Action Research: Collaboration as Reciprocal Relationships

This is the continuation of an action research project which started out as an analysis of the Outcomes Star which was being used to measure developments in the lives of people for support workers to report to funders. The analyses were initiated as the experience produced distress and discomfort at the distortions they produced in the support/need juncture.


You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: Abstraction – Reduction to the Simple’ by clicking HERE.


This part of the study looks at the quality of reciprocity in relationships as a necessary dynamic and problematises the introduction of bureaucracy into relationships as obstructive.  It introduces some critical analyses from the field of historiography that is useful in disengaging from the burden of the sometimes cult-like enthusiasm for generating paperwork and management processes.


Management is less often scrutinised as a factor in producing the failures it purports to be addressing and accounts are produced which draw silence over the real world experience of the least advantaged in organised line managed systems.



The activity of support work is intensely personal; it is intimate, it involves feelings and emotions, sensitivities, shocks and secondary trauma.  Being asked to accompany someone on part of their life journey is the job which many people are tasked to do in twenty first century Britain, often on a low wage and often with few resources available.  This translates into little time allocated to across a list of ‘clients’ or people who are in need of help to continue surviving in corporate Britain (UK plc is an informal term given for the collective performance of the United Kingdom’s economy as a whole)


People need support workers for a range of needs and the individuals who function in these roles are expected to understanding ‘what is going on’ in a person’s life, decide what solutions are realistic and appropriate and devise a plan of how to get the things they need or want.  It sounds simple when distilled through the page but when it is scaled up over an expanding list of vulnerable people, many of whom are unknown quantities in terms of their life journey, do not put their trust in people who occupy official roles, some of whom have undiscovered needs, some who have multiple needs – and so on – the complexity horizon moves uncomfortably close.


To act as a support worker for vulnerable people to an extent means taking on all the roles of the specialised teams which need to be contacted and coordinated to deal with the specialised needs of the individual.  The only way to recognise a need is to have knowledge of it, and in many cases psychological, medical and legal needs not-uncommonly go unrecognised precisely because the support worker does not have the special knowledge required to identify a need in order to respond to.


The support worker exists between the devil and the deep blue sea as they must negotiate a civil service system which has been designed to be impenetrable, where there is no means to phone someone in the DWP who is a known quantity and who displays the required levels of knowledge, agency and care to honestly deal with a system malfunction or administrative injustice when it needs to be.  Hours and hours of time of the support worker is spent waiting on telephone queuing systems listening to music being played and being electronically told their call is in a que as there is not an operative available at the moment; not infrequently the call is terminated arbitrarily and so the process has to be started again from the beginning, going through the call menus in order to get a (theoretically simple) administrative issue seen to.


The support worker has to act as a therapist and trauma counselor when benefits applications are unjustly and arbitrarily turned down failing to award needed funds to someone who has long term care needs with an archive of evidence which was previously submitted.  The support worker must possess patience and wisdom to know that this is the way that the system actively discourages people from applying for the benefits which they are entitled to; they are tasked with the attempt to mitigate the psychological distress and trauma someone experiences when they meet with the notion that the pittance of money they need to barely survive will not come through. They need to try and convince their client that the appeal process is worth it and that the award will be made, that they have to go through the process one more time.


The support worker is positioned not uncommonly with precarious employment contracts with organisations which are fed piece meal bits of funding which demand endless feeding in of outcomes and measurements that are demanded as evidence but never seem to be taken as lasting proof of their work.  The organisation managers are set on a hamster wheel of chasing funding and underbidding the other local organisations which, when it comes face to face in the field or in the pub, they rely on each other to make it through the end of the week, month, quarter.


Bidding wars are set up by commissioners who want joyful faces when they visit the Potemkin villages, where the support workers are shined up and primed with all their magical successes lined with stories of how much they love the job and how rewarding it is.  The commissars of the money streams are meaning to make narrowing choices year after year changing the parameters of what is expected for less cost; the sector is regaled with the successes of the organisations which have managed to work miracles whilst cutting budgets – a parade of western Stakhanovite exemplars breaking open a brave new world.


Support workers must also deal with the requests to put forward willing clients who can stand up in the evangelism and shout about how they have been fixed by the great work of this vital organisation without which they would have faded.  They must deal with the psychological loads of others, of the systems, and of their own lots – they must deal with transference and countertransference, they must digest the secondary trauma of working with the most traumatised socio-economic groups of a cost cutting society.  Every week, every day, they must start again.


And over the years the horror gets to many with a significant number of colleagues off with mental health problems at any given point; it is not just their clients who are traumatised by the hostile environments but it is the witnessing of an unfair society, of life as nasty, brutish and short, that causes wounds for which there are no words. They must develop relationships with people who need them all the time telling them, trying to ensure they understand that they will be gone, that they will not be there, because they cannot; their job will not allow them even if they genuinely like them, even if they genuinely care.


Support workers are caught in the chain of punishment set out for the poor; they are employed to pick up the sin eaters when they fall on the streets and become visible to the golden children of the economy.  They are employed to witness the insoluble problems of the poor set into an unvirtuous circle by automated systems of credit records, banks, credentialism, ersatz food producers, rentiers, precarious employers, medical triage and callous disregard of the rich.


For many the worst part of it is saying goodbye and closing the book on a relationship.  It is not easy to turn off emotions and whilst much professional training teaches that it is a skill to depersonalise the interaction, it takes a toll.  There are many unnoticed and unacknowledged tolls involved in care work and support. Gerard Egan suggests that the skilled Helpers should not only need to be wise themselves, but part of their job is to help clients become wiser:


“Baltes and Staudinger (2000) define wisdom as “an expertise in the conduct and meaning of life” or “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life” (pp. 124, 122). What is it that characterizes wisdom? Here are some possibilities (see Sternberg, 1990, 1998)”: –


  • self-knowledge; maturity
  • knowledge of life’s obligations and goals
  • an understanding of cultural conditioning
  • the guts to admit mistakes and the sense to learn from them
  • a psychological and a human understanding of others; insight into human interactions
  • the ability to “see through” situations; the ability to understand the meaning of events
  • tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to work with it
  • being comfortable with messy and ill-structured situations
  • an understanding of the messiness of human beings
  • openness to events that don’t fit comfortably into logical or traditional categories
  • the ability to frame a problem so that it is workable; the ability to reframe information
  • avoidance of stereotypes
  • holistic thinking; open-mindedness; open-endedness; contextual thinking
  • “meta-thinking,” or the ability to think about thinking and become aware about being aware
  • the ability to see relationships among diverse factors
  • the ability to spot flaws in reasoning
  • the ability to use intuition effectively
  • the ability to synthesize
  • the refusal to let experience become a liability through the creation of blind spots
  • the ability to take the long view of problems
  • the ability to blend seemingly antithetical helping roles—being one who cares and understands together with being one who challenges and “frustrates” (see Levin & Shepherd, 1974)
  • an understanding of the spiritual dimensions of life

[Egan G. & Reese R. J. (2019). The skilled helper : a problem-management and opportunity-development approach to helping (Eleventh). Cengage. Page 14]

With all this held in mind the way that support workers, carers and helpers are treated in society – especially by managerial classes – needs to be scrutinized. They are instrumentalised from multiple angles and tend to be mistreated in terms of fair wages and reliable contracts. They are lauded when they are needed and sacked off when there is a lull.


Such arbitrarily hot and cold interactions are bound to create stress fractures in the personalities of people who are exposed to such tensions over time. Psychological conditions like that can result in mental health problems in ranging forms from narcissistic personality disorders to depression; existing in the conscious awareness of social injustice can have a blunting effect which damages the empathy so important in caring, it can become fatigued by the Catch 22 like nature of policy sticking plasters on structural wounds in society. Sometimes the very view of human behaviour becomes turned cynically as doubt and distrust illustrate every silver lining; when trust is systemically abused trust is withdrawn from the world.


It doesn’t take long to discover the long known intractable problems in the sector by sitting in a pub and listening, or sitting down with coffee and asking about the things they have to live with day in day out. Nevertheless they are human but put under contract are expected to be saints, wise beatified souls endlessly patient and resilient to what life throws at them and those they are in the position of caring for.


All this in a gaslit society which has been so asset stripped that living in a reactive knee-jerk emergency state has become the operationalised norm which is never questioned – the Peckham Experiment a distant figure of the British imagination; but who is to hear ? who is to listen ? And even if someone is to, what will or can they do about it in the quagmire which extracts all the means of celebrating life in the financial obscenity which is modern Britain ?


Collaboration as Reciprocal Relationships

Human persons are simultaneously principals and agents who act in the world on the basis of their own sense-making; human community involves mutual sense-making and collective action. Action Research is only possible with, for, and by persons and communities, where it ideally involves all stakeholders both in the questioning and sense-making that informs the research, as well as in the action which is it’s focus [10]. The abandoning of the action, the inclusion, or the sense-making makes an endeavor redundant and counter-constructive if you are building off the perspectives implicit in Action Research and Participatory Action Research.


Central to Participatory Action Research is that the research is a collaboration between researcher and those subject to the forces being researched. The knowledge and reflective ability of the co-researchers/subjects of the research is a valuable resource to be harnessed and is a primary source of insight to be utilized. The different parties work together to define problems, identify and implement possible solutions, evaluate their impact and reflect on learning.


[105] Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-05898-5, Page 84


Acting on the assumption that social reality is continuously being constructed [105] and recreated in a social process, “interpretive” Action Researchers might accept the notion put forward by Argyris that the crucial elements in a research approach within a specific social situation are:




  • A collaborative process between researchers and people in the situation
  • A process of critical inquiry
  • A focus on social practice
  • A deliberate process of reflective learning [18]



[18] Peter Checkland, Sue Holwell, ‘Action Research: Its Nature and Validity’, Systemic Practice and Action Research February 1998, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 9-21


The collaboration of the researcher and co-researcher around the themes found embedded in the situated knowledge of the circumstance is of primary importance. Nobody knows better the realities of existence in a subject-specific context than the perspective of the individual who is living it. Working together to access, understand and report on these realities as tangible experiences is part of the informative process which support workers rely upon, along with the individual receiving support.


Outcomes Star as Getting in the Way of Collaboration

The theory of Outcomes Star is meant as a model of change which the worker also uses to measure the process for outcomes. ‘Data’ is collected and is presented back to the user in the form of the star. This is suggested to provide a framework which encourages reflection on the implications of action.


In this author’s experience the practical reality of the paperwork is that it is an inflexible, standardized bureaucracy which is iterative and repetitive, dulling the organic interaction between the client and worker which is so vulnerable to entropy, and it ‘steals’ time from the practical activity which is sought (and thus from both the client and the vocational worker).


Due to the nature of support work, it is the opinion of the author that encouragement for reflection and growth generally must come from engaged dialogue reinforced with unique artefacts which are owned such as objects, mementos and products which manifest through the interaction.


For example, a narrative (such as this paper) which is owned and reified. It must have vindicating as well as critical aspects and requires humane (two way), rather than institutional (one way), interactions to nurture personal development. The relationship and activities embodied through the relationship must be mutually challenging, as one might find in a systems analysis project. Without these dynamics it remains largely an exercise in reinforcing the status quo (existing state of affairs).


The Outcomes Star approach suggests itself to utilise Participatory Action Research to form a list of subject areas which are formed into a geometric shape (i.e. a star), which can be used as a tool to visualise growth, change and development over time. This said, the Participatory Action Research in the Outcomes Star tool is done pre-formation of the standardized bureaucracy and created as a co-construction between the commissioned researchers and the frontline workers, rather than as a synthesis between the client, the frontline worker, and the commissioning levels of management. Vitally, it includes no appraisal of structural factors such as the bureaucracies themselves, lack of funding or dearth of opportunities. It is hard to count what is not there.


Moving Beyond Confirmation Bias

Socio-cultural theory suggests that our social perspectives are derived of the cultural, institutional and historical realities which we have learned from our encounters with the world. Acknowledging the sometimes divergent inclinations of the personal and the professional remit is an important part of guarding against the dominance of privileged influences in developing a collaborative scenario.


Without this reflectivity there is a danger of silencing vital perspectives and creating silences in the shade of dominant discourse; for examples, the corporate financial perspective displacing the personal ethical consideration, or the managerial administrative values supplanting the individual situated needs.


Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses the ‘creation of silences’ along with the creation of facts in his book ‘Silencing The Past: Power and the Production of History’. In his thesis, he suggests ‘silencing’ is partly due to uneven power in the production of sources, archives, and narratives.


Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).


He suggests power itself works together with history and that understanding Foucault’s message is important in this context: “I don’t believe that the question of ‘who exercises power ?’ can be resolved unless that other question ‘how does it happen ?’ is resolved at the same time”. In his work, he expresses that ‘power’ is constitutive of the story and that tracing power through various “moments” helps emphasize the fundamentally processual character of historical production and establishes that ‘what history is’ matters less than ‘how history works’ [89].


[89] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘Power and the Production of History’, Beacon Press books, Copyright 1995, ISBN 978-0-8070-4311-0, Page 27 – 28


I draw on this line of thought to re-cast paperworks and bureaucracies as artefacts which determine major aspects of the social construction of realities. Thus we can view them as a historiographer does and think about the living process of the production of history. If this history is to constructively inform society, what textuality is produced must be intrinsically meaningful, in the same way as a research paper contributes to a field.



[18] Peter Checkland, Sue Holwell, ‘Action Research: Its Nature and Validity’, Systemic Practice and Action Research February 1998, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 9-21

[89] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘Power and the Production of History’, Beacon Press books, Copyright 1995, ISBN 978-0-8070-4311-0, Page 27 – 28

[105] Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-05898-5, Page 35