A Critical Action Research Reader

by Patricia H. Hinchey (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook XIV, 330 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 433


Since its inception, action research has been the subject of confusion and controversy. Can something be research if it doesn’t «prove» anything? Can something be action research if it’s a project run by an expert who does not consider participants co-researchers? Questions multiply when the general term is limited to critical action research. What makes critical action research different from action research generally?
Can the action research project of a classroom teacher intended to raise standardized test scores properly be considered critical? Is there a role for advocacy in any enterprise calling itself research? If critical action research is distinct from traditional empirical research, then what formats make sense for sharing results? This highly diverse collection of previously unpublished and published works offers a sampling of opinions on key theoretical and methodological questions, complemented by a wide range of critical action research reports illustrating what various theories look like in practice. The book provides a sketch of the topography of critical action research terrain and illuminates some diverse paths through it.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Table of Contents
  • Part 1 Toward an Understanding of Critical Action Research
  • Introduction: The Contested Terrain of Critical Action Research
  • 1 The Emancipatory Character of Action Research, Its History and the Present State of the Art
  • 2 Deploying Qualitative Methods for Critical Social Purposes
  • 3 The Utility of Educational Action Research for Emancipatory Change
  • 4 Uses of Data in Action Research
  • 5 Critical Advocacy Research: An Approach Whose Time Has Come
  • 6 Limits to Knowledge and Being Human: What Is “Critical” in Critical Social Research and Theory?
  • Part 2 Critical Teacher Research in Urban Contexts
  • Introduction: Teacher Research, Urban Contexts, and the Emergence of the Critical from the Practical
  • 7 Contextualizing Critical Action Research: Lessons from Urban Educators
  • 8 From Disillusionment to Hope: Bicultural Practitioner Research
  • 9 Teaching Beyond the Skill and Drill: Reimagining Curriculum and Learning in a High-Stakes Testing Environment
  • 10 Big History, Little World: The Politics of Social Justice Curriculum in Advanced Placement World History
  • 11 Challenging Standardized Curriculum: Recognizing, Critiquing, and Attempting to Transform the Learning Process
  • 12 Perceptions of Health Education among Adolescents in an Urban School: A Project to Promote Empowerment and Health Literacy in an Underserved Community
  • Part 3 Participatory Action Research (PAR)
  • Introduction: Participatory Action Research (PAR) and Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR)
  • 13 Doing Research with Young People: Participatory Research and the Rituals of Collective Work
  • 14 Circulating Critical Research: Reflections on Performance and Moving Inquiry into Action
  • 15 In Search of Critical Knowledge: Tracing Inheritance in the Landscape of Incarceration
  • 16 Split Scenes, Converging Visions: The Ethical Terrains Where PAR and Borderlands Scholarship Meet
  • Part 4 New Bottles for New Wine—Report Formats
  • Introduction: Innovation in Research Report Formats
  • 17 From Critical Research Practice to Critical Research Reporting
  • 18 Recipe or Performing Art?: Challenging Conventions for Writing Action Research Theses
  • 19 Narrative Study in the Classroom—Knowing What Was, What Is, and What Could Be
  • 20 From Deficit to Abundance in the Classroom; Or What I Learned From Jayda
  • 21 Reverberating the Action Research Text
  • 22 Sojourning: Locating Ourselves in the Landscape
  • Part 5 Complexities
  • Introduction: No One Ever Said It Would Be Easy
  • 23 Wounded in the Field of Inquiry: Vulnerability in Critical Research
  • 24 Disruptions in the Field: An Academic’s Lived Practice with Classroom Teachers
  • 25 Who Says We Can’t Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear?: Transforming Market-based Programs into Critical Education
  • 26 Forming New Agreements: A Brief Critical Exploration of the Pedagogical Formations of Predominantly White, Preservice Teachers in an Urban Context.
  • 27 A Tale of Three Discourses: Doing Action Research in a Research Methods Class
  • Series index

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Toward an
of Critical Action

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The Contested Terrain of Critical Action Research

Theorists have been working for decades to be clear about what type of research might be termed “critical” as well as to be clear about what versions of action research merit that description. While there is some agreement about some things—for example, that any research termed “critical” must have as its ultimate objective greater social equity and justice—there are also many disagreements about other elements. Part 1 is intended to allow readers to build a basic definition of critical action research, to become familiar with some of its many manifestations, and to explore a sampling of related theoretical and practical issues.

In Chapter 1, Ben Boog presents his work as a close look at the characteristics of what he terms “action research.” However, many theorists and researchers are likely to understand his description a bit differently, as the editor does—as a basic history and description of “critical action research.” This is true because Boog asserts that the central defining characteristic of what he terms “action research” is the explicit objective of advancing empowerment and social equity. As many other researchers and theorists have noted, however, the term “action research” has in fact often been used to describe other forms of action research lacking any empowering, democratic goal.1 Much of Boog’s discussion, then—especially of contemporary strands of action research—can serve as a general introduction to critical action research terrain. The discussion includes the history of the seminal terms “emancipation” and “empowerment,” the roots of contemporary practice, and recent trends.

In describing recent approaches, Boog identifies four distinct strands—one of which he names “critical action research” and defines as “a family of models.” The other three strands include pragmatic action research, co-operative inquiry, and action research within the tradition of systems thinking. However, he identifies “convergences” among the four strands—and those convergences are widely accepted by many others as characteristic of critical action research. In addition to the common goal of empowerment, each approach includes a cyclical process in which action is an integral component and which requires mutual understanding among research partners. This bare-bones sketch of what makes critical action research “critical” helps explain why efforts as varied as one classroom teacher working ← 3 | 4 → to improve high school health curriculum and several research partners working to understand how incarceration of parents affects youth can be considered critical action research. This piece also details the many skills a critical action research practitioner needs, including mastery of theories and methodologies, an explicit ethical stance, strategies for nurturing self-awareness, and the ability to assess effects as the project unfolds. In general, Boog’s piece provides a useful survey of the history and geography of critical action research.

Given that the hallmark of critical work is to advance empowerment and social equity, Gaile Cannella and Yvonne Lincoln pose a provocative question in Chapter 2: “Since critical perspectives are powerfully engaged with powerful issues of our time, why is it that so little critical research becomes a part of civic debate?” Certainly any critical researcher, and especially a critical action researcher, intends to nudge the world toward change. Why does so little happen so routinely? The authors posit three influences, each of which merits consideration by those who would help change the world. The first is the issue of complex language, which has been debated within the field for some time. Critical researchers routinely write employing the lexicon of critical theory, and lay readers cannot—or perhaps reasonably will not—struggle through such abstractions as “conscientization” and “double-hermeneutic process” to access what writers intend to convey. While detailing and agreeing with arguments in favor of avoiding dominant discourse in presenting oppositional ideas, Canella and Lincoln insist that critical researchers nevertheless must find a way to make critical work readily accessible to a much larger public than the relatively few specialists who read highly specialized academic journals. The second issue the authors identify is that of well-funded government and politically conservative organizations reifying a particular kind of “evidence-based research” as the only type of research considered credible. The authors explain the many ways that such groups have helped silence critical voices in the interest of maintaining existing, inequitable power arrangements. Finally, the authors explain how corporatization of universities has altered the nature and goals of administrators and faculty in ways that undermine interest in anything other than institutional and personal financial profit—hardly a hospitable climate for researchers pursuing more equitable social relations. Any critical researcher would do well to digest—and adopt—the authors’ four suggestions for increasing efficacy of critical work in the face of such strong oppositional forces. After all, there is little point to mastering the theory and process of critical action research if, in the end, it has little or no effect on the world we seek to change.

In Chapter 3, Kimberley Kinsler also takes up the question of why critical action research has ultimately produced little real change—in particular for marginalized students who so often fare badly in schools. After reviewing various methodological models, as well as frequent criticisms of them, she takes issue with those theorists who insist that any action research seeking to improve student achievement is not truly critical. Like Cannella and Lincoln, she points to the ways in which much educational action research has been tightly interwoven with interests within the academy rather than with the interests of marginalized students and their families. After noting that critics frequently consider action research seeking improved academic achievement as technical rather than critical, Kinsler insists that it is—and should be recognized as—inherently critical and emancipatory:

That is, she argues that much classroom research qualifies as critical because empowerment includes helping marginalized students acquire the education—and cultural capital—that they are routinely denied and that equips them to effectively participate in efforts to realize a more just society. ← 4 | 5 →

Marie Brennan and Susan Noffke, in Chapter 4, shed considerable light on the difficulty of living critical action research in the teacher education classroom, where action research is often assigned to students and where structural power is bestowed on faculty experts. As the student teachers they supervised conducted individual action research projects, the authors conducted action research on their own teaching. This chapter details how ongoing analysis of data from faculty and student projects helped a seminar group cohere as co-researchers who continually came together for “constant questioning … [of] both positions and propositions.” In exploring the meaning and function of what the authors term “data-in-use,” the authors candidly discuss not only their successes but also their challenges, acknowledging “many points in [their] own practice which seem to contradict [their] most deeply held and articulated positions.” Their discussion is a thoughtful consideration of the nature and function of data, and it uncovers some of the many factors that make critical action research one of those things “easier said than done.”

Although Carolyn Shields does not address action research specifically in Chapter 5, she confronts head-on the criticism so often thought to damn critical action research: that in its explicit ideological commitments, critical research is advocacy and not truly research at all.2 In contrast, Shields argues that the privilege and power most researchers hold in fact confers the responsibility—perhaps even the moral obligation—to become public intellectuals who work toward greater social equity. Within the article she defines what she terms “critical advocacy research” and discusses how the quality of such work might be assessed without defaulting to standards, such as “trustworthiness,” derived from the positivist paradigm. She argues further that action strategically designed to realize change must become an integral part of such work. To illustrate, she details her earlier studies in Navajo schools, where she found and reported dominant discourses constructing Navajo youth as inferior—a deficit perspective on the students with damaging effects. Looking back at the lack of progress subsequent to her work, Shields believes that she erred in not taking more action to widely change stakeholders’ understanding of the situation and to promote strategic action to remedy it—that is, to be a more active advocate for the youth. While she acknowledges the practical risks to those who are outspoken in critique and in lobbying for greater equity, she nevertheless urges researchers to develop the courage necessary to answer this question affirmatively: “Has our research done anything to level the playing field, to overcome disparity, to promote a more mutually beneficial democratic society?”

Closing out this segment of the text is Phil Carspecken’s exploration of the sense that “critical” has had in the development of critical theory. Tracing some of the philosophical paths from Kant to Hegel that explore human identity, existential need, and freedom, Carspecken argues that both mainstream social research and much of what has been presented as challenges to the mainstream assume the subject-object paradigm of knowing without recognition of the associated knowledge limits. Carspecken’s arguments lead the reader toward the subject–subject paradigm of knowing, a paradigm most directly employed with critical action forms of research. According to this article, in critical action research humans produce knowledge together through collective action—a process that simultaneously advances human freedom.

Together, these chapters sketch the contested terrain of critical action research and offer some sense of the variety of perspectives on and issues within it, providing context for the highly diverse work appearing in subsequent parts of this text.


1. For perhaps the best-known (if not uncontested) exploration of noncritical action research, see Kemmis, S. (2006). Participatory action research and the public sphere. Educational Action Research, 14(4), 459–476.

2. For a more detailed discussion and refutation of such criticism, see Carr, W. (2000). Partisanship in educational research. Oxford Review of Education, 26(3/4), 437–449.

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The Emancipatory Character of Action Research, Its History and the Present State of the Art

Ben W. M. Boog


The historical development of action research reveals that it had emancipatory intentions from the very beginning and that this basis has become increasingly sophisticated with the refinement of action research into different approaches. Action research is designed to improve the researched subjects’ capacities to solve problems, develop skills (including professional skills), increase their chances of self-determination, and have more influence on the functioning and decision-making processes of organizations and institutions from the context in which they act. Emancipation implies that the generated results of action research are two sided. On the one hand are the specific improved action competencies of the researched subjects in the local situation in the specific research project. On the other hand are the general enhanced action competencies in other comparable problematic situations in the future, sometimes even in broader contexts. In addition, every action research project also aims to enhance the theory and methodology of action research as a distinct social science approach, as well as the professional skills of action researchers.

In the last few decades, emancipation has come to be equated with empowerment. Although they initially represented different perspectives, both emancipation and empowerment are closely connected to what is called a participatory worldview. This implies that all people must be equal participants in society, which means that they must have equal opportunities for schooling and jobs, have the opportunity to share in all goods and services in society and participate in decision making, both public and private. However, success in the sense of realizing emancipation and empowerment cannot be guaranteed by the wide range of action research theories available for designing a practice-oriented research project. Since the main characteristic is the communicative interaction between researchers and the researched subjects, action researchers have to be experienced in handling this relationship as a minimum success factor, over and above their skills as adequate social researchers. ← 6 | 7 →

In order to outline the state of the art of action research as an explicitly emancipatory research approach the following steps will be taken. First, the content of the concepts of emancipation and empowerment and the notion of participatory democracy, which is closely connected to these concepts, will be outlined. Second, the history of action research, keeping close to the concepts of emancipation, empowerment and participatory democracy and modalities and submodalities such as self-actualization and self-determination will be briefly sketched. Third, the different fully grown approaches of action research that we know today will be described. In the last paragraph, in which the focus is on the relationship between the researcher and researched subjects, some recommendations to improve the practice of action research will be made.

Emancipation, Empowerment and Participatory Democracy

To emancipate means to free oneself from restraint, control or the power of someone else, especially to free oneself from any kind of slavery. Emancipation was the main goal of large social, political and religious groups during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They struggled for equal rights and social justice and made efforts to create more power, including political power, for the poor, cultural and ethnic minorities, religious groups, women, and homosexuals. Emancipation was the main political preoccupation of critical theory and critical action research.1 Although one could be emancipated as an individual, the concept applied to the collective. Critical theory, and the majority of Marxist approaches in the social sciences, criticized the all-embracing structural power of the dominant classes in the economical, political and cultural (or so-called ideological) systems and subsystems in society. Their purpose was to get the dispossessed into power; the dominated labour classes were to become the historical subject of a new fully democratized classless society. Thus critical reflection on the power structures of the dominating classes, for example family and community life, work, and urban politics, was the core activity of critical action research. This was done through adult educational work such as community education, community development and communal action, literacy projects and also through socialist feminist group work. Thus, emancipation was not only freeing oneself from domination but also transforming society and achieving a more equal distribution of power and control within society. Its purpose was to achieve freedom from the power exercised by the dominant groups and classes and to obtain the power to be free to exert influence and give direction to one’s own life. It is easy to see that emancipation is a worldview concept, closely connected to the aforementioned participatory worldview. Nowadays, however, the more recent concept of empowerment is often used.

The concept of empowerment has a somewhat different history. At first it was used by radical feminist groups. These groups of women used a form of group work that combined methods developed by Lewin and Moreno (two of the founding fathers of action research; see next page) and within humanistic psychology and radical psychoanalysis (Vermeulen & Boog, 1994). As in Lewin’s group work method, the emphasis of these groups was on direct or participative democracy. Group members worked on personal growth and personal empowerment, within the safe boundaries of the group. Thus, at first, empowerment was a more ‘individual’ concept. Empowerment was connected to raising self-consciousness, learning to stand up for yourself (self-advocacy) and self-actualization. However, in the last few decades empowerment has also been used in the sense of collective and group empowerment. Jacobs (2002, p. 248) writes: ‘The basic assumption in an empowerment approach is that people cannot fully realise their potential in life if they have no control over the (internal and external) factors that determine their lives.’

Empowerment enriched the concept of emancipation with notions about personal being and competencies and motivational elements. Paradigmatic for this enrichment are the themes which the faction of radical feminists added to those of the socialist feminists. Although at first there was tension between both factions, soon most women in the feminist movement saw the necessity of combining ← 7 | 8 → the socialists’ goal of the structural transformation of society with the radical feminists’ notions of personal growth and personal strength. In practice this meant the combination of reflection in political consciousness-raising groups with getting to know yourself.

The concepts of emancipation and empowerment are closely connected with the concept of participatory democracy. The values of equal rights, social justice, and solidarity with the socially deprived can only be realized within a community that is organized along the principles of participatory democracy. Participatory here means communication and participation in decision making. Participatory democracy is not only seen as a goal inherent to emancipation or empowerment but must also be experienced in the practice of action research: in the relationship between researcher and researched subjects. Thus learning by reflection and self-research in small ‘direct democratic’ groups where the participants are regarded as equals, though nevertheless recognized as different—unique—human beings became one of the core activities in action research.

A Brief History of Action Research

Action research in the West started with Aristotelian thinking (Toulmin, 2000), but the distinct social research approach started in the US prior to World War II. This American current of action research had two sources: the tradition of philosophical pragmatism and, somewhat later, the work of the European gestalt psychologist Lewin and the radical psychoanalyst Moreno.

The first research practice that can be labelled as action research was based on the philosophical pragmatism of Dewey. It was Collier, of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who initiated community education projects in the Indian reserves in the US (Noffke, 1997). Philosophical pragmatism, especially the works of the philosopher of education Dewey and his close friend the philosopher and social psychologist Mead, was the first grand theory to provide a firm foundation for action research. It aimed to improve people’s social and democratic participation in society and to establish social equality and social justice. Mead and Dewey’s theories were what I will call genuine action theories, as opposed to behavioural theories. Central to these theories were the notions of human development through ‘transaction’ (Dewey) and interaction-communication (Mead). In behavioural theories human beings are seen only as reacting units, black boxes, or similar to the doves and dogs of Skinner’s ‘operant conditioning’. Philosophical pragmatism generated a base for the development of professional practices such as social casework, community education and community organization, directed at facilitating people to learn to stand up for themselves, to participate in civil society, and in this way to decrease structural social injustice. Later, just after World War II, it also generated strategies of ‘social action’ as developed by Alinsky for the civil rights movement (Dubost, 2001). These became popular in the community action committees and the self-organizations in neighbourhoods in Europe and Great Britain at the end of the 1960s.

About a decade later, the ‘gestalt psychologist’ Lewin started an action research practice. Lewin had fled from Nazi Germany and from 1934 he worked in the US. In Germany, Lewin was a member of the Socialist Party, and his scientific work was directed at the emancipation of minorities. ‘His particular concerns appear to have been the combating of anti-Semitism, the democratisation of society, and the need to improve the position of women. Along with other students he organised and taught an adult education program for working-class women and men’ (Smith, 2001, p. 1). In the US, he had contact with Dewey and worked for some time together with Moreno, a psychiatrist from Vienna. Lewin coined the term ‘action research,’ which he understood to be ‘a comparative research on the conditions and effects or various forms of social action, and research leading to social action’ (Lewin, 1948, pp. 202–203, as quoted in Smith, 2001, p. 9). In Lewin’s work, all the important elements of action research can be found. He developed a dynamic field theory and started experiments in the field. Furthermore, he developed an approach called dynamic group work. This group work (with the so-called T-group model) was meant to facilitate learning by group members (Smith, 2001). In these groups, participants worked on democratic leadership. To this end, Lewin changed the role of the researcher from distanced outsider ← 8 | 9 → to involved participant (Greenwood & Levin, 1998) and used a multi-method approach based on social psychological ‘concepts that were more sociological than psychological’ (Fachbereich Sozialpädagogiek an der Pädagogischen Hochschule Berlin, 1972). Greenwood and Levin (1998) mention two other elements in Lewin’s approach. First, Lewin’s (and Moreno’s) work started from an open system view, and second, Lewin was the inventor of the cyclical model of social change as a three-stage process: ‘dismantling former structures (unfreezing), changing the structures (changing), and finally locking them back into a permanent structure (freezing)’ (Greenwood & Levin, 1998, p. 17). Ever since, group work to facilitate social change and adult learning following this cyclical development has been central to the methodology of all kinds of action research.

Before he started the neo-positivistic movement of sociometrics, Moreno worked with a combination of the living sociogram, psychodrama and sociodrama (Boog, 1989; Moreno, 1951). He combined group work with an interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis which was less verbal and more non-verbal. Instead of the interaction between psychoanalyst and analysand, he used group work in which the role of the analyst was non-authoritative. Creativity and spontaneity were considered to be more important concepts than Freud’s unconscious impulses. As in Lewin’s group work, the researcher participated in the group, but Moreno went further and explicitly invited the researched subjects to become coresearchers.

The British Tavistock Institute picked up on Lewin’s work where it was used, for instance, for group psychotherapies and team building as well as for professional work in industrial relations (sociotechnics). Its goals were personal empowerment and team building in social situations or (democratic) participation so that an organization could grow into what later would be called a ‘learning organization.’

With the democratic movements of 1968, action research received a new impulse. Critical theories delivered new starting points for action research approaches with explicit emancipatory intentions. Approaches such as participatory action research, emancipatory action research and critical action research were developed. The most important impulse came from the theory of Habermas (Habermas & Luhmann, 1971, pp. 101–141; Moser, 1975). Habermas was the key scientist of the second generation of the Frankfurter Schule. Like all theorists of this school, his work reflected explicit emancipatory preoccupations. Later on, in the 1980s, his action theory in particular (Habermas, 1981)2 was taken as a basis for action research approaches. In addition, critical psychology (Holzkamp, 1983) and especially critical pedagogy and adult education (Freire, 1970, 1998) played important roles as basic impulses for action research approaches. Action research at this time was also influenced by the critical approach as advocated by radical feminism.

During the second half of the 1970s and in the 1980s, action research disappeared in Germany and became scarce in many other Western countries. This was partly due to the fact that action research was seen as the research of Marxist militants (Coenen, 1987; Moser, 1975). However, it revived in England and other English-speaking countries, especially Australia and New Zealand, around 1985.

In this period, Touraine developed his action theory, called actionalism, which he and his team in Paris combined with an action research model known as sociological intervention (Touraine, 1978). This was a group work method in the tradition of Lewin and Moreno. This sociological intervention methodology was extensively used in research on new social movements (Boog, 1989; Dubost, 2001). In these interventions, militants of social movements were stimulated to reflect on their collective identity as part of the ‘historicity’ (the dynamic social world) they lived in. This reflection was to result in a clear collective narrative, a project for the social world as they wanted it to be. Touraine called this project a cultural orientation, which referred to this particular movement’s ideal and holistic view on the economic, cultural and political institutional framework of society. The underlying idea was that once they were able to formulate such a project they would also be able to formulate action strategies. Empowerment in this approach meant being able to formulate this project, to appropriate it as your own collective identity and to know how to translate it into action strategies. ← 9 | 10 →

A special place is taken by action research as developmental work in so-called developing countries. In particular, the experiences and perceptions from Africa, Asia and Latin America played an inspiring role in the theory and practice of action research in Western European countries. As early as the 1950s, a great deal of interest arose in the views of Mahatma Ghandi in India. This concerned not only his views on non-violent action but also his ideas about community development. Community development became an important part of the strategies of the UN for developmental processes. Other influences on action research included the ideas of Mao Zedong in China (Huizer, 1993). The experiments with Ujamaa in Tanzania, Africa, and with kibbutzim in Israel also caught the attention. Initiatives in Latin America were influential, for instance the many initiatives in the areas of desarrollo communal, acción comunal, educación fundamental, and participación popular. Orlando Fals Borda’s study Acción comunal en una vereda Colombiana (1961) became well known, just as the Centro Regional de Educación Fundamental (CREFAL) of the Union Panamericana and UNESCO were established in the Mexican city of Patzcuaro. However, the greatest influence has to be attributed to the experiences and perceptions of Paulo Freire. Freire developed an (adult) literacy approach that focussed on learning to read and write about the concrete everyday life and social contexts of the learners. This activated them to reflect on their social situation (conscientization) and thus enabled them to become empowered. His ideas influenced participatory and educational action research all over the world (Keune & Boog, 2000).

Four Recent Action Research Approaches

In the last two decades, action research has revived, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Elsewhere, social scientists have generally followed this interest in action research slowly. Action research has profited from the enormous upheaval in qualitative research. According to Todhunter (2001), this has been caused by the growing popularity of the so-called interactive research methodologies. Just as in action research, this is a kind of research in which the interaction between researchers and researched subjects is explicitly used for the processes of data gathering and data analysis. Researchers and researched subjects interact. In this interaction there is a subject–subject relationship between researchers and researched subjects. However, the researcher usually owns the ‘data’ and controls the interpretation of it as well as the way it is used to answer the research question. The intended effects of the research are owned and controlled by the commissioners and researchers and are not an issue in the interaction between researchers and researched subjects. The research is, for instance, meant to improve an organization or to reach an agreement on issues of public policy.

Nowadays, action research is a fully fledged, respected social research practice. All elements and preoccupations of the aforementioned approaches can be synthesized into four broad approaches: pragmatic action research, co-operative inquiry, ‘critical’ action research, and action research within the tradition of systems thinking. Though these approaches differ, they share many theoretical and methodological assumptions and even take each other’s theoretical and methodological elements into account as co-grounding. Action research practices are increasingly converging, caused by the developments and positive experiences with communicative methodologies such as, for example, group work and the cycle of experiential learning. Therefore, I will briefly characterize the approaches and pay some attention to their convergence.

Pragmatic action research is based on the philosophical-pragmatic works of Dewey and Mead (Greenwood & Levin, 1998). It has two central parameters: ‘knowledge generation through action and experimentation, and the role of participatory democracy,’ according to Levin and Greenwood (2001, p. 104). They ‘argue for knowledge construction processes that involve both researchers and local stakeholders in the same learning-action process, thereby fulfilling both a participative democratic ideal and achieving knowledge generation through learning from action.’

The English scientists Reason, Rowan and Heron (Heron, 1996; Reason & Rowan, 1981) developed an action research approach which has become known as co-operative inquiry. It places strong ← 10 | 11 → emphasis on personal growth, self-actualization, and inquiry into personal strengths. It owes much to the works of Lewin and Moreno and the work of the Tavistock Institute but also to the diversity of methods and techniques that were used in the radical feminist therapy groups, such as encounter, art therapy, gestalt therapy, and transactional analysis. Their underlying worldview is participatory and integrates elements from holistic-spiritualistic alternative cultures (Heron, 1996; Reason, 2002). The philosophical pragmatism of Dewey has also influenced co-operative inquiry.

Critical action research is a family of models, grounded by critical hermeneutics and often by neo-Marxist theories in sociology (Habermas, Negt), psychology (Holzkamp) and education (Freire). It has different adjectives applied to it: participatory, emancipatory and exemplary. Strong practices of critical and participatory action research can be found, for instance, in Australia and New Zealand (Hoogwerf, 2002; Kemmis & McTaggert, 1988; Zuber-Skerritt, 1996), and Austria (Boog, 2002). Exemplary action research is a specific mode developed by Coenen (1987) and his group in the Netherlands. Besides the critical sociological, psychological and pedagogical inspirations, this approach is strongly influenced by philosophical pragmatism (Mead’s interactionalism) and Giddens’s structuration theory.

Finally, there is action research that is grounded in systems thinking. Systems thinking views action as embedded in unpredictable complex systems which are in a continual process of self-creation and re-creation. In action research, it challenges people to reflect on the place and function of what you do or do not do as part of a dynamic whole. This reflection can provide more insight into the potentialities and possibilities to act otherwise and in this way can enhance human emancipation (Flood, 2001).

Despite their differences, these action research approaches share six important characteristics:

(1) The cycles of research, experiential learning and action.


XIV, 330
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Research Ritual High-Stake
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XIV, 330 pp.

Biographical notes

Patricia H. Hinchey (Volume editor)

Patricia H. Hinchey is Professor of Education at Penn State and a Research Fellow at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She holds a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, and has authored numerous articles as well as several books on topics including critical theory, education for civic engagement, action research, and teacher assessment. Dr. Hinchey is also a former director of a professional development unit for faculty on Penn State’s regional campuses.


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