The Knowledge Generation Process of Action Research

We argue that AR, in addition to generating valid knowledge and effective social action, embodies democratic ideals in its core practices. This democratization is involved in both the research process and the outcomes of the research. In AR, the research process must be democratic in the sense that it is open, partic­ipatory, and fair to all the participants. In addition, the outcome of AR should support the participants’ interests so that the knowledge produced increases their ability to control their own situation. We have summarized this double meaning of democratization by referring to AR as “cogenerative research.”

Central to the effort to democratize research is changing the roles of the researched and the researcher. Democracy in inquiry cannot be promoted unless the local participants, however selected, are enabled to take charge of the meaning construction process. At the same time, trained researchers cannot make sense of local social life without secure communication links to these local participants. The dynamic tension between insider and outsider knowl­edge is the basis for this cogenerative process.

In AR, we believe that the whole of the communicative process can be greater than the sum of the parts. The outside researcher is assisted enor­mously in learning things he or she does not know or immediately perceive through dialogue with insiders and through experiencing and understanding shared actions. The insiders reformulate and revalue their own knowledge in response to queries from the outsider. Both sides gain understanding from their interactions. Both sides have a complex web of intentions and interpreta­tions of the structures and processes they are engaged in. These can be made available, at least in part, to each other through the cogenerative process.

1. MAINTAINING DIFFERENCES

In AR, the insiders and outsiders are treated as having equal integrity because both are expected to behave in accordance with their backgrounds and knowledge bases and both have an equal right to be heard. It is important that the AR professional not try to pretend to become an insider. A professional researcher will always be an outsider, situated in an institutional and profes­sional setting that creates particular demands on the professional praxis and ethical standards of behavior.

The cogenerative challenge in this unbalanced situation is to take advan­tage of the differences between the parties. Together, insiders and outsiders can create the ground for new learning for all participants, their differences being one of the main contributions they bring to the process. Reducing dif­ferences is detrimental to AR processes. Learning to appreciate differences and to build comprehensive actions that take account of the common ground among different stakeholders is the central process in AR. Thus the synthesis in this dialectical process is not a reduction of the differences among the participants.

2. AR TAKES TIME

Any AR process builds on communications and actions between involved parties. From the research literature and from everyday experience, we all know that engaging in mutually interesting dialogues demands time for learning about each other and the creation of a language that is mutually accessible. AR processes accordingly demand time investments in the form of sustained com­munications and interactions that shape a common ground of understanding. There are no meaningful “drive-by” or one-shot AR processes, and any AR approach that promises quick results should be treated with suspicion. It is a common saying that one never knows exactly when an AR project starts and ends; it emerges out of social relationships and it concludes as social relation­ships are dissolved.

3. PRACTICAL AND CONTEXT-BOUND PROBLEM SOLVING

It is important to emphasize that in an AR process, the knowledge is gen­erated through conscious attempts to solve practical problems. The workabil­ity of these solutions will accordingly create the platform upon which new knowledge can be constructed. In this respect, there is no other social science research strategy that links the knowledge generation more strongly to every­day practice of the actors involved in the knowledge generation process than AR. On the other hand, knowledge generation in engineering, for example, is not so radically different, since no new engineering insight is considered to be valid unless the technology created serves its purpose adequately.

4. CHOICE OF TECHNIQUES AND WORK FORMS

One size does not fit all in AR: as important as local knowledge, narrativ- ity, and the cogenerative approach are, there is no blueprint for combining them in the design of an AR process. The knowledge produced in AR is linked to the context of the work. Techniques and work forms are chosen to fit the problem focus of a particular context. The cogenerative approach thus is a framework for thinking through how to choose appropriate techniques and work forms—not a simple recipe. It is fully and necessarily compatible with the deployment of a wide variety of research techniques and agendas.

The design of these communicative arenas (see Chapter 6) and the use of particular group processes must always result from an assessment of the par­ticular situation. Thus, where a neighborhood has an overriding common interest in economic and social survival, techniques based on consensus build­ing might be appropriate. The use of a search conference methodology (see Chapter 9, “Pragmatic Action Research”) might be helpful. By contrast, in a situation where opposing groups have manifest and latent conflicts, for exam­ple, regarding the use of natural resources, a conflict-bridging strategy might be more useful. A skillful AR practitioner must be able to read and make sense of specific situations and use this insight to suggest ways to design the AR process; in each case, there are different combinations of local and social science knowledge, actors, and processes.

We are emphatic in rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach to AR because doing AR means engaging in a codetermined process of mutual action and reflection. The skillful professional practitioner continually reflects on experi­ences from the field, seeking what is necessary to help a change process keep moving and to track what is being learned. Just what combinations of tech­niques, work forms, and local stakeholders will emerge is always context dependent, as befits a process that involves both reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (SchOn, 1983, 1987; see also Chapter 15, “Action Science and Organizational Learning”), and it is a core feature of the praxis of 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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