Linking Theory and Local Understanding: Being Scientific, Counterintuitive, and Technically Competent

In conventional social research, expert knowledge is the basis of the high sta­tus of the researcher and his or her ability to impose controls and methods on a research situation. As we said in Chapters 6 and 7, action researchers obvi­ously must have expert knowledge, but this knowledge is not treated as a source of unilateral power. Rather we view it as our contribution to a social situation in which we participate as contributing human agents.

The knowledge demands on an action researcher are heavy and keenly felt. To assist a group of collaborators in resolving some kind of important social problem, the action researcher must have some kind of substantive appreciation of the particular issues involved. If the problem is a polluting industry, the action researcher must know or learn about the industry, the pollution, and some of the possible solutions. Unlike the case of the conventional social researcher who sys­tematically distrusts local knowledge, however, this contextual knowledge is not a unilateral responsibility of the professional expert. The action researcher can and must rely on local knowledge to a considerable degree.

The local interested parties have a great deal of information (or access to such information) about what is going on and long experience with their situ­ation. Action researchers actively seek out this knowledge as an element in the research process. This contrasts strongly with conventional researchers’ claim that the universal applicability of their research methods and techniques makes such substantive knowledge minor and considered an unreliable and co-opted source of information.

Precisely because the outcomes of an AR project are likely to be applied in specific human situations, the action researcher must master the scientific method. Perhaps AR has an even higher standard to meet here, because conventional social research rarely entertains responsibility for the application of its results to human situations.

Professional action researchers must be adept in the use of the scientific method with its insistence on the systematic attempt to discover the unex­pected and counterintuitive explanations often hidden from view by assump­tions and other elements in cultural training and social systems. This is one fundamental contribution that the action researcher makes to an AR situation. The ability to ask counterintuitive questions, to approach issues from the “out­side,” and to question pet explanations is a role that the action researcher must know how to play well.

The action researcher must also bring a set of analytical frameworks to the process—among them, views on political economy, social structure, discursive strategies, change processes, and ideology. These analytical frameworks are important to the conceptualization of the relationships between the past and the possible futures. Some work in the social sciences has developed perspec­tives and methods that can assist in making these structures clear, and action researchers must be knowledgeable about them.

All humans have views about all of the matters mentioned. Such views are necessary equipment for living, and they form part of local knowledge. Social science research adds some analytical techniques and comparative frameworks that are generally unavailable or not often entertained in local knowledge sys­tems. Having analyzed these matters from around the world and over long periods of time, professional researchers have developed a sense of where the local systems fit into a larger range of variation. This broader contextualization is useful in AR because many groups suffering from acute problems feel stuck in a particular view of the situation and have a difficult time developing a sense of alternative courses of action. By setting the local situation in the context of these broader comparisons, a professional action researcher can assist the local group in opening up its sense of the situation and some options for the future.

Though we strongly believe that the views on political economy, social structure, and ideological systems that professional action researchers bring to local situations are of critical importance, we do not believe that there is one cor­rect approach to each of these subjects that is monopolized by the professionals. We, the authors, have our own views on these matters, but we recognize that there are many different kinds of analyses of political economy (Marxist, neo­Marxist, Gramscian, neoclassical, reformist, revolutionary, trade unionist, and so on), just as there are of social structures (Parsonian, constructivist, and so on) and ideational systems (structuralist, deconstructivist, constructivist, and so on).

Though no one system of analysis is correct, some approaches can make no meaningful contribution to AR. Frameworks that are blind to the play of economic and social power or triumphalist about the overall beneficent direction of history have no place in AR. The analysis of power relations, the role of ideology, and the direction of history necessarily animate all AR projects and must be on any research agenda as problematic phenomena to be dealt with.

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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