Action Research – Participative Self in Transformative Action. A Precis

Publication year: 

This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry

The chapter argues that all action research is participative. Not all participative research, however, qualifies as action research. The author unpacks conceptual assumptions regarding the self in support of the action research orientation to knowledge co-creation and offers a rich case study.

The focus of the paper is on re-conceptualizing the actors within action research.  Understanding ourselves and others as relational, and therefore as participative rather than excessively individualistic selves, creates a meeting place between action research and participative inquiry. The chapter ends with a call to action among those who practice participative inquiry at this time of social-ecological crisis.

A general, often-cited definition of action research: 

Action research is a democratic and participative orientation to knowledge creation. It brings together action and reflection, theory and practice, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern, with, not on, people. (Bradbury, 2015: 1). There is, however, no simple “how to.” Moreover, today there is a growing concern for more action researchers to grapple with our increasing eco-social challenges and to work in support of the larger social transformation from an industrial growth society to a life enhancing civilization.  

External change and internal transformations combine

The chapter argues it is necessary to link the work of change and transformation, therefore of external and internal focus. Action research at this time of needed transformation describes a human-centered approach to complexity, updated with a perspective that foregrounds the emergent ‘space between’ and within individuals. This relational approach offers a transformative space in which new possibility emerges among stakeholders. The implication is to pay attention to how to cultivate capacity for emerging creative relationships among people, taking steps to not assume and reinforce treating ourselves and others as overly individualistic. This is developmental work.

We can say that action researchers work with, not on, those with a stake in the issues at hand. This means paying attention to practicing reflexivity by acknowledging and owning the impact of our partial blind spots and facilitating the same among others within the community of stakeholders. This turn to the self is not about being overly self-centered, but deepening the naturally occurring (if easily overlooked) sense of self as already a process in participation. 

Exemplar case: Swedish healthcare centering patients (not clinicians’) needs

A small group of healthcare workers started to include patients directly in their efforts to redesign healthcare delivery. They moved away from a clinic-based system using a social learning process. In this stakeholder process, knowledge creation page6image45891968among all stakeholders was key to realizing the improved outcomes. The key point of leverage seems to have been the sharing of experience and inquiry made possible in regular learning platforms. These were spaces in which different kinds of data (e.g., from interviews and photovoice) could be discussed as in a focus group.

The conversational space was facilitated with keen attention to relationships, so trust dynamics built, fractured and regenerated over time. Framed as transformative knowledge creation these healthcare redesign efforts continue and spread to measurably (1) improve patient experiences and health, (2) reduce healthcare costs, (3) improve the work life of those who deliver care, and (4) bring healthcare providers into circum- stances that allow for continuous learning together with patients (Bradbury and Lifvergren, 2016 )

Key indicators of success include an 80% reduction in emergency visits; a 90% reduction in office visits as well as a reduction in hospital days by around 90%. These reductions pay for the mobile units. Other assessments have shown significantly improved quality of life as well as relief of troublesome symptoms among the patients. 

Lars, the patient whose request for different care of his physician instigated the proverbial butterfly effect, was able to experience this transformation before he died. He summarized the change and transformation he experienced:

‘I went in and out of the hospital for three years – it was really dreadful. But now the mobile team comes to me and supports me at home – it is deluxe care.’ 

As this large scale change came about, the work of transformation among healthcare workers included redefining relationships of power between healthcare decision makers and others. In this relationships of trust had to be made and remade, neither too fast not too slow. (see Livergren and Zandee 2019 for a rich case study). 

Conceptual tool: The self as already a participative system.

Participation implies attention to how we work with others, i.e., taking on the second-person exercise of inhabiting another’s mindset, for which empathy is required. For this, one must also become better acquainted with the one who is doing the inquiring, namely ourselves. Thus, the practice of relational, inter- subjective work becomes a critical anchor for ensuring quality of work with stakeholders, in a way that integrates personal transformation with the external work of tangible change (Chandler and Torbert, 2003).

The practice of relational action inquiry (Bradbury and Torbert, 2016) describes and supports this development of self with community. It continues (e.g., Bradbury and Catone, 2021) as an effort between colleagues in looking together at their different socialization, attempting to create more mutuality. It points to the way in which deeply personal and interpersonal work, can acknowledge inherited power dynamics, and give life to new forms of relational learning and transforming power. This work, while deeply personal anchors self and communities of transformational change. It is deeply pragmatic. 

Constructivist developmental pragmatism

William James (1983 [1912]) in his ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism’ places concrete personal experience at the center of philosophical and psychological efforts to find that ‘immediate experience is the instant field of the present which arises prior to the division of subject and object and anterior to all reflective judgment.’ In his essay ‘The Continuity of Experience’ James explicitly articulates his field model of the self in a way that curiously evokes action researcher Kurt Lewin’s (1943) foundational contribution to action research. These are important philosophical moments in which a more pragmatist approach to knowledge began to examine and dispense with the inherited foundational philosophical dictates of European origin that over emphasize the work of conceptualization and reflection.  

This pragmatic anchor is shared with a number of similarly persuaded pragmatist-educator luminaries since, including George Herbert Mead, Jane Addams, Mary Parker Follet to John Dewey. Today we see it in the work of Jürgen Habermas, acknowledged for grounding in pragmatism, with rich pragmatic implications. We may also discern clear echoes of Buddhist teachings that emphasize attention to experience are which are becoming mainstream in the mindfulness movement of the 21st Century.  

Experience includes but is more than what is conceptualized. Experience shows us that are already participating, already capable of linking inquiry and action. Conceptualization, when excised from more wholistic personal experience, on the other hand, makes ever finer distinctions, treating subjects as objects. This is useful, to a degree. Though reinforced by mechanistic era educational and research practices, being overly individualistic and privileging passive thought is not after all a “natural” or desired state. Attention to our personal experience shows us that we are already participating.

Implications for action at a time of escalating crisis

Action research is practiced by those scholar-practitioners who are interested in linking change and transformation within human systems. Where change concerns tangible change in the external world, transformation contributes change within those involved, such as a change in how they view and relate, experientially, to themselves and their stakeholders. Action research for transformations thus involves actors who are both subjects of change, as well as agents of change.  The work is therefore developmental for all involved. As subjects of change, we necessarily develop capacity for reflection that manifests also in tangible action. 

It’s timely and important to acknowledge the global sustainability crisis in which social and ecological dynamics now intertwine. The action researching participative spirit is an increasingly popular and essential way for conducting action-oriented transformation research. It is proving itself capable of transforming vestigial power relationships that maintain the current status quo. It signals a different kind of knowledge creation and calls us to develop our inherent capacities:   

A more experiential conception of self leads to a more relational and participative understanding of the self. 

We are already seamlessly embedded in the natural and social systems that surround us. 

We are a species graced with capacity for partnership and collaboration (along with easily awakened tendencies to fear, control, and dominate).

The external work of change linked to the internal work of transformation among communities of stakeholders is already resulting in scalable, tangible benefit to those involved.

Key References

Bradbury, H., Editor. 2015. The Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. 3rd Edition. London & Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.

Bradbury, H. and Lara Catone. 2021. Cultivating Developmental Responsiveness: Methodology, Reflexivity, and Transformation.  Integral Review. Dec 2021 (17) 1-20.

Bradbury, H., and Lifvergren, S. 2016.  Action Research Healthcare: Focus on Patients, Improve Quality, Drive Down Costs. Healthcare Management Forum.

Bradbury, H. and W. Torbert. 2016. Eros/Power: Love in the Spirit of Inquiry. Transforming how women and men relate.  Tucson, AZ: Integral Publishers.

Lifvergren, S. and D. Zandee, 2019. In Bradbury, H. and Associates. 2019. Cooking with Action Research: Stories and resources. Spanish/English. Volume 3. AR+ Foundation.