Action research FAQ
(Frequently asked questions file)
This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July. For details email Bob Dick firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
... in which brief answers are provided to some commonly asked questions about action research
The initial draft was compiled by Bob Dick, with much help from Pam Swepson <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Useful comments were also provided by Felix Diaz <email@example.com>. Further comments are invited.
There is an associated mailing list, arlist-l. You may subscribe to it by sending the commandsubscribe ARLIST-L Your Name
(e.g. subscribe ARLIST-L Olive Oyl)
Corrections and additions to this file are sought. Send your comments and suggestions to Bob Dick.
There's also a Polish translation, courtesy of Andrey Fomin.
The following questions are addressed in this FAQ file
- What is action research?
- Is action research intended as a substitute for experimental or quasi-experimental research?
- What is the relationship of action research to science?
- What is the difference between action research and consulting, or action research and other professional practice? Am I already doing action research?
- Can action research yield causal explanations?
- How can action research justify its conclusions when it can't provide causal explanations?
- Can action research be quantitative?
- Can you generalise from action research? If not, how can action research add to knowledge?
- Are social sciences science?
- How can you do action research when you don't know enough to develop a hypothesis to start with?
Some of the answers given below are personal views -- not everyone would subscribe to them without reservation.
What is action research?
Action research is a research paradigm which allows you to develop knowledge or understanding as part of practice. It allows research to be done in situations where other research methods may be difficult to use. For instance, you may find it useful if...
- you must remain flexible
- or you wish to involve the people in the system being researched
- or you wish to bring about change at the same time
- or the situation is too ambiguous to frame a precise research question.
or any combination of the preceding conditions.
In short, action research is a useful way of doing research if you are a practitioner who wishes to improve your understanding of your practice. Its other common use is by activists who wish to engage the clients as co-researchers. It can also be used for preliminary or pilot research before using some other research approach. This is less common, but potentially very useful.
As its name implies, action research is intended to achieve both action and research. It is suited to situations where you wish to bring about action in the form of change, and at the same time develop an understanding which informs the change and is an addition to what is known.
Action research is typically cyclic. The later cycles are used to challenge and refine the results of the earlier cycles. In most of its forms it also tends to be qualitative, and participative. Some would say that neither of these is strictly necessary. Some insist, strongly, on high participation as a necessary feature. Some have defined publication of results as a defining characteristic.
Action research is also critically reflective. The researchers (and probably clients acting as co-researchers) regularly and systematically critique what they are doing. They refine the questions they are asking and the methods they are using and the understanding and subsequent action plans they are developing.
Action research commonly proceeds like this. The researcher, again often involving clients as co-researchers, plans the first or next step. This is then carried out. Researchers meet to recollect and critique their experience. In the light of this, they decide what to do for the next step: what information do they need or what outcome to pursue, and what method to use.
In short, action
research alternates between action and critical reflection.
The reflection consists first of analysing what has already
happened in previous steps, and then of planning what next step to
Emphatically not. Different research paradigms serve different purposes. It may with benefit be used in some situations where quasi-experimental designs are presently used. But there are other situations where experimentation or quasi-experimentation may be far better suited.
For instance, you may wish to find out about a few variables, and the causal relationships between them. If so, experimental or quasi-experimental research will serve you much better than action research. Alternatively, you may wish to explore some organisation or group or culture in depth, and with low impact. For this, you may do better to use ethnographic or other qualitative methods.
Action research methods are most likely to be appropriate when you do not know where to start, and do not have a lot of time to invest in the study. It is useful for exploratory research, where you do not yet have a very precise research question.
But it is most valuable when you have to be responsive to the changing demands of a situation. For example, this may be when you wish to build a research component into some change program or the like. For this reason it can also be used for evaluation of an ongoing program.
By some definitions action research is science. By other definitions it complements science.
Those who think it is science recognise that it shares with other approaches a pursuit of understanding. It values scepticism and empiricism. That is, in pursuing knowledge it strives vigorously to disconfirm present views, and it uses evidence to do that.
If science is systematic and sceptical empiricism, then action research is scientific.
Those who think it is not science point to a number of ways in which it differs from some other scientific paradigms. For example, action research:
In addition, action research is often regarded as giving answers which are specific to the particular situation, and which cannot be generalised to other situations. This is partly true, but a more complex issue than this criticism recognises. It can be said that the generalisation which experimental science provides is difficult to relate to social situations. I believe its value has therefore been overstated by those who criticise action research for its lack of generalisation.
Because of the differences between experimental science and action research, some would not regard action research as sufficiently rigorous to be regarded as science. In reply it can be said that this depends upon particular definitions of rigour.
In any event, action research can provide a useful contribution to knowledge, both in its own right and as a complement to more traditional approaches to research. It can provide answers to fuzzy and general questions. It can provide more "realistic" explanations. If necessary, more traditional methods can then be used to develop causal explanations, and to check how well the explanations can be generalised to other situations.
Further, action research is _designed_ to allow simultaneous change and understanding. You could say that
It allows for systematic
understanding to arise from activities which are oriented towards
change. It has a capacity to respond to the demands of the
informants and the situation in a way which most other paradigms
It is true that many practitioners, on first hearing about action research, reply: "I am already doing that."
It is true that action research and some forms of practice are in some ways similar. Both are often directed towards the achievement of change. Both are qualitative and often participative. Both tend to be flexible and cyclic. In both instances, there is a desire to base planned changes in the situation on understanding, and to derive that understanding from evidence.
Because of these and other similarities, less formal approaches to action research may be very similar to some forms of practice.
However, most forms of action research are more deliberate in their pursuit of understanding. Most importantly, frequent critical reflection is a formal and central part of most action research. Most practice is much less reflective than action research. Most practice, if it does use reflection, is neither as deliberate nor as critical in its use.
There are other
processes which do use regular and systematic critical
reflection. Action learning and experiential learning
provide two example. These and action research have much in
common, and shade into one another at the boundaries.
In the sense of explanations given in terms of causal relationships between variables, generally not. On occasions, the understanding developed may be causal -- people may come to recognise that event A precedes and probably causes event B. But this isn't a central interest.
A different type of
causal explanation often features in action research. A
causal connection between certain actions and certain outcomes may
be identified. Such a connection is then tested when the
planned actions are carried out. Action research can give
causal explanations in _this_ sense. In fact, as action
research is intended to produce action, this is usually an
It is true that action research does not usually try to provide causal explanations -- explanations of causal relationships between limited numbers of variables.
It shares a belief with some "systems" approaches: in some situations, causal explanations are either not possible, or too cumbersome to be very useful. When there are many variables, and they interact (often bi-directionally) in complex ways, causal explanations are themselves likely to be very complex.
To put it differently, when almost everything has an effect on almost everything else, it may not be much practical help to know that "a" influences "b".
Yes, though it is usually qualitative.
Most of the time action research uses natural language rather than numbers: the use of natural language suits a paradigm which is participative and responsive to the situation. People communicate naturally in language. Communication is an important part of action research, especially in its more participative varieties.
Quantitative measures can be valuable. But developing them requires a substantial investment in time. This may not be warranted if you are likely to change your mind about the measures that you need. When suitable quantitative measures are available, there is no reason why they may not be used.
Qualitative and quantitative approaches can often complement each other well. For example, you might carry out a quantitative survey or other activity. These data might then be interpreted qualitatively by the people within the system being analysed.
I should probably
mention the view held in some quarters that qualitative and
quantitative data ought not to be used in conjunction. This
is based on the argument that they depend upon different
philosophical assumptions. I won't go into detail here, but
in my view this is impractical. It places philosophy as an
unavoidable foundation for all research. On this view, we
should give up all research right away. Philosophers don't
presently agree on the foundations of research, and I see no
reason to think they ever will.
Often, you can't generalise from action research. In other words, you can often make claims only about the people and/or systems actually studied. It may not be safe to assume that other people or other systems are the same. For that matter, it may be hazardous to assume that what is true of this person (or organisation or community) today will be true next year.
This is often held to be one of the major disadvantages of action research. Experimental research, done well, does allow generalisation. An experimental claim can often be taken to be applicable universally.
The issue can also be looked at in a different way. Generalisability might be regarded as global relevance -- the ability to apply a finding from one experimental setting into other settings. Action research then pursues local relevance, if necessary at the expense of global relevance. Experimentation often achieves global relevance, but at the cost of being difficult to apply practically to local situations.
There are ways in which some generalisability can be claimed for the findings of action research. For example, if several studies in diverse settings give similar findings, this allows greater generalisability than a single study typically does. Similar actions may produce similar outcomes in different situations; this implies generalisability. One can also use indirectly-relevant literatures to test the relevance of findings.
Action research and
experimentation value different outcomes. Unless something
is done about it, action research is often limited by the local
relevance of its findings. Unless something is done about
it, experimental research is often limited by the narrowly defined
set of variables it investigates. It might be argued that
the generalisability of experimental research, when done within
social systems, is a very narrow form of generalisability.
Knowing that it is true that "a" causes "b" may not be much help
when "a" and "b" are immersed in a system of very many other,
I don't know. Are
they? It depends on your definitions of science, and what
you include as social science. This is an example of a
definitional problem. While I think it is worthwhile to
define terms, I find it less useful to debate the
definitions. For me, action research is useful in settings
where other paradigms work less well. It works. I'm
not concerned whether or not it's science that I'm doing.
This is actually another definitional issue in disguise. It assumes that research is necessarily a test of a hypothesis.
If you believe this, then you will conclude that action research is not really research. As long as you don't try to persuade others of your conclusion, I doubt that you will do much harm. If you wish to change the terminological habits of action researchers you may be in some difficulty. You will then have to devise a different term to describe it. As it has been known as action research for over half a century, I don't hold much hope that you will change the verbal habits of those who do action research.
Copyright (c) Bob Dick and Pam Swepson 1997-2013. This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.
This document can be cited as follows:
Dick, B. and Swepson, P. (2013) Action research FAQ: "frequently asked questions" file [On line]. Available at http://www.aral.com.au/resources/arfaq.html
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.10w last revised 20130610