Learn more about Action research
Action research is research that each of us can do on our own practice, that “we” (any team or family or informal community of practice) can do to improve its practice, or that larger organizations or institutions can conduct on themselves, assisted or guided by professional researchers, with the aim of improving their strategies, practices, and knowledge of the environments within which they practice.
Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT, first coined the term “action research” in his 1946 paper “Action Research and Minority Problems”. In that paper, he described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action” that uses “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action”.
Action research is not only a research that describes how humans and organizations behave in the outside world but also a change mechanism that helps human and organizations reflect on and change their own systems (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). After six decades of action research development, many methodologies have been evolved, ranging:
- from those that are more driven by the researcher’s agenda to those more driven by participants;
- from those that are motivated primarily by instrumental goal attainment to those motivated primarily by the aim of personal, organizational, or societal transformation; and
- from 1st-, to 2nd-, to 3rd-person research (i.e. my research on my own action, aimed primarily at personal change; our research on our group (family/team), aimed primarily at improving the group; and ‘scholarly’ research aimed primarily at theoretical generalization and/or large scale change).
Action research can change the entire sense of social science, transforming it from reflective knowledge about past social practices formulated by a priesthood of experts (research PhDs) to an active moment-to-moment theorizing, data collecting, and inquiring occurring in the midst of our ongoing lives. “Knowledge is always gained through action and for action. From this starting point, to question the validity of social knowledge is to question, not how to develop a reflective science about action, but how to develop genuinely well-informed action—how to conduct an action science” (Torbert 2001).
Four major action research theories are:
- Chris Argyris's Action Science
- John Heron and Peter Reason's Cooperative Inquiry
- Paulo Freire's Participatory Action Research (PAR)
- William Torbert’s Developmental Action Inquiry
Argyris’ action science invites individuals to study themselves in action with others, and simultaneously attempts to contribute to and transform the practice of social science itself. Therefore, it is primarily a 1st-person approach, learned in 2nd-person settings, but with implications for 3rd-person social science theory and method that Argyris (1970, 1980) has strongly articulated.
Heron’s (1996)and Reason’s (1995) Cooperative Inquiry brings peers (e.g. doctors, social workers, young women managers, men) together in self-study groups. Thus, it is primarily a 2nd-person approach, though group participants are also encouraged to try 1st-person action research outside the groups, and Reason has played a central role in mounting a paradigm challenge to ‘naively objective’ modernist social science.
The Participatory Action Research approach of Freire (1970) and others, primarily in the southern hemisphere, concerns empowering the poorest and least educated members of society for literacy, for land reform analyses, and for community. Hence, this approach is primarily 3rd-person in the scope of its intended societal transformations.
The Developmental Action Inquiry approach of Torbert & Associates (2004) attempts to interweave individual, 1st-person self-study with face-to-face 2nd-person self-study by teams and with 3rd-person institution-wide self-study.
Since action research is as much about creating a better life within more effective and just social contexts as it is about discovering true facts and theories, it should not be surprising that it has flourished in Latin America, Northern Europe, India, and Australia as much or more than within university scholarship in the US.
 See also
- General sources for action research
- Reason & Bradbury, Handbook of Action Research. London: Sage, 2001.
- Sherman & Torbert, Transforming Social Inquiry, Transforming Social Action: New paradigms for crossing the theory/practice divide in universities and communities. Boston, Kluwer, 2000.
- Woodman & Pasmore, Research in Organizational Change & Development series. Greenwich CT: Jai Press
- Addison-Wesley Series in Organization Development
- Scholarly Journals
- Action Research
- Journal of Applied Behavioral Science
- Journal of Organizational Change Management
- Management Learning
- Philosophical sources of action research
- Abram, D. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
- Argyris, C. Putnam, R. & Smith, D. 1985. Action Science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Gadamer, H. 1982. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad.
- Habermas, J. 1984/1987. The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol.s I & II. Boston:Beacon.
- Hallward, P. 2003. Badiou: A subject to truth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Malin, S. 2001. Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum physics and the nature of reality, a Western perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Polanyi, M. 1958. Personal Knowledge. New York: Harper.
- Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday Currency.
- Torbert, W. 1991. The Power of Balance: Transforming Self, Society, and Scientific Inquiry
- Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch E. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
- Wilber, K. 1998. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating science and religion. New York: Random House
- Exemplars and methodological discussions of action research
- Argyris, C. 1970. Intervention Theory and Method. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Argyris, C. 1980. Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research. San Diego CA: Academic Press.
- Argyris, C. 1994. Knowledge for Action. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Cameron, K. & Quinn, R. 1999. Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Flyvbjerg, B. 2001. Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press.
- Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
- Garreau, J. 2005. Radical Evolution: The promise and peril of enhancing our minds, our bodies – and what it means to be human. New York: Doubleday.
- Heron, J. 1996. Cooperative Inquiry: Research into the human condition. London: Sage.
- Ogilvy, J. 2000. Creating Better Futures: Scenario planning as a tool for a better tomorrow. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
- Reason, P. & Rowan, J. 1981. Human Inquiry: A Sourcebook of New Paradigm Research. London: Wiley.
- Reason, P. 1995. Participation in Human Inquiry. London: Sage.
- Schein, E. 1999. Process Consultation Revisited. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Senge, P., Scharmer, C., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. 2004. Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. Cambridge MA: Society for Organizational Learning.
- Torbert, W. & Associates 2004. Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership.
- 1st-Person Research/Practice Exemplars
- Bateson, M. 1984. With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York: Plume/Penguin.
- Raine, N. 1998. After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. New York: Crown.
- Harrison, R. 1995. Consultant's Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
 External links
- CARN Collaborative Action Research Network
- Action Research Resources from the Southern Cross University
- Action Research by Martin Ryder at the University of Colorado at Denver (School of Education)
- PARnet.org One of the oldest websites dedicated to the action research community sponsored by the Cornell Participatory Action Research Network. Includes the PARchives, a field repository and bibliographic database.
- Insight use participatory video as a tool for community-led resesarch.de:Aktionsforschung