Action Research

The expression action research was first used in 1946 by psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890 to 1947) to describe a research methodology that brings together theory development and the examination of practical problems. Key in his definition is the collaboration between the researcher and the client in the process of conducting research and achieving change.

Lewin, who fled to the United States from Hitler's Germany in the early 1930s, laid out the stages of action research in his Action Research and Minority Problems paper. The process starts with delineating the problem and studying the idea while taking into account the means at hand. The next step consists of fact-finding and devising a plan for achieving the goal, including the first step of the plan. The second stage includes carrying out the first step and again undertaking fact-finding.

According to Lewin, the second portion of fact-finding has four functions. It helps to judge how successful the first step of the plan has been, allows those planning to gain knowledge, helps to draft the next step and serves as a basis for modifying the wider plan.

The third stage involves another round of planning, taking action and finding facts about the outcome of the action. The procedure is then repeated as many times as needed for the goal to be achieved. Thus, in Lewin's view, the process of rational social management, as he termed it, consists of a spiral of steps that are comprised of cycles of planning, action and fact-finding.

Citing a number of authors, David Coghlan describes the basic features of action research in his article Action Research in the Academy: Why and Whither? Reflections on the Changing Nature of Research (2004).

In the first place, action research is research in action, instead of research about action. At the heart of this characteristic is the fact that action research employs scientific methods to examine the solving of social or organizational problems along with the people facing the problems.

A second aspect is that action research is of participative and democratic nature as the members of the system subject to the investigation are actively involved in the cyclical action-research process.

Action research is also research being done simultaneously with action with the aim to both improve the effect of the action and add to a fund of knowledge.

Another characteristic of action research is that it is a succession of events and a problem-solving method at the same time. It is a succession of events in the sense that it is made up of recurrent circles of collecting data, analyzing, acting and assessing. It is a problem-solving method in the sense that it applies fact-finding and experiment, which is a scientific method, to practical problems in need of action solutions. The result of action research is more than resolution of immediate issues as it contributes to science and theory.

A commonly quoted definition of action research is that by Robert Rapoport (1970), who says "action research aims to contribute to the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually acceptable ethical framework."

Action research enjoyed a brief spell of popularity in the United States during the 1950s in the field of education but was criticized by mainstream researchers. Since the middle of the 1980s the approach has attracted renewed interest, with the development of teacher research aimed at enhancing learning and teaching playing a significant role. Action research also took roots in the UK during the 1950s through the work of Trist at the Tavistock Institute. There it first gained significance in education thanks to two curriculum development projects in the 1970s. In Australia, a substantial action research hub has been set up at Deakin University, while in Austria the approach has helped shape education policy.

An important development has been the emergence of participatory action research, a separate vein within which has started from South America and been influenced by the work of Paulo Freire. Through the years a number of offshoots of the approach have sprung up, such as participatory research, as well as action science, action learning and cooperative inquiry. What distinguishes them from action research can be whether the focus is more on problem-solving outcomes or on acquiring knowledge and reflection, or what importance is placed on participation and cooperation, for example.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Action Research: A Methodology for Change and Development
Bridget Somekh.
Open University Press, 2006
Why Should Mainstream Social Researchers Be Interested in Action Research?
Eikeland, Olav.
International Journal of Action Research, Vol. 3, No. 1/2, August 31, 2007
The Good Research Guide: For Small-Scale Social Research Projects
Martyn Denscombe.
Open University Press, 2007
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Action Research"
General Reflections on How to Practice and Train for Action Research
Fricke, Werner.
International Journal of Action Research, Vol. 2, No. 3, December 31, 2006
Dilemmas of Action Research - an Introduction
Pålshaugen, Øyvind.
International Journal of Action Research, Vol. 2, No. 2, August 31, 2006
Dealing with Messiness and Uncertainty in Practitioner Research: The Nature of Participatory Action Research
Goodnough, Karen.
Canadian Journal of Education, Vol. 31, No. 2, October 2008
Research Methods in Education
Louis Cohen; Lawrence Manion; Keith Morrison.
Routledge Falmer, 2000 (5th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "Action Research"
A Teacher's Guide to Classroom Research
David Hopkins.
Open University Press, 2002 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Action Research and Classroom Research by Teachers"
Action Research: Expanding the Role of Classroom Teachers to Inquirers and Researchers
Llewellyn, Douglas; van Zee, Emily.
Science Scope, Vol. 34, No. 1, September 2010
Qualitative Psychology: Introducing Radical Research
Ian Parker.
Open University Press, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Action Research"
A Handbook for Action Research in Health and Social Care
Richard Winter; Carol Munn-Giddings.
Routledge, 2001
Action Research and Collaborative Management Research: More Than Meets the Eye?
Shani, A. B.; Coghlan, David; Cirella, Stefano.
International Journal of Action Research, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 1, 2012
Research Skills for Management Studies
Alan Berkeley Thomas.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Research Strategies: The Case Study, Ethnography and Action Research"
Research Methods in Family Therapy
Douglas H. Sprenkle; Fred P. Piercy.
Guilford Press, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Action Research Methods in Family Therapy"
Action Research in Urban Schools: Empowerment, Transformation, and Challenges
Razfar, Aria.
Teacher Education Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4, Fall 2011
Guiding School Improvement with Action Research
Richard Sagor.
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000
Action Research for Inclusive Education: Changing Places, Changing Practice, Changing Minds
Felicity Armstrong; Michele Moore.
RoutledgeFalmer, 2004
Developing Innovation in Online Learning: An Action Research Framework
Maggie McPherson; Miguel Baptista Nunes.
RoutledgeFalmer, 2004
Educational Inclusion as Action Research: An Interpretive Discourse
Christine O'Hanlon.
Open University Press, 2003
Action Research: Building the Capacity for Learning and Change. (Overview)
Marsick, Victoria J.; Gephart, Martha A.
Human Resource Planning, Vol. 26, No. 2, June 2003
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