Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Action Research Strategies at the "Third Place"

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Action Research Strategies at the "Third Place"

Article excerpt

1. Introduction1

Researching complex social processes such as regional development as action researchers is a challenging task. It is challenging not least because the complexity implies that the researcher, and those with whom he researches, cannot be in control of the situation they act in. Compared to an organisational setting or a setting of social mobilisation, regional development is not a task where a defined group of actors can necessarily come to mutual understanding based on their own work experience.

We use the "third place" as a term to identify this complex institutional setting. It has been conceptualised in different ways, from different disciplines within the social sciences. For simplification the term means a social sphere, which is neither hierarchy (organisation) nor market, governed by relational dynamics and horizontal coordination of activity that is dependent upon some level of cohesion, social capital and a sense of interdependency between actors. We lump all these institutional characteristics together, and assign them to the realm of the "third place". Thus, the "third place" is structurally complex, something that is reflected in the many faceted faces of regional network governance and leadership.

We understand regional leadership as a practice that involves the design of regional institutions, organisations, networks and processes, funding and agenda setting, as well as the co-ordination of resources and regional policy development. These are demanding processes in particular environments, which are critically dependent on how to form legitimacy of leadership in network processes, as well as on how leadership knowledge about the challenges of manoeuvring within networks and steering network processes in particular directions can be put to use.

The challenge we are faced with, when researching leadership in the "third place", is related to how systemic and institutional characteristics, i.e. institutional economy and socio-cultural structures, influence institutional change, and thereby produce innovative outcomes; and how regional actors develop strategies for utilising decision-making, interaction processes and innovation in these networks. The core challenge is about researching the organising and the managing of these complex and multi-dimensional processes (Normann & Johnsen, 2013) as well as the democratic dimension in regional development (Johnsen, Lysgârd et al., 2005; Johnsen & Normann, 2004; Johnsen, Normann, & Fosse, 2005; Johnsen, Normann, Karlsen, & Ennals, 2009). We can ask how leadership can meet these challenges (Hidle & Normann, 2013; Knudsen, 2005; Normann, 2007, 2013; Normann & Johnsen, 2013; Normann & Vasström, 2012).

Action research has, over its history, involved many different approaches (Greenwood & Levin, 2007). A main distinction can be drawn between two conflicting paradigms and approaches; the socio-technical school (Trist, 1981), and the democratic dialogue school (Gustavsen, 1992). We argue that researching complex social settings such as the "third place", involves participation and mobilisation, but also a structural understanding of what is in play in the process. We therefore try to approach this challenge in what we call a pragmatic way, through asking how action research strategies based on sociotechnical thinking and democratic dialogue thinking can be combined in understanding social development, governance and leadership in the "third place".

The article is organised in the following way; firstly we elaborate our argument that regional development and leadership happens in a multidimensional context that can meaningfully be described as the "third place". Secondly, we discuss how the two approaches to action research give different guidelines to research strategies related to this task.

2. Regional network governance in the "third place"

2.1 Regional Network Governance

During the last 10-15 years, 'governance' has developed into the organising metaphor for the study of interactive forms of political decision making (Sorensen & Torfing, 2008). …

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