Action research is essentially research through action. It is usually a collaborative activity - involving input from people who are likely to be affected by the research - but this is not strictly necessary. Action research is about changing an environment, system, or practice, and learning about this context through changing it. To quote action research's instigator Kurt Lewin: "if you want truly to understand something, try to change it". This kind of work is not simply about changing, but also improving an environment. As John Elliott says, action research is “the study of a social situation with a view to improving the quality of action within it” (Elliott, p. 69).
Action research - a cycle or spiral?
The image on the left is from Carr and Kemmis' book, illustrating the "moments of action research", or the "self-reflective spiral". It shows a cycle of action and reflection, broken into phases of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting. Each one of these phases, say Carr and Kemmis, is validated by the previous phase, and looks forward to the next (so, for example, the action phase is validated by the planning phase, and looks forward to the observation). The cycle can begin at any stage, and does not stop after one circuit has been completed, but rather begins another one, hence it is a "spiral", rather than "cycle".
Another visualization from the Center for Collaborative Action Research emphasizes the iterative process of action research. The researchers both act and seek to learn from the actions taken. The subject of action research is the actions taken, the change, and the theory of change that is held by the persons enacting the change. While the design of action research can originate with an individual, social actions taken without the collaborative participation of others are often less effective. To be successful, the action researchers have to plan in such a way as to draw an ever widening group of stakeholders into the arena of action. The goal is to work towards a better understanding of their situation in order to affect a positive personal and social change.
This form of research then is an iterative, cyclical process of reflecting on practice, taking an action, reflecting, and taking further action. Therefore, the research takes shape as it is being performed. Better understanding from each cycle points the way to improved actions.
Building theories with action research
Action research is a practical research methodology - it is orientated around practice, with a view to developing theory through practice. As Carr and Kemmis (1986) put it, action researchers "see the development of theory or understanding as a by-product of the improvement of real situations, rather than application as a by-product of advances in 'pure' theory." (p. 28) This is a means to generate ideas (theory) that are relevant locally - to the people who are involved in the research, and to the environment in which it has taken place. However, action research is sometimes criticised for not generating theory that can be generalised globally - though this is a feature of any local intervention.
Development of action research
The origins of action research lie in the work of Kurt Lewin, who worked with organisations in order to see how they could change and improve their practice (see Smith, 2001). It fell in and out of popularity after his work, but since the work of Stenhouse in the UK in the 1970s it has become an increasingly popular methodology - particularly in education, organisation and development work. It's worth noting that Carr's and Kemmis' spiral is quite similar to the cycle/spiral of experiential learning, which is sometimes merged with the notion of action research, to create one of action learning (Dick, 1997). There are many other variations of the general model of action research, including: participatory action research, emancipatory research, co-operative inquiry, appreciative inquiry, and action science - all of which have distinctive elements, but all of which overlap significantly. (How these branches differ might be an interesting question for you to ask yourself.)
Reflection in action research
The Reflection phase of AR is the point where evaluation enters the stage. Here one has to choose the methodology applied within the overall (action) research strategy.
Evaluation: First to Fourth Generation
What paradigms are suitable for AR?
And the Results?
Action Research has its theretical roots in "Pragmatism", (Dewey). What does this mean in terms of epistemology? What do results of AR reveal in terms of "objectivity", "scope" or "cumulation"?
- Carr, W., & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming critical. Lewes: Falmer Press
- Dick, B. (1997). Action learning and action research. Available at: http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/arp/actlearn.html
- Elliott, J. (1991). Action research for educational change. Buckingham: Open University Press
- Smith, M. K. (2001). Kurt Lewin, groups, experiential learning and action research, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Available at: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-lewin.htm
- Pine, Gerald J. (2008). Teacher Action Research: Building Knowledge Democracies, Sage Publications.
Resources and further reading
- Action research resource links from the University of British Columbia
- Undertaking Action Research: Negotiating the Road Ahead An article from Social Research Update by Colin Todhunter in the Autumn 2001 edition.
- Sustainable Community Action (Wikia)
- Praxis Intervention thesis available at habituspraxis.sprinterweb.net
- w:Action research
- What is Participatory Action Research? - article by Yoland Wadsworth, Faculty of Arts, Victoria University of Technology, Australia.
- Improve this article - you can improve this article by editing it (by clicking on the edit button at the top of the page). You can also improve Wikipedia's article on action research;
- Participate in an action research activity, and experience it for yourself. There are at least two such projects underway at Learning to learn a wiki way and Developing Wikiversity through action research;
- Join the Action research discussion group to discuss anything about action research;
- Think about how you could use action research in your practice. What is your practice? How do you think it could be improved? How could action research be appropriate or inappropriate for your needs, or for the needs of the context (eg. organisation) in which you work?;
- Participants in Bob Dick's email course "AREOL" can begin collaborating at this page: Action research/AREOL25.