Mark Karadimos






















This document was created as an informational piece to explain the nature of action research.  The reader will discover exactly what it is and how it is used.
Table of Contents




Research Conflict






Reference List






There is a long history of disenfranchised people in global society who have been served by adopting social movement strategies to conquer their problems.  In situations where people felt unable to peacefully correct problems, they found solutions when organization is possible.  Within the last century, social movements have addressed several problems that involved civil rights.  Labor movements placed an end to child labor, provided better general working conditions, and established the right for collective bargaining (Vago, 1999: 358).

It is believed there is a top-down structure in place that monopolizes decision-making and ultimately control over society.  Action research is a practice meant to empower people to regain control through the pursuit of knowledge, study of an issue or problem, and eventually develop solutions to issues or problems (Reason, 2000: 325, 328).

Action research is a modern type of social movement.  It is research meant to bring involvement to those the problem and eventual solution impacts.  It is viewed as an ongoing educational mindset designed to challenge the traditional power structure, allowing communities, employees, and organization helpers to bring change to the structures they are affiliated.

This type of research is a grass roots approach that reflects the needs of our western society that promotes a democratic way of life.  Action research promotes a mindset necessary to instill the framework to maintain a democracy, with a belief that freedom and a less oppressed world is the norm.  It promotes “the investigation of reality in order to get a better understanding of the problems and their root causes” (Park, 1993: 3). 

Action research is directed toward empowerment more than it is formal academic research.  Park and Reason, who specifically articulate the details surrounding action research, believe this.  Park expressed their collective beliefs best when he wrote, “Empowerment is realized through the experience of engaging in collective social actions” (Park, 1993: 4).

Although it is not specifically mentioned in their writings, it would seem action research has social and intellectual evolutionary capabilities.  It promotes shared decision-making and a level of assertiveness to investigate the specific problems surrounding a particular issue and finally determine a solution.  It is focused on engaging people to fight their own battles without depending on existing power structures.

Action research contains a loose protocol.  However, there is a general structure through which to operate.  The next part of this investigation of action research will address that structure.


Research Conflict

The model for action research is general, at best.  Action research has been coined as participatory research because it is a theoretical device designed to involve people, by its definition; consequently, it is met with great controversy within the domain of quantitative research practitioners.  Formal researchers find it troublesome because their work is traditionally rooted in observation and non-involvement (Newman, 2000).

In defense of qualitative, participatory research, one can cite scientific fact to dispute claims made by formal researchers.  Within a branch of physics rests quantum mechanics, which states there are no pure observers to any system.  These quantitative scientists know the act of observation changes what is being observed.  It is a consequence of Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle.

The Uncertainty Principle applies to the realm of the subatomic, but it does indicate connections do exist between observation and events being studied.  Driven with a need to maintain a democratic way of life, there are those within the field of research who use participatory action research to cultivate and instill it while also acknowledging the less than rigorous and minimalist structure action research brings with it.



It is important it be reiterated that action research is not a step-by-step process with a discrete, formulaic approach.  Action research is an attempt to flesh out truths within a community or organization by calling on its participants.  However, the art of action research has been described by many writers who offer extremely repetitive findings.  There are three writers on the topic who offer a complete spectrum of concentration.  Park, Reason and Newman create a philosophical construct on which to understand action research.

Park is an appropriate starting point.  Park’s view of participatory research is wholeheartedly based on involvement.  If there is a strict procedure, the guiding highlights would be on creating a sound start, involving the people who will: direct the change, define the problem, perform the research, gather the data, and utilize the results (Park, 1993).

Park describes a researcher who will initiate the process and begin the critical start.  This researcher or researching body will become intimate with the problem to be studied by first contacting an intervening body.  The body can be a university, church, community outreach group, or some other interested and mobilized body.  The researcher must then be introduced to the community to build trust and communication.

Through trust, time and communication, the community is to be awakened.  Initially, the researcher opens informal town hall meetings to discuss problems and issues to get a sense of what the community feels is the problem, to get associated not only with the problem but also members of the community.  The goal is to build energy and purpose so the researcher can act as the facilitator, or the conduit through which the action rides.

After energy is built, the true problem must be defined.  With the assistance of the community, the now facilitator formulates the problem so that it will be conducive for further study.  The facilitator must pull relevant problems from the community and separate those that are irrelevant to get to the core problem.

Views of performing research and gathering data are closely tied.  According to Park, in order to depend on the full involvement of the community, the methods must not be of a complexity as to preclude participation from community members.  Beyond hyper-complex research methods, all types of research methods are suitable, save for those which violate divulging knowledge.  Due to the dependency of involvement and trust within action research participants, methods requiring secrecy would not fit a model that so closely requires full public knowledge as a prerequisite for inspiring community interest.


Park writes:


Even if there are members of the research team who are capable of carrying out [complex] analysis, care should be taken not to create specialist roles whose functions are to carry out operations which the rank and file cannot fully understand.  This kind of division of labor tends to recreate relationships of dependence and powerlessness. (Parks, 1993: 14)


A better avenue, according to Park, would be to learn how the community judges the problem.  Using the community’s knowledge base, standards, and everyday life experiences, gathering and analyzing data can be made to be extremely meaningful.  The act of analysis allows the oppressed to use brain power “to be critical and innovative in order to fashion a world free of domination and exploitation”. (Parks, 1993: 15)

When finally utilizing the results, the community can make changes prescribed through dialogue.  Park explicitly mentions dialogue throughout his treaty and molds the concept around the public forum.  The intent is to have the community force change and undergo a permanent evolution.  As new problems materialize, the community once energized by the process of action research can take them on as a collective, emancipated whole.

Newman, who uses action research on the teaching profession, is less philosophical than Park and makes a case for five possible ‘tools’ or ‘assumptions’.  They include narrative inquiry, critical inquiry, case studies, reflective practice and critical incidents (Newman, 2000).  The descriptions presented by Newman address individualized action research, but the suggestions could easily be broadened in order to be used by any size group or organization.

In narrative inquiry, reflections are made as situations arise.  They are used to determine what values are important through pressures that are experienced during this practice.  Solidified values exist to impact future decision-making.  This practice has a notable weakness.  The reflections are only as good as the reflector(s).  Without an outside reference, it becomes impossible to tell if positive ground is being made until more damage is sustained.  It may be a good practice when it is used by an experienced entity, but runs a large risk of falling short in other cases.

Critical inquiry has a focus that is less internal and more external.  Instead of using tools of reflection as the topmost priority, this structure pulls from outside influencers, such as social climate, political pressures, news articles and all past artifacts produced that are under study.  This practice may be valid when outside pressures offer beneficial criticisms.

Case studies attempt to use groups to explain phenomenon, shape understanding of related events to the group, and ultimately mold direction toward the future.  This approach is a learning approach in that it is meant to create an academic atmosphere.  It is as good as the particular methods used to study the cases.

Newman described reflective practice that is not to be confused with narrative inquiry.  Reflective practice operates under the belief there is no best method or perfect process.  The practice is designed to realign past performance according to whatever the performance dictates is good or bad.  Its weakness may be that there is nothing to compare it to, and that subconscious motives can drive the process when there is no official standard to adopt.  However, the theory claims a fresh perspective is enough to allow ideas to form from re-examining the past.

The practice of critical incidents is an act of recognizing situations as they arise.  Within this practice, serendipity seems to be the active agent.  The advantages would be to allow situations to evolve naturally in a non-threatening manner.  The disadvantage would be the element of time.  If time is essential, this practice could incur costs or allow problems to remain unsolved, become entrenched, and harder to solve.

Newman reflects on the tools as being individualized (or organizational) techniques for reflective purposes.  They are open to incorporate outside standards, but the main objective is to build a deep understanding of all issues associated with a set of problems.  They are methods meant to provide a more comprehensive awareness of the problems and/or situations being studied.

Reason, unlike Newman, reflects on a smaller number of research models, but instead details the rationale and psychology of these mindsets to a great depth.  He does not present tools; due to the depth of his rationale, it would be best characterized that Reason presents philosophies.  Consistent with Park, Reason rests his motivation for what he calls ‘participative inquiry’ on a need to empower the impoverished by connecting such people to the crucial source of knowledge needed for them to escape their plights (Reason, 2000: 325).

Reason fully acknowledges that traditional social science theory perceives the methodology of his participative inquiry models as unorthodox.  As explained under Research Conflict above, classical social science methodology is rooted in non-interference and keeping a distance using conventional observational techniques.  Reason clarifies three models of participative inquiry that prescribe interaction with subjects.  These models are co-operative inquiry, participatory action research, and action inquiry.

The first model described by Reason is co-operative inquiry and it contains four phases (Reason, 2000: 326).  Within phase one, researchers decide on the problem to be studied and agree upon the procedure methods for observation.  Phase two involves carrying out the procedure methods defined within phase one with acute attention to detail.  Researchers actively become engaged in the study by role-playing as employees in a company, teachers in a district, healthcare workers in a hospital, or whatever role the situation demands.

Continuing this process has researchers enter into phase three.  This is the step when researchers finally become actively engaged and immersed in their respective roles.  Researchers test ideas and strategies and record the results.  Phase four involves a conclusion to the process.  Here researchers consider their initial declarations and assumptions, reflect on their experiences, adopt new hypotheses regarding the study, continue the process cyclically, and record findings.

To understand co-operative inquiry, Reason uses a rationale similar to the ancient American-Indian proverb.  The proverb is one that can be paraphrased as: ‘To understand a person, one must walk a mile in that person’s shoes’.  Reason justifies this rationale by correlating the four phases to Heron’s three types of knowledge: propositional knowledge, experiential knowledge, and practical knowledge (Reason, 2000: 326).

To summarize Heron, propositional knowledge is conceptual understanding, practical knowledge is skill-based understanding, and experiential knowledge is understanding through doing (Heron, 1993).

Reason’s second model for participatory inquiry is participatory action research.  Reason’s foundation for action research is akin to Park’s in that it is model based on changing the power structure and a return toward a society that embraces a democratic mentality.  He explains it must include a commitment to learn, work, and collaborate for the success of a larger whole.

Like all action research models, participatory action research is not based on the traditional social scientific view that observation must remain separate from that which is being studied.  Reason’s explanation of participatory action research is identical to Park’s participatory research, with no measurable differences between the two.

The next model proposed by Reason is action inquiry.  The model is based on Argyris’ ‘double-loop’ learning (Smith, 2001).  Double loop learning is the ability to reflect on action strategies and the “governing variables behind those strategies”.  There are two theories of action within double-loop learning, which are referred to as Model I and Model II (Reason, 2000: 330).

Model I has governing variables that are based on independent motivators, winning as the objective, excluding negative feelings, and focusing on rational thought.  Behaviors stemming from this set of governing variables are thought to be that of control and defense, which limit effectiveness.

Model II has governing variables that are based on valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment.  Behaviors growing from this set of governing variables are thought to be that of inclusiveness, a sharing of information, and increased participation, which enhances effectiveness.

Reason explains that action research strategies are effective because they exhibit Model II characteristics.  To summarize a great deal of Reason’s explanation and the detailed technical jargon accompanying it, he arrives at an important conclusion by synthesizing the work of Torbert: a strategy that demonstrates Model II characteristics also promotes a structure conducive to a democracy.

Characteristics such as shared decision-making, full disclosure of information, and autonomy are the building blocks of democracy.  Torbert’s work with Reason reflects that action research embodies the spirit of democracy (Reason & Torbert, 2001).  An overwhelming rationale and consequent strong connection to such a strong form of government leaves one with the undeniable belief that action research is a legitimate practice, even though it does not follow traditional social science protocols.

Unlike other commentators of action research strategies, Reason lays out the inherent weaknesses of the models he describes (Reason, 2000: 335).  Co-operative inquiry is a psychological endeavor that sacrifices external political parameters for the microprocesses of small group behavior.  Participatory action research romanticizes democratization and “…ignore(s) the ways in which all groups may be destructive and distort their experience”.  Action inquiry may be seen as elitist as its drive is to encourage an ego-evolution of the stereotypical vision of Western individualism.

Reason suggests their strengths.  Participatory action research is best on groups that are disenfranchised.  Co-operative inquiry is best when groups are already empowered and are motivated for change.  Action inquiry is best when an individual is seeking to cultivate participative modes of inquiry within a group.


Action research is a drive for emancipation of the people more than it is a scientific endeavor.  The main focus is not to provide the researcher with an innovate technique for working data.  It is a model meant to inspire individuals into collaborative, autonomous problem solvers who work in teams.

This type of research is not meant to replace traditional social science methodologies.  There are numerous events that require the paradigm of mathematical rigor and nonbiased data collection.  For instance, to test the efficacy of a drug, one would still utilize placebos, random samples, and double-blind testing methods.  Clearly, there are many situations that call for traditional methods.

Participatory research exists to motivate community members to solve their own problems and is a different, yet equally valid, paradigm within research.  Action research can act as an underlying force that propels a community to identify problems, collect information, develop solutions, and implement the solutions.  It can turn passive citizens into initiators of and partakers in change.

More important, action research ties in perfectly with democratic principles.  Inclusion, shared decision-making, autonomy, discovery, a belief in public forum, and all other requirements for a healthy democracy are essential components of the action research models presented here.  In fact, Lewin reported that democratic groups give rise to peaceful members (Smith, 2001), making it especially advantageous to traditional research models.

Reference List

Heron, J. (1993) Co-operative inquiry and the primacy of the practical; Adapted from Chapter 2, Co-operative Inquiry, London, Sage; Available Online: (Accessed March 10th, 2004).


Newman, J. (2000) Action Research: A Brief Overview; Forum: Qualitative Social Research; [Online Journal] Available at: (Accessed March 1st, 2004).


Park, P. (1993) Voices of Change: What is Participatory Research? A Theoretical and Methodological Perspective; Bergin Garvey.


Reason, P. (2000) Handbook of Qualitative Research: Three Approaches to Participatory Inquiry; Sage.


Reason, P. & Torbert, W. (2001) The Action Turn: Toward a Transformational Social Science. Concepts and Transformation. 6:1, 1-37; Available Online: Turn, final C&T.doc (Accessed March 14th, 2004).


Smith, M. (2001) Chris Argyris: Theories of Action, Double-Loop Learning and Organizational Learning; The Encyclopedia of Informal Education; Available Online: (Accessed March 10th, 2004).


Smith, M. (2001) Kurt Lewin: Groups, Experiential Learning and Action Research; The Encyclopedia of Informal Education; Available Online: (Accessed March 10th, 2004).


Vago, S. (1999) Social Change.  Chapter 9: Strategies of Change; Pearson Education Inc.