Venues for Participation and Democratization in Action Research

To this point, we have talked about participation and democratization in a fairly abstract way. Another strategy is to think contextually about the condi­tions of possibility that we find in the situations we work in. Conditions for participation and democratization differ in manufacturing, process, and ser­vice industries, and these conditions differ from those in service organizations, educational institutions, governmental agencies, international development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. And, of course, they also differ within each of these sectors according to the specific activities, organizational structures, histories, and organizational cultures.

Since both authors have worked in industry, community development, educational institutions, and service organizations, we are aware of the differ­ent conditions of possibility for participation and democratization in these different settings. We have experienced the dismissal of our work by some action researchers who believe that any work in industry, universities, and gov­ernmental agencies is inherently co-opted and that maintaining a coherent AR position requires staying out of “the belly of the beast.” ^thile we accept the right of colleagues to have views different from ours, we are under no oblig­ation to agree.

In our view, it is more productive for AR to take an open-minded view of all human situations and to learn how AR can make contributions to human betterment in all contexts. We do not believe that any institutional context is inherently off limits to AR, though we certainly recognize that particular pro­jects in any sector may operate under conditions that are so inimical to AR that nothing meaningful happens.

So we are asserting that democracy is context bound, always operating within particular contexts, power structures, and environments. The Faroe Islands, for example, have their own, self-controlled democratic system, but, on certain issues related to foreign policy, they have to coordinate their efforts with Denmark, which again will have to follow decisions in the European Union. And, finally, the European Union has to struggle to achieve and imple­ment its own democratically derived decisions. Thus, democracy will always operate under certain boundary conditions, either on the national or on the local level.

In AR, this often seems to be ignored. A good illustration of the complex­ity of these relationships is the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project. The idea was to support democratization on the shop-floor level; it started with a negotiated truce between the national confederation of employers and trade unions. What turned out to be a significant contradiction in this democratic effort was a schism between the trade unions’ power position in companies built on a high level of membership and collective representation toward man­agement and the local democratic processes at the shop-floor level. These shop-floor decisions could make the local trade union superfluous as the basis for influence is eroded, and in turn, this would make the trade unions hostile to democratization at the shop-floor level. In short, democracy at one level has to be in balance with the conditions on the other system levels. Different levels demand different modes of democratization to be effective.

Another way to state our point is to say that AR is always contextually rel­ative. As we have stated repeatedly in this book, AR processes can always be improved, always opened up more than where we find them on any given day. But this necessarily also means that what constitutes an improvement means measuring what is accomplished today against what was accomplished the day before. This is not an absolute scale but an ongoing process of attempting to deepen and enhance the conditions for participation and thereby a broader democratization of a situation.

To give an example, AR work in an industrial setting, where the owner­ship of the means of production is in the hands of a group of stockholders external to the workforce or is in the hands of the founder of the firm or his or her family, involves a complex process of increasing the capacity of the full array of stakeholders to affect work conditions and benefits and eventually to achieve a fairer distribution of the benefits of the work. But fairer is quite unlikely to mean equal shares or anything even close to it. However, it can mean significant improvements in work safety, job satisfaction, and perhaps compensation or even some equity in the business. While engaging in such work is always an individual moral choice, we believe that no one has the right to dismiss such work as outside the boundaries of AR simply because inequality remains and because capitalist organizations have not been over­turned completely.

We also believe that, without more democratized workplaces, the future of political democracy in general is bleak. Working in coercive, authoritarian workplaces and then going to vote democratically for a group ofleaders mainly financed by big business is hardly a recipe for serious democratic governance. Thus, we understand industrial work as a slow and painful process of winning ground for democracy itself.

Similar arguments can be made for work in service organizations, govern­mental agencies, and the many other institutions in which currently authori­tarianism, co-optation, and antidemocratic practices reign. ^^ile it is certainly true that action researchers who are so appalled by such conditions that they cannot abide to be present in these places should not do this kind of work, it is not true that such work is out of bounds for AR. To accept that would be to condemn AR to the poverty-stricken margins of the world system and strikes us as a co-opted position in its own right, a domestication of AR to the mar­gins of advanced capitalism.

Co-optation is always the central risk in anyAR process, but just what con­stitutes co-optation is by no means easily ascertainable. One person may see possibilities in a situation where another sees none. To the one who sees none, trying to do AR in such a situation is condemned to co-optation, and to the one who sees possibilities, a failure to take action seems to be a co-opted form of passivity. In our view, every single AR situation contains the elements of co-optation, pseudo-participation, and manipulation. The only solutions are continuing personal vigilance and an active discussion among AR practitioners to keep clarifying the scope and contours of these issues.

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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