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:
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.
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:
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)