Action-Oriented Research: Models and Methods

Article excerpt

In recent years there has been a growing interest in research approaches that can better inform policy and practice and lead to social action. This article describes four models of action-oriented research: action, participatory, empowerment, and feminist research. The historical roots, epistemological assumptions, agendas, and methodological strategies of each are discussed. Common features and distinguishing characteristics are examined. The article concludes by discussing implications derived from action-oriented research for family researchers and other social scientists interested in making their work more relevant to practice, policy, and social action.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in research approaches that can better inform policy and practice and lead to social action. This trend has occurred in response to such factors as a growing frustration among practitioners and policy makers with the lack of relevance of traditional research findings and an increasing desire among many social scientists to conduct research that has greater social relevance. A number of research approaches from different social science traditions have evolved independently in response to common frustrations with the inability of traditional positivistic social science methods to inform questions of practice or social action and in response to the emergence of postpositivist epistemological paradigms. While these approaches have developed many similar principles of inquiry, the lack of contact among them has delayed recognition of their common themes.

There are a number of contemporary research approaches that are directly concerned with informing practice and social change. Family scholars are probably most familiar with feminist methods (e.g., Allen & Baber, 1992; Reinharz, 1992; Thompson, 1992). Other "action-oriented" models include action research, empowerment research, and participatory research. These research approaches advocate remarkably similar agendas and share a core of epistemological assumptions and methodological strategies.

This article describes these four action-oriented forms of research and examines the epistemological assumptions, moral/ethical values, and methodological strategies that characterize each of them. The article focuses on commonalties among the four approaches, including their implications for family researchers. Examination of the characteristics that distinguish them from conventional, social science research is also included. In this article, the term conventional social science research refers to the positivistic scientific paradigm that has dominated the social sciences for the past century. Drawing on methods and logic first used in the physical sciences, this approach subsumes notions of causality, objectivity, and quantification with the goal of predicting and controlling human behavior (Prus, 1992).

FOUR MODELS OF ACTION-ORIENTED RESEARCH

What follows is an examination of the distinguishing characteristics of each of four action-oriented research traditions: action research, participatory research, empowerment research, and feminist research. Each approach is introduced by a discussion of its historical origins. This is followed by an examination of three aspects germane to any research model: (a) agenda (What are the primary goals of the research? Which research questions are most worth asking? Who are the principal beneficiaries of the research findings?); (b) epistemology (What forms of knowledge are considered scientific? What role do values and ethics play in the research enterprise? Can social science be objective?); and (c) methodology (What are the most commonly used data collection strategies? How are they determined? What role do research subjects and other nonresearchers play in the research process?). These three dimensions of the research process have been selected for heuristic purposes, but they are not mutually exclusive. …