Action ResearchConverging Realities, 1:1
Switzerland: Landegg Academy, 2000
Abstract: Action research is not a technique or particular method of research, but rather a focus on the issue of the "final" cause of research, or the question of the "purpose" of the research. The purpose of action research is transformative action, action that makes a difference in the life-worlds of both the researcher and the researched. The applicable domain of action research is both description of, and prescription in, the social world of humans. Action research is: (1) democratic, consultative (viz. Abdu'l-Bahá, 1980) and based on bilateral communication (Argyris, 1980; Argyris, Putnam, Putnam, & Smith, 1985); and (2) critical and emancipatory (Habermas, 1971).
Action has effect. One act is better than a thousand words. Jesus Christ says: 'By their fruits' (actions) and not by their words. What is the effect of words alone? The real thing is action.
As defined herein, action research is not a type of research that is differentiable from qualitative or quantitative research, nor from nomothetic (an approach to science in which universal laws are sought) or idiographic (studying the unique individual in her/his own context — no attempt is made to generalize the findings to other human beings) approaches. Rather, the main difference between action research and other approaches is an explicit focus on research for action, change, and transformation. Its purpose is to change behavior, to alter action, to cause development to occur-both in the concern that is under study and in the researcher(s). A critical factor in action research is to maximize the meaningfulness of the study. The research design should fit the best notions of validity, external and internal, and may be either qualitative or quantitative, or a combination thereof. The difference between action research and most research published in academic journals is that the results of the research are intended to feed back directly to the researchers' practice, as well as directly influence the researched. In other words, action research is intended to advise the researchers themselves how to act, as much as to advise others how to act. Its main emphasis is on improving the human condition in a specific context, with secondary attention given to generalizing the findings.
Why is it that few researchers focus on action research? Why is that most researchers tend to distance themselves from the problems under study and expect "practitioners" to read their journal article work and transform it into action? One reason is that it is "safer" to study others' behavior than your own; it lowers one's responsibility to make significant changes in one's own practice. However, this approach is a form of "distancing," which is a disservice to society (cf. Argyris, 1980; Argyris, Putnam, & Smith, 1985). As a practical example: I work in teacher education. There is a plethora of data-based journals in education, but teachers seldom read them. The questions/hypotheses addressed in the journals are generally not the questions teachers are wondering about; they are questions that professional academic researchers are wondering about, and teachers seldom find any concrete advice about how to improve their practice in these journals. Additionally, the proofs and evidence that many researchers use are either not convincing or not meaningful to the "practitioners," the teachers.
First of all, nearly all producers of work, whether craftsperson, professionals, tradespeople, managers, etc., perform informal action research. All human actions include three components, although at times we may process the components so quickly (milliseconds) that we are unaware of them. Every human action involves: (a) a planning phase, (b) an execution phase, and (c) an assessment phase. Take the simple action of eating a potato chip snack. A human walks by a bowl of potato chips. The human thinks, "I'm hungry; those look good. I think I'll eat some." This is the planning phase. The human then reaches out a hand, takes some chips, and places them in his or her mouth. This is the execution phase. Then, if they tasted good (which is the assessment!), they reach for some more. Another example: teachers plan a curriculum, execute a method of teaching the curriculum, then give their students a test, thus assessing the teacher's effectiveness in teaching and the students' effectiveness in learning. A physician makes a plan for a cure, provides the medicine, then has the patient come back in ten days for assessment of the effectiveness of the cure. A plumber plans the method of installing the pipes, executes the installation, then turns on the water to check for leaks. The "action research" being advocated in this article is an extension of natural human activity (action), with careful reflection and systematization of issues of reliability and validity, especially in the assessment phase of action.
Because the term "professional" connotes a privileged class, many workers aspire to this status. The present writer, having worked extensively with nurses and teachers, is aware of the importance of the designation "professional." Normally, physicians, dentists, attorneys, and architects, among others, have this hallowed station. Yet, the present writer has argued elsewhere (Diessner, 1991) that the requirements for professional status should not be socioeconomic class, or ability "to police their own profession" but rather it is an issue of action research. Those that are "truly" worthy of the appellation 'professional' need to actualize being: (a) involved in choosing the "ends" of their practice, and (b) then making/having the opportunity to evaluate the success of their "means" of attaining those ends. Action research is required to produce valid evaluation.
In the best of action research, the lines between the "researcher" and the "researched" are blurred and may become one and the same. A question may be initiated by a social scientist or by any group of humans. A group of workers may ask, How can we be more productive?; or a researcher may be hired by the business administration to ask the same question. Regardless of the starting point of the question, those immediately and substantially affected by the potential outcome of the research should have a voice in framing or reframing the question under study, a voice in selecting the means of answering the question (which is what we normally call "the research"), and a voice in determining the criteria to decide whether the question has been validly answered.
On the "practical" side, if the "researched" are not included in the decision making, the results are always suspect. If the researcher brings in her set of questions, they may be irrelevant to the researched. If the researched do not have a hand in determining the research questions, if they do not get to help decide the methods of completing the study, and if they are not included in assessing the effectiveness and accuracy of the outcome of the research, they are likely either to sabotage the research, be apathetic, and not be intrinsically motivated to solve the problems under study. This can easily be seen now in the so-called development projects imposed on the "Third World" by the "First World." Most of them did not "work." For examples of such failures, and the solutions through "participatory" involvement, the reader is referred to the following sources: Social and Economic Development: A Bahá'í Approach (Vick, 1989); "The Development of Communication and the Communication of Development" (Stephens, 1990); "Developing a Participatory Approach to Learning" (Pihlainen, 1991); and "Principles of Consultation Applied to the Process of Innovation in a Corporate Environment"(Rosenfeld & Winger-Bearskin, 1991).
One of the great pioneers in action research is Chris Argyris (Argyris, 1980; Argyris, Putnam, & Smith, 1985). He has described how most research follows "normal science" (Kuhn, 1970), which is based on a paradigm he calls "Model-One". Argyris documents how Model-One style research is based on the values of unilateral control of the research situation, "winning" (proving oneself right), and suppression of any data that does not fit one's preconceived notions. His description and explanation of "Model-Two" represents a consultative approach, in which the researcher and the researched have "bi-lateral" control of any studies, wherein winning is not being "right," but rather uncovering the truth, and no dialogue is suppressed, even if it is painful.
For example, at the university level, students and professors shall co-determine the "ends" of the research, and the "means" to attain these ends, along with mutually deciding what will be convincing proof that the "ends" were attained or not (evaluative aspect of action research). Thus, students would have a say in the objectives of the course, how those objectives are met (the methods of teaching and learning), and what assessment would convince both the students and the professor that the objectives were accomplished. Hence, the line between researcher and researched blurs, leaving all significant parties as participants: not an observer and the observed, not the subjector and the subjects (Carr & Kemmis, 1986).
In research into the efficacy of psychotherapy, the clinician and clients would consult together on what should be the goal of the therapy, how the therapy should proceed, and what would be convincing evidence to both of them that the therapy "worked." This approach does not devalue the expertise of the professor or the clinician, and it does not assume that the professor has "equal" status with the students, or that the "clinician" has "equal" status with the client. What is does, is to engage all ranks of society in a mutual pursuit of truth, in a consultative manner.
Research is aimed at creating or uncovering knowledge. Habermas has argued that seeking knowledge always serves some interest (1971). He reasons that the empirical sciences, which aim to discover "laws" of nature, have a "technical" interest (he means "techne" in the traditional Greek sense which is the instrumental interest of science to control and predict). The goal of this technical interest, its "final" cause, is to be able to predict and control nature, things, and beings. This, however, becomes problematic in both moral and truth-oriented ways. It is immoral to treat humans as things that can be controlled for the interests of someone else. This is treating humans as a "means" and not as an "end," thus violating Kant's categorical imperative. It also violates truth-seeking if one believes humans have free-will. If humans do have free-will, then they are inherently unpredictable, as they are creative beings and are not bound by their genetic inheritance or the rewards and punishments from their environment.
The second human interest that Habermas addresses is that of the historical-hermeneutic sciences. These "sciences" have a "practical" (praxis, normativity) interest; the goal of that practical interest being the understanding and interpretation of humans. The typical domain of this interest are the humanities and non-nomological (sciences that don't seek universal predictive laws) social sciences.
The third human interest, in regard to knowledge, Habermas calls the "emancipatory," and it deals with the domain of philosophy and critique. Its goal is to set humans free from the fetters of the past, both the cultural past, and their own alienation during their ontogeny (natural history). He uses Marx as an example of emancipating us from the cultural past, and Freud as an exemplar in freeing the individual of the errors of her/ his development. Although Bahá'ís will take exception to the materialism of Marx and Freud, the interest of emancipation, and freedom from the imitation of our forebears is a critical goal for Bahá'ís (viz. Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, 1950; and Saiedi, 1997).
Action research is aimed, not at the interest of techne, but rather at the practical interest of understanding and the emancipatory interest of truth. This parallels the goal of Bahá'í consultation, which is truth. The Bible says, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
Man must consult on all matters, whether major or minor, so that he may become cognizant of what is good. Consultation giveth him insight into things and enableth him to delve into questions which are unknown. The light of truth shineth from the faces of those who engage in consultation. Such consultation causeth the living waters to flow in the meadows of man's reality, the rays of ancient glory to shine upon him, and the tree of his being to be adorned with wondrous fruit. The members who are consulting, however, should behave in the utmost love, harmony and sincerity towards each other. The principle of consultation is one of the most fundamental elements of the divine edifice. Even in their ordinary affairs the individual members of society should consult. (Abdu'l-Bahá, 1980)
This plea for action research is not entirely new; Corey in 1949, from Teachers College, urged us to move from "fundamental research" to action research, because teachers were not consuming research. The problem is not just among educators, however. Even among social scientists studying social issues, reports of action research are relatively rare. This is why Deutsch (1969) and Sanford (1970), invoking Kurt Lewin, have begged for action research to be the mode of study reported in the Journal of Social Issues. This type of action is also congruent with Paolo Freire's seminal work in critical pedagogy (1970).
If we are true Bahá'ís speech is not needed. Our actions will help on the world, will spread civilization, will help the progress of science, and cause the arts to develop. Without action nothing in the material world can be accomplished, neither can words unaided advance a man in the spiritual Kingdom. It is not through lip-service only that the elect of God have attained to holiness, but by patient lives of active service they have brought light into the world. (`Abdu'l-Bahá, 1969, pp. 80-81)
Diessner, R. (1997). Probing the foundation of research methods for spiritual psychology: Seeking an interpretive framework for the primary causes of human phenomena and noumena. Unpublished paper, Landegg Academy, Weinacht, Switzerland.
Randall-Winckler, B. & Garis, M. (n.d./1996?). William Henry Randall: Disciple of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Oxford: Oneworld. ("I asked Him ['Abdu'l-Bahá] many questions concerning the Cause which He answered and they were interpreted by Shoghi Effendi and taken down in Persian by Dr. Lutfu'lláh Hakím. Translated afterwards by them into English and many of the answers referred again to the Master, Who confirmed the same and occasionally changed a word, and these talks are certified as above stated" [p. 110].)