to living based on experience and engagement, on love and respect for the integrity of persons; and on a willingness to rise above presuppositions, to look and to look again, to risk security in the search for understanding and action that open possibilities for creative living (Reason, 1994, p. 9).

The strong value placed on experience and engagement, a clear recogni­tion of the emotional and ethical dimensions of relationships, a desire to have the world of experience answer back and invalidate preconceptions (against positivism), and a commitment to “creative living” are the key elements. The focus is on individual people and their organizations in their local situations, people who are attempting to live more creative lives. At the same time, there is relatively less attention paid to the larger political economy of organizations or of the broader systems of which they are a part.

The aims of human inquiry are bold. Already by 1994, Reason had laid claim to a particular epistemology, a set of techniques that emerges as a consequence ofit, a history of science that backs up the epistemological claims and technical practices, and a series of social reform agendas including democ­ratization, improvement of social services, and the incorporation of gender perspectives in all dimensions of social change. In this regard, human inquiry is among the most fully developed and complex combinations of theorization and practice in a combined social psychology-human relations framework to be found in AR.

Reason builds the work around a carefuUy constructed framework that insists on the priority of having a participatory worldview to match a partici­patory methodology. In other words, techniques alone are not sufficient to produce the kind of work desired, a point often ignored by other researchers. The techniques must be couched in a larger vision of the world and human relations that privileges participation as both a matter of principle and a mat­ter of practice. Only then can the step be taken to transform what would be subjects in conventional research into coresearchers.

Like many of us, Reason inquires into the reasons for the domination of conventional social science by nonparticipatory and petty commodity approaches to social research and provides his own particular history. We all engage in such efforts because it is not sufficient to simply claim that AR is a better way to conduct research than is conventional social research. It is also necessary to deal with the domination of the social sciences by approaches that we claim are clearly inferior to AR.

To cope with the problem of the dominant, alienated forms of social inquiry, Reason (1994) develops a “grand narrative” about the evolution of human consciousness. His basic notion is that humans move from unconscious participation to a form of alienation created by patriarchal domination and then seek emancipation in a kind of future participation that has self-awareness and self-reflectiveness. This future participation is described as operating in a Batesonian world of pattern and form (Bateson, 1979). It involves the conscious use of the imagination, and provides for a very different experience of the self from that common to gender-divided approaches.

Human inquiry is then set in this context as a “method or a training, a set of rules, exercises, or procedures” (Reason, 1994, p. 40) that will lead to a new kind of participatory outcome. As we indicated earlier, Reason presents a classification of types of knowledge that are together the central scaffolding of human inquiry: experiential, presentational, practical, and propositional knowledge. We find this typology a particularly fruitful contribution because it calls attention to the diversity activities that necessarily form part of a broad and inclusive concept of knowledge. It also emphasizes the failure of the con­ventional social sciences to remember how complex and differentiated knowl­edge is and how knowledge is built out of sequences and combinations of different kinds ofknowing and acting in context.

We also agree with Reason that the process of inquiry moves through phases in which particular knowledge forms predominate. For us, this way of understanding knowledge development in AR is one of the most fruitful parts of Reason’s work. AR writing generally offers very few such characterizations to help practitioners portray and locate themselves and their collaborators within participatory processes. This framing owes something to the social psy­chological literature of the 1940s and 1950s but is much more effectively sys­tematized for research purposes here. This is important because the complex combinations of first-, second-, and third-person processes and the diverse kinds of knowledge generated in AR often overwhelm the action researcher’s ability to frame and explain them. In such a context, this framework serves as a useful mapping device for all forms of AR.

In human inquiry itself, these phases begin with coresearchers who are examining a subject together. For Reason (1994), these knowledge forms are mainly propositional, though there is some presentational knowledge present as well. As the process deepens, the coresearchers become cosubjects. At this point, the kinds of knowledge are mainly practical. In the next phase, the cosubjects become immersed in each other’s realities and the knowledge forms are mainly experiential. Finally, the cosubjects begin to emerge from the research process together. They review, reframe, and even repudiate some ideas. At this point, the knowledge forms are mainly propositional. But ele­ments of presentational knowledge are used to link the experiential and prac­tical knowledge gained in the process to the propositional knowledge acquired.

This is particularly helpful because the vast majority of AR projects begin as rather conventional research or problem-solving activities. Indeed, many of our students worry about whether they are doing AR at all or not when they begin their work. There seems to be a presumption that AR projects are born fully formed in a broadly participatory and democratic way. Our experience and part of the premise of the work of Reason and his colleagues is that AR is a process that is achieved over time, one that often begins in very conventional ways. It is a process that can begin in an unpromisingly hierarchical way and then branch out into more experimental and risky forms of participation. This certainly matches our own experiences (see Greenwood, ^fuyte, & Harkavy, 1993).

Since AR is a process, not a thing, over the course of the process, there are a variety of opportunities to innovate by opening it up to greater collaboration and to the possibility that the partners can become real cosubjects. Just how far the process goes depends on the skills of the practitioner, the situation, the temperament and situations of the co-subjects, and other local factors. ^fuat is important is that the process begins somewhere and that the AR practitioner makes a disciplined effort at ever-greater inclusion of the subjects as core­searchers. In the process of revealing this, Reason has much of interest to say about ownership of projects, power relations, and the problems and opportu­nities of collaboration.

Another point that comes through clearly in Reason’s ( 1994) closing essay is that being a good social researcher is not enough to create a good AR pro­ject. To work in human inquiry, the researcher must develop good facilitation skills and have an understanding of group processes. Al the formal social science training in the world can be useful but it is not sufficient. The student of human inquiry must come to terms with group processes, must seek to develop herself as a facilitator and partner, and must continually strive to com­bine excellence as a researcher with ethical and political commitments as a co-subject with local partners. This is also why Reason is right to argue for the importance of having a participatory worldview to match a participa­tory methodology. Without an appropriate worldview, the methods take us nowhere and the moves we make will not achieve the desired outcomes.

Reason and his colleagues are also defenders of “good stories” as critical elements in this work. For far too long, action researchers have permitted themselves to be coerced by the conventional social researchers who cast asper­sions on AR by claiming that we are just “telling stories.” This criticism is a rear-guard attempt at justifying the masking of the alienated and jargonizing proclivities of conventional social research. As we indicated in Chapter 7, strong narratives are key to AR and essential to any kind of social science endeavor and they find a clear place in Reason’s work. Only through the detailed understanding of the real logic of human situations as lived and par­ticipated in dynamically can we reach for the larger underlying issues and causes that help us account for them.

A central tenet of AR in general is the conversion of people who would be research subjects in conventional research into coresearchers. Reason and his colleagues not only affirm this but they give more attention to the detailed dis­cussion of the development of these collaborative relationships epistemo­logically and methodologically than do many others. The first-person and second-person emphasis leads to a strong focus on the constitutive elements of such relationships.

For example, John Rowan, a longtime colleague of Reason’s, strongly emphasizes the need to develop the researcher’s self as a part of the process of being better able to work with others. While this begins in personal growth, it is also related to the kind of personal authenticity that is necessary for AR rela­tionships to prosper (Rowan, 2001, pp. 114-115). In particular, Rowan argues that such moves are necessary if we are to move away from alienated research and in the direction of participative research processes. Thus, the kind of self in this AR tradition is not the self of the “objectivist” researcher who fantasizes that she can reason herself completely out of the research but a vulnerable and yet healthy self authentically engaged with others in collaborative inquiry.

In describing research in this mode, John Heron states that cooperative inquiry, “being highly participative … has a micropolitical form and is impor­tant as an educational and politically liberating process. It empowers auton­omy and co-operation among people over and against any kind of controlling, authoritarian social process” (Heron, 2001, p. 333). He calls this “transpersonal inquiry” and emphasizes the orchestration of a comprehensive process that brings about the kind of dynamics and growth that are sought. This process aims at changing state of consciousness, creating a shared language and a safe dialogical space. It also seeks to create an inquiry-oriented frame of mind, crit­ical reflection, and to transfer power to the participants (Heron, 2001, p. 334).

As is probably evident, one of the central problems that AR must over­come is the alienation of our society. The radical individualist, commodity production kind of neoliberal mindset that underlies so much social science and social policy is evidence of this alienation, and the only path out, in this approach to AR, is through combined greater self-awareness and awareness of the self in the context of others.

In the hands of Reason, Rowan, and Heron, this desired kind of conscious­ness is appealing because it involves self-awareness and self-reflectiveness, is built on living in a fluid world of complex and dynamic patterns and forms, and involves the use of the imagination, the emotions, and the intellect together as tools. Human and collaborative inquiry leads the inquirer not just to conduct research differently but to live in the world as a different kind of person. This goal underlies a great deal of the attractiveness of AR in its many guises, but even that goal is poorly articulated in most written work. By stress­ing that human inquiry is a discipline and a practice, and that the researcher has the characteristics of a learner, these writers stress that AR involves all participants in a process of self-discovery through others.

The human inquiry tradition contains a great deal of value. ^thether or not one agrees with the perspective, the approach contains a systematic episte­mological and methodological development and is a good antidote to the intel­lectual laziness that characterizes too much AR. Often in AR, the justification that the researcher is doing good covers up the researcher’s unwillingness or inability to make the intellectual effort needed to think hard about what he or she is doing and how it can be improved.

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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