Why Link Systems, Evolution and Democratization in Action Research

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

Action Research as a systems science: This chapter argues that Action Research is built upon a scientifically-grounded epistemology and a set of well-developed theories and methods. Together these aim to produce more just, sustainable, and desirable states of human life. Underlying Action Research is an epistemology that understands the empirical world as a complex, dynamic, group of interacting systems. All local phenomena exist within the interplay of these dynamic systems. All living systems are open systems, thus depending for survival on successful adaption to the environments and processes affecting them. 

No neutrality: In an Action Research world, there are no neutral positions, no uninvolved spectator observers. Action Research both observes and participates in the surrounding world. Not acting this way makes the world around us fundamentally unintelligible. 

Moral aims: Action Research aims to bring about improved conditions of life for the broadest array of stakeholders possible, human and non-human. The goal is the greater realization of human potential, fairness, and sustainability in solidarity with other humans and in a positive interaction with the planetary ecologies. 

Coping with diversity is the only path forward: To bring this about Action Research proceeds by bringing together the broadest array of relevant stakeholder possible and orchestrating their interactions to surface the wealth of knowledge and experiences in any group of people so these can be brought to bear on solving the problems collectively deemed important. Any social theory or method that does not involve the subjugation of human actors or despoiling other animals and the environment is potentially relevant to Action Research projects. The methods may be qualitative, quantitative, phenomenological, Marxist, constructivist, etc. What matters is the analysis of problems, the collaborative development of potential solutions, and the collaborative application of those solutions to solving human problems. 

Cycles of action and research: If the solutions tried do not work to their satisfaction, the collaborators return to the analysis and development of new action plans until the results meet their aims. This is why Action Research is specifically a form of “pragmatic” action. 

Action Research and the return to a “real” social science: In most respects, Action Research is the product of a period at the end of the 18th century when the distinction between the natural sciences and human sciences first emerged with vigour. The work of Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others showed that moral and political designs by themselves failed to produce effective human outcomes. In addition recognizing the gradually growing understanding of the “laws of nature”, these thinkers understood that societies and cultures had another kind of law-like properties. These properties meant that no amount of moralizing could reduce poverty, inequality, or human degradation.  

The birth of the social sciences: The social sciences emerged from this recognition originally in the form of political economy. It had the explicit aim of understanding these structuring principles and managing them to produce better human outcomes. Soon these analyses followed by those of others like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels produced a clear answer to the reasons why inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation existed. The answer was the greed and desire for political hegemony of those made wealthy by the industrial revolution at the expense an unprotected, underpaid, and short-lived work force. Therefore, as the 19th century progressed, political economy ran head-on into resistance from the wealthy and political elites who did not appreciate having the sources of their wealth and power revealed by academics, journalists, and novelists. 

The contradictory role of the research university: This period of elite reaction coincided with the creation of the “research university” in Europe and the United States, a process that could have given wings to the social critique provided by political economy and to a variety of populist and working class movements aimed at creating more egalitarian and solitary societies. The response to the risk that critical political economy posed was to use the same management strategy that worked in the factories of the Robber Barons, namely Taylorism. 

Taylorism: Taylorism is a hierarchical, authoritarian system. Those at the apex of the pyramid exercise total control over those below. To achieve this, manufacturing tasks are divided into smaller, hermetic units, each with its own hierarchical internal structure as well. Passing down from the bosses to the managers to the foreman to the workers, experts from the apex of the system organize the work process, work rules, productivity targets, and remuneration schemes. The farther down in the structure you are, the less intelligent you are asserted to be. You are conceived to be just a body to do the bidding of the bosses in work processes designed by efficiency experts who themselves do no manual labour. This is the model that gave us the Ford Model T and the assembly line system. Politically this was an ideal system for extracting value from the work of poorly paid others while preventing them from addressing the conditions of their work and their salaries. These organizations were viciously anti-union and heavily dependent on low wage labour. 

Academic Taylorism: As it happened, the development of the research universities coincided with the heyday of Taylorism in factories and universities were rapidly built on the model of the Tayloristic factory. Deeply hierarchical, universities were structured to have an authoritarian apex that delegates power downward to deans, department heads, and last of all to faculty and secretarial staff.  All the fields of inquiry are divided up into the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and the humanities and each of these was further segmented into the separate “disciplines”, each with its own budget and personnel lines. For the bosses this is an ideal management system because it reserves to them the ultimate authority over budget and resources. The deans then compete for those resources and the department heads under the deans complete with each other for the dean’s resources, and the faculty members compete with each other, and so on.  This system maximizes authoritarianism and minimizes participation. 

Impact on the social sciences: This form of organization was particularly disastrous for the social sciences. Following its logic, the “dangerous” political economists were segmented up into historians, economists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and psychologists. Within these categories, the disciplines were further subdivided into disciplinary specialties. With all the power concentrated at the apex, any of these fields whose practitioners produced perspectives critical of or calling into question the unequal, authoritarian, racist, sexist, and hierarchical nature of the surrounding society and polity were and are disciplined without mercy. 

Domestication of conventional social science: Political economy that began as an analysis aimed at reforming and democratizing society was domesticated into a group of spectator activities. When an occasional practitioner strays from this script, they are mercilessly harassed, often fired, and publicly humiliated. In the early twentieth century, John Dewey and colleagues founded the American Association of University Professors in an unsuccessful effort to protect faculty freedom of speech on such issues. Facing this coercive environment, many faculty in these fields took refuge in academic jargon, positivist and statistical studies, and obfuscating claims of being impartial and objective spectators. So hegemonic is this system become that many of the inmates have become their own jailers.  

“Pure” versus “applied” social science: Another solution developed was to divide the social sciences into the “pure” and the “applied” fields.  The applied social sciences were permitted to work on welfare programs, advise public schools, teach “home economics”, and advise on international development programs. Most of these applied social scientists saw themselves as “experts” who were intellectually superior the people they applied their nostrums to. But the applied practitioners were disrespected by the “pure” social scientists as mere “social workers”. Thus, anyone who applied their ideas in practice risked status loss in academic settings. 

Modest counter-movements: Despite the hegemony this scheme, there have been occasional counter-movements.  Among these were the fields of Institutional Economics, John Dewey´s pedagogical philosophy, various pro-social programs at US land-grant universities (e.g., agricultural extension, labour studies), academic feminism, Afro-American studies, Latino studies, Asian studies, post-colonial studies, etc.   

Key among these in the history of Action Research was the work of Kurt Lewin at MIT where he created an action research program and coined the name “Action Research”. Despite the promise of this work, Lewin died suddenly, and the flame gradually went out in post-World War II America. Action Research remained mainly practiced outside of the boundaries of Taylorized academia in places like the Highlander Center, the civil rights movement, Fals-Borda´s work in Colombia, Paolo Freire´s work in Brazil, and others. 

Action Research and the global reckoning: Now Action Research is gradually rebuilding momentum because life itself has imposed its challenges on not just the university but on all of society. Climate change and environmental collapse, racism and hate crimes, increasing ruptures of civil society, collapsing rural towns and pathological cities, inequality of a sort never seen before on the planet, the re-emergence of the Cold War, surveillance capitalism, and algorithmic subordination have made it clear that the Tayloristic university and the siloed disciplines are an unaffordable fantasy world. Real answers to real questions are needed and we circle back to the original intentions of political economy. 

Transdisciplinary system problem-solving: Starting from a recognition that the real world is a complexly nested and dynamic set of interacting systems whose evolutionary consequences (biological and cultural) either promote life or result in extinction, it is clear that the social sciences have to be recomposed to take their place in a transdisciplinary approach to physical, biological, social, and cultural “wicked problems”. No one field has the necessary knowledge and methods, but each has a piece of the puzzle and tested methods to contribute to a collective endeavour. 

Diversity again: For the very same reasons that diversity matters in the study of complex systems, human diversity also matters in solving these problems. Tayloristic organizations and societies behave much less intelligently than they would if they were to tap the experience, expertise, and energy of all the stakeholders together. Creating and managing the conditions in which every actor with ideas and capabilities can contribute to creating fairer and more sustainable solutions to human problems is the strength of Action Research. The multiple crises our Tayloristic global systems has created to preserve the power and wealth of a few at the expense of the rest of humanity make it clear that respecting diversity is not merely a moral imperative but an empirical necessity if we are to survive this millennium. 

Recommended reading

Argyris, Chris, Diana McLain Smith, and Robert Putnam. 1985. Action Science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Belenky, Mary Field. 1997. A Tradition That Has No Name: Nurturing the Development of People, Families, and Communities. New York: Basic Books.

Greenwood, D., (2021) Pragmatism: Linking Systems, Evolution, and Democratization in Participatory and Action Research in Burns, Danny, Jo Howard, and Sonia Ospina, eds. 2021. The SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry. London: SAGE Publications, Inc., pp: 79-92.

Fals-Borda, Orlando., and Md. Anisur Rahman, eds. 1991. Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research. New York: Apex Press.

Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by M.B. Ramos. New York: Herder & Herder.

Greenwood, Davydd, and Morten Levin. 2006. Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change. Second edition. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Horton, Myles. 2003. The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change. Edited by Dale Jacobs. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.


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