This module asks students to develop an action research (AR) project to address a leadership issue within their own institution. AR presents a set of powerful tools for in-house research, and this module is key in helping students become deeply aware of the critical issues when investigating one’s own organisation. It should be a fun ten weeks.
However, there is a problem for any Japan-based researcher: humanities in Japan does not (typically) require the same degree of ethics approval as the University of Liverpool. Getting participant consent forms for all of those involved in the AR project may be difficult, or downright impossible, for me. I’ll have to see how this pans out.
In Week 1, I tried to get the theoretical bugbears out of the way prior to really starting my project. Many AR theorists present straw man arguments in order to argue for the uniqueness of the AR approach. Ultimately, however, they do not work. AR is good, but it’s not a methodology. I figured that clearing the ground on that one would be a concrete way forward.
I find some basic premises of action research (AR) to be implausible, at least in the characterisation presented by Coghlan and Brannick, Kemmis (2009) and McNiff and her colleagues (2014; 2006). In discussing these implausibilities, I will outline some of these in the hope that once they are laid aside, a more positive vision of AR may emerge.
Kemmis (2009) locates AR within an “endless dance” (p. 463) of practices, understandings and conditions. Each of these aspects is dimensional yet interrelated, affecting each other while being able to be affected internally. This division of the worldview is not limited to AR however, as it is a reframing of Bandura’s (1999) tripartite reciprocal causation. Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate the degree of overlap between Kemmis and Bandura. What is ‘practice’ to Kemmis is ‘behavioural’ to Bandura; ‘understanding’ is ‘cognitive’; and ‘conditions’, ‘environmental’.
Figure 1. Kemmis’ (2009) Endless dance
Figure 2. Bandura (1999) Tripartite reciprocal causation
Bandura’s social cognitive theory argues that human agency allows individuals to interact proactively with the forces encompassing them. Kemmis does not recognise Bandura but seems to adopt a very similar worldview. However, while Bandura’s theory is internally consistent, questions must be asked of Kemmis. For example, Kemmis separates ‘saying’ from ‘doing’, a separation that is suspect when, in the political arena, ‘saying’ is a direct form of ‘doing’, as Fairclough points out clearly in his description of how power is embedded in political language (1989). Furthermore, this separation is directly challenged by both Vygostky (1978) and Kegan (1982) who champion the argument that language influences our bodily actions and vice versa. In other words, not only do we become what we act, our actions influence what we say. Moreover, I find it difficult to understand why Kemmis’ praxis places “avoiding harm” in ‘physics’ but not in ‘ethics’ (p. 465). In summary, it is unclear to me how Kemmis’ argument separates AR from any other human activity, and the inconsistencies in the presentation fail to convince me.
A more serious problem, though, is found in Coghlan and Brannick (2014) and McNiff (2014), although Kemmis (2009) also mentions it. The term ‘knowledge’ is used in a postmodernist sense throughout. McNiff (2014) explicitly locates AR within a postmodernist framework, while interestingly, Coghlan and Brannick’s 2014 edition replaces their overt discussion on postmodernism from their 2005 edition (Coghlan & Brannick, 2005) with a more generalised discussion on the philosophy that underpins postmodernism. However, not all social scientists, if indeed more than a small minority (Goldman, 1999), operate within a postmodernist framework. The notion of ‘knowledge’ itself, therefore, becomes a point of consideration. Within traditional epistemology, ‘knowledge’ is generally defined as ‘justified true belief’ (Dew & Foreman, 2014)(with apologies to Gettier). The justification for knowledge within AR, Kemmis claims, comes from consensus (Kemmis, 2009). Goldman (1999) explains that the pragmatist reliance on consensus as their main method of justification is contradictory and rests of a view of ‘knowledge’ that can often be shown to be untrue. For example, if those around us reject global warming, our protestations to the contrary will be in vain. Science cannot be predicated on such a frivolously deviant epistemology (Goldman, 1999). Science, itself, is not so unreflective as not to be aware of divergent ‘opinions’ that compete for the worthy label of ‘justified’ true belief. Yet AR appears to legitimise all lived experiences as a form of knowledge (McNiff, 2014) rather than as a source of potential opinion that may inform a rigorous search for knowledge. Elliot (2005) understands a critical weakness in Kemmis’ (2009) earlier reliance on Habermas to underpin the theory of praxis, yet he also ultimately relies on pragmatism. An alternative approach, one that may offer more sustainable methods, is that from Bhaskar’s critical realism (Bhaskar, 2008). Perhaps we can discuss this over the week as space is limited in this introductory exposition.
Briefely, a final implausibity in the descriptions of AR is the false distinction between AR and empirical science. Somehow, empirical science is abstracted, unconcerned with problem solving and does not result in actions that the researcher can use directly in their sponsoring organisation (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014). While this may be true for mathematics and philosophy (although it is probably not), these claims: fail to acknowledge the intense efforts social scientists have exercised in understanding the influence of the first-person on their work; ignore the immensely practical realities that empirical science have brought to both local and worldwide knowledge (Moses, J. & Knutsen, 2007); and do not recognise that most university-based researchers (for example) will use their findings in their daily contact with their students in their lectures and seminars, and that so-called abstract knowledge is one of the key elements of the university curriculum. In other words, very little is done by social scientists that has no immediate value outside the research paradigm.
I have some very positive things to say about AR, but I feel that it is important to recognise some of the difficulties inherent in this module should the university expect that students simply accept AR as a legitimate methodology. AR contains many serious axiomatic, epistemological and methodological inconsistencies. As McNiff said, however, AR is value-laden (McNiff, 2014, p. 23), and in that sentiment, the values that undergird AR need to be explicated before any worthwhile discussion can proceed. I hope that we can discuss some of these aspects this week, and also, I would like the opportunity to describe an (appropriately theoretically positioned) AR project that I am instigating in my faculty soon.
Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory : An agentic Albert Bandura. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2(1), 21–41. http://doi.org/10.1111/1467-839X.00024
Bhaskar, R. (2008). A realist theory of science. London and New York: Routledge. http://doi.org/10.2307/2184170
Coghlan, D., & Brannick, T. (2005). Doing action research in your own organization (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications.
Coghlan, D., & Brannick, T. (2014). Doing action research in your own organization (4th ed.). London: Sage Publications.
Dew, J. K., & Foreman, M. W. (2014). How do we know? An introduction to epistemology. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.
Elliott, J. (2005). Becoming critical: the failure to connect. Educational Action Research, 13(3), 359–374. http://doi.org/10.1080/09650790500200317
Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. Harlow: Longman.
Goldman, A. I. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
Kemmis, S. (2009). Action research as a practice-based practice. Educational Action Research, 17(3), 463–474. http://doi.org/10.1080/09650790903093284
McNiff, J. (2014). Writing and doing action research. London: Sage Publications.
McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2006). All you need to know about action research: An introduction. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Moses, J. & Knutsen, T. (2007). A constructivist philosophy of science. In Ways of knowing: Competing methodologies in social and political research (pp. 165–196).
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3495(96)79572-3