Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Action Research and the Study of Human Being

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Action Research and the Study of Human Being

Article excerpt

Despite the openness of action research to engage with several philosophical movements from the 20th century, there does not seem to be as much engagement with existentialist thought. I try to point out and further articulate certain affinities that I see between action research and existentialist philosophy. I suggest that action research can gain from exploring these connections. Based on the existentialist perspective, I compare action research and more standard social science. In particular, I use Heidegger's notions of "das Man" and an "existentialist essence" of human being as a key to bringing out these differences and for suggesting ways in which action research may capitalize on such differences.

Keywords: existentialism, Heidegger, authenticity, action research, social science

1. Introduction

In this essay I would like to raise and address some philosophical issues implied by the style of social research and inquiry called "action research" (AR). It may seem odd to propose a philosophical investigation into a research tradition explicitly characterized by action, pragmatism, and real world engagement. Philosophy is supposed to be a discipline that deals with abstract and abstruse issues divorced from action and real life. In fact, this has not always been the case. Toulmin (1990), for example, has argued that this is only a certain path that philosophy got sidetracked with around the time of Descartes, and that 20th Century figures like Dewey, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Rorty have paved the way for a return to practical philosophizing which many philosophers have begun to take up. In fact, writers on AR such as Greenwood and Levin (1998) as well as several authors in Reason and Bradbury's Handbook of Action Research, have engaged these same philosophical figures, as well as others from both the 20th Century and antiquity1 to ground and inform AR philosophically. There is no contradiction, then, in a program of philosophically informed action research.

However, my philosophical interests in this paper lay not in ambitious attempts to grind out a fully worked out epistemology, ontology, or ethics of AR. Such may have its place, but here I will be more concerned with returning the philosophical to, using Toulmin's (1990) phrases, the particular, local, and timely, as well as, to use my own, the uncertain, ambiguous, and imprecise yet meaningful and demanding. I will be attempting a hermeneutical investigation into the possibilities and promises of AR as well as of what it means to practice AR (I assume the two are tightly interconnected). I do this with some trepidation. The way I read one of the philosophers I will be invoking, Martin Heidegger, a hermeneutical investigation of a topic ought only to come out of an authentic understanding of it. For him, an authentic understanding of a realm of activity is impossible without practical engagement with it - engagement that introduces the participant to the interests and stakes people have in engaging in the activity. So far, my only first hand exposure to AR has been a one semester class on it facilitated by Davydd Greenwood. However, Greenwood turned the class into something of an AR project itself by introducing AR and then turning decisions about how to run the course and what topics to cover over to the students. The class itself turned into a community engaging in an AR project to learn about AR. Through exposure to Greenwood's own action research interests and experiences as well as my class's, then, I claim sufficient authentic understanding to begin a partial and piece-meal (not universal and finalized) philosophical hermeneutic of some issues surrounding AR.

My hermeneutical investigations will be neither uncritical nor a call for radical revision. I will do some comparisons of AR to other more traditional approaches to social research. In doing so I will also try to bring out in to greater relief some aspects of AR that are there in the literature and, I think, crucial to AR, but, nevertheless, underemphasized and therefore less well developed. …

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