Pragmatic Philosophy and Action Research

That a stereotypical view of science prevails among nonscientists does not mean that the world is or has been unaware of the perspectives we articulate here. Al the elements of a more complex and humanly meaningful view of science are well known and have been articulated effectively by John Dewey (1976), Charles Sanders Peirce (1950), William James (1948, 1995), Kurt Lewin (1935, 1948), and more recently, Stephen Toulmin and Bj0rn Gustavsen ( 1996), al writing in the pragmatist tradition. In other words, the bases for AR have been well known since the beginning of the 20th century.

John Dewey is particularly important for our exposition because his prag­matic philosophy laid out an action approach to science as a form of human inquiry and underscored its inherent connections to democracy in a way in concert with our views on AR. Dewey was born in 1859 and died in 1952. His intellectual production dates from the 1880s and continued to the end ofhis life. Dewey is generally viewed as having been a key influence on public educa­tion in the United States and as having been the prime mover behind one of the few rather uniquely American contributions to Western philosophy. Nevertheless, a recent intellectual biographer, Robert Westbrook ( 1991),shows that Dewey’s was always and remains a minority view. There is little evidence that those who cite Dewey approvingly have acted on his ideas; indeed it is hard to believe that many of them have read what he wrote.

What, then, are his ideas? To render 70 years of intellectual work (his com­plete works run to more than 30 volumes) in a few paragraphs is impossible. We outline only a few of the key points of his approach that relate to AR and to the relationship between social research and social reform.

Dewey was a staunch believer in democracy as an ongoing, collective process of social improvement in which all levels of society had to participate. These arguments are put forward in The Public and Its Problems (1927/1991). In his view, the role of public education was to permit everyone in society enough training so that they could contribute their own views and experiences to the collective democratic process. In The School and Society ( 1900) and The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Dewey presented his arguments on the connection between democratic theory and pedagogical ideas. The important point was that democracy had to evolve through peoples’ active involvement in making sense of their world and not through solutions imposed by powerful outsiders.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature ofDewey’s approach was his stead­fast refusal to separate thought from action. For Dewey, everything was forged in action. He saw democracy itself as an ongoing form of social action, a com­bination of institutional forms and ethical commitments that works toward the increasing ability of all members of society to contribute their intelligence to the greater sophistication and discernment of the whole. He believed that the only real sources of knowledge were to be found in action, not in armchair speculation. For him, all knowledge testing and proofs were, like democracy itself, ongoing experimental activities. This position was clear in his views on logic, which he treated as a theory of inquiry (Dewey, 1991).

One consequence was that schools should create environments where the students could safely confront problems that can be resolved only by using skills gained from studying the sciences, history, and the arts. Schools should not be locations where the students, seen as empty vessels, are filled with knowledge bits. This was consistent with Dewey’s view that scientific judgment was not a form of esoteric knowledge. Dewey believed that all humans are capable of scientific judgment and that society could be improved to the extent these capacities are increased among all of society’s members. Consistent with this, he strongly opposed the division of public education into vocational and academic tracks, seeing this as the preservation of inequality and ultimately the weakening of democracy as a whole. Everyone could be capable participants in experimental knowledge generation. He believed that limiting the learning of any individual ultimately limited society as a whole.

These ideas connect to Dewey’s view of schools as environments and learning as a process of action in which the student must be an active learner and not a passive listener. Though many connect these ideas to Dewey, few students would describe the bulk of their educational experiences in these terms. Dewey is a figure simultaneously lionized and ignored. The best way to blunt a reform is to co-opt it, to state approval of it, and to act in the opposite way. This has been Dewey’s fate.

One of the hallmarks of Dewey’s thought is his resolute focus on diversity and conflict as essential elements in a democratic society. He viewed democ­racy as a process of working through conflicts, not to a final resolution but toward an improved situation. He did not hunger for the elimination of con­flict in society because he genuinely respected the diversity of people and their experiences. His aim was to build momentum for democratic social reform by bringing together these conflicting experiences and by working democratically to ameliorate intolerable situations. He believed that communities (including community schools) were central to this process precisely because communi­ties are divided and diverse. Their common stake in solutions can permit them to work through problems together.

Dewey’s views on science were intimately connected to his views of a democratic society. For Dewey, scientific research was not a process separate from democratic social action. Scientific knowing, like all other forms of knowl­edge, was a product of continuous cycles of action and reflection (Dewey, 1991/1927). The center of gravity was always the learner’s active pursuit of understanding through puzzle-solving activity with the materials at hand. The solutions achieved were only the best possible ones at that moment with mate­rials at hand, hence the denomination of his philosophy as pragmatism.

Dewey remained politically engaged in a variety of democratic move­ments throughout his life. He was realistic about the situation he faced. He understood that the existing power structures favored having a ruling class and a duty-bound, vocationally educated populace to work for them in unreflective harmony. He was aware of the radical separation between academic institu­tions and the human situations he wished to change. Although he asserted that experience was an organic whole, he knew that educational practice divided it up into tiny, specialized parcels and that this process weakened the ability of the citizenry to take control of democracy in the way he advocated. Above all, he knew that conventional social science was radically opposed to his action orientation because it had come to separate thought from action and, thus, created social researchers who offered no threat to existing power arrangements.

To summarize, Dewey believed that all humans are scientists, that thought must not be separated from action, that the diversity of human communities is one of their most powerful features (if harnessed to democratic processes), and that academic institutions in general and conventional social research in particular rarely promote science or democratic social action.

Nearly his entire corpus of work can be seen as consistent with the premises of general systems theory as well, because he focused on the individ­ual in society and societies in their environments as dynamic and open sys­tems. His resolute emphasis on processes rather than on outcomes and the way in which society can be made responsive to the continual changes from within and from without also link him to GST. Dewey’s pragmatism, with its linkage of knowledge and action, its connections among knowledge, action, commu­nity, and democracy, remains important for AR.

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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