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Participant Action Research, or Action Research for short, is a highly participatory, experiential, and reflective research method in which the dominant purpose is to foster social change. This paper will outline what Action Research is and how it originated, types of Action Research and how to operationalize this methodology, and its advantages and limitations, concluding by highlighting the contexts this method is most appropriate for and offering suggested changes to bolster Action Research’s impact and overcome its limitations.
Action Research has a multi-disciplinary background, with roots in psychology, anthropology, sociology, feminist studies, nursing studies, and education. While the disciplinary diversity has led to various strains of the method, the following common threads binding all flavors of Action Research have emerged:
A core tenant of Action Research is its collaborative nature, whereby a researcher views research subjects as co-authors, and works alongside them to shape the research objectives and results. Another key aspect of this methodology is reflexivity; while not unique to Action Research, it could be argued that reflexivity is amplified in this method more so than in others.
Action Research is cognizant of the study population’s history, culture, activities, and emotions, and expressly encourages participants to reflexively examine the issues affecting them or their community. Action Research is also experiential in that its primary purpose is to provide participants with a means to take action and overcome their specified problems. The researcher’s role in Action Research is not to objectively observe, but rather to work alongside the group under study, partnering with them to guide the research.
Action Research is most often employed at a local (as opposed to macro) level by targeting particular problems in specific situations with small-scale theorizing. It has dual goals: to distill knowledge that will be directly applicable to a defined group; and to empower each individual in that group (rather than just leaders or elites), to implement and utilize the information produced by the research.
The key differentiators of Action Research from other methodologies include its value-laden purpose, collaboration with the very people it studies, and its simple and easily comprehendible language – in contrast to the statistical programs and sophisticated techniques associated with other methodologies.
It is widely agreed that there are three categories of Action Research, although scholars have called them by differing names, there is alignment on the purpose and process of each. The Technical/Scientific/Collaborative mode of Action Research is distinguished by a researcher identifying a specific problem after collaborating with a practitioner, and then relaying information to this practitioner, who in turn oversees the knowledge transfer and utilization by the group in question. Using this mode, the researcher identifies an intervention based on a prespecified theoretical framework, and only interacts with a practitioner, rather than the study population.
Another form of Action Research is the Practical/Mutual Collaborative/Deliberate mode, which is more flexible than the aforementioned version and prioritizes a concern for emancipating and empowering participants. One limitation of this approach in comparison to the above mode, is a reduction in control and precision, however practitioners of this typology are not concerned with this because those are not considered to be the primary goals.
The third and final mode of Action Research is Emancipating/Enhancing Critical Science, which “promotes emancipatory praxis in the participating practitioners; that is, it promotes a critical consciousness which exhibits itself in political as well as practical action to promote change”. Ultimately, this version of Action Research aspires to converge theory with real-world issues, and then use that intersection to enlighten participants to their problems by “lifting their veil of clouded understandings” and “raising their collective consciousness”. This mode professes that merging theory and enlightenment emancipates participants, which then results in action and change.
Action Research is operationalized by the four-step plan, act, think, and reflect model. The planning stage is where research questions are identified by the researcher facilitating the population in an examination of their circumstances in order to recognize their problems, often via focus groups. The researcher could also independently identify a problem and present it to the participants to obtain their agreement and buy-in.
Acting, the second phase, is comprised of data collection and information gathering, which is largely dependent on the research question, researcher preference, and limitations due to the population or contextual factors.
The third phase, thinking, involves analyzing and then relating the data to potential resolutions to the problems identified at the onset of the research process. In Action Research, the guiding analytical questions through which to filter data are ‘why, what, how, who, where, when.’ It is critical that results are determined collaboratively with participants via focus groups or other meetings. Action Research mandates that results are agreed upon by all participants and are seen to reflect the perceptions of every participant in the population in question. Finally, it is crucial that participants are given the opportunity to review data throughout the interpretation process – not just once results are complete – and are generally kept apprised of research activities and progress.
The fourth and final phase is reflecting, in which the researcher shares results with participants in order to empower them to work together to bring about change. This can take the form of meetings, a formal written report, a project website, a video, or even a dramatic role-played reenactment. What is key though, is that the results are presented in an actionable and easily comprehendible language, so participants can employ the findings with limited barriers to access.
One of Action Research’s benefits is that it offers a simple, easily operationalized process, eliminating the need for statistical models or sophisticated frameworks. Another benefit is time efficiency, as these phases can be conducted fairly quickly, which is one reason why this methodology is favored in for-profit settings, which often operate on quicker turnaround times than in academia. Depending on the researcher’s perspective, a third benefit could be said to be its applicability and ability to drive tangible change and real-world results.
As no methodology is perfect, a frank discussion of Action Research’s limitations and flaws is needed. First of all, the level of participant involvement required throughout the study, but particularly in the data analysis phase, results in some feasibility challenges. For instance, while this method explicitly states that data should be discussed amongst participants in order to agree on its analysis, power dynamics, anonymity, and confidentiality between participants is not considered. These factors have the potential to significantly impact the willingness of participants to share their perspectives, preventing a candid discussion of the data between all participants.
Another critique of Action Research that also relates to feasibility is the requirement that accounts, or results, reflect the perspectives of all stakeholders in the study population. In order to reflect the accounts of all stakeholders, a researcher must speak with and listen to all stakeholders, which can be incredibly challenging with large populations, populations with exceptionally busy participants, participants of import or prestige that may not make the time, or other such scenarios.
Another feasibility-related limitation is the methodology’s requirement that the researcher must make every effort to keep all stakeholders informed of progress and activities, granting them the ability to share feedback and input throughout the process. On the most basic level, obtaining progress seems challenging if the researcher must be constantly open to input and re-writes from participants. First of all, it is possible participants’ edits will contradict one another, resulting in a cyclical repetition of revisions.
Additionally, one of the benefits of Action Research is its time-efficiency yet taking the time to share a regular cadence of updates and requests for input to a potentially large group of participants can be time consuming in and of itself, but the additional time consumed by working with participants on revisions and halting further progress to revise an earlier section could become quite tedious. Action Research requires that the researcher share results with participants, which is completely reasonable and to be expected, however, scholars in this method have stated that researchers should go above and beyond a traditional write-up, and argue for project webpages, videotaped narrative explanations of results, or even dramatic role-played reenactments.
While translating the results into an easily comprehensible version for participants seems to be an ethical and respectful step, the aforementioned gestures seem overly burdensome, expensive, and time-consuming, and should not be stated as best practices, but rather as suggestions.
Another critique is the value-laden nature of this method. While many methodologies accept inherent researcher biases, Action Research’s foundation is researcher subjectivity, with the researcher’s relation to participants more of a hands-on partner than objective observer. While this characteristic in and of itself is not a limitation, the resultant ethical issues can be intricate and must be dealt with carefully.
The overly simplistic expectation of change inherent in the Emancipating/Enhancing Critical mode of Action Research can also be viewed as a weakness. This mode asserts a linear, causal relationship between theory and enlightenment, which merge together to emancipate participants and produce change and action. However, this mode could be argued to be demeaning to participants, underestimating their intellect and awareness until a researcher arrives to enlighten them to their own problems. Additionally, many issues can be complex, not easily solved by shining a light on the issue and talking through solutions with all participants, and this mode does not account for networked, cyclical, or any other pattern of change.
A final critique is related primarily to the Practical/Mutual Collaborative/Deliberate mode and the longevity of the interventions implemented as a result of an Action Research project. It is not uncommon for the positive changes brought about as a result of the research project to subside once the researcher leaves the participants and ends the study.
Considering one driving force behind selecting Action Research as a methodology is its ability to address and solve tangible problems, if the interventions are not sustainable long-term once the study has ended, then the method is rendered impotent. Action Research, like any other method, has its strengths and limitations. However, it retains value and utility, as long as study’s purpose, research question, and context are aligned with the method.
Action Research is an appropriate method to consider if one is working in a real-world setting, as opposed to a laboratory environment, since its primary focus is solving real-world problems. Additionally, Action Research is a worthy candidate if a researcher must involve participants, a change or solution must come about quickly, and when circumstances require flexibility. It is primarily utilized by practitioners, social change activists, or academics that have been asked by an organization to address a specific issue.
On a final note, a few potential solutions to overcome some of Action Research’s limitations will be suggested. Regarding the feasibility-related critiques, slightly limiting participant interaction could serve to mitigate some of the issues around cyclical revisions, meeting with hard-to-reach participants, and time-efficiency. For instance, the method could require that a majority of participants partake in data analysis but remove the mandate on 100% participant involvement.
In order to overcome the critique of intervention success longevity, it could be beneficial to appoint one or a few participants as change leaders and equip them to ensure the interventions continue to remain once the researcher has departed. In relation to the overly simplistic linear relationship between theory, enlightenment, and change, Action Research should expand to adequately address scenarios that do not fit that narrow definition, perhaps in the form of a spiral or network, incorporating the review and revision of interventions as necessary. It would also behoove Action Research to address the inherent power dynamics present in almost any group or organization, and account for them in the data gathering, analysis, and write-up process.
Those not in power or holding a minority opinion can avoid voicing opinions and concerns for a variety of reasons, but it will negatively impact the results by leaving out some perspectives and relaying the false appearance of comprehensiveness, potentially allowing interventions to be implemented that do not address a large piece of the problem. Whether it be a greater focus on interviews as compared to focus groups, utilizing pseudonyms, or identifying other ways to ensure participant anonymity and confidentiality, and minimize participant power dynamics, Action Research’s results have the opportunity to be much more impactful.
In conclusion, Action Research aspires to bring about social change via a highly participatory and reflexive research process. It emphasizes engaging all participants in a population and works to identify and address an issue impacting that population. While the method has received some critiques, primarily around feasibility of certain requirements, but also in regard to the longevity of the change produced by the research, an overly simplistic expectation of change by means of enlightenment, not accounting for participant power dynamics and anonymity, and questionable ethics around the value-laden nature of the method, there are contexts where Action Research could be an appropriate method to deploy. This paper has provided an overview of Action Research’s history, the various types of it and how it is operationalized, as well as its benefits and limitations, and suggested ways to overcome those critiques.
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