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Choice and Quality in Action Research Practice Peter Reason June 2005.

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1 Choice and Quality in Action Research Practice Peter Reason June 2005

2 Arthur Miller There is hardly a week that passes when I don’t ask the unanswerable question: what am I now convinced of that will turn out to be ridiculous? And yet one can’t forever stand on the shore; at some point, filled with indecision, skepticism, reservation and doubt, you either jump in or concede that life is forever elsewhere.

3 Revisioning inquiry through action research To make the action turn is to re-vision our view of the nature and purpose of social science. Since all human persons are participating actors in their world, the purpose of inquiry is not primarily to describe or interpret our world, to contribute to the fund of knowledge in a field, to deconstruct taken-for-granted realities, or even to develop emancipatory theory

4 Revisioning inquiry through action research The purpose of action research is to forge a more direct link between intellectual knowledge and moment-to- moment personal and social action, so that inquiry contributes directly to the flourishing of human persons, their communities, and the ecosystems of which they are part

5 Action Research and social science The family of practices called action research has inhabited the margins of academia for many years. As Argyris (2003) points out, the pursuit of knowledge in the service of justice and effectiveness has often been held in disrepute by management scholars.

6 Denzin and Lincoln The “critical, interpretive, linguistic, feminist, and rhetorical turns in social theory” which lead to the triple crisis of “representation, legitimation, and praxis”… But Denzin and Lincoln pay less explicit heed to questions of praxis than action researchers would wish.

7 Richard Rorty We cannot regard truth as a goal of inquiry. The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring consensus on the end to be achieved and the means to be used to achieve those ends. Inquiry that does not achieve co-ordination of behaviour is not inquiry but simply wordplay. (Rorty, 1999:xxv)

8 Paulo Freire The starting point…must be the present, existential, concrete situation, reflecting the aspirations of the people… [We] must pose this existential, concrete, present situation to the people as a problem which challenges them and requires a response—not just at an intellectual level, but at a level of action. (Freire, 1970:85)

9 Denzin and Lincoln again The seventh moment asks that the social science and the humanities become sites for critical conversation about democracy, race, gender, class, nation-states, globalization, freedom, and community… We struggle to connect qualitative research to the hopes, needs, and goals of a free democratic society.

10 What, then, is good action research? What do we mean by quality in action research? If we hold firmly to this notion of engagement, with practice, with in some sense doing things better, what are the dimensions of quality? It is important to articulate our own quality standards to argue against orthodox forms of research

11 Definition of Action Research Action research is a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes….. It seeks to bring 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 and Bradbury 2002)

12 Characteristics of Action Research Worthwhile practical purposes Many ways of knowing Participative and democratic practices Emergent organic process

13 Five dimensions of action research:

14 Choice and Quality When you look at the processes in this way, you can see that what characterizes action research is the enormous range of choices that are open to you. You usually can’t do all of these things well! So a key dimension of quality is to be aware of the choices, and to make those choices clear, transparent, articulate, to your selves, to your inquiry partners, and, when you start writing and presenting, to the wider world.

15 Action Research editorial guidelines: Thus in considering how we approach questions of quality in action research for the journal, we suggest…that the author explicitly address the qualities they believe relevant to their work and the choices they have made. The authors explicitly connect their own judgments to discussions in current literature

16 How might we understand those choices?

17 Knowledge in Practice A primary purpose of action research is to produce practical knowledge that is useful to people in the everyday conduct of their lives.

18 Pragmatist view Inquiry is not a a way of representing reality, but rather a means of using reality. The relationship between truth claims and the world is ‘causal rather than representational’ and the issue becomes whether our beliefs ‘provide reliable guides to getting what we want’ The judgment is in terms of practical outcomes

19 But does this mean that action research is simply about what works? the question of providing reliable guides to what we want is actually rather complex, because it immediately raises issues such as who it is that defines what we want; whether we know what we want; and whether what we want is actually good for us.

20 Critiques of the pragmatic view: Judi Marshall on agency and communion Gregory Bateson’s critique of conscious purpose

21 While concrete practical concerns will be the starting point, the whole business of doing action research is practice, and our sense of quality must reach wider than simply ‘does it work?’ Story from incontinence inquiry

22 Participation and Democracy Action research is participative research, and all participative research must be action research The first step in the formation of ‘communicative space’

23 Participation and Democracy Action research is only possible with, for and by persons and communities, ideally involving all stakeholders both in the questioning and sensemaking that informs the research, and in the action which is its focus.

24 Some key issues Taking time Histories on oppression and silencing Working against denial Errors of consensus collusion Tensions in facilitation The limitations of first order democracy

25 Participation and Democracy The creation, development and maintenance of democratic dialogue and the establishment of institutions for democratic inquiry are forms of action in their own right. The establishment of democratic dialogue may well be a far more important and compelling purpose in an action research initiative than the addressing of immediate practical problems.

26 Participation and Democracy The establishment of participation in a world increasingly characterized by alienation and individualism is both far more urgent and far more complex than we allow ourselves to believe. We need to keep deepening our understanding of what we are up to.

27 Participation and Democracy We must continue the debate about the relationship between the face-to-face democracy of an inquiry group and it relationships to the wider issues of creating more democratic societies.

28 Participation and Democracy Reflections on quality in action research must therefore include careful exploration of the qualities of dialogue and participation that are needed in a particular situation, and careful and in depth exploration of the processes of establishment and development of such dialogue. We need many more detailed and careful descriptions of the choices action research practitioners are making.

29 From a Deep Ecology perspective The human is an ordinary member of the wider community of beings which make up the biosphere. We clearly have a long way to go before we learn to participate with each other, but if we don’t also see ourselves as participants in the ecology of the planet as a whole we will continue to devastate our living space.

30 Many ways of knowing Action research draws on diverse forms of knowing as we encounter and act in our world, including not only empirical and rational ways of knowing, but also the experiential and tacit, the presentational and aesthetic, the relational and dialogical, the propositional, and the practical.

31 Extended epistemology Experiential knowing through encounter with the presence of the world Presentational knowing clothes experience in imaginal metaphors in story, art, gesture Propositional knowing using concepts that come through the mastery of language Practical knowing demonstrated in a skill of competence

32 Experiential knowing The potential error in experiential knowing is to be trapped in illusion, to create a defensive inquiry which guards against the discovery of the new. Quality inquiry will courageously seek ways of challenging preconceptions and deepening contact with experience.

33 Foundational disciplines can build individual and group capacities for less defensive openness to experience. Mindfulness meditation, martial arts, psychotherapy, journaling, friends willing to act as enemies…. Dialogue groups, circle groups, public conversations…. The process of democracy, ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ practices….

34 Presentational knowing The potential error in presentational knowing is to stay with the same old stories, to repeat them to oneself and to others so they recreate existing realities and confirm existing beliefs. Quality inquiry will actively experiment with redescription and draw on narrative practices to turn stories upside down and tell them in new ways.

35 Propositional knowing The potential error in propositional knowing is to be held within the hegemonic paradigm and uncritical acceptance of taken for granted theories (and its identical opposite, the uncritical acceptance of the currently fashionable oppositional position!). Quality inquiry will engage accepted theory critically and forge new theoretical perspectives.

36 Practical knowing The potential error in practical knowing is the failure to empirically test practices against outcomes. Quality inquiry will engage systematically in cycles of action and reflection, provide adequate evidence to test claims, and use a range of critical techniques to explore the congruence of practice against purpose

37 Worthwhile purposes Action research is not about knowledge for its own sake, but knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile purposes—which we may describe as the flourishing of human persons, communities, and the ecologies of which they are part. Just what is worthy of our attention is, of course, a form of inquiry in its own right.

38 Emergent, developmental form Good action research emerges over time in an evolutionary and developmental process, as individuals develop skills of inquiry and as communities of inquiry develop within communities of practice. Action research is emancipatory, it leads not just to new practical knowledge, but to new abilities to create knowledge.

39 Emergent, developmental form In action research knowledge is a living, evolving process of coming to know rooted in everyday experience; it is a verb rather than a noun. This means action research cannot be programmatic and cannot be defined in terms of hard and fast methods, but is, in Leotard’s (1979) sense, a work of art.

40 Some conclusions The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text [s]he writes, the work [s]he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work...

41 Some conclusions Those rules and principles are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.(Lyotard, 1979)

42 Some conclusions We must move away from a sense of quality as policing to one which stimulates dialogue Quality in inquiry starts with awareness of the options open to you and the choices you are making at each stage of the inquiry, individually and collectively Quality in reporting on inquiry comes from transparency about those choices and rich description of the bases on which they were made

43 What is most important? Sometimes, it is immediate practice Sometimes, it is creating space for people to articulate their world in the face of power structures which silence them Sometimes, it is finding ways to open ourselves to different ways of experiencing our world and finding new stories to tell Sometimes, it will be about finding out what people think is most significant and worthwhile

44 What is most important? And sometimes action research will be about creating tentative beginnings of inquiry under very difficult circumstances, planting seeds that may emerge into large fruits.

45 Action Research: international, interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal


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