By Dr. B.E. Walker
Inquiry research, as in the traditional scientific method, seeks to determine what is happening; whereas Action Research (AR) seeks to discover why something is happening. Both methodologies provide information and are useful tools of research. Exploring AR’s history using the scientific method as a comparative backdrop can validate the legitimacy of AR; however, a further survey of AR will reveal that the participatory method surpasses that of the scientific method in its impact on the researcher’s own environment.
Exploring Action Research’s History
Although Action Research (AR) has an indisputable origin, it is generally accepted that Kurt Lewin was the founding father of action research (Dickens & Watson, 1999; Smith, 2007; Masters, 1995, McKernan, 1991). Lewin reached outside the realm of scientific inquiry and psychology and entered the field of action research when his work relied heavily on the observation of real-life social contexts to bring about social change and foster learning (Stephens, Barton, & Haslett, 2009; Smith, 2007; Masters, 1995, McKernan, 1991). Furthermore, there is consensus that AR has its roots and is built upon the traditional scientific model of manipulating experiments and watching for the effects (Dickens & Watson, 1999; Stephens, Barton, and Haslett, 2009; Stringer, 2014). Stephens, Barton, and Haslett (2009) go as far as to say that the Scientific Method and Action Research are more clearly related than most people presume.
Legitimizing Action Research
Looking at action research through the lens of the traditional science model legitimizes action research. As stated, both the traditional/scientific and action research models seek to create knowledge. The theory behind what generates all research is that there exists “a problem to be solved or an issue to be resolved” (Stringer, 2014, p. 40). Furthermore, a change is sought through knowledge-building experiments. Both research paradigms are rigorously empirical, or in other words, both rely heavily on experiments (Stringer, 2014). However, this is where the major differences begin.
The traditional science model diminishes the human factor to variables and presupposes that the behaviors will be reproduced. An elementary example for instance, is the fourth grade student whose science project is the growth of three plants in differing controlled environments. The student identifies a hypothesis, experiments, and then writes his/her results, including observations. The primary goal was to produce an experiment that would cause the student and his classmates to gain additional knowledge regarding plants and their environment. The variables could be controlled – it was a physical object – a plant. The experiment can be reproduced.
If the world was made up of simply physical concrete objects, then the scientific method would work. However, it is not. “The study of man and society is different from the study of planets and electrons because human reality becomes largely known through participation in it” (Stephens, 2009, p 4). There is the whole social aspect of the world. The scientific method cannot address the realm of individual behaviors. Stringer aptly puts it, “Human beings, it seems, are hard to predict and difficult to control” (Stringer, 2014, p. 43). Action research, then, is the natural alternative.
Stringer postulates that apart from “comments and questions, action research is a legitimate, authentic, and rigorous approach to inquiry” (Stringer, 2014, p. 41). Action research brings in the humanness of research. As the facilitator of the Action Research study pulls together the outcomes and the findings of the research, accounts and reports are generated. The goals of these reports are not for the sole purpose of knowledge, but rather, are to transform the lives that the research studied. Stringer, using Denzin’s (1997) research suggests that the reports are personal and “abstract accounts of facts which themselves are merely pieces of information acquired and interpreted selectively” (Stringer, 2014, p. 59). This practice lends creditability to action research as well. Action research validates the participants, gives them voice, makes them participatory and causes them to take ownership of the research giving the researcher a broader and more encompassing perspective. A tangible example of Stringer’s (2014) “scribe-for-the-other” (p. 59) paradigm is revealed when the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), Geoffrey Canada, enlisted the help of many to report what was happening at the HCZ and then acted on the reports improving the organization (Grossman & Curren, 2004).
There is no outright statement from Canada that he conducted an action research study when he undertook the improving of HCZ. However, he desired change and improvement and held a dream and passion dearly. He worked within the ‘here-and-now’ and did not take for granted the marginal people in his organization. He gathered from every person (all stakeholders and staff) and pulled together copious data. He sought to see what was happening; however, he stretched his resources to discover why things were happening then acted on the data. The renowned success of HCZ and Canada’s efforts to improve his organization and reach global proportions suggest that there may exist significant merit and legitimacy in the practice of action research.
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