Getting More through Network Research with Action Research

Posted by Steve Waddell in Learning, Net Dev on October 26, 2010

Most networks engage in research, but often they are getting much less than they can for the resources they’re expending. Usually research is thought of as a sequential process of first research and then action. In fact, very often these two are best integrated as action research (AR). Particularly when a network is engaged in community building and empowering – as change networks almost always are!

A core pillar of traditional research is separation between the observer (the researcher) and the observed (people, things). With AR, the researcher and the people come together to jointly define, experiment and reflect — in effect transforming knowledge generation into “co-generating.” For example:

  • With iScale’s and Sanjeev Khagram’s leadership, I participated in an AR initiative to develop the Sustainable Peace and Security Global Action Network. The network arose through an AR process to build mutual awareness and support amongst those working to address violence and conflict (think Darfur, Sierra Leone, Yugoslavia). The project was co-led with a Global Stewardship Group of stakeholders in the issue arena, in response to the need to strengthen connections amongst stakeholders. It included experimenting with bringing together people not traditionally working together, such as peace activists, government agencies, business and military.
  • In a project with the Global Reporting Initiative, aiming to start a GRI network in South Africa, we engaged people from the key stakeholder groups in interviewing people in their stakeholder group to better understand existing relationships and strategies. They brought with them deep knowledge about their groups, and could integrate perspectives about how to bring stakeholders together with legitimacy. One product was a draft protocol for organizing local networks.

Both of these examples required some modest initial traditional research to identify who to participate – AR and conventional research can and should be good companions. But through the AR strategy, we actually began the network development at the research stage. We brought together the diverse stakeholders to actually work out how to proceed and jointly review data as it emerged. This meant that the knowledge was socially embedded – that is to say, it does not exist simply in a report, but it is “held” and “understood” by the stakeholder representatives who had a role in developing it. This builds their capacity to further develop the initiatives.

AR participants actually do the investigating and analysis, and this helps ensure the outcome is relevant and legitimate in the eyes of the participants. In the examples, my role was to create a research framework to facilitate the participants’ investigations. I brought ideas about different tools and took responsibility for ensuring disciplined investigation, data collection, and reflection on the findings.

Five-Point Checklist for Action Research

Two AR leaders and editors of The Handbook of AR, Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury-Huang propose five definition characteristics for AR that make it an attractive option for networks. They then use these as a check list for quality in the work. AR:

  1. Deals with practical issues to produce practical knowledge that is useful to people in the everyday conduct of their lives.
  2. Promotes human flourishing and increased well-being – economic, political, psychological, spiritual – of individuals and communities, and a more equitable and sustainable set of relationships.
  3. Integrates participation and democracy, with people directly involved in the investigation engaging their own circles as peers with the perspective that all should have an influence.
  4. Develops as knowledge-in-action by integrating disciplined data-gathering with reflection and development of the meaning and implications of the data and experiences of participants.
  5. Is itself a form of capacity-development, since participants gain new skills and abilities to undertake research and create knowledge.

I certainly prefer AR as an approach when working with networks, but AR can be problematic for many conventional researchers since they are so strongly trained in the observer-observed separation. Conventional researchers usually work with a separation between researcher-as-knowledge-developer and consultant-as-knowledge-implementer, whereas AR combines these roles. Most academics in the North/developed countries are unfamiliar with it, yet there is also surprising uptake in medical research because AR also delivers practical results. Southern/developing countries are more familiar with the approach, since they must be much more practical in their research strategies.

One leading AR practitioner in the South is Meghna Guhathakurta, Executive Director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB). You can see a wonderful AR example in a brief contribution Democratising politics through gonogobeshona. She shows one quality of AR is bringing out the knowledge of ordinary people, reminding me of Peter Senge’s comment that he’s never learned as good of theory from academics as he has from practitioners.

Hilary Bradbury-Huang is also editor of the Action Research Journal, which is another great resource. I had the honor of co-editing a special issue a couple of years ago on development. The opening paragraph of the overview will resonate for many involved with networks:

Action research is particularly pertinent to the developmental needs of all societies, communities and nations, especially where people struggle with the dramatic changes induced by modern technology and economic activity, and with the deep-seated poverty (and environmental damage) induced by these changes. (parenthesis content added)

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