Readdressing the Action Research Processes

We argued that relevant actions to solve the problem at hand are the first out­come of an AR process. We also argued that the meaning construction process linked to solving practical problems is the major knowledge generation ele­ment in AR. Finally, we discussed the situations that transfer learning from one context to another and how to develop historical and causal interpretations of what has happened in each particular situation.

To reflect on why all this is not so obvious as to be banal, we have to return to the broader epistemological debate that forms the backdrop. Though we have concentrated on Dewey, it is important to recognize that Dewey’s ideas developed in discourse with many colleagues, including Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, who were also at work on the pragmatist framework for philosophy. They were very well known and respected for a long time, and then eclipsed almost completely. The eclipse of pragmatism is the subject of a controversial and important work, Richard Rorty’s (1980) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A broader meta-commentary on these issues is found in John Diggins’s (1994) The Promise of Pragmatism. These works deserve attention from anyone interested in AR because their analyses provide an analytical and historiographical structure into which the vicissi­tudes suffered by AR can be fitted.

For Rorty (1980), the pragmatists, contemporary hermeneuticians (for example, Gadamer, 1982; Taylor, 1985), linguistic philosophers such as Willard Quine, the Frankfurt school, Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, some existentialists, and some of Rorty’s colleagues aim at the repudiation of what he calls “the epistemological project.” Though Rorty defines this project in a variety of ways, at base, he means to criticize modern philosophy’s pretensions to create a system of analysis that would permit philosophers to distinguish between “correct” and “incorrect” knowledge—a view of philosophy as a kind of self-appointed supreme court of knowledge to which everyone would have to submit.

Rorty counters the epistemological project by distinguishing between systematic philosophy as the search for an absolute reality determined by philosophical experts and edifying philosophy, which he views as an ongoing conversation involving methods and debates that attempt to bring people into some kind of state of communicative clarity. Rorty clearly advocates the latter but notes that the edifying philosophers are peripheral to contemporary phi­losophy, specifically mentioning Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger as exam­ples (Rorty, 1980, pp. 367-368).

In praising Dewey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and others like them, Rorty points out that they make fun of the classic picture of man, the picture that contains systematic philosophy and the search for universal commensuration in a final vocabulary. They hammer away at the point that

words take their meanings from other words rather than by virtue of their representative character, and the corollary that vocabularies acquire their privileges from the men who use them rather than from their transparency to the real. .. .The point of edifying philosophy is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth. Such truth … is the normal result of normal discourse. (Rorty, 1980, pp. 368, 377)

These arguments are central to the structure of AR as we view it. AR is, first and foremost, a way of “keeping the conversation going.” AR’s methods aim to open horizons of discussion, to create spaces for collective reflection in which new descriptions and analyses of important situations may be developed as the basis for new actions. This is what we mean by cogenerative learning.

This is directly relevant to the intellectual and social project announced by Hans Georg Gadamer (1982) as well. His emphasis on the interpretive, dia­logical, and practice-oriented character of all human knowledge includes a powerful argument that these dimensions are present in all the sciences: the physical, biological, and social sciences, and, of course, the humanities and the arts. He emphasizes the ongoing, ever-provisional character of interpretations and points out that hermeneutics is a form of action, to use Rorty’s ( 1980) lan­guage, a way of keeping the conversation going. That AR practitioners have not carefully examined the work of Gadamer and that of other contemporary hermeneuticians is hard to understand and contributes to their vulnerability to improper but energetic criticism from conventional social researchers who are well ensconced in their academic bunkers.

Elements of pragmatism and democratic political critiques of existing social arrangements are also closely connected. One of the most interesting points emerging from Diggins’s ( 1994) analysis is his linkage of Henry Adams’s and John Dewey’s scathing critiques of education. Quoting a letter from Adams to R. Cunliffe written August 31, 1875, Diggins reproduces Adams’s words describing the Harvard professorate and their students:

They cram themselves with secondhand facts and theories till they burst, and then they lecture at Harvard College and think they are the aristocracy of intellect and are doing true heroic work by exploding themselves all over a younger generation and forcing up a new set of simpleminded, honest, harm­less, intellectual prigs. (Henry Adams, quoted in Diggins, 1994, p. 307)

Academic institutions are seen as centers for the promotion of knowledge without action, reflection without commitment. This directly parallels Adams’s and Dewey’s critique and links back to the common ground between pragma­tism and AR in asserting that the truth is not a thing to be acquired but rather an aim of an endless process of collaborative social inquiry.

Diggins (1994) also makes persuasive links among pragmatism, hermeneu­tics, linguistic philosophy, the Frankfurt school, and deconstruction. Although these seem like odd bedfellows, if one takes the critique of the epistemological project as the centerpiece, they all contribute key elements to it. More impor­tant for our purposes is that these schools are also the inspiration for a signif­icant amount of AR thinking. Thus, AR is not on some side road. AR is neopragmatism in social research, an attempt to keep the conversation going and to democratize our society further. Like pragmatism, AR has met with the unflinching resistance of the epistemological project and positivist social science for whom taking pragmatism seriously would bring about the end of the academic world as they know (and profit from) it.

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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