Writing Up Action Research

A secondary effect of applying the concept of a dialectic as a way of conceptu­alizing knowledge generation in AR is that it introduces the dynamics of the knowledge generation into the picture. Knowledge is not constructed once and for all but results from a sequence of dialectic encounters (theses meeting antitheses to generate new syntheses). Each sequence produces knowledge that is the best available at that point in time, but it is understood by both the insid­ers and outsiders in the cogenerative process that it is always provisional, always capable of being developed and improved by new challenges. Accord­ingly, the knowledge generation process will evolve dialectically for as long as the engagement among the actors is sustained.

Given the nature of this knowledge generation process, the write-up can­not adopt the form of conventional social science. The change process that gave rise to the knowledge must be conveyed well and made dear from the inside. To do this, the participation in the process and the perspectives on the project and its development held by the various stakeholders must be conveyed from the involved actors’ positions.

AR needs a genre for writing that faithfully reflects the dynamic and devel­opmental nature of AR, that recreates for the reader key elements in the expe­riential learning cycles. The reader might not need to understand all learning sequences, but the reader needs to have a clear access to the major learning history in a project. This demand would integrate a narrative style into experi­ential learning cycles.


As we see it, narratives are generally the most promising way to write up AR experiences. Of course, this does not mean that action researchers should write up endless stories that do not provide a link between theory and practice. Indeed, the challenge is to create a persuasive connectedness between theory and practice. The most obvious solution to this problem is to create a text that has meaning both for practitioners and for scientists. This does not rule out the need to write for different audiences, ranging from academic journals to news­papers. The point is that these texts generally will have to be built in the narra­tive mode to create transparency about the actual project. Of course, audience also matters, as we explain below. As a result of all this, AR writing often takes the form of case studies, with detailed discussions of the processes that the group went through in generating the knowledge that is being communicated and acted on. As a result, most AR follows many of the rhetorical conventions of narrative writing.

Most conventional social scientists are, despite many gestures toward constructivism and postmodernism, positivists with a narrow view of what constitutes meaningful professional standards. For them, narratives are incom­prehensible, uncontrollable, trivial, and probably just a little scary. Now, quite unfortunately in our view, with the increasing vogue for rational choice mod­els, these once defensive positivists have regained momentum—right in tune with the neoconservative turn in the global system—and the environment in conventional social science for narrative analysis is not particularly favorable.

AR gains much of its power through narratives because narratives are inherently particular, revealing specific histories, processes, commitments, bat­tles, defeats, and triumphs, the core of the cogenerative dialectic. Though the narratives may fall into broad types, each narrative refers to a specific situation and a specific set of connections between elements (people, organizations, and events). But writing narratives is not opposed to making scientific contribu­tions. As we took pains to point out in Chapters 4 and 5, if the narrative devel­oped in a particular AR project tells a story that is at variance with a major social science generalization, the major generalization is either wrong or must be modified to cover the case. Narratives are scientifically powerful.

For example, the dominant generalization among economic theorists is that cooperatives cannot compete successfuly with noncooperative busi­nesses. The study of Mondrag6n (Greenwood et al., 1992) demonstrates that the cooperatives are considerably more successful than their direct competi­tors. Subsequent events have amply confirmed this. Thus, the narrative of Mondrag6n means that the generalization about the noncompetitiveness of cooperatives, as stated, is wrong; it is invalid, even if the rational choice gang does not like it.

Over the past 15 years, a renewed appreciation of narrativity has devel­oped through the recognition that, like all human action, social research is a set of socially constructed understandings built out of discursive structures. These structures have narrative properties, and these narrative properties themselves must be analyzed to understand how the structures of the discourses them­selves create local meanings, become hegemonic, or seek to persuade.

Not long ago, what we have just written would have seemed an outrageous, woolly minded approach and would have been dismissed. But the conventional social sciences have been undergoing a variety of crises of their own making. Though they still get grants, it is clear that some important part of the public has lost faith in what passes for conventional social science, finding it unintelli­gible, self-serving, and, where it is understandable, either banal or wrong. The worried efforts by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association in the past couple of years to claim a “public” value for their disciplines is a defensive reaction to this loss of relevance.


The narrative is, as we have argued, an important and powerful tool to write up (in a systematic and deep manner) the experiences from activities in an AR project. But that does not quite make it a good text for communicating the process and the insights in AR. We need something more. Let us start by recapitulating the vital elements in AR. The activity revolves around cycles of active experimentation, reflection over outcomes, and sense making of what has produced or created those outcomes. These constructions of meaning, which of course integrate problem owners and outside researchers, lead to pos­sible new actions that could better meet the aims of the project. In this way the AR process can be conceptualized as a sequence of processes that experiments, learns from the outcomes, and creates a new insight that leads to new actions. This is a process through which both insiders and outsiders cogenerate this knowledge that leads to actions. In writing up AR, it is important to capture these sequences of learning. Some of the sequences are short and simple, and some are long and complex; some had little impact on the project while others were vital in determining the outcome.

Writing up AR will in this perspective demand a conscious judgment of what sequences of learning were the determining ones for the current status of the project and which were not. In a narrative form, these sequences should then be the way the events in the project are communicated, in a way that is transparent and has enough texture to enable a critical and engaged reading. With this perspective, the reader would have the opportunity to make her or his own judgment of the research process, the practical and tangible outcomes, and the contribution to the body of literature that is claimed by that specific text.

Following this recommendation, it is clear that the AR text actually breaks with the linear form of a conventional research-based publication. The knowl­edge that is generated in the project will be conveyed to the reader following the same basic logic asit was achieved in the real project. This allows the reader to see how context and political economy stage the outcomes of the project. From this perspective, this type of spiraling text is much closer to real-life development than a linear writing and will accordingly shape a much richer understanding and perspective of the AR process.


Conventional research publications can result from AR when the researcher learns something of relatively little interest to the local participants but that may address a major issue in the research literature. We believe, however, that even these conventional research results are formulated on a much more solid basis than most conventional social science results because of the long-term engagement and shared understandings developed with insiders in AR.


Communications to the scientific community can be produced jointly by insiders and outsiders in AR projects (see the Mondragon case in Chapter 3 and Levin, 1988; Levin et al., 1980a, 1980b). Although this process is complex and creates a variety of new issues about authorship, intellectual property, and so on, it is undeniable that insiders and outsiders together can communicate effectively with the professional research community.

And there are many options in between. Sometimes two reports are produced, one for the local stakeholders and another for AR practitioners. Sometimes only a local stakeholder report is produced. And so on. The permutations depend on the context and aims of all the stakeholders in the project.


Coproducing reports with outside researchers is one way of introducing laypeople to the tool of writing as a form of reflective learning. The writing process, which involves many of the tools of scientific reflection (working with data, analysis, and conclusions), can bring new dimensions to local knowledge production. Although this way of structuring the reflection process is no substi­tute for everyday practical reasoning, it can be a very useful tool for local orga­nizations and communities to have at their disposal. The insiders also enhance their practical reasoning through sharing experiences and learning from the actions they take as members of the AR team. Such processes often run inde­pendently of the outside researcher’s efforts, and yet are part of the AR process.


We are conscious in this writing process and in our classroom experience that when we assert high ideals for AR, we can overstate the case and make it appear that transcendentally high standards must be met in AR. AR is not an ideal process, happening like neoclassical economics in an environment of per­fect information, ceteris paribus, and other absurd nonexistent conditions. It is a real process, happening in real-time contexts with real people, and it has all the contingencies, defects, and exhilarations of any human process. Dialectics may sound attractive, but often, as a lived experience, they are exhausting and even enervating.

Most AR processes often necessarily startwith a quite limited problem state­ment, modest collaborative intentions, and without all the relevant parties at the table. The key in good AR practice is to design and sustain a process in which important reflections can emerge through communication and some good prac­tical problem solving can be done in as inclusive and fair a way as possible. With some initial successes, the initial problem can be refined and reformulated, just as hypotheses are reformulated and refined in laboratoryscience (see Chapter 5), and the composition of the initial group can be changed to reflect a broader set of problem owners more adequately. How far in the direction of an ideal AR process a particular project goes depends on the resources, energy, and skills, and other elements of the situation in which the project takes place.

We emphasize this point because we often find action research practition­ers or those who are aspiring to do AR very apologetic about their projects. We cannot count the number of times we have been told about a project with the preface, “Well, my project is not a ‘real’ AR project, but …” We think this mind­set is extremely destructive. AR projects are long-term,complex processes built by patient steps in a process of cogenerative knowledge construction and developing mutual awareness, and they also depend on many events in the local context over which the stakeholders have little control. From the point of view of perfection, the bulk of AR projects do not live up to the ideal. We are unapologetic about this and hasten to point out that we have never seen a con­ventional social research project that was not filled with compromises and defects. As it is said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

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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