Some thoughts on Action Research and Large scale Change

By Hilary Bradbury – Oregon Health & Science University

This is one of a series of guest blogs on large systems change written as part of GOLDEN’s Ecosystems Labs activity.

Basic definitions

Timely action with people in social systems at this moment in history means a willingness to engage with unprecedented challenges of sustainability that are interrelated and compounding. Challenges include complex issues such as poverty and injustice, patriarchy, climate change, degradation of nature, globalization, inequalities and fundamentalisms of all types. Conventional science and its conduct are part of these problems. Far from being products of the enterprise of a lone researcher, action researchers engage stakeholders–particularly those traditionally excluded from being part of the research process–in problem definition, research processes, interpretation of results, design for action, and evaluation of outcomes requires appreciation beyond notions of conventional research.

Action research, although not easily defined, is described as a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowledge in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes. Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury describe it as bringing together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities. Action research therefore seeks to interweave what is often kept separate, thereby honoring unity and diversity, leading to a multidimensional terrain of endeavor.

Action researchers conduct their participative inquiry with people who are the stakeholders to the issues and inquiry at hand. This orientation to inquiry is found most frequently in efforts aimed at improving social systems, i.e., those complex meeting places where our human reality as social and biological creatures intersects with behavioral and technical systems, giving rise to politics. Because of the nature of the challenges we face as a global, interconnected population, large scale change is a foremost concern.

Contribution of action research

What then is the contribution that action researchers can make to a conversation about large scale change? A recent otherwise laudatory commentary on action research efforts made the point that so often action researchers address themselves to the big issues, but tinker with single cases. The complaint speaks to the need to show more the scope, scale and impact of action research. It is therefore timely to think through with more rigor how to integrate local with global in ways action research can truly do well given our explicit struggle to integrate what we call first, second and third person action research. Let me explain:

Action researchers understand that social reality is profoundly relational (I-Thou second person work). The motivation for knowledge creation at the level of culture shaping (third person work, for us) is not so much simply to know what is true for the sake of objective, disembodied truth;  but rather to accomplish something of mutual value. For action researchers, with its integration of pragmatic and relational subjectivity as a central feature, replication and generalizability – which is at the heart of large scale robust efforts –  is therefore also re-imagined.

Making interdependence actionable

Key to the action research contribution is that we seek to make actionable the insight that all phenomena co-arise and are interdependent.  Some may say it more simply that action researchers are systems thinkers and are geared to overcoming social fragmentation. Action researchers start from an ecological (and ecological self, first person) standpoint, thinking in terms of community building.  Therefore, they actively investigate and work at expanding the boundaries for stakeholders’ involvement. Our work at first and second person levels then naturally tends toward large scale, but accomplishes this by building social capital at the level of “I-thou” projects that involve stakeholders working together.

Examples: Underscoring the need to work with issues of power and inclusion

Are there special issues for action researchers at scale? Writing specifically about AR and large scale change, Ann Martin (writing about 30,000 participant school improvement projects) and Ernie Stringer (writing about national level reform in Indonesia) point to the importance that power, inclusion and implementation issues take on as scale grows. Indeed given the relational work at smaller scale that is always the foundation of large scale, action researching leaders may be better able to address power issues with transparency.

Bjorn Gustavsen’s work in Scandinavia may be the largest action research project that is well known. It involved may thousands of employees across many hundreds of small and large organizations in dialogue for action about creating participative workplaces in their companies. This “project” travelled, through building social capital and being picked up in yet new organizations, to the point where its results seem taken for granted in the modern Western workplace. This project exemplifies action researchers’ concern for quality as partnership and participation. Stakeholders include a view outward, scouting the external boundaries of a project (what company outside mine need to be involved) while being also naturally drawing inward to the local stakeholders (how do we make this work stick). One imagines that social networks and global networks, supported by social media, can only bode well for this way of thinking and acting in the interdependent future.

To be continued ;)

All citations are from: Reason, Peter, & Bradbury, Hilary (Eds.). (2008). The sage handbook of action research. London, UK: Sage Publications

Hilary may be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *