Our Take on AR: Pragmatic Action Research

Our experience is predominantly, though not exclusively, in industrial, com­munity, and higher education settings in Europe and the United States. Davydd Greenwood is an anthropologist and Morten Levin is a sociolo­gist with a background in engineering. Greenwood, a professor at Cornell University, a large combined state and private institution, has served as an academic administrator of large multidisciplinary centers for more than 20 years while continuing to teach anthropology. His main research has taken place in Spain, in upstate New York, and recently in the international, com­parative study of universities. He has been active in a number of AR pro­grams in Norway and Sweden, including an AR Ph.D. program led by Morten Levin. Levin is a professor at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU) at Trondheim and has been the leader in the creation of combined engineering and AR programs there, as well as the leader of a number of national work-life development programs. He has also conducted AR in the United States and Canada and is the founder and leader of a Ph.D. program in AR sponsored by the Norwegian social partners and anchored at his university.

We have made a good-faith effort to become knowledgeable about many different approaches, but we are aware that there are many gaps in our back­grounds. We do not intentionally slight other approaches by writing from our own knowledge base. The longer-term solution to problems of balance found here is for others to write their views of these subjects and be critical of what we have offered. We will respond, and hope thereby to open up a dialogue that broadens our collective sense of the scope of AR and enhances discourse on the democratization of knowledge creation and action. Our hope is that this book can encourage a long-needed critical discourse on the foundations and praxis of AR.3 Our aim is to present one consistent strand of thought, integrating a philosophical, methodological, and political economic position with a consis­tent praxis supported by suitable methods and tools, while keeping the differ­ent kinds of AR practice and visions in sight.

As we mentioned previously, we are both mostly experienced in the use of AR in industrial and community development in Western industrialized countries. We share a strong commitment to the democratization of knowl­edge, learning, and self-managed social change. We are reformers, not revolu­tionaries, however, and we are social scientists, not psychoanalysts. We do not believe that we have the wisdom or the right to “lead” others to the “correct” social arrangements “for their own good,” as some of the more liberationist practitioners do or as some of the more “therapeutic” approaches to AR advo­cate. Rather we believe in trying to offer, as skillfully as possible, the space and tools for democratic social change.

We refuse to guide such change unilaterally from our positions as action researchers. We consider ourselves participants in change processes in which democratic rules guide decision making. We bring to the table certain skills and knowledge, and other actors do the same, bringing their own capacities and experiences to bear on the problems. This is why we call our own particu­lar variety of AR practice “pragmatic action research.”

Our views on democracy and liberating situations are relevant, and we want to clarify them. Democracy is a concept with such a multiplicity of mean­ings that attempts to be clear about it are extremely controverted (see Dahl, 1989, for an excellent review). To some, especially many North Americans, the term often evokes egalitarianism. For others, it involves participation, whereas for others it conjures decision making by consensus, and for still others, deci­sions by majority rule. For some, democracy implies a homogeneous commu­nity and for others, arenas for lively debate. All these meanings have their associated genealogies, theories, politics, and ethics.

Our own· view of these matters equates democracy with the creation of arenas fodively debate and for decision makins that respec:tnnd enhances the divmity of groups. We explicitly rej􀁩 both the distributive justice and the coDSeDSUS models of democratic processes. We take the diversity ofskiUs, expe­ riences, ethnicities, gender, and politics as the most valuable source of potential positive changes in groups. Consequently, we reject the dominant political view of democracy as majority rule, accepting Iris Young’s ( 1 990) critique of this view of democracy as one that rests on the oppressive actions of welfare state capitalism to reduce social j ustice to a limited redistribution of goods to those defined as disadvantaged. That view of democracy neither respects diversity nor seeks to enhance the capacity of the disenfranchised to act on their own behalf. For us, AR aims to enable communities and organizations to mobilize their diverse and complex internal resources as fully as possible.

Consequently, we are suspicious of approaches to AR that seem to privi­lege the homogeneity of communities or consensus-based decision making, believing that such approaches open up great potentials for co-optation and coercion. One does not have to look far for documentation of these problems. At various points in recent history, such as 1968, the democratic critique of capitalist business as usual was embodied in attempts to create so-called alter­native social forms. Many of these took the form of intentional communities, cooperatives, and open schools, and many tried to abolish social and cultural differences and to substitute consensus decision making for majority rule. A wonderful ethnographic portrait of such an organization is given in Jane Mansbridge’s ( 1983) Beyond Adversary Democracy. To obliterate oppression of minorities by the majority, these architects of social change tried to substitute absolute consensus for majority rule. The effect, as Tocqueville (2001/1835, 1840) saw generations ago, often was to create a tyrannical demand for consensus that eventually undermined the belief in democracy through the experience of group pressure and self-censorship.

We believe that diversity is one of the most important features of human societies. Diversity is a biological fact, continually reproduced in each genera­tion, regardless of anyone’s intentions. Diversity is also a cultural product. Anyone who takes the trouble to look closely discovers that, even in the most homogeneous-appearing groups, there are wide differences in knowledge, interests, experience, and capabilities. We view these differences as a rich social resource that, when effectively mobilized, gives a group or an organization a much greater capacity to transform itself. We view democracy as an open sys­tem that should be able to welcome and make humane use of these differences. From our perspective, the aim of democracy is to give rise to societies and organizations capable of emphasizing, mobilizing, and energizing the differ­ences within them.

We view liberating situations as those in which social change is possible and can be influenced by the participants. Further, we see a group or organiza­tion as being on a liberating trajectory when it is increasingly able to tolerate, use, and reward the diversity of viewpoints, capacities, and experiences within and if it is increasingly possible for a greater and greater proportion of members to affect the future directions of the collectivity. Finally, in a liberat­ing situation, a group increasingly welcomes change as an opportunity for group enhancement and growth.

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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