The Friendly Outsider

In addition to the general orientation to skills we have articulated, we wish to point briefly to certain specific skills that AR practitioners must master to be effective. A professional action researcher must know how to be “the friendly outsider.” This role is vital in AR because the external perspective is a key element in opening up local group processes for change. But this outsider is friendly in a special sense. He or she must be able to reflect back to the local group things about them, including criticism of their own perspectives or habits, in a way that is experienced as supportive rather than negatively critical or domineering. Good professional action researchers achieve a balance of critique and support through a variety of actions, including direct feedback, written reflections, pointing to comparable cases, and citing cases from the professional literature where similar problems, opportunities, or processes have occurred.

The friendly outsider must also be expert at opening up lines of discus­sion, a kind of good Socratic teacher. Often local organizations or groups are either stuck in positions that have hardened or they have become pessimistic about the possibilities for change. A variety of methods, discussed in Part 3, is used to reopen the possibilities for change. Flexibility and opportunities for change are pointed out to local people, along with encouragement in the form of moral support and information from other cases where similar problems existed but change turned out to be possible.

Another key role of the friendly outsider is to make evident the tacit knowledge that guides local conduct. This can be in the form of critical reflec­tions or supportive comments about the extent of local capabilities. The out­sider, who is not used to the group and to the local scene, is ideally placed to notice this kind of tacit knowledge, whereas it is often invisible to insiders. Often this takes the form of encouraging local people to realize that they have a valuable store of knowledge that is relevant to solving the problems they face. Occasionally, it takes the form of criticism of particular local modes of think­ing that cause groups to shut down or to cycle unproductively over issues with­out resolving them.

Related to this is the role of speaking the locally unspeakable. Local people, because of their history together, because of local social structure and eco­nomic relationships, or simply because of decorum, often are unable to tell each other uncomfortable things that they clearly are aware of. Human groups are like this everywhere (Argyris & Schon, 1996). No human group operates with every member giving every other member absolutely honest feedback, but social change processes require the development of more open feedback to generate possibilities for action in particular social arenas.

In this context, the friendly outsider does not speak up on every unspeak­able matter. The effort is to seek out and examine those tacit agreements not to discuss certain things, the local silences that constitute obstacles to positive change for the issues at hand. This is a judgment the action researcher must make carefully. Too much feedback can block a group; too little can prevent the group from moving ahead.

Another role of the friendly outsider is to help local people inventory and assess the local resources available for a change project. Although local people are far more expert about the local scene than the outsider will ever be, their history together can lead them to overlook some important resources for change. This may simply be a matter of not appreciating that they have a store of knowledge somewhere that they are not th^inking about using. It may be the matter of insist­ing that a particular local person or group must be included in the process, despite a history of either bad relations or distrust. Sometimes this takes the form of the outsider insisting on the presence of representatives of opposed political factions or other kinds of ideological groups. Or it may require the outsider to insist on a better gender, class, or ethnic balance in the working group.

One of the outsider’s principal resources in doing all this is precisely being an outsider. The outsider’s links to the outside world—universities; state, national, and international agencies; unions; philanthropic groups; profes­sional consultants—may be of considerable practical value to the local project. In this regard, the outsider is also a resource for the local project and must be able to deliver on these relationships effectively. These outside links also lend certain legitimacy to the views of the friendly outsider, however, and this legit­imacy has to be managed carefully to enhance the possibilities for local change.


The friendly outsider is a coach, not a director or a boss. The last thing most local groups who are stuck in difficult situations need is someone else telling them what to do. The coach counts on local people to be the talented players and helps them improve their skills and strategies. The boss takes over the direction, management, and control of subordinate local groups and acts for them, further disempowering them in most cases and usually guaranteeing that whatever changes are produced will not continue to produce locally initi­ated changes over the long run.

Self-Confidence and Integrity

The outsider must be self-confident in social situations and he or she must demonstrate integrity in action and reflection. The outsider can and may need to express doubts about what to do and how to do it, but the outsider should have a kind of basic optimism about herself or himself and about the collabo­rators. Not a form of arrogance, this confidence is expressed in open-minded­ness, a lack of concern with maintaining rituals of status superiority over local people, a willingness to celebrate the capacities and actions of local people, and an active appreciation of the possibilities for change that exist locally. This also involves an ability to appreciate the skills of others to articulate this appreciation tactfully. The outsider’s interest in the success of a local project and community must be authentic. Local people are very good at sensing the sincerity of those who come to them from the outside.

The outside researcher does not wish to “go native.” Building a cogenera­tive learning process does not imply that one should lose sight of professional and ethical values. Quite to the contrary, in a cogenerative learning process, it is important to be aware of the need for integrity, because that integrity will be the basis upon which real cooperation can be built. “Erasing” oneself is not a feasible strategy for cooperation that is built on diversity and the ability to cooperate to learn and act together. Integrity is, of course, as important for the local insiders as it is for the outsiders. Cogenerative learning can only take place when it is founded on the integrity of the participants and their joint processes.

Risk Taking

The outsider must also be a risk taker. Unless the outsider is willing and able to risk personal failure by supporting a local group that may or may not succeed, she or he will not provide the necessary moral support and confidence to people who are trying to persuade themselves to take risks as well. Most aca­demics and bureaucrats are trained to avoid risks and to try to look good, no matter what happens. The friendly outsider must be willing to be implicated in the success or failure of local projects, as a professional and as a human being who is taking some responsibility for the lives of other human beings.


Finally, a kind of playfulness and irony1 is an indispensable tool for the professional action researcher. Someone who is unremittingly serious and dour and carries the burdens of the world on his or her shoulders energizes no one. Humor and playfulness have an important role in social change processes. This is because AR projects attempt to suspend business as usual and try to produce unlikely but positive outcomes. In these contexts, the powers of irony, absurdity, and humor are considerable precisely because they cause ordinary thought to stop momentarily, creating juxtapositions that can provoke both amusement and openness to change.

Strictly speaking, the trope of irony centers on affirming in words facts or situations that are precisely the opposite of what the listener understands them to be. Irony is a kind of displacement, a viewing of the world in reverse that often provokes humor but also is capable of opening up patterns of thought to new possibilities.

Humor also evokes tacit knowledge; it provokes people to respond and to become active themselves. It can also equalize statuses by turning many participants into commentators on the local scene rather than reserving the right to definitive judgments to the professional outsider and powerful insiders.

There is a strong connection between irony, humor, and achieving a sense of Jacob’s ( 1982) world of the possible versus the actual. Irony and humor look at the world from the vantage point of the possible, making the actual only one of the possible outcomes. The outsider’s use of irony and other forms of dis­placing humor and commentary can induce local participants to do the same, opening up groups to brainstorming and the play of ideas that is a necessary part of prefiguring a possible new future.

1.4. Security

In addition to a willingness to face the complexities of learning a great variety of social research approaches, action researchers necessarily must have a certain mindset and personality, an ability to be themselves in the context of a group of local stakeholders. Action researchers must be personaily secure enough to admit ignorance and uncertainty and yet be able to advocate their own understandings and hopes. This must be done sensitively and requires a capacity for empathy, integrity, and involvement.

Operating this way involves being open-minded, curious about and respectful of the experiences and knowledge of others, and a certain degree of playfulness that allows processes to develop in an unpressured way. It also requires an ability to be truly open to other people in a way that many acade­mics find difficult.


Coping with uncertainty in a patient and secure way is one of the action researcher’s most important traits. Complex projects with diverse stakeholders in highly charged situations do not yield to quick fixes or magic bullets. At many points in an AR project, it will not be clear where the project is going, if it is going anywhere, or if it is going to succeed in any way. The action researcher must not onlybe able to tolerate this uncertainty but be able to help the local stakeholders withstand this uncertainty and the sense of risk or demoralization that often accompanies it.

Thus the standards for action researchers are quite high. Action researchers must have very broad social research training, confidence, a com­mitment to democracy, a willingness to live with a degree of uncertainty, a clear sense of one’s own professional limitations, and good personal reasons for being engaged with the local stakeholders in a particular project. Creating trustful relationships with people in the field can not be done unless the “real” person is present.

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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