Workability and Explanation of Action Research

While many of the techniques used in AR and some of the operations that take place in AR projects are familiar to experienced social researchers, the similar­ity ends when it comes to workability—for example, judging the adequacy of an interpretation according to how well it works when acted on in a local con­text. Conventional social research shows no concern with workability at all. Instead, hermetic professional tests (statistical probability, replication, peer cri­tique) are used to assess the quality of the results. Here, a chasm yawns between conventional research and AR, because a central focus in AR is to create trust­worthy knowledge and use it to design and guide actions and evaluate the results. Workability is the central aim of any AR project, most particularly from the point of view of the local stakeholders.

This focus on workability often seems to conventional researchers to be anti-intellectual. We believe it is just the opposite. Postulating grand theories and polishing fancy methods that have no workability hardly seems to us an intellectual accomplishment. But, by the same token, what works in context is not therefore fully understood. Put another way, successful workability does not automatically create a credible understanding of why something worked; it only shows that it did work.

So when a successful a solution (or an unsuccessful solution) has been reached regarding a problem, there may well remain a set of interpretive puz­zles to solve in order to make sense of the workable outcomes and to build on them both locally and for AR practitioners elsewhere. In other words, work­ability is a key data point, but not the endpoint of an AR process. It does, how­ever, show that you provided a practical solution to a particular problem. Moving from workability to credible knowledge that can be shared beyond the local project requires subjecting the workable outcomes to a variety of counterfactual analyses, to searching the literature and known cases for other approaches that create similar outcomes. If other cases can be found—a clear responsibility of the professional in AR—then the local AR interpretation of why actions were taken and why they had the effects they did can be contrasted with other possible interpretations that might account for the results. In this way, an interaction among cases is created that is a core feature of the develop­ment of the professional research side of AR.

Though it might appear that this only benefits the action researcher, this is not the case. When the local stakeholders and professional researcher engage in mutual reflection and discussion about this broader credibility, they both have a stake in the process. The professional researcher needs to understand what has been learned and how to communicate it transcontextually. The local stakeholders need to be able to defend their outcomes and understandings to people outside their project whose support, financing, or understanding is necessary for the continuation of the process they have engaged in. Both need to expand their understandings beyond the immediate context.

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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