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Action Research Literature Review

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Category: Miscellaneous

Autor: anton 05 December 2010

Words: 2631 | Pages: 11

Executive Summary

Action Research believes that "Human organizations can only be understood as whole entities" (Baskerville, 1999) and that social processes are best to be studied when change is introduced to observe the effects of these. Furthermore, It makes use of a cyclical approach in order for an initial holistic understanding of a social setting. The action research literature has strongly challenged the character of positivism. It is believed that this type of research is derived from a different ontological basis; it tends to a humanistic social practice rather than a traditional natural science.

Lewin started with the term В‘action research'. His approach to the process is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding. It is sometimes argued that Lewin's model place insufficient analysis at key points. Elliot (1991) argued that in the model the В‘general idea' can be fixed in advance, that В‘reconnaissance' is merely fact-finding and that В‘implementation is a fairly straightforward process. Kemmis developed a more simplistic model that is composed of only four steps: plan, act, observe and reflect. In turn, Susman developed a more elaborate approach to action research. Its process was a continuous circle of diagnosing, action planning, taking action, evaluating, specifying learning and diagnosing, action planning and so on until the problem was resolved. By the mid В‘70's 4 main streams have emerged. These consist of the traditional action research, contextual action research (action learning), Radical action research, and educational action research.

There are differences between the traditional approach and the research action approach.

Action research is claimed to be a broad process or a way of working rather than a definitive technique. There are many opinions about which method is the best to use and many innovative forms are applied. Action research tries to go beyond the routinely available data to provide not just understanding, but also enabling practical implementation.

The underlying philosophy of action research

In assessing the foundation of the underlying philosophy of action research, several viewpoints are being reviewed in the following part.

Action research believes that "human organisations can only be understood as whole entities" (Baskerville, 1999). This implicates that social settings like organisations, cannot lead to useful knowledge when dividing it into different components or variables. To understand the interaction of complex social settings between variables, it focuses on the purpose of the research: the management of change (Cunningham, 1995). This makes clear that social processes can be best studied when introducing change and observing the effects of these. This change-orientated method shapes the action research approach. Another important aspect of action research is the concept of the hermeneutical circle and that knowledge is not possible without this. It is a cyclical approach for the improvement of organisational changes and the associated actions over time (MГјller, 2005). The hermeneutical circle takes the form of attempting an initial holistic understanding of a social setting and then using this understanding as a basis for interpreting the parts of the system (Susman, Evered, 1978). Every time a difference occurs between the part and the whole, researches should go back to the beginning concept and should revise it. The frequency of this decreases when the match of the researcher's concept of the social setting and that held by its members is increasing. This helps the researcher understanding its own preconceptions better and those held by his system members. In turn this enables the researcher to see possible solutions not seen by its group members. This automatically brings us to the next point: the involvement of practitioners and researches. This means the researcher is part of the organisation within which the research and change process are taking place (Zuber-Skerritt, 1996).

The points above basically relate to an interpretive approach, a philosophy that requires the researcher to seek to understand the subjective reality and meaning of participants (Saunders, 2003). Interpretivism beliefs that the world is socially constructed and subjective, that the observer is part of the what is observed and that science is driven by human interest. Furthermore, interpretivism, like action research, tries to understand what actually is happening by looking at the totality of each situation.

Positivism is a "research philosophy that involves working with the observable social reality. The emphasis is on highly structured methodology to facilitate replication, and the end product can be law-like generalisations similar to those produced by the physical and natural scientists" (Saunders, 2003). The basic beliefs are that the world can be seen as an external and objective object where the observer remains independent. The action research literature has strongly challenged the character of В‘positivist' research (Waterman et al, 2001; Hart, 1996; Susman and Evered, 1978).

These can be summarised as follows:

В§ The impossibility of achieving the assumption of objectivity in research findings and outcomes as well as the ability to control a limited number of research variables.

В§ A critique of the notion of researchers attaining a detached/value free/neutral position

and a recognition of the existence of oppressive ideologies and vested interests;

В§ A questioning of a В‘scientific' approach and the features of generalisability,

establishing cause and effect relationships;

В§ A failure to take account of the social context in which actors construct meaning;

В§ A tendency to treat humans as passive subjects;

В§ A disregard for features of the organisational context that shape delivery;

В§ The resultant notion that positivist research deals with an artificial В‘static' situation and is not helpful in В‘real world' emergent problem solving.

In more positive terms, an alternative set of philosophical and conceptual resources are deployed by action researchers that attempt to recognise variously, the uncertainty, complexity, instability, uniqueness and value conflict involved in any research context (Waterman et al, 2001). Hart (1996) thus believe that action research is derived from a different ontological basis В– a humanistic social practice rather than a traditional natural science.

The process of action research

Lewin is generally credited as the person who started with the term 'action research':

The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management or social engineering. It is a type of action-research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action. Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice (Lewin 1946)

His approach involves a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action. The basic cycle involves the following:

Figure 1

This is how Lewin describes the initial cycle:

The first step then is to examine the idea carefully in the light of the means available. Frequently more fact-finding about the situation is required. If this first period of planning is successful, two items emerge: namely, "an overall plan" of how to reach the objective and secondly, a decision in regard to the first step of action. Usually this planning has also somewhat modified the original idea.

The next step is В‘composed of a circle of planning, executing, and reconnaissance or fact finding for the purpose of evaluating the results of the second step, and preparing the rational basis for planning the third step, and for perhaps modifying again the overall plan'. This approach to research illustrates that it is oriented towards problem solving in social and organizational settings, and that has a form that parallels Dewey's conception of learning from experience.

The approach, as presented, does take a fairly sequential. It can be argued that the model itself places insufficient emphasis on analysis at key points. Elliott (1991), for example, believed that the basic model allows those who use it to assume that the В‘general idea' can be fixed in advance, В‘that "reconnaissance" is merely fact-finding, and that "implementation" is a fairly straightforward process'. As might be expected there was some questioning as to whether this was В‘real' research. There were questions around action research's partisan nature В– the fact that it served particular causes.

Stephen Kemmis has developed a simple model of the cyclical nature of the typical action research process. Each cycle has four steps: plan, act, observe, reflect.

Figure 2

Gerald Susman (1983) gives a somewhat more elaborate listing. He distinguishes five phases to be conducted within each research cycle. Initially, a problem is identified and data is collected for a more detailed diagnosis. This is followed by a collective postulation of several possible solutions, from which a single plan of action emerges and is implemented. Data on the results of the intervention are collected and analyzed, and the findings are interpreted in light of how successful the action has been. At this point, the problem is re-assessed and the process begins another cycle. This process continues until the problem is resolved.

Figure 3

Current Types of Action Research

By the mid-1970s, the field had evolved, revealing 4 main В‘streams' that had emerged: traditional, contextural (action learning), radical, and educational action research.

Traditional Action Research

Traditional Action Research stemmed from Lewin's work within organizations and encompasses the concepts and practices of Field Theory, Group Dynamics, T-Groups, and the Clinical Model. The growing importance of labour-management relations led to the application of action research in the areas of Organization Development, Quality of Working Life (QWL), Socio-technical systems (e.g., Information Systems), and Organizational Democracy. This traditional approach tends toward the conservative, generally maintaining the status quo with regards to organizational power structures.

Contextural Action Research (Action Learning)

Contextural Action Research, also sometimes referred to as Action Learning, is an approach derived from Trist's work on relations between organizations. It is contextural, insofar as it entails reconstituting the structural relations among actors in a social environment; domain-based, in that it tries to involve all affected parties and stakeholders; holographic, as each participant understands the working of the whole; and it stresses that participants act as project designers and co-researchers. The concept of organizational ecology, and the use of search conferences come out of contextural action research, which is more of a liberal philosophy, with social transformation occurring by consensus and normative incrementalism.

Radical Action Research

The Radical stream, which has its roots in Marxian В‘dialectical materialism' and the praxis orientations of Antonio Gramsci, has a strong focus on emancipation and the overcoming of power imbalances. Participatory Action Research, often found in liberationist movements and international development circles, and Feminist Action Research both strive for social transformation via an advocacy process to strengthen peripheral groups in society.

Educational Action Research

A fourth stream, that of Educational Action Research, has its foundations in the writings of John Dewey, the great American educational philosopher of the 1920s and 30s, who believed that professional educators should become involved in community problem-solving. Its practitioners, not surprisingly, operate mainly out of educational institutions, and focus on development of curriculum, professional development, and applying learning in a social context. It is often the case that university-based action researchers work with primary and secondary school teachers and students on community projects.

Action Research methods and its relation to traditional approaches

Action research is a broad process or a way of working rather than a definitive technique (Green et al, 1995). There are many discussions about which method is perceived to be the best to use. Therefore, many different methods exist and its assumed that action research takes up many forms.

Some take the approach that it is inappropriate to associate particular methods to action research, preferring a more open and flexible use of a range of potential methods (Green et al, 1995).

Baum (1996) prefers a form of, В‘methodological eclecticism' where the principle is in selecting В‘those methods that are most likely to illuminate issues rather than being committed to any particular methodology'. On the other hand, Pawson and Tilley (1997) favour the idea of a В‘combined' or В‘plural' research approach.

Swepson (1998) takes a position of fitness for function. This means that a methodology should be chosen according to the situation of the research, instead of being committed to just one model. Baum (1998) also suggests that the necessary information that is needed has to satisfy the needs of the players. This implies a more flexible approach to action research methods. Furthermore, Baum (1998) states that availability will have an impact on the methods to be chosen.

Dadds and Hart (2001) suggest В‘methodological borrowing'. This implicates that methods, which are used in traditional social sciences, can also be used for action research to generate the necessary data.

Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) have listed some techniques that are more specific, these include field notes, diary, documentary analysis, diaries and logs, observation, questionnaire surveys, individual and group interviews and audio and video material.

Dadds and Hart (2001) state that, В‘we observed that the more mainstream, traditional research approaches do not always suit the needs and available resources of practitioner researchВ…В…. formal knowledge of research methodology could, in some cases, be deskilling rather than enabling' (Dadds and Hart, 2001).

This illustrates the difference between action research method and В‘traditional' research methods. Within action research innovative methods came up. Traditional methodologies are more rigorous. Furthermore, action research tries to go beyond the routinely available data to provide not just understanding, but also enables practical implementation.

References

Baskerville R. L. (1999) В‘Investigating Information Systems with Action Research' Communications of the Association for Information Systems [Online]

http://www.cis.gsu.edu/~rbaskerv/CAIS_2_19/CAIS_2_19.html [Accessed 09/01/2006]

Baskerville R.L. (Oct. 1999) В‘Investigating Information Systems with Action Research' Communications of the Association for Information Systems Volume 2, Article 19 [Online]

http://www.cis.gsu.edu/~rbaskerv/CAIS_2_19/CAIS_2_19.html [Accessed 09/01/2006]

Baum F. (1996) В‘Research to support health promotion based on community development

Approaches' (In Colquhoun D. and Kelleher A. Health Research in Practice Vol. 2) Chapman and Hall, London.

Baum F. (1998) В‘Measuring effectiveness in community-based health promotion' (In: Davies J.K. and Macdonald G. Quality, Evidence and Effectiveness in Health Promotion; striving for certainties) Routledge, London.

Cunningham J.B. (1995) В‘Strategic Considerations in using Action Research for Improving Personnel Practices' (In: Research Methods for Business Students, Saunders M, Lewis P, Thornhill A.) Public Personnel Management, pp. 515-19

Dadds M. and Hart S. (2001) В‘Doing Practitioner Research Differently' Routledge/Falmer, London pp. 7

Elliot, J. (1991) В‘Action Research for Educational Change' Buckingham: Open University Press.

Green L, George M, Daniel M, Frankish C, Herbert C, Bowie W, O'Neill M. (1995) В‘Study of Participatory Research in Health Promotion: Review and Recommendations for the Development of Participatory Research in Health Promotion in Canada' The Royal Society of Canada

Hart E. (1996) В‘Action Research as a Professionalising Strategy: Issues and Dilemmas' Journal of Advanced Nursing Vol. 23

Kemmis, S., and McTaggart, R. (1988) В‘The action research planner' (3rd edition). Deakin University pp.100-105

MГјller R. (2005) В‘Research Methods: Research Models' UmeГҐ University, School of Business and Economics [Handout]

Pawson, R. and Tilley, N. (1997). Realistic Evaluation Sage, London

Saunders M, Lewis P, Thornhill A. (2003) В‘Research Methods for Business Students' Pearson Education Limited, London, pp. 83-84, 93-96

Schein, E (1995) 'Kurt Lewin's Change Theory in the Field and in the Classroom: Notes Toward a Model of Managed Learning', Systems Practice, [Online] http://www.solonline.org/res/wp/10006.html [Accessed 11/01/2006]

Susman G.I. , Evered R.D. (Dec. 1978) В‘An Assesment of the Scientific Merits of Action Research' Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 4

Susman G, Evered R. (1978) В‘An Assessment of the Scientific Merits of Action Research' Administrative Science Quarterly Vol. 23

Susman, G. (1983) В‘Action Research: A socio-technical systems perspective' (In: Beyond Method: Strategies for social research, Morgan, G.), Sage Newbury Park pp. 95-113

Swepson, P. (1998) В‘Separating the ideals of research from the methodology of research, either action research or science, can lead to better research' Action Research International, Paper 1 [Online]

http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/sawd/ari/ari-swepson.html [Accessed 09/01/2006]

Ullman, D. (2000) 'Kurt Lewin: His Impact on American Psychology, or Bridging the Gorge between Theory and Reality' [Online] http://www.sonoma.edu/psychology/os2db/history3.html [Accessed 10/01/2006]

Waterman H, Tillen D, Dickson R, de Koning K. (2001) В‘Action Research: a Systematic Review and Guidance for Assessment' Health Technology Assessment Vol. 5, No. 23

Zuber-Skerit O. (1996) В‘Emancipatory Action Research for Organisational Change and management Development' (In: Research Methods for Business Students, Saunders M, Lewis P, Thornhill A.) New Directions in Action Research, London, Falmer, pp. 83-105

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