Action Research

Action research is a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a "community of practice" to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. Action research can also be undertaken by larger organizations or institutions, 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 about 1944, and it appears 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 an iterative inquiry process that balances problem solving actions implemented in a collaborative context with data-driven collaborative analysis or research to understand underlying causes enabling future predictions about personal and organizational change (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). After six decades of action research development, many methodologies have evolved that adjust the balance to focus more on the actions taken or more on the research that results from the reflective understanding of the actions. This tension exists between
  1. those that are more driven by the researcher’s agenda to those more driven by participants;
  2. those that are motivated primarily by instrumental goal attainment to those motivated primarily by the aim of personal, organizational, or societal transformation; and
  3. 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 challenges traditional social science, by moving beyond reflective knowledge created by outside experts sampling variables to an active moment-to-moment theorizing, data collecting, and inquiring occurring in the midst of emergent structure. “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).

Major Theories

Action Science - Chris Argyris

Chris Argyris’ Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Human actions are designed to achieve intended consequences and governed by a set of environment variables. How those governing variables are treated in designing actions are the key differences between single loop learning and double loop learning. When actions are designed to achieve the intended consequences and to suppress conflict about the governing variables, a single loop learning cycle usually ensues. On the other hand, when actions are taken, not only to achieve the intended consequences, but also to openly inquire about conflict and to possibly transform the governing variables, both single loop and double loop learning cycles usually ensue. (Argyris applies single loop and double loop learning concepts not only to personal behaviors but also to organizational behaviors in his models.)

Cooperative Inquiry - John Heron and Peter Reason

Cooperative inquiry, also known as collaborative inquiry was first proposed by John Heron in 1971 and later expanded with Peter Reason. The major idea of cooperative inquiry is to “research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people.” It emphasizes that all active participants are fully involved in research decisions as co-researchers. Cooperative inquiry creates a research cycle among four different types of knowledge: propositional knowing (as in contemporary science), practical knowing (the knowledge that comes with actually doing what you propose), experiential knowing (the feedback we get in real time about our interaction with the larger world) and presentational knowing (the artistic rehearsal process through which we craft new practices). The research process iterates these four stages at each cycle with deepening experience and knowledge of the initial proposition, or of new propositions, at every cycle.

Participatory Action Research - Paulo Freire

Participatory action research (PAR) has emerged in recent years as a significant methodology for intervention, development and change within communities and groups. It is now promoted and implemented by many international development agencies and university programs, as well as countless local community organizations around the world. PAR builds on the critical pedagogy put forward by Paulo Freire as a response to the traditional formal models of education where the “teacher” stands at the front and “imparts” information to the “students” that are passive recipients. This was further developed in "adult education" models throughout Latin America.

Developmental Action Inquiry - William Torbert

The Developmental Action Inquiry is a “way of simultaneously conducting action and inquiry as a disciplined leadership practice that increases the wider effectiveness of our actions. Such action helps individuals, teams, organizations become more capable of self-transformation and thus more creative, more aware, more just and more sustainable” (Torbert, 2004). Action Inquiry challenges our attention to span four different territories of experience (at the personal, group, or organizational scales) in the midst of actions. This practice promotes timeliness – learning with moment to moment intentional awareness – among individuals and with regard to the outside world of nature and human institutions. It studies the “pre-constituted internalized and externalized universe in the present, both as it resonates with and departs from the past, and as it resonates with and potentiates the future” (Torbert, 2001).

Living Theory approach - Jack Whitehead and Jean McNiff

In the Living Theory approach of Whitehead (1989) and Whitehead and McNiff (2006) individuals generate explanations of their educational influences in their own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of social formations. They generate the explanations from experiencing themselves as living contradictions in enquiries of the kind, 'How do I improve what I am doing?' They use action reflection cycles of expressing concerns, developing action plans, acting and gathering data, evaluating the influences of action, modifying concerns, ideas and action in the light of the evaluations. The explanations include life-affirming, energy-flowing values as explanatory principles. A living theory approach with the above qualities is distinguished from the living theories produced by practitioner-researchers because of the uniqueness of each living theory generated by individuals.

Participatory Video

Participatory Video is a set of techniques that involve a group or community in shaping and creating their own film, in order to explore, solve and communicate their issues. It started in 1967 by Canadian advocate Don Snowdon, who changed the lives of Newfoundland's Fogo Islanders. By watching each other’s films, the different villagers on the island came to realize that they shared many of the same problems and that by working together they could solve some of them. The films were also shown to politicians who lived too far away and were too busy to actually visit the island. As a result of this dialogue, government policies and actions were changed. The techniques developed by Snowden became known as the Fogo process. Its chief power is that the video is edited by its participants.

Document courtesy of Wikipedia

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