Abstracts for Chapters–from Two Books on Transformative Action Research

Volume One, Principles and Methods: 

Chapter 1, Principles and Methods of Transformative Action Research

In this book on the transformative power of some approaches to action research, I am drawing on over 50 years of learning–as a student, a faculty member, and a community-engaged and inquiring citizen. I have been involved as a faculty member at the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR–< https://www.wisr.edu >) since founding it with three others in 1975. During the past 45 years, I have learned from and with WISR students and faculty more than I can ever put into words, but I will try to articulate some important lessons from the myriad of ways we have used action research. This book is designed to engage the reader in two ways to use “transformative action research” or as I sometimes refer to it, “transformative action-and inquiry”:

  • first, for “living life” and continually learning, especially in collaboration with others (i.e., pursuing transformative action-and-inquiry), and
  • second, for “doing” a research project” or doing transformative action research.

Chapter 2, Principles, Themes and Concepts

At WISR, we believe that all people are the creators of knowledge, and can make valuable contributions. On an everyday basis, many people do “research”–they gather information, evaluate it, form hypotheses or conclusions, ask further questions about their tentative conclusions, experiment by trying out in action what they believe they have learned, then engage in further reflection and reexamination of their beliefs, and collaborate with others to try to make “new” knowledge. Themes that will be discussed throughout the book include participatory research, “doing” action-research, and “living transformative action-and-inquiry.” As we pursue our purposes to make a positive impact on the world, in order to be truly transformative, it is important that we re-evaluate those purposes, in light of our experiences and latest insights, as well as with regards to our basic values and evolving commitments. To achieve the sort of “transformative awareness,” we must aim to be inclusive, to learn from others and to promote diversity and inclusiveness. Our methods of action-and-inquiry themselves must change, as we further our learning into whatever our inquiry or actions are about.

Chapter 3, Building on Intellectual Traditions

This book builds on several intellectual traditions, including the most creative practices of mainstream science, naturalistic and qualitative research in the social sciences, the ideas of the educators John Dewey and Paulo Freire, the guiding metaphor of “script improvisation,” and the Dreyfus theory of expert knowledge. Loevinger’s theory of ego development is also quite valuable as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.  We also consider the inevitable and complicated interplay of emotions and research. If I had been born 50 years later, I might have benefitted from different intellectual traditions–quite possibly some of those discussed above, and also, however, from some others that are based on the perspectives of people representing more marginalized groups, because of their culture or gender identity, for example. Having been involved with the very diverse group of faculty and students at the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR) since 1975, I have learned much from and with people from many walks of life and identities, and from many cultural backgrounds, facing different challenges, including sometimes severe circumstances of oppression and marginalization. I have seen how they have adapted and used action research to further deepen their own perspectives, and to pursue their interests and passions.

Chapter 4, Research and Society Are Interconnected

Research–the questions, methods and findings of research projects–is strongly influenced by the larger society. Similarly, the larger society is oftentimes influenced by research. Research is a social process, and researchers are participants in society. Producing new knowledge is a major industry, often serving specific social interests and values. Each of us has a position, or really a number of specific positions in society, and these affect the ways we see the world in very basic ways. Transformative action research can be done by non-professional researchers, who are engaged in doing rather than only studying, and who want to use their research for transformative improvements, large or small. In considering the history of research, we should be mindful that our ignorance of the methods of inquiry used by our distant ancestors is paralleled by the consistent exclusion of histories of non-European cultures. Our society and our culture, and especially those groups and people with the greatest power, influence, and privilege, may significantly influence, and distort, our inquiry in ways that we may not always readily appreciate. Action research cannot realize its transformative potential without a consistent and continual awareness of the challenges involved in addressing these biases.

Chapter 5, Asking Questions

Asking questions is an essential feature of any formal research project, action-oriented or otherwise.  Most research begins with questions, and, despite the popular notion that research ends with conclusions and findings, it is perhaps more significant when research projects “end” with the formulation of even “better,” more interesting questions for future research, thought and action.

As discussed in Part A, T.S. Kuhn (Kuhn, 1970) points out that “normal science” is like puzzling solving with an emphasis on answering questions that are taken for granted. In contrast, scientific revolutions involve coming up with fundamentally new ways of looking at things and are usually promoted by asking completely different questions than have been asked before.  As we work in community groups and other organizations, day in and day out, many things about them became all too familiar to us. So, it can be very helpful to look at the same old parts of organization life in new ways, to ask kinds of questions that don’t ordinarily occur to us. Such new slants on old issues are an important part of transformative “action research,” a way of making critical inquiry a continuing tool of community life and work. 

Chapter 6, Data Gathering and Sampling

This chapter addresses the phase or step in the research process with which most people are somewhat familiar—getting information or gathering data. It involves many important, seldom discussed considerations, and it also benefits from painstaking attention to detail. Yet, it does not require precisely defined, standardized procedures outlined in most textbooks and guides to research. This chapter goes into detail about the rationales and perspectives to keep in mind when seeking out data and information, including specific strategies and techniques of interviewing, observation, note taking and group discussion. The subsections are:

  • Where Do Ideas and Facts Come From?
  • Making It More Conscious
  • Sampling
  • Broadening Our Experiences and Information, including Blumer’s method of exploration, using document and records, published research, participant observation, interviewing individuals and groups, questionnaires, and note taking to keep track of everyday observations and insights.
  • Note-Taking to Keep Track of Everyday Observations and Insights
  • Interviewing Issues, Strategies and Considerations, including types an sources of interview data, levels of meaning in each interview, doing “script- improvisation” rather than static formulas, relationship of interviewer to interviewee, and dilemmas.
  • Eliciting Ideas and Information from Others
  • Analytical Uses of Group Discussion

Chapter 7, Data Analysis

Many people focus on data gathering without considering how labor-intensive data analysis can be. Researchers often enthusiastically gather a large body of data, but once they have amassed the data, they don’t know what to do with their data. With the most thorough research at least, there will be evidence which may at first seem to be contradictory or inconsistent and requires wrestling with how to make sense of out seemingly contradictory pieces of information. Is some of the information more credible or meaningful? Is there a way to interpret the information, which although not obvious at first, is consistent with all, or almost all, of the information? I examine the important concepts of “validity” and “reliability” that are commonly used to evaluate the quality and value of any research endeavor. I then ask that we evaluate any research project by examining the ways and extent to which the researcher(s) has/have been transparent about their research methods, and if they have adequately communicated the details of their inquiry that led to their findings. The chapter will conclude by looking at how thought and analysis lead to action, and in turn how action can contribute to further thinking, inquiry, and analysis.

Chapter 8, Communicating and Collaborating

Although people often think of communicating one’s findings and taking action to be the last step in doing action research, they sometimes are also the beginning of further action-inquiry. We can use writing drafts to communicate with ourselves, to reflect more deeply, and to think out loud with others. Collaboration is extremely important in transformative action research, in science and all research. Collaboration between different people, especially with different roles, experiences, and values, can be very valuable to inquiry and in taking action. It is important that we communicate to, and share with, others the details of the process that led to our findings. By being transparent about how we have arrived at our findings, others can make well-informed decisions about how seriously to take those findings, and potentially they can contribute to our next steps to test out, revise and further develop our findings and ideas. So, it is important for us to put ourselves at the heart of the “story” of the action-inquiry about which we are writing. It is important to write in our own voice, and this chapter gives some suggestions on how to do that more consistently.

Chapter 9, Issues and Strategies of Quantitative Analysis

All too often numbers stop inquiry, rather than promote inquiry. Because of their seemingly definitive quality, numbers can look like “answers,” rather than sometimes valuable, information. We must critically examine what the numbers mean in light of our qualitative understanding of what they are about; using numbers alone may be misleading. Our decisions are always made by us, not by numbers, for we always choose what meaning and importance to give to numbers. I describe, and review, widely practiced quantitative approaches, discuss the reasoning and assumptions behind these approaches, and note their uses and limitations. One useful reframing is to consider the value of qualitative approaches to cost-benefit decision-making. “Data” don’t become more “hard” or solid because a number has been assigned to the data. All decisions about measurements and the uses of quantitative indicators and results require some judgement. This chapter shows how graphs can be used to think about and analyze data without going into the precise numeric details. An important thing to keep in mind is that ideally, our quantitative descriptions and characterizations of things should push us to reach for deeper, qualitative understandings, and then, quantitative and qualitative approaches to research may work together very well.

Chapter 10, Immediate Tasks and Bigger Picture

In most organizations, the pressure of immediate needs is strong and continuing. We learn to deal with a series of crises, often, with lulls between them to catch our breath. We need to give ourselves chances, and occasionally the requirement, to look at the longer-range view, the larger aims and commitments we have, alternatives to the ways we usually do things. An action-and-inquiry process within our group or organization can help us to raise larger, long-range questions. For example, our goals and values themselves may become a subject of inquiry and re-examination. Some social theorists talk about these different levels of attention as “micro” (focusing on helping individuals), “mezzo” (interventions at the group level), and “macro” (addressing the larger-scale, societal issues). All three are important, and certainly given the many demands that most of us face, it is usually not possible for any one person or group to focus on all three levels. Still, in developing the mindfulness necessary with a transformative approach, there are at least three key domains of systemic injustice and major societal problems in which all of us should try to educate ourselves–racism, the growing inequality created by “neoliberalism,” and the environmental emergency.

Chapter 11, Inquiring More Deeply

One purpose of action research is to make observations and analyses of the obvious issues and patterns of behavior involved with day-to-day activities. An equally important, often neglected, focus is to look beneath the surface for issues and themes that are perhaps not so obvious and apparent. Major societal trends can reveal coexisting, conflicting meanings. In probing beneath the surface, there are some pitfalls to be avoided. There is the danger that preoccupation with one layer of meaning may blind people to a fuller picture of reality. Consider the example of the much-needed study of, and interventions with, the causes and consequences of “trauma.” As we learn more, the concept of “trauma” may become increasingly useful as “sensitizing concept,” and in some ways, it may become a “desensitizing” preoccupation. If we approach our inquiry and our actions toward trauma with both curiosity and critical reflection, to probe beneath the surface, there’s a good chance that the concept of “trauma” can continue to evolve and become more sensitizing and useful. Through transformative action-and-inquiry to make trauma into an increasingly more nuanced “sensitizing concept”—with more illustrations, a wider variety of illustrations, and continued critically reflections into why those specific variations matter!

Chapter 12, Community Knowledge-Building

This approach to action research centers on the idea that all of us must come to see ourselves as builders of knowledge, individually and collectively. I believe in each of us as knowledge-builders for practical reasons and because of my values, and I also realize that the quality, solidity and validity of our knowledge, and the actions flowing from that knowledge, will be better–if it grows out of the experiences of many people, who by virtue of their involvements, are in a position to “know.”  Those with the greatest potential to become experts, including the builders of theories, are not distanced from what they are studying, but deeply engaged in all of the complexity and messiness of the problems and matters which are the content of the ideas they develop. In the context of community knowledge-building, it is important for us to make a practice of telling stories and listening for stories from others. As Myles Horton reportedly once said, it is extremely important to “listen eloquently.” Stories matter, and important concepts are often embedded in stories, or illuminated by them, and then made useful.

Chapter 13, Ethical Considerations

This chapter addresses ethical considerations involved in doing any kind of research, including action research and participatory research, including ethical issues in protecting research participants. Beyond this, there are larger considerations of the uses and impact of our action research, although there are no recipes for addressing ethical dilemmas and decision-making, this chapter suggests some ideas to inform, and guidelines that may be valuable food for thought. Still, we should strive to be mindful and reflective of how ethical considerations may influence our action research, and how our decisions may result in consequences for better and/or for worse. This includes taking on bigger picture concerns of our “social responsibilities” in pursuing transformative action research. It is not possible to be value-free. Ethical problems are indeed more likely to arise if we are unaware of the ways in which our values impact our action research. Ideally, the purposes of any action research effort are informed and guided by our values, although hopefully also, not limited by our values. A transformative approach also requires that we question, re-evaluate, and in some cases, re-formulate either the specific purposes of our project, or even the larger values that led to our initially stated purposes.

Chapter 14, Concluding Remarks

Transformative action research is not a “thing”; it is more appropriately seen as a “sensitizing concept,” as an organic, evolving process. In this book, “it” is characterized by a coherent constellation of some key qualities, principles, and methodological approaches. Also, it is necessarily a “work in progress” that should, and will, come to mean different things to different people. It is not “my” method or approach, but rather a set of related ideas, methods and principles that I have learned from the insights of others, as well as through my over 50 years’ of experience collaborating and being engaged with others, living and doing transformative action-and-inquiry. These concluding remarks are mostly reminders of points and notions that I hope you will at least reflect on and consider seriously. I fully expect that each reader will get something different from what they have read and considered here. Undoubtedly, for each of you some of these points will make more sense or seem possibly to be of greater value. As a follow up to this book, the reader may wish to look the companion book, Cases and Stories of Transformative Action research. 


Volume Two: Cases and Illustrations

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