Abstract and Keywords
Through cycles of systematic and purposeful iterative engagement with problems they face in specific practice settings, social workers engaging in action research build knowledge that is useful in advancing practice for the purposes of social betterment. This entry situates action research in the development of social-work knowledge and then examines variants of action research formed when degrees of participation and control vary among members of vulnerable populations, particularly within community situations involving coping with a degraded quality of life. The author identifies the importance of methodological pluralism and addresses how sound action research results in knowledge dissemination and utilization for the purposes of social betterment, often through alternative methods of inquiry. The entry concludes with caveats social workers engaged in action research should heed, and the author emphasizes the pivotal role social work can serve in local efforts to engage in knowledge development for social betterment.
By its very purpose, social work is an action profession—it exists to undertake action for the avowed purposes of social betterment and its knowledge has evolved to fulfill this end. Social work is a synthetic profession in that its knowledge base involves the absorption of ideas, models, and methods from other disciplines melded with content social workers generate. This melding of adopted and self-generated knowledge forms the profession’s diverse instrumental knowledge base. It is diverse because social work’s scope of action is broad and encompasses multiple social issues. It is also instrumental because of the profession’s prioritization of ways to undertake meaningful and effective practice within particular fields of action.
Unlike other professions or disciplines, social work cuts across many fields of practice and engages multiple domains of knowledge. Consistent with a Deweyian perspective on action, social work’s efforts are purposeful: it undertakes action for social betterment with the intent to improve people’s well-being, foster functioning, or advance quality of life, particularly within groups and communities. The profession’s distinctive focus involves those individuals, groups, and communities that experience considerable social distress because of discrimination and oppression and, because of those social forces, they come to experience a degraded quality of life. Social betterment, or efforts to improve quality of life, is a principal outcome the profession seeks to enact within the greater society.
What Lewin (1946, 1948) referred to as action research is a form of inquiry undertaken by practitioners for the purposes of understanding their practice and for advancing that practice through systematic methods addressing questions defined by practitioners. Action research offers social work a way of realizing its principal aim of progress toward social betterment consistent with the practice focus governing the profession. The principal mooring of action research is social learning: action research enables practitioners to address self-generated questions that they test out through their own practice by taking action to reveal the strengths and limitations of theory, context, models, methods, and discrete procedures. Learning involves knowledge acquisition, insight, and formulation and enactment of new ways of performing (Garvin, 2003), as well as anticipation of the emerging future (Scharmer, 2007).
This learning occurs directly from the enactment of action in organizational contexts in which practitioners see value in examining and advancing their effectiveness (Argyris, 1982, 1993) in anticipation of resolving the issues they face or those that are emerging. In advanced forms of action research, the contexts in which practitioners work are purposively designed to produce knowledge through reflection, experimentation, and innovation (Argyris, Putnam, & Smith, 1985). Action research recognizes the complexity of situations; hence, framing them is an important competence of inquiry (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996) that invariably involves the resolution of conflicting frames among various stakeholders (Schon & Rein, 1994) when action research incorporates the involvement of diverse groups.
Action research has expanded its scope and diversity since Kurt Lewin’s early conception of this model of inquiry. It is no longer confined to a narrow conception of a practitioner working alone, separated from other groups and disciplines. Increasingly, action research involves interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary teams working side by side with people who directly experience social issues in their immediate neighborhoods or communities.
As insights into the dynamics of oppression have increased within the helping professions, there has been a corresponding diversification of models of action research to incorporate interdisciplinary, collaborative, participatory empowerment, and community-based strategies. The basic purpose of action research, however, has not changed since Lewin’s conception of this model and its methods. No matter in what form professions, groups, and practitioners undertake action research, it remains a way to enact social learning—as a means to learn from action and use that learning immediately within those contexts in which they practice.
This dynamic of taking action and learning from action is a fundamental property. In this sense, action research is both illuminatory and instrumental. Action research is illuminatory at one level, particularly early in a knowledge-building project, because it can reveal (or otherwise shed light on) the expression of a social issue within a given context. At the level of instrumental knowledge, practitioners (or others undertaking action research) can formulate and test promising practices for taking meaningful action for the purposes of social betterment. Action research is consistent with other models for improving social-work practice, including practice-based research, empirical practice, social research and development, and design and development. Learning from practice is a common thread connecting these multiple models. The focus on generating new forms of intervention, testing those forms in practice, and developing practice procedures imbues those models with common purpose.
Action research does not prescribe a particular set of research procedures. It promotes methodological pluralism and recognizes the importance of learning in group contexts using dialogic processes. These qualities make action research and social work compatible. Thus, action research is relevant to the profession’s practice advancement aims. Practitioners of either action research or social work seek to learn through engagement, reflection, and the reformulation of action.
Ultimately, action research is an intervention helping people to better understand their situations and how to undertake action for the improvement of those situations. Both action research and social work value a continuous, engaged, synthetic, and developmental strategy of knowledge development undertaken for the purposes of achieving innovation. It is the purpose of this entry to communicate the distinctiveness of action research within social-work practice.
Situating Action Research in the Development of Social-Work Knowledge
Why does a professional social worker undertake research, particularly when there are likely no accountability requirements or external demands for engaging in such activity? This constitutes an important question given the necessity in the profession today and the issues facing social work and the human services for the development and utilization of knowledge (Fern, 2012). Where does the felt need for inquiry begin and what factors mobilize the effort of social workers to engage in this form of practice?
Social workers can engage in inquiry because they are motivated to do so, perhaps by a funder, an external source of accountability, or contractual requirements as inherent in some forms of evaluation. From my perspective and experience, such demands influence a different form of research engagement and process than that which is undertaken by social workers who find meaning in the advancement of their own work or in the advancement of the well-being of groups (Blair & Minkler, 2009; Gehlert & Coleman, 2010) or in improving institutional performance (Brown-Sica, 2012). When social workers bring research into their practice and involve others, and when those others experience difficult if not oppressive circumstances, then research itself can serve as a form of helping (Branom, 2012).
Here action research is invaluable because it plays off of the intrinsic motivation of the social worker. The questions steering action research often emerge from a social worker taking action in a particular context and domain. Context refers to those factors in which social-work practice is embedded, such as an organizational setting, service system, or particular community. Domain involves the coalescence of a practice arena in which the social worker takes action using policies, theories, structures, paradigms, and prevailing practices common to that domain. Mental health, child welfare, and aging are three such domains within the profession of social work.
Within a given domain or context, principal questions concerning the need for certain knowledge may prevail. The social worker may orient to such questions, particularly ones forming what we can identify as either products of commonly accepted perspectives or prevailing paradigms within a given domain. Imagination, particularly the social-work imagination, and its influence on what social workers select as issues to examine through action research is an important consideration. What I label as the social-work imagination is inspired by Mills’s idea of the sociological imagination. Social workers are well socialized to raise critical questions about human need and its fulfillment. Social workers are astute observers of social conditions and how those conditions shape or otherwise produce human need. In addition, they often raise questions about practice improvement that suggest more creative avenues for addressing such needs than what may exist in current practice situations.
Cognitive–Emotional States Enabling Action Research
Both wonder and criticism are important cognitive–emotional states contributing to the surfacing of questions steering subsequent action research undertaken by social workers. Austen (2010) emphasizes the importance of such emotions to the process of innovation. Both cognition and emotion combine to produce more insight into situations than either cognition or emotion can produce alone. Wonder is a cognitive emotion in which human beings project images of what they seek to understand and it is highly influenced by feeling. The ancient Greek idea of theory is instructive because its origins as a way of seeing the world invoked “beholding” a phenomenon. By observing something closely, something many social workers accomplish naturally as part of their own process of problem solving or solution finding, many questions emerge that astute social-work professionals may simply wonder about in graphic detail.
Situations in which social workers enact practice suggest issues, barriers, problems, and opportunities influencing both the formulation of the purpose of inquiry and the subsequent design of investigation. One signature of action research, whether it is enacted in business, education, human services, or health care, is that it is undertaken by practitioners working alone or with others for the purpose of addressing questions that practitioners (and collaborators) hold about their practice in particular contexts (Bradbury, 2006; Butler, Feller, Pope, Emerson, & Murphy, 2008; Chung & Windsor, 2012; Draper et al., 2011; Etowa, Bernard, Oyinsan, & Clow, 2007; Schneider, 2012). One must appreciate the cognitive emotion of wonder because, without it, one may simply overlook opportunities to improve practice for the purposes of social betterment.
But criticism factors into the creative engagement in inquiry in an important way. It can go hand in hand with wonder. By criticism I am referring to the engagement in an analytic process of deciphering a given situation to begin the process of weighing factors that can inform subsequent action in meaningful ways. Having a critical perspective means that the practitioner is engaged in a situation he or she observes firsthand and comes to understand it in rich detail, because in action research such a form of engagement fuels the realism and authenticity of inquiry (Schein, 2006). The action research process is bounded by investigators’ wonder about the situations in which they practice or experience. By their criticism of those existing situations, they can generate practice knowledge from inquiry into questions, the intent of which is practice advancement.
A third kind of cognitive emotion may also prove important to launching and sustaining action research for the purposes of practice improvement. Conjecture implicates the need to appreciate evidence that is incomplete, necessitating more illumination of situations such that factors influencing the improvement of practice become explicit (Deutsch, 2011). Making an inference about such incompleteness is a critical influence on the origins of key questions. By adding conjecture to wonder and criticism, we appreciate the reasons for undertaking action research in given situations. We see the emergence of rationale for a given investigation animated by the motivation of the social worker to learn through action. For Senge and Scharmer (2006), action research is a way of learning, the potency of which is amplified when such inquiry is undertaken in community settings. A community can serve as a forum in which those social workers undertaking action research in context can experience a form of immersive learning in a given situation (Bassman & Harris, 2007; Congdon & Congdon, 2011). Action research can help participants to appreciate situations that are otherwise unknown to them (Hammond, 1998). Thus, action research and appreciative learning align here. But action research can also extend into the critical as a means for participants to critique existing structures and arrangements within a given context (Cahill, Quijada Cerecer, & Bradley, 2010; Corbett, Francis, & Chapman, 2007).
This learning through action is the essence of the knowledge-building sequence of action research. The learning action research produces may be well focused and incremental or it may be transformational, resulting in the emergence of a whole new way of understanding practice in a given situation and within a given context and domain (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009). This new way, or what Bohm (2002) refers to as creativity, can bring about new structures of action; for social work such action may illuminate novel ways of helping.
Action Research as Dialogic Practice
Weaving dialogic practice throughout the action research sequence may prove strategic to knowledge development and subsequent use of that knowledge for practice improvement. Dialog requires interaction among equals who examine the nature of practice within organizational settings, service systems, or perhaps even whole domains. Questioning existing practices is inherent in structuring innovation (Bohm, 2003a) and in formulating organizational worldviews that direct subsequent action (Bohm, 2003b). The challenge here, according to Bohm (2000), is to engage an “implicate order” in which all factors are folded together, thereby producing considerable complexity such as found in social-work practice. Inquiry into such complexity can be addressed through interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary collaboration (Bore & Wright, 2009; Lang et al., 2012) and the development of communities of practice involving participants with diverse backgrounds (Wenger, 1998; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002).
Collaboration among diverse stakeholders is a common approach to the practice of inquiry through action research (Sullivan & Willis, 2001). Such collaboration imbues community–university engagement with considerable relevance (Wergin, 2004). Collaboration among academic social work and community organizations underscores the synergy inherent in the integration of diverse capacities to support mutually beneficial knowledge development through engaged research (Dulmus & Cristalli, 2012; Percy, Zimpher, & Brukardt, 2004).
Dialog facilitates an engagement of this order through the exercise of multiple perspectives typically undertaken in teams so that the visibility of what constitutes practice comes into relief. This is likely why the participatory element has gained so much interest in action research. Multiplicity of perspective can induce a diversity of thought and thereby stimulate criticism of what exists (Bohm & Peat, 2000). The diversification of perspective that dialog can achieve once inclusion of diverse voices comes about resists the simplification of what are naturally complex situations (Bohm, 2003b).
Progress and Its Realization as an Organizing Value and Operational Aim
The ideas of improvement or social betterment are central to action research undertaken by social workers who invest the premium of knowledge with considerable importance. Improvement suggests that social-work practitioners can advance its knowledge base in definitive and even measurable ways through the systematic engagement of their own practice. Action research is likely a local form of knowledge development: it is undertaken by those practitioners who see learning about practice as a fundamental way of engaging in social betterment (Checkland & Poulter, 2006) within the immediate contexts in which they work.
The psychological state of engaging in such inquiry invokes the importance of practitioner self-efficacy: a belief that social workers can actually improve a given set of circumstances through the purposeful and intentional action they undertake. Combining such beliefs with wonder, criticism, and conjecture within team cultures that inspire both action and reflective dialog can embody improvement aims in explicit ways. This combination explains why some organizations may advance their knowledge base as a regular product of their work (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2000). Action research is a form of engaged inquiry undertaken by social workers who believe that knowledge formulation can make a positive difference in what they do and how they do it.
We cannot discount progress as an organizing value of action research undertaken for the purposes of practice improvement or social betterment. Many of us may simply assume that in social work progress is not a widely shared value. We may assume that things will stay the same until something more dramatic occurs in the domain or in the greater society, such as economic breakthroughs. But even the accumulation of small improvements can influence great breakthroughs.
Progress can be a central idea animating organizational culture in certain instances and, therefore, is fundamental to incremental practice improvement or even practice breakthroughs within a given domain. Practitioners who realize effective means for retaining youth in secondary schools, facilitating the transition of youth to higher education, and augmenting early child development programs in certain neighborhoods may set the foundation for subsequent progress emerging latently over time. Too often progress is a function of small incremental changes over what Horton (1997) calls the long haul of positive change induced by intentional social action.
New structures guiding both thought and action may emerge over the long haul, only to be taken for granted by practitioners as the right thing to do in a given situation. There is a close correspondence between action research and the development of intervention culture, which can take place when new practice knowledge displaces old. It is this process of displacement that may form what we consider practice advancement.
Yet social workers must also understand how wonder, criticism, and conjecture enter the picture: such cognitive emotions set the stage for how common knowledge can be destroyed organizationally, as when routines become displaced through new action. One can see the importance of cycles of action research (Stringer, 2007). The never-ending game of inquiry means that the new innovation may be over the proverbial hill waiting for discovery by those practitioners who practice an ethic of improvement or transformation. The idea of progress is linked to cognitive–emotional virtues like optimism and hope. Openness to change anticipates that something better is on the horizon or can be if action is taken to seek it out. Anticipation is an act of hope. Action is an expression of optimism.
Movement from Incipient to Mature Knowledge
Knowledge in its early stages and beginning to appear or coming into form is indicative of action research in its early stages (Scharmer, 2007). Incipient knowledge suggests that social work’s understanding is not yet clear and the variables influencing a given situation and outcomes lack clarity. Practitioners can be ignorant of the determinants of a given situation, and they may be without either theory to explain the issue they face in practice or models that direct action. Practitioners may apply standard models to a new situation and come to learn of their strengths or limitations. Or, whole new situations may require novel models awaiting invention and trial use in actual practice situations. Such invention may be a product of the fusion of action research a social worker undertakes with developmental aims, implementing what Thomas (1984) conceived of as design and development in social work.
Action research serves as a way of uncovering or illuminating such knowledge early, particularly early in the innovation or organizational development process. Seeding action research in novel situations can stimulate further thought about subsequent action and feed new insights into practice. Those insights, informed by wonder, criticism, and conjecture, can amplify promising practices or stimulate hope that breakthroughs can occur. Practice questions can emanate from the greater context in which a social issue emerges, such as what practices (or models or discrete interventions) are needed to help seasoned corporate executives displaced from well-paying jobs and whole careers, assist families in moving across a country to take advantage of emerging job markets, and support immigrant families in sustaining indigenous communities while pursuing higher education in a host country.
Action researchers seeking mature intervention knowledge may introduce new questions, or even novel kinds of questions and designs, compared with what practitioners used previously in a knowledge-building process. Using mature knowledge, social workers invoke ideas that are commonly accepted within the practice community or domain in which practitioners address a given social issue with considerable certainty. Certainty may be a product of systematic trial use, such as that found in clinical trials, or in so-called rigorous research that establishes functional relationships linking context with intervention and subsequent outcome. An organization’s knowledge base forms when organizational actors make that knowledge about which they are certain an elemental part of the culture, so newcomers come to learn about it as reality involving preferred ways of taking action (Schein, 2010).
In open and fluid cultures, such certainty is never settled. They are open to wonder, criticism, and conjecture. Progress is seen as progressive and continuous but never fully realized. The difference between what Carse (1987) refers to as finite and infinite culture is instructive. Finite cultures accept the rules as fixed and their members do not readily challenge them. Infinite cultures are open to critical questioning of what exists in anticipation of the next breakthrough in thought or practice. In their characterization of East Asian business organizations as infinite in their cultures, Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars (1997) indicate that such cultures are largely paradigmatic; that is, they largely describe a general approach to inquiry about the universe by trying to answer the question, What should we assume when setting out to learn? (p. 12).
Practice knowledge is contested in infinite cultures and dynamic flow ensues as a result. Ways of testing knowledge, translating it into action, treating it as provisional, and opening it to criticism do not make such organizations incoherent and tentative. It can make them dynamic and somewhat wild. Wild knowledge is difficult to tame because for those practitioners who engage in action research, the taming process is somewhat provisional, capable of only taking the organization so far in its quest for progress. The concept of innovation can substitute for wild. And in innovation we see the necessity of change instilled by a culture of learning through inquiry into action and through considerable interaction among members of a given system to frame the action necessary to advance innovative ideas and the practices those ideas generate (Johnson, 2010).
Action research is differential—practitioners can apply it to any phase of knowledge development along the nascent-naive to mature continuum. Some practitioners may wrongly classify action research as exclusively qualitative. Actually, action research can handle considerable diversity in design, method, form of data, and analytic strategy. What makes action research distinctive is that knowledge emerges from action, and the action practitioners take to understand practice then changes both those practitioners and their contexts. So, for action researchers inquiry can effect considerable reflexive learning.
The change process that naturally flows from action is the basis of practitioner reflexivity (D’Cruz, Gillingham, & Melendez, 2007). Knowledge can mature organizationally as practitioners grow in their reflexivity and form common ways of understanding that stand independent of specific disciplinary perspectives (Loibl, 2006). To move from a naive understanding of a given practice situation to a mature one is the basis of organizational knowledge management. Purposefully managing organizational knowledge concerning intervention can produce system reflexivity: a shared way among practitioners of taking action in a given domain of practice, potentially culminating in a mature knowledge base that itself can become a focus of subsequent change through action research.
Moving from naive to mature knowledge in which certainty prevails merely sets the stage for a subsequent cycle of inquiry. Conditions and contexts change. Experience, particularly when mediated by thoughtful and critical dialog, can change how practitioners see their practice knowledge base. Bringing this kind of iterative knowing into practice is the aim of action research. Networks and groups may be important structures within which knowledge forms through action research (Johnson, 2010; Martin, 2006). Thus, increasingly, the maturation of action takes place within group structures.
Variants of Action Research
Participatory Action Research
Achtion research can incorporate diverse models or strategies that fit with different knowledge development aims sought by practitioners, teams, or organizations. One of the principal variants is participatory action research (PAR), in which people of varying organizational locations or positions can participate in the conception, design, enactment, and utilization of action. The positional or locational imperative is prominent in PAR, given how local concerns of practitioners influence the key questions, aims, and structures of inquiry (Jagosh et al., 2012). For social work the participation or involvement of the members of underrepresented groups is an important, if not defining, element of social work’s code of ethics. Participatory action research advocates highlight inclusion as a valued end, offering people who are affected by research a say in the research. Other benefits of participation include cultural responsiveness of inquiry, productive intergroup relationships, and systemic change in problem conditions (Jagosh et al., 2012).
Although this ethic is important, if not central, to the spirit and integrity of PAR in that inclusion can correct for some aspects of oppression, such involvement does not necessarily mean control over the research project. Prominent within action research and its variants is the issue of who controls the research agenda, its enactment, and the subsequent products of inquiry. Action research emerges as a local, almost “bottom-up approach” to inquiry in which the people who have been too often omitted from the means and ends of inquiry are included, as a corrective measure to exclusion. The rationale is that those who are “closest” to the phenomenon that acts as the object of inquiry are in the best position to build knowledge through their proximity, which rises to almost a stipulation in PAR.
Empowerment-focused Action Research
One can go farther, however, in articulating why and how inquiry is undertaken by those who have been traditionally “left out” of inquiry. We can frame yet another variant of action research when we elevate the “lived experience” as a qualification for empowering actual investigators who engage in inquiry. Social workers engaging in such empowerment strategies are mindful of the importance of allowing collaboration indicative of PAR to yield to yet another form: empowerment-focused action research. In this variant social workers can become advisors, consultants, or technical assistants using their expertise to support the empowerment of researchers who are not formally trained in inquiry (although they very well may be) and who may benefit from facilitation, expertise in a substantive area, or expertise in methods of inquiry.
For the so-called indigenous perspective, expertise may come from “knowing” how situations actually work, the sense of discrimination or oppression that emerges from how communities and professionals can devalue people with certain qualities or characteristics and how certain system archetypes can diminish the importance of alternative perspectives (Struthers, Lauderdale, Nichols, Tom-Orme, & Strickland, 2005). Empowerment-focused action research may not gain traction in more traditional types of human service entities or communities, particularly where professional ideologies and control are dominant. But it may find a welcoming environment in what social workers identify as alternative service organizations, that is, those entities founded by people whose expertise emanates out of the lived experience of oppression, who convert that experience into a form of knowing and then use this knowing as the basis of structuring and engaging in advocacy (Smith, 2005). Expertise is not confined to traditional sources within participatory forms of action research. Participants with direct experience can serve as technical assistants and consultants within action research projects (Fern & Kristinsdóttir, 2011) as well as the principal leaders of such inquiry (Ozer & Wright, 2012).
Community-based Participatory Action Research
Still another variant of action research is community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) attaching “community-based” to PAR. A whole community or a substantial part of it can become involved in developing the agenda of inquiry and then enacting it using traditional or alternative methods of inquiry (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003). Typically in CBPAR the community serving as the locus of action is facing considerable distress and public neglect (Munford, Sanders, & Andrew, 2003). In some cases, given the severity of social indicators and scope and multiplicity of need, as well as infrastructure challenges, characterizing those communities as devastated may be accurate. The placement of action research into that community as a means of correcting the ills it faces, amplifying participation or involvement of its citizens or residents in multiple venues, and increasing local control over the action–research nexus (in terms of specifying questions, developing methods, and fostering utilization) are essential if not defining properties of CBPAR.
Social workers steeped in community practice, development, or organization may find CBPAR a consequential and ethical approach to address community issues that are too often defined and controlled by external entities. The CBPAR project may embrace useful world views involving asset and appreciative approaches to inquiry that neutralize the characterization of the community in question as devastated or “a problem.” Whole organizations may form to perpetuate and sustain the CBPAR initiative, and residents of the focal community may witness the emergence of innovative forms of provision, helping and assistance, and opportunities. Connecting community control to the CBPAR project may elevate the status of residents who find alternative careers, seek out additional education and training, find meaningful work through the CBPAR initiatives, and assume powerful roles as the actual governors of the project. Community-based participatory action research holds the promise of catalyzing multiple forms of change or social betterment that radiate out into the community.
Staying true to the intrinsic nature of inquiry, those who coordinate and/or govern the CBPAR project within the focal community underscore the local nature of questions, the benefits sought through the nexus formed between local action and research, and the nature of local action that emerges. Imposing academic requirements on the inquiry may undermine, if not falsify, local ends. The idea of rigor inappropriately asserted by those who see the CBPAR initiative in traditional research terms may dampen local enthusiasm and, as a consequence, such an assertion can strip a project of its authenticity.
Those social workers whose commitment to local empowerment can offset the propensity to make the inquiry something it is not—a way of addressing what Stake (1995) refers to as instrumental ends found in building knowledge potentially generalizable to the class or type of problem the community experiences. In research terms, CBPAR, along with other variants of action research, is likely idiographic in form, character, and principal aims. Inquiry that is idiographic requires appreciation of the rich, textured, and nuanced context in which inquiry unfolds, and so, as a result, the effort produces local knowledge for local use. In this sense, traditional researchers may dismiss action research as mere case study, although the case study character of such inquiry may be its very strength.
Knowledge development in CBPAR is likely local, producing lessons learned for an immediate community. This does not mean that other communities, investigators, and projects will fail to see the relevance of such local knowledge and experience. What it does mean is that CBPAR is first a form of knowledge development that combines community control, participation, local priorities, and local information for the purposes of advancing the quality of life (or some aspect of it) of the immediate locale. For the social-work profession, CBPAR can be a form of progressive and enlightened service in which inquiry is used as a vehicle for mobilization.
Social-work researchers steeped in traditional ideologies and tools may find CBPAR a difficult transition. The rules are somewhat different and its ethical framework suggests that involvement, participation, and control serve as primary and necessary avenues of local change. This local imperative makes action research and its variants distinctive in social-work inquiry. When one ponders the scope of action research expressed through its variants, one can see an expanding arena in which questions, strategies, information, and the ultimate aims of social betterment move beyond professional control, emanating into groups and communities in which empowerment is perhaps the ultimate end of inquiry.
Bohmian dialog (Bohm, 1996) expands in conjunction with this broadening scope. Social workers can have new kinds of conversations with the members of multiple stakeholder groups concerning the action that best brings about consensually shared conceptions of social betterment or, in situations of conflict, the specification of alternative world views of social betterment. Social workers likely will find such dialog empowering because it establishes within the field of local knowledge numerous possibilities for how to proceed in subsequent cycles when appreciating experience flowing from action becomes a defining element of inquiry.
The previous paragraph implies how action research and its variants can produce psychological benefits for those who are involved in the process. Such inquiry can clarify cognition that too often is confused by what appears to be chaotic factors operating in a given situation. This clarity can feed into emotional states, building motivation to engage in inquiry, facilitating new self-conceptions, and stimulating both optimism and hope. The utilization of the knowledge products of an action research cycle for advancing local quality of life can result in the empowerment of community or group members, a principle consistent with Patton’s (2012) utilization-focused evaluation.
Socially, well-executed action research can bring people together in collaboration for social betterment or it can enable intergroup conflict to find a constructive outlet. Armed with local knowledge, participants can shape an agenda of change that catalyzes and unites groups or communities. Realizing potent action to advance social betterment in a given locale can make action research and its variants a potentially high-impact strategy of inquiry. This is not to say that such impact will result from this form of inquiry. It is important, however, to underscore the potential here given how action research and its variants focus on the local knowledge people need for social betterment.
The Design of Action Research
The variants of action research suggest three somewhat overlapping dimensions of a model of inquiry. The overlapping dimensions make the model somewhat fuzzy but the three dimensions are nonetheless building blocks of action research in organizations, communities, or complex systems. These are as follows:
1. Collaboration, in which an intergroup field likely forms, characterized by the members of differing groups cooperating with one another, sharing resources, and combining assets for use within a common project of inquiry. For this dimension collaboration may not exist or it may be quite high, imbuing the particular project with qualities of collaborative action research.
2. Participation, in which people or groups who have been omitted from inquiry are included as empowered actors who have a say in the research. Participation can come in many different forms and at many different levels of intensity. High levels of participation of groups or people typically omitted from inquiry will imbue the model with participatory features, thereby justifying the moniker of PAR.
3. Control, in which a group may engage in considerable decision making over the particular purpose, aims, strategies, methods, and uses of action research in a given setting or context. This dimension seeks to correct for a whole host of social ills marginalizing the will, say, and qualities of the members of certain groups. Control is directly linked to empowerment. Without control, there is likely little, if any, empowerment.
The three dimensions not only serve as a road map to initiating inquiry in a given context but also actually operate as design factors. In helping groups shape their variant of action research in a given context, practitioners ask explicitly how much collaboration, participation, and control those groups seek in the design of their project. At first, the members of those groups may see such questions as lacking immediate relevance. They want to move fast in getting the information they want or need. But process is very important to action research and the process itself may require a quieting of emotions and a slowing of pace so that the right design emerges, thereby fulfilling the needs of the many actors an action research project typically involves. Within the design process, soft system methodologies, like those proposed by Checkland (1999) the organizational learning school may prove to be important. Conducting search conferences (Weisbord & Janoff, 2010), World Cafes (Brown & Isaacs, 2005), and other avenues of intergroup learning may prove pivotal in producing a relevant local design of CBPAR.
Design in this context does not implicate traditional forms of research design. Design in action research speaks to the human and intergroup arrangements supporting the knowledge development effort understanding that low levels of collaboration, participation, and control form a project that is very different from those in which there are high levels of such qualities. When the three dimensions intersect, the distinctive culture of a given action research project emerges and frames subsequent action on the part of those who are involved in such an enterprise.
Developmental Action Research as Variant
Yet another variant of action research is developmental action research (DAR). The aim of DAR, which involves the melding of action research with social research and development, is to develop local interventions to address social issues of immediate importance to devalued communities (Moxley & Washington, 2012). Developmental action research involves the application of action research to the development and testing of helping strategies. Moxley and Washington undertook PAR in collaboration with older homeless and formerly homeless African American women. Collectively they engaged in sequences of intervention design and development, addressing issues the participants saw as possessing immediate value in their local community. The overall DAR project was multilevel and incorporated multiple methods, particularly alternative methods.
The DAR process Moxley and Washington (2012) developed is indicative of the melding process in which new variants of action research can emerge given the purposes participants formulate. At first, action research was dominant because the participants had few, if any, linkages with the recipient population early in the project. As they situated themselves in the problem space and domain, participants came to appreciate the situation of homelessness in late life among African American women through traditional methods involving survey research and interviews, followed by in-depth qualitative interviews with women who were able to overcome homelessness using their own resources and strategies. By the end of the initial stage, participants had gained insight into the developmental objectives they would pursue to bring about relevant helping strategies.
At this juncture, midway in the 10-year lifespan of the project, it shifted from action research to a participatory form in which a small group of self-selected participants became governors of the project and were highly engaged in controlling the agenda of inquiry and in assisting other participants in staging what came to be known as substudies of the parent project. In total, 530 women participated in some aspect of the project as the project moved from specific developmental objectives to concept formation and then into the design of prototypes and their subsequent testing in action.
Increased involvement among the governors of the project resulted in a strong community of support and they emerged as advocates for other minority women facing homelessness at mid- or late life, an indication of how empowerment can be a product of PAR (Washington, Moxley, Garriott, & Crystal, 2009). Inclusion of the arts facilitated the advocacy process and those methods became useful in helping women communicate to the broader community the issues, challenges, and barriers they faced while homeless (Washington & Moxley, 2008). The public awareness building paralleled the cultural development of the project such that a strong local identity emerged among participants, bringing even more attention to the issue within the community. The participants collected a community exhibit incorporating art and narrative content as a vehicle for cultural development to tell the stories of the various pathways women took into, through, and out of homelessness (Moxley, Washington, & Feen, 2008). The art and narrative content were products of the action research and served as a principal strategy of action for illuminating issues and factors pushing older minority women into homelessness (Moxley, Feen-Calligan, & Washington, 2012; Washington & Moxley, 2009).
Developmental action research is useful in working directly with participants in testing, improving, and confirming promising practices. Particularly useful in local situations with little infrastructure to address an issue, the synthesis DAR reflects involves the systematic procedures of social research and development melding with action research geared to building discrete aspects of that infrastructure. Prototyping becomes an important part of the process of inquiry in which teams can build on existing best practices or use their own practice wisdom in fabricating promising practices, ones that they can submit to further development through testing the prototype in a process that research and development professionals refer to as proof of concept or principle. This testing can occur in convenient local organizations, in the protected or specialized settings of formal testing environments, or in the crucible of challenging situations, such as street outreach to those who are homeless.
The DAR project the author described previously shows how a long-haul local–intrinsic model can emerge from collaborative research and PAR, the intent of which is to develop knowledge for a particular purpose and in a particular context (Stake, 1995). Some may argue that knowledge takes the form of technology in DAR, and so intervention technology and its development can be a distinctive aim of this kind of variant. As the local–intrinsic model crystallizes within a given culture, in a particular place, and with a particular set of actors, transportation of that model may become difficult. Local model development is therefore intrinsic (Freeman, Brugge, Bennett-Bradley, Levy, & Carrasco, 2006). A different research model and process may be necessary to make the model more generalizable. By definition, seeking generalizable knowledge is not a principal aim of action research and its variants.
As social workers consider knowledge development, the sequencing of DAR is instructive. Knowledge management involves the intentional administration of this sequence and its products. Thus, connecting knowledge development and knowledge management is an intentional strategy in the development of helping processes.
Knowledge development starts with a perception of a local issue, and as wonder, criticism, and conjecture take form, the research participants become more mindful of the dynamics of that issue. The criticism of immediate context (which we might call context evaluation) reveals the necessity of subsequent action to build a meaningful and potentially promising local response. Moving from concept formation to prototyping and then to testing and on to improvement and even confirmation is an intense and value-added sequence of action. Confidence about the promise of the design may gain traction in this process, or the actors may make critical decisions about merit and subsequently abandon the design but not the project. Those designs emerging over time as successful face the challenge of sustainability. By successfully addressing sustainability, the designs take root and their permanence blends into community life or into the life of an organization or system of helping. Sustainability can build intervention or helping culture and yield a permanent presence of a new technology for social betterment (Leonard, 2011a).
The culture that forms in relationship to this process may anticipate the creation of a future organization to achieve what Huston (2007) calls a “holding space.” This holding space ensures a support system for the project and its designs. In addition, that holding space can emerge as a community of learning, fostering even more innovation in the near future (Wenger, 1998). The innovative holding space of the project may become known for its commitment to progress in the issue area or domain in which it is rooted. It translates knowledge that the organization values and finds effective into action by teaching members of the system how to enact that knowledge (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2000). The teaching–learning nexus is vital to action research because it fosters both dissemination and utilization internally within the host of the action and the research. If others emulate or otherwise model those innovative forms, then action research can stimulate a form of diffusion based on social learning (Leonard, 2011b, 2011c). Such is the potential relationship between action research and organizational or systems development (Pasmore, 2006).
Achieving a permanent response to the identified issue in a given community is the essence of sustainability. Managing the ensuing knowledge products and making them permanent (or abandoning them if they prove ineffective) within some kind of organizational structure is yet another expression of the crystallization of know-how in a given community. The tension forming between the retention of a given knowledge product and its abandonment is strategic. Participants may actively engage in such dialog as an important step in the cycle of knowledge building through action research.
Methodological pluralism legitimizes the many diverse tools social-work researchers and evaluators have available for the purposes of knowledge development in organizational and community contexts. In addition to those methods one reads about in the principal social-work research textbooks, other approaches, particularly ones encouraging or otherwise facilitating participation, as well as the release of tacit or indigenous knowledge, have come to the fore in recent times (Leonard & Sensiper, 2011; Von Krogh, Ichijo, & Nonaka, 2000). Many of those methods are narrative in form, designed to release knowledge about social issues among those who are most intimate with challenging circumstances that can degrade daily life (Coles, 1990). Narrative methods are fundamental to releasing and organizing knowledge and may be fundamental to the achievement of innovation (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Action research can incorporate narrative as a means of interpreting data, disseminating findings, and transferring knowledge within community or organizational settings (Swap, Leonard, Shields, & Abrams, 2011).
Narrative methods amplify both the content of the issues and how people experience them, particularly their causes and consequences. They respect the emotional field that surrounds an issue—those emotions that leave an indelible mark on the person, whose first-person accounts reveal them as survivors of a situation no one can fully understand outside of individuals who have lived through such challenging and life-altering situations. Often the narrative is a principal means for the documentation of trauma and the experience of deprivation.
Narrative methods can also induce reflection by practitioners and others experienced with helping processes and, as a result, make explicit practice wisdom that is often tacit among practitioners. Illuminating this tacit knowledge can serve as a principal aim of action research (Tsang, 2008) through the engagement of participants in narrative inquiry (Sheppard, 1995) to release their assumptive knowledge guiding social-work action in particular contexts (Dybicz, 2004). The explication of practice wisdom can produce practice ontologies: the organized portrayal of first principles and assumptions that influence a social worker’s action. Illuminating those ontologies is essential to knowledge development, particularly in practice situations (Abbas, 2010).
Consistent with contemporary trends, action research methods often constitute alternative ones because they are not widely used, more traditional researchers may find them suspect, and they challenge prevailing norms of quality in terms of the kinds of data they produce. But such methods contribute to the formation of an interesting toolkit for helping people “tell their stories” of the situations that challenge, if not overwhelm, their coping and adaptive resources. Many of them are indicative of the growing use of narrative approaches for capturing the lived experience of people whose voices too often go unheard. Photography and photovoice are two methods that can help people amplify their experience, particularly when photographs and words are brought together, forming rich narrative portraits (Brinton Lykes, 2006).
A photograph is a potentially evocative image but it can produce static images. Alternatively, videography can capture stream of experience and amplify aspects of a given context in which a social issue is rooted. Videography combined with performance in which people enact their experience is yet another powerful means of portraying situations and how people experience them, for better or worse. Performative methods are powerful tools for the portrayal of situations. Often, those people who have first-person experience with an issue, and who have survived it, can make this personal knowledge explicit through evocative methods of storytelling, interpretative reading, poetry, and song.
Through such methods, experts in the lived experience of a social issue, the survivors who have transcended those circumstances, come to serve as primary witnesses (Mienczakowski & Morgan, 2006). Making this witnessing explicit in community forums is yet another expression of participation in inquiry. Arts and activism cohere for advancing public understanding of social issues (Campana, 2011). Emotional knowledge can become prominent in such public education forums in which participants express their experience through the arts before audiences (Kaplan, 2007). The use of the arts by social workers for the purposes of social activism extends back to the settlement-house movement (Stankiewicz, 1989).
Using methods from the arts and folk arts can result in forms of knowledge that take concrete or physical form, such as a quilt. Synthesizing the actual performances, photographs, narrative, song, and poems into an educational exhibit can challenge visitors with new ways of viewing and understanding a social issue in a specific community. The methods make explicit tacit knowledge and affirm people as local experts on the consequences of degrading experience.
Bringing the product of those methods into an exhibit offers a strategy of building a local knowledge base and communicating the contours of this knowledge to people who may have once found the experiences remote and unfamiliar. The methods and their products lend themselves to dissemination, and bringing them into an innovative form of dissemination within a given community context expands the scope and depth of sharing the products of inquiry with others. Building community awareness and expanding public empathy for the people who experience a particular social issue can be important outcomes of action research. Note, however, that through such methods action research participants are erecting an emotional field through purposeful action. Emotions are important properties of knowledge development, equal in standing to rationale engagement of an issue. To isolate knowledge from emotion risks the loss of authenticity and realism.
Assessing the Quality of Action Research in Social Work
By what parameters can we assess the quality of action research? The idea of metaevaluation is now a standard practice in much of evaluation and the standards from the American Evaluation Association offer considerable guidance in how to view and appraise the quality of a given evaluation (Yarbrough, Shulha, Hopson, & Caruthers, 2011). Those standards and the manner in which they are organized indicate that accuracy (or rigor) of the evaluation stands in a complementary relationship to several other dimensions in assessing the quality of evaluation. In addition to the accuracy dimension, those standards that focus on the quality of the research method and measurement, the American Evaluation Association system, includes utility, feasibility, and propriety. Without attending to those dimensions, any evaluation project and any evaluator can fall short. The principal implication here is that rigor alone does not determine the quality of evaluation.
In considering local and intrinsic requirements of action research, a practitioner can expand quality to embrace immediate usefulness emanating from realism and authenticity of the action research undertaken in some local context. Action research focuses specifically on an immediate intrinsic system, and coming to understand it within a given context is of utmost importance if this form of inquiry is to gain local credibility and relevance. That it is likely for participants to relate first to their own human experience and to those experiences of others closely situated moves the project from the abstract and imbues it with concrete immediacy. The project’s capacity to engage reality as people live it should in no way be confused with what researchers consider realistic (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Indeed, the action research project may embrace idealism, motivating people to look to a desired horizon of possibility for inspiration and hope (Spretnak, 1999). As the author suggests earlier in this entry, those cognitive emotions are fundamental to the realization of good action research.
Still, authenticity serves as yet another important quality. By authenticity I am referring to the absence of artificiality by connecting to the kind of knowledge participants seek. The emergence of the true spirit of the project founded in local social betterment and using immediate resources (or assets) of people and organizations that populate the community make the project authentic. Realism—addressing the real issues the community faces in all of their severity and complexity—and authenticity—thereby making the project reflective of the spirit of the community—are essential to both relevance and usefulness (Bammer, 2005; Carolo & Travers, 2005).
The achievement of usefulness likely emerges early on from design incorporating the dimensions of collaboration, participation, and control to whatever extent they are relevant in the given situation. Feasibility then takes on importance as the aims of the action research are clear and those individuals and groups who are involved in it take into consideration available time, required resources, and specific expertise. Like any research endeavor, and as the American Evaluation Association dimension of feasibility reminds practitioners, good inquiry is inherent in projects that groups can complete and use for the purposes of social betterment.
Propriety, or the ethical dimension, is also an important criterion in assessing quality. The design qualities of collaboration, participation, and control are, in part, ethical considerations. How people treat one another in the process of inquiry, the management of confidentiality or anonymity when needed, respect for boundaries, and dignity all are central ethical considerations that take on particular importance when people’s identities (too often diminished by social forces) factor into the process of knowledge development. Action research is often linked to understanding the causes and consequences of diminished status; hence, ethical interactions and even ethical treatment of those the mainstream considers deviant become important qualities of good action research.
Ultimately, when we consider propriety an aspect of quality and when we take control seriously, issues of intellectual property and ownership of knowledge likely come to the fore. Traditional researchers may consider the data and products of research as their own possession because they are the ones who conceive of the inquiry and engage in its process, sometimes under contract with other entities or sometimes using their own resources. Nonetheless, intellectual property becomes part of a contractual relationship. As action researchers enter venues in which collaboration, participation, and control are important qualities of design, then retention of knowledge within and for the community becomes part of the research process itself. Indeed, well-executed action research will likely produce knowledge and products that enhance the quality of life of a given context, and the members of the context should exercise some kind of corporate claim to that knowledge and its subsequent control.
When considering accuracy, we see its juxtaposition to a whole spectrum of quality considerations. Accuracy, or the rigor of action research, is not a principal driving value because it corresponds to other essential aspects of quality. Indeed, one can argue that usefulness, relevance, realism, and authenticity trump accuracy. Accuracy or rigor may serve as a contingent factor when action research participants ask fundamental questions about how decisions of usefulness influence the kind and degree of rigor a project can achieve with a given set of resources and the ethical challenges participants face in the execution of an action research project.
Conclusion: Caveats for Social Workers Undertaking Action Research with Intrinsic Aims
Throughout this entry, action research is framed as an intrinsic endeavor in which practitioners and human service organizations undertake inquiry for the purposes of addressing their own needs or the issues they face in an immediate environment. This inquiry largely engages the immediate situation in which those practitioners or organizations find themselves so they can generate information or perhaps form knowledge to achieve those aims they find important. Inquiry may expand when practitioners or organizations engage recipients of service or members of the immediate community in which the organization takes action.
The Social Worker as Participant
The intrinsic aims of inquiry can be further developed when research is undertaken by members of the community itself or when the recipients of social-work services engage in research, an action inherent in empowerment-oriented approaches. Those research initiators may wish to engage professional social workers and their organizations in the process of inquiry. Perhaps too often social workers frame research as something they initiate and recruit partners to address those issues or fulfill those needs that their research aims require. Action research does not prescribe who is either the initiator or the catalyst of inquiry. Although this is a key step in any inquiry (that is, someone or some entity must awaken to their need for knowledge), many forms of action research, particularly those involving a broad band of participation, leave those decisions open in the early stages. In the case of empowerment forms of action research, initiators or catalysts may be those people or groups who experience directly the causes and consequences of oppression or marginalization. Social workers who operate within such fields may possess collegial or secondary status. They may neither initiate nor control the inquiry.
Role Flexibility of Social Workers
The intrinsic focus may demand considerable flexibility on the part of social workers who can enact diverse roles in situations in which there are multiple stakeholders. This situation raises important questions about power, ethics, and relationships among multiple actors in chartering, designing, enacting, and utilizing intrinsically focused action research. Certainly one of those issues involves the question of who owns the research undertaken within such a field of action. Social workers should remain mindful of this question when it comes to actions pertaining to the assignment of credit, the dissemination of findings, and the subsequent utilization of knowledge. The practice aim of social workers in such situations likely involves their commitment to helping participants gain the capacities to enact and use intrinsically oriented action research. Thus, for the social worker intrinsically oriented action research may involve community organizing and asset-based community development as principal practice strategies.
Formation of the Local Research Commons
In community-based action research, if a coalition of participants exists, it likely exercises control over how research products are put to use. Traditional approaches that imbue principal investigators with considerable authority and control are likely inappropriate in many forms of action research. Indeed, in more community-based models of action research the idea of principal investigator may not have relevance. Because multiple constituencies can be involved in founding and steering the research, shaping the research through the enactment of critical judgment calls, acquiring resources and building capacities, and facilitating various processes of inquiry, a more democratic setting may vitiate the traditional idea that there is a controlling, dominant, and singular principal investigator. This possibility invests community organizing or development with considerable relevance.
When community representatives are the initiators or catalysts of inquiry, their dissemination needs are likely first and foremost. Other forms of dissemination, ones more consistent with instrumental ends, such as conferences or publication, are likely secondary in action research. The investment in local dissemination and support for local utilization possess immediate importance because the aim of an action research project involves the satisfaction of the intrinsic needs and the potential resolution of issues operating within a specific community (Kramer, 2011). Developing capacities for local dissemination may prove critical when it is important for an action research project to get findings out to local groups. Helping them put those findings to work in the improvement of community or organizational life makes utilization an important aim of the action research design.
What appears obvious may not serve as a simple solution: that those individuals who conceive of and initiate the research own the product of inquiry. Yet, conception and initiation of such research may reside with a nonacademic or nonorganizational entity of people within a community who do not possess a formal identity. It may be diffuse and therefore become part of the commonweal of a given community. Here what practitioners can conceive as the research commons is important. Not only do the research findings fall within the commons but also the capacities a community has won through considerable struggle become part of that commons. A professional social worker becomes mindful of this collective ownership and understands that although immediate knowledge objectives are important for producing local singular solutions, ultimately multiple action research projects can help construct such a local commons. Those multiple projects can facilitate community capacity building, another possibility of long-haul community change.
For social workers engaged in community-based action research the commons may serve as the principal asset of the effort they invest in local inquiry. A coalition may invite the social worker (who may or may not be a formally trained researcher) or the professional’s sponsoring or host organization to participate. Social workers and their sponsoring organizations may see themselves as pivotal within community-based action research, but they really are not, given the multiple actors who work together early on to initiate the research.
This contingency simply underscores the following observation: that action research, when undertaken for intrinsic purposes, can raise ethical questions involving how multiple stakeholders, whose interests may differ and whose passions about the issue at hand may vary in intensity and form, must recognize that inherent here is the need to govern the project. When a coalition of multiple stakeholders comes to work together for the purposes of enacting intrinsic action research, governance is an essential competence.
The Value of Collaborative Knowledge Building
When collaboration is a principal design element of action research, social workers must consider how the involvement of multiple constituencies influences the purpose of inquiry, the aim of which is bringing about actionable knowledge for local use. By expanding the field of involvement and participation among multiple groups, various interests form to shape the agenda of inquiry. However, it may be difficult for research organizers to engage certain groups because their visibility may create considerable risk for them, such as in the case of undocumented workers (Lykes, Hershberg, & Brabeck, 2011). The propriety of the inquiry itself can drive many of the subsequent decisions participants make about the enactment of inquiry, the scope of inclusion, and the consequences of involvement for the members of various groups forming a local community. It is here that the very best of social work’s principled forms of action meld well with what those groups seek because it is through knowledge and its use that the quality of life of a local community can improve in demonstrable ways.
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