Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Current Controversies in Action Research

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Current Controversies in Action Research

Article excerpt

Any discussion about action research is seriously hampered by confusion and controversy about the nature and distinctiveness of the approach (Peters and Robinson, 1984). A major writer on action research in education, for example, suggests that the label "action research" is now widely misapplied and that field experiments and certain types of process consultation do not qualify as action research (Kemmis, 1988:47).

The confusion is not resolved by going back to the writings of Kurt Lewin, widely regarded as the founding father of action research because his writings can provide support for both grand and modest claims about the method. For example, if Lewin's (1947, 1948) views are derived from the mere 22 pages he wrote directly on the topic, then one can do no more than describe action research as an applied research strategy in which general laws together with knowledge of problem situations contribute to problem solving through a cycle of diagnosis, action, and evaluation.

On the other hand, if his writings on action research is placed in the broader context of his philosophy of science, then action research can be construed more grandly, as an alternative to the then dominant positivist conception of science, Lewin rejected a positivist belief in the unity of the sciences and argued that social phenomena should be studied "not by transforming them into quantifiable units of physical actions and reactions, but by studying the intersubjectively valid sets of meanings, norms and values that are the immediate determinants of behavior--i.e., by constructing a theory of group dynamics" (Peters and Robinson, 1984:115-116). This type of study, he argued, yielded both practical knowledge for social intervention and knowledge about the laws of group life.

Perhaps it was Lewin's untimely death in 1947 that prevented him from linking his ideas on action research to a more fully developed philosophy of social inquiry. As we shall see in the next section, contemporary discussion of action research is still concerned with the merits of strong and weak claims about the characteristics and distinctiveness of the approach.


The question of how action research should be understood and conducted cannot be settled by stipulative definition. Rather, it should be settled by extended debate between those involved about the implications of its various characteristics.

This article contributes to this debate by examining the implications of various claims about action research for the achievement of goals which are shared by its exponents. What does an examination of these goals suggest about the required characteristics of action research? Once this question has been provisionally answered, then one can turn to the question of the distinctiveness of the approach. To what extent do the suggested characteristics entail a rejection, as some have claimed, of positivist science (Susman and Evered, 1978; Kemmis, 1988) or, more dramatically, of science itself?

In the first section of this article, the author argues that action researchers share a commitment to three main goals: the understanding and improvement of practice; the enhancement of the problem-solving capacities of the practitioners with whom they collaborate; and the advancement of knowledge about practice itself. Subsequent sections deal with the methodological implications of these goals.

The first implication is that, since practice is a result of actors' value-laden interpretations of their world, we cannot understand practice without understanding these interpretations. These subjectivities do not exhaust an explanation of practice, but researchers who bypass them are not, on this account, doing action research. The second implication is that the concept of improvement of practice can best be understood as progressive resolution of problems that arise in the practice context. The third is that certain value commitments are implied by the conduct of action research as a process of collaborative problem solving. …

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