'Gouldner's Child?' Some Reflections on Sociology and Participatory Action Research

By Wadsworth, Yoland | Journal of Sociology, September 2005 | Go to article overview

'Gouldner's Child?' Some Reflections on Sociology and Participatory Action Research


Wadsworth, Yoland, Journal of Sociology


The rise and fall of the great paradigm wars

As a young State Government research sociologist in the 1970s and early 1980s, I returned for postgraduate studies to reflect on the epistemological battles in which I and other researchers like me were then caught up. Many of us were working outside the academy, using research to inform the many transformations of health, community and human service institutions taking place in the rigidified social order of a post-war welfare state. Back in the academy I found a sociology that had come alive to 'the great paradigm wars' between positivism and reflexive interpretivism (Blaikie, 1993; Burrell and Morgan, 1979; Cicourel, 1964; Ford, 1971; Giddens, 1976; Kuhn, 1973; Reinharz, 1979). (2) It was a boom time for sociology engaging outside universities. In 1976, the annual sociology conference counted its attendance in four figures and an unprecedented (and since unsurpassed) number of non-academics attended. The context for our work was the culmination of a long economic boom, and a period of intense change. Expanded government funding of new services was taking place in response to changing 'community needs'. Women, for example, had emerged from the post-war home, seeking educations and jobs. People instutitutionalized for their differences were demanding to live in ways others took for granted. Manufacturing industry was moving off-shore and the economy 'structurally readjusting'. And new waves of non-English-speaking settlement communities--from Turkey, Egypt, South America and Asia--were facing difficult futures and uncertain employment.

New forms of research were becoming popular that could work in and with these conditions of change, diversity and complexity. These were being applied, first, to attain richer, more meaningful understandings of localized 'lived realities' and critical analyses (including actors' discomfort with them), and, second, to assisting those actors draw new theory-informed conclusions, and try out new practices generated from those conclusions as part of the research.

In Table 1 I briefly revisit the comparative logic of the 'two paradigms' (Kuhn, 1973) as a way of identifying some of the significant epistemological roots of participatory action research (3)--a key contribution of sociology to those debates.

It was difficult and often politically contested work, but seemed inevitably so if one took up the challenge of sociological research in a constantly dialectical world of Mills' 'private troubles' and 'public issues' (1970). Indeed, the very dualities to which the 'new paradigm' had initially responded (van Krieken, 2002: 267-8) began to dissolve. Distinctions such as individual-organization, theory-practice, self-other and researcher-researched, continued to be radically re-understood as we action research practitioner-theorists came to realize our apparent simultaneous separateness and connectedness within a 'living system' or 'whole field'. In some ways it was a peculiarly postmodern epistemology, although one which refused a nihilist relativism in its forms of active engagement.

When I wrote about the basics of what we were doing (1984, 1991), I saw us as working in the mainstream of new paradigm social research. Like much of my cohort, I seemed pretty much a child of Gouldner's thinking about the inevitable implication of the observer in the construction of the observed, and the consequences for a reflexive sociology (1971, 1979).

And, so it seemed, increasingly, was the rest of the world, where something like a popular sociological imagination was giving substance to the old argument that this was indeed a 'science' that could be exercised by others in their daily practice 'on the run' (Wadsworth, 1984, 1991, 2001). Indeed there has been an explosion of popular social practice-theorizing in areas as diverse as architecture, business and management, land care, ecology, geography/environment, media and communications, indigenous and cross-cultural work, public health, politics, anthropology, world development, religion, in child care centres, marriages or psychiatric wards, the local chemist's shop and women's magazines. …

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