How to... carry out action research

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What is action research?

Definition

Action research is a research strategy which combines research with action and participation in the field. As a method, it goes back to the period immediately post the Second World War (see "The history of action research", below) and has become increasingly popular over the last few years, along with other qualitative methods, as people come to see the value in collecting rich data by disparate means. It is a form of applied research, and is particularly useful in developing theory about practice.

"Action research can be described as a family of research methodologies which pursue action (or change) and research (or understanding) at the same time. In most of its forms it does this by:

  • using a cyclic or spiral process which alternates between action and critical reflection, and
  • in the later cycles, continuously refining methods, data and interpretation in the light of the understanding developed in the earlier cycles.

It is thus an emergent process which takes shape as understanding increases; it is an iterative process which converges towards a better understanding of what happens.

In most of its forms it is also participative (among other reasons, change is usually easier to achieve when those affected by the change are involved) and qualitative."

From Dick, B. (1999), "What is action research?". Available online at http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/whatisar.htm

The normal position of the researcher is detached, scientific, standing outside events and diligently recording them. A number of methods may be used – questionnaire, focus group, interviews, observation, etc. – but it is generally the researcher who controls data gathering for purposes that affect their research rather than the participants' agenda. In other words, the subjects are passive in research terms: they may either be unaware of being "watched" or unconcerned about the data used from their interview or survey.

In action research, however, people are not just subjects but partners in the research process. The research arises not out of a question from an external individual, but as a shared process of reflection between the researcher and the participants; the latter help gather data in relation to their own questions; research results are fed back to them directly to improve the situation that was the subject of the research.

The learning so acquired goes not only to answer a research question, but also to solve an organizational problem, or at least to take forward and deepen the organization's understanding of itself.

However much confined to the organization are the interests of the participants, the researcher will have broader concerns. He or she is seeking and creating knowledge which relates not just to the project itself, but which can be applied to other projects, in other contexts, and which can add to practice and theory itself. Good action research, like any good research, seeks a broad influence.

The context of action research is almost always the organization: most action research studies are case studies. They are very often linked with a change agenda, via the creation of deeper knowledge and understanding about a particular social or organizational issue, in order to improve a particular situation.

Below are two examples of research projects that deliberately set out to change rather than just observe:

  1. In "Operationalizing the concept of value – an action research-based model" Naslund et al. (2006) looked at the concept of value within an organization, principally at a global corporation which leads in the packaging supply field. The data were collected in the organization by means of document studies, informal surveys, observations and interviews. The object was to help people in the organization look at their ways of working and overcome any resistance to better ways of doing things.
  2. In "Performance measurement action research" Moss et al. (2007) describe how the Centre for Facilities Management worked with a provider of estates and facilities management to a major UK government department. It used action research to create an improved performance measurement system for the organization.

In "conventional" research, the researcher either takes a snapshot of what is going on in an organization at a particular time, or does a longitudinal study. In action research the participant as well as the researcher reflects on actions, while the researcher is equally concerned to see organizational change as to have research hypotheses substantiated.

In "The impact of e-resources at Bournemouth University 2004/2006" Beard et al. provide the following definition of action research:

"Action research … seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people (Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (2001), Handbook of Action Research, Sage, London, p. 1)."

In "The quality of an action research thesis in the social sciences" Zuber-Skerrit and Fletcher (2007) quote the following definition of action research which was first given at a 1989 symposium in Brisbane:

"If yours is a situation in which:

  • people reflect and improve (or develop) their own work and their own situations;
  • by tightly interlinking their reflection and action; and
  • also making their experience public not only to other participants but also to other persons interested in and concerned about the work and the situation, i.e. their public theories and practices of the work and the situation;

and if yours is a situation in which there is increasingly:

  • data gathering by participants themselves (or with the help of others) in relation to their own questions;
  • participation (in problem posing and in answering questions) in decision making;
  • power sharing and the relative suspension of hierarchical ways of working, in a conscious move towards social and industrial democracy;
  • collaboration among members of the group as a 'critical community';
  • self-reflection, self-evaluation and self-management by autonomous and responsible persons and groups;
  • progressive (and public) learning by doing and making mistakes in a 'self-reflective spiral' of planning, acting, observing, reflective planning, etc.; and
  • reflection that supports the idea of the '(self-)reflective practitioner';

then yours is a situation in which action research is occurring."

The history of action research

The concept of action research goes back to the German psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). As a Jew and a leftist, Lewin was forced in the 1930s to flee Hitler's Germany for the USA, where he did much to develop our contemporary ideas of change. He was particularly (and understandably) concerned with social justice and racial discrimination, seeing the latter as linked with problems of management and gatekeepers who determined what was and wasn't done. He believed that efforts for change should be focused on the group, which should challenge group norms and processes.

The concept of action research grew out of Lewin's strong social convictions – research would be linked with action to create a change process over organizational issues directly experienced by practitioners. Good research, Lewin claimed, should produce real change and not just end up in books (he was writing in an era well before the dominance of the top US journals with their "scientific" approach or the UK Research Assessment Exercise).

A particularly good account of Lewin's contribution to action research theory is given in Adams and McNicholas (2007).

In order to produce this change, the researcher needed to witness events at first hand as a partner in the process, to become truly involved in the system. His or her role is not only to document, but also to facilitate the process of reflection and enquiry.

A group of university researchers worked in partnership with the local high schools to help the latter determine what were the factors that led to pupils staying longer in school. They used a method of "appreciative inquiry", which is looking for the best and building on it. The positive environment thus created encourages and stimulates learning (Calabrese, 2006).

Action research has also been taken up in Latin America, by Paolo Friere and Orlando Fals Borda, and is currently a popular research methodology all over the world with a burgeoning literature, especially over the last two decades.

Applications of action research

According to Gapp and Fisher (2006) action research presents:

"a very effective alternative to social science research methods in that it is: practical, participative and collaborative, emancipatory, interpretive and critical. The process of action research is very effective in identifying creative solutions".

As described above, and because of its participatory and organizational nature, action research is much identified with change, whether as an actual change initiative, observation of change process or seeking to manage change in an organization. Part of its strength here lies in its ability to take interaction with participants further than with normal research, yielding deeper understanding of individuals and drawing down more illuminating data. Equally it helps participants themselves to gain deeper understanding by reflecting on their experience.

Action research can also be strongly linked with action learning – learning from experience, particularly in an organizational context. As the researchers participate in the organization, they create an impetus for learning as members of the organization reflect on their experiences.

In Scandinavia, the "dialogue conference" has been in use for 30 years, and involves creating a public forum for participation and dialogue organized according to principles of respect and democracy. "Developmental magic? Two takes on a dialogue conference" (Philips and Huzzard, 2007) explores the use of this technique in action research to facilitate change within health organizations, taking on themes of visions, challenges, ideas and plans for future work.

Action research was used as a tool to try and understand the management of change in an organization, the organization being a university and the change being the wide scale adoption of electronic resources, as described by Beard et al. (2007).

Action research is common in research which looks at social issues, such as ethnicity, equality and the environment. Another application is in educational research, its popularity here being no doubt due to the obvious need to improve practice.

An EC funded project wanted to examine the question, would new migrants be more likely to work for the NHS if they had a better command of English and related material? This was researched through a number of focus groups comprising health service workers and non-working minority groups. Material was also created and trialled with a number of groups of learners.

Finally, there is an obvious attraction for action research for part-time management students looking for a way of integrating their studies with their work, many of whom use their project as a way of solving a workplace issue and carrying out some consultancy.

References

Adams, C.A and McNicholas, P. (2007) "Making a difference. Sustainability reporting, accountability and organisational change", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 382-402.

Beard, J., Dale, P. and Hutchins, J. (2007), "The impact of e-resources at Bournemouth University 2004/2006", Performance Measurement and Metrics, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 7-17.

Calabrese, R.L. (2006), "Building social capital through the use of an appreciative inquiry theoretical perspective in a school and university partnership", International Journal of Education Management, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 173-182.

Gapp, R. and Fisher, R. (2006), "Achieving excellence through innovative approaches to student involvement in course evaluation within the tertiary education sector", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 156-166.

Moss, Q.Z., Alho, J. and Alexander, K. (2007), "Performance measurement action research", Journal of Facilities Management,
Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 290-300.

Naslund, D., Olsson, A. and Karlsson, S. (2006), "Operationalizing the concept of value – an action research-based model", The Learning Organization, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 300-332.

Philips, M.E. and Huzzard, T. (2007), "Developmental magic? Two takes on a dialogue conference", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 8-25.

Zuber-Skerrit, O. and Fletcher, M. (2007), "The quality of an action research thesis in the social sciences", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 413-436.