Action Research: Abstraction – Reduction to the Simple

This is the next part of an action research project that documents and examines the kind of bureaucratic arrangements in social support structures occurring in United Kingdom roughly between 2014 and to present.  It takes as a starting point the use of the Outcomes Star in the lives of people and questioning the suggestion to the individuals that it is a tool of action research.

When Im not working for the empire I like to do fundraisers
When Im not working for the empire I like to do fundraisers


You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: Local Knowledge and Building Dialogue’ by clicking HERE.


This part of the study scrutinizes the reduction of the lives of people to the simple and how the abstraction process necessarily excludes many of the factors which are playing key roles in the outcomes which those individuals live with.


The kind of decontextualisation of elements of peoples lives which takes place in written paperwork creates simplistic representations which may be neat and tidy for the administrators who allocate funding or make policy decisions, but in actuality they generate an array of collateral damages precisely because they result in the failure of those elevated in the social support and policy structures to take into consider life as it is.


This results in an obscuring of the realities of peoples lives and relates to the work of the legal theorist Kimberly Crenshaw who pointed out that the lives of people are theoretically erased.  Every time an individual who needs support in a situation where the social model of disability is active (or ) a bureaucratic process is deployed on their life and in the common structure of how this is deployed the organisation selects out what it is going to help with and what it is not; what is relevant and what is not.



I am going to paint a much needed picture to illustrate factors in the causes of paperwork in people’s lives; it is much needed as there are sacred cows which are not held to critical lenses which need to be.  This is a social document of the early 21st century as much as a provokation for discussion about how things are being organised in society.  The danger lay in only talking about the positive things we aspire to in society and failing to recognise the ills – this is precisely how illnesses take root.


The third sector which has grown today has become an industry which has grown from the steady march to the right of the political compass over the years trumpeting the virtues of the market and defaming the presence of government in people’s lives.  The rise of the “charitable” sector is an index of the success of ideology which Nozick (see Robert Nozick the political philosopher) and Friedman (see Milton Friedman the free market economist) speak to – that of a world structured by capital.  The slight of hand pulled is the notionalising that the entrepreneurial individual cannot and does not violate the rights of others by dominating them with wealth through its accumulation to the exclusion of others. It is deeply problematic not to recognise the limits of growth, and this characteristic is a key identifier of cancer.


John Locke spoke about the just appropriation of property on proviso that there was sufficient left for others and that what was taken from the commons was not then wasted. It can be argued that the state should act to ensure public sufficiency and prevent wastage in the name of that sufficiency, protecting the rights of individuals in that way.  Private enterprises have no such obligations or constituted social contracts that they can be held against; their virtue signals may have no bearing to the defacto realities they play out.  There are distinct problems with the cultures of ‘Corporate Social Responsibiity’ and ‘charity’ as they are played out which is the subject of Prof Joel Bakan’s book ‘The New Corporation: How ‘Good’ Corporations Are Bad For Democracy‘.


“Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.”

— John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapter V, paragraph 33

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Page 2, Bakan, J. (2021). The new corporation: How “good” corporations are bad for democracy.


Since the 1950s the Conservative party in Britain have championed the notion of a shareholder democracy parallel with the argumentation of small government and low taxes.  This found its footing through the Chicago School of Economics in the United States which miraculously acclaimed ‘the market’ would sort out all societies problems if it was left alone to do as ‘it’ wills.  The market is attributed the persona of a human but none of the contextualising features of who makes up the market, it is a sort of Hobbesian Leviathan disembodied from public figures via the notion of shareholders rather than figureheads.


Hobbes Leviathan depicted the notion of the power of the figurehead made up of the population
Hobbes Leviathan depicted the notion of the power of the figurehead made up of the population


Britain has been steadily and actively becoming more Americanised through the policy march visibly since the 1980s asset stripping its manufacturing base, landbanking its city residences and real estate, neutering the union movement, fracturing the social relations of workingclass communities, and consolidating as a tax haven which launders the money of the dark economy.  Corporate businesses have been given a pass to rampage through the highstreets of towns and cities narrowing and squeezing small to medium sized enterprises on the majority of fronts.  The supermarket has metastasized like an economic cancer to spread through the nodes of the economic thoroughfares.


Mini supermarkets damage local economies which do not stock local produce or, largely it seems, non-corporate products (i.e. products made on an industrial scale by enterprises which are heavily invested in the stockmarket).  Human working has been steadily decreased through the use of technology and by getting people to scan the shopping themselves.  Sophisticated pricing schemes are used to extract the optimum amount of cash from the people cast as consumers, people who are often living off of precarious wages sometimes without even contracts.  Companies enroll people in insurance policies which are based on accumulating money from investments in the stockmarket and people feel increasingly endentured not to question the moral vacuum that the investment markets are, dare they question their pension, their healthcare, their safeguarding policies for living a life in which they can raise a smile.


The charitable sector, or the third sector, has become big business and is an extension of the financial economy as a part of the free market drive that has been going on.  You can count how many ‘charity’ shops are on your local high streets and work out by deed ownership how much tax dodging the property owners are doing rather than supporting a Mittelstand economy of subsidiarity which employs more people and generates/distributes more wealth than large corporate enterprises leaving a scarring of megabrand stores and food outlets that produce ersatz nourishment.


The third sector is an endless turbine of revolving doors of people padding their curriculum vitae by plying the cut and thrust values they have learned and honed in the corporate world.  The competitive values of ‘the market’ have permeated the charity sector producing plutocratic gravity wells around the ‘funding systems’; systems which are sycophantic in their curation of the usual ‘clientelle’ that make the funders look good as theoretical distributors of wealth as they are naturally drawn towards status in order to ensure their public image is shining bright.


The charity world is peppered with people in key roles from privileged backgrounds sending their kids to private schools and drawing an ‘elite’ income all from the guise of charity, which seems to be beginning at home n’est-ce pas ?  It has created a culture of corporate bureaucracies which engender a yearly, monthly and weekly parade of Potemkin villages invested in making sure the next funding bid is in and that the facade is all dressed with the finery of the poor clowns they are ‘serving’ up. In the Canadian Psychiatric Survivor Movement they have spoken about these practices in terms of a type of pornography of people’s lives, an exploitation of the intimate details of the pained experience used to attain funding.



As Philip Alston, the most cited human rights scholar suggests, poverty is a political choice and these choices are written into the structuring of society around which industries have been created.  Industries have been created for ‘helping’ people because the political choices have been to disassemble state apparatus in favour of a mercantilist landscape formed in a third sector, a landscape where the over accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of too few people has deliberately created excess poverty and associated harms; the kind of landscape incidentally that Adam Smith, the moral philosopher appropriated by free market thinkers who coined political economy, warned against.


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“And so the actual choice of countries, in some ways I was lucky because obviously China, the United States, United Kingdom, well the US and the UK came from my belief that we should not only do what Nikki Haley would like us to do which is to go to the poorest countries in the poorest continents and hammer away at them but to emphasize the theme that I’ve always pushed which is that poverty is a political choice. Poverty could be eliminated in virtually every country if the political elite actually wanted to do that, but they don’t, they consciously don’t. They want the money for themselves. And so looking at the US and the UK where you’ve got very wealthy economies, they had lots of choices but they still opt to have 15% or whatever of their population living in poverty so I thought it was very important to convey that message and document the linkage.”

Quote from Philip Alston 23 min 28 seconds into the video ‘Do Human Rights Investigations Matter? With Prof Philip Alston UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty


Adam Smith wrote about the plutocractic forces of mercantilism and how it is damaging to a nation; hat we are seeing is a reinvention of mercantilism through the outsourcing of and externalisation of public responsibility to financially organised entities. It seems that just as the public legislation is maturing after hundreds of years of development to be more representative of people in general, there is a movement for wholesale flight of capital and influence from the realm of its influence.


Money and ownership is porting itself into the tax haven ridden secresy jurisdiction of the city of London and the international network of warrens and bunkers set up by the shamelessly rich from dodgy ethics – and other places where the legislation does not apply. For example, the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to private companies.


The social configuration recreates the kind of feudal arrangements the privileged enjoyed in the antiquated past where the society is run by Matryoshka doll fiefdoms which stack up against those who dont have status and cash.  Providing basic fundmentals of living – those represented by human rights – become things which the privileged are lauded for through their ‘charitable’ acts of benefiting from a tax saving by shorting their excess or by gifting some disproportionately small ratio of their expropriated income.  This often covers them in good publicity and oxytocin rushes at the galas and public events they frequent.


Bruce Wayne and Batman epitomize this claptrap
Bruce Wayne and Batman epitomize this claptrap


Meanwhile, in a world where there is a large cut of people who dont want to work for the empire they resort to the third sector and become instruments of the Gormenghast inclinations, whims and trends of a nomenclatura who like trying out their latest managerial fancy on ‘the workers’ whilst they chat about how they like to ‘fail fast’ over another set of crap buffet sandwiches made by a hack catering company which will largely go in the bin after the schmoozing and theatre is done.  Another LEAN fantasy, AGILE pantomime or gutsy Prince 2 mirage (etc, etc, etc) is acted out on the lives of the despairing from the people who job hop through their career never realising that it is peoples heads they are jumping on.


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Proprietory instruments and insane databases, substandard software and second rate hardware arrangements are dumped on the unsuspecting for the next round of flagellation to the roar of how smart this all looks whilst inside they die a little each time they see a ‘client’ failed by a system not fit for purpose and which has no feedback mechanisms whilst also dealing with its fair share of bullys, obsessives, ladder climbers, neurotics, narcissists, lazy asses, cowards and dimwits.  Nobody dare tell the emperor that they are ‘hinging oot’ for fear that they cant feed their families and the court system Norbert Elias describes of medieval times reworks itself into a culture of yes people, folks who just avoid rocking the boat, and folks who burn out from feeling viscerally the obvious and repeated inadequacies of the way things are line managed. Violence takes new forms in structures and structuring actions.


This results in endless paperwork representations of the problems which people are tasked to find the solutions of, but just it has been pointed out in psychiatry – if this third sector approach was working then why are the problems getting worse, n’est-ce pas ?  People working in the lower ranks of the neo-feudal system of charitable works of a series of political decisions to dispossess people of the means to cope in a society blunder on and some of them help people in spite of the system which hamstrings them. (How about that for a sentence eh ! Yes I did do that)


MEADOWS GN, PRODAN A, PATTEN S, SHAWYER F, FRANCIS S, ENTICOTT J, ROSENBERG S, ATKINSON JA, FOSSEY E, KAKUMA R. (2019 ) Resolving The Paradox Of Increased Mental Health Expenditure And Stable Prevalence. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. ;53(9):844-850. Doi: 10.1177/0004867419857821. Epub 2019 Jun 25. Pmid: 31238699; Pmcid: Pmc6724452.


In their life they have made a decision to bend the broken rules to help one poor bastard whenever the all seeing panopticon eye of management does not quite see around a corner. Another outcome star is written and deployed on people’s lives, another career is made, another day ticks over in the shareholder democracy bought up by institutional investors.



This is not a diatribe against charity in the actions of people but is intended as a critical provokation about actions and systems which are dressed up as charity. To create a system that dispossesses people and then employs people to help the dispossessed is a disingenuous society; the left overs from financialism is a Hunger Plan for the world.


Dada blah blah as if it made sense
Dada blah blah as if it made sense

Abstraction: Reduction to the Simple

How can the complex, messy and fuzzy process of human change be measured and added up in the life of an individual let alone across a project? It seems that almost any standardized bureaucratic approach results in a system which produces an abstract heuristic figure. Therefore, it is down to the methodology to engender meaningfulness in and through the bureaucratic practice so that the action and documentation are seemless, whilst avoiding the ‘derivatising’ effects of processes which abstract, decontextualize and depersonalise intensely human phenomena.


Abstraction can be seen as relating to the process of specialisation, and as our society becomes increasingly specialized, it becomes stratified. Abstraction and specialisation can also be seen in terms of division; that is, separation of one office from another, one area of thinking from another, one view of reality from another, one person from another.


It has a decontextualizing effect which limits the understandings which can be built that are necessary for all complex thinking and its products. When we lose context, we lose our ability to check our thinking and actions against the stuff of falsification and corroboration. The result is that ideologies replace evidence based practice, just as an absentee landlord often results in slum living conditions through lack of connection with the reality on the ground. At this point it is important not to confuse managerialism with meaningful management. Managerialism reduces, abstracts and obfuscates, and meaningful management acknowledges, connects and illuminates.


Empowerment, Hope, Trust and Choices

Solutions to social problems rely on the empowering of the agency and abilities of people experiencing the problems along with enfranchising the status of the frontline worker. It is the proximity of the two which sets a scene to enable a learning dynamic, and it is from this dynamic that practical empowerment can emerge.


An ideal here envisioned is where the client gains knowledge and learns the power to act, as does the frontline worker in the convex of the cultural process. The people experiencing the problems are commonly formulated as the primary agents of change but without their empowerment, no action plan – no matter how well thought through – will be an effective solution to the problems the client faces.


Wadsworth says: “the more disempowered you are, the less hope you may have about either the value of participating or even the chances of something good coming out of it. If you are radically disempowered you may not even be able to envisage something better, when even a vague or indistinct vision is a prerequisite for pursuing one at all” [12].


[12] What is Participatory Action Research? Action research international, Paper 2: Yoland Wadsworth (1998), November 1998: Accessed online 20/06/2015


In thinking through empowerment in terms of support work situation, a metaphor I suggest which communicates the bounding obstacles to propositional realities is asking someone to believe and gear their lived experience around a unicorn they can ride to work; it is a beautiful idea, however it is a fiction – a part of the ‘magical thinking’ of technocratic solutions which Professor Virginia Eubanks describes [106].


[106] Eubanks, V. (2012). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.


In the most demoralized, disenfranchised people, the frontline worker is tasked with an alchemic (and manytimes thankless) job of turning lead into gold which involves a manifesting of faith in a hope which has already been abandoned. MacKeith talks about the person receiving the service as an active agent rather than a passive sufferer that “the professional with their expertise and knowledge will cure” [1].


[1] MacKeith, Joy (2011) “The development of the Outcomes Star: a participatory approach to assessment and outcome measurement”, Housing, Care and Support, Vol. 14 Iss: 3, pp.98 – 106


This casting of the service user as an ‘active agent’ has interesting implications in terms of principal-agent theory where “a principal is an actor who enters into a contractual relationship with another actor, an agent”. The immediate question which is raised is who, or what, is cast in the role of principal in the context of support work. This language of Principal-Agent theory can help us unravel the lifeworld realities of principality and agency. Specifically, who defines the causitive agenda, who facilitates opportunity and how, and the interrelations between these roles.


The empowering perspective taken in Action Research is that of a horizontal researcher/co-researcher relationship which is in contrast to traditional conservative approaches in which solutions are devised by ‘experts’ and where those being studied are seen as ‘subjects’ rather than active participants.


In the Outcomes Star context, there is a suggestion that in order for change to take place in people’s lives, service providers must find ways to engage the motivation, understanding, beliefs and skills of the person in the situated context, to enable change. For this to happen I believe that the service providers must value the client as ‘co-researcher’ and appreciate their rendering of the reality as chief compass to navigate a landscape which is only notionally charted i.e. reality understood in terms of the ideas presented in the service providers education, policy and training versus the idiosyncratic physical actuality experienced by the individual in their unique set of circumstances.


This approach suggests utilizing a person centred strategy where the motivation to improve their life situation through change plays a pivotal role. The psychology of place, belonging and agency must be understood from the perspective of the client (and the frontline worker as well) if we are to understand what we mean by ‘power to change things’. All too often in these complex, nuanced situations the frontline worker is ‘derivatized’ as well as the client.


Ann Cahill [88] introduced this term in her study of the spectrum of dehumanisation. Derivatisation speaks of what happens when we reduce someone to a role or a label; they become ‘same-but-different’ – derived, from but not attributed the same qualities that make someone up as being human. This results in a process of dementalization where people become perceived and treated as ‘less human’. For example someone might be framed as ‘just a schizophrenic’ or ‘just a support worker’.


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The possibilities for clients and support staff becoming derivatized as ‘dependent customers’, ‘part of an institutional apparatus’ or as ‘outgoing costs’ cast people in their roles as a special type of ‘agent’. Ones in which they have conditional agency. Each has a measure of control over others, but not their own, actions. The conditions determine if they have agency even though they are cast as agential.


Demanding and expecting a support worker to ‘fix the world’, and regarding it as human failure situated in that professional if they do not meet every expectation is one such situation. Equally, when a desired or prescribed change does not take place in a client they might be reduced to ‘incompetent’ or ‘unwilling’, whilst the conditions for change may be determined by external or structural pre-requisites beyond their control.


While practical supports in the lived circumstances are necessary, they are not in themselves sufficient. Job, training and education opportunities for the workless, detox facilities for substance misuse, suitable finance with which to self sustain and take part in cultural life activities or physiotherapy for the physically impeded are examples of necessary but not sufficient factors to be brought into people’s (service users/individuals with impoverished human capabilities) lives.


For example, when the cold streets are your home (the place from which you receive spiritual succour and a sense of place) then it takes something overwhelmingly significant for someone to abandon their living reality. It is as hard for a person to abandon the streets, as an ‘institutionalised’ homeless person, as it is for someone who is used to sleeping indoors to take to the streets.


This is true in drug use contexts when we think of how the provision of the dominant norm becomes the behavioural reality. It is as hard for a tea total person to give over their life to drugs as it is vice versa, as this involves the abandonment of an existential reality which informs their identity and being.


In psychological terms it involves a death of a sort and involves all the psychological rootedness of our emotional being. It is argued here that a form of existential death must be negotiated, structured and implimented. In this sense might we conceive of learning, growth and change as a part of the semiotic of death to appreciate the weight of ‘re-learning’.


“The relations of ruling do not disappear by learning about them, nor can they be shaken off by individuals themelves. They are ever-present in our lives – like the water that fish swim in. Knowing more about how our lives are tangled in ruling relations can help reduce the frustration we feel about living and working in societies such as ours where things seem to get decided behind our backs, or at least outside of our control”. Knowing how one’s setting and one’s decisions are being influenced may help people make useful choices about how to act [54].


[54] Marie L. Campbell, Institutional Ethnography and Experience as Data, Qualitative Sociology, March 1998, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 55-73


Assessment and measurement processes which cast people as passive objects upon which expertise acts reinforces disenfranchisement. Removing someone from an area of action and separating the freedom to act and shape their environment underlies disempowerment; it infantilises the adult and removes the relationship between autonomy and responsibility which stimulates growth into self reliance that is part of the support aims.


Bureaucracy encountered from outside an agencial position compounds the experience of lack of self worth which may have contributed to the clients need for help in the first place. It often introduces a helplessness which people learn and take into their own life spaces. Bureaucratic managerialism has a psychology of gatekeeping which disempowers via a command and control system. This type of organisational structure stunts the ‘self’ we need to act in a question asking, problem solving way and is typified by the institutionalising power of the armed forces and penal systems. Here I suggest that a system of bureaucracies for administrating ‘soft’ variables reinvents this learned helplessness in a public-social context.


Onerous outcomes administration results in the ‘hampered helper’ in context with the policies which create a deadweight cost which is ultimately passed onto the client in a continuation of their disempowerment. Understanding the managerialism which comes with such stipulations, and that this managerialism in people’s lives creates many of the problems, is an important point for inclusion in the debate around administration.


Jean McNiff talks about the relevance the Action Research methodologies have in empowerment and the impact which they had on her professional practice in her book ‘Action Research: Principles and Practice’: “The opportunity to engage in Action Research in an intensified way came in the early 1990s when I began systematically supporting the professional learning of educators across the island of Ireland. This experience led me to get to grips with ideas about liberty, pluralism, power and legitimation processes. My understanding of my work began to change.


I began to see that my work was not only to provide routes to professional accreditation, but also to contribute to the thinking and practice of what I was beginning to understand as a good social order, a form of living in which people are free to make choices about creating their own identities and to recognise the need to negotiate those identities with others.” [37]


[37] Jean McNiff, Action Research: Principles and Practice, Taylor and Francis, Jan 22, 2002, Page 13


References and Bibliography:

[1] MacKeith, Joy (2011) “The development of the Outcomes Star: a participatory approach to assessment and outcome measurement”, Housing, Care and Support, Vol. 14 Iss: 3, pp.98 – 106

[12] What is Participatory Action Research? Action research international, Paper 2: Yoland Wadsworth (1998), November 1998: Accessed online 20/06/2015

[37] Jean McNiff, Action Research: Principles and Practice, Taylor and Francis, Jan 22, 2002, Page 13

[54] Marie L. Campbell, Institutional Ethnography and Experience as Data, Qualitative Sociology, March 1998, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 55-73

[88] Cahill, A. J. (2011) ‘Overcoming Objectification; A Carnal Ethics’ New York: Routledge, ISBN-13: 978-0415811538, page 32

[106] Eubanks, V. (2012). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.