Encounters with the Participatory Imagination in the UK Action Research Community: Interplays and Silences

Publication year: 

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

As two long-standing action researchers we both maintain a curiosity about the traditions and emergent ideas that surround and underpin our practice here in the UK. In our chapter 'Becoming Participatory: some contributions to Action Research in the UK' (ref) we offer a set of reflections on where - in the pursuit of becoming participatory - we have come from, and where we're heading, and in this further contribution we take our reflections a little further.

We acknowledge our chapter is a partial account from two practitioners and participants, who believe AR is fundamentally an ethical endeavour overtly committed to social justice, that creating knowledge is a process of co-production, rooted in experience, rather than as a means to generate decontextualised and generalisable 'truths'.  As we looked back, we viewed some of the work we cite as not particularly participatory, and that we have experienced the participatory impulse as an aspiration that inevitably has to navigate the possibilities, contradictions, and tensions of the dominant hierarchical non-participatory world.  

When we encountered action research, both of us strongly felt the weight of the positivist tradition in our educational upbringing. We were eager to shake off our assumptions with a fresh approach to knowledge as being provisional, contested, and contingent, where instead of the presumption of an external abstract ‘knower’, we position knower/s within a system oriented towards producing knowledge for worthwhile action. Yet the questions we had to face in so doing were many and indeed, they continue to inspire our curiosity.

As Richard Winter and colleagues point out, all writing is in itself a research act (Winter et al 1999), and the invitation to collaborate on this chapter offered us each an opportunity to examine the development of action research thinking and practice that had shaped our engagement with such questions. What we present here draws on our reflections about the process of writing the chapter together and how we now view the importance of the content we chose to highlight.

I (Ruth) approached my contribution from two decades of co-ordinating the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) initially as a Co-ordinating Group member and later as Lead Co-ordinator. In the course of writing the chapter, Cathy drew my attention to the government sponsored Community Development Projects (CDPs) in the 1970s which had enthused her early interest in urban studies, and this prompted me to recall my glancing encounters with the CDP, and with action research and the participatory turn at this time.  My engagement with the field had, I realised, actually begun with an intuitive grasp of action research and its thinking in the radical community development and protest movements of the 1970s. In turn this led me to question what had obstructed my subsequent ability to incorporate these early experiences into my 'official' biography as an action researcher. It seemed to me that there was a significant gap in the documentation of these events, and that this 'absent literature' might account for how little they figured in our discipline’s traditions. I myself had been viewing my own biography through the narrow lens of academia and its publications.

Cathy's experiences derive from working in research, teaching and policy roles across government, practice settings and academia.  Her first real immersion in action research came about alongside other mid-career professionals seeking to reappraise their practices and impacts to foster social change by studying at the Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice (CARPP) at the University of Bath. CARPP was co-founded in 1993 by Judi Marshall, Peter Reason, David Sims, and Jack Whitehead to develop the theory and practice of AR, underpinned by an internationally informed participative worldview and an extended epistemology. CARPP specifically aimed to enable postgraduate research that would meet established quality criteria and bring about radical developments in both ideas and practices.

In the late 1980s I (Ruth) re-entered the academic world into action research practice in health settings at London University Institute of Education to undertake commissioned research, and this provided me with an opportunity to explore some of the origins of action research. I found that London's Tavistock Institute was the main champion of action research in the UK post-war years, where clinicians and HR specialists radically re-envisioned both individual and institutional 'frozenness'- or the inability to encounter problems as available for inquiry - as socially constructed.

But, in trying to present an account in our chapter of its key influences in the UK setting, I re-discovered how slippery the UK's geographical boundary proved to be. Kurt Lewin – a German Jewish refugee from Nazism – practised AR in the USA, yet the Tavistock Institute counts his work as foundational. Similarly, the origins of CARN in England arose from an American funded curriculum development project and drew from the outset on international networks. Ideas were crossing international boundaries fast.

On the other hand, we also realised that while this cross-fertilisation was apparent across the growing body of participatory work in the UK, there has always been a certain insularity between distinct centres of inquiry based in the UK academy itself, including the ones we report on here. Looking back, I wonder to what extent this productive international exchange of thinking was stimulated by a fascination with unfamiliar – ‘exotic’ - contexts and an ease of imaginative connection that may have seemed less straightforward between the directly connected world of neighbours.

The democratic impulse was one of CARN's core values and was practiced through inquiry and discovery approaches to learning.  Initially it was school-based – it was the Classroom Action Research Network – and grounded research acts in the processes of teaching and learning. Carr and Kemmis thought of action research as 'an embodiment of democratic principles in research'. This radical re-orientation of focus towards practice as knowledge production challenged the hegemony of academic educational research by 'making teachers' investigations of classroom practice its central component' (Somekh 2010: 109).

This approach emerged in other disciplines, particularly the caring professions, and postgraduate study which bridged higher education and practice settings began to develop. It was at this point that the term 'classroom' was exchanged for 'collaborative' in CARN's title, though there is a continuing sense within the network of the inquiring classroom as omni-present, potentially in every setting if we care to think of it that way.

I (Cathy) found that CARPP was strongly committed to the exploration of the ontological and epistemological groundings of AR, rooted in pragmatist philosophy and a participatory world view where ‘truth is something we do together’. As a student, this was an exhilarating experience that positioned AR as a life-long endeavour and commitment to dialogue, collaboration, exploring purposes, living values, and taking worthwhile action.

The joy of writing the chapter was in part, an opportunity to revisit and reflect on the experience of being part of the CARPP ‘community of inquiry’.  The work of the founders is internationally known and there is a substantial rich, thematically coherent, and values-based body of work that thankfully, is still accessible. There are journal articles and PhD theses that include experimental, creative, and innovative forms of writing and representation and more expansive expositions of ways of knowing.

Being part of this community also exposed me (Cathy) to the different perspectives and space occupied by a parallel, yet distinct approach to inquiry as a critically reflexive, relational, and improvisational approach, through the work of SOLAR (Social and Organisational Learning as Action Research). 

SOLAR was established by Susan Weil, initially based at University College Northampton in 1996, and then at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol 2002-9. Despite shared epistemological roots with CARPP, SOLAR wanted to be more systemic, seeking powerful patterns in stories, recurring themes and tensions that reproduce themselves in complex systems and tended to avoid the terms first-, second- and third-person inquiry used by CARPP.

At a CARPP workshop in 2002, I (Cathy) was excited and challenged by the invitation from Susan to engage more explicitly with power relations and system dynamics; to find ways to conduct inquiry amidst the ‘minefields of silence’, designing for emergence, and having the courage to learn from the mess, naming contradictions as an act of power, making it legitimate to notice frozenness, the issues that are not discussed, and how people respond.

Twenty years later, this challenge is highly resonant. In revisiting this work for our chapter, we saw some of the Tavistock's ideas, for example, organisational frozenness, silences, and denial, but transformed through an epistemological framework where expertise is no longer positioned via the ‘expert’ clinical gaze and framed instead as egalitarian.

We were also struck by the prescience of Susan Weil’s work from the 1990s that was developing creative ways to work with stories and acknowledge the realities of complex systems, those ‘not capable of being understood or controlled, in which we must approach learning and change as relational and improvisational processes’ (Weil, 1997: 378). 

At times highly experimental, SOLAR continued to develop the thinking and practice of Systemic Action Research (SAR) in stark contrast to traditional research or consultation. Their work was a clear call to ‘build cultures that support new forms of collaborative inquiry and action research’ that strongly reverberates throughout our experience and, to this day, warrants a wider audience.

As in the case of the early decades of AR in the community development movement, documentation in the initial period of education-based AR was also limited, with publication taking place in single sustained works such as Carr and Kemmis's Becoming Critical (1986), collections such as the Handbooks of Winter (1999) and Winter and Munn-Giddings (2001) and Reason & Bradbury (2001), and guides to practice.

On setting out the dates of origin of the two foremost UK based international AR journals we were surprised to see how long it had taken for them to emerge: Educational Action Research in 1993 and Action Research Journal ten years later.  Whilst SOLAR’s continuing influence manifests in Barry Percy-Smith’s work at the University of Huddersfield and Danny Burns at IDS, University of Sussex, the closure of the SOLAR archive at UWE creates a significant loss of documented activity for the action research community.

In registering silences, we concluded by finding hope for the flourishing of action research  and the contribution it can make to a more just and sustainable world often manifesting in marginal, off the radar spaces.  We propose that any revitalised vision of a deeply participatory AR will need to adopt a more holistic, affective, and relational approach to learning and knowledge creation that demands that we recognise the part emotion – including fear, anger, sadness, excitement, passion, and courage – plays in creating cultures, and the necessity to better integrate acknowledgement of our feelings into our practice.

Silence about important participatory work has much to do with the ‘enclosure of knowledge’ (Hall & Tandon 2017) within universities. We are encouraged by the emergence of new publication opportunities outside the conventional peer-review system – eg via The Social Publishers Foundation, CARN Praxis – in a cycle of return to the days before the establishment of peer-reviewed journal in our discipline, but in this iteration, embracing diversity.

The UK-based initiatives we highlight always drew on significant worldwide connections and interchange. Acknowledging that global exchanges and meetings of AR scholars from different networks and with differing interests are now taking place more often, the chapter that we originally wrote in 2019 issues a challenge for action researchers to be more collaborative, to share our practices within and across disciplines and sectors in the UK and embrace the technologies that can reduce our airmiles.

Our experience of the subsequent Covid 19 pandemic has at least demonstrated to us just how possible and valuable this really is, both internationally and more locally.  Our individual and mutual immersion in online meetings and networks across a wide variety of contexts and localities, has been sudden and hugely beneficial.  We have seen conference participation transformed by the inclusion of students, researchers, teachers, and practitioners of action research who would never attend a face-to-face event, not least because of the barriers of costs and time to travel.

We have taken part in and witnessed encounters as equals between eminent writers and figures from the action research world and novice researchers, practitioners and mid-career researchers in small breakout rooms and other configurations.  Such a fresh shape to our networking has created a significant and welcome disruption to the power dynamics and cliques that can prevail. We hope this will continue to re-orient our relationships in ever more productive ways.

Open access resources


Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical: Education Knowledge and Action Research. London:  Routledge.

Hall, B. L. and Tandon, R. (2017). Decolonization of knowledge, epistemicide, participatory research and higher education, Research for All 1 (1) 6-19

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (2001). Introduction: Inquiry and participation in search of a world worthy of human aspiration. In P. Reason and H. Bradbury (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. London: Sage

Somekh, B. (2010). The collaborative action research network: 30 years of agency in developing educational action research. Educational Action Research, 18(1): 103–121.

Sharp, C. & Balogh, R. (2021). Becoming Participatory: Some Contributions to Action Research in the UK. In D. Burns, J. Howard, S.M. Ospina (eds)  The Sage Handbook of Participatory Research & Inquiry pp 154 - 168 Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC, Melbourne: Sage Publications

Weil, S. (1997) ‘Social and organisational learning in a different key: an introduction to the principles of critical learning theatre and dialectical inquiry’, in Stowell, F.,  Ison, R. and Armsonet, R (eds) Systems for sustainability: People, organisations and environments, New York, NY: Plenum. 378

Winter, R., Buck, A. and Sobiechowska, P. (1999). Professional Experience and the Investigative Imagination: The Art of Reflective Writing. London: Routledge.

Winter, R. and Munn-Giddings, C. (2001). A Handbook of Action Research in Health and Social Care. London: Routledge.


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