Action Research Methods
in Family Therapy
TAI J. MENDENHALL
WILLIAM J. DOHERTY
“Action research” (AR) is a research paradigm that emphasizes close collaboration between researchers and community participants to generate knowledge that is useful for solving local problems. It originally emerged in social science in the 1940s, as a response to problems related to social structures that were seen as unfair and oppressive to minority and other marginalized groups (Corey, 1953; Hagey, 1997; Piercy & Thomas, 1998). Originally advanced by Kurt Lewin (1946), AR encompassed two principal areas of focus: (1) changing an oppressive system, and (2) acquiring critical knowledge about the system and its context. The democratic and participatory nature of AR processes (discussed below) was advanced as key, backed by the argument that those who directly experience a phenomenon are the best qualified to investigate it (DePoy, Hartman, & Haslett, 1999). Although AR's focus and visibility in contemporary times have extended beyond this original foundation into and across a wide range of health and human service fields, this method of investigative inquiry continues to be defined by central tenets related to a collaborative partnership between researchers and participants. Within this partnership, hierarchical differences are flattened, and all participants in the research process work together to create knowledge and effect change (Yoshihama & Carr, 2002).
Though it is still not widely practiced in marriage and family therapy (MFT) circles, AR has gained increased credibility in health care (e.g., medicine, nursing) since the early 1990s because of its potential to inform understanding of patients' experiences and to improve or generate the services provided to them (Fraser, 1999; Heslop, Elsom, & Parker, 2000; Kovacs, 2000; Tobin, 2000; Ward & Trigler, 2001). Similarly, its use is increasing in social work and family science because of its potential to inform understanding of clients' experiences and improve community outreach, education, and cultural awareness efforts (de Amorim & Cavalcante, 1992; Newfield, Kuehl, Joanning, & Quinn, 1991; Piercy & Thomas, 1998). As health care (broadly defined) moves forward in a state of constant change, the need for research strategies