Action Research: The History of Action Research

This is the next part of my action research project which I have been using as a meaning making process in my own life as I have been struggling with trying to negotiate how my life is mediated through the worlds of policy, bureaucracy and distant finance. 

The expression "I'm not waving, I'm drowning"
The expression “I’m not waving, I’m drowning”


You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: A Method Reconstructed’ by clicking HERE.


This section of the study examines what the term ‘action research’ means and examines some of the origins of the educational theory which has spoken to me as a methodology.


Preamble: I’m not waving, I’m drowning…

I shall start out with some ethnographic information which tells a story about where ‘I’ am in the work which is presented.  It is interesting to note some of the reactions to my presentation of this work as a meaning making process in my life.


I am drowning in administrative systems which don’t represent the issues and factors I am managing in life, and ones which do not work for the professionals who are employed to make unworkable policies work.  I struggle with the sheer anxiety of having to go through the bureaucratic grinder again, being asked to recount and revisit all the proofs and evidences and peoples which have already been repeatedly presented into the administrative system.  Being asked to present trauma so that it can be assessed by professionals naïve of information.


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Prof John Sedon talks about outcomes and measurements culture


Having to take a new individual through all the details which were checked by several previous colleagues but absent colleagues.  Distant because the staff turnover and dissociative environment of the administrative system as well as the internal departmental misalignments of information systems results in low grade information.  I have had a long time to study the system as I have been obliged to engage with it in so many junctures and coordinate with so many professionals, all of which came to understandings eventually.


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Corporate viruses and bad management practices | Freek Vermeulen


But when another new policy and paperwork gets rolled out with an ambitious desire to replace old ones all the different support systems scramble to adjust and it fractures working relationships.  The dynamics of how people are made to interact changes and the client group is re-curated into another policy configuration.  I have learned that I and those working in the administrative structure are helpless within it.


The ultimate outcome to try and rationalise the anomie (in the sense of Norbert Elias – see Essential Reading below) which I (and others) encounter, I have adopted a learning process – I am not confident it will change anything but it is soothing in some ways to document it.  Coming up against such persistent structural problems and investigating them has been a coping mechanism to deal with the uncertainty which I then encounter due to never being able to escape the gravity of outcomes and measurements culture.



Essential Reading: Here is a copy of Appendix 2 from Norbert Elias and John L Scotson’s sociological study – ‘ The Established and the Outsiders: A sociological enquiry into community problems’. In Appendix 2 Norbert Elias lays out in explicit terms precisely how he is using the word Anomie in the book and broader sociological study.


The Established and the Outsiders’ is a classic text from one of the major figures of world sociology.  In Norbert Elias’s hands, a local community study of tense relations between an established group and outsiders — with no other discernible difference between them — becomes a microcosm that illuminates a wide range of sociological configurations including racial, ethnic, class and gender relations.


The book examines the mechanisms of stigmatisation, taboo and gossip, monopolisation of power, collective fantasy and “we” and “they” — images which support and reinforce divisions in society. Developing aspects of Elias’s thinking that relate his work to current sociological concerns, it presents the fullest elaboration of his concepts of mutual identification and functional democratisation.


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Do Human Rights Investigations Matter? The Case of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty with Prof Philip Alston, Prof  César Rodríguez-Garavito, and Prof Margaret Satterthwaite


I have never seen a paper bureaucracy include in it space for the client or professional to identify structural problems at work.  Through the organisational drive to have accounts of what has been done and what has been successful, the effects on those who are seeking support are that I experience an instrumental relationship which takes the humanity from my presence.



Virginia Eubanks: Automating inequality


I am grateful to finding out about action research.  Socially documenting the stresses, forces, traumas and demarcations I encounter in the world is a means to find thinkers who could offer me another perspective on how I am apprehending the world.  The learning process has helped my mental health by realizing much more deeply, it is not so much always that it is me that is ill, but also to know that the world is ill.


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The World is a Network: Fritjof Capra


The learning process allowed me to ask questions and talk about the bureaucracies which I am being obliged to engage in.  The more the opportunity is withdrawn to speak to a human being who gets to know you and retains an understanding of my ‘case history’ as a series of confounding structural problems.


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The Ignoring of the Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the United Kingdom


My experience is that administrative systems confound the professional trying to work through them and as a result of knowing the person they are working with is not represented in the policy but recognised as needing support.  When something is not parsed by a large, technologically imperfect, and impersonal system of administration people with multiple needs get passed around a wide and disparate, fractured and siloed matrix of NGOs and civil servants who nearly all of which are exasperated by the chaos.


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The Silo Effect: why putting everything in its place isn’t such a bright idea by Gillian Tett


PS: The videos are not for decoration


Kurt Lewin

Action Research: The History of Action Research

Many cite the origins of Action Research to the experiments of social psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1940s through the social experiments begun at the Tavistock Institute and their application to practices of social democracy and organizational change [Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2008). Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications, pp 1 – 19].


He coined the term Action Research in his 1946 paper ‘Action Research and Minority Problems’: “The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management or social engineering. It is a type of action research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action” [Lewin. K. 1946 ‘Action Research and Minority Problems’ Journal of Social Sciences, 22. Pp34-46].


Action Science is an outgrowth of the traditions of John Dewey and Kurt Lewin. Action Science calls for basic research and theory building that are intimately related to social intervention. Clients are participants in a process of public reflection that attempts both to comprehend the concrete details of particular cases and to discover and test propositions of a general theory.


Argyris, Putnam and McLain Smith, in their book ‘Action Science’, suggest that this division of reinforces a pernicious separation of theory and practice. Action Science attempts both to inform action in concrete situations and to test general theory.


Empirically disconfirmable propositions organized into a theory, is characteristic of so-called mainstream science. In it, scientific theories are seen as hypothetical-deductive systems that explain and predict regularities among events. But there is a traditional counterview that argues that the sciences of action cannot take this form, because the interpretive understanding of meanings cannot be reduced to regularities among events. Instead, human beings in everyday life create meanings and guide their actions accordingly [Argyris, C., Putnam, R., and MacLain-Smith, D. (1987). Action science: [concepts, methods, and skills for research and intervention]. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, Page xi].


In the Sage Handbook of Action Research, Reason and Bradbury suggest “Action Research brings together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities” [Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2008). Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications, pp 1 – 19].


Central in Action Research is working in an emergent way toward practical outcomes and creating new forms of understanding. Action without reflection and understanding is blind; just as theory without action is meaningless. In a deeper sense “it contributes through the development of practical knowledge to the increased well being of human persons and communities in economic, political, psychological, spiritual senses, and to a more equitable and sustainable relationship with the wider ecology of the planet” [Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2008). Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications, pp 1 – 19].


This idea of creating new forms of understanding sits juxtaposed to the notion of a standardized bureaucratic measurement systems and suggests a need for something more – explicitly some form of commentary not found in the Outcomes Star paperwork (which constrains and thus defines procedure) as it exists.


Since Action Research starts with everyday experience and is concerned with the development of living knowledge, the process of inquiry is as important as specific outcomes. It is emancipatory and leads not just to new practical knowledge, but to new abilities to create knowledge.


In this context, knowledge is perceived as a living, evolving process of ‘coming to know’ rooted in the everyday experience; it is a verb rather than a noun. The Columbian sociologist Orlando Fals-Borda combined the methodology of Action Research with Paulo Freire’s [Freire, Paolo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversay Edition, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos with an introduction by Donaldo Macedo, copyright 1970, 1993 by Paulo Freire; Copyright 2000 Introduction by Donaldo Macedo. Page 9] perspectives in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, to create the ‘Participatory Action Research’ paradigm.


Paulo Freire’s thinking has taken on great significance for educators, social workers, businesses and institutions in technologically advanced societies which act to program the individual—especially the disadvantaged—to a rigid conformity. The underlying message of Pedagogy of the Oppressed is that a new underclass has been created, and it is everyone’s responsibility to react thoughtfully and positively to the situation [Freire, Paolo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversay Edition, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos with an introduction by Donaldo Macedo, copyright 1970, 1993 by Paulo Freire; Copyright 2000 Introduction by Donaldo Macedo. Page 9].


Paulo Freire’s critique of the dominant banking model of education (and culture) leads to his democratic proposals of problem posing education where “men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which, and in which, they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation” [Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversay Edition, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos with an introduction by Donaldo Macedo, copyright 1970, 1993 by Paulo Freire; Copyright 2000 Introduction by Donaldo Macedo. Page 12].


“People educate each other through the mediation of the world.” As this happens, language takes on new power. It is no longer an abstraction or magic but a means by which people discover themselves and their potential as they give names to things around them. As Freire puts it: “each individual wins back the right to say his or her own word to name the world. When an illiterate peasant participates in this sort of educational experience, he or she comes to a new awareness of self, has a new sense of dignity, and is stirred by a new hope” [Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversay Edition, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos with an introduction by Donaldo Macedo, copyright 1970, 1993 by Paulo Freire; Copyright 2000 Introduction by Donaldo Macedo. Page 32].


Merely being able to construct the world in terms of communicative language is a means to a strengthened individual, and the power in that language is stored in its ability to convey experience of a reality by proxy of it being listened to. To listen to someone is to set store in that being, what they have to say and to confirm that inalienable dignity which comes with getting recognized as a conscious, thinking, feeling being. Growth, learning and capabilities come from this.


Fals-Borda describes Action Research as oriented to research, adult education and socio-political change. These are combined into an experiential methodology which is ‘a process of personal and collective behaviour occurring within a satisfying and productive cycle of life and labour’:


”This experiential methodology implies the acquisition of serious and reliable knowledge upon which to construct power, or countervailing power, for the poor, oppressed and exploited groups and social classes – the grassroots – and for their authentic organizations and movements”


He suggests the final aims of Action Research to be the combination of liberating knowledge and political power within a continuous process of life and work which enables the oppressed groups to acquire sufficient creative and transformative leverage expressed as specific projects, acts and struggles. It also aims to produce and develop socio-political thought processes with which popular bases can identify.


The Participatory Action Research approach is rooted in the Existential Phenomenological research method. Along with Participatory Action Research, Existential Participatory Research is situated in the post modern paradigm validating experience as a primary instrument of attaining knowledge. It provides a counterpoint to the assumptions which accompany the claims of absolute truth and objectivity of the positivist tradition that dominates the scientific perspective. Mauren Jan Angen reviews this:


“The major debate now hinges on the issue of validity. Proponents of positivist quantitative research regularly imply that qualitative, especially interpretivist, approaches to human inquiry are so rife with threats to validity that they are of no scientific value. In the debate over legitimacy, the validity of qualitative research findings has become “the most controversial issue” [Angen, Maureen Jane, Evaluating Interpretive Inquiry: Reviewing the Validity Debate and Opening the Dialogue, Qual Health Res May 01, 2000; 10: 378-395].


Existential Phenomenology references a bottom up research process which begins with getting concrete descriptions of the experience of the co-researchers (‘subjects’ in the traditional ‘extractive’ approach) before moving into identifying common strands and drawing out meaning.


Its origins are based in the work of Edmund Husserl who was the German philosopher who established the school of Phenomenology. Husserl devoted a lot of attention to psychology. The phenomenological movement evolved throughout the 20th century and made substantive contributions to psychology via the work of Karl Jaspers, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Alfred Schutz, Gaston Bachelard, Gabriel Marcel, Emmanuel Levinas, and Paul Ricoeur.


Their work broke new ground in areas such as perception, imagination, emotions, behaviour, language, and social processes; the greatest impact on psychology has occurred in the area of mental health. This body of work was a protest against dehumanization in psychology and offered original research and theory with the aim of faithfully reflecting the distinctive characteristics of human behaviour via first-person experience [Wertz, Frederick J; Phenomenological Research Methods for Counselling Psychology; Journal of Counselling Psychology Vol 52(2), Apr 2005, 167 – 177].


The tradition of existential phenomenology being referenced in the Outcomes Star hails from the European context which taps into Edmund Husserl’s concepts and methods. Phenomenology is broadly the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first person point of view. Other thinkers who feed into this area of thought are Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau Ponty.


Existentialism is a term coined from a perspective of intellectual history which is both a literary movement and a philosophical one. What makes the theme of inquiry distinct is not its concern with ‘existence’ in general, but its suggestion that thinking about human existence demands new categories and terms not found in the conceptual repertoire of existing or previous thought.


From the existential view, to understand what a human being is, it is not enough to know all the facts that science can tell us; our experience always encounters and encompasses more [Steven Crowell, Existentialism, copyright 2010, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, taken online 02/07/2014:].


Contextualising this thinking in the Outcomes Star frame of reference, an open ended practice of participatory Action Research engages with a process of identifying common strands, drawing out meanings which become the ‘outcome areas’ that are placed around the geometry of the star. The model cites the meaning making process of the existential phenomenology practice in psychology to reach an authentic representation of the service users reality.


The combined process puts emphasis on understanding the subjective experience of the people receiving the support and on the meaning of the experience for them as individuals rather than focusing on the care givers perspective.