“You cannot understand a system until you try to change it” (Lewin)
Participatory action research comprises a family of research methodologies which aim to pursue action and research outcomes at the same time (PAR, action learning, soft systems methodology, developmental evaluation, etc.). It therefore has some components which resemble consultancy or change agency, and some which resemble field research. The focus is action to improve a situation and the research is the conscious effort, as part of the process, to formulate public knowledge that adds to theories of action that promote or inhibit learning in behavioural systems. In this sense the participatory action researcher is a practitioner, an interventionist seeking to help improve client systems. However, lasting improvement requires that the participatory action researcher help clients to change themselves so that their interactions will create these conditions for inquiry and learning. Hence to the aims of contributing to the practical improvement of problem situations and to the goals of developing public knowledge we can add a third aim of participatory action research, to develop the self -help competencies of people facing problems. The accompanying LfS blog posting – – Participatory action research provides for multiple benefits – provides a brief introduction to action research and how it is can be used, and points to a wide range of topic areas that can all contribute more specific information around its use in practice.
PAR: linking practice, reflection and learning
The principles of action research can be seen to underpin the development and improvement of practice in all the fields of inquiry within this site. The concept of learning by doing in which learning is perceived as experiential and reflexive is fundamental to this approach. It recognises that people learn through the active adaptation of their existing knowledge in response to their experiences with other people and their environment. Moreover, the process of building on experience is a natural one for most people and action research provides a framework for formalising and making this process more effective. By making explicit and documenting the processes by which individuals carry out their activities and problem solving processes allows for the fine tuning and improvement of these processes. And while action research is inherently a collaborative approach, it is also useful as an approach to improve individual practice.
Understanding action research. This useful page by Margaret Riel provides a overview of action research for new action researchers which is revised yearly. It provides a good orientation to the different dimensions of action research that characterize different approaches. Margaret also leads the excellent Open Action Research Online Course … which provides a video, activities and writing modules and resource links for each module.
Both critical and applied? Action research and transformative change. This 2018 paper by Emma L Westling and Liz Sharp outlines how doing action research in technical areas provides an opportunity for social science to present its perspectives outside of ‘normal’ social science contexts, supporting greater attention to ethical, justice and environmental concerns. Importantly, taking a critical action research to water management enables informed dialogue with technical decision makers and other key stakeholders – raising and pushing forward socially and environmentally progressive futures.
Both critical and applied? Action research and transformative changer. This 2018 paper by Ioan Fazey and colleagues explains the need for more action-oriented research and introduces the concept of first and second-order science, which frames the rest of the paper. They then point to ten essentials for guiding action-oriented transformation and research. They include: 1) Focus on transformations to low-carbon, resilient living; 2) Focus on solution processes; 3) Focus on ‘how to’ practical knowledge; 4) Approach research as occurring from within the system being intervened; 5) Work with normative aspects; (6) Seek to transcend current thinking; 7) Take a multi-faceted approach to understand and shape change; 8) Acknowledge the value of alternative roles of researchers; 9) Encourage second-order experimentation; and 10) Be reflexive. The paper emphasises that while first-order modes of research are important, much greater emphasis is needed on second order approaches that can accelerate learning and actions that lead to transformations towards a low-carbon, resilient and sustainable world.
Why action research? Members of the editorial board of Action Research responded to the question, ‘Why action research?’. This 2003 article examines common themes and commitments among action researchers as well as exploring areas of disagreement and important avenues for future exploration.
Participatory action research and its practice
Action Research Resources This site by Bob Dick provides comprehensive links and material to key action research, action learning and related resources. This site also acts as home to Areol, action research and evaluation on line , which is a set of on-line learning sessions provided (as a 15-week public on-line course offered each semester) as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Institute of Workplace Research Learning and Development. I did this course when it started some years ago … and can really recommend it.
The Application of Participatory Action Research to Climate Change Adaptation in Africa. A reference guide. The primary aim of this Reference Guide is to provide a set of concepts and practical tools for use by those working to support stakeholders (communities, government agencies, policy makers) in their efforts to adapt – or to help others adapt – to climate change. The Guide nevertheless presents a generic set of concepts and tools that is likely to be of use to others working to address other development challenges requiring a multi-stakeholder learning-by-doing approach.
Participatory action research: Guide for facilitators This guide has been written by Robert Nurick and Marina Apgar as a resource document for the training and capacity building of facilitators who conduct participatory action research (PAR) in the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (AAS). This guide provides a road map for facilitators to support them in delivering a rigorous PAR process, providing them with guidance for effective facilitation that allows for critical reflection throughout the engagement process. The material in the guide is also relevant to other groups wishing to take a PAR approach to research and community development.
Chapter 3: The role of action research in environmental management In this methodology chapter (from my thesis) Will Allen outlines the underlying concepts of action research in more detail. Some differences between action research and mainstream science are then explained, particularly to justify its use as an appropriate methodology to address social and institutional issues related to improving environmental management. Some more practical details of practicing action research are then discussed. Finally the process of critical reflection in action research is highlighted, and an illustration of how it’s use in practice can help in getting people to think more deeply about the use of environmental practices is outlined.
Action Science Network The Action Science Network aims to accurately describe and efficiently demonstrate the theory and practice of action science and, secondarily, to connect individuals and groups interested in working with action science. (In the field of Organizational Development, Action Science is also known as Action Inquiry, Action Research, and Organizational Learning.) The Network also maintains a comprehensive bibliography of books and articles by Chris Argyris.
Useful papers on the history and application of action research include:
A Set of Principles for Conducting and Evaluating Interpretive Field Studies in Information Systems This oldish (but still worth reading) paper by Heinz Klein and Michael Myers discusses the conduct and evaluation of interpretive research in information systems. While the conventions for evaluating information systems case studies conducted according to the natural science model of social science are now widely accepted, this is not the case for interpretive field studies. A set of principles for the conduct and evaluation of interpretive field research in information systems is proposed, along with their philosophical rationale. The intention of the paper is to further reflection and debate on the important subject of grounding interpretive research methodology.
A number of other pages and sections in this site provide information on related areas. There are, for example, a number of research approaches that support participatory and learning-based initiatives. Other specific pages look at how to manage integration in applied research settings and new thinking on managing participation and engagement.